Saturday, August 09, 2008

Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett

A truly impressive book by one of the most remarkable thinkers of our time (and still useful despite being 17 years old). Anyone interested in learning more about who we are, why we do what we do and what consciousness might be, should read this book.
If you agree with and then can, even minimally, internalize his theory, this book might just change your life.
I like Dennett’s style, his approach and his interesting tangents, so it is unsurprising that I enjoyed Consciousness Explained. Yet, Dennett should have provided more detail regarding the supposed experience of ‘experience’ and could have reduced potential ambiguity in several places (i.e., how necessary is language for consciousness?)
Acknowledging that providing a brief summary of a 400+ page argument will be inherently flawed, I still thought it would be useful to at least attempt a short description of the content of this great book (logic is in brackets).
1. A theory of consciousness must be materialistic (dualism brings more questions than answers: how does something non-physical affect something physical and vice-versa)
2. A materialistic theory of consciousness is possible (it might actually be inherently flawed, but if we don’t try we won’t get anywhere)
3. As a first-person, subjective account has limited information and is easily biased, the approach must be to use third-person, objective analysis, while including first person reports as data (we all make mistakes and we don’t know everything about the universe nor about ourselves, therefore we should use more objective measures).
4. The feeling of a central ‘you’ is an illusion (basically, if you open up the brain, there is no one home. There is no ‘central processing unit’ nor one place where all activity converges, therefore…
5. You/consciousness is distributed in space and time (if there is no centre, then it is spread out over the brain, and therefore it is the activation of different brain parts at different places and times that give rise to your consciousness).
6. If there is no centre, there is no finish line or boundary to consciousness (if consciousness is the result of multiple brain parts/processes working together, then it makes little sense to ask “when were you conscious.”)
7. It is mainly our linguistic abilities that lead to the creation of consciousness, with ideas and words creating structures that further respond to ideas and words (but full language may not be a necessary condition – there are likely levels of consciousness. Also, although it may seem so, we probably do not frequently think in words).
8. Only a theory that explained conscious events in terms of unconscious events could explain consciousness at all. If your model of how pain is a product of brain activity still has a box in it labeled “pain,” you haven’t yet begun to explain what pain is…’ (Your notion of what you are, think and feel may not be quite what you thought it was.
All of these points have some startling implications for the things we (seem) to think about and care about most. As for what ‘you’ are, Dennett would say that the Self is the Centre of Narrative Gravity (as real as the physicist’s concept of a centre of gravity). Here is the (likely unsatisfying statement) in Dennett’s own words, speaking as the author in the book:
“There is still one puzzle however. How do I get to know about all this? How come I can tell you all about was going on in my head? The answer to the puzzle is simple: Because that is what is what I am. Because a knower and reporter of such things thins in such terms is what is me. My existence is explained by the fact that there are these capacities in this body.”
(p. 410)
Obviously, you’ll have to read the book to get more out of this important work, but I’ll end on a summary of Dennett’s theory again using his own words:
In Thumbnail Sketch, here is my theory so far:
There is no single, definitive “stream of consciousness,” because there is no central Headquarters, no Cartesian Theater where “it all comes together” for the perusal of a Central Meaner. Instead of such a single stream (however wide), there are multiple channels in which specialist circuits try, in parallel pandemoniums, to do their various things, creating Multiple Drafts as they go. Most of these fragmentary drafts of “narrative” play short-lived roles in the modulation of current activity but some get promoted to further functional roles, in swift succession, by the activity of a virtual machine in the brain. The seriality of this machine (its “von Neumannesque” character) is not a “hard-wired” design feature, but rather the upshot of a succession of coalitions of these specialists.
The basic specialists are part of our animal heritage. They were not developed to perform peculiarly human actions, such as reading and writing, but ducking, predator-avoiding, face-recognizing, grasping, throwing, berry-picking, and other essential tasks. They are often opportunistically enlisted in new roles, for which their native talents more or less suit them. The result is not bedlam only because the trends that are imposed on all this activity are themselves the product of design. Some of this design is innate, and is shared with other animals. But it is augmented, and sometimes even overwhelmed in importance, by microhabits of thought that are developed in the individual, partly idiosyncratic results of self-exploration and partly the predesigned gifts of culture. Thousands of memes, mostly borne by language, but also by wordless “images” and other data structures, take up residence in an individual brain, shaping its tendencies and thereby turning it into a mind.
(p. 253-254)
(Finally, here is an interview with Dennett by Susan Blackmore on the issue of consciousness.)


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