Dennett on consciousness and other stuff

June 16, 2021 • 2:15 pm

In this 36-minute episode of Closer to Truth, host Robert Kuhn grills Dan Dennett about his views on consciousness, panpsychism, and artificial intelligence. (Click on screenshot below to hear the episode, though you’ll have to register or use your Facebook account.)

The summary of the episode, assuming this is the only one, is a bit misleading:

Daniel Dennett discusses the nature of consciousness, if consciousness is an illusion, artificial intelligence and virtual immortality, and how he covers all of this in his book, Just Deserts: Debating Free Will, co-authored with Gregg D. Caruso.

In act, there’s no reference to free will or to Dan’s book with Caruso, which I briefly evaluated here.

I won’t summarize this, as most readers like to watch the videos, but will say that Dan takes up—and peremptorily dismisses—the idea of panpsychism, the view that every bit of matter in the Universe, from electrons on up, has a form of consciousness. Dan says this theory is “regressive and unfortunate” but “just what one should expect” in a world where “You gotta be different; you gotta have your own theory, so lots of young philosophers are trying to figure out what radical thesis might springboard them into notoriety, which is a path to fame.”

He further characterizes panpsychism as “almost embarrassing” because it doesn’t explain anything at all. In the end, he says it’s not even a theory but “a labored definition of mentality or consciousness.”

Kuhn then asks Dan to explain why he, Dennett, considers consciousness an illusion, and I think Dan’s answer is too quick in this short video to be fully comprehended, but has to do with a collections of neurons collaborating to give an illusion of a single decider, with the whole business having evolved to give us “self control.”

The rest of the conversation is about whether one could download consciousness, or back it up at night, and, if so, what would be the implications. There’s talk of zombies, artificial intelligence, and so on, but, sadly, not a peep about free will.

I’ve had my differences with Dan, especially about free will, but there’s no denying that the guy is a force—a really smart philosopher who has the chops to make his ideas intelligible to the public. And he clearly hasn’t slowed with age. And despite out differences, we both agree that panpsychism is “not even a theory”, but a desperate attempt for its adherents to get attention by standing apart from the pack.

h/t: Paul

27 thoughts on “Dennett on consciousness and other stuff

  1. “…panpsychism is “not even a theory”, but a desperate attempt for its adherents to get attention by standing apart from the pack.”

    I have heard xians make fun of paypsychism, and when I do, I ask them why it’s any weirder than believing in a garden with a talking snake.

    As you can imagine, it’s not a popular question.


    1. Unfortunately, Dennett’s explanation for the sources of panpsychism’s popularity rings all too true. You can think of it as part of another instance of Turchin’s elite overproduction model—in this case, the fact that in the twentieth century, there are just too damned many philosophers/historians/students of literature/what-have-you competing for a very limited number of places in the field corresponding to elite status. And unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence that you don’t need to come up with anything that in mathematics, logic and the natural sciences would have the status of a result: an unassailable new discovery of some deep connections at the very foundations of the field, or at least some new ‘effective field theory’ that provides a satisfying model of previously intractable phenomena. Probably only a tiny percentage of intellectual activity in any domain will survive the test of time even in the very short term; given that, why not try to make the biggest splash you can, and get by on publicity, if not actual achievement?

      1. It is something that many GOP politicians engage in these days. In order to gain national attention, or just the attention of the Lord of Mar-a-Lago, they need to say something outrageous. This may also be a tactic that Ilhan Omar employs. Say something outrageous and thoughtless, have everyone talking about you for a day or two, and then apologize in order to extend their time in the limelight.

        1. All very depressing, when you consider that the nature of social media and the relatively recent disappearance of anything like hard limits on what is acceptable in public discourse actively encourage this sort of thinking. It looks totally out of control now, with even worse to come. What the hell is the world going to look like in a couple of generations, at this rate?

      2. I agree with this completely.

        I unfortunately got into it once with David Marshall. He’s real big on the efficacy of prayer. I asked him if I did exactly what he did and I got a different result, would that tell him anything. Usually when I ask one of them that question, the answer I get is along the lines of, “Your hocus-pocus is substandard, otherwise it would work.”

        Marshall responded to me by saying that batters in a baseball game all do the same thing, and they all have different batting averages. I gave up at that point. The example he gave has so many variables it staggers the mind.

        A friend of mine who is a retired science teacher once told me that only changing one variable at a time in an experiment is a hard concept for students to grasp. I thought it was ironic that Marshall didn’t have a clue about that, especially since he started his response to me by listing all his academic credentials.

        I think our host Jerry once commented that as soon as someone beats you over the head with his/her academic credentials, you have evidence of their insecurity. I think that analysis certainly applies to (Dr.) David Marshall.


  2. This is a complicated discussion. Firstly I suspect Dennett is using “illusion” in the the sense of “not as it seems”. So plainly we have consciousness but it is not what it seems.

    There are smart people like Galen Strawson that argue for panpsychism, so I would be circumspect about simply dismissing it. Strawson believes consciousness is a property of matter and any materialist worldview better get with the program.

    Do I think “bricks” are conscious? Certainly not with the richness I think I have consciousness. My consciousness is an amalgamation of maybe the last two seconds of events in my perception. Some more mechanical structure, if it had consciousness, its amalgamation might be over a century? I don’t know. All I have is my and the personal anecdotes of people who claim they are conscious.

    We then have people like Susan Blackmore (also smart) who ask the question, “Am I conscious now?” And come up with the answer, No!

    For me, a more interesting question is, “Does this consciousness actually do anything?” Or is it like the hum on a transformer, a byproduct of all the electrochemical processes going on in our brains?

      1. As I asked … the hum of a transformer must do something? For free will skeptics it is very easy to step away from consciousness doing anything useful.

        Is consciousness a useless evolutionary by-product?

      2. Exactly: if we are talking about something – the hum of a transformer for example – it must have caused something – vibrations in our inner ear, in the transformer example.

  3. Well of course panpsychism is nonsense, we hardly need a philosopher to tell us that.

    But the “illusion” thing is pretty lame in itself, it doesn’t explain anything.

    1. I think the word “illusion” is poorly chosen simply because it can imply non-existence. However, that’s not what Dennett means. He’s simply saying that it isn’t what the philosophers who worry about the hard problem of consciousness think it is. That observation by itself doesn’t explain much but it helps put a ring around that which needs explaining.

      The key feature of consciousness as we experience it is that it is an internal observer of our own thought processes, at least that’s what it feels like. That circularity is the root of many misconceptions about consciousness. It seems like some sort of magic. But Dennett believes that it’s just a “user illusion”, something cooked up by evolution. Evidently the ability to self-reflect was helpful to our survival which doesn’t seem surprising. It is not even close to a full explanation of consciousness but, IMHO, it is a lot closer than panpsychism.

      1. In some ways, I don’t think there’s a better word than illusion, because the view is that how consciousness appears to us is illurory in that it’s not what it seems. Looking at the philosophy that’s come become where the traits of the conscious self are determined by introspection gives a particular account of what consciousness is that’s very hard to shake. That’s the illurory part from what I can understand of Dennett’s view. We have a false perception of what consciousness needs to be (he calls it the Cartesian Theatre) which makes it hard to align with what we are learning about how the brain works from neuroscience and other scientific fields.

        It’s definitely not a delusion (a belief in something that doesn’t exist), but an illusion in that it’s not what it seems to be.

        1. I beg to differ with you and probably Dennett (I’m not quite sure how to interpret his illusion talk). The dualist view of consciousness isn’t how consciousness *appears*, it’s how some people *think* about consciousness. In the Muller-Lyer illusion, one line appears longer than the other, even when I know that it isn’t and understand exactly what’s going on. The perception persists in the face of contrary knowledge. That just doesn’t happen with consciousness. Not-being-perceptually-aware of the physicality of my thoughts is not the same as perceiving that my thoughts are *non*-physical. Those are two different things, and anyone who confuses them has a mistaken *thought*, not a misperception.

          1. I don’t think he’s suggesting that the illusion is that it appears dualistic, but that the introspective aspects of consciousness such as unity, the self, observation, interpretation, will, etc. are not what they appear to be. There’s not going to be any point in the brain where there’s a unified self, yet our conscious experience is of one. That’s where the illusion talk comes in, and why the notion of the Cartesian Theatre misleads us into what a monist theory of mind should look like.

            I think the best way to see what is meant by illusion is to see what his critics think his account of consciousness leaves out.

            1. Good answer, but I’m still not convinced. Why would unity have to be a single *point* in the brain? Relatedly, at what kind of timescale would unity apply? People can’t grasp a thought or perception in much less than 100 milliseconds, which is plenty of time for information to exchange over the entire brain. So, to take a leading materialistic theory of consciousness, Global Workspace Models are entirely compatible with the way consciousness appears to be unified.

              Thoughts about appearances can be deceiving.

              1. I would go even further. How could anything complex be implemented at a single point in the brain in time or space?

                There’s a profound lack of appreciation that anything of complexity the brain does must be implemented as a process with multiple parts and taking time. Even if we experience consciousness with some unity (whatever that means), it doesn’t mean it is implemented that way.

                Some of these philosophers need a good programming course. That way they would appreciate how complex behavior can be constructed from simple parts.

    2. It might be an illusion, but when I undergo surgery I prefer that the doctor uses anesthesia to turn that illusion off, just to be on the safe side 😉

      1. Sure, but when you have a minor procedure, you are content with “local” anaesthetic. And there are procedures where you can choose between full and local anaesthesia, which is essentially the medical profession’s recognition that people differ in their ability to tolerate being “conscious” of what is being done to their physical self. Which suggests that, from an evolutionary point of view, consciousness is useful in that it enables us to feel “concern” about the possibility of experiencing irreparable damage (this could be called “imagination”, or a form of “rehearsal”, which may or may not be unique to human beings). This evolutionary explanation of the function of consciousness was, I think, developed by Thomas Nagel, before he swallowed the cool-aid of panpsychism.

  4. The goal of panpsychism is to deny the relevance of neuroscience; I think Dennett is right to defend neuroscience against these attacks not backed by any scientific evidence.

    If we look at the scientific evidence so far: humans seem to systematically misrepresent experiences as having phenomenal properties. If true this means that what neuroscience has to do is to replace the imaginary “hard problem” with an “illusion problem”; neuroscience becomes like explaining a magician’s trick.

    When the “Scientific imagage of the world” meets the “Manifest Image of the world” there is always collateral damage. It’s understandable why we all resist the idea that humans are nothing more than biological robots.

  5. Yeah, what Dennett is basically saying is that our intuitive conception of what qualia are is very wrong. What’s really happening is that we only experience “qualia” in the sense that it’s represented in out minds THAT we experience qualia.

    Look at a red apple and it seems like there is some rendering or instantiation of “redness qualia” in your mind. That redness qualia is basically thoughts or representations in your mind. You *think* you see redness and report to others that you see it.

    You might say, “Ah, but that’s not *real* qualia. That’s just me *thinking* I have qualia.” Well, OK, suppose there was some *real* redness qualia. What good would that do? In order for you to experience this *real* redness qualia it would have to be represented in your mind THAT you experience it. So whether this *real* qualia exists or not doesn’t make any difference. All that matters is what’s represented in your mind. The meaning of the symbols within the system. When you look at that red apple there are “symbols” in your mind that mean “redness” and that’s what you’re referring to when you talk about the redness qualia.

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