Consciousness: Dennett says it is an ilusion (General)

by David Turell @, Thursday, March 23, 2017, 00:48 (1233 days ago) @ David Turell

John Horgan thinks he is wrong:

"The idea that consciousness isn’t real has always struck me as crazy, and not in a good way, but smart people espouse it. One of the smartest is philosopher Daniel Dennett, who has been questioning consciousness for decades, notably in his 1991 bestseller Consciousness Explained.

"I’ve always thought I must be missing something in Dennett’s argument, so I hoped his new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, would enlighten me. It does, but not in the way Dennett intended.

"Dennett restates his claim that Darwinian theory can account for all aspects of our existence. We don’t need an intelligent designer, or “skyhook,” to explain how eyes, hands and minds came to be, because evolution provides “cranes” for constructing all biological phenomena.


"But human cognition, Dennett emphasizes, still consists mainly of competence without comprehension. Our conscious thoughts represent a minute fraction of all the information processing carried out by our brains. Natural selection designed our brains to provide us with thoughts on a “need to know” basis, so we’re not overwhelmed with data.


"Our perceptions, memories and emotions are grossly simplified, cartoonish representations of hidden, hideously complex computations.

"None of this is novel or controversial. Dennett is just reiterating, in his oh-so-clever, neologorrheic fashion, what mind-scientists and most educated lay folk have long accepted, that the bulk of cognition happens beneath the surface of awareness.


"Trouble arises when Dennett, extending the computer-interface analogy, calls consciousness a “user-illusion.” I italicize illusion, because so much confusion flows from Dennett’s use of that term. An illusion is a false perception. Our thoughts are imperfect representations of our brain/minds and of the world, but that doesn’t make them necessarily false.


"Consider how Dennett talks about qualia, philosophers’ term for subjective experiences. My qualia at this moment are the smell of coffee, the sound of a truck rumbling by on the street, my puzzlement over Dennett’s ideas. Dennett notes that we often overrate the objective accuracy and causal power of our qualia. True enough.

"But he concludes, bizarrely, that therefore qualia are fictions, “an artifact of bad theorizing.” If we lack qualia, then we are zombies, creatures that look and even behave like humans but have no inner, subjective life.


"Dennett gets annoyed when critics accuse him of saying “consciousness doesn’t exist,” and to be fair, he never flatly makes that claim. His point seems to be, rather, that consciousness is so insignificant, especially compared to our exalted notions of it, that it might as well not exist.

"Dennett’s arguments are so convoluted that he allows himself plausible deniability, but he seems to be advocating eliminative materialism, which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines as “the radical claim that our ordinary, common-sense understanding of the mind is deeply wrong and that some or all of the mental states posited by common-sense do not actually exist.”


"Reviewing From Bacteria to Bach, Nagel rebukes Dennett thus:

“'To say that there is more to reality than physics can account for is not a piece of mysticism: it is an acknowledgement that we are nowhere near a theory of everything, and that science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain.”


"Some people surely have an unhealthy attachment to mysteries, but Dennett has an unhealthy aversion to them, which compels him to stake out unsound positions. His belief that consciousness is an illusion is nuttier than the belief that God is real.

Comment: I'm with Horgan and Nagel.

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