“Explain that to me again!” was the title of a talk I gave a couple of times recently, once to Teesside Sceptics in the Pub and once to Teesside Humanists, with an entirely new audience each time. The subject was Dan Dennett’s most comprehensive exploration of consciousness in his latest book “Bacteria to Bach and Back”. As with the previous occasion, when I gave a brief taster version which went as far as introducing Dennett on the topic of consciousness, both audiences gave me plenty of interaction with questions and ideas. Quite different audiences, with different starting points, each challenging in their own way. Thanks to Terry Waites for giving me the opportunities and to the audiences for their participation.
My main aim is to counteract the denial, by many scientists and more scientific philosophers, that Consciousness (and Self and Free Will) are somehow unreal or merely illusory epiphenomena. Dennett’s response to science’s (current) inability arrive at a well-formed watertight definition that explains this thing we call consciousness, let alone our subjective experience of it (the hard problem), is a plea to suspend disbelief and to go round his evolutionary arguments again, as many times as it takes.
Experience shows that new things, and entirely new types of thing, emerge from this strange-loopy thing we call evolution. They say “a good workman never blames his tools” but as Dan quotes “in the same way as you can’t achieve much carpentry with your bare hands, you can’t do much new thinking with your bare brain”. The inability of science to explain consciousness may be a failure of the tools of explanation, not a failure of scientists to use current scientific thinking tools. Consciousness and subjectivity are clearly – almost by objective definition – not the types of object current scientific thinking can get a handle on. By repeating the evolutionary synthesis – explain that to me again – science will not only continue to attempt new explanations with existing tools, but will find new thinking tools, new ways of scientific thinking, will also emerge. Only then can a definitive satisfactory scientific explanation of consciousness (and self and free-will) be found.
Thinking about thinking tools is the domain of philosophers, and Dennett’s Bet is that only if science suspends disbelief and engages with philosophers in the evolution of all our thinking, will new solutions be found. We will not find a solution to the hard problem of consciousness simply by assembling the objects we can currently define with the tools we already use.
[I gave a better updated version of this talk originally entitled “Explain That To Me Again” to the Newcastle Skeptics in November 2017. The original May 2017 deck is also here .]