Dennett & Conscious Will – Having the Right Conversation

Since Dan Dennett’s (Jan 2018) “From Bacteria to Bach and Back” (B2BnB) which I wrote about here, I’m not aware of other general publication work from Dan. When it comes to human consciousness and free-will Dan is a hero of mine I’ve written about in many contexts.

I’ve seen a few articles and talks since, and had mentally filed away that he was working on a paper with evolutionary systems engineering guru John Doyle, someone I picked-up on in the work of Michael Gazzaniga. I’ve seen no evidence of Dennett / Doyle collaboration since, so maybe wishful thinking on my part maybe.

One longish Dennett paper – from later in 2018 – I’ve had bookmarked for quite a while appeared in the proceedings of the Royal Society. I only got around to reading it this lunchtime.

As with B2BnB, this paper is really about changing the conversation on consciousness. “Our very rationality is at stake” I summarised previously. Sweeping away popular misunderstandings that are getting in the way of progress – progress that is otherwise very substantial, if only we can let go some scientific and philosophical illusions.

Primarily here, he is switching out Chalmers “hard problem” and replacing it with his own “hard question”. The “so what?”, “how come?”, “what next?”

Qualia don’t exist as things to be represented and perceived by our homunculus. They are our representation – in the complex dynamic patterns of our senses – of that which our sensors perceive.

Typically when experimenting on conscious subjects they are “systematically constrained—for the sake of science—to a tiny subset of the things they can do”. Since the point of our conscious will is open-ended creative possibility it is not surprising that this kind of scientific orthodoxy fails to find it.

One of the other features of a constraining kind of political correctness in scientific consideration of consciousness is the idea that conscious will in humans can be no different to that found in other sentient and/or “intelligent” creatures. He lists the obvious candidates – primates, corvids, cephalopods, cetaceans – but concludes (as I have) that the open ended creative nature of conscious will is of a different order or kind in humans. It’s a special evolved feature of our species, literally. That’s a kind of human exceptionalism, except there is nothing to say that equivalent consciousness can’t evolve anywhere else, just that in our corner of the universe we just happen to be that species. And that confers no special rights to the home planet, just a special responsibility towards it.

The only illusions are our misunderstandings. And, as Dennett said several different ways in B2BnB, if we constrain our conversation to the orthodox conventions of those we’re debating, we’ve already given up. What is needed is the same kind of creative dialogue that led to the evolution of ourselves.

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