Under No Illusion

[UPDATED 21-Dec-2022] I’ve often referred to Dan Dennett as my “hero” when it comes to philosophy and as a consequence I find myself defending his ideas against those that quote the errors of his (1991) “Consciousness Explained”. Even I have dubbed that work “Consciousness (Not) Explained”. As it happens I’m always looking towards – seeking – convergent agreement rather than pointing out (obvious) differences and disagreements. That’s easy, too easy. But my confidence in that quest has been dented of late.

What I’ve been doing is defending the fact that Dan’s model of consciousness has evolved in the 30+yrs since he first “explained” it. Actually it is his language, his choice of words, the explanation which has evolved. He’s always been essentially “right”.

Now here the focus is on consciousness (and free-will), big enough questions in their own right, but for me this is as much to do with the general limitations of “science” (due to the exclusion of “subjectivity”) as it is any one specific topic. Limitations which the vast majority of scientists and science-informed actors conveniently ignore.

Twice recently, I’ve had commentators point at more recent Dennett work that appears to reinforce his original position. Firstly, Kevin Mitchell pointing out his sticking to a “determinist / compatibilist” position [check / ref] in for example his recent “Just Desserts” joint work with Gregg Caruso. [A work I’m aware of / seen secondary references but not yet read.] And, most recently, regular visitor A.J.Owens reacting to my take on his recent paper “The User-Illusion of Consciousness” referring to work of Mark Solms. (AJ has in fact written further – and I owe him a further response.)

Thinking about it, it’s actually quite clear that it is Dennett’s language of argumentation and explanation that has evolved rather than his model per se. That is actually quite explicit in my own summary of his last (2017) major work “From Bacteria to Bach and Back” – that the evolution of argumentation is where progress lies.

Well, today, Dan himself shared a link to a “Closer to Truth” interview with Robert Kuhn. (Actually from a year ago.)

It’s very, very good. As Dan says, Robert does his homework and his questions give Dan perfect opportunities to clarify his position(s).

**** NOTES ADDED ****

His policy 30 years after Consciousness Explained is still elaboration and adding empirical detail to the evolving description of his main ideas, but explicitly also now working with others whose philosophical and scientific work is convergent with his. He was deliberately non-committal in some of his earlier arguments in order to leave room for debate and dialogue and not be dismissed out of hand, but he has become much more committed to expressing the beliefs he held / holds. This is exciting progress for him.

One of his “mistakes” was to mock the idea that the homunculus of the little man inside the mind had simply been replaced with a committee of homunculi – whereas he does now believe the brain / mind is indeed an organised assembly of many agents, right down to individual neurones. And the functional behaviour is very much information-processing / computation “like a computer” though working profoundly differently from the assembly of switches and registers of a digital computer device. More a social / political organisation of agents. (Akin to Minsky’s “Society of Mind”)

Fame in the Brain – as the influence of the intangible – levels of consciousness of this influence

Pan-psychism popularity as regressive, forlorn, embarrassing – it pays to be different, disagreeable to make a name in philosophy.

[Pan-psychism and qualia (and zombies) have obvious attractions to the scientific, given the exclusion of subjectivity of experience, but they are misguided “embarrassments” philosophically. I personally like pan-psychist and idealist thinking but always reject anything suggesting “all things are / everything is conscious” and all the “woo woo” mysterious stuff. For me the “stuff of consciousness” is ubiquitous, fundamental – information-processing / computation (as Dan confirms). The same pan-proto-Psychic-&-Physical monism supports both. “A wonderful bag of nature’s tricks”.]

[No, consciousness is not an illusion, it’s real. The illusion is of a first-person doing the experiencing – the “user-illusion” (As AJ pointed out earlier). Reality is the experience itself. The “illusion” is the conscious impression – user interface – of the complex “bag of tricks”. Main job is “self-control” given the challenging number of degrees of freedom we have. Noticing the noticing, the noticing – meta / recursion. A “system” for using that. Zombie / Qualia thought experiments hopelessly muddled. Figment as the mental “pigment” (paint). No “qualia” of pain independent of experiencing the pain.]

[Denial of the first-person view?  Is counter-intuitive sure. The first person – as a thing / an entity – is the illusion, the sense of it is the reality.]

AI achieving consciousness / inner experience? And, the content of a real (human) intelligence being “uploadable” to such a AI-supporting system / device? Just an “engineering” question? Possible in principle, but much more complex (and ill-advised) than most realise. Problems more to do with the meaning of life and mortality / immortality. Fragility of mortality is profoundly key to how consciousness works (and why).

Duplicate / twin me. “Minds Eye” covered this. Ship of Theseus really. Since Hume we’ve known that the idea of a self, independent of things like memory, is incoherent. The user-illusion of self – no more intrinsic, unchangeable, unitary “entity” than say “equality” is. Zen / Buddhist parallel’s with no-self, etc? Oh yes.

“Res Cogitans as the thinking thing is wrong” – obviously – but I treated is as “the stuff of thought”?)

Anyway – very good. My thoughts noted above for my interests, but very interesting to hear Dan clarify how so much of his thought is misrepresented.

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