The Illusion of Dennett’s Illusion – Again.

That damn meme again. “Dennett denies consciousness”. No he doesn’t.

(I already part reviewed Dennett’s memoir recently and added links to a few other sympathetic reviews which all naturally included summaries of his important works. Apart from one footnote of my own on a reconciliation of his physicalist determinist compatibilism with informational subjective pan-proto-psychism (*), I didn’t detect the problem meme this time, though I’ve rehearsed it umpteen times before.)

However, yesterday Thomas Nagel’s review in The New Statesman got this headline treatment: “What Daniel Dennett gets wrong. Is consciousness an illusion? Only a philosopher could convince himself of something as implausible.

That same erroneous (and frankly, offensive) criticism expressed 3 ways, by the headline writer at least. I responded wearily: “I’m getting tired of correcting this misrepresentation of Dennett. Our common intuitive view of consciousness is the illusion. Consciousness itself obviously isn’t.” And, as I hit enter, I knew I’d need to explain that “common (but misguided) intuitive view” again. That’s “the illusion”. Consciousness isn’t.

A couple of positive responses agreed with me, but inevitably expressed what they were agreeing with in their own words.

One respondent suggested “I suspect these misrepresentations are because of differences in how we define or understand consciousness. That’s an underlying problem.

Another had already suggested: “Dennett doesn’t think consciousness is an illusion, only that experiential qualities are illusory. But as Nagel says, that’s to deny what looks to be essential to consciousness.”

The first first. Obviously there are many different issues with defining and understanding “consciousness”. We all already know there are many aspects and multiple axes of sentience, attention, sense-of-self, agency, will, the mental<>physical relationship, etc. It’s a cop-out to suggest the illusion problem is due to lack of a definitive understanding of these. Frankly, as Dennett himself often says, definitions are the last thing we should start with. A cop-out because it misses the specific problematic illusion.

The second is closer, and maybe any difference I have is in choice of words. Again Dennett is very clear on this in his “Bacteria to Bach and Back”. Dialogue, NOT definition, is where the solution lies.

It’s the “experiential qualities” that are illusory? Not exactly. Dennett isn’t denying the reality of these qualia experiences either. He certainly rejects the language of qualia because: ‘he’s saying the idea of such qualia as *objects distinct from* our experience of them is the illusion – the point that objective science will never find such things. (A very common sensible view IMHO)

Those qualia (experiential qualities) ARE our subject, we are they. They’re not science’s objects. Not so much a “hard problem” as missing that [subjectivity] point?

(PS – Stopped my usual practice of embedding Tweets since the “X” API has a doubtful future. The quotes above are pasted from Tweets.)

So what is that common (but erroneous) sensible view. It’s what Dennett used to refer to as “the Cartesian theatre”. The idea that we are observers independent from the objects of our observation. An audience of homunculi witnessing the qualia performing on the stage. We ARE our experiences, but that makes us subjects, not objects of empirical science. Science denial of this fact, or of any truth value in such a fact, is the real underlying problem.

In fact this view is now very common, more common than the “noddy” Cartesian-theatre view I’d say. It’s just very hard to express it in ways that orthodox (physicalist, objective, empirical, deterministic, …) science and its publications will take seriously. Mark Solms – who gives one of the best comprehensive explanations of what consciousness really is, how it works and how it evolved to function – calls the problem “crossing the Rubicon” – getting that orthodox science to embrace the subjective view.


[Post Notes:

The “second” correspondent above was Tom Clark of Naturalism.Org – long time, no contact – maintained his “but Dennett is wrong” line to the end, despite agreeing that qualia are not (do not exist as) objects. He shared some articles of his – “Dennett’s physicalist case against qualia in B2BnB” and “Why Experience Can’t Be Objectified” and “Are Feels Real? – dialogue with Keith Frankish” – concluding with “[but Dennett] categorically denies there’s anything qualitative about experience.” I sincerely doubt that, but what is this obsession with wanting to find disagreement, having agreed the substantive point?!?

Dialogic is not definitive. I suspect resolution lies in that footnote (*) I mentioned above, from my previous Dennett post. It’s about how we use the terms subjective, qualitative and especially physicalist / compatibilist. (The Pirsig – quality teaching – aspect of that post is irrelevant to the current Dennett point – apart from use of the word “quality” of course. Love it when a plan comes together.)

(Weirdly, Keith Mitchell “liked” a couple of my replies in the thread with Tom Clark – hold point for a proper dialogue).]

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