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 “liked” a couple of my replies in the thread with Tom).]

Architect vs Master Builder?

Listened to a very interesting piece earlier this week before we were away for a few days. Fortunately I’d bookmarked it:

Building Soul – with Thomas Heatherwick
How to Ditch Boring and Humanise Our Cities

The overall thrust and message I completely agree with, but as someone who identifies as “Architect” I want to disagree with one point he repeatedly emphasises, or maybe sound a warning, a different way of looking at the same point.

I’m frequently citing variations of “The devil may be in the details, but the angels are in the abstractions.” Or, one message of “Systems Thinking” (after Levenchuk) is to preserve a domain, some space and time for the thinking at the more abstract – even holistic – level and not to confuse this with thinking about the current good / best-practice details of the planning and doing. The difference between a strategy and an implementation plan.

To be clear, when I’m talking Architecture. I’m talking in the most general human systems sense, not just the physical built-environment sense, that would fit with RIBA. Obviously, anyone engaging in architecture in the building sense needs a sound appreciation of the possibilities of materials and construction processes, as well as their vision for the functional reasoning behind shaping and scoping the building itself. Once upon a time the Master Builder might have literally had both at their fingertips. The visionary – shaping the plan in every dimension – also knew how to build and get stuff done.

The problem, where I think I agree with Heatherwick, is that if one is too prescriptive about the functional purpose of a building and the nominal – effectiveness and efficiency of – creation and intended “use” for a given design life say, it is easy to overlook the wider stakeholding of humanity in general having to live with the results – the soul as much as the physical and functional attributes. I’m not precious about job titles, architect, designer, builder and which different parties (contractors) takes responsibility for which aspects – thinking at different levels over different timescales – but what I am concerned about is that in integrating them they nevertheless remain distinct, with good fences between them. Either side of the builder-architect line, needs to engage in the integrating processes with the other.

[Personally, most of my hands-on construction experience, from strategic level down, has been with explicitly utilitarian facilities, manufacturing and processing plants in industrial areas, where having an economically defined design-life makes sense. Sustainability takes us as far as the recyclability of the materials (beyond the collateral damage of first creating and using it). An industrial facility can be seen as a part of permanent construction site with few aesthetic issues, but that’s not the case with buildings in the wider built human environment. If we’re too prescriptive – rigid – about the architecting in our regulation, we should not be surprised by the bland uniformity (and disposability, built-in obsolescence) of the results. Diversity and longevity includes caring for the wider consequences beyond those of the original funders purpose. I completely agree. What I wouldn’t do is attempt to define all the required attributes into a single educational and qualificational system. It’s about diversity of skills and interests, thinking skills as well as design and building skills – diversity in multiple dimensions.]

[The Long Now?

“German poet Heinrich Heine was once asked why men no longer build cathedrals. He replied: “People in those old times had convictions; we moderns only have opinions. And it needs more than a mere opinion to erect a Gothic cathedral.”Cologne Cathedral took 632 years to complete. Does modern man have the necessary conviction to build something like this today?”

Conviction too.]

Dennett & Pirsig

I’m reading Dennett’s memoir “I’ve Been Thinking” – not really intending to read the whole right now, as I mentioned before, but it’s a pretty good read, so I am close to a third through.

The reason to pause and make some notes was a striking parallel to Pirsig that jumped out at me.

Like his collaborator Hofstadter, some biographical similarities, but not so much. Ocean-going sailing from Connecticut to Maine for one. Very much not into the 1960’s hippy and drug culture and disparaging about the faux-profound lifestyle philosophy. Serious jazz pianist. Anti-Vietnam war / conscientious objector, but not a pacifist – concern for Hilary Putnam’s mental health as an obsessive anti-war campaigner. But no, none of that.

No. What jumped out was his teaching quality.

At Tufts, one of the undergraduate courses I began teaching was a section of Introduction to Philosophy. It was a “writing intensive” course, in which a small group of freshmen and sophomores (twenty or fewer) were obliged to write, and rewrite, a series of short papers. It was a lot of work for me […] Only the grade on the final submission counted, so I graded the early efforts sternly, giving students D’s and F’s, which they had never before seen on any assignment in their lives.

We’d go through [awkward and boring sentences from their papers] on the blackboard one at a time. “What needs fixing in this sentence?” [Nothing grammatical or content-wise.] “Does it sing? Does it make you want to read the next sentence? […] Or does it just limp along?”

I’d be busy erasing and writing on the blackboard, while they argued among themselves about which revisions were the most apt. They knew good writing from bad writing; they had just never been encouraged to aspire to good writing and didn’t know how to raise their standards until I showed them.

Dennett p107-108

Assessing their own work in class, they knew good from bad.

Pirsig quoting Plato on having his class grade themselves rather than him assigning grades: “And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good, Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”


[Oh, and I think I spotted a way of reconciling Dennett’s determinist compatibilism with informational subjective pan-proto-psychism.]

[Great Dennett review / interview by Julian Baggini.
Dennett<>Pirsig<>Baggini, now there’s an interesting triangle. It was Julian who attempted the only academic philosopher to philosopher dialogue with Bob – and it didn’t go well.]

[Another sympathetic review, this time from Nigel Warburton in the TLS.]


How’s The Writing Going?

In theory I’m not reading, so I can focus on writing, but just acquired these three, on top of the two recent reads of Humboldt and Prigogine. Help!!!

Guess I can leave the two memoirs until some “time off in reward” and having seen Kevin talk about his latest, I probably have his thinking already absorbed in mine, so far as my immediate writing is concerned.

Couldn’t resist flipping through the dust-jacket blurbs and intros of Dan’s. As well as discovering a few biographical nuggets I was unaware of – it was always the content of his thinking I was focussed on anyway – I can rest easy on one thing.

I was baffled, in this interview of him in “Tufts Now” about his memoir, that “From Bacteria to Bach and Back” (B2BnB) wasn’t even mentioned in their list of his most important works. (Obviously “Consciousness [not] Explained” (C[n]E) was, as it always is, despite being over 30 years old.) Fortunately inside the back cover of his memoir, the publisher has B2BnB first in their list of his most important works (as well as a pretty comprehensive sequential bibliography in the front). C[n]E was about what an explanation of consciousness would need to be – the explaining of consciousness, not the explanation of it. B2BnB on the other hand is his best final version of the explanation he’s nailed to the mast.

The must read of his, a consolidation and update of all that went before. “This is a good place to start if you’re new to Dennett.

I can rest easy.

[Great chat with Robert Kuhn (Closer To Truth) with Dan about his Memoir.]

[Great also to have Kevin’s alongside Dan’s here, Kevin dismissed Dan’s “illusionism” – but in fact says pretty much the same as Dan more recently. Something to work into the writing.]



Patterns of Behaviour

A recurring mention of mine is that “I am in writing mode” – deliberately avoiding reading new publications, even where it will obviously be relevant to my writings – everything is connected at some level of abstraction after all. I acknowledged this state existed “in theory anyway” when failing and reading a couple things in the last month – Humboldt and Prigogine for example.

That pattern recurs in microcosm ever month or two when I find I have dozens of browser pages open, after clicking on social media responses to topics I’m working on. And then I have to do a post, like this one below, to close all those pages whilst nevertheless saving them for posterity.
(I used to use a bookmarking app for that – but it’s a vicious cycle, the easier it is to bookmark, the more things get bookmarked and the harder it is to index or tag in ways that make them findable in future!)

So here goes:

Book Review: Elon Musk – Not the new one, sorry” Musk’s interference in the social media (and the political commentary and free-speech landscape generally) highlights / intersects another topic of mine. That is he and many problematic modes of thought deserve honest use of the technical term “Autistic”. The PC / Woke agenda reminds us we need to be careful being critical of individuals – respect the human – on that spectrum, but the problematic thought pattern is real and really is problematic.

Philip Goff on Fine Tuning – not one I expected.
And this is the Philip session at HTLGI mentioned in that piece at BBC3 Free Thinking. Featuring Liz Oldfield as well as Dan Dennett.

Literary Kicks – I think this James Joyce link was a Pirsig connection?
(via ZMMQuality on Facebook)

Matt Crawford – this is a piece he wrote for the Smithsonian about Pirsig / ZMM after Bob died, and we know Matt provides  an intro to next years 50th anniversary edition of ZMM. Hat tip David Matos at ZMMQuality on Facebook again.

Is There a Crisis in Cosmology? Is there ever – part of The meta-crisis. pay-walled at NYT.

A professional full length documentary version of Des Molloy’s “authentic” re-run of the Pirsig ZMM journey. He’s an interesting person. From “The Motorcycle Film Fest” – watched it last night.

A 2016 review of Stafford Beer and his Cybersyn Allende’s Chile project. (See previous “Santiago Boys“.

Information Theoretic Thermodynamics – not a new topic here, but a recent novel take from Chiara Marletto, in the Journal of the Institute Of Physics –  I’ve not got my head round yet.

Alan Watts is alive online: contradictions of a pop philosopher by Nicolás Boullosa on March 22, 2023. Came up because The Whole Earth Catalogue came up at the recent Teesside Skeptics.

One of my less well known heroes John C Doyle.

Gregory Bateson on Wikipedia – still catching-up on what I’m missing with him. (I was originally dismissive after his connection with discredited Margaret Mead?

Carnot 1825 (Excerpts)
Still following up Tim Kueper’s references to this.

Sven Lindqvist – wrote some articles about Pirsig at MSU Bozeman, Mt but seem to have lost them.

And an interview with Dan Dennett at Tufts on the publication of his memoir (already on order).


Now, where was I?


Graham Parker #2023

Mentioned a few days ago, I was seeing Graham Parker last night – and I did. Just some impressions.

The set-list was indeed fascinating:

25 albums over 48 years between 1976 and 2023 so ~250/300 (?) tracks to choose from. 8 from the new album “Last Chance to Learn to Twist” and 4 from the very first 1976 album “Howlin’ Wind” leaving only 8 from the other 23 albums from a set-list of 21 (inc 2 covers). So not surprising not many I would have pre-identified as favourites. And yet … a great set.

Not quite as much energy as the original Rumour days and no Bob Andrews and no brass section, but at 72 he’s still got that voice and a passion for his songs, many of which have political messages, poetic without being angrily in your face (like the current naïve fashion of Sleaford Mods, Benefits and Meryl Streek to name but 3.) And playing a lot more on the guitar than I ever remember – but there were two top pros behind him in those days – Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont. Just Martin remains from The Rumour, 2 years older than GP at 74 and looking his age, pretty frail and unsteady on his feet, coming on stage with a walking stick and sitting on his stool when concentrating on the rhythm backing, but instantly recognisable standing and rocking / leaning into the riffs and solos.

Most of the audience seemed to be from the 70’s too and all seated – contrast with the Public Image gig from a couple of weeks ago – but Graham was in light-hearted banter mode throughout, enjoying his audience. Remember now the link to how Southside Johnny and Bruce Springsteen came into our lives. Not many appeared to recognise him in the bar beforehand and the few that did acknowledge left him in peace with the roadie/tech and the chorus girls – The Ladybugs. Couldn’t resist wishing him luck once the others had gone backstage and sharing the image I’d taken – what I’d taken to be – the last time I saw him in Nov’78, at least 3 memorable ’78 gigs, but I did see him another 3 or 4 times post “Sparks” ’79 to ’82. I know that because shortly after Sylvia and I married and moved to Reading I saw him at The Hexagon but Sylvia couldn’t be there she reminded me.  Yet, she did see him too, checking into the Post House Hotel where she was doing a shift on reception that day. Pretty close to “home” in Deepcut, but that’s another story.

Great fun


Nick Humphrey and Mark Solms?

Dan Dennett shared this Nick Humphrey lecture at the RI.

I’ve watched once through and notwithstanding clear differences – evolution of warm blooded mammals (environmental independence), not just vertebrates (brain architecture) and the “attractor” version of the internal model (?) – the whole active inference monitoring cycle and the affect-centred sense of subjective self in self and empathy in others seems exactly consistent with Solms.

Only issue I have is Nick has adopted “sentience” limited to the consciousness that comes with such an internal affective model of the self – phenomenal consciousness contrasted with “blind” sensation – I guess I can be OK with that, but I’ve used it more broadly.

And like Solms Humphry’s model also predicts artificial sentience.

Anyway -just a quickie to capture the links.



Solms knows Humphry’s work and admires the deep evolutionary  aspect. Consistent with his own functional brain architecture focus.

Using “Sentient” to mean being aware of sensed inputs – that there is a self-aware being “in” the organism doing the experiencing (and responding).

Cognitive … unpicking overloaded meanings?

(Just to be clear – getting lots of pedants on social media pointing out that they’re not telling the same story. Obviously. But what they are telling by focussing on different aspects of the consciousness story at different levels of detail is that they fit one consistent overarching story … need to find time for a proper piece here.)

Snowden and McGilchrist

Last couple of days – Sarah Freiesleben – “Shaping Human Centered Progress” – posted a recommendation on LinkedIn for the thinking of Iain McGilchrist (of whom I’m a big fan, as you know) and it drew a lot of flak in reaction to the old left-right-brained-people suggestion (though of course she never actually said that). Dave Snowden (of whom I’m also a big fan since 2003) responded typically robustly against “that left/right brain nonsense – a simplistic dichotomy” – and the dialogue developed to some kind of sensible but disjointed concensus, with people including myself giving opinions.

So, today she posted an update (which also included an implied criticism of Dave’s attitude – and in his inimitable style, he let her have it again!)

Anyway, the valuable content:

Yesterday I wrote a post where I referred to the in-depth work that Dr Iain McGilchrist has done in explaining the various ways in which the brain’s hemispheres process information. I used this reference to make a point about how being able to navigate #complex and #complicated situations is already baked into the #humanexperience, but we seem to be devaluing it.

It attracted a lot of attention while I was out camping and enjoying the wonderful nature of Denmark, and I do not have time to respond to all the comments individually. But I want to take a moment to add some clarity based on the general categories of comments I have read.

Firstly, the modern science around this is not about people being right-brained or left-brained, like we used to think in the 80s. Nor can we categorically say that music, art, or math come from certain halves. That work has been debunked. But we should not mistake the old, now disproven science, with the compelling modern science around (sometimes competing) hemispheric behaviors, and be curious about its implications in relation to understanding and bringing awareness to how we engage in sensemaking.

Next, I wrote a concluding comment about how we need to use both hemispheres at work and some seem to have taken this literally. I want to clarify that leaving one behind is indeed not possible. People are always using their whole brains. But what I wanted to convey with the metaphor is that we value the style of thinking that is associated with the right hemisphere increasingly less in our world and this is a major problem.

The more we glorify quantifying and creating algorithms for everything, the less we seem to be able to find contextual truths that lead to possibilities. And since we are all, always thinking contextually, but becoming less aware of contextual truths existing and having value, we are perhaps unconsciously creating static polarities that eventually serve no real context at all.

Finally, to those who suggest that my post and Iain’s work are creating a dichotomy, I would like to highlight the crucial importance of noticing the differences and similarities between things as a tool to preserve and invite nuance back into situations. Dichotomies are similar but different in that they look at differences with an either/or perspective; nuance generally notices differences and aims to connect on them by noticing “differences that make a difference”. And nuance is of critical importance to evolution, as we often forget that symbiosis is a key part of it.

I hope this has made it more clear. I am always happy to engage in mutual learning in context with people who enjoy constructive dialogue, as time allows. I learn a lot from engaging in the LI community. Your comments and feedback help me know where to take more time to explain and this is a case where much care is clearly required.

(Link to original post.)

My response in support of the original post and the general response:

Fascinating. I’ve written a lot about McGilchrist and as you say, we need to recognise true complexity and be very careful suggesting some “competing” dichotomy when we’re really talking about collaborative interactions (which I guess you already knew – even being careful with the words it’s easy to mislead over the complex subtleties).
My starter for ten –

And Dave’s responses:

Please, not that left/right brain nonsense. McGilchrist says a lot of sensible things but creating a simplistic dichotomy as the explanation doesn’t cut it any more.

(Some things he finds sensible) some of his views on the spatialisation of time, his disputes on free will and some aspects of his views on religion.

(And) no one denies that there are different hemispheres. What is being challenged is the validity of the conclusions that McGilchrist draws from that. That challenge also links with his wider failure to move beyond a cognitive framing.

Reductionism is problematic when people assume that the qualities of the whole are explained by the properties of the parts. There is nothing wrong with breaking things up. My view is that McGilchrist commits the reductionist error and worse he only uses a partial and non contextual account of the parts and further doesn’t take sufficient account of the relationships between those parts and other ‘parts’ and relationships he ignores.

And my response to Dave’s initial position position:

Dave Snowden – Not many things I’d disagree with you on Dave. Obviously, anyone who sees “a simplistic dichotomy” in McGilchrist’s view is in error – that’s debunked old left-right-brained-people bullshit – but surely it’s undeniable that the (divided) brain and its interconnectivity are evolved to be that way? (You make that point in another thread.)

As to what McGilchrist is actually claiming – I’ve already written a lot about both his and Mark Solms’ work – I might pick-up your specific comments in this thread and respond in a separate blog post. (Have you written any critique of McGilchrist elsewhere?)

[He hasn’t – even though I did share a McGilchrist question with him last time out 😉 ]

So this is the start of that piece.

(Basically I think Sarah has it about right and Dave is the kind of influential person we need to get on board with the intended subtle realities here.)


%d bloggers like this: