Is Dennett an Illusionist?

No, he does not say that “Consciousness is an Illusion”. End of.

In a sentence: Dennett’s position is that: Consciousness and conscious will are as real and evolved as anything else in the world. The powerful (useful, but misleading) ILLUSION is the Cartesian theatre / video screen with the homunculus viewer / user as things distinct from each other. It is / we are one and the same evolved behaviour of our brains.

[Final Version – 3 July 2023]

Frequently find myself correcting even the best commentators on consciousness that “No, Dennett really isn’t saying that consciousness is an Illusion”. He does say, and has said over the years, many things about the illusory nature of some aspects of consciousness. Some aspects we intuit are illusions, but our consciousness (and its free-will) is real, so real he’s spent a long career evolving his explanations for it.

Happened again today with John Horgan, who made such a reference in reposting today his 2015 profile of David Chalmers, in response to the Chalmers-Koch bet news from the other day, that neuro-science would not find a “solution” to consciousness by this year. I already made an ironic reference in a note at the end of my last “Free Energy Principle Explains Consciousness” post.

Horgan’s profile of Chalmers is pretty good. I’m guessing it must have involved personal dialogue, because in both 2015 and 2017 versions, he cites Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” as an influential read before he switched from Maths to Philosophy and Consciousness – a search finds very few citations anywhere except Horgan’s(?) eg:

Found also this Cliff Sosis 2016 interview with Chalmers with explicit reference (same story as he told Horgan – or the source of Horgan’s quote?):

Q – “What made you turn away from mathematics?”

A – “It’s a long story. Before starting at Oxford I hitchhiked around Europe for four months or so. I’d done a bit of hitchhiking in Australia and enjoyed it. It was a great way to meet people and see all sorts of small towns in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, England, and Scotland. Of course I spent plenty of the time by the side of the road, and I read various philosophical books along the way. Not analytic philosophy — I still didn’t really know about that then. I read things like the Tao Te Ching, The Tao is Silent by Raymond Smullyan, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, philosophical novels by Umberto Eco and Hermann Hesse, and Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse (a neglected classic in the philosophy of living, I think). Somehow all that got me into thinking more and more about philosophy and especially about consciousness.”

Plenty of Zen and the Art and Chalmers references in searches, but mainly overlaps within Blackmore, McWatt and others, not direct Chalmers refs.

But Chalmers also has mentioned Pirsig on Twitter earlier this year:

(No Zen, ZMM or Pirsig mentioned in the slides themselves or anything else published by him? He was a student of Hofstadter of course and I’ve mentioned Doug’s parallel’s to Pirsig before. But I digress.)

Obviously Chalmers is famous for inventing the name “hard problem” for the fact that objective science will never explain the subjectivity of consciousness. That’s simply a fact, a limitation of objective science, not a problem with explanations of consciousness, not a problem anyone invented. Just a fact. Despite Koch conceding the bet to Chalmers, consciousness already has been explained by more complete versions of science, ones that permit the subjective (eg Solms, in a single post.)

Anyway for now, as my title suggests, I wanted to follow-up the Dennett as Illusionist myth. It just so happens I’ve been re-visiting some old Dennett pieces, since last week’s post.

In the profile above, Horgan compares Chalmers to Dennett:

… unlike, say, Daniel Dennett
when he insists that consciousness is an “illusion”

That link is to Horgan’s own review of Dennett’s “Bacteria to Bach and Back” (B2BnB) which I’ve referenced many times and had my own review published here in The New Humanist. and (say) here in “Dennett’s Speculative Bet”.

In Horgan’s review he includes this (presumed) Dennett quote right at the start:

‘[Consciousness] doesn’t exist, at least not in the way we think it does. It is an illusion, like … “American democracy.”‘

That’s very clearly about the way it exists being illusory – democracy exists and is embodied in real world organisation of things, but doesn’t exist in the same way a physical object does (in an orthodox view of the physical world). However, consciousness – like democracy – clearly exists in some form?

In fact in Dennett’s B2BnB he never says anywhere “Consciousness is an illusion” nor even uses the word illusion except in the important later chapter entitled “Consciousness as an Evolved User-illusion”

I spent some time on that in my own review. Using the language of “user interfaces” fashionable among many in the 21st C as an update to his earlier Cartesian Theatre metaphor. Although our metaphorical “minds eye” calls up “a view” in our subjective experience, there is no separation between the subjective (mental) view and the physical performance on the (biological brain) stage. The view experienced is the experience viewed, they’re one and the same, there’s no user distinct from the hardware and software behaviour. That’s the illusion that has evolved, for good reason. #Distancing

One place Dennett suggests the idea of consciousness being an illusion is his infamous TED Talk entitled “The Illusion of Consciousness” from over 20 years ago, where the first line of intro says “Dan Dennett thinks that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes.” That’s NOT denying the reality of consciousness in my book, it’s simply the title of his talk.

And importantly – as per his title – the subject of his talk is an illusion (or a set / class of illusions) OF consciousness, not any suggestion that consciousness IS the illusion. Primarily visual illusions about detail we see (or fail to see) in the world vs what is physically (statically and dynamically) presented by the world. Things worth understanding as we build and refine our model or explanatory description of our consciousness and the many aspects of its workings, but in no way suggesting that consciousness is not real – that it’s merely an illusion.

Provocative click-bait is not unusual in media titles and set-piece debates 🙂 Hat-tip to Anvesi on Twitter and to John’s response to the tweet above for pointing out Dennett’s use of the same content in the talk he gave at the same Chalmers-Koch event. These are from 20 & 25 years ago!

More worrying for me are more recent references by Dennett to Illusions in a Consciousness context.

A favourite of mine, Kevin Mitchell – evolutionary neuroscientist and systems thinker at Trinity College Dublin – author of “Innate” and “Free Agents” picked me up on a more recent quote in the last year. (Kevin’s own post referring to the “Just Deserts” debates with Greg Caruso which also starts with a popular media piece by Oliver Burkeman in the Grauniad.)

Refreshing interview here just last month with Kevin – quite matter-of-fact description from a working neuro-scientist – on how our agency (free-will) and more work and evolved to work. Even starts by shunning the value of “a definition” – see also this LinkedIn piece – Matthew West & Anatoly Levenchuk. Anyway nothing contentious, and nothing Dennett would disagree with. It just all makes sense – including the levels of agency, the degrees of freedom – not every decision needs conscious thought – it’s just efficient – the free-energy principle – to have many semi-automated / habitual actions and to focus on the value-add of consciousness. Free-will as free-won’t – a supervisory control system – as many have said before.

Important to notice that in these cases the focus is that aspect of our consciousness we call free will or conscious will – that part of consciousness that makes decisions to act based on what our consciousness experiences. Not the whole of what we might mean by consciousness. Again with Dennett it’s the user illusion. The will, the agency exists. The illusion is that there is some separate entity deciding and acting, a “user” separate from the experiencing occurring in the brain machinery. Frankly, this all goes back to earlier Dennett and Hofstadter “who am I” thought experiments. We are our experience and sense of will. They’re not separate things.

And just last week, I was watching this Karol Jalochowski conversation with Dan at his home in Maine, November last year. Prompted by the post note on my last post. It’s very good. In fact it gets round to the “who am I” to have free will and responsibility for my actions. Large enough to be the whole person, not a detached, point homunculus within the Cartesian theatre, externalising everything else.

Freedom and responsibility are not absolute, they’re constrained by physics and biological & development evolution & history. The “oppression” of having masses of 20th C technology “can do” capabilities, and the prioritisation of the many “ought” possibilities that now exist. World hunger, health, climate, ecology – you name it – are we all responsible for all of it? Kinda, but let’s get real.

A wonderful relaxed, informal “interview”. Recommended.

In a sentence: Dennett’s position is that: Consciousness and conscious will are as real and evolved as anything else in the world. The powerful (useful, but misleading) ILLUSION is the Cartesian theatre / video screen with the homunculus viewer / user as things distinct from each other. It is / we are one and the same evolved behaviour of our brains.


[Long Story Short – When Dennett says “consciousness is an illusion” he is saying our subjective experience of consciousness is real experience, but it’s an illusion to think of it (or its qualia) as a physical thing – an objectively distinct and observable thing, within the terms of orthodox science – even though it is entirely explained as the result of physical processes. Every systems thinker – anyone who’s crossed Solms’ Rubicon – knows he’s right. There really is no mystery – thinkers like Mitchell, Solms & Friston, McGilchrist and, of course, Dennett already have consciousness and conscious will cracked. The questions are all about how much devilishly detailed explanation of which aspects do you want? The necessary angels are already in the abstractions.]

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