The Myth of Consciousness . . .


Consciousness Explained.  By Daniel C. Dennett.  Boston, MA:  Little, Brown and Company, 1991.  511 pages.

It is, by now, common knowledge that it is far easier to explain something which ultimately does not need to be explained.  Take, for example, the birth of Pegasus.  If you were to ask me to explain how it is that Pegasus was begotten from the blood spilling out of Medusa’s decapitated head, I should simply respond, “Pegasus and Medusa do not exist.  What is there to explain?  Perhaps, what you really want is a historical account of how this mythological tale came to be.”  One does not need to explain how a creature like Pegasus, who only seems to exist (i.e., whose existence is grounded in our imagination), is begotten from the blood of a dead goddess.  Likewise, if we are to accept Dr. Dennett’s stance, one does not need to explain consciousness—at least, not in the traditional sense.  For, according to his view, consciousness only seems to exist; it is mythology.  What we really want, when exploring the nature of conscious mental states, is a scientific, third person, account of how the notion of consciousness arises.  It is in this sense that consciousness is explained (or, perhaps, more fairly, explained away) in his book.

Setting the Stage

Dr. Dennett sets the stage by introducing the means by which he intends to “demystify” the notion of consciousness.  His first move is to reject Cartesian Dualism as a matter of principle.  It will strike some readers odd that, save for a couple of humorous comic strips and a handful of vague comments regarding the, all too cliché, problem of interaction, he seems entirely uncompelled to provide rigorous argumentation against the Cartesian view.  Most, however, will be sympathetic to the fact that it is far more economical in a lengthy work of philosophy to simply pronounce, ex cathedra, the death of an opposing point of view.  Such an approach, I might point out, makes the task of promoting one’s own view far easier.  To be fair, though, it must be conceded that Dr. Dennett makes several strong assertions about why we should ignore dualistic theories of the mind.  He declares that dualism is both unscientific and mysterious.  As he states:

[The] fundamentally antiscientific stance of dualism is, to my mind, its most disqualifying feature, and is the reason why in this book I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs.  It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up (37).

Rather than wallow in mystery (and, really, who wants to wallow?), Dr. Dennett proposes a more sensible way—materialism.  But not just any form of materialism, a materialism that faces the problem of consciousness realistically; without ignoring the key features of conscious mental states which render them so difficult to account for.  The bulk of his book, therefore, is spent attempting to provide a broad materialistic framework by which we might account for all of the features of consciousness.

From this standpoint, his book is essentially a conglomeration of various materialist theories on human cognition, neurology, psychology, physics, chemistry, and biological evolution pulled together to provide a cumulative case against those who might view consciousness as being at odds with a materialist ontology.  Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that his real goal is to undercut traditional assumptions about the nature of consciousness (ie., the ones that need to be explained), and thereby remove the obstacles facing empirical scientific approaches.  He achieves this by redefining or calling into question these assumptions—such notions as a “center of consciousness,” intentionality, identity over time, and qualia—which continue to mystify scientists.

The Death of Qualia

One key feature of conscious mental states that resists any and all materialistic explanations is what philosophers call qualia.  Material things can be described, almost exhaustively, from an objective or third person stance.  For instance, I can examine and explain nearly everything there is to know about a rock—its mass, weight, location, geological history, chemical makeup, etc.—without invoking any subjective or first person properties.  Conscious mental states, in contrast, seem to possess a quality that rocks, and all other material objects, lack.  As Dr. Dennett explains:

Don’t our internal discriminative states also have some special “intrinsic” properties, the subjective, private, ineffable, properties that constitute the way things look to us (sound to us, smell to us, etc.)?  Those additional properties would be the qualia (373).

Recognizing that subjective experience poses a serious problem to his materialist proclivities, Dr. Dennett spends a considerable amount of time on the issue.  I will highlight several of the more innovative approaches he utilizes to “disqualify” qualia as being a serious obstacle to materialism.

First, he wisely chooses not to quote any philosopher who makes a case that qualia is: (a) a legitimate property of consciousness and (b) a serious challenge to materialism.  This is a very smart move, because it frees him from having to deal, directly, with their arguments (an understandable choice to make, considering the book is already 511 pages).  Instead of engaging the literature on the subject, Dr. Dennett utilizes a fictional character named Otto (a.k.a., the Straw Man) to represent the opposing side.  He then proceeds to deconstruct the problem of qualia as it is espoused by Otto.  I will deal with this in greater detail in a moment.

The second approach Dr. Dennett uses, which proves to be very effective, is what philosophers call equivocation—the ambiguous use of a key term in an argument.  At the beginning of chapter twelve, Dr. Dennett correctly identifies qualia as being a “subjective, private, ineffable,” property that constitutes, “the way things look to us (sound to us, smell to us, etc.)” (373).  A couple of pages latter we see a subtle shift in his use of the term:

When Otto, in chapter 11, judged that there seemed to be a glowing pinkish ring, what was the content of his judgment?  If, as I have insisted, his judgment wasn’t about a quale, a property of a “phenomenal” seem-ing-ring (made out of figment), just what was it about?  What property did he find himself tempted to attribute (falsely) to something out in the world (375, emphasis mine)?

Note how seamlessly he shifts from qualia being an internal subjective property to an external property we attribute to something out in the world.  Such sophisticated sophistry is a rare gem.

Following this subtle shift in the meaning of the term, Dr. Dennett spends multiple pages discussing color and providing a very lively and entertaining third person scientific account of how various organisms perceive reflective light surfaces.  He then draws the following conclusion:

What property does Otto judge something to have when he judges it to be pink?  The property he calls pink.  And what property is that?  It’s hard to say, but this should not embarrass us, because we can say why it’s hard to say.  The best we can do, practically, when asked what surface properties we detect with color vision, is to say, uninformatively, that we detect the properties we detect.  If someone wants a more informative story about those properties, there is a large and rather incompressible literature in biology, neuroscience, and psychophysics to consult.  And Otto can’t say anything more about the property he calls pink by saying “It’s this!” (taking himself to be pointing “inside” at a private, phenomenal property of his experience).  All that move accomplishes (at best) is to point to his own idiosyncratic color-discrimination state . . . but not to any quale that is exuded by it, or worn by it, or rendered by it, when it does its work.  There are no such things (382-383).

If this passage leaves you feeling confused, you are not alone.  At first, Dr. Dennett seems to be discussing the “property of pink” and the “surface properties we detect with color vision” (i.e., external, third person properties); then, without warning, he declares the death of qualia.  It is impossible to appreciate Dr. Dennett’s argument because he does not make one, but I submit that we can admire this paragraph for what it is: a powerful form or rhetoric.

This leads us to the third approach Dr. Dennett utilizes to disqualify qualia: begging the question.  It should be noted that this approach is perhaps one of his greatest strengths.  Rather than disprove the existence of qualia (or, for that matter, any of the key features of consciousness) he simply assumes materialism is true.  With this assumption in place, it is all too easy to explain qualia away.  Consider, for example, how he handles the problem of inverted qualia.  Dr. Dennett starts with the assumption that materialism is true and that our subjective qualitative experiences are simply reducible to our “reactive dispositions” (392).  He then utilizes these assumptions to undercut the thought experiments propounded by those who consider inverted qualia a serious challenge to materialism.  For example, his response to one thought experiment which demonstrates that, even with perfect technology, “no intersubjective comparison of qualia would be possible,” is merely to point out that it, “provides support, however, for the shockingly “verificationist” or “positivistic” view that the very idea of inverted qualia is nonsense–and hence that the very idea of qualia is nonsense” (390).

It seems that by placing quotation marks around the terms verificationism and positivism, Dr. Dennett hopes to downplay the self-contradictory nature of both views.  Unfortunately, sarcasm and well placed quotation marks do not negate the fact that verificationsim and logical positivism are dead-end’s which have been abandoned by serious philosophers for years.  The reason being that both views promote a hopelessly limited epistemology.  Dr. Dennett, however, seems undeterred by these problems because, after all, in his view materialism is true; and, if materialism is true, there must be some empirical (i.e., materialistic) way to verify the existence of qualia (outside of the fact that we all have subjective qualitative experiences).  Naturally, if we accept this, our inability to compare our subjective experiences through some sort of third person objective standpoint leads to the conclusion that qualia is nonsense.

The process of question begging demonstrated above is utilized repeatedly, and with great rhetorical flare, throughout the chapter.  Consider Dr. Dennett’s response to Frank Jackson’s much debated thought experiment: Monochromatic Mary.  The point of the experiment is to demonstrate that Mary, a super intelligent color scientist who has never personally experienced color, learns something knew upon her release from her monochromatic prison.  Although she has learned everything there is to know about physical third person explanations of reflective light surfaces, human vision, neurology, and biology, she learns something knew upon personally experiencing a red rose for the first time.  This “something new” is of course qualia–her subjective qualitative experience of the outside world.

His response to the problem this story generates for materialism is merely to assert the truth of materialism.  He does this by telling his own version of Mary’s first color experience:

 And so, one day, Mary’s captors decided it was time for her to see colors.  As a trick, they prepared a bright blue banana to present as her first color experience ever.  Mary took one look at it and said “Hey!  You tried to trick me!  Bananas are yellow, but this one is blue!”  Her captors were dumfounded.  How did she do it?  “Simple,” she replied.  “You have to remember that I know everything–absolutely everything–that could ever be known about the physical causes and effects of color vision.  So of course before you brought the banana in, I had already written down, in exquisite detail, exactly what physical impression a yellow object or a blue object . . . would make on my nervous system.  So I already knew exactly what thoughts I would have (because, after all, the “mere disposition” to think about this or that is not one of your famous qualia, is it?).  I was not in the slightest surprised by my experience of blue . . . (399-400).

Note how his story simply assumes the non-existence of qualia–the very thing in question.  Admittedly, this method works very well to Dr. Dennett’s advantage.  Why argue for your position when you can simply assume it to be true?

Concluding Thoughts

The hard problem of consciousness, as it has been called by David Chalmers,  is exactly the type of problem one would expect to be solved in a book entitled Consciousness Explained;  ironically, quite the opposite is true.  It is, rather, the hard problem of consciousness which is explained away by Dr. Dennett.  The most significant features of consciousness, the one’s that incessantly resist materialistic explanation, are simply dismissed as being some sort of illusion.  Qualia, intentionality, and other irreducible features of consciousness are no different from mythology in his view.  Harking back to the analogy I presented in the introduction:  the story of Pegasus and Medusa is exciting, and even thought provoking, but at the end of the day it is not based on reality.  Likewise, for Dr. Dennett, our subjective inner qualitative experiences are a nice story but do not correspond to reality.  Reality, if we accept his understanding, is anything explainable in terms of evolutionary biology, neurology, cognitive science, and the overarching laws of physics; period.

As disconcerting as this may be, it is not quite as disconcerting as the means by which Dr. Dennett arrives at his conclusions.  Arguments against dualism (in any way shape or form) are completely absent from the text.  Materialism is, thus, taken for granted and consistently used as a defeater for any feature of consciousness that poses a challenge for materialism.  A great deal of time is spent providing third person scientific accounts of physical processes without directly addressing the actual arguments of those who would object to Dr. Dennett’s materialism.  For these reasons his book should not be considered a serious work of philosophy.  It should, however, be praised for its good humor and readability.  If anything, it is a shining modern example of sophistry and should be read diligently by anyone who seeks to learn how to make the weaker position seem strong.

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