Of all the odd notions to emerge from debates over consciousness, the oddest is that it doesn’t exist, at least not in the way we think it does. It is an illusion, like “Santa Claus” or “American democracy.”
Descartes said consciousness is the one undeniable fact of our existence, and I find it hard to disagree. I’m conscious right now, as I type this sentence, and you are presumably conscious as you read it. (I can’t be sure about you, because I have access only to my own consciousness.)
The idea that consciousness isn’t real has always struck me as crazy, and not in a good way, but smart people espouse it. One of the smartest is philosopher Daniel Dennett, who has been questioning consciousness for decades, notably in his 1991 bestseller Consciousness Explained.
I’ve always thought I must be missing something in Dennett’s argument, so I hoped his new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, would enlighten me. It does, but not in the way Dennett intended.
Dennett restates his claim that Darwinian theory can account for all aspects of our existence. We don’t need an intelligent designer, or “skyhook,” to explain how eyes, hands and minds came to be, because evolution provides “cranes” for constructing all biological phenomena.
Natural selection yields what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension.” (D.D. loves alliteration.) Even the simplest bacterium is a marvelous machine, extracting from its environment what it needs to survive and reproduce. Eventually, the mindless, aimless process of evolution produced Homo sapiens, a species capable of competence and comprehension.
But human cognition, Dennett emphasizes, still consists mainly of competence without comprehension. Our conscious thoughts represent a minute fraction of all the information processing carried out by our brains. Natural selection designed our brains to provide us with thoughts on a “need to know” basis, so we’re not overwhelmed with data.
Dennett compares consciousness to the user interface of a computer. The contents of our awareness, he asserts, bear the same relation to our brains that the little folders and other icons on the screen of a computer bear to its underlying circuitry and software. Our perceptions, memories and emotions are grossly simplified, cartoonish representations of hidden, hideously complex computations.
None of this is novel or controversial. Dennett is just reiterating, in his oh-so-clever, neologorrheic fashion, what mind-scientists and most educated lay folk have long accepted, that the bulk of cognition happens beneath the surface of awareness. Dennett even thanks the much-vilified Freud for his “championing of unconscious motivations”!
Trouble arises when Dennett, extending the computer-interface analogy, calls consciousness a “user-illusion.” I italicize illusion, because so much confusion flows from Dennett’s use of that term. An illusion is a false perception. Our thoughts are imperfect representations of our brain/minds and of the world, but that doesn’t make them necessarily false.
Take this thought: “Donald Trump is a narcissistic jerk.” That is an extremely compressed statement about an extremely messy external reality. Moreover, my ability to think the thought, or type it on my laptop, depends on complex hardware and software, the workings of which I am happily ignorant. But that doesn’t mean “Donald Trump is a narcissistic jerk” is an illusion, any more than “2 + 2 = 4.”
What if I think "2 + 2 = 5,” “Global warming is a hoax” or “Donald Trump is the wisest man on earth”? What if I am psychotic, or living in a simulation created by evil robots, and all my thoughts are illusions? To say my consciousness is therefore an illusion would be to conflate consciousness with its contents. That’s like saying a book doesn’t exist if it depicts non-existent things. And yet that is what Dennett seems to suggest.
Consider how Dennett talks about qualia, philosophers’ term for subjective experiences. My qualia at this moment are the smell of coffee, the sound of a truck rumbling by on the street, my puzzlement over Dennett’s ideas. Dennett notes that we often overrate the objective accuracy and causal power of our qualia. True enough.
But he concludes, bizarrely, that therefore qualia are fictions, “an artifact of bad theorizing.” If we lack qualia, then we are zombies, creatures that look and even behave like humans but have no inner, subjective life. Imagining a reader who insists he is not a zombie, Dennett writes:
“The only support for that conviction [that you are not a zombie] is the vehemence of the conviction itself, and as soon as you allow the theoretical possibility that there could be zombies, you have to give up your papal authority about your own nonzombiehood.” Think you’re conscious? Think again.
Dennett gets annoyed when critics accuse him of saying “consciousness doesn’t exist,” and to be fair, he never flatly makes that claim. His point seems to be, rather, that consciousness is so insignificant, especially compared to our exalted notions of it, that it might as well not exist.
Dennett’s arguments are so convoluted that he allows himself plausible deniability, but he seems to be advocating eliminative materialism, which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines as “the radical claim that our ordinary, common-sense understanding of the mind is deeply wrong and that some or all of the mental states posited by common-sense do not actually exist.”
Other philosophers call consciousness “the hard problem” because of the yawning “explanatory gap” between physiological processes and subjective, mental states. Eliminative materialists say there is no hard problem or explanatory gap because there are no subjective phenomena, or at least none worth worrying about.
When I encounter a baffling belief, at some point I stop trying to understand it and focus on the believer. What’s the motive? Why would Dennett expend so much energy advancing such a preposterous position?
Like many philosophers, Dennett clearly gets a kick out of defending positions that defy common sense. But his primary agenda is defending science against religion and other irrational belief systems. Dennett, an outspoken atheist, fears that creationism and other superstitious nonsense will persist as long as mysteries do. He thus insists that science can untangle even the knottiest conundrums, including the origin of life (which he asserts that recent “breakthroughs” are helping to solve) and consciousness.
Dennett accuses those who question science’s power of bad faith. These doubters don’t want their “beloved mysteries” explained. Dennett can’t accept that anyone might have legitimate, rational reasons for resisting his reductionist vision.
One prominent doubter is philosopher Thomas Nagel, who in “What Is It Like to be a Bat?” and other writings explores why consciousness is unlikely to yield to conventional scientific analysis. Reviewing From Bacteria to Bach, Nagel rebukes Dennett thus:
“To say that there is more to reality than physics can account for is not a piece of mysticism: it is an acknowledgement that we are nowhere near a theory of everything, and that science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain.”
Some people surely have an unhealthy attachment to mysteries, but Dennett has an unhealthy aversion to them, which compels him to stake out unsound positions. His belief that consciousness is an illusion is nuttier than the belief that God is real. Science has real enemies—some in positions of great power--but Dennett doesn’t do science any favors by shilling for it so aggressively.
Let me nonetheless conclude by thanking Dennett. Agree with him or not, I always find him provocative and entertaining. And by forcing me to pay closer attention to my awareness, his eliminative outlook has roused me from my normal torpor. This zombie can always use a little more consciousness.