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Consciousness Explained?

Philosopher Daniel Dennett offers a radical reconceptualization of consciousness in his book Consciousness Explained. To understand consciousness, commonsense ideas must be left behind. We might think consciousness is mysterious, but we can dissolve the mystery from a stage magician’s perspective. Consciousness seems mysterious because our brains are playing tricks on us—a whole bagful of them.[1] We are deluded victims of our own brains. We are also provided with false views about the nature of the mind and consciousness in our culture, but once we see through them, what is left of consciousness is an information-processing machine.

Information Processing and Consciousness

Dennett denies there is anything essential to the brain as a physical organ that makes us conscious. He also rejects the hard problem. The brain is an informationprocessing machine composed of biological microparts—such as neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters—but these parts are no more essential to information processing than the electronics in your computer. The neurocomputational architecture is the evolved hardware for human minds, but consciousness is not in the hardware per se; it is in the information processing. We don’t have to figure out how the human brain causes consciousness, because it doesn’t—not as something separate from its information processing.[2] To think the brain gives off, generates, or causes consciousness as something apart from information processing is delusion.

The mysterians refuse to entertain this possibility, because it seems unintuitive. How could consciousness be mechanical information processing? Surely consciousness must be something more! But such intuitions are roadblocks on the way to understanding consciousness. To counter arguments against consciousness as a mechanical phenomenon, Dennett—like the Churchlands—traces antimechanical arguments back to Leibniz’s comparison of the brain to a mill.[3] Dennett sees Leibniz’s mechanical thought experiment as an “intuition pump” for showing the absurdity of mechanistic explanations of consciousness. Philosophers such as Searle, Chalmers, Nagel, and McGinn rely on this early suggestive image of Leibniz. But they have added little more than variations on the same theme with their own suggestive antimechanical imagery: Chalmers’s zombie argument; Nagel’s “what is it like to be a bat” thought experiment; Jackson’s “Mary the scientist” thought experiment; or Searle’s Chinese room thought experiment. In Dennett’s view, they fail to adequately support their antimechanical conclusions and are trumpeting out irrelevant intuitions, hunches, and gut instincts. We should accept that we are mechanical machines composed of trillions of robotic cells.

  • [1] See Dennett (1991); the text contains many allusions and analogies with magic. See also thechapter “Explaining the ‘Magic’ of Consciousness” in Dennett (2005).
  • [2] See the section “But Is It a Theory of Consciousness” in the chapter “The Architecture of theHuman Mind” in Dennett (Dennett 1991), where Dennett attempts to explicate consciousnessentirely in terms of virtual machines—that is, abstract information-processing devices.
  • [3] See the section “The Zombic Hunch: Extinction of an Intuition” in Chapter One of Dennett(2005).
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