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The Problems of Life and Consciousness as Mechanical Problems

Like the Churchlands, Dennett argues that many philosophers act analogously to vitalists, who believed in a special “life-force” in addition to biological cell mechanics.

The vitalists were convinced that life involved an unknown force. But vitalism lost popularity after the discovery of DNA by Crick and Watson. They declared that they had solved the problem of life and that hence there was no mysterious life- force in the universe. Dennett holds that the mysterians are making a new game for themselves against mechanisms in the neuroscience of consciousness, but like those of the vitalists, their arguments are irrelevant. Once we have explained the computational aspects of consciousness, the mysterianist arguments will be seen for what they are—nonstarters in the quest to understand consciousness.

A Computational View of Consciousness

To explain consciousness, we must explore what conscious minds do and explain how they do it through objective observations. Dennett thinks that many are in the grips of the Cartesian picture of the mind, and that this picture can hold us captive, so we mistakenly think there are private, subjective, objectively unverifiable experiences (Dennett 1991, p. 113). Dennett aims to show that our sense of having a unified mind is an illusion. There is no unity to the mind, the self, or consciousness. The mind is fragmented into mechanical, computational threads of information processing. If mind and consciousness are to be understood through a mechanical model, we won’t find a unified mind, soul, or consciousness. The mind will be found to be distributed throughout the mechanical brain system and, in the same way that there is no life-force hidden within the biology of life, there is no consciousness force hidden within the biology of the mind—only computational brain dynamics.

In the Cartesian conception of the mind—what Dennett calls the Cartesian the- ater—we have the impression of being in a theater where conscious experiences occur. The following is an illustration of how the Cartesian theater comes into play:

Received input stimuli are transduced by our senses to information coded in a brain-usable format. The brain processes this information further before it goes through a second transduction into the Cartesian theater, where consciousness happens. Bodily actions are initiated by our freely acting autonomous self inside the Cartesian theater, but for action to occur, there must be a transduction from the medium of the Cartesian theater to the medium of the brain. Then further processing occurs, after which there is a transduction to the effectors—muscles that move our bodies. In Dennett’s view, the Cartesian theater—including the self inside—is an illusion. There is no “ghost in the machine,” as his former teacher Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) was fond of saying, or “there is nobody home,” as Dennett puts it.

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