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Putting the Stream of Consciousness Together

Dennett offers numerous models for thinking about consciousness in terms of distributed subprocesses in the brain—the pandemonium, multiple drafts, and fame in the brain—but how is the stream of consciousness constructed out of all of this decentralized processing? After all, we normally think one thought after another and have experiences that flow sequentially. Our conscious thinking mind appears relatively serial. How can this be, considering all of the parallel computational information processing in the brain? Dennett argues that consciousness is a serial virtual machine:

The brain is a parallel processing machine, but the virtual machines it runs need not be so. Serial virtual machines can be implemented in the parallel hardware of the brain. Language as a whole is made up of such virtual machine software. If you are reading this text for example, you have an English language parser—a syntactic or grammatical analyzer— installed and running. Consciousness is, as Dennett puts it, the workings of a von Neumannesque virtual machine running on top of a parallel processing machine that is in turn enabled by language.[1]

A von Neumann machine is a computer without parallel processing. It goes through operations serially. Think of consciousness as a software version of such a machine that runs on our parallel-processing brain computer. Consciousness—and, in particular, its serial nature—is the implementation of such a von Neumannesque virtual machine. But what is going on in that virtual machine that gives us our stream of consciousness? A family of habits, downloaded and installed through training of the complex neural network, implementing the von Neumannesque virtual machine, sustains our stream of consciousness.

“Ways of thinking” are examples of such habits and depend crucially on language. Self-talk is a crucial habit for the progression of our stream of consciousness in a serial manner.

Our consciousness is all about training our von Neumannesque virtual machine, but what about the self? How can we explain our sense of being someone? Before we answer that question, let us look at the additional virtual machine software Dennett makes use of—memes. We saw earlier that we are born with much less software than we have as adults. Throughout life, we install a software library of virtual machines. Language is the most important virtual machine, as it enables massive downloads of virtual machines, which Dennett thinks of as memes.

Dennett did not come up with the idea of a meme. The idea came out of thinking about genetics, and the term was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene (Dawkins 1976). According to meme theory, there are cultural information packets—memes—that replicate, evolve, and spread like genes. As biological life is understood in terms of genes, so our cultural life is to be analogously understood in terms of memes that circulate in our cultural meme pool—the totality of cultural information units—where they are transmitted between human beings through conversation, media, and observational learning. These cultural information replicators evolve and compete to maximize their numbers. Dawkins thinks of genes and memes as selfishly replicating information packets.

Some examples of memes are tunes, catchphrases, and beliefs. We end up with a twofold way of looking at evolution with a cultural and a biological dimension:

genetics biology -evolutionary theoryculture memetics

Evolutionary theory is split into genetics and memetics (meme theory). If this division is right, it promises a powerful model of explanation. When Crick and Watson discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, they thought of themselves as having discovered the key to understanding life. Does meme theory hold the analogous promise with respect to culture? This is, at any rate, what some meme theorists think.

Dennett uses meme theory to build his account of how the mind develops in terms of cultural meme downloads—intrasubjective replication processes. He suggests that memes are software viruses. The human mind and the self are both viral meme infestations. How does this work? If someone hears a rhyme such as “eeni meenie miney moe” and it sticks, the person has culturally downloaded and installed it as a virtual-machine meme. The person cannot get rid of it, because it is a viral infestation. New words you learn are also memes, as well as maxims, games, and the habit of talking to yourself. Your entire high school and college education is about downloading memes—a huge virus infestation, as are all other cultural learnings.

As mentioned earlier, the self is the centerpiece of consciousness as we experience it, or what Dennett calls the user illusion. But if the self is this “centerpiece software,” what kind of software is it? Dennett’s view of the self is as a kind of story machine. He thinks of it as a center of narrative gravity.

The self is a story collection—memes that we are continually spinning and revising. Like all memes, they are software. The self, mind, and consciousness—all of these things—are programs:

Human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes (or more exactly, meme-effects in brains) that can best be understood as the operation of a “von Neumannesque” virtual machine implemented in the parallel architecture of a brain . . . (Dennett 1991, p. 210)

Since the self, mind, and consciousness are all software entities, there is a prospect for immortality:

If what you are is the program that runs on your brain’s computer, then you could in principle survive the death of your body as intact as a program can survive the destruction of the computer on which it was created and first run. (Dennett 1991, p. 430)

Dennett continues this line of thought in an interview where he speculates that you could be stored on a hard disk and later rebuilt.[2]

  • [1] See Dennett (1991, p. 210) and Dennett’s chapter “Two Steps Closer on Consciousness” inKeeley (2006).
  • [2] Interview with Robert Wright, available on YouTube:
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