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Dennett on Subjective Experience

As we have seen, Dennett does not tackle the hard problem of accounting for subjective experiences or what is also referred to as qualia. He states that “the tempting idea that there is a Hard Problem is simply a mistake” (Dennett 2005, p. 72) and that “there simply are no qualia at all.”[1] How, then, are we to think of experiences? The way Dennett sees it, “sensory qualities are nothing other than dispositional properties” (Dennett 1998, p. 146). So whenever someone tastes, smells, or otherwise experiences something through his senses, that experience is to be understood in terms of dispositions to behave. The same thing can be said of someone who suffers:

Suffering is not a matter of being visited by some ineffable but intrinsically awful state, but of having one’s life hopes, life plans, life projects blighted by circumstances imposed on one's desires, thwarting one's intentions—whatever they are. (Dennett 1991, p. 461)

All subjective experiences are to be spelled out in terms of dispositions to behave. Let us look at one more example:

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.)? No. The dispositional properties of those discriminative states already suffice to explain ah the effects: the effects on both peripheral behavior (saying “Red!”, stepping the brake, etc.) and “internal” behavior (judging “Red!”, seeing something as red, reacting with uneasiness or displeasure if, say, red things upset one). Any additional “qualitative” properties or qualia would thus have no positive role to play in any explanations, nor are they somehow vouchsafed to us “directly” in intuition. (Dennett 1998, p. 142)

This is the way we ought to think not only about experience but about all mental states. They are all to be understood from the third-person perspective of an interpreter.

Dennett’s Consciousness Explained is a great work if we see it as a mere thought experiment that more or less exhausts the possibilities of computer functionalist models of the mind and consciousness. The experiment ends up in a reductio ad absurdum, as it leads Dennett to deny the existence of conscious experience.

  • [1] See Dennett’s chapter “Quining Qualia” (p. 409) in Marcel and Bisiach (1988).
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