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Daniel Dennett

  • 1. In Consciousness Explained, Dennett warns us he is going to challenge our intuitions about consciousness. The biggest challenge is the elimination of conscious experience. Why does Dennett make this move? Is there something about his fundamental assumptions that forces it? Can his fundamental assumptions involved in the intentional stance approach help explain his view of consciousness? If so, how?
  • 2. Could conscious experience be an illusion? How could we be mistaken about our conscious experiences in the sense that they don’t exist? For example, right now I have the experience of drinking a chai tea with soy milk. I enjoy it, but I know others cannot stand the taste of soy milk; they think it tastes like grass. Could it be that we are all mistaken about such subjective experiences—that they exist?
  • 3. Has Dennett solved the problems of AI? Dennett thinks of the brain as a parallel-processing computer with built-in software for installing and running many virtual machines. There is no substantial talk about how the brain causes consciousness in terms of its specific biology. The account is essentially a formal, information-processing account combined with behaviorism. Is it possible to explain consciousness on the basis of such an account? Does the account solve the problem of semantics as illustrated in the Chinese room thought experiment? (Remember that any parallel-processing machine can be simulated on a serial machine.)
  • 4. Dennett claims we must avoid dualism at all costs. What could drive him to make this claim? How might Chalmers or Searle respond?
  • 5. Dennett thinks of consciousness as stage magic of the brain. What are we supposed to gain by thinking of the brain along the lines of a magician? If we are deceived by our brains, then what could be the limits of deception? Could you be deceived about the experience of seeing red or having a pain, for example? If you could be deceived about that, how could you know anything at all? How could Dennett know that his thoughts are not all deceptive?
  • 6. Dennett suggests that the hard problem of consciousness is a large bag of tricks constituting what Chalmers calls the easy problems of consciousness,[1] and that these all have mundane solutions. The easy problems, in Chalmers’s view, are information-processing problems. How could consciousness be reduced to information processing? How might Dennett answer this question?
  • 7. What is the Cartesian theater? How does Dennett discuss this notion to make room for his own theory? What does he think is wrong with it?
  • 8. How does a Cartesian materialist view consciousness, according to Dennett? Why does he believe that this way of thinking about consciousness is wrong?
  • 9. Dennett argues that “Without the cultural inculcation, we would never get around to having a stream of consciousness, though, of course, we would be capable of some sort of animalian activity.” (Keeley 2006, p. 205). However, someone who practices meditation might say the opposite—that cultural inculcation leads to less intense conscious states through intellectualization. Such a person might claim to reach pure states of consciousness without thought. How might Dennett respond?
  • 10. Suppose a neo-Freudian suggested that the id, ego, and superego are all virtual machines implemented in our brains. Would there be any way of disproving this claim? How is this claim different from Dennett’s claim that the self and the conscious mind are virtual machines? Is there a way to falsify Dennett? If not, what is the status of this claim?
  • 11. For Dennett, the human mind is software running on a von Neumannesque virtual machine in the brain. Is this perspective any different from strong AI? How might Dennett respond?
  • 12. How might Dennett react to the claim that every person has 100 billion virtual machines in his or her head—one for each neuron? How might he respond to the claim that we can ascribe as many virtual machines to the brain as we like, because the notion of a virtual machine is observer relative?

  • [1] See the chapter “Explaining the ‘Magic’ of Consciousness” in Dennett (2005).
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