Daniel Dennet's Consciousness Explained

Update: small changes made to make it a little less discontinuous; I had meant to make them immediately, but Guillaume walked into my office with kidney stones. Not good.

Having just finished reading Daniel Dennet’s book Consciousness Explained, I wanted to write about it a little. I bought this book back in April, and have been reading it on-and-off until just recently, when its critical mass in my brain was large enough that I wanted to read it more heavily.

Since I’m not actually a philosopher, it’s obviously tricky for me to be objective about the arguments he puts forth; his writing style is informal and concise, and quite persuasive. It is interesting to compare his style with some of the people he quotes, who sometimes use unnecessarily long-winded and complicated words (and catch-words, unfortunately).

The trick with this sort of writing is to put the notion across clearly, something that eludes all but the best writers. Being conscious of this fact clearly makes wish to aspire to that ability, but I wouldn’t be so bold to presume I actually can write well about technical matters. (The contrast is even more pronounced in Douglas Hofstadter’s writing when he quotes long passages from the persons’ views he is objecting to, notably Searle.)

Back to the book. It covers a fascinating range of subjects, which, although all cohesive and included for a specific purpose, are almost always enjoyable without the context of the surrounding chapters. Of course, talks of “heterophenomology” will make little sense unless the reader actually has read from the beginning, but the point I am trying to make is that there aren’t chapters full of technical detail that must be waded through before coming to the interesting anecdotes and thought experiments.

Perhaps the only criticism I could raise of the structure of the book is a little too much rebuttle of the then-recent literature, which, as an outsider, added little to the discussion. For those reading the book for professional reasons, however, these chapters probably clarified (in the beginning of the book, before his ideas were fully realised) the viewpoint of Dennet himself.

I guess I should talk about what the book actually describes, which I can only sketch because I would be foolish to think that I absorbed that great an amount of the content of the book. The book lives up to its title “Consciousness Explained”, which it does by talking about the classical view of consciousness (in popular unlearned opinion), why that is wrong, and what his scheme is that explains it better.

So what isn’t consciousness? It’s not defined by a point in the brain where all the sub-conscious signals arrive and are coherently put together for the consumption by the self. Rather, it is an artificial construct, an abstraction above a chaotic mix of incoming input (from the eyes, ears, and other sensing nerves), hard-wired responses, and reactionary brain activity. It is what allows the brain to be reflective, and to be able to predict events in the future. I can’t describe it any better than that, and the point is lost, really, without actually reading the book. These words are as much for my benefit as they are yours.

The path to Dennet’s explanation of consciousness is winding and actually as interesting as the final result, since many artefacts of our consciousness manifest themselves in curious ways. This is not to belittle the “ah-ha!” moment, when it becomes apparent exactly how the rest of the book fits together to support this argument of what consciousness is. (Actually, this moment for me was a few days after finishing the book and digesting it in the background.)

I have one sentence that I remember most clearly that Dennet uses as a slogan exactly for description rather than explanation: “If I couldn’t talk to myself, how would I know what I was thinking?” This sentence, after the fact, justifies nicely the time I spend to write things in here, although recently bug reports aren’t really as satisfying as proper contemplation and analysis. This is also why I should be writing notes about my PhD every single day, so that I can actually feedback the work I’m doing into my daily thinking rather than chipping away at a mountain.

Another two points that my mind has been chewing over (and I’ll have to re-assess my usage of all such turns of phrase from now on; pretend I said “I have been chewing over” instead) is the r√¥le of evolution and memes. When you think about it, evolution seems too neat: “Why did something evolve that way? Well, because it gave that thing a better chance of survival. So how did it survive? Because it evolved that way.” Aren’t we missing something here? Not at all. It’s so perfect: evolution brought us to the exact point where we are because we are indeed here.

It’s like when the fiction of a story is questioned, and I (at least, I don’t think I’ve heard the argument from another) hypothetically retort that if the story went differently (a main character didn’t survive a lucky break, say), then it wouldn’t have been told; hence the story as told can only be written in that way. In fact, this argument is less persuasive than the case it’s trying to strengthen.

I also said I’d talk about memes. Now, I first read of memes in Hofstadter and Dennet’s (yes, same one) “The Mind’s I”, a compilation of essays and stories (with preceeding commentary by the compilers of the book) designed to bring attention to a wide variety of philosophical issues regarding the self. I can’t really do memes justice in the short amount of time I have to mention them. The argument (drawn from others, including Dawkins, whose “The Selfish Gene” introduced the actual term “memes” — this book is next on my reading list) is that memes follow the exact same laws as genes, but exist as ideas inside minds. Memes replicate, and the ones better suited to replication do so better and become more prevalent. You will spread around an idea I pass on to you if you find it imminently attractive to spread around; consider religion, exercise, jokes, the concept of memes, …

After we learned “clever tricks” early on in our evolution, our minds became sufficiently advanced that they could re-organise themselves, and the effect of memes on our life can be much more dominant these days than the effect of our genes. Through language, culture, and memes, we are capable of advancing at a much greater rate than if we were monkeys. And it’s early days yet. I’m very interested to see where we go in the course of my lifetime, to say the least.

I’m really just rambling, but I’d like a record of some of my stream of consciousness for later perusal; I hope my (zero) readers don’t take umbrage.

I’m literally amazed and incredibly envious of successful philosophers who spend their whole days reading, thinking, and writing about sometimes intangible ideas. The coherence of Dennet’s writing, and the conciseness of it, is something that I’d love to aspire to.