Dennett and the Deep Blue Sea

consciousnessDennett and the Deep Blue Sea

Burton Voorhees

Journal of Consciousness Studies:  vol 7 No 3 (2000)

The article attacks Dennett’s position relative to consciousness and self consciousness, as outlined in his seminal book, ‘Consciousness Explained’, and as such it constitutes an attack on the mainstream orthodoxy of consciousness studies. Vorhees is aware of the strong attachment of the mainstream to Dennett, and suggests that any weaknesses in Dennett’s theory will indicate a weakness in the dominant computational/functionalist approach to consciousness.

Voorhees beliefs that Dennett describes a structure for the mind and then merely assumes rather than proves that such a mind would be conscious. He criticises Dennett’s style or at least his method of arguing, saying that Dennett claims that a lot of steps in his argument are big steps when they are only small steps, and then readers may not notice when he makes a huge leap of assumption. Dennett’s thesis is that consciousness is nothing more than complex computation in the brain, with programming derived from genetics and nurture. One of these programmes is deemed to have the capacity for self-representation or self-consciousness. Events or moments of consciousness are deemed to be the winners in a Darwinian competition between different drafts of perception. There is argued to be no internal witness, no central recgoniser of meaning. Further, the self is argued be a narritative centre of gravity amongst of plethora of stories making up the history of the self, the self in fact being regarded as a convenient fiction by Dennett and an illusion based on a linguistic construct. Meaning is somehow a result of the process of Darwinian selection amongst different drafts of reality. Personal subjectivity is argued to be an illusion, a theme common in reductionist  thinking when discussing subjectivity and other aspects of the mind. Voorhees points out that Dennett fails to say who it is that is experiencing the illusion. Another words how could you have an illusion if you weren’t conscious in the first place.

Dennett starts from a traditionalist stand point that consciousness has to be studied from the third person point of view of the traditional observer rather than the first person experience of consciousness. To do this he adopts what he calls the heterophenomenological method. Under this method one takes the results of first person introspection, and adopts a third person approach to them, studying them as if they were literary texts. Dennett’s basic hypothesis is that human consciousness can be understood as the operation of a virtual machine using the parallel architecture or hardware of the brain. Dennett refers to this as a Joycean machine after the meandering of consciousness depicted in James Joyce’s novels. Voorhess, in particular, disputes Dennett’s claim that brains are like computers because they were the inspiration for the design of computers. Voorhees claims that this is not the case. He says that Turing and von Neumann invented computers to practise deductive logic needed for mathematical computation. Recent research is stated to indicate that human brains do not work on this basis, and that it is in fact difficult for brains to learn the rules of logical inference. (Johnson-Laird 1983 & 1988) (1). Von Neumann himself is quoted as saying that the brain contained different logical structures from those normally used in logic and mathematics. Vorhees here criticises Dennett for taking as a premise the thing he is seeking to prove, namely that brains are no different from computers. Vorhees also points out that on p. 215 of ‘Consciousness Explained’, which is really the core part of Dennett’s thesis, he appeals to personal introspection for evidence of a conscious mind, although elsewhere he argues against reliance on such first-person evidence.

Vorhees goes on to examine Dennett’s discussion of zombies. Dennett proposes the idea of a zimbo, a zombie with self-monitoring that provides it with higher-order informational states about its lower order states. Dennett argues that the zimbo could convince itself that it was conscious. He says that if the zimbo was cross questioned sufficiently about why it was making the assertions that it did, it would come to think that it was conscious of these reasons. Vorhees thinks that Dennett deceives the reader by using words such as ‘reflecting’ and ‘knowing’. However, these are the very processes which constitute part of the consciousness experience, so in assuming that the zimbo has these, he is assuming the thing he is trying to prove. If Dennett had said that the zimbo fed back new information into its processing unit to be compared with stored information, there would not appear to be any need to suppose that the zimbo was conscious.

Vorhees also criticises Dennett for appearing to dodge the binding problem, the puzzle as to how the many different components and sense systems that are the content of consciousness are perceived as a single whole. Dennett appears to argue that consciousness and self consciousness arise from a whole series of individual neural processes or events, some of which come to have linguistic form which in turn creates the illusion of an Author for the expereince. Vorhees points out that Dennett does not explain who or what it is that is having an illusion.

Vorhees finally argues that the self-structure tends to be mistaken for consciousness itself rather than just being a part of the contents of consciousness. This tendency appears elsewhere in the mainstream literature where a naive deconstruction of the self into its narritave memory plus the distinction between body and the rest of the world is assumed to have explained consciousness. Vorhees points out that some religious traditions revolve dissolving the false identification between the self and the underlying consciousness.


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