Facing backwards on consciousness

consciousnessFacing backwards on the problem of consciousness

Daniel Dennett

Journal of Consciousness Studies, 3, No. 1, 1996, pp. 4-6


The philosopher, Daniel Dennett, has been possibly the most successful exponent of an explanation of consciousness that relies entirely on classical physics and existing neuroscience. His influence has been such that some commentators on consciousness refuse to stray beyond his ideas or the ideas very closely aligned to Dennett. In this article short article he attacks David Chalmer’s position on consciousness, and in particular his distinction between the ‘easy’ problems of brain function and the hard problem of consciousness. He adopts a favourite strategy, which is to compare the views of his opponents to those of the 19th century vitalist, who believed that life forms were so different from inorganic matter that the difference could only be explained by some form of vital force. He claims that a 19th century vitalist might have argued that it would be possible to scientifically all the things that life forms do, such as reproduction, metabolism, immune systems etc, but still something would have been left out, and this would be the mysterious life force.

It is possible to see a certain sleight of hand in this approach. Vitalism is a stock example of an exploded idea in the history of science, and any surviving believe in vitalism is regarded as ridiculous. However, given the state of knowledge at the time when it was propounded vitalism looked quite plausible. The idea is ridiculous now because a very detailed science has been developed to explain how living organisms operate. Dennett gives a list of what life forms do, and it is true that these are all well explained by modern biology. He does not provide a comparable list for what brains are supposed to do and this allows in a certain element of fudging. If we made a list such as receiving various forms of data, processing the data, deciding to store some of the data in long-term memory, storing it there, deciding how to respond and implementing the necessary motor functions. Neuroscience is a good way towards these explanations. Moreover it is easy to agree that various combinations of DNA, proteins, various ions and electrical potentials could achieve all the brain functions that are not yet fully understood. But consciousness is not really on the list of brain functions. In neuroscientific terms it is wholly possible for the brain with the body to perform all the known without any help from consciousness. Whereas functions such as receiving and responding to data and commanding movements can be explained in terms of matter and electricity, and are nowadays seen to be performed by machines of metal, silicon etc and powered by electricity. By contrast, nothing in our quite extensive knowledge of electricity, proteins and ions suggests they can combine together to produce consciousness, at least not if we stick to classical physics. In this respect, the very advances of science imposes constraints on scientific ideas. I the heyday of now mocked vitalism it might have seemed to propose that protein could act directly produce consciousness, but our present knowledge makes this impossible.

In the next section of his article, he considers a scientist, who rather than being bothered by the qualia of raw experience as a Chalmers type hard problem, decides that the process of perception is a hard problem. Dennett then points out that by examining the whole process from retina, through the various stages of the visual cortex and association cortex, perception can be fully understood. Of course the same arguments apply as did with vitalism. Although neuroscience has some serious problems with perception, in principle there is no reason why a protein computer should not achieve perception. Of course again, the information content involved in perception whether in men or machines has no need of an experiential element, but a problem starts when we try to get to the electric protein machine to produce consciousness.

The final stage of Dennett’s article reads like metaphysics or a simple profession of faith. Dennett gives a list of experiences and suggests that when the functional part of the experience is taken away there is nothing left. The brain function supposedly provides a whole explanation. There is a slight element of fudging in his list as he does not mention any raw sensation qualia such as the classic example of the colour red, but deals rather with fairly complex mental activities. In some cases it is debatable whether these are qualia. He may be right in thinking the act of concentrating (one of his list) is mainly function rather than experience. A better example on his list is the ‘vivid recollection of the death of a loved one.’ In this case it seems entirely possible for a machine to have a full audio visual store of the unfortunate scene, with absolutely no experience of sorrow, the informationally thus being subtracted as Dennett puts it. At the other end of the spectrum with raw qualia we are not aware of any functional side as we may be when we concentrate of think about a scene in our past, there is simply experience with nothing there to be subtracted.

There is another shortcoming in Dennettäs approach and much of the classical reductionist approach. Our perceptions are mocked and classified as illusions or folk psychology and compared to believes such as vitalism or a flat Earth at the centre of the universe. What is not mentioned is that these believes became less popular because science could explain the perceptions we did have. It is a plausible first impression that the Earth is on average flat, but there are fairly easy ways to demonstrate that this is false, and sensible people stop beleiving it. No such clarification of why we perceive qualia have been advanced. Mainstream players such as Dennett can only provide ridicule.

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One Response

  1. Ted Dixon says:

    You say the idea of vitalism ,while plausible in the past, is now ‘ridiculous’. I take on trust that with our present knowledge of biological processes (and the chemistry and physics involved) there seems to be no gap in our understanding of these processes once in operation that needs to be filled with the notion of a life force. But until we can use this understanding to create a living organism can we be completely sure there is nothing else needed to start these processes off?

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