On misunderstanding Dennett

Dennett’s new book From Bacteria to Bach and Back Again is producing some headlines these days. Some of them are rather positive but there are actually the headlines (again) that Dennett says consciousness does not exist. Take for example this video of Massimo Pigliucci and Dan Kaufman. They have a great talk about the underappreciated philosophy of Wilfrid Sellars. In the discussion of the distinction between the manifest image and the scientific image they are also talking about Dennett’s theory of consciousness.

They think Dennett says that consciousness does not exist. But I think they are just wrong. True, Dennett says that consciousness is like an “user-illusion”. But, first of all, also illusions exist and have effects on us.

They cite the analogy of a desktop PC and it’s user interface. Take the folders you see on your desktop. You put files in it and you can look inside them and so on. But if you look into your computer you won’t find anything that corresponds to the folder, you cannot look into anything that is like a folder and so on. The graphical interface is an useful illusion. Kaufman and Pigliucci agree on this.

On the other hand, they say, consciousness is nothing like that. To say that consciousness is an illusion is like ignoring the data. We know that there is consciousness and cannot just say it does not exist. But Dennett says nothing like that. The user interface also exists but some of its properties are just useful illusions. The same goes for consciousness Dennett’s view, I think. There is consciousness, it is a real phenomenon. I cannot see anywhere that Dennett denies this. But he says, some of the properties we think consciousness has — like infallibility of first person access etc. — especially those that let philosophers think consciousness cannot be a natural phenomenon, are just illusions.

So what does Dennett? He takes our philosophical thoughts about consciousness that come from the manifest image and hinder us in achieving a scientific understanding of the mind and explains how we came to these beliefs and how we can explain them, why they are so compelling. He does not try to eliminate the manifest image of the mind or something like that. He tries to build bridges from the manifest to the scientific image of the mind and in so doing laying some foundations for cognitive science.


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