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.

Some reading suggestions #1

The Atlantic has a good article about how consciousness could have evolved. The article is about the Attention Schema Theory. This theory tries to explain how we can explains consciousness evolutionary. Good news for all naturalists, bad news for all who say we could never explain consciousness. Find the article here

David Chalmers published some norms for a respectful, constructive and inclusive philosophical debate. Check them out here. Reminds me a bit of Bertrand Russells “Liberal Decalogue” about which you can find some infos here.

Neil Sinhababu analyzed that there are 10.000 philosophical articles, but only 2.000 get accepted by journals. I think that is a general problem of academics today. You want to publish your stuff, but either you wait until a well known journal accepts it or you publish it otherwise but then you don’t get the reputation for your future tenure track. See more here.

The Science of Consciousness and Non-phyiscalist views of consciousness

I found two playlists of some recent conferences on consciousness. One is the The Science of Consciousness Conference 2016. There are some hours of presentations and panels on the state of the art theories of consciousness. You can see a good deal of empirical data and philosophical arguments. It is always interesting for me to see how scientists tackle such problems as consciousness, which seemed to be philosophical problems. I just watched the first video about the global workspace theory of consciousness and I must say that strengthens my conviction that we will have someday a totally materialist theory of consciousness.

The second one is the playlist of the Non-phisicalist Views of Consciousness Conference at Cambridge. Personally I think there is no way of a non-physicalist theory of anything (even so, it does not have to be reductive phsyicalism), it is interesting to see some arguments that a naturalist in the philosophy of mind has to face.

Moving Naturalism Forward

I just found the videos on Youtube from the “Moving Naturalism Forward” workshop from 2012 organized by the physicist Sean Carroll. You can find the Playlist here:

He brought together some of the best philosophers like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins with scientists from different fields. They discuss a lot of themes that are important and puzzling for naturalists like emergence, morality, free will, consciousness etc.

I really enjoy to watch great minds in action.

Here is a list of the participants: Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Terrence Deacon, Simon DeDeo, Daniel Dennett, Owen Flangan, Rebecca Goldstein, Janna Levin, David Poeppel, Massimo Pigliucci, Nicholas Pritzker, Alex Rosenberg, Don Ross, and Steven Weinberg