Consciousness Explained

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Usually books like this have subtitles. Dan, where's your subtitle?

I'm interested in the "free will" debate. Some claim free will is an illusion. I'm not too sure about that, and one of my objections has been the existence of consciousness. Is that supposed to be an illusion too? Are we actually self-deluded zombies, cruising on a deterministic path, deluded that somehow "we" are in control of our choices?

Then I noticed that I had this book on my shelf. It's thirty years old, but I couldn't remember having read it. (I have a lot of books like that.) So I decided to read it.

Or maybe I should put some sneer-quotes in there: "I" "decided" to read it. Maybe I had no choice!

Anyway, Dennett provides less of an explanation than he does an argument. He's arguing against the "Cartesian Theater" view of consciousness. Which is, essentially, the "common sense" view of our own selfhood: there's an "I" in a control room, somewhere inside our heads, sitting at the controls, taking in data from the outside world, deciding to hit various levers and buttons that produce actions: speech, movement, what have you.

Dennett points out that doesn't mesh well with current neuroscience; our brain activity is decentralized, a loose (but not too loose) cooperation between various subsystems. What we experience as "consciousness" is really the brain talking to itself. Specifically, the invention of language to communicate with others was so useful, we (under the thumb of natural selection) found it advantageous to use it to communicate with ourselves (usually unvocalized). He calls his explanation the "multiple drafts" model, appropriate for an academic: it's analogous to multiple authors writing a (more or less) coherent article for publication. The revisions might take weeks or months for the article; for our brains, it takes a few milliseconds. But still, the result is a (more or less) appropriate response to sensory inputs.

Or maybe I got this totally wrong. (See the Wikipedia page for probably a more accurate version.) I almost certainly wouldn't pass a quiz on the book; it's one of those "I looked at every page" reads. I'm able to follow along with some popular science/psychology/philosophy texts just fine, but I bounced off a lot of Dennett's prose in this case.

Part of the problem is that this book is one salvo in an ongoing discussion between cognitive scientists and philosophers. The reader is (essentially) coming in at the middle of the debate, with multitudinous references to other skirmishes. So we're only getting a 30-year-old snapshot of one side.

So it wasn't the most enjoyable read, but I came away with an improved understanding of the debate. (Or at least "I" "think" so.)


Last Modified 2021-06-03 9:18 AM EST