Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Summarizing Dennett on Consciousness

A few days ago I posted the following in a discussion at PhilPapers:

Not far into Consciousness Explained (paperback, p. 23), Dennett writes: "Today we talk about our conscious decisions and unconscious habits, about the conscious experience we enjoy (in contrast to, say, automatic cash machines, which have no such experiences) -- but we are no longer quite sure we know what we mean when we say these things. While there are still thinkers who gamely hold out for consciousness being some one genuine precious thing (like love, like gold), a thing that is just 'obvious' and very, very special, the suspicion is growing that this is an illusion. Perhaps the various phenomena that conspire to create the sense of a single mysterious phenomenon have no more ultimate or essential unity than the various phenomena that contribute to the sense that love is a simple thing."

I think understanding this passage is critical to understanding Dennett's approach. Our talk of consciousness is not necessarily always about the same thing. The word is sometimes used to refer to a sort of "inner monalogue." At other times, a focus of attention or an act of the imagination. It may yet refer to a strong feeling or a vague sensation. I am not suggesting all of these concepts are clearly defined, mind you. Yet, they are defined enough to enjoy currency in everyday life. They make sense, even if they lack philosophical rigour. The point is that there is a great deal of phenomena that produces this talk of consciousness; that there is much sense and value in such talk; and that, if we want to understand what people are talking about when they talk about consciousness, we must understand what is motivating, underlying, and otherwise producing the language.

The point is not to first define what single phenomenon or entity is behind all of these processes, as though we even had a clear idea of what all of these various processes or phenomena entailed. If we did, there would be nothing left to discover. Rather, the point is to try to understand what such talk is about; what is going on to produce and ultimately justify such notions as feeling and thought. In the end, we may find that the term "consciousness" is unnecessary to explain humanity. This does not mean consciousness will have been "explained away." It only means that the term "consciousness" has come to serve a variety of functions in the absence of a robust model of humanity, and that once our understanding of humanity improves, the term may not seduce us into thinking it is so important. (And please remember I am talking about the term here, and not anything which it might signify in any particular situation.)


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Soon after that, I posted this:

Dennett does not present Consciousness Explained as an explanation of consciousness. He presents it as an attempt to clear away some of the confusions in various disciplines, including philosophy, cognitive science, and neuroscience, which he believes hinder our progress towards explaining humanity. Perhaps the title is pretentious. No doubt it was chosen as an attention-getter. I don't read it as a statement of victory, but as a statement of focus. Dennett wants to overcome various philosophical arguments (such as Chalmers' zombie argument) which attempt to make consciousness out to be something inexplicable, something which cannot be scientifically explained. Dennett wants to change the way we approach discussions of "consciousness" (whatever that word is taken to mean) by deflating the presuppositions which stand in the way of a full, scientific explanation of humanity.

Much of the book is critical. He discusses various ways philosophers and scientists get into trouble by assuming there is an underlying unity of consciousness. He also attempts to make a more constructive contribution to the study of humanity, producing a very rough, initial sketch of a Multiple Drafts model; but this is offered as little more than speculation, not as an answer but rather as a step towards changing the way we approach questions about human experience. He is asking us to stop assuming that there is some unitary and intuitively obvious thing called "consciousness." He is asking us to instead ask what various, complex processes might produce the illusion that there is some unified, intuitively obvious thing so many people are tempted to call "consciousness."


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I was then asked to further explain my understanding of Dennett's approach. I just submitted the following, which will hopefully appear on the site in a few days:

I should note that I haven't read Dennett for a few years, and I only just glanced at Consciousness Explained to extract the quote I offered earlier. So I may not do him justice here, and I may exaggerate the places where his and my understanding meet. That said, here is an elaboration of my understanding of Dennett's approach to consciousness, since you asked.

As I understand it, his approach is to try to understand why people use the language as they do without presupposing anything about what would make such language true or false. He wants to understand why the notion of consciousness has a role in our language at all. I thus think he is very Wittgensteinian.

The first step is to refrain from assuming that there is anything to be explained beyond observable behavior. Second, Dennett takes claims about conscious states at face value. He calls this heterophenomenology, which I think is a version of "ordinary language" philosophy. He argues that, whatever consciousness is, there cannot be any facts about consciousness beyond what is expressed in verbal reports.

He argues that the language of consciousness is part of a general discursive strategy which he calls the intentional stance. That is, our conceptual framework for talking about consciousness--notions like want, love, expect, and so on--is not a representational model, but a predictive stragey for regulating our behavior. The language of intentionality is seen as a set of tools for dealing with the enormous complexity of human behavior, and not as a set of terms which correspond directly to any particular facts of existence.

Intentions, mental states, consciousness . . . According to Dennett, these concepts do not refer to specific processes or entities. For example, when I tell somebody, "I feel hungry," because I want to make plans to go have lunch, I may be indirectly talking about my digestive system or some processes in my brain, but there is not a particular fact about myself which corresponds to the words "I," "feel," or "hungry." Nor is there any fact about myself which corresponds to the sentence as a whole. Rather, the meaning of my utterance is defined by the situation. Saying "I am hungry" here is akin to playing a particular card in a game of bridge. It serves a function; it has meaning in the context of that game; but it does not refer to anything. (Wittgenstein made this same point when he said that verbal reports of pain do not refer to inner sensations, but simply replace crying.) When I say, "I am hungry," I am trying to move a social situation in a particular direction. I am not representing a fact about myself, as if such a fact could exist anywhere outside of the language-game.

Dennett postpones coming to any conclusions about what the term "consciousness" means. For example, he notes that when people talk about consciousness, they usually mean something which has a "point of view." He does not define "consciousness" as "having a point of view," but he notes that this is one of most popular ways the term is used. So he approaches an explanation of why people talk as if they had a point of view, ultimately regarding the notion of a point of view as a "theorist's fiction." He does not think that there is such a thing as a "point of view" which exists outside of our discourse; nor does he think there are some beings which just have consciousness or just have a discernible point of view, as if these were facts about bodies or minds which could be borne out of any investigation whatsoever. For Dennett, there is no fact of the matter here; there is no sense in questioning whether or not somebody really has a point of view, or really is conscious. Thus, for Dennett, the very notion of philosophical zombies is absurd. When we treat some things as having consciousness (or as having a point of view), we are employing an explanatory or predictive framework. We are not postulating facts which could be corroborated or falsified according to any scientific theory.

Dennett's concern is therefore not, "what beings have consciousness, and what beings don't?" Nor is it, "what constitutes consciousness? What is consciousness made of?" He does not say it is necessarily meaningless to ask these questions, however. He just doesn't want to presuppose that the term "consciousness" refers to anything. If somebody wants to define "consciousness" so that it has a particular, identifiable referent, then they can talk about whether or not and how it exists in any particular cases. But, according to Dennett, that is not how the language of consciousness has evolved.