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Consciousness Explained (1991)

by Daniel C. Dennett

Other authors: Paul Weiner (Illustrator)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,689284,334 (3.89)27
"Brilliant...as audacious as its title....Mr. Dennett's exposition is nothing short of brilliant." --George Johnson, New York Times Book Review Consciousness Explained is a a full-scale exploration of human consciousness. In this landmark book, Daniel Dennett refutes the traditional, commonsense theory of consciousness and presents a new model, based on a wealth of information from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and artificial intelligence. Our current theories about conscious life-of people, animal, even robots--are transformed by the new perspectives found in this book.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 25 (next | show all)
This book is as revolutionary as it is short-sighted. Dennett tries to find an empirical basis of consciousness. For this purpose he digs deep into the neuroscientific literature, questioning everything he finds from a theoretical point of view. This is interesting, and exceptional. Most scientist spend little time doubting the concepts they use, or what their findings mean in a broader theoretical sense. Dennett does takes this time and comes to unsettling conclusions.

The best, and most necessary part of the book is Dennett's attack on the Cartesian Theater view on consciousness. Dennett explains that due to theoretical difficulties a single brain area of consciousness is impossible. Rather, consciousness is spread out over time and space (in the brain). He comes up with great and memorable analogies, which give great insight into the functioning of the brain.

But as I have said, on the other hand, this book is also short-sighted. Dennett, in the end, comes to deny the existence of 'qualia' (personal, conscious experience). Why does he reach this conclusion? It is because he starts bottom-up. His whole quest is data-driven. His use of the Pandemonium model illustrates this: this model has been criticized in the Psychology for not being able to account for top-down (higher cognitive) influences.

What Dennett ignores is the metaphysical side of the matter. Scientists hate metaphysics, and perhaps for a good reason: it is very hard to make metaphysics sound plausible. However, without metaphysics it is impossible to understand our Dasein, our way of being constituted inside this world. What Dennett has proven is not that there is no consciousness, but rather that consciousness cannot be found by the empirical method. Consciousness seems to be more than matter. This is the conclusion we have to accept, or else we will have to deny the existence of our consciousness. Dennett did not came up with arguments to convince me from this hypothesis. ( )
  Boreque | Feb 7, 2022 |
In a way I wish the book had been named Dennett’s Theory of Consciousness, Explained–although, I’m not sure I would have read a book of that title (who wants to read yet another person’s theory?). Indeed the book’s audacious title does its job well in terms of marketing: I purchased and began reading the book with great gusto. But, obviously, since the book was published in 1992 and we here in 2016 still cannot agree that consciousness has been explained, we know that Dennett doesn’t deliver on what we perceive as his initial promise to give us “…an empirical, scientifically respectable theory—of human consciousness” (4). Sure, while there is an abundance of scientific experimentation used in the argument of this book, we ultimately get what Dennett calls “a family of metaphors” (455). So, despite the anticlimactic ending, Dennett does give us an explanation, and I cannot say the journey wasn’t worth it.

Review: http://www.chrisviabookreviews.com/2017/09/13/consciousness-explained-1991/ ( )
  chrisvia | Apr 29, 2021 |
What started as an enthusiastic quest ended in... giving up over halfway. Daniel Dennett's view on consciousness may be interesting, but it's also complicated. You need to be fully attentive when reading to grasp it all, save if you're familiar with this kind of material (psychology, metaphysics, ...). There are interesting elements in CE, but the way it's written doesn't make you slide through the book, by manner of speech. I might try again later, but at this point... let's carry on with other books. ( )
  TechThing | Jan 22, 2021 |
Difficult to read for me - I feel I a loosing my time. So I put this book aside. I don't need Mr Denett's "explanation". ( )
  phcallefr | Aug 15, 2020 |
(Original Review, 1992-10-25)

I feel uncoupled.

Who knows for certain: their inner experience of sights, smells, emotions, and the rest?

And this is why I often find the discussion frustrating; from my reading of his work, Dennett has never denied the experience of being conscious. What he is saying is that if you create a zombie doppelganger that resembles you in every way then the "zombie" will by necessity be of such complexity that it gives rise to consciousness. And it will do so from normal, physics-obeying, materialistic processes. It is in this way that we are all the zombies of the thought experiment - not that we are all empty machines that experience nothing.

A nice analogy I read somewhere on this is that it’s like the opposite of a personal computer. A processor can do one task at a time, but it works so fast that to the user it looks like it is doing many different things simultaneously. A human brain on the other hand has countless different threads of activity happening concurrently; consciousness is the culmination of (some of) these to give the appearance of a single unified agent.

Although Dennett's "Consciousness Explained" almost certainly doesn't give a complete picture on the subject, it does provide testable hypotheses that are grounded in scientific reality. Mind/brain dualism has always struck me as an intellectual dead-end, giving up and attributing something we don't fully understand to magic. Where does the conversation go from there? On past form as we increase our knowledge that way of thinking doesn't tend to last.

Which is ok - I accept that conscious experience is the result of normal physical processes, no Cartesian I - but while it removes the dualism problem, it gets us no further in understanding how ordinary bits of matter can come to experience anything at all, and nothing in the neuroscientific literature that I've come across gets any closer than saying "it just happens when things get complex". Well, duh!

Schopenhauer who bangs on for pages on will, which is consciousness with direction, which is an essential part of what consciousness is. And behind, or beyond will is the thing in itself which is unknowable. And this is in all things. As Dylan Thomas put it "The force that through the green fuse drives the flowers drives my green age....." Consciousness cannot know itself reflexively because it is that which "knows" we can only experience will directly from the inside.

I do have a theory of my own on "why it evolved":

Consciousness is only the icing on the cake, a thin veneer that pretends to ride the zombie but may be able to sometime influence its actions. That does not mean the zombie is “atom-for-atom the same as humans”, it only means that today’s techniques are not good enough to find the small difference.

Consciousness developed because it is advantageous.

Animals manipulate other inanimate and living things all the time. We know that animals, different to rocks, have an active self, subjectivity. We must make predictions about a rabbit’s future actions in order to catch it. Same goes for other humans. But they also have a view of our subjectivity, our self, make predictions about our future actions. If we want to be able to manipulate their perception of us, we have to have a view, a sense of that self, first. Hence consciousness. This squares with a lot of research – more social animals (with the usual genetic differences of sexual reproduction – i.e. not ants etc. where genetic interests of individuals are much more aligned) tend to have a more developed brain and more observable traits of consciousness. It also squares with the notion of all of us being "honest liars" because we all (apart from the clinically depressed) have a more flattering view of ourselves than is merited. This helps a lot to induce a more favourable view of ourselves in others.

Good theories, don't you think? I would query one more thing though:

"Consciousness developed because it is advantageous": Is it really so, when we come to think about it ? Technically speaking, no. In evolutionary terms 'success' is quantified in terms of longevity, reproduction and survival. The most successful organisms on the planet are single-cell organisms, amoeba, bacteria, etc., etc. Do these have consciousness? We don't know, but we doubt it. Trees, technically speaking, are more 'successful' than living organisms with consciousness. Are they conscious? We don't know. Consciousness is not necessarily advantageous to survival. Besides which, we still don't know how unconscious matter became conscious in the first place, so long before we theorise on the evolutionary benefits of consciousness, we have the problem of answering how consciousness arose in the first place.

Well, this constant reality and free-will simulation also incurs massive costs - not even the great apes are quite up to it because they can’t ingest enough calories. So it’s a cost/benefit thing. The cost should be low enough, i.e. most mental processes pressed into the service of self-awareness should already be in place. And the benefits should be great enough which is mostly the case were constant management of our relations with individuals from our own species (and again, sufficiently genetically different from us) are essential for surviving and producing offspring.

None of this applies to microbes, trees, or iPhones. Which also means that not only is this “consciousness everywhere” is complete bollocks, but also that consciousness doesn’t quite “arise automatically”. Only if survival and reproduction of AI depends on tricking the minds of other conscious beings than the mere preconditions for it to arise are in place.

Tricky stuff! ( )
  antao | Dec 21, 2018 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Dennett, Daniel C.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Weiner, PaulIllustratorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Maas, TonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Smeets, FritsTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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My first year in college, I read Descartes’s Meditations and was hooked on the mind-body problem.
(chapter 1)
Suppose evil scientists removed your brain from your body while you slept, and set it up in a life-support system in a vat.
The idea of the possibility of such “inverted qualia” is one of philosophy’s most virulent memes.
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"Brilliant...as audacious as its title....Mr. Dennett's exposition is nothing short of brilliant." --George Johnson, New York Times Book Review Consciousness Explained is a a full-scale exploration of human consciousness. In this landmark book, Daniel Dennett refutes the traditional, commonsense theory of consciousness and presents a new model, based on a wealth of information from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and artificial intelligence. Our current theories about conscious life-of people, animal, even robots--are transformed by the new perspectives found in this book.

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'Het is een genot om deze man re lezen en van hem te leren.' PIET VROON - D± GROENE AMSTERDAMMER
Door de opkomst van kunstmatige intelligentie is de belangstelling voor het bewustzijn weer toegenomen. Het bewustzijn is immers wat de mens van de computer onderscheidt. Danicl C. Denneet levert in Hel bewustzijn rerklaard een strijdbare en vernieuwende bijdrage aan de discussie over wat het bewustzijn eigenlijk is, liij vat het bewustzijn op als een zichzelf organiserend stelsel van regels waaraan ons brein is onderworpen.
'Niet alleen Dennetts betoog, maar ook de wijze waarop hij het voert,
verdient met aandacht te worden gevolgd.'
'Zijn opus magnum. De verschillende draden van zijn werk komen hier bijeen.' NEDERLANDS TIJDSCHRIFT VOOR DE PSYCHOLÜGLE

De auteur, hoogleraar aan het Centrum voor Cognitieve Studies van de Tufts Universiteit in de USA, geeft in dit boek zijn ideeën weer over de organisatie van het bewustzijn. Het boek is een bijdrage aan de discussie over het bewustzijn en bespreekt het bewustzijn vanuit zowel natuurwetenschappelijke als filosofische optiek. Teneinde deze dualistische aanpak te onderstrepen geeft hij twee bijlagen: één voor filosofen en één voor wetenschappers. Het boek heeft een notenapparaat, een uitgebreide biografie en een register. De afbeeldingen zijn in zwart-wit en geven een goede ondersteuning van de tekst. De kern van de hypothese over het bewustzijn is, dat de auteur het opvat als een zichzelf organiserend stelsel van regels, waaraan onze hersenen zijn onderworpen. Hoewel het boek, gezien de opmerkingen op de achterkaft, geschikt is voor zowel de vakman als de leek, lijkt het voor de leek toch veel te moeilijk, als het gaat om de interpretatie van achtergrondinformatie.
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