Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained propounds a “Multiple Drafts” theory of consciousness that replaces the Cartesian res cogitans, or mental substance, with a Joycean machine. For Dennett, the self is a virtual entity produced by a Pandemonium of demons, an interplay of blind processes occurring in the brain. Individually, none of the demons are conscious. But together, by way of shifting coalitions, they produce the illusion of an executive, a “central meaner” (the virtual Joycean machine) which imposes order on the anarchy of the competing demons. It does this largely by the cultural imposition of memes.
Dennett’s theory is basically an effort to explain consciousness in terms of computers. In computing, demons are background processes that handle specific tasks. Some demons activate and run parallel even while others remain asleep, awaiting activation.
Pandemonium is, of course, Milton’s name for hell (the place of all demons). As the name suggests, Pandemonium is chaotic: “In the Pandemonium model, control is usurped rather than delegated, in a process that is largely undesigned and opportunistic” (241).
As an avowed atheist, Dennett would be the first to point out that in all this talk of demons there’s nothing supernatural going on. However, from the Christian perspective, there is a strong demonic undertow to his entire argument. As one of his self-stated aims, Dennett wants to undermine our belief in God. According to him, no “Central Meaner” exists either in heaven or in us. There is only a struggle for existence among coalitions of demons, among subprocesses inside our brains, a struggle that resembles the fight for survival arbitrated by natural selection.
Thanks to a series of habits “inculcated partly by culture and partly by individual self-exploration,” some order is brought to bear on what would otherwise be “an interminable helter-skelter power grab” in our heads. This is where the idea of Dawkins’s memes becomes useful for Dennett. Our habits, acquired through self-exploration and the installation of memes,
conspire together to produce a more or less orderly, more or less effective, more or less well-designed virtual machine, the Joycean machine. By yoking these independently evolved specialist organs [that is, the demons] together in common cause, and thereby giving their union vastly enhanced powers, this virtual machine, this software of the brain, performs a sort of internal political miracle: It creates a virtual captain of the crew, without elevating any one of them to long-term dictatorial power. Who’s in charge? First one coalition and then another, shifting in ways that are not chaotic thanks to good meta-habits that tend to entrain coherent, purposeful sequences rather than an interminable helter-skelter power grab. The resulting executive wisdom is just one of the powers traditionally assigned to the Self (228).
Our brain is possessed by demons whose incessant struggle for survival (and dominance) produces a kind of software — the Joycean machine. It’s true that the self experiences itself as a self, that is, it does have experiences that seem to cohere into a life, a center of narrative gravity. But remember: the machine is virtual. As such, it only produces the illusion of a self and, along with it, a fictitious stream of conscious experience: subjectivity. Sometimes, when a select subset of demons are predominant, a “virtual captain,” an “imaginary Boss” or “Boss subsystem” arises, the virtual captain or self who believes it’s in charge. Actually, though, the demons are in charge.
Why is the self, according to Dennett, merely a fictional entity? Simply because of what he understands by the word “real.” He cannot extend realness to the self because of the way he defines reality. His conception of reality is in turn deeply rooted in the traditional philosophical conception (res). This circumstance provides us with a point of attack. Against Dennett, we will claim that the self is indeed real; the problem is that he’s working with an inadequate notion of realness.