DENNETT’S DEMONS: REFLECTIONS ON CONSCIOUSNESS EXPLAINED

4d1aab0f8ef05b08d89482cd7b142223Daniel 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.

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3 responses to “DENNETT’S DEMONS: REFLECTIONS ON CONSCIOUSNESS EXPLAINED

  1. You’ve said nothing so far as to what accounts for consciousness. As I recall neither does Dennett. I was listening to Eagleman’s PBS series on the brain. He confidently announced that consciousness was its manifestation: some sort of coherent electrical waves. I used to think that consciousness was insolvable until a number of years ago I read a piece by Searle (I think in NY Times book review) in which he said that when the problem of consciousness was “solved” we will have correlated consciousness to a set of antecedent “physical” states or processes. However, he added, we will never know why these particular states produces consciousness. I used to think that it was intuitively obvious that there was a huge conceptual gap between “mindless” inanimate things and consciousness until someone at a philosophy conference told me that he thought it “simple.” What this points to, I think, is how unsatisfying are modern science’s “explanations,” What would it mean to understand why objects with “mass” are attracted to each other? Why “mass” “produces” attraction is as impenetrable as to why neurons “produce” consciousness. Perhaps we don’t even know that it is “mass” that brings the attraction about. What we do think we know is that the attraction is proportional to this quantity we call “mass,” which itself has an operational definition. Forgive here my Newtonian perspective. I am less familiar with that of GR, but the observation and the conclusion would be the same: why the world is the way it is and does the things it does is a complete and impenetrable mystery. I experience my attraction to the earth and cannot fathom why it is so, only that it is so. That which attempts this fathoming is consciousness: that which asks why. Consciousness is our only direct experience of that impenetrable mystery: of the why that has no answer, that which makes a world possible and the way it is.

    • There are two ways of approaching consciousness. In one, we ask a mechanical-physiological question about how it is that the nervous system produces consciousness, which is basically a scientific question. We first ask about the parts and attempt to derive the whole from them. That is, we begin with the elements that lack consciousness and attempt to figure out how consciousness arises from them as an epiphenomenon. While Dennett is a philosopher, he approaches the problem from this perspective, the perspective of the natural sciences. Which is fine, except that it basically turns philosophy into a handmaiden of the natural sciences.

      In the other approach, we take up consciousness as consciousness, beginning with the whole and considering the parts only in its light and as its content. Here we don’t care about things that lack consciousness except in so far as they appear or manifest themselves to consciousness. Consciousness is envisaged as a kind of clearing in which things come out into the light.

      To take Searle’s statement as an example of the second approach, we would consider the “antecedent physical states or processes” not as antecedent but as subsequent, that is, as knowledge, object of consciousness (phenomenon). But according to Kantian philosophy the use of the term “phenomenon” implies that there is also a noumenon, the thing as it is in itself, which is distinct from the thing as it can be known.

      What we can apprehend through our finite abilities to perceive and know might only be the tip of an iceberg, of something that completely escapes our mind and senses. Now if the noumenon can’t be known, one may ask why we should bother considering it at all. One reason is that, as Kant sees it, the distinction between phenomenon and noumenon has to be made if we’re going to rationally safeguard the possibility of free will. Otherwise, freedom falls prey to the determinism of cause and effect.

      Another is that thinking about the phenomenon as distinct from the way the thing is in itself reminds us of our finite nature, teaches us humility. It isn’t just that our abilities to apprehend conform to the object; the object as we apprehend it also has to conform to our abilities.

      • I am not the only one perplexed by what we call consciousness. Why does it seem so utterly different? But is it really any more mysterious than gravitational attraction, electrons, or water? Science and regularity makes of this plethora of mystery habits (to use Hume’s term), taming them for our purposes. But all of it, to me, appears inexplicable or worse. The debate, or at least our modern one, regarding the nature of consciousness attends to whether consciousness is some sort of derivative of neurons and some such biological matter. Some suggest that it mysteriously emerges, others speak of some kind of downward causality. Even if any combination of these “physicalist” accounts should be true, it doesn’t serve to make consciousness any less mysterious. I can make no way forward toward deciding whether there is something special about consciousness or whether it is just another surprising manifestation of this inexplicable existence. Perhaps all I can say is that consciousness is different from the surprises of gravity and water. Of course, there is a “mineness” of consciousness that I don’t share with gravity. Is this the only reason we want to make more of it than water? Does our consciousness point to something else, perhaps some monumental error of modern science (Nagel)? Is the referent “consciousness” even fixed (Taylor)? The debate regarding consciousness is embed in a our current epoch. It is not simply a “scientific” discussion of disengaged parties, if anything ever is. So that’s my question: what is at stake in the debate? I ask this because, as I have said, it doesn’t seem clear to me that any “resolution” will change much. While reductionists will think the matter settled, all they have done is kicked the mystery can down the road. The same goes for any dualist resolution. Suppose, as some have suggested, that there is an elemental consciousness. Then what? This, again seems to me no more mysterious than light. All existence is impossible. Why not consciousness and neutrinos in the same universe?

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