THE VIRTUAL CAPTAIN

Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett

We said last time that demons, as Dennett describes them, are background processes, unthinking subroutines that handle specific tasks distributed across several areas of the brain. There is no specific area, no centralized hub in the brain, where the Self arises. But together the localized subroutines produce subjective experience and, along with it, a “virtual captain of the crew.” This virtual captain is a subjective projection. The self is deceived about almost everything it experiences. We already mentioned that the reality of gold as an element determined by its atomic weight is not what the self experiences as gold. What the self actually experiences is nothing but the subjective illusion of gold. And so on for its entire experience of the world. Its stream of experiences is an illusory stream of consciousness.

Perhaps most of all, the Joycean machine is deceived about itself. Part of this illusion of being a self is that the captain believes it’s in charge when really the subroutines are controlling things behind the scenes. For instance, it thinks it controls what it says, although what it speaks is determined by the sub-routines. We find words on the tip of our tongue, ready-made. We speak them without having to consciously formulate them. Because language is largely made up of memes, it speaks us more than we speak it (a point Heidegger also made).

This fictional self is the illusion that the self forms of itself when it naively reflects on itself as the gravitational center of its experience. The fictional narrative gets spun by the Joycean machine based on how the virtual captain perceives reality to be. The self experiences itself as a self, that is, it does have experiences that seem to cohere into something I call my life, the center of gravity of a narrative built up around my body. This fiction is composed of the subjective impressions, the misprisions, the self has of itself and of its entire reality. If we are to make heads or tails of Dennett’s argument, we have to be very clear that the stream of consciousness is an illusion, a fiction.

Therefore, if we try to describe what we experience, we only end up creating “a theorist’s fiction.” We unwittingly begin jumping to conclusions — that is, we begin theorizing. “What we are fooling ourselves about is the idea that the activity of ‘introspection’ is ever a matter of just ‘looking and seeing’” (67). This statement bears close scrutiny. Since he understands phenomenology to be nothing more than “looking and seeing,” his statement that introspection reveals nothing but a theorist’s fiction is intended to debunk phenomenology. His whole argument is in fact cast as a criticism of phenomenology.

I suspect that when we claim to be just using our powers of inner observation, we are always actually engaging in a sort of impromptu theorizing — and we are remarkably gullible theorizers, precisely because there is so little to ‘observe’ and so much to pontificate about without fear of contradiction (ibid).

The problem is that phenomenology is not just naively looking and seeing. It is precisely because looking and seeing tends to turn imperceptibly into unwarranted theorizing that both Husserl and Heidegger developed their methods. “My point,” Dennett assures us, “is not that you have no privileged access to the nature or content of your conscious experience, but just that we should be alert to very tempting overconfidence on that score” (69). Perfectly true: we have to be on the lookout for and try to protect against unwarranted theorizing. But that is just what phenomenology expects of us and mitigates against.

Dennett has argued that whenever we simply “look and see…we are always actually engaging in a sort of impromptu theorizing.” He concedes that at times we do have privileged access to our own experiences, but even then our direct experience is always illusory. The subject (notice we’ve already slipped into a clinical context) is asked to describe what he perceives. This account constitutes what Dennett calls the subject’s heterophenomenology.

This fictional world is populated with all the images, events, sounds, smells, hunches, presentiments, and feelings that the subject (apparently) sincerely believes to exist in his or her (or its) stream of consciousness. Maximally extended, it is a neutral portrayal of exactly what it is like to be that subject — in the subject’s own terms (98).

For Dennett, what it is like to be the subject isn’t anything that falls under the category of the real. According to him, “there is only one sort of stuff, namely matter” (33).

Having extracted such a heterophenomenology [from the subject], theorists can then turn to the question of what might explain the existence of this heterophenomenology in all its details. The heterophenomenology exists — just as uncontroversially as novels and other fictions exist. People undoubtedly do believe they have mental images, pains, perceptual experiences, and all the rest, and these facts — the facts about what people believe, and report when they express their beliefs — are phenomena any scientific account of the mind must account for. We organize our data regarding these phenomena into theorist’s fictions, ‘intentional objects’ in heterophenomenological worlds. Then the question of whether items thus portrayed exist as real objects, events, and states of the brain…is an empirical matter to investigate. If suitable real candidates are uncovered, we can identify them as the long-sought referents of the subject’s terms; if not, we will have to explain why it seems to subjects that these items exist (98).

Hence the task for the theorist (now a positive figure) is to explain why it seems to the subject that what he or she perceives is real when, in reality, it isn’t. Dennett has already conceded that this stream of subjective experience does exist; it is just, he says, that it exists like any other fiction. Our subjective experiences are on a par with The Pickwick Papers and Madame Bovary. Whenever the subject tries to describe his subjective experience, he or she is unwittingly speaking about something else. After all, by simply analyzing his own experience, the subject can’t know about the background processes that constitute what is actually happening. As I see it, however, there is an enormous remove here between actual experience of the world and a mere fiction, a remove that is glossed over by labeling both of them fictions. For Dennett, the fact that we live through these “illusions” in very different ways matters very little.

Essentially, Dennett believes we should be cured of our own subjectivity. First person experience is nothing but a malaise, a kind of sickness. We’re born seeing the world with lenses that warp everything around us. Science and philosophy emerge as the only real means of overcoming the fiction we originally find ourselves living. The task is to return everything to its proper dimensions. Dennett’s account is a modern version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Humanity is born looking at a shadow-play projected on the wall of a cave. Only philosophers lead us out of the cave into the real world.

Next time: Dennett’s straw man.

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3 responses to “THE VIRTUAL CAPTAIN

  1. Do you think that introspection itself can cause changes in behavior? If there are discrepancies between who you believe yourself to be and who you actually are, do you subconsciously work to bridge that gap or is a denial mechanism employed?

    • The answer to your first question is yes. Your second question is trickier because it contains a few questionable concepts, especially “who you actually are.” Who would determine this? How could we determine it? There is no doubt that we may harbor an illusion about ourselves that, through objective thinking or through therapy or through someone else’s observation, we might dispell. For instance, I thought I was a generous person, but my friends have indicated that I might want to reconsider that assessment. People with anorexia can think they are fat, when others clearly see they aren’t. So about certain aspects of ourselves I do believe we can gain greater clarity. But “who you actually are” is a total determination of ourselves. Here I don’t believe such a thing is possible. Only God could know “who you actually are.”

      • I do see your point; I suppose I should clarify a bit. By “who you really are” I meant the core values and beliefs that you hold and can clearly identify with, not any external characteristics (like body dysmorphia as you mentioned). So for example it sounds like you believe in God, that is a core value. If someone believed you to be sinful (in their perspective of right and wrong), would it shape your own self image? Would you begin to believe that maybe you are sinful and thus either behave in a more sinful way or form a reaction formation and follow the bible word for word? Just an example.

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