- Paperback: 528 pages
- Publisher: Back Bay Books (Oct. 20 1992)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0316180661
- ISBN-13: 978-0316180665
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 3.5 x 21 cm
- Shipping Weight: 567 g
- Average Customer Review: 70 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #90,030 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Consciousness Explained Paperback – Oct 20 1992
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pp. 511, "Consciousness is notoriously difficult to explain. On one hand, there are facts about conscious experience--the way clarinets sound, the way lemonade tastes--that we know subjectively, from the inside. On the other hand, such facts are not readily accommodated in the objective world described by science. How, after all, could the reediness of clarinets…
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Another reviewer titles his review "Consciousness Denied." That is a fair comment. Many people think that Dennett explains away consciousness, rather than explaining it. In fact, I agree with that critism myself -- I think. I tend to agree with John Searle (again -- think). The one star rating, however, is grossly unfair. Consciousness is a very hard problem, to put it mildly, and Dennett's reasoning and opinions are crucial for two reasons. First, they are very well thought out, and well expressed. Moreover, Dennett is one of the key writers in the area, and if you read anything else about consciousness, you will find references and responses to Dennett.
Other authors worth reading in this area include John Searle (no friend of Dennett), Susan Blackmore, Steven Pinker, David Chalmers, V. S. Ramachandran and Antonio Damasio.
The book is a monumental attempt to understand consciousness, not to explain it completely, as Dennett himself admits. He thus starts from the start. There is the cartesian theather background that one has to realize simply does not work. There is no place in the brain where it al comes together into consciousness. Dualism, mysterianism, all that is just philosophical unwanted baggage. Finally, Dennett stresses the need, althoug in a peculiar way, to take phenomenology seriously. So far so good. But then come the philosophical nitty-gritty.
The empirical theory of consciousness that Dennett lays out is quite simple, really. There are various drafts of neither stalinesque nor orwellian processes, that compete with each other, played by a virtual machine (program) run in the hardware of the brain. Now usually, here many would begin to attack dennett. Is the mind just a program, like windows on my computer?
Dennett does not say this at all. He just says that the brain processes information and that some of this procesing is consciousness, and that is a much less strong claim.
Dennet discusses the effect that happens when one looks at two lights flashing in sucession, close to each other. One sees a light moving from to and fro, changinc collors evem (if the lights are different colors). Now Dennett mantains that there is no fact of the matter on wether one sees the lights as separate, but then interprets the whole thing as a¿one light moving, or if there is a top down effect on perception so that from the beggining one experiences the result. Ths is where the confusing things seem to arrive. Dennett has to discuss qualia, then. This is where he lost most readers, and most potential allies as well. In short, Dennett claims that there are no qualia at all, but simply a group of dispositions in the subject in question. So if someone who cannot see at all, but for some reason (I will avoid mentioning blindsight)responds like everyone else at stimuli, acts towards them, comments on them, etc., well then there is nothing missing. That responding, commenting on, andacting towards, is what qualia is.
Dennett thus denies that zombies are possible, because a zombie has no experience, but acts normally in every other way since for Dennett, acting normally in evry way is what qualia is. (Dennett jokingly says that then zombies are possible, scince that is what we are, in the sense described above, of course).
All this is well. But can one really swallow it. I mean, regardless of what Dennett says, and how many times he says that this is no argument, the qualia are still there when I see a rose, and it does not seem like a disposition. Dennett claims that, well then, it seems there are qualia but there are not. How can something that does not exist seem like anything at all to anybody? So qualia, as they seem do not exist, even in the seeming itself, which is needless to say confusing.
Dennett discusses many issues, of which qualia is the most debated. I only wanted to let out some thoughts on the matter. His theory of the self is also a bit unsatisfactory, but besides the hard philsophy, Dennet makes a lot of sense, in many things, evolution, phenomenology, language, the denial of the cartesian theather...so this book must be read, pretty much by anyone who has thought about the mind.
The most common expression of "self" nearly always boils down to the idea that our mind has a central area that observes the world around us. That centre assesses and expresses our concepts of that world in thoughts, speech, writing, whatever. It is that concept that Dennett assaults in this book. Often referred to as the Cartesian Theatre from Rene Descarte's "I think, therefore I am" concept that the brain [physical] and mind [conceptual] were separate, Dennett finds this notion too simplistic. He knows the mind is in the brain. How it works in observing the world and expressing our ideas of it is the theme of this book.
Dennett explains many facets of how we observe and how we react to what we observe. He strives admirably to counter the still widely-held belief that consciousness is a tangible "thing" that can be identified and dealt with. No such "thing" is there, he notes. Instead, the mind is weighing input and dealing with many options at once. He posits a concept of this situation he calls the 'Multiple Drafts' theory. The mind/brain is continuously processing information and making selections about what to respond to and how to make the response. Responses may be speech, writing or simply memory storage.
While Dennett's use of terminology may make the novice quail, his down-to-earth approach to the issues makes this book delightful reading for anyone. Instead of arcane concepts or lofty language from America's pre-eminent philosopher, we're given many concrete examples of how our minds work. His stature, however, is in no small part due to his skills as a communicator. Those skills are artfully expressed in this book. If you have problems with terms like 'heterophenomenology' or 'qualia', take a moment to go back to his definitions, or read on to enjoy his explanations. Either way, there are rewards. Iin short, this whole book is rewarding and will go far in helping human beings understand just what they are. We are conscious, we think, therefore we are human. How to better understand that situation is amply explained by reading this outstanding book.
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