books book reviews

Books on Consciousness

reviewed by T. Nelson


From Bacteria to Bach and Back:
The Evolution of Minds

by Daniel C. Dennett
Norton, 2017, 476 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

C onsciousness. Humans have it, birds have it, bees have it. But what is it?

A good philosopher tries to get at the fundamentals of others' ideas, no matter how inelegantly or incoherently expressed. A bad one looks only at his own ideas and explains disagreement in terms of religious prejudice, psychological hangups, or plain stupidity. And a frustrating one, like Daniel Dennett, recognizes the problem, looks right at it, and steadfastly denies that it exists.

Over the years Dennett has evidently received a lot of pushback for his claim that consciousness is not real. His latest book starts out talking about everything else: evolution, Darwin, bacteria, behavioral evolution, animals, information theory, and finally language and memes (which he says are unique to humans).

All of this is presented on a rudimentary level, suitable for any reader, so it's mostly unimaginative stuff, not particularly exciting. It's more of a 50,000 foot survey of some features of evolutionary biology as seen by a philosopher: not inaccurate, just standard stuff. The goal seems to be to explain patiently to the reader that evolution is real and that “God made it that way” isn't a satisfactory explanation.

But he's really just dragging his feet, because he knows what we really want to hear is not whether bacteria have evolved but whether his ideas on consciousness have evolved, and he knows we're not going to like the answer. Finally on page 192 he breaks down and tells us:

Some people cling to the view that consciousness is the big exception, an all-or-nothing property that divides the universe into two utterly disjoint classes: those things it is like something to be, and those that it is not like anything to be. . . . It strikes me as a dubious descendant of vitalism, the now all-but-abandoned doctrine that being alive is a metaphysically special property that requires some sort of infusion of wonder-stuff, élan vital. Since this metaphysically extravagant view of consciousness is still popular among some very thoughtful people, including both philosophers and scientists, I will acknowledge that at this stage infants are only probably not (really, very) conscious of the word-offspring that are beginning to thrive in their brains.

That paragraph is classic Dennett: dismissive of the alternative view, only grudgingly acknow­ledging its existence. It's gotta be aggravating for Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers to have their ideas superciliously blown off like that, especially as Chalmers is, as far as I can tell, the person who most seriously tried to tackle the question.

As a neuroscientist I'm sympathetic to the idea that the brain is a computer. But it's disappointing that a distinguished academic philosopher like Dennett never actually asks the fundamental question: what the heck am I talking about? What do I actually mean by consciousness?

It is by no means metaphysically dubious to notice that there is something odd going on when we look out the window and our internal landscape is flooded with images of green, green grass, while that of the guy in the next cell is completely different. In a world without consciousness, these two states would be nearly indistinguishable: two people receiving some sense data and processing it. But if you happen to be one of those two, they are dramatically different worlds seen from absolute and incompatible frames of reference.

This is what Chalmers called the Hard Problem of consciousness. All the rest—the qualia, the physical sensations, and the ideas—is physiology. The frame of reference problem, not the neuronal mechanisms of pattern recognition or motor activity, is what makes consciousness a fundamental thing.

In denying this, Dennett has a home field advantage: the language of science is designed to talk about objective phenomena. But there is more to the universe than objective phenomena, and when someone pretends that neurons and evolution and language provide an answer, it means they don't understand the question.

Before we can talk about consciousness, we have to define it. There are a dozen things people call consciousness. Many years ago, when I worked in AI, I realized it was easy to get a network to recognize patterns. It was easy to get it to do associative learning, and it was even possible, given an appropriate architecture, to make it self-aware, “conscious” if you will, of its own workings and thoughts, though I never bothered to publish any of that.

But I also realized that this was not what everyone else means when they talk about consciousness. Some mean perception, and others mean wakefulness. What you experience in your brain occurs in a different world than what I experience in my brain. Explaining it with information theory only covers its external face, and ignores its substance.

Finally, on page 335, Dennett finishes all the irrelevant stuff about memes and evolution and bacteria and gets to what we want to know: have his ideas on consciousness evolved?

No they have not. Consciousness, he says, is an evolved super-illusion. Dennett praises Gustav Markkula for saying that asking ‘what it is like to be us’ creates

artifacts of imagination that we take to be the ‘qualia’ so beloved by philosophers of consciousness who yearn to reinstate dualism as a serious theory of mind. [p.354]

Again with the insults! Okay, let's pose the problem as if we were the Borg. Suddenly our cube vanishes and everyone perceives their own thoughts. A Borg would say: “Qualia are irrelevant. Illusions are irrelevant. Free will is irrelevant. Red stripes in your imagination are irrelevant. That they could all be illusions does not change the fact that one drone is having one illusion and another one is having a different illusion. The question is, why am I this drone instead of that other drone?”

Okay, maybe a Borg wouldn't really talk like that. But the fact is that an illusion has to happen to somebody. To paraphrase Nagel, what does it mean to be having an evolved super-illusion? And what about when Dennett himself says things like “bare meanings, with no words yet attached, could occupy our attention in conscious­ness” [p.347]? How can something occupy our attention in something that's only an illusion?

The words themselves signify that something is going on: a division of the world into internal and external realms. Dennett even gives it a name—auto­phenomen­ology—and then immediately flies off on some irrelevant tangent:

All work done by the imagined homunculus in the Cartesian Theater has to be broken up and distributed around (in space and time) to lesser agencies in the brain. [p.353]

Postulating subjective existence creates

a Hard Problem that is nothing but an artifact of the failure to recognize that evolution has given us a gift that sacrifices literal truth for utility. [p.366]

Reading Dennett is like watching a guy trying to stand on a beach ball. Occasionally he points in the right direction, then immediately he falls off and is thrown in a random, irrelevant direction.

Dennett starts from a faulty conception of the problem he's studying, frames it in the wrong terms—as opposition to an imagined creationist, religious, dogmatic point of view—and uses what he considers hard-headed logic to reason himself into a philosophical and scientific dead end.

The fault is not so much arrogance, and not even failure of imagination. It is that he doesn't know (or pretends not to know) what the question is, and therefore concludes there is no question to answer.

oct 01, 2017