Review of 'Consciousness Explained' by Daniel C. Dennett
Baker (Lynne Rudder)
Source: The Review of Metaphysics, pp. 398–99
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  1. Dennett aims to develop an empirical, scientifically respectable theory of human consciousness — one that demystifies the mind by showing how the various phenomena that compose consciousness "are all physical effects of the brain's activities" (p.16).
  2. The model of consciousness as "Cartesian theater," where "a light-and-sound show is presented to a solitary but powerful audience, the Ego or Central Executive" (p. 227), is to be replaced by a "multiple drafts" model of consciousness. Consciousness is not a single narrative, with an author of record, but rather the gappy product of many processes of interpretation in the brain (p. 94).
  3. Dennett's theory closes in on consciousness from "above" and "below." From above, the theorist begins with a subject's "heterophenomenology." From below, the theorist studies underlying mechanisms in the brain. A subject's heterophenomenological world is the theorist's third-person description of the world as it seems to the subject (the world according to Garp; Sherlock Holmes's London). The theorist relates the objects of the resulting heterophenomenological world to events going on in the subject's brain at the time (p. 407). Whether or not the deliverances of introspection are true is an empirical matter, to be determined by whether or not portrayed objects bear a striking resemblance to the "real goings-on in people's brains" (p. 85). (It is hard to see what in the brain could even count as bearing a striking resemblance to the notion of Santa Claus expressed by "I just can't stop thinking about Santa Claus.")
  4. The multiple drafts model of consciousness is supposed to solve, or dissolve, the traditional philosophical puzzles of consciousness. Dennett acutely sets out the traditional puzzles, and meets some of them head-on: on his model, there is no inner display, no "Boss neuron," no qualia. In other cases, however, it is unclear how Dennett thinks that his view addresses the philosophical problems that he so vividly lays out. For example, an initially compelling reason for dualism he says, is an intuition that nothing in the brain could "hate racism, love someone, be a source of mattering" (p. 33). Yet even if dualism is untenable, I do not see how Dennett's overall argument either shows that the intuition is false or gives a mechanistic account of the intuition itself.
  5. Dennett speaks of events of content-fixation in the brain (p. 365). This is the point at which Dennett's theory of consciousness must be joined with his theory of intentionality, developed elsewhere. Despite Dennett's cryptic remarks, it is not obvious how the pieces are supposed to fit together. Is a person in a "contentful" state in virtue of content-fixing events in his brain, as suggested here, or in virtue of patterns of gross observable behavior, as Dennett's intentional-stance theory implies?
  6. Consciousness Explained is written for a general intellectual audience, not just for specialists in philosophy or the cognitive sciences. (For philosophers and scientists, Dennett provides two extremely short technical appendices, which raise more questions than they answer.) To induce the reader to think about consciousness from an exclusively third-person, materialist perspective, Dennet employs surveys of scientific literature, thought experiments1, analogies, "just-so" stories, and other devices. The book brims with provocative suggestions — such as the idea of the self as a "center of narrative gravity" — that others may want to develop (or refute) in detail.
  7. This book is vintage Dennett. On the one hand, it is too swashbuckling for those with a taste for close argument; on the other hand, it is stimulating and suggestive, full of clever turns, and enjoyable to read.


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