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Consciousness Explained Paperback – October 20, 1992

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Editorial Reviews Review

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 or the tartness of lemonade be predicted in advance? Central to Daniel C. Dennett's attempt to resolve this dilemma is the "heterophenomenological" method, which treats reports of introspection nontraditionally--not as evidence to be used in explaining consciousness, but as data to be explained. Using this method, Dennett argues against the myth of the Cartesian theater--the idea that consciousness can be precisely located in space or in time. To replace the Cartesian theater, he introduces his own multiple drafts model of consciousness, in which the mind is a bubbling congeries of unsupervised parallel processing. Finally, Dennett tackles the conventional philosophical questions about consciousness, taking issue not only with the traditional answers but also with the traditional methodology by which they were reached.

Dennett's writing, while always serious, is never solemn; who would have thought that combining philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience could be such fun? Not every reader will be convinced that Dennett has succeeded in explaining consciousness; many will feel that his account fails to capture essential features of conscious experience. But none will want to deny that the attempt was well worth making. --Glenn Branch

From Publishers Weekly

Tufts University cognitive scientist Dennett claims to have developed a major new theory of consciousness, yet his view of the brain as a massive parallel processor is a familiar one. What is different in his counter-intuitive theory is the claim that human consciousness, rather than being "hard-wired" into the brain's innate machinery, is more like software "running on the brain's parallel hardware" and is largely a product of cultural evolution. Author of Brainstorms , Dennett leads the adventurous gently through thought experiments, metaphors and diagrams in a treatise keyed to the serious, diligent reader. He presents a plausible evolutionary scenario of how consciousness could have emerged from the hominid brain. Dennett's audacious, tantalizing foray into the mind's inner workings ties up loose ends at the interface of cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience and biology.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books; 1 edition (October 20, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316180661
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316180665
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (158 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #136,519 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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165 of 180 people found the following review helpful By Jeremy M. Harris on September 2, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I believe it was Thomas Wolfe who once remarked with pride that he was a generous literary putter-inner, while minimalists like Ernest Hemingway were stingy leaver-outers. No one who finishes "Consciousness Explained" will doubt that Dennett belongs among the putter-inners. For example, on reaching page 280 the reader is casually told, "I have been coy about consciousness up to now." If only we had known, Daniel, that you've been toying with us through half the book...
Dennett does make a coherent case, but the theme is buried in so many asides and diversions that one needs a conceptual GPS to stay oriented. Since he has the whole map in his head, the author naturally tends to forget that others on the tour bus may have lost their bearings two or three turns ago. On the plus side, Dennett's pleasantly conversational tone, clever analogies and colorful terminology (Stalinesque, Multiple Drafts, Witness Protection Program) help to sustain our interest and clarify difficult concepts.
The big picture (I think) is that investigations of consciousness have traditionally been hindered by reliance on the concept of a "Cartesian Theater" in the mind where a homunculus (the audience) makes conscious observations. As long as the nature of the theater and the homunculus remain elusive, the whole approach merely begs the questions of what consciousness is and how it happens. Dennett proposes that neither the theater nor the audience exists (i.e. the analogies are empty) and that a massively parallel process he calls Multiple Drafts is more descriptive of what happens in a conscious brain.
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132 of 152 people found the following review helpful By Brian Bagnall on July 1, 2001
Format: Paperback
The good news is, this is a thought-provoking book, and anyone reading it will walk away feeling they know a little more about what makes humans conscious. The bad news is he doesn't come close to fulfilling the promise of the title. Dennett presents a pretty simple theory that could be explained in a few pages and a nice diagram. The theory is this: `Basically, instead of a tiny "soul" that represents consciousness, our mind is composed of many simple task-specific processes'. He could have presented this concisely and dug deeper into the components of the theory. Instead he seems to want to stretch it out unnecessarily for about the first 200 pages of the book, and he's not even clear in explaining it! He also overstates the impact of this theory repeatedly - commenting that it "might seem outrageous" and that it's "counterintuitive". Actually, it's neither of those things, so it just seems like he's trying to over inflate the theory. Usually when reading these types of books I get that "Aha!" feeling now and then, but I didn't get it once reading this book.
He also builds up a straw man in the form of "the Cartesian theater" and repeatedly bashes it. I don't know why it's so important to him to put this theory to rest - probably this is something important in philosophical circles. If this Cartesian Theater is a big force in philosophy, I must say I'm a little disappointed in the whole philosophical field. They should learn about programming. I would much rather see him building on his existing model, digging deeper into the specifics, cataloguing and explaining what some of these "mini-homunculi" or automatic functions might be. Instead he repeatedly beats a dead horse.
Most programmers have the mindset that complex behavior can be built up from many simple functions.
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74 of 89 people found the following review helpful By Dan O'Day on January 29, 2000
Format: Paperback
Contrary to other reviewers, I believe Dennett has a very powerful definition of Consciousness. Having studied this subject for over 12 years I found this book to be truly original. It was a breakthrough - even for Dennett himself (having read many of his other works).
His theory is that there is NO central meaner. No homunculus sitting in our heads that "understands" us or exists separate from our body. We are all narratives of our own existence. No more or less real than a character in a story, and like a story our experience is drafted - the blanks are filled in with the most reasonable explanation. Self is the center of narrative gravity of a body. Not something separate from it.
Dennett goes to great length to discredit other theories before presenting his own. Thus Dennett holds out from explaining his theory until the end of the book. This may cause many readers to loose interest. If you enjoy reading philosophy you will enjoy this book.
IMHO - There is a good chance that 100 years from now Dennett's view of Consciousness will be widely held.
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36 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Stuart W. Mirsky on April 15, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book's great drawback is that it is probably overly long. I'm sure the basic ideas could have been laid out more succinctly with much greater verbal economy. That said, however, it is probably the case that there are few books out there which do a better job of deconstructing the idea of consciousness. This is a big debate, particularly among some philosophers, no doubt reflecting the tendency to want to believe in the specialness of consciousness. But it's Dennett's contention that consciousness is not so special after all, that it is a natural result of evolutionary forces and that it can be adequately explained in mechanistic terms, thus discarding the misleading "ghost in the machine" notion which seems to infect our thinking about mind at every turn.

Dennett's major antagonist in this debate has been John Searle whose Chinese Room argument has been deployed again and again to deny the possibility which Dennett is here asserting, that consciousness is basically a natural phenomenon (Searle agrees, by the way that consciousness is natural, while arguing against a genuinely naturalistic description). Dennett spends a lot of time exploring side paths and building alternative models for understanding consciousness as he works to get his reader to jettison old notions about the mind as an entity uniquely set apart from the things it attends to, what he calls the "central meaner" or the audience in the Cartesian theater (alluding to Descarte's insight that our mental life is qualitatively different from the physical world we encounter). Dennet builds his case by exploring recent research on brains and human behavior as well as by sketching out an evolutionary picture about how consciousness may have come to be.
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