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3.4 out of 5 stars
Consciousness Explained
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162 of 177 people found the following review helpful
on September 2, 2002
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. The thrust of his argument is that understanding consciousness requires no ultimate appeal to mind/brain dualities, souls, spirits, quantum weirdness or other trappings of the "it can't be straightforward" school. This has led disappointed devotees of the ineffable to make dismissive remarks like "Dennett explains everything under the sun EXCEPT consciousness." Don't believe it.
Dennett's background in philosophy serves him well in addressing the subtleties of cognition, but the resulting terminology may wear a bit on the reader. Sometimes I thought that if I saw the 22-letter monster "heterophenomenological" one more time, I would scream. On the other hand, Dennett's tale of the imaginary deity Feenoman, based on the root of this word, manages to be both hilarious and instructive. The book is an excellent choice for those who are not merely inclined, but also steadfastly determined, to learn more about the machinery of consciousness.
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127 of 145 people found the following review helpful
on July 2, 2001
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. It's what we all do day in and day out when programming. This is exactly what Dennett argues about the human mind, so it is nothing new. Then he starts arguing against the theory of the Cartesian Theater, which posits that the mind has a "center" or pineal gland, or soul, or one of many names it is given. As an atheist, this argument is also pretty much unnecessary to me, and probably to a lot of other readers out there. So it's similar to arguing to an astronaut that the earth is round. For 300 more pages! After a while you just want him to move on.
He also didn't explore very much the role that emotions play, and how these might make our own consciousness seem slightly magical. I would have been interested in hearing him ponder that. He also talked about how words are important to thought, but then never bothered to mention how meditation (the absence of words/pictures/thoughts in the mind) is related to all this. If words are so important, is it possible to do thought without their use? I don't know - he never mentioned it.
It may sound like I didn't like this book, but actually it is extremely thought provoking. Dennett is firmly in the materialist camp, so anyone with a scientific mind towards nature will agree with pretty much everything he says. The chapter on the evolution of consciousness is especially delicious. But it's like reading an astronomy book about the latest theories of the origins of the universe, and every five pages the author builds another straw man in the form of the earth being flat, then gleefully bashes the man down. Too much defense, not enough offense! He should have been braver and included more specifics. I think he was a little fearful of being proven wrong if he mentioned too many details. But a worthwhile read anyway.
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74 of 89 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2000
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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48 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on November 17, 1998
Consider this: A magician makes a coin "disappear" and you are asked to explain it. You can analyze the illusion and figure out how it works, but you can't actually explain how he made it vanish, since he didn't. It's just a trick, so all you need to do is explain how the trick works, how he made it SEEM to happen. That should be enough to please anyone, but then someone in the audience, upset that you've taken away the mystery, complains that you didn't explain how the disapearance "actually" happened.
This is exactly the reaction Dennett's book is getting. He analyzes what consciousness really is and how it must have come to be, yet these people want something more. Not content with having the actual explained, they demand that he explain the mythical but intuitive notions of the Cartesian theater and qualia and a host of other pleasant falsehoods, just so that they can lock science and philosophy out of the human mind, to keep it sacred for the new mysterians.
Well, they just can't have it. Dennett does explain consciousness, but to do so he must first blow away the myths and that makes the myth-believers unhappy. He shows that evolution is frugal, never paying for more than is actually needed to get the job done. And this leaves us with a true understanding that is all that much more awesome than the illusion it replaces.
If you want to live in a world of pretty colors, avoid this book. But if you care about the truth and want to know what consciousness is and isn't, read it now.
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34 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on April 15, 2007
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. But he does not get around to dealing with Searle's Chinese Room argument until the book's end and then it is almost as though it were an afterthought.

It's the great strength of Dennett's book that, in fact, Searle's argument seems, by the time he comes to it, to be worth no more than that. Dennett rightly shows that Searle's argument fails because Searle insufficiently depicts the level of computer functionality required to generate and sustain a conscious mind. Where Searle, in his argument, notes that the simple mechanism of a look up table could not possibly constitute a program capable of creating mental life, Dennett rightly points out that this fails to address the problem since it is not a simple look up table that is at the heart of the claim of the AI people. If Searle's Chinese Room argument, constituted as Searle constitutes it, is inadequate for the purpose, this is yet to say nothing about the sort of system that would be required and is theoretically available. It is not a Chinese Room on the Searlean model that must be considered but, perhaps, using the same metaphor, a Chinese Building or a Chinese City. The capacity for sustaining consciousness would necessarily require a vast complex of systems and, as Dennett notes, it is this complex of systems itself, the full system, that would have to do the trick. Searle's argument says nothing about THAT model and so misses the point.

Dennett patiently explains how the systems would need to overlay one another and how this accords with the evolutionary evidence in the biological world as well as with the model of programs on computers which he likens to virtual machines on a platform of real machines. He carefully lays out the the way computers developed, as serial machines and proposes that since the brain is not a serial machine but a parallel processor, there would probably be the need to use the new parallel computing technologies coming on line as the platform, with virtual serial machines (their programs) running on them.

This is not a popular view in some quarters since the notion that we are merely machines is troubling to many. But Dennett does his best to defuse the notion while pointing out how the philosophical ideas of zombiehood and qualia really carry no water. He doesn't offer arguments so much as a debunking of these quaint notions with an eye toward opening us up toward the mechanistic model, dispelling our natural fear of embracing such a view. In the end he tells us there are no souls and no afterlife but that there's no reason this need scare us. And he gives us a basis for retaining a belief in a moral point of view despite this loss.

In all, this is a longish but excellent exposition of his profoundly materialistic ideas. One thing did strike me though and that was his overly clever swipes at political conservatism and the Reagan administration (he was writing this book during that era). At one point relatively early on he makes a somewhat snide backhand strike at what he obviously thinks is the low level of intellect to be found in the administration of that era, and punctures their seemingly foolish notion that cutting taxes will increase revenue. The Laffer Curve, which predicts just this result, is a hunk of hooey he suggests. Only one problem. The empirical evidence since those years is against his view. In fact government revenues did surge because the economy improved as a result of the Reagan tax cuts and they surged again when Bush II cut taxes early in his first term and again in 2003. Combined with the evidence of tax revenue jumps after the tax cuts of the JFK years, we are now 3 for 3 in terms of this argument. It just goes to show you that even smart guys like Dennett, who clearly has a strong handle on the idea of consciousness, are driven at times by their own biases and pre-existing beliefs.

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32 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on September 28, 2004
Consciousness Explained is a hard, but very rewarding, book. I first read it five years ago, and thought I mostly got it, but on reflection, I realise now I probably didn't. After recently getting through Dennett's equally fascinating (and hard) "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" I read it again. It's properly sinking in now, and I think I mostly have it. I think.

If you're considering reading Consciousness Explained, I recommend having a look at Darwin's Dangerous Idea first; some of the ideas Dennett expounds there, particularly on the nature of algorithmic progression, are extremely useful for getting a handle on Dennett's central theme in Consciousness Explained. Dennett's views in each are really quite closely related. However, the "intuitive gap" (i.e., the distance in credibility between what Dennett proposes and how things "seem" intuitively) is huge in the case of consciousness, but comparatively small for Evolution. To wit:

Consciousness: Intuitively, there's a "central meaner" in the brain sitting in a "Cartesian theatre" enjoying the son-et-lumière. Dennett says this is an illusion, and there is no "narrative centre" of consciousness at all - in not so many ways, consciousness itself is an illusion; an aggregation of multiple sensory inputs and outputs of the cerebellum, all of which are performing their own functions independently of each other. "BUT AN ILLUSION TO WHOM?" you want to scream. It just doesn't seem to make sense.

Evolution: Intuitively, the universe seems designed. It seems impossible that it could be the result of blind, unintelligent operations. Darwin says that this is nevertheless the case, through the algorithmic mechanism of reproduction, mutation and natural selection of multiple organisms performing their own functions independently of each other. This isn't such a stretch, especially as the notion of a designer of the universe is an even more problematic idea, when you give it a moment's thought.

And that's precisely the point. Dennett argues persuasively (as, of course, many have before him) that a Cartesian theatre is just such a preposterous idea as a designer of the universe. Once you've ruled it out, all you are left with is the mechanical functions of the brain (unless, with Roger Penrose, you want to say "Quantum Mechanics did it!"), so you don't have any choice in the matter: the only question is how to build these mechanical, independent operations up into something which can function like consciousness. Like evolution, an aggregation of algorithms can be a "crane" which can achieve more than a simple algorithm. And so on. When you account for the actual - heterophenomenological, if I may be so bold - quality of consciousness, you notice it's incomplete, it's bitty, it's missing stuff: it isn't quite the widescreen, 7.1 THX certified surround-sound audio-visual experience we think it is, which is all grist to Dennett's mill.

Dennett is open that this is an opening salvo rather than a complete theory, and I am very interested to find out where this has all led. To my mind too much time is spent on stimulus and response - qualia, visual images and the like - which ought to be comparatively easy to explain in terms of multiple drafts - and not enough time is spent explaining how on Dennett's theory a human being, who only *seems* to have consciousness, can create clearly intentional objects, such as this book review, or more critically, a book as coherent and persuasive as Dennett's. It is difficult to analyse this sort of intentional action without a "central meaner" to be putting the view. I think Dennett's view might be able to be developed in this direction, but to my mind insufficient resource was put into this endeavour.

As he does in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett courts controversy and seems to pick intemperate fights with his competitors, and you do wonder whether a few straw men aren't being erected. Certainly, there is the odd cheap shot, but that adds to the entertainment value - the idea of fully grown philosophers drawing handbags at forty paces is one which appeals to me, and Dennett's views on his major competitor John Searle have this quality.

But John Searle should perhaps take some comfort: Dennett may at times seem abrasive, but he surely doesn't *mean* to be.

If you know what I mean.

Olly Buxton
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213 of 270 people found the following review helpful
on August 18, 2002
This book contains a great many words. Unfortunately, it contains only a very few ideas. This book could very well be contained in a 15 page white paper. Indeed it has. The same ideas have been published in the paper 'Time and the Observer - The Where and When of Consciousness in the Brain' by the author (Dennett) and Kinsbourne. Even in that case the 15 page paper is contained in a 33 page text. To use the cliché, Dennett will not use a paragraph when several chapters will suffice
I would advise anyone who wishes to understand the ideas contained in this book to read the paper. You will not have to waste your time in plowing through hundreds of pages of superfluous explanation. The paper is anthologized in 'The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates' that was edited by Block, Flanagan and Gazeldere, which is also available from Amazon. You will get the same ideas as contained in this book plus many many more.
Another strategy would be to read one of Gerald Edelman's books which contains many fewer words in much better expositions of a great many more ideas that are much more trenchant and insightful.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 1999
Dennet needs only a single paragraph to live up to his promise, informing the reader that consciousness is a 'Von-Neumannesque machine'. As he is a (non-greedy) reductionist, he thinks that is explaining enough. I tend to agree, because between all the long-winded retoric Dennet presents a lot of arguments that may not prove him right conclusively, but certainly strengthen his point.
The book is a fascinating read for materialists and atheists and probably a great annoyance to other people. This perhaps explains the strong reactions to it. I would ignore those: Dennet makes his hypotheses and assumptions clear at the start and if you're not willing to go along with those, there's no use torturing yourself with the rest of the book. If, however, you are wiling to have the belief of Cartesian dualism - the distinction between mind and body - challenged in a provocative way, by all means read this interesting book. For me, it has served as a starting point for a lot of debate.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on March 1, 2000
Despite the claims of some reviewers, Dennett does provide an explanation, of sorts, for consciousness. The problem is that very few readers are going to find it a satisfactory one. By integrating findings from psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy, and by using a clear, persuasive, lively prose style, Dennett gets us to go along with him that it's all just neurons firing in the brain. But where he seems to lose most readers (and where he lost me, even after reading the book twice) is in his discussion of "qualia" (the subjective, "internal" aspects of conscious experience, such as enjoying a glass of wine or a sunset). Qualia, we are told, are illusions that somehow arise from the operations of the nervous system (that is, the processing of sensory information in the brain results in the brain entering a "discriminative state" that just is the sensation of enjoyment that we experience). Well... ok. But I think that most people who are approaching this book are looking for some sort of account of how that neural activity becomes your enjoyment of the colors of a sunset. And I could not really extract such an account from this book (maybe it's there and I just didn't get it).
Dennett is the first to admit (at several places in this book) that his theory is not complete, and that this account offers more of a sketch or outline of what a materialist theory of consciousness would like. The questions that he asks, and his dissection and analyses of actual experimental results, makes this an interesting read. "Half the fun is getting there," as they say. But I think that materialists and mysterians will both find this explanation of consciousness ultimately dissatisfying.
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32 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 1999
The persons critizing Dennet for "denying" the phenomenon he claims to "explain", apparently fail to understand his theory. Dennet does not deny that "consciousness" exists, he only claims to show that it is nothing more than the accompanying effect of a lot of complicated neural activity. I think his claim is valid, but I understand a lot of people will be uneasy with this conclusion. Sometimes Dennet provokes his opponents somewhat more than necessary. If he argues that "qualia" (the subjective impressions of our sensory perceptions) do not really exist, it is possible he goes a step too far. He might be more persuasive if he recognized more explicitly the existence of two aspects of reality: the material world with its neurons, molecules, quarks, etc. on the one hand, and the "qualosphere", i.e. our subjective world with all its "qualia", on the other hand. I grant that this second world is derived from the physical world. However, in our "human condition", we human beings live in this "qualosphere" and not in the world of molecules and quarks. This explains the emotional resistance many people put up against Dennet's theory. Dennet's critcism of John Edelman seems a bit too harsh to me. Edelman's research on neural networks might contribute some day to a more profound insight in the neural processes that are at the base of our mental processes. Dennet's modell of consciousness will acquire a more solid foundation once we know more about this. I think he is a bit too dismissive of people who concentrate their attention on this aspect. But, of course, "Consciousness Explained" is one of the great books of this century.
R. Holsbergen Luxembourg
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