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Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness (Jean Nicod Lectures) Paperback – September 8, 2006
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From Scientific American
Consciousness puzzles scientists and philosophers as much as it baffles the rest of us. Elusive, enigmatic, and difficult to define and probe, consciousness has a peculiar quality that rouses people to insist that somehow it differs from the rest of the physical world and that there is something unique about each person's subjective experience. Enter Daniel Dennett, a philosopher who directs the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. In his provocative book, he explores several hot debates over whether consciousness can ever be explained--such as our inability to objectively study subjective experiences or qualia, the impenetrable properties of sensations. Despite our stubborn feelings that consciousness involves something extra--a spirit, soul, miracle or magic--Dennett contends that consciousness is no more than an intriguing but inadequately explained aspect of neural activity. Consciousness is often celebrated as a mystery, he writes. I think this tradition is not just a mistake, but a serious obstacle to ongoing scientific research that can explain consciousness, just as deeply and completely as it can explain other natural phenomena: metabolism, reproduction, continental drift, light, gravity and so on. Like a persuasive magic show, consciousness fools us into believing that the brain's seamless illusion is real, even though consciousness is a purely biological phenomenon. To make his point, Dennett works through various thought experiments. One involves imagining a perfect zombie that exactly replicates a person's perceptual and neural processes. Should there be any real difference between the zombie and the conscious person, he wonders? He also attacks the claim that a mechanistic theory of consciousness could not explain such a difference, if it existed. Another thought experiment involves imagining Martian scientists studying human consciousness. In principle, he says, Martians should be able to observe and inspect the mechanisms underlying earthly conscious experiences and, in some sense, grasp what it is like to be human. In time, Dennett believes people will realize that third-person methods of the natural sciences suffice to investigate consciousness as completely as any phenomenon in nature can be investigated. Like vitalism--the 18thcentury belief that some inexplicable force animates living creatures-- consciousness will ultimately yield to scientific explanation.
Richard Lipkin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Into this fray ridesonce again the tireless figure of Daniel Dennett...whose new book, Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness is a collection of essays devoted mainly to identifying and pummeling those diehard intuitions that he believes, rightly, still obstruct the progress of cognitive neuroscience.(The New Scientist)
In characteristically playful mode, Darwinian fundamentalist Daniel Dennett turns his opposition's arguments against them in a masterful display of philosophical judo...He is on his way to becoming the Herbert Spencer of our age, the man of ideas who can bridge radition and science, giving us a sense of how it is that the robot in the mirror is really us.(One of the 100 Most Influential Books of 2005 The Globe and Mail)
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First Dennett discusses his old friends, Zombies (Chapter 1). Those physically and functionally identical creatures to us that nevertheless lack consciousness completely. The idea itself is what he calls an "intuition pump", a thought experiment that aims to show a metaphysical truth about the world, but ends up only showing the intuitions behind some phislosopher's thinking. Dennett points out that the idea of zombies is question begging, and is evidence only of faulty reasoning. Similar points apply to the explanatory gap. Theories of consciousness need to be true (or close to it), they do not need to satisfy all intuitions and hunches. Mysterianism is too quick and dirty. Although it might be true, as Dennett imagines, that in hundreds of years philosophers will say "how could they have thought zombies were possible?", this does not mean that the Zombie hunch was an obstacle, a waste of time. Modern science says the same about the now defunct concept of elan vital, or the life force, supposed to explain what we now know are molecular biological phenomena, but it is another thing to say the discussions they engendered were fruitless.
I agree with Dennett in that there is something inherently wrong in thinking about zombies and deriving whole philosophical theories out of them, but I also believe thought experiments help in clarifying some issues. Dennett continuously complains of those who accept the conceivability of zombies do so without independent argument, relying in their intuitions and preconceptions on the matter. But in part Dennett's aversion to zombies relies in his strongly functionalist approach. He at one point (pages 19-21) does seem to differentiate a form of "strong" metaphysical functionalism from a weaker one, but it is unclear (to me) which he adheres to. Now this could be seen as lacking independent argument as well, even if any type of functionalism ends up being right after all.
Heterophenomenology is clearly explained as a methodological approach, and not a metaphysical one (Chapter 2). This "neutral" perspective does not have to decide between first- or third-person views when trying to explain consciousness, but does not deny the existence of first-person, subjective data either. The apparent ineffability of phenomenal states needs to be accounted for, but not the other way round: the apparent ineffability of phenomenal states does not determine what can and cannot be accounted for by a naturalistic approach.
Science is not in the business of explaining magic: if there is something magical about consciousness science better not explain it, it must explain it away (Chapter 3). Dennett views "the hard problem" as a residue of believing that consciousness is magical. "How could qualia be explained? Explanations must leave something out! Surely, the physicalist explanation does not capture the subjective phenomena!". But this is no argument, and Dennet is right. "How could", "must", "surely" are intuitions, not premises. There is a problem in explaining how consciousness is/ is realized by/ is correlated to/ supervenes on the brain, but its difficulty is not a sign of unsolvability.
Dennett clarifies his position on qualia (Chapter 4). He is not, as many of us thought, an eliminationist, but a revisionist. He does not deny the existence of qualia (he actually might be agnostic about the matter), but argues that philosophers conception of qualia is misguided. Of course, if thought experiments like zombies and colorblind Mary are themselves deeply flawed, and they are used to derive the "properties" of qualia, what we end up will be flawed as well. Incorrigible? Ineffable? Intrinsically subjective? Says who? And why? If we construe the concept of qualia as unexplicable in third-person objective terms, it is begging the question to then argue that they indeed not so explicable.
The knowledge argument is wrong for the same reasons as is the conception of zombies, and the shaky ground qualia are on do not help at all (Chapter 5). If Mary knows all physical facts, and you take naturalism seriously, then she learns nothing new when exiting her black and white room. If this is counterintuitive, it's not naturalism's fault. Naturalism has in fact made progress. The "global dynamic integrated network/workspace" model of the cognitive neuroscience of consciousness is a good start (Chapter 6). In sum the book is a must read by anyone who has thought hard about consciousness studies, and establishes Dennett as a central player in the field. One cannot agree with everything, but at least now it is clear that although consciousness was not explained after all, some obstacles have been removed, and progress has been made.
My favorite of the essays was "Are We Explaining Consciousness Yet?" In that essay he puts to bed the often-asserted argument that he dismisses consciousness as an illusion - when what he actually dismisses as an illusion is the notion of consciousness-as-vital-force. What he dismisses is the notion that consciousness is the vital force without which a "zombie" is not mentally alive; what he dismisses is the notion that consciousness is the qualia-left-over once you've subtracted away the physical. And for Dennett, mental life is no less worth living in the absence of a mental life force than physical life is any the less worth living in the absence of a physical life force. He's simply providing philosophical arguments that lead to a full rejection of the mental vitalism that is implicit in arguments for zombies and qualia.
Four stars for not really being a stand-alone work (this is a follow-on to "Consciousness Explained") and for being a little repetitive.
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Dennett came as a huge and surprising disappointment to me. For years I had thought (and feared...Read more