Challenge: Consciousness Is an Illusion

Posted: November 15, 2011 by Amy Hall in Etcetera, Weekly Challenge

Here’s a challenge (an excerpt from the video below) from Daniel Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained:

It seems to us as if here we are inside, somewhere behind the eyes and in-between the ears, and the inner witness is watching this wonderful show, and it’s all…complete in some wonderful sense. But then when you do the physiology and you study perception, you realize that no, in fact, you have a very limited take—you’re only taking sips from that fire hose of information that’s coming in. A little bit from vision, a little bit from hearing. And there’s in fact this competition going on, a tug of war between different senses…and all of this competition resolves itself…to produce the behavior that we’re capable of and the reflection we’re capable of.

It seems, though, as if it all comes together someplace for enjoyment in the middle, and that’s just an illusion. There’s no place in the brain where it all comes together for enjoyment and for witnessing by an inner witness.

So we have to take all that work that that inner witness was going to do and we have to break it up into little bits and distribute it around in the brain in the time and space that’s available, and no one of those little bits is going to be conscious. And yet, the sum of all of that work…, that’s what consciousness is.

Dennett concludes: “Consciousness is an illusion of the brain, for the brain, by the brain.”

How do you respond? We’ll hear back from Brett on this question on Thursday.

  1. Sam Harper says:

    Daniel Dennett is immune to reductio ad absurdum arguments. If your philosophical presupposition logically leads to the conclusion that consciousness is an illusion, then there’s probably something wrong with your philosophical presupposition. If consciousness really is impossible on naturalism, then naturalism is probably not true.

    After all, consciousness is something we are immediately aware of. It’s one of the few things we can know with absolute certainty, without even the possibility of being wrong about it. To deny that we are really conscious is just as self-refuting as denying that we exist. After all, you have to be conscious before you can have an illusion of consciousness. Who does Dennett think is having the illusion anyway?

  2. Albert says:

    Which part of the elephant is he Daniel touching?

    Wake me up when he comes up with a better argument.

    Oh yeah, if what he says is true, who is he telling all the stuff to?

  3. Chad Miller says:

    This is the one atheistic/naturalistic argument that I find has zero merit. Maybe I’m just a simpleton imagining this, but seriously…

  4. Bobby says:

    when he say’s “Consciousness is an illusion of the brain, for the brain, by the brain.” – you have to wonder if he actually belives what he’s saying in the sense he’s not making a statement thats a Free Choice – in the video Dennett Commites the Suicide Tactic

  5. Adrian Urias says:

    I’m tempted to say Dennet is begging the question? “There’s no place in the brain where it all comes together for enjoyment and for witnessing by an inner witness.” Well, ok, I would agree, but it seems like Dennet is assuming there exists nothing other than the brain. Why must it be that consciousness HAS to be reduced to neural activity? Why is consciousness not able to be explained by a soul, or spirit, or to be more in line with Dennet’s vocabulary, substance dualism? He just assumes that’s the way it has to be, and doesn’t argue for it.

    And to be fair to Dennett, I don’t really think he is saying that there is no consciousness. I think he does believe there is consciousness, but that it’s simply not an enduring self. He believes that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain when he says, “the sum of all of that work…, that’s what consciousness is.” When the brain goes, so does consciousness.

    I would also say that there are good reasons for not believing in property dualism. An enduring unified self is necessary for reasoning. In Dennett’s view, consciousness is always neural activity and thus consciousness is always changing. Therefore, reasoning is impossible on Dennett’s view. (to come to the conclusion A=B, B=C, therefore A=C, we must unite those beliefs under the same consciousness, or else its like Steve believing A=B, Steven believing B=C and Stevenson concluding A=C. None are justified in coming to the conclusion A=C.) So if there is no reasoning on Dennett’s view, well…reductio.

  6. Sam Harper says:

    Since Brett and Alan are at the EPS conference, maybe Amy will do the video response today. 🙂