Sunday, April 13, 2014

Daniel Dennett: The magic of consciousness

In his book, Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, philosopher and cognitive scientist, Daniel Dennett, explains how consciousness is like magic, but not in the way that you probably think it is:

"It seems to many people that consciousness is a mystery, the most wonderful magic show imaginable, an unending series of special effects that defy explanation. I think that they are mistaken, that consciousness is a physical, biological phenomenon–like metabolism or reproduction or self-repair–that is exquisitely ingenious in its operation, but not miraculous or even, in the end, mysterious. Part of the problem of explaining consciousness is that there are powerful forces acting to make us think it is more marvelous than it actually is. In this it is like stage magic, a set of phenomena that exploit our gullibility, and even our desire to be fooled, bamboozled, awestruck.  The task of explaining stage magic is in some regards a thankless task; the person who tells people how an effect is achieved is often resented, considered a spoilsport, a party-pooper.  I often get the impression that my attempts to explain consciousness provoke similar resistence. Isn’t it nicer if we all are allowed to wallow in the magical mysteriousness of it all? Or even this: If you actually manage to explain consciousness, they say, you will diminish us all, turn us into mere protein robots, mere things.  

Such is the prevailing wind into which I must launch my work, but sometimes the difficulty of the task inspires strategies that exploit the very imagery that I wish in the end to combat. The comparison between consciousness and stage magic is particularly apt, for the romantic and gullible among us have much the same yearning regarding stage magic that they have regarding consciousness. Lee Siegel draws our attention to the fundamental twist in his excellent book, Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India:

“I’m writing a book on magic,” I explain, and I’m asked, “Real magic?” By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers.  “No,” I answer: “Conjuring tricks, not real magic.”  Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic."


  1. its not true that it's 'purely a biological phenomena' . For example to use LANGUAGE culture is needed and exposure to certain sounds. Otherwise language ability doesn't develop. Two exact biologically identical being can have two different models of their environment which it turn gets manifested in what they are thinking about. That makes it unique from something like the KIDNEYS.
    Conciousness is not a 'complete' representation of the entire 'neurological disposition' . AND it isnt merely 'a few' memories. It's the awareness that you HAVE those memories, that have been 'MODELLED' somehow to give a sense of self. IF you have a muscle, we can build a 'muscle' that responds to stimuli. BUT it is not understood, how to build something with conciousness. A computer has never been built that can 'select' and model its environment, and know that it is doing that. CODE can be written to approximate this, but the structure needed to do this, hasn't been figured out. Not only has conciousness not been figured out, but also the brain hasn't been figured out to the point you can create something that thinks. Even an insect brain, has never been model to the point, someone can say 'this will think like a bug' . All the stimuli can be fed in, each impulse can be followed but it. SO its ridiculous to say its not a mystery, which is the same as saying that its understood.

  2. Thanks for your interest, Anonymous. However, it seems to me that while you've said many things, it doesn't follow from any of them that consciousness is NOT a purely biological phenomenon. If, as you say, it is not a purely biological phenomenon, then you must think that consciousness is a biological phenomenon *plus what other type of phenomenon*? Magic? In any case, let's not get too worked up over this short quote. Dennett isn't presenting *why* he thinks that consciousness is a purely biological phenomenon. That would require reading his books and/or academic publications on the matter, which is far beyond the scope of my blog. He's merely trying to describe the kind of resistance he encounters when trying to advance the idea that consciousness *is* purely biological, of which your comments seem to be an example.

  3. Dennett is a brilliant man who has worked on this topic throughout the course of his long and illustrious career. He hasn't merely done armchair philosophy: he has done cognitive science and worked closely with cognitive scientists to inform his thoughts on the matter.

    History has taught us that that which has seemed like magic has so often eventually been explainable by purely biological or physical processes : no magic required.

    On this Sunday afternoon, it would seem prudent to be open minded about Dennett's ideas, and enjoy the clarity and flair with which he writes.

  4. it would be phenomena that involves properties of atoms for example. A blood vessel is a pipe more or less. We can construct a pipe that does the same function, it could be made to be plastic or silicon, and that would not inhibit it's functionality as a pipe. Conciousness seems like it probably requires some type of induction or 'cross talk' , and that puts it location somewhere in empty space. It may exist on the atomic level or sub atomic level. It doesnt seem to be on the molecular level.
    We can build a blood vessel equivalent in the outside world and say 'the blood goes in here, and exits here' . But the same can't be done for all functions of the brain, including conciousness. There's an organ that is sensitive to magnetic waves. Does that make magnetic waves 'biological' ? Are the magnetic waves part of the 'biology'? They don't need biological mass to exist.
    Lets say there was an organism, that employed an echo phenomena in order to survive. It emits a sound, then uses the 'time delay' before the sound bounces back as a way to temporarily store information. to do this it needs to be at a specific location, a place near a cliff wall. It makes a sound, 350ms later, it hears the sound. Is anything biological happening AFTER it makes thesound? are the air waves its biology? or the rocks? Now suppose you couldnt measure the sound for some reason, would it make sense to say 'well it has to biological in nature ' ?

  5. & I can tell you, there's absolutely no 'powerful forces' imploring me how to think about the topic of the brain or conciousness, its purely from analytical thinking and observation. People desire to understand it's mechanism, not unlike gravity. They aren't 'bamboozled' they are curious. He statement has nothing to do with science.. its just 'jib jab'. The scientist that matter, are ones that write a book and say E=MC^2 or that gravity is 9.81 m/s/s in it. Writing a book of which no scientific knowledge can be derived requires an audience with a desire to wallow and a desire to be 'fooled'. His audience are ones that are seeking affirmation that they are better than creationists.. otherwise what's the point of his statements? There
    s no insight. There's no knowledge or his own research to be found in them.. He's after the very thing that he's complaining about.

  6. “Conciousness seems like it probably requires some type of induction or 'cross talk' , and that puts it location somewhere in empty space.” - Grabba

    I really don’t know what you mean here. Are you talking about qualia?

    “It may exist on the atomic level or sub atomic level. It doesnt seem to be on the molecular level.” - Grabba

    We all completely lose consciousness every night when we sleep, yet the atomic content of our brains does not change then nor when we wake up. The experience of consciousness arises and disappears with the biological (physiologic) processes of matter that is highly organized into a nervous system (that can interact with the physical properties of its environment). It's the product of matter operating at the level we call biology or physiology. So I don't see any tension between what you've written and Dennett calling consciousness a biological phenomenon.

  7. Induction meaning interaction of EMF..or electrons. There are structures of the brain that seem to be related to conciousness, that are similar to magnetic coils.
    The brain provides an 'illusion' or 'model' of the world at any given moment. That in itself isn't 'conciousness' . We can temporarily lose 'hearing' yet everything is physiologically the same - not from loud noise but phenomena like tinnitus . The inability to hear at that point, isn't loss of conciousness. Its a loss of stimuli. When someone is sleeping they can be concious when dreaming. The experience of conciousness may be 'dictated' by the brain, as to make sense of the stimuli. But that changes when sleeping. Hearing can become acute. We still wake up from a loud noise. We may wake up and not recall what the noise was. If your brain isnt forming memories while you are in a deep sleep there is no way of knowing if it has fully disappeared.
    But suppose it it fully disappeared, different parts of the brain get 'suppressed' & its not entire brain that gets represented in an active state of conciousness. The brain does stuff that we notice or do not at times.
    The analogy I would use is the same as what I wrote earlier. A bat uses 'sonar' but the AIR isnt part of its biology. The bat stores information in the air. There's an airwave, with a pattern,in space, that it will interpret when it gets to their ears.
    DNA is understood, and people think its miraculous. and go short of calling it 'magic' . There's no geneticist that won't claim to have not been awestruck at some point.
    If its not understood, and if structures seem to point to some type of EMF phenomena.. then people should be open to the possibility that it stems from properties of space as opposed to being some function of a cell. Where would conciousness fit in a cell ?

  8. You're talking about brain structures that are similar to magnetic coils, and parts of the brain being suppressed when consciousness is, "EMF phenomena" (though I'm not sure what you mean by that, it sounds like physics) ... this all sounds like anatomy and physiology to me. I don't hear you talking about anything other than physical and biological processes, which are precisely the terms Dennett used in what I quoted.

    Earlier, I asked: "If, as you say, it is not a purely biological phenomenon, then you must think that consciousness is a biological phenomenon *plus what other type of phenomenon*? Magic?"

    Do you have an answer to that?

  9. 1st of all, you are creating your own 'dichotomy' . It has to be biological or magic. People are fascinated by conciousness not because they think magic exists. The brain has only been demonstrated to process information. The phenomena to be 'aware' of any of that information, is not understood, and it's within the realm of possibility that it never will be explained with science. Just like gravity - gravity for example you cannot provide a control where it is taken out of the equation - there is no place where it is not present. IN that sense it is the equivalent of magic. Conciousness, not just processing information, people realize that it may never be explained by science. & therefore it is indistinguishable from magic, or might as well be magic.
    That has nothing to do with people being 'gullible' it has to do with people being insightful, and smart enough to be able to understand that they are 'unable' to dissect that type of scientific problem. There is not a single scientist that can't offer an approach to the subject that could provide any more insight than is already known.

  10. ""There is not a single scientist that can offer an approach to the subject that could provide any more insight than is already known""

  11. The natural vs supernatural dichotomy is mutually exhaustive and well accepted. It's neither "mine" nor a false one.

    Gravity is a good analogy. You don't think that it's a part of the natural world? Sure, it's possible that there are a bunch of undetectable pink unicorns pushing and pulling on everything so that we feel the force of "gravity", and there are a million other possible explanations, but given everything else we know and how successful science (which employs methodologic naturalism) has been, is that where you're gonna place your bet?

    If physicists can talk about the natural world and include gravity in the conversation, then Dennett can talk about consciousness as part of the natural world - biology, in fact.

    Dennett has a body of work - a career - making this case. If you want to continue to criticize what you think are Dennett's ideas, then I won't be responding until you've read his publications and books and have formulated an educated and specific rebuttal. Because so far, I still haven't read anything you've written from which it follows that Dennett has something wrong in the short quote I posted (because it's a nicely written and interesting perspective on the struggle to make the case for naturalism underlying the "magic" of being human).

  12. John Searle echoing the same sentiments here ...