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Unread June 7th, 2006, 11:21 AM
ToddStark ToddStark is offline
Join Date: Jul 2004
Posts: 174
Cool Consciousness Unexplained, perhaps indefinitely

I enjoyed this review of Dennett, perhaps mostly because I agree with so much of it. THe gist is that while Dennett illuminates the issues partcularly well, his claim that we have already explained the phenomenon of subjective awareness in terms of more primitive elements is still in the end unconvincing. Those nagging intuitions that just won't go away seem like red flags as well, telling us that something real isn't being explained entirely. The review from Hudson Review by Harold Fromm is of the brief article collection volume called "Sweet Dreams."

Link to PDF of full review

Extract from the review ...

SWEET DREAMS1 IS BY NO MEANS THE BOOK you would want to start out
with if you have never read anything by Daniel Dennett. There are two
distinguished classics in his oeuvre to be read first, Consciousness
Explained (1991) and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), in that order.
Dealing as they do with two of the most pressing themes in current
philosophy (not to mention certain of the sciences), these books would
rank pretty close to the top of my list of what every twenty-first century
intellectual should know. Sweet Dreams, on the other hand, is a slight
book that has been patched together from various talks, articles in
professional journals, and newly written passages, all of which serve to
tweak Dennett’s major doctrines in the light of subsequent criticisms
and rethinkings. Unlikely as it may seem, the book reads well—like
everything else by Dennett. It’s sheer pleasure to be in the company of a
consciousness like this—if you could believe in consciousness at all after
reading what he has to say.

Still, the basics are hardly in dispute in the matters of self, consciousness,
and free will, given the extraordinary accomplishments of the
neurosciences over the past twenty-five years and their assimilation by
philosophers in the field of consciousness studies.

So when Dennett claims he has explained consciousness, or that a computer program will someday simulate consciousness, I’m dissatisfied with a
solution that essentially solves the problem by eliminating it altogether.
The obsession that there is “something extra,” which he claims science
will eventually put out of its misery, refuses to go away. It’s the feeling of
being conscious (of experiencing “qualia”), which Dennett dismisses as
an intuition as unfounded as the belief that the sun moves around the
earth or that one’s soul has been installed by a “creator” at birth. I agree
that evidence of qualia cannot be physically found anywhere and that
qualia are like the Cheshire cat’s smile with the cat removed, but qualitative existence is felt nonetheless. (Will a computer program ever write
“real” poetry—or just poetry that sounds like John Ashbery?) Dennett
has walked a brilliant walk but finally is stopped by the brick wall of
consciousness, even though he makes like someone walking right
through it.

David Chalmers, on the other hand, while sharing a majority of
Dennett’s insights, doesn’t buy the claim that consciousness has been
explained. For him (as for me), it has simply been denied or evaded by
being subsumed into the operation of neurons. It feels wrong, and for
Chalmers experience is the concept (and reality) that has been neglected.
But how successful has Chalmers been in defending, or substantiating,
the reality of experience? His magnum opus of 1996, The Conscious
Mind, consists of 414 packed pages, including the index. It starts out
well, describing his dissatisfaction with a purely materialist treatment of
consciousness, insisting that the feel of it is not something extra or
supererogatory but is part of personhood itself (and to some degree
animalhood). But things start to go downhill somewhat quickly thereafter.
Pages and pages are devoted to densely peripheral byways of
obscure philosopherese, so peripheral in fact that Chalmers has put
asterisks at the heads of these sections to indicate that they could very
well be skipped! Good advice, since these passages lead nowhere. When
he finally pulls out his plum of “experience,” we perk up, nod yes and
hope for the best. Alas, a forlorn hope. Experience is not a spook? But
on a par with mass, charge, and space-time? One gulps. After that, the
descent is rapid. On page 277 we read:

For a final theory, we need a set of psychophysical laws analogous
to fundamental laws in physics. . . . When combined with the physical
facts about a system, they should enable us to perfectly predict the
phenomenal facts about the system. . . . . This is a tall order, and we
will not achieve it anytime soon. But we can at least move in this
direction. . . . The ideas in this chapter are much sketchier and more
speculative than those elsewhere in the book, and they raise as many
questions as they answer. They are also the most likely to be entirely

The center, it seems, will not hold. Things fall apart. I’m left with the
Really Really Hard Problem: accepting as I do Dennett’s view that there
is nothing to consciousness that is not physical, disbelieving in any sort
of spooky extras, liking the idea of “experience” but suspicious of its
veering into the je ne sais quoi, I am willing to entertain that this may
never be solved. Yes, I agree with John Searle and others that hydrogen
and oxygen in certain proportions metamorphose from gasses into
something totally different: water, a slippery liquid. And maybe, in a
sense, physically generated particles can somehow metamorphose into
first-person reality. But once again, What is a thought? What is a
thinker? What is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing?
I doubt that I will be around to learn the answer.
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Unread June 7th, 2006, 03:18 PM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
Join Date: Jul 2004
Posts: 483
Thumbs up Re: Consciousness Unexplained, perhaps indefinitely

[Todd:] I enjoyed this review of Dennett, perhaps mostly because I agree with so much of it. THe gist is that while Dennett illuminates the issues partcularly well, his claim that we have already explained the phenomenon of subjective awareness in terms of more primitive elements is still in the end unconvincing.

[From the review:] The center, it seems, will not hold. Things fall apart. I’m left with the Really Really Hard Problem: accepting as I do Dennett’s view that there is nothing to consciousness that is not physical, disbelieving in any sort of spooky extras….
Hey Todd, thanks for the review on Dennett’s SWEET DREAMS. I’m always delighted when we find something that we more or less can agree to agree on—obviously I too would agree that human consciousness remains unexplained. However, as you might suspect, I’d counter that saying Dennett’s contention—that consciousness has been explained in terms of more primitive elements—is merely “unconvincing,” is way too kind—passionate fellow that I am about such things, I’d say it’s laughably arrogant, and/or naïve.

Regarding the reviewer’s affirmation that he’s “accepting” that “there is nothing to consciousness that is not physical,” I suspect he’s simply providing the obligatory, IMO, CYA confession of faith paying tribute to the requisite materialist/atheistic orthodoxy—but the reality is that no one actually knows/understands what “physical” and/or matter/energy truly encompasses; and besides that inconvenient detail, there’s also objective mathematical truth—like pi, a transcendent irrational number—that undoubtedly “exists” and that we can consciously discern, but that apparently isn’t “physical.”
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Unread July 8th, 2006, 01:00 AM
alexandra_k alexandra_k is offline
Join Date: Jan 2006
Posts: 106
Default Re: Consciousness Unexplained, perhaps indefinitely

Hey there. Critics of Dennett's 'consciousness explained' typically mutter something about 'explained away he means'. He does seem to end up with a reductionist position that is ultimately... Somewhat unsatisfactory. That being said I am a Dennett fan and I enjoy his writing very much. I still think that there is something ultimately unsatisfactory about his theory of consciousness, however. He ends up... Reducing the phenomenon in a way that doesn't seem very plausible - especially in light of Chalmer's thought experiments with zombies and spectrum inversion.

I quite liked Searle... Conscious properties are emergent properties just like liquidity is an emergent property of water. Sounds fairly interesting and somewhat plausible at first glance but the trouble is that the analogy doesn't hold... If you know all the physical facts about the H2O molecules and the bonds (relations) between them then you can predict liquidity. Liquidity is an emergent property of arrangements of H2O molecules in the sense that a single H2O molecule doesn't have the property of liquidity yet a whole bunch of them do. He thinks that consicousness is similarly an emergent property of neurons but the trouble is that here the analogy does not hold. While we can't predict consciousness from a single neuron it also seems to be the case that we can't predict consciousness from lots of neurons and neural connections. There seems to be an explanatory gap with consciousness that there is not with liquidity and hence the analogy with the liquidity of water isn't as illuminating as it first appears.

The first time I read Chalmer's "the conscious mind" I also thought that his criticisms started strong but that his theory was not so strong... While aspects of the book are technical Chalmers has become well known for his distinctions of different kinds of supervenience (similarly to how Dennett became well known for his distinctions of the different stances one can take to the world). Supervenience is now a notion in every philosophers tool kit... He has also continued to work on consciousness... You can access his more recent papers from his homepage. He currently has a substantial grant from the Australian Research Council and he works in the Centre for Consciousness Studies at the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University. In short... Along with Jerry Fodor he is considered one of the best philosophers of mind currently alive and he has continued to develop his work...

In short... The notion is... That typical materialists think that if you list all the physical facts (physics) then that entails all the facts. Chalmers maintains that there are phenomenal facts that are not entailed by the physical facts. Hence if you want a complete description of all the facts you need to add the phenomenal facts as brute. Basically... Phenomenal redness is brute the way that mass is brute. You also need facts about indexicals (who you are, where you are, what time it is). And hence a PQTI description of the world (physical, qualitative, time, indexical (location and who i am) are all the facts of the world. (Possibly ethical facts need to be added but they don't go there).

Chalmers hope is that just like superstring theory is an attempt to offer an underlying theory to unite... I forget... Special relativity and something else... Quantum mechanics???? he thinks there may be an underlying theory where the physical properties like mass and the qualitative properties like phenomenal redness are both entailed from the underlying properties of the unified theory...

Otherwise we need to treat qualitative properties as brute like we treat physical properties like mass etc. We need to find correlations between qualitative properties and physical properties (hence psychology can progress as normal 'cause that is what they are up to anyways). Then we need to find the psychophysical laws relating the phenomenal lproperties to the physical properties.

He is actually... Rather brilliant. 'The conscious mind' is 1996. He has developed his view rather a lot from there....
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