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REDUCING THE EMPIRE OF CONSCIOUSNESS - DENNETT

This is the task that Dennett sets himself. Dennett's introduction to the Penguin reissue of The Concept of Mind, praises it as 'one of the most original and influential - if still hugely underestimated - works of philosophy of the century.' (para 3) But he complains nonetheless that 'It seems to have been a point of unexamined faith for Ryle that whatever the scientists might learn about mechanisms of the brain, however necessary these were in grounding our behavioural dispositions, they would shed scant light on the questions that interested him.' (para 9) Indeed, it could be said that however much philosophers may aspire to being hard-nosed materialists there is within the discipline an intrinsic bias towards subjective experience since it's chief concern has always been the life of the mind - the very thing materialism finds difficult. Ryle as a philosopher seems to be engaged in the quixotic adventure of observing his own mind in order to establish that there is no such thing in his mind as an observer. Dennett determinedly goes beyond the discipline of philosophy into disciplines such as neurology and artificial intelligence. But he is essentially continuing Ryle's assault on the ghost in the machine, which he calls 'the Cartesian observer', a little self that observes and co-ordinates all the other activities that are going on within the brain. He proposes what he calls a 'multiple drafts model' by which large numbers of essentially reflex operations take place processing the chaos of sensations received by the senses: 'We don't directly experience what happens on our retinas, in our ears, on the surface of our skin. What we actually experience is the product of many processes of interpretation - editorial processes, in effect. They take in relatively raw and one-sided representations and yield collated, revised, enhanced representations.' (p.126) They remain separate but, like self replicating genes, they band together: 'When a portion of the world comes in this way to compose a skein of narratives, that portion of the world is an observer. That is what it is for there to be an observer in the world, a something it is like something to be.' (p.137).

The phrase 'a something it is like something to be' is a reference to the famous article by Thomas Nagel, What is it like to be a bat? [19], which argues that what is distinctive about consciousness is the feeling of what it is like to be something. Dennett concludes: 'The idea that consciousness is a mode of action of the brain rather than a subsection of the brain has much to recommend it.' (p.166) And he explains the evolution of this strange object through the need for the 'phenotype' (that is the manifest extension of the selfish gene) - to adapt to unforeseen circumstances: 'All brains are, in essence, anticipation machines.' (p177)


[19] Thomas Nagel: 'What Is It Like to be a Bat?' The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4, October 1974, pp. 435-50.


We might feel though that the process by which Dennett converts 'a portion of the world' into 'an observer' owes more to his literary skill than to any scientific method (perhaps in this respect resembling Ryle's pair of gloves or Bogdanov's two ends of a walking stick). Dennett admits that he hasn't really succeeded in explaining consciousness though following after Ryle he might have got closer to it. Again in the introduction to Ryle he says:

'In short, what Ryle has succeeded in doing is to reduce the empire of the mind over a considerable area. This is an important achievement, and one that is brilliantly effected, but it does not fulfill Ryle's professed intention of entirely exorcizing the ghost in the machine. The movements of the ghost have been curtailed but it still walks, and some of us are still haunted by it.' (para 8)

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