Brain

There's No Such Thing as Consciousness, According to Philosopher Daniel Dennett

Cogito ergo sum means "I think, therefore I am." That quote—coined by French philosopher René Descartes—is the cornerstone of modern philosophy. What it means is that although you could be wrong about nearly everything, from the answers to simple math problems to the very belief that you're awake and not dreaming, the one thing that you can be certain of is that you're experiencing the things that you're experiencing. But according to modern-day philosopher Daniel Dennett, even that is suspect.

Daniel Dennett speaking with Claudia Laitano at the Brazilian Fronteiras do Pensamento conference

"Real" Magic Versus Real Magic

There's a quote by religion professor Lee Siegel that Dennett use to illustrate his point: "Real magic is the magic that's not real. While the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic." There's nobody out there sawing people in half and putting them back together again, only illusionists using various tricks to make it appear that that's the case. According to Dennett, the same is true of consciousness. The only difference is that our brains are triple-billed as the saw-wielding magician, the lovely assistant trapped in the box, and the mystified audience. What we think of as our consciousness is actually our brains pulling a number of tricks to conjure up the world as we experience it. But in reality, it's all smoke, mirrors, and rapidly firing neurons.

If that's a bit heady, then get ready for Dennett's next metaphor: If our brain is a smartphone, then consciousness is the screen. In other words, consciousness is not how our brain works, it's only how we interface with it. A screen doesn't really have much to do with how the phone works, and in fact, the phone could do nearly everything it does without it. It just wouldn't be useable by humans. According to Dennett, our brains are like smartphones in another way as well: they are basically robots, or thinking machines, and like any robot, they need a medium through which to communicate with their users. But it goes even further than that: if our brains are robots, then our neurons are smaller robots, which are in turn made up of even smaller robots. So even if we lose the concept of consciousness along the way, we're still pretty incredible "machines."

Is It All in Philosophers' Heads?

It wouldn't be philosophy if there wasn't somebody to vehemently disagree. Meet Thomas Nagel, a fellow philosopher who has some key disagreements with Dennett's ideas. To Nagel, consciousness is something outside of the material world, and what's more, he claims Dennett thinks so too. After all, even if consciousness is an illusion, it's a "real" illusion just like the sawed-in-half trick is "real" magic. "You may well ask how consciousness can be an illusion," says Nagel, "since every illusion is itself a conscious experience — an appearance that doesn't correspond to reality. So it cannot appear to me that I am conscious though I am not."

If this is starting to sound like we're going full circle back to cogito ergo sum, you're not wrong. It just goes to show how philosophy operates as an ever-turning wheel of ideas and counter-ideas. At the end of the day, it might be best to rely on Dennett's view when it comes to understanding the brain and how consciousness works, and Nagel's when trying to wrap your mind around the way you actually experience the world. Either way, our brains are thoroughly tied in knots at this point.

Want even more from Daniel Dennett? Check out his national bestseller, "Consciousness Explained." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

What Is Consciousness?

Written by Reuben Westmaas April 14, 2017

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