What Is Dennett’s Theory a Theory of?

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  8 What Is Dennett’s Theory a Theory Of? In  Consciousness Explained   and some papers written before and since, Dan Dennettexpounds what he says is a theory of consciousness. But there is a real puzzle as towhat the theory is about. There are a number of distinct phenomena that ‘‘conscious-ness’’ is used by Dennett and others to denote. If the theory is about some of them, it isfalse; if it is about others, it is banal.A convenient locus of discussion is provided by Dennett’s claim that consciousnessis a cultural construction. He theorizes that ‘‘human consciousness (1) is too recent aninnovation to be hard-wired into the innate machinery, (2) is largely the product of cultural evolution that gets imparted to brains in early training.’’ 1 Often, Dennettputs the point in terms of   memes . Memes are ideas such as the idea of the wheel orthe calendar or the alphabet; but not all ideas are memes. Memes are cultural units,the smallest cultural units that replicate themselves reliably. In these terms then, Den-nett’s claim is that ‘‘Human consciousness is  itself   a huge complex of memes.’’ 2 Theclaim is sometimes qualified (as in the ‘‘largely’’ above). I think the idea is that con-sciousness is the software that runs on genetically determined hardware. The softwareis the product of cultural evolution, but it would not run without the hardware that isthe product of biological evolution.I claim that consciousness is a  mongrel  notion, one that picks out a conglomerationof very different sorts of mental properties. Dennett gives us little clue as to which oneor ones, which of the ‘‘consciousnesses’’ is supposed to be a cultural construction. Nowthis would be little more than a quibble if his claims about consciousness were plausi-ble and novel proposals about one or more ‘‘consciousnesses,’’ one or more ‘‘elements’’of the mongrel. OK, so he doesn’t tell us exactly which consciousness the claims areabout, but we can figure it out for ourselves. As far as I can see, there is no kind of con-sciousness that is both plausibly and nontrivially a cultural construction, a collectionof memes. (But perhaps Dennett will prove me wrong in his reply.) For some kinds of consciousness, the idea that consciousness is a cultural construction is a  nonstarter  . Forothers, there is an empirical issue, but the cultural construction claim seems likely tobe false, and Dennett does not defend it. For others, it is utterly banal—certainly not (AutoPDF V7 9/1/07 10:35) MIT (Stone 7  9") StoneSerif&Sans J-1567 Block AC1: WSL 29/12/2006 pp. 141–158 1567_08 (p. 141)  the exciting new thesis Dennett presents it as. So my challenge for Dennett will be toprovide us with a notion of consciousness on which his claim is both true and in-teresting. Of course, I wouldn’t be bothering with all this if I thought Dennett had ananswer. What I really think is that Dennett is using the mongrel concept of ‘‘con-sciousness’’ the way Aristotle used the concept of ‘‘velocity,’’ sometimes meaninginstantaneous velocity, sometimes meaning average velocity, without seeing the dis-tinction. 3 I think Dennett has confused himself and others by applying an unanalyzednotion of ‘‘consciousness,’’ conflating theses that are exciting and false with othersthat are boring and true. I won’t be arguing for this directly, but it is the upshot of what I will have to say.My procedure will be to go through the major elements of the mongrel briefly, withan eye to filling in and justifying the claim that what Dennett says is not both true andnovel. I should say at the outset that I do not intend to be presupposing any controver-sial views about whether the inverted spectrum hypothesis makes sense, whether therecan be ‘‘absent qualia’’ (that is, whether there can be creatures functionally identical tous, such that there is nothing it is like to be them) and the like. What I have to say hereis supposed to be independent of such issues. Phenomenal Consciousness Phenomenal consciousness is experience. Phenomenal conscious properties are the ex-periential properties of sensations, feelings, and perceptions; for example, what it islike to experience pain, what it is like to see, to hear, and to smell. Thoughts, desires,and emotions also have phenomenal characters, though these characters do not serveto individuate the thoughts, desires, and emotions. Phenomenal properties are oftenrepresentational. For example, what it is like to see something as a refrigerator is differ-ent from what it is like to see the same thing from the same angle as a big white thingof unknown purpose and design. And there is a representational commonality to whatit is like to hear a sound as coming from the right and what it is like to see somethingas coming from the right. I believe that there is a difference in these experiences that isnot representational, a difference that inheres in nonrepresentational features of themodalities; but I will not assume this in what follows. I also think that phenomenalconsciousness is not characterizable in functional or intentional or cognitive terms,but again I will not assume this here.There was a time when Dennett was an out and out eliminativist about phenomenalcontent, but his views have changed. He now offers a theory of it, though he cautionsus that his views of what phenomenal consciousness is are at variance with a picture of it that has a strong hold on our intuitions. I hope it is just obvious to virtually every-one that the fact that things look, sound, and smell more or less the way they do to usis a basic biological feature of people, not a cultural construction that our children 142 Chapter 8 (AutoPDF V7 9/1/07 10:35) MIT (Stone 7  9") StoneSerif&Sans J-1567 Block AC1: WSL 29/12/2006 pp. 141–158 1567_08 (p. 142)  have to learn as they grow up. To be sure, cultural constructions have a  big impact   onthe way things look, sound, and smell to us. As I said, phenomenal consciousness isoften representational, and the representational aspects and phenomenal aspects of phenomenal consciousness often interact. To use Dennett’s wonderful example, sup-pose we discovered a lost Bach cantata whose first seven notes turn out by an ugly co-incidence to be identical to the first seven notes of ‘‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.’’We wouldn’t be able to hear the cantata the way the Leipzigers of Bach’s day wouldhave heard it. So culture certainly has an impact on phenomenal consciousness. Butwe have to distinguish between the idea that culture has an impact on phenomenalconsciousness and the idea that phenomenal consciousness  as a whole   is a cultural con-struction. Culture has a big impact on  feet   too. People who have spent their lives goingbarefoot in the Himalayas have feet that are different in a variety of ways from peoplewho have worn narrow pointy high-heeled shoes for eight hours a day, every day.Though culture has an impact on feet, feet are not a cultural construction. So the im-pact of culture on phenomenal consciousness does not give us a reason to take seri-ously the hypothesis that phenomenal consciousness was  invented   in the course of thedevelopment of human culture or that children slowly develop the experience of see-ing, hearing, and eating as they internalize the culture. Indeed, children acquire theculture  by   seeing and hearing (and using other senses) and not the other way around.We should not take seriously the question of whether Helen Keller had her first experi-ence of eating or smelling or feeling at the age of seven when she started learning lan-guage. We should not take seriously the idea that each of us would have been a zombieif not for specific cultural injections when we were growing up. We should not takeseriously such questions as whether there was a time in human history in which peo-ple biologically just like us used their eyes and ears, ate, drank, and had sex, but therewas nothing it was like for them to do these things. 4 And a view that says that suchquestions should be taken seriously should be rejected on that basis.Though almost everyone believes in phenomenal consciousness, some hold a defla-tionary or reductionist view of it, identifying it with a functional or intentional or cog-nitive notion. Mightn’t such views of phenomenal consciousness make the thesis thatphenomenal consciousness is a cultural construction more intelligible? The best way toanswer this question, I think, is to examine the other consciousnesses, the other ele-ments of the mongrel. They are the best candidates for a deflationist or a reductionistto identify with phenomenal consciousness. Access-Consciousness Let us say that a state is access-conscious if its content is poised for free use in con-trolling thought and action. More specifically, a state with a certain content is access-conscious if, in virtue of one’s having the state, a representation which has that What Is Dennett’s Theory a Theory Of? 143 (AutoPDF V7 9/1/07 10:35) MIT (Stone 7  9") StoneSerif&Sans J-1567 Block AC1: WSL 29/12/2006 pp. 141–158 1567_08 (p. 143)  content is (1) poised to be used freely as a premise in reasoning, according to the capa-bilities of the reasoner, (2) poised to be used freely for control of action. In the case of language-using organisms such as ourselves, a major symptom of access-consciousnesswould be  reportability  . But reportability is not necessary. My intent in framing the no-tion is to make it applicable to lower animals in virtue of their ability to use perceptualcontents in guiding their actions.In my view, this is the notion of consciousness that functionalists should want toidentify with phenomenal consciousness. We needn’t worry about whether access-consciousness is really distinct from phenomenal consciousness, since the question athand is whether either of them could be a cultural construction. I am dealing withthese questions separately, but I am giving the same answer to both, so if I am wrongabout their distinctness it won’t matter to my argument.Access-consciousness is a tricky notion which I have spelled out in some detail else-where. 5 I will briefly make two comments about it. First, the reader may wonder whatthe ‘‘in virtue of’’ is doing in the definition. It is there in part because there are syn-dromes such as blindsight in which the content of a perceptual state is available tothe perceiver only when he is prompted and hears himself   guess  what he is seeing. Inblindsight, there are ‘‘blind’’ areas in the visual field where the person claims not to seestimuli, but the patient’s guesses about certain features of the stimuli are often highlyaccurate. But that doesn’t count as access-consciousness because the blindsight patientis not in a position to reason about those contents simply in virtue of having them. Asecond issue has to do with the fact that the paradigm phenomenally conscious statesare sensations, whereas the paradigm access-conscious states are thoughts, beliefs, anddesires, states with representational content expressed by ‘‘that’’ clauses. There are anumber of ways of seeing the access-consciousness of sensations such as pain. Painsare often (some have argued always) representational, and so these representationalcontents are candidates for what is inferentially promiscuous, etc., when a pain isaccess-conscious. Alternatively, we could take the access-conscious content of pain toconsist in the content that one has a pain or a state with a certain phenomenalcontent. 6 Now to the point of this excursion into access-consciousness: Could access-consciousness be a cultural construction? Could there have been a time when humanswho are biologically the same as us never had the contents of their perceptions andthoughts poised for free use in reasoning or in rational control of action? Could therebe a human culture in which the people don’t have access-consciousness? Would eachof us have failed to be access-conscious but for specific cultural injections? Did HelenKeller become access-conscious at age seven? Once asked, the answers are obvious.  Dogs  have access-consciousness in virtue of their abilities to use perceptual contents inguiding their actions. Without access-consciousness, why would thought and percep-tion ever have evolved in the first place? The discovery that access-consciousness is 144 Chapter 8 (AutoPDF V7 9/1/07 10:35) MIT (Stone 7  9") StoneSerif&Sans J-1567 Block AC1: WSL 29/12/2006 pp. 141–158 1567_08 (p. 144)  anything other than a basic biological feature of people would be breathtakingly amaz-ing, on a par with the discovery that housecats are space aliens. Anyone who claimedsuch a thing would have to marshal a kind of evidence that Dennett makes no attemptto provide. (Of course, to say that access-consciousness is a basic biological feature of people is not to say that it is literally present at birth. Teeth and pubic hair are biolog-ical, but not present at birth.)Access-consciousness is as close as we get to the official view of consciousness of   Con-sciousness Explained  , and also in Dennett’s later writings. In a recent reply to critics,Dennett sums up his current formulation of the theory, saying ‘‘Consciousness is cere-bral celebrity—nothing more and nothing less. Those contents are conscious thatpersevere, that monopolize resources long enough to achieve certain typical and‘symptomatic’ effects—on memory, on the control of behavior, and so forth.’’ 7 The of-ficial theory of   Consciousness Explained   is the Multiple Drafts theory, the view that thereare distinct parallel tracks of representation that vie for access to reasoning, verbaliza-tion, and behavior .  This seems more a theory of access-consciousness than any of theother elements of the mongrel.  But surely it is nothing other than a biological fact about  people—not a cultural construction—that some brain representations persevere enough to af-fect memory, control behavior, etc.  Of course, our  concept   of cerebral celebrity is a culturalconstruction, but cerebral celebrity  itself   is not. No one should confuse a concept withwhat it is a concept of. Now we have reached a conundrum of interpretation: Theclosest thing we have to an  official concept   of consciousness in Dennett’s recent work is not a concept of something that can be taken seriously as a cultural construction.In his reply, I hope Dennett tells us how, according to him, cerebral celebrity could bea cultural construction. In the meantime, I will search for another kind of conscious-ness that he could have in mind.I said that the concept of consciousness is a mongrel concept. Our use of a singleword reflects our tendency to see the elements of the mongrel as wrapped together. Inparticular, we think of conscious qualities as  given , as  completely present   with  nothing hidden . To see phenomenal consciousness as completely present is to see it as entirelyaccessible. These are ideas about consciousness, but they are ideas that affect phenom-enal consciousness itself, what it is like to be us, just as in Dennett’s example; what it islike to hear the imaginary Bach cantata would be influenced by the idea we have of theChristmas ditty. Our theories of phenomenal consciousness do influence phenomenalconsciousness itself to some extent. Our experience might be somewhat different in aculture in which a different view of phenomenal consciousness was prevalent. But weshould not allow such interactions to make us lose sight of the main effect. True, cul-ture  modulates  cerebral celebrity, but it does not  create   it. We must not conflate  culturalinfluence   with  cultural creation .It should be noted that our theories, even wildly false theories, about many things,not just consciousness itself, can influence our experience. For example, we sometimes What Is Dennett’s Theory a Theory Of? 145 (AutoPDF V7 9/1/07 10:35) MIT (Stone 7  9") StoneSerif&Sans J-1567 Block AC1: WSL 29/12/2006 pp. 141–158 1567_08 (p. 145)
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