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I am, therefore I think: Daniel Dennett’s hard problem

Words turned our brains into minds, and got us hung up on the ghost in the machine. But a new book isn't going to banish that spectre
March 16, 2017
Read an interview with Dennett hereFrom Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel C Dennett (Allen Lane, £25)

In the story of western modernity, science plays the role of both hero and villain—saviour and nemesis. The tension is captured in Charlie Chaplin’s classic speech at the end of The Great Dictator (1940). In one moment, Chaplin, at this point playing the Jewish barber not the Fascist leader, advocates “a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness”; in another, he laments that the “machinery that gives abundance has left us in want” and that cold reason has turned us into “machine men with machine minds and machine hearts.” Scientific demystification of the world is a double-edged sword. It enables us to practically achieve more but also risks turning us, in Richard Dawkins’s phrase, into mere “biological robots.”

Nowhere is the threat of science stealing our souls more feared than in the mental realm. No sensible person now doubts that the brain is the engine of consciousness. But if everything we think and do is the result of neurons firing, are we deluded to believe that our thoughts make any difference? In fact, a lot of research suggests that the conscious part of the brain is the last to know what we’re going to do. Could it be that conscious awareness is just an “epiphenomenon,” a kind of functionless noise produced by the whirring of the brain? If so, then as the philosopher Jerry Fodor puts it, “practically everything I believe about anything is false and it’s the end of the world.”

To see off this threat we need a way of understanding consciousness that preserves our humanity, while being fully compatible with our best science. The philosopher Daniel Dennett—a prominent New Atheist whose best-known book is Breaking the Spell—has for decades been trying to deliver on both counts.

But his critics claim he has failed. His major work Consciousness Explained (1991) was mockingly referred to as “Consciousness Ignored” or “Consciousness Explained Away.” Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Galen Strawson famously said that Dennett should be prosecuted under the Trades Description Act.

Dennett’s latest book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, is unlikely to win over his critics. Their outrage is due to Dennett’s failure to address what is known as the “Hard Problem” of consciousness: “Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?” as David Chalmers puts it. Dennett says his “refusal to play ball with my colleagues is deliberate.” He realises that—as in politics—if you debate on your opponents’ terms, you have already lost. To win, you must set the agenda. His bet is that if you understand consciousness in the right way, the Hard Problem will be exposed as an artefact of an outmoded way of thinking—a pseudo-problem comparable to the fruitless quest in the early 20th century for the élan vital that animates matter.
"As language became more complex, we gained the capacity to mean things by what we said and to understand what others meant"
This approach, however, leaves Dennett almost completely silent on the very thing that characterises consciousness: subjective feeling. This is partly why Dennett is often accused of effectively denying that consciousness exists, of claiming that we are no more aware than zombies. Dennett has denied this. And in his writing, at least, he shows every sign of being very conscious indeed. Although you could mistake the works of some philosophers for the outputs of Turing machines, Dennett writes with sensuous verve—ideas and arguments are “ravishing,” “delightful,” “amusing” and “delicious.”

In this book, Dennett argues that we must understand how consciousness emerged through the process of evolution. To do this we must understand how random, uncomprehending, Darwinian evolution could possibly have given rise to creatures such as us, who are capable of top-down, directed, comprehending action. In his deliberately dizzying summary, we need to see how “a process with no Intelligent Designer can create intelligent designers who can then design things that permit us to understand how a process with no Intelligent Designer can create intelligent designers who can then design things.”

How do we manage that? Any adequate answer must account for how more can come from less, how effects can be greater than causes. More specifically, features we take to be essential to consciousness could have emerged prior to consciousness: Dennett argues that there can be reasons without reasoners, design without designers and competence without comprehension.

That there are reasons without reasoners is evident from the animal kingdom. Dennett compares the ornate towers of Antoni Gaudí’s La Sagrada Família in Barcelona with the fantastical shapes found on termite castles. There are reasons for both existing, but only “Gaudí had reasons for the shapes he ordered and created; there are reasons for the shapes created by the termites, but the termites didn’t have those reasons.”

There is something of a taboo in philosophical circles about spelling it out in these terms because the orthodox view is that science has no place for reasons or purposes. “Teleological” explanations that appeal to ends are supposed to be redolent of pre-scientific Aristotelianism. But Dennett argues that “Darwin didn’t extinguish teleology; he naturalised it.” Darwin showed that there certainly are reasons why organisms do things, but that it isn’t necessary to attribute intention or planning for those reasons to exist. Nature contains design without necessarily having a designer.

Perhaps more significant is that there can be competence without comprehension. Nature displays this in abundance. The kingfisher doesn’t understand how to time its dive into the water to catch its prey, while allowing for the distorting refraction of light—but, boy, it’s brilliant at doing it. Humans are also familiar with competence without understanding. Turing showed how to build a computer that could do any algorithmic task without having any conscious idea what it was doing. We find riding a bike as easy as, well, riding a bike, but few of us know how we manage it.

But how do we get from such unthinking processes to the highly-thought through decisions familiar from everyday life? According to Dennett, the key step was the evolution of language. Animals and plants exchange information all the time. Words, though, add new levels of flexibility and complexity. They can be combined in almost infinite permutations, placing few limits on the information we can convey. Crucially, language didn’t need to start out—indeed it could not have started out—as the rich human artefact it has now become. Early humans didn’t need to understand the primitive language they used any more than bees understand their honey dances.

As language became more complex, we gained the capacity to mean things by what we said and to understand what others meant. Dennett’s most striking thesis is that it is precisely this ability to track other people’s “states of mind” through language that allowed us to track our own—and hence for our highly developed sense of self to emerge. He claims that every organism, even a single cell, has rudimentary selfhood. But when we start communicating richly, we need to be aware of the boundaries of our bodies and the boundaries of our minds—which thoughts are ours and which are other people’s. Words, he argues, “turned our brains into minds—our minds—capable of accepting and rejecting the ideas we encounter, discarding or developing them for reasons we can usually express.”

These minds, however, are not quite what we generally assume them to be. The unified, central-controller self is a “user-illusion.” We tend to think, as Descartes did, that we have privileged access to our own consciousness—“I think, therefore I am”—but in fact our self-awareness is limited, biased and partial. The self is not so much a thing as a “centre of narrative gravity,” a story we tell ourselves to make more coherent the jumbled reality of our minds. Asked why we do what we do, we are quick to find reasons, when “the most honest thing to say is often ‘I don’t know; it just came to me.’”

Whether you buy Dennett’s account or not, it illustrates just how much you can offer by way of a theory of consciousness without addressing the Hard Problem. This certainly isn’t the last word. Dennett modestly describes it as “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence, how our brains work all their wonders.”
"The self is a centre of narrative gravity, a story we tell ourselves to make more coherent the jumbled reality of our minds"
Perhaps Dennett should have left it at that. But he also includes the latest iteration of his long-standing argument against “qualia.” Qualia is a philosophical term of art for what we are directly aware of in consciousness. Qualia are not objects in the world but are internal to our own minds. They are thus private and in some sense ineffable, since it is impossible to convey in language what it is like to experience them. To use Thomas Nagel’s famous example, we have no idea what it is like to be a bat sensing its environment by echolocation. A less exotic example is that if you are colour blind, I can’t explain to you what it is like to see red.

Dennett’s favourite argument against qualia takes as evidence what happens when we stare at an inverted blue, yellow and black version of the American flag, and it is replaced by a white screen. An after-image of the flag seems to appear in its red, white and blue version. But as Dennett says, “there are no red stripes on the page, on your retina, or in your brain. In fact, there is no red stripe anywhere.” There is no thing at all, which means there are no qualia.

Does this mean that Dennett is denying, preposterously, that there is anything it is like to be as a human? It seems clear that Dennett is not saying this, as he insists that “it is like something to be you,” and that “not only are colours real but also consciousness, free will, and dollars.”

And yet I’m not the only one left unsure what exactly Dennett does think about felt experience, largely because he says almost nothing about sensations or affective states. We know what they are not—things perceived by an inner observer—but not enough about what they are. That’s why for all its brilliance and inventiveness, From Bacteria to Bach and Back is not the book to put to rest our fears that scientific accounts of consciousness will rob us of what it means to be human.

Dennett has admitted elsewhere that, “People are often baffled by my theory of consciousness, which seems to them to be summed up neatly in the paradoxical claim that consciousness is an illusion.” He acknowledged that not all of the perplexed are too stupid or lazy to “realise that I probably had something rather less daft in mind.” But although he has considered making his arguments with his critics clearer, he concluded that “life is short, and I have found that task simply too much hard work.”

This is too quick. If Dennett finds it impossible to express an idea in such a way that he does not feel misunderstood, then something must be wrong with either his position or his explanation of it. If he is to win over his critics, Dennett’s own hard problem is his need to do more to show why others should give up theirs.