January 18, 2002
7:56 AM   Subscribe

My favorite living philosopher of late has been Daniel Dennett. His Consciousness Explained offers an ambitiously complete theory of consciousness, and miraculously manages to synthesize philosophy with neuropsychology without sacrificing the benefits of phenomenological inquiry -- a feat which manifests itself in his Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, the website of which offers a dizzying array of online articles. (An especially interesting sample: "Did HAL Commit Murder?") Finally, he was the founding author of The Philosophical Lexicon, a compendium of in-jokes obscure enough to please the nerdiest philosophy major.
posted by tweebiscuit (33 comments total)

i like penrose and hameroff's idea about brain microtubules synthesizing physics with neuroscience!

combine that with david deutch's idea of the multiverse ("Quantum computers share information with huge numbers of versions of themselves throughout the multiverse.") and you get a greg egan novel :)
posted by kliuless at 8:19 AM on January 18, 2002

Dennett's Consciousness Explained should have been titled Consciousness Explained Away.
posted by pjdoland at 8:25 AM on January 18, 2002

Hal suffered an H-mobius loop. cant blame him. he was doing his job. besides,if bowman and poole had rotated the pod, hal would never seen thier lips move. Ole frank coulda yanked HAL manually...
posted by clavdivs at 8:28 AM on January 18, 2002

Explain pjdoland, if you will... I must admit that Dennett's naturalism (which a synthesis of psychology and philosophy admittedly necessitates) slightly offends my idealist and solipsistic leanings, but within its sphere it's quite attractive. Care to elaborate on your opinion?
posted by tweebiscuit at 8:30 AM on January 18, 2002

I wish someone would write Clavdivs Explained.
posted by Skot at 8:43 AM on January 18, 2002

It's hard to ramsify consciousness without quining it.
posted by mattpfeff at 8:54 AM on January 18, 2002

gotta love that philosphical lexicon!

chomsky, adj. Said of a theory that draws extravagant metaphysical implications from scientifically established facts. "Essentially, Hume's criticism of the Argument from Design is that it leads in all its forms to blatantly chomsky conclusions." "The conclusions drawn from Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle are not only on average chomskier than those drawn from Godel's theorem; most of them are downright merleau-ponty."
posted by asok at 9:00 AM on January 18, 2002

The Lexicon is hilarious! Wish I could have tossed that vocab around while suffering through a notoriously bad class on Radial Political Thought that was neither radical nor really amounted to any real thought. "Je Marcuse!"
posted by mariko at 9:01 AM on January 18, 2002

Good post.
posted by mrbula at 9:05 AM on January 18, 2002

What's great about the lexicon is that it offers as many good definitions as silly in-jokes. I know that I, at least, constantly feel the need to use the word "chisholm" in term papers.

And by the way: matt, asok, mariko -- you've exposed yourselves. You giant nerds.
posted by tweebiscuit at 9:08 AM on January 18, 2002

Thanks, mrbula!
posted by tweebiscuit at 9:08 AM on January 18, 2002

I took intro to Philosophy with Professor Dennett while an undergraduate at Tufts, and I have to say that it was one of the coolest classes I was in throughout my stay there. He didn't go much into his writing, but I've never seen anyone who can debate any topic quite like him. In my humble opinion, he's a brilliant mind.
posted by mau at 9:16 AM on January 18, 2002

Mau, I envy you enough to kill you.
posted by tweebiscuit at 9:25 AM on January 18, 2002

I ate dinner next to Dennett two weeks ago, does that count? Time to move to Boston, eh, Twee?
posted by kahboom at 9:29 AM on January 18, 2002

Crap. Well, I am looking at graduate schools...
posted by tweebiscuit at 9:33 AM on January 18, 2002

Where/what was the dinner, kahboom?
posted by tweebiscuit at 9:34 AM on January 18, 2002

Dennett really misses the boat by denying the existence of qualia. The man you really want to turn to on these matters is Chalmers. Dennett says a lot about psychological consciousness, but nothing about phenomenal consciousness, which is the actual "hard problem".
posted by mcguirk at 9:48 AM on January 18, 2002

At Chez Henri's between Harvard and Porter Sq. in Cambridge... Great Creme Brule and a fantastically tasty Mojito.
posted by kahboom at 9:59 AM on January 18, 2002

mmmmm mojito.
posted by kliuless at 10:06 AM on January 18, 2002

I have a whole bookshelf of books on consciousness. And they each have extensive bibliographies of their own. I enjoy them. They all suffer from the same flaw, however. Without first having a firm grasp on what REALITY is, it's hard to take a theory of consciousness seriously. Conscious of what exactly?
It is really is the old six blind men and an elephant problem.
As far as I can tell, the ultimate structure of reality appears to remains a topic of debate.
Nevertheless, I am all for the fun of it. That why Julian Jaynes and his The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind remains the best of its kind.
posted by quercus at 10:12 AM on January 18, 2002

I've always been a little bit suspicious of Dennett. He seems to recognize that a lot of the interesting problems, around consciousness in particular, will require more detailed scientific examination before it'll make sense to think about them philosophically--and we certainly need more people who can see this. On the other hand, I'm afraid that his work, like Descartes's, often shares science's tendency towards abstraction and reductionism, but without its basis in careful observation.

On the other hand, I love everything about this definition:

quintify, v. To give a popular and oversimplifying account of a philosophical problem. (a) quintifying in opaque contexts: writing an article on Wittgenstein for the Sunday papers; (b) existential quintifier: Walter Kaufmann; (c) universal quintifier: Mortimer Adler.

Great post.
posted by moss at 10:35 AM on January 18, 2002

I really enjoy Dennett (does Consciousness Explained have that fantastic lecture about what if Dennett's brain had a backup somewhere, and they got out of sync? Or is that in The Mind's I? Simlilar but possibly more entertaining than Greg Egan's brilliant SF short story "Learning to be Me"(If you like SF and you like Dennett, you'll probably love Greg Egan))

Where was I? Enjoy Dennett, but reading Consciousness Explained I felt he was building a huge edifice of explanation on just a few observations from studies of visual perception. His model is very interesting but very conjectural, going far beyond what we really know about what's going on. I also found his discussion of qualia unsatisfying, but I don't remember why (sorry).
posted by straight at 10:37 AM on January 18, 2002

Alright, I have to admit my ignorance: I'm an undergrad majoring in philosophy, I've never had a philosophy of mind class or any psychology past 101, I've never read any other works on the philosophy of mind (apart from a few AI-denying works from Searle, which I disagreed with vehemently), and, most damningly, I haven't yet finished Consciousness Explained -- and specifically, I haven't gotten to his rebuttal of qualia yet. Still, I love his ideas, specifically his use of memetics. Of course, I'm aware that many of his ideas are borrowed from other sources -- sources which I've never read. Still, for someone who's still examining the tip of the iceberg, he's a wonderful read; his style is as lucid as the best popular science writing without any loss of argumentative force.

As for your argument, querces (that we must define reality before we can begin to examine consciousness), I feel the need to point out that philosophy, unlike science, has never been able to come to a single definitive conclusion -- even the cogito has been and still is questioned. Dennett, however, conducts his philosophy within science's sphere -- he assumes, for instance, that humans have brains and aren't just tricked into believing so by evil demons, that consciousness has an at least partially material source rather than a spiritual one. In a sense, it doesn't matter whether these assumptions are valid or not, because the problems that exist in their sphere (that is, the hypothetical logical realm in which they are valid) are themselves philosophically interesting and are thus an area for philosophical inquiry.
posted by tweebiscuit at 11:35 AM on January 18, 2002

In case anyone's interested, I posted this link simultaneously on my philosophy weblog, and linked again to this post after it became so fruitful: "I have to admit that my motive was a bit selfish -- there's a number of philosophy nerds lurking on MeFi, and this sort of link always brings them out of the woodwork, with results that I find quite educational." I'm looking for more contributors to said weblog, and it seems obvious that quite a few of you would fit the bill -- is anyone interested?
posted by tweebiscuit at 11:45 AM on January 18, 2002

Loved the Lexicon. I was hoping it would have "scrutonize," and behold, it did (good definition, too).
posted by thomas j wise at 11:49 AM on January 18, 2002

I love Origin of Consciousness... too - whether or not you find the thesis plausible, it is full of fascinating ideas and information, and simply a really fun read.

I was really excited to read Emergence, but I'm lazy & broke so didn't pick it up and now reviews on Amazon say it's disappointing, so maybe I'll just borrow it. But that seems like the direction to look into re: consciousness. Damasio, Kurzweil, Penrose, & Luria pop off my bookshelf as other thinkers (admittedly not exactly philosophers but the topic sprawls into many disciplines) who've made some interesting attempts in this area.
posted by mdn at 11:55 AM on January 18, 2002

I would agree with Mau, way above in this thread. I also took intro to Philo with Dennett at Tufts, and not only is he a brilliant mind, but a great teacher. On one of my papers, he called me a "nascent philosopher" -- Even though I'm not too involved in theory/academics/metaphysics generally, I will always carry that compliment with me. And as for Chez Henri -- what makes the creme brulee so kick-ass is the maple and the blueberries. You have excellent taste, kahboom.
posted by Dzolali at 11:59 AM on January 18, 2002

Both the original links and the comments upon it sum up why I love Metafilter so much ...
posted by thatwhichfalls at 12:15 PM on January 18, 2002

twee, I definitely think you'd dig reading The Conscious Mind, if not now then at least when you get to the point where you're going to be taking a philosophy of mind class. Chalmers starts with an assertion that Dennett denies--that conscious experience is something real that demands explanation over and above describing the physical world--and carries that as far as he can take it. He concludes basically that there are a set of laws that say things like "such-and-such physical process gives rise to such-and-such conscious experience", and that we just don't know what they are yet. His best guess is that the laws are some form of functionalism--so, e.g., a machine that carries out the same processes as a human brain would in fact feel things the same way a human does. Of course, a lot of respected philosophers disagree with this, but personally I think Chalmers is right, and I think his book is the best modern formulation of the problem of consciousness from the point of view of Western philosophy (at least that I've heard about).

He has a web site, too...
posted by mcguirk at 1:15 PM on January 18, 2002

Thanks, mcguirk! That sounds pretty similar to my own (rather uninformed) beliefs about philosophy of mind... but this doesn't sound that different from Dennett's theory to me. (Again, I haven't read his argument against qualia... I'll have to as soon as possible.)

Have any other philosophers approached the issue of memetics as Dennett has? In my opinion, that's the most interesting part of his theory, because it provides an amazingly robust model for the "software" that runs on the brain's "hardware."
posted by tweebiscuit at 1:30 PM on January 18, 2002

memetics origin is with Richard Dawkins - The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, Blind Watchmaker

the particular functionalism Dennett advocates is homuncular functionalism - lots of little demons doing simple tasks, loosely heirarchically structured, so that apparently complex phenomenological experiences are the result of gazoodles of daemon processes interacting

Dennett fits well with Derek Parfit - multiple selves.

"computation" models of the mind/brain suffer from the phenomenologically obvious fact that, I perform no calculations when perceiving the world. I see that the tree is behind the car, but I don't calculate that relation. "calculation" is used so euphemistically that it has no cash value left, yet the folks who rely on it don't realize this . . .

best approaches, I believe, must include some consideration of developmental psychology . . . and that development is a persistent trait of all critters - growth never stops

oh - and throw in some Mikhail Bakhtain. Very much in line with Dennett's view of self as a textual entity: we construct stories about ourselves, etc., and the "self" is both the story, the author, and the audience . . .

I miss this stuff.
posted by yesster at 1:59 PM on January 18, 2002

My anti-cogito friend likes Bakhtain, if I remember correctly.

I know that Dawkins originated memetics (or at least coined the term and engaged in some speculation -- I'm about to start reading The Selfish Gene) but I'm asking about other philosophers who have mentioned memetics within the context of philosophy of mind.
posted by tweebiscuit at 5:17 PM on January 18, 2002

i like penrose and hameroff's idea about brain microtubules

Hey, I used to type up Dr. Hameroff's microtubules papers at the Advanced Biotechnology Lab when I was attending the U of A!
posted by rushmc at 8:53 AM on January 20, 2002

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