on 22 July 2008
This rather long and sometimes rambling book achieves at least two thirds of what I expected. Dennett completely demolishes the Cartesian Dualism model, showing through anecdote and experiment that ideas of a separate mind and body are completely out of touch with reality.
A large portion of the book is dedicated to dismantling ideas that are built on this model, I found the non-linear, revisionist perception of time to be one of the most powerful and thought provoking revelations.
Drawing from many fields of science (computing, psychology, neurology and evolutionary biology to name a few) he then goes on to describe his alternative model for consciousness. His multiple drafts theory is empirical, making falsifiable scientific predictions and I believe his description to be an accurate one.
The book is sometimes quite difficult to follow, philosophy is rarely an easy read but I've come to expect popular science writers to speak plainly, where Dawkins coins snappy and self-explanatory words such as "meme" or "concestor" Dennett's "heterophenomenology" is a nine syllable monster. Also it is not a riveting read, it has taken me almost a year to finally finish this book. I enjoyed the experiments, anecdotes, evolutionary biology and computer science much more than the reams of prelude and philosophical reasoning. In my opinion it would have been better as two books, one a highly technical exploration of the philosophy of mind and another popular science for the layman. I would have enjoyed the latter much more.
Finally I think that the title is misleading, it did transform my understanding of human consciousness but it raised as many new questions as it answered. I am no closer to understanding what consciousness is, what it means to be, or whether consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe or an emergent pattern in matter. Perhaps "Consciousness Described" would have been a more fitting title.
on 9 January 2010
"Everything But Consciousness Explained." Not my quote but it is totally true. All the book's explanations of the systems associated with consciousness and perception are marvellous. There is a lot to learn here and the mechanistic approach is admirable. However, this book doesn't deal with consciousness itself.
After discussing consciousness with various people, some well educated in philosophy and science, others who are insightful and others who are just regular guys, I have come to a conclusion. There are some people who do know what is meant by consciousness and there are others who just don't. Even some of the quite clever people. It's not about explaining it, I mean just knowing what is meant by consciousness as a word when used in a normal sentence. Daniel Dennett, unfortunately doesn't seem to know.
The trouble is, all of the brilliant explanations of what happens inside a brain make you forget that the initial problem wasn't to do with how the brain can process information. It was, how can we be _aware_ of information. Or indeed, _aware_ at all. If you can see the difference then you know what the word consciousness refers to.
It's a bit like if Newton had written a book called Forces Explained. Newton deduced that forces exist and elegantly expressed their interactions with matter. However, he was well aware that he didn't actually know what forces were. He was just very good at dealing with their consequences in terms of mathematical descriptions. D.D. explains many of the consequences and issues of having consciousness but fails to understand that these don't explain consciousness itself at all.
I'm rating it high because it's a good book. Just don't be misled by the title.
on 12 November 2013
The contemporary debate, amongst philosophers and cognitive scientists, on the mind body problem seems odd to an outsider. The debate is unreal. We know there is something called "mind stuff" which effects how we feel, what we do, and how we relate to others. This stuff is real. We can describe how it makes us feel, and observers, can see how it effects our behaviour. Everyday life is full of "mind stuff". The idealist view that mind is an immaterial substance doesn't ring true. "Mind stuff", is real and visible, communicated to us everyday. The debate on phenomenal "qualia" and "content-bearing" mental states, and whether these are ultimately reducible to brain states, seems to fly in the face of reality. What we feel; is the "I" in a world made up of "mind stuff"; not isolated moments of sensory or intentional mental states. How can there be a totally physical explanation of the workings of the mind? Even if psycho-biological research knew everything there is to know about the workings of the human brain, that would not tell us anything about "mind stuff". While philosophers and cognitive scientists, look to bridge the "explanatory gap"; cognitive psychologists and neurologists, focus their attention on "mind stuff" and "brain stuff" respectively (ignoring the whole idea of mind-body "subvenience").
This is a great book, for making up your own mind. Dennett brilliantly takes us through all the contemporary findings and investigations of cognitive science without offering a solution to the "explanatory gap". The fact that he moved on to the subject of evolutionary biology in his subsequent books suggests he feels the gap is unbridgeable with present knowledge.
on 16 June 2010
In this undoubtedly opinionated book, Dennett explains and entertains in equal measure. He draws widely on various fields such as Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience in his description of an explanation of consciousness. No, it's not a simple explanation - it wasn't ever going to be! Well worth the effort - I'm now working my way through Freedom Evolves - even more challenging!
on 27 August 2013
I found Dennett's work disappointing in many ways. Much of the work is little more than a long winded paraphrasing of Spinoza's refutation of Descartes.
I found the text quite entertaining in places but had hoped for something a bit more original and a lot more rigorous.
I feel the text lacks clarity and in places becomes convoluted because of the imprecise language and conversational tone used.
It is certainly a book worth reading but it isn't that well written and doesn't really cover any new ground.
After reading it I am convinced Dennett is a much finer orator than he is writer.
The easiest thing to express, and the hardest to explain, is 'self.' If asked to define who you are, most people [excepting Daniel C. Dennett] would say, "Well, I'm me!" Pressed to define this expression those same people would likely flounder about, ending with something about being "conscious of myself - I know in my mind." It is that notion of consciousness that Dennett seeks to explain to us in this absorbing book on mind/brain awareness. Its audacious title notifies the reader that there are some fascinating concepts examined in this book. Dennett's thinking and writing skills have few, if any, peers, but be advised the going isn't always easy. 'Self' is the ultimate philosophical question and Dennett is challenging some dearly cherished beliefs here.
The most common expression of "self" nearly always boils down to the idea that our mind has a central area that observes the world around us. That centre assesses and expresses our concepts of that world in thoughts, speech, writing, whatever. It is that concept that Dennett assaults in this book. Often referred to as the Cartesian Theatre from Rene Descarte's "I think, therefore I am" concept that the brain [physical] and mind [conceptual] were separate, Dennett finds this notion too simplistic. He knows the mind is in the brain. How it works in observing the world and expressing our ideas of it is the theme of this book.
Dennett explains many facets of how we observe and how we react to what we observe. He strives admirably to counter the still widely-held belief that consciousness is a tangible "thing" that can be identified and dealt with. No such "thing" is there, he notes. Instead, the mind is weighing input and dealing with many options at once. He posits a concept of this situation he calls the 'Multiple Drafts' theory. The mind/brain is continuously processing information and making selections about what to respond to and how to make the response. Responses may be speech, writing or simply memory storage.
While Dennett's use of terminology may make the novice quail, his down-to-earth approach to the issues makes this book delightful reading for anyone. Instead of arcane concepts or lofty language from America's pre-eminent philosopher, we're given many concrete examples of how our minds work. His stature, however, is in no small part due to his skills as a communicator. Those skills are artfully expressed in this book. If you have problems with terms like 'heterophenomenology' or 'qualia', take a moment to go back to his definitions, or read on to enjoy his explanations. Either way, there are rewards. Iin short, this whole book is rewarding and will go far in helping human beings understand just what they are. We are conscious, we think, therefore we are human. How to better understand that situation is amply explained by reading this outstanding book. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 28 September 2009
In his lectures, Dan Dennett likes to quote his friend Lee Siegel who's done extensive work on magic:
"I'm writing a book on magic," I explain, and I'm asked, "Real magic?" By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers. "No," I answer: "Conjuring tricks, not real magic." Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic"
This sets up Dennett's argument about consciousness nicely. A lot of people firmly believe that consciousness is some kind of magical property which couldn't possibly simply be a process of mere matter. Or as Dennett states, you have all the brain processes which come together and 'then a miracle happens' and voila, consciousness. Is this really the case? People used to believe in some kind of life force; how could life emerge out of mere matter?! Then the likes of Darwin and Dawkins showed us exactly how: no miracles, no magic, life emerges out of complexity. Is it really such a stretch to believe that the same can happen with consciousness? Dennett doesn't think so.
The hyperbole of the title aside, he doesn't wholly explain consciousness so much as demonstrate what it is not. This book is more of a starting point or a road sign which finally points towards a feasible explanation. Rather than trying to hunt down pixie dust, he says that the Cartesian Theatre absolutely does not exist and therefore we must radically re-think how we approach this topic. Despite what his detractors say, Dennett is not saying that consciousness does not exist; he's telling us that it's not what it seems. Instead, he proposes his own 'Multiple Drafts' theory which throws out the theatre altogether. Agree with him or not, it's hard to walk away from this book without having your confidence about what consciousness is severely shaken.
Be warned, this book is heavy going in places and for most will involved a dramatic shift in perspective (which explains why Dennett is so widely misunderstood and vilified). However, if you are serious about finding out who you really are and open minded enough to accept the possibility that things aren't exactly what they appear to be, then this book is essential reading. That said, I would recommend at least having read (and properly understood!) Richard Dawkins' 'The Selfish Gene' and a decent introduction to the topic of consciousness before attempting this. Sue Blackmore has written two excellent introductory texts (Consciousness: An Introduction & Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction), either of which would be an ideal starting point.
on 21 July 2013
This book would be better titled as "Consciousness Unexplained". Dennett has a genial and engaging, chatty manner which is good in talks (does he avoid debates ?) but doesn't quite work in print. The subject matter is technical and that fact is - despite his claim to be flying the flag for science and precision, he is even vaguer and less precise than the dualists he claims to be displacing.
His prose is prone to descend into techno-waffle, dragging in terms fromm computer science here, and philosophy there, whilst lacking any particular determination to achieve the goal of the title, namely to "Explain Consciousness". He spends pages and pages doing precisely NOT that, but engaging in a chatty discourse about how funny mental phenomena are. We know that - believe it or not - which is why we want some kind of explanation. This book doesnt' do it.
The gist of the book seems to be that although Dennett - to his credit - does not pretend that mental phenomena and consciousness do not exist ( a lot of the charlatans in Cognitive Science do ), he claims that it is some kind of illusion, a trick played by time and evolution. That seems to me to be probably the least satisfying explanation of the entire field, not least for its implicit anti-scientific claim that 'illusions' actually exist, and aren't simply phenomena capable of being investigated like any other.
I still can't fathom why so many people take his writing on this subject seriously. He has nothing really to say about consciousness at all, because like a lot of cognitive scientists, he spends all his time rationalising reasons for ignoring it. This is not serious academic thinking. Ironically, Dennett drive to please his anti-religious audience makes him colossally, religiously irrational about consciousness.
on 14 February 2001
Daniel Dennett is example of that rare beast, a philosopher who pays attention to the discoveries of science. He also does what he can to address important questions with a view to attempting answers, not just to trying to keep the philosophical game going. As such he has more in common with neuroscientists than he does with other philosophers in the area of philosophy of mind. Lay readers will be amazed to discover that there are still philosophers out there who believe in the duality of mind and body! Yes folks, these people exist and draw a salary. If your habits of mind are empiricist and scientific you will enjoy this book. If you believe in magical explanations of mind, you won't enjoy it but you need to read it. It addresses some of the questions which previous reviews on this page claim it doesn't, so don't be put off. As for "if you like this" suggestions, if you like this you will probably be interested in books by Paul and Patricia Churchland, William Calvin, Douglas Hofstadter, Antonio Damasio, and Igor Aleksander. None of them agree with Dennett, but their disagreements are more fruitful than those of "Hard Problem" mysterians or the uncategorisable John Searle. This is the only book I have ever given five stars in a review like this.
on 25 April 2006
This book by Dennett is still perhaps the most comprehensive and best description of the view that "mind" = "brain" and that there is at root no intrinsic difference between human intelligence and artificial intelligence and that there is no separate "mind stuff" - Dennett argues that the will and consciousness can be entirely explained by brain states. This is perhaps the standard work on the question. For an opposing view, you could look at the work of John Searle or Roger Penrose.