29 Oct 2014

Daniel Dennett’s “User Illusion”

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Back when I was a materialist, I loved Daniel Dennett’s theory that consciousness was an evolutionarily driven “user illusion.” Gene Callahan actually pulled me out of that by asking the simple question: Who is the user being fooled?

Gene’s question was so poignant that it either was devastating (if you agree with him) or childish (if you disagree with him). That’s how those one-sentence put-downs work.

Well, I still like Gene’s critique, but how do you square it with this? I have had many dreams over the years in which I’m effectively watching a movie (or a TV show), and there’s a surprise ending. Most nightmares are like this, but it’s not just nightmares; I’ve “watched” really entertaining dreams with an ending I didn’t see coming.

So, what the heck is going on there? However you explain it, I think it makes Dennett’s theory of consciousness a lot more attractive, after all.

20 Responses to “Daniel Dennett’s “User Illusion””

  1. LK says:

    The best physicalist explanation of consciousness is that of John Searle:

    • Major.Freedom says:

      Why is it the best?

      • Grane Peer says:

        I don’t know if it’s the best but Searle isn’t half the idiot Dennett is.

  2. Maurizio says:

    Who is the user being fooled?

    Bob, sorry but do you really think Dennett did not ask himself this question ? In his recent book, “intuition pumps and other tools for thinking”, he himself poses this question to disprove some naive theory of the mind.

    • Andrew says:

      You could have fooled me.

      Just kidding. There is no me. In fact, I’m pretty sure that this entire comment thread is an illusion created by my brain. Or is it your brain? Who can tell? No one. Because we’re all illusions.

  3. Josiah says:

    I don’t see how this supports Dennet’s view. The fact that self-deception is possible doesn’t show that there is no self.

  4. Major.Freedom says:

    Dennett claims consciousness is an illusion. That the ego is an illusion. Brain

    That which always presents itself as an illusion might be mistaken as being an illusion itself, but presenting itself to the non-ego as an illusion does not mean the ego is itself an illusion.

    My ego can be indescribable, fully unique, and the phenomena of illusions can flow out of it. If I sought myself in the non-ego, as Dennett is doing, I would find only non-ego as well. Dennett is looking for ego where it does not exist. He is looking for his unique self in other people’s brains, can’t find it, and so believes his own self is an illusion.

    The ego destroys. Dennett’s ego is a destroyer of “itself”, hoping to know a world without a knower. Can’t be done.

    • Major.Freedom says:

      Dennett believes that if there is an ego, then it must be found in the “human species”. If it cannot be found in the species, then it does not exist.

      But if each ego is unique, then Dennett has never said anything about THIS ego.

  5. Andrew says:

    Dennet’s theory doesn’t really do anything for me one way or another, but here’s my take on dreams with surprise endings: Your dream isn’t made up ahead of time. It is created in real time as you dream. Any “surprise ending” you experience is created at the moment you experience it and not before. If it seems like the dream was building to the surprise ending, it is simply your mind putting together previously disparate events in a moment of creativity. The reason it seems like a surprise is because, in your dream, your imagination is reality. A sleeping moment of surprise is the equivalent of a waking moment of eureka. You are surprised by your own creativity, even though you can’t realize that the surprise was your own creation while dreaming.

  6. Maurizio says:

    Bob, here you can see Dennett himself using Gene’s argument again Crick: (quote from Dennett’s book, Intuition Pumps and other tools for thinking):

    Crick made a bold pronouncement: it had recently been shown that neurons in cortical area V4 “cared about” (responded differentially to) color. And then he proposed a strikingly simple hypothesis: the conscious experience of red, for instance, was activity in the relevant red-sensitive neurons of that retinal area. Hmm, I wondered. “Are you saying, then, that if we were to remove some of those red-sensitive neurons and keep them alive in a petri dish, and stimulate them with a microelectrode, there would be consciousness of red in the petri dish?” One way of responding to a proffered reductio is to grasp the nettle and endorse the conclusion, a move I once dubbed outsmarting, since the Australian philosopher J. J. C. Smart was famous for saying that yes, according to his theory of ethics, it was sometimes right to frame and hang an innocent man! Crick decided to outsmart me. “Yes! It would be an isolated instance of consciousness of red!” Whose consciousness of red? He didn’t say.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Thanks Maurizio. I don’t deny that Dennett has thought of the problem, I’m just not seeing how his own theory evades it.

  7. Adash says:

    Can the soul be an unseen force such as gravity, and the brain something that has evolved over time being influenced by such forces as such?

    Im not trying to influence anyone of anything here, but from my own experience and the way Ive always heard the soul spoken of and the meaning I have taken from the language and tone from people over time(my life), the soul is something always considered something to be less(or even before is what I may mean) than that of logic, and encompasses an entire organism(usually in reference to the human organism but also quite often that of animals). Logic is usually spoken of as something that is in direct relation to the brain only, and is responsible for the voice in our head that allows us to think. Logical thinking, and pictures in our heads that we also organize with our faculty of logic, I believe are real things. Anything that takes place in the universe, is made of real things, of course not everything is of the same nature. Our brains are a part of the whole body. Logic is of the brain. The soul influences the direction of the body, which gives direct access to the faculty of logic. If anything Im painting a picture right now. Ive never heard of any of these people and I dont care if this really makes sense to anyone. I think its amazing that anyone could conceive in the logical part of their brain in the first place. Any who, what Im getting at or seeing myself is that user=soul and logic=illusion if things are the way Im saying they could, may be or are not.

    But illusion is a silly idea if it means anything but fooling someone with intent upon doing so. I would use confusion or misunderstanding if we are talking about any false explanation of an observation that actually took place, whether one person observed it, or many. In any case the individual rarely moves forward with a belief all on his/her own without confirmation from other observers in the face of an unique experience.

    I see what I see and you dont have to, but maybe you can or do understand?

  8. Scott says:

    If a non-physical mind/soul/consciousness exists, surely it receives input from physical sources, including the physical brain. If mind and brain are different, there’s no issue in one being surprised by the other.

    If only the physical exists, and some combination of neurons produces consciousness while other neurons perform different tasks, there’s no issue in the consciousness neurons being surprised by another, separate, group.

    I don’t think surprise in dreaming either supports or refutes either side in this debate.

    • Major.Freedom says:

      Physical objects cannot receive input from non-physical sources?

  9. Innocent says:

    I think I am simply a figment of my imagination.

    • Andrew says:

      No, you’re obviously a figment of my imagination.

  10. Seth says:

    > I have had many dreams over the years in which I’m effectively watching a movie (or a TV show), and there’s a surprise ending.

    If I understand the point correctly, the idea is that somehow you yourself are imagining something that then surprises you: If you imagined it in the first place then why are you surprised?

    But you might as well ask the same when you, say, have a seizure: Those nervous impulses are obviously a product of your own brain, so why didn’t you know you were going to send those signals to the rest of your body?

    Your conscious mind, the part of you that experiences surprise, is not all there is to your mind. Other parts of your brain, which you may not be aware of, can spring things on you that you don’t expect.

    Here’s a good example of parts of someone’s brain doing things without them being aware: http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2008/12/22/blind-man-navigates-obstacle-course-perfectly-with-no-visual/

  11. Harold says:

    A perception of surprise does not have mean that an event was not anticipated. If we have a “surprise circuit”, which gives us the perception of surprise when activated, we can be surprised by the entirely predictable.

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