On Reading Dennett’s Consciousness Explained

I recently finished reading Consciousness Explained, an engaging and brilliant book by the philospher of mind, Daniel Dennett. The book’s central mission is to dismantle the Cartesian theater of the mind, replacing a single, non-material observer with the idea of a “multiple drafts” theory of consciousness, wherein the self emerges as a sort of mirage arising from various perceputual systems and “semi-independent agencies” distributed throughout the brain.

One day during the reading of it, I took the time to really try to pay more attention than usual while meditating, and noticed how many mental events (and even physical ones like sipping my coffee) were happening independently, largely independently and beyond my conscious control.

His book reminded me of the Buddhist concept of non-self (anatta) – the idea that no unchanging or permanent self can be found in any phenomenon within or external to the mind. I don’t suggest this as a serious influence on Dennett in any way, and the relationship between the two is not at all explicit. However, it does strike me that they both share the view that the individual’s identity is in some respects illusory or emergent.

There were many aspects of Dennett’s book that I loved. On the other hand, it’s fair to say that some of his ideas have not aged well – especially those around AI and computers in general. No one mentions Wordstar these days, for example, and certainly we no longer think of such applications as “virtual machines”. Of course, anything involving computers gets dated quite quickly. (Ask anyone who’s ever tried to sell a book on a programming language or software library a few years later).

Dennett’s book did prompt me to do some (still preliminary and cursory) experiments with modern AI systems, but to my knowledge no one has yet seriously modelled human consciousness in any of these (though I no longer see this as impossible as I once did).

Above all the book made me want to learn more about the vast interdisciplinary field of cognitive science. It also suggested several next books, including I Am a Strange Loop and The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind.