Real Consciousness

in Consciousness in Philosophy and Cognitive Neuroscience, A. Revonsuo & M. Kamppinen, eds., Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994.

Real Consciousness

In Consciousness Explained (Dennett, 1991), I put forward a rather detailed empirical theory of consciousness, together with an analysis of the implications of that theory for traditional philosophical treatments of consciousness. In the critical response to the book, one of the common themes has been that my theory is not a "realist" theory, but rather an eliminativist or verificationist denial, in one way or another, of the very reality of consciousness. Here I will draw together a number of those threads, and my responses to them.Endnote 1

It is clear that your consciousness of a stimulus is not simply a matter of its arrival at some peripheral receptor or transducer; most of the impingements on our end-organs of sense never reach consciousness, and those that do become elements of our conscious experience somewhat after their arrival at your peripheries. To put it with bizarre vividness, a live, healthy eyeball disconnected from its brain is not a seat of visual consciousness--or at least that is the way we are accustomed to think of these matters; the eyes and ears (and other end organs) are entry points for raw materials of consciousness, not the sites themselves of conscious experiences. So visual consciousness must happen in between the eyeball and the mouth--to put it crudely. Where?

To bring out what the problem is, let me pose an analogy: you go to the racetrack and watch three horses, Able, Baker and Charlie, gallop around the track. At pole 97 Able leads by a neck; at pole 98 Baker, at pole 99 Charlie, but then Able takes the lead again, and then Baker and Charlie run neck and neck for awhile, and then, eventually all the horses slow down to a walk and are led off to the stable. You recount all this to a friend, who asks "Who won the race?" and you say, well, since there was no finish line, there's no telling. It wasn't a real race, you see, with a finish line. First one horse led and then another, and eventually they all stopped running.

(The whole paper is now available in Daniel Dennett, Brainchildren, Essays on Designing Minds, MIT Press and Penguin, 1998.)


1.This paper draws on Dennett and Kinsbourne, 1992b, Dennett, 1993, forthcoming a and b.