Daniel Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained” and Beyond

This has been revised, see #11 :v:t2:

A Student’s Resource

Dr. Dennett’s book “Consciousness Explained” (1991) is a fascinating look at consciousness from a natural sciences respecting philosophical perspective*. The product of generations worth of philosophical tradition predicated on the notion that thinkers should be able to logic together a Theory of human Consciousness, from the outside looking in, often treating consciousness as a thing, rather than an interaction.

No promises on how long it’ll take to fill in the rest.


Can you provide a high summary of his main ideas, say in 200 words or less? The last book of his I tried reading put me to sleep - utterly dry and uninspiring. But that could have been the book.

That’s actually a pretty good challenge. The main thing is that he promises to provide a Theory of Consciousness, but I don’t think he delivers, but being a philosopher he never runs out of things to say.
There are some very interesting sections. Also a lot of highfalutin philosophical ideas that leave me in the dust and that I have no intention of disputing, since within his frame of reference I can see how it might some sense.

I’ll keep your challenge in mind. At some point I’m going to have to give it a try. Though right now I need to keep focused on moving the project forward and try to get some momentum going. My run of intermittent free days to really focus on this are about to come to an end so we’ll see how it goes.

“Consciousness Explained” by Daniel Dennett ©1991 - Little Brown Publishers

Prelude: How Are Hallucinations Possible?

Chapter 1- 1 The Brain In The Vat

“… Might you be nothing but a brain in a vat? Might you have always been just a brain in a vat? If so, could you even conceive of your predicament (let along confirm it)?

The idea of the brain in the vat is a vivid way of exploring these questions, but I want to put the old saw to another use. I want to use it to uncover some curious facts about hallucinations, which in turn will lead us to the beginnings of a theory - an empirical, scientifically respectable theory - of human consciousness.”

Dennett starts by looking at various aspects of the generations old Thought Experiment of the “Brain in a Vat.” Philosophers have offered idealized versions and interpretations of it for hundreds of years.

Before continuing I want to mention that I’m glad Dennett made a point of warning us to be leery of “it’s possible in principle” declarations. Many things are possible in principle but impossible in reality.

“Logic” is a bit like that. Correct reasoning and good argument are fine and the rules of logical are excellent guidelines. Still, a lot of mischief can be inflicted within propositions and inferences while remaining true to the rules of logic. Just have to look at the work of climate science contrarians.

Logic is a process for making a conclusion and a tool you can use.

  • The foundation of a logical argument is its proposition, or statement.
  • The proposition is either accurate (true) or not accurate (false).
  • Premises are the propositions used to build the argument.
  • The argument is then built on premises.
  • Then an inference is made from the premises.
  • Finally, a conclusion is drawn.


It’s a small detail, still, it’s worth mentioning in such a philosophical explorations.

Beyond that, from an Earth Centrist perspective, the whole premise of the Brain in a Vat, that is trying to imagine the brain disconnected from the body, doesn’t resonate on any level.

All it does is remind me of musings that I graduated out of with childhood, when I started recognizing I was a self, a real person having to accept and interact with the reality of the city and people around me. If I closed my eyes, the world around me wasn’t going anywhere, no matter how much older friends tried to fool me into believing otherwise, and I also realized I had better learn how to deal with it.

By and by the question that settled it for me was: Do I have the imagination to conjure up this city, Chicago, or the lake, or the sand dunes on the other side? What about all the people around me? How could I? It was ludicrous, utterly impossible for my child’s mind to imagine.

By and by, as I learned ever more about Earth’s Evolution and the rise of life and creatures, I came to realize that simply the fact of my existing on this planet and being capable of contemplating the vast panorama around me, was proof positive that Earth’s Evolution was a real thing that followed down one and only one particular path, any deviation and I simply wouldn’t be here. How well we understand the details of that history is totally beside the point to the fact of the material history of Earth along with the life she created.

Sure, at one time there was infinite potential, but Evolution, like me and you, can only go down one path at a time and there are no redo’s. How well we understand that heritage, that’s an altogether separate matter.

What stumps me, especial when this Brain in a Vat is brought up: Why is the “Consciousness” being investigated seldom defined with any detail?

Nor do I hear the lessons of Earth’s Evolution truly incorporated within modern philosophical musings which too often seem intent on rehashing its own historical arguments, rather than taking a fresh look at the flood of biological and neuroscience findings coming in.

I’m told the mind doesn’t exist, or its connection to the brain’s biology hasn’t been proven enough. Then I see the images from the Human Connectome Project and wonder, who’s kidding whom? How does one explain away those images? Sure, lots left to learn, but how about some effort into absorbing more of what we’ve already learned?

Then start afresh by looking at consciousness from within living creatures, rather than thinking about us thinking about our mind.

Within our real world, single celled organisms display awareness and intent. A realistic Theory of Consciousness requires starting with that foundation and working up. A theory would also acknowledge that consciousness is an interaction between living creatures and the physical environment it exists within, including the host’s physical body.

Studies of color perception, optical illusions, and hallucinations are about understanding the human mind and brain architecture and how that produces our self-awareness. I don’t dismissing any of that, because all of that is certainly valuable and important to figure out.

But it belongs to psychology with little to offer an all encompassing Theory of Consciousness, since creature awareness and consciousness started in the Ediacaran and Cambrian and has been evolving ever since.

Our human mind is the cherry on top of the consciousness sundae that a half billion years of Earth’s biological research and development created.

The Brain in a Vat thought experiment will always be blissfully oblivious to the reality of “consciousness’s” evolutionary continuum, making it irrelevant.

I think I’ve outline my intro as well:

This won’t be a critique so much as an intellectual road trip through Daniel Dennett’s 1991 book Consciousness Explained. As an Earth Centrist, I’m setting off on a journey through the landscape of current philosophizing about human consciousness.

My goal is to better understand, and hopefully explicate a more cogent description of my Earth Centrist concept with its claim that an explicit appreciation of the Human Mindscape ~ Physical Reality divide - is a critical first base prerequisite for science and deep-time and evolutionary concepts to start making sense. A sort of benchmark to orient fact from self-inflicted pipe dream.


Note to Daniel Dennett and Little Brown Ltd, publishers of

Consciousness Explained

by Daniel Dennett

©1991, Little Brown & Company Ltd. (Canada)

ISBN 0-316-18065-3

I respectfully acknowledge your exclusive copyright on the content in Consciousness Explained, I also expect that you would acknowledge, not just the philosophical scholastic, but also the far ranging public interest and even participation your printed words and public talks encourage. Consciousness Explained has become part of the public debate.

I therefore claim Fair Use in the following project to quote various paragraphs and such from your book. There is no other way to fairly represent your thoughts, which will function as a springboard for me to present a long overlooked Earth Centrist perspective.

Your understanding and hopefully permission would be much appreciated.

aka citizenschallenge

Thanks, I guess in the time it took you to type those couple of paragraphs you could have given a couple sentences summing his main idea up. :slight_smile: No biggie. I do hear you though - when I was studying philosophy way way back, you couldn’t ask a professor what he had for breakfast without getting a long harangue in return.

I do have other things that take priority.

Besides, was planning on dancing around that until the end of the book since, in true philosophical tradition, this book is more about asking questions, supposing mind experiments, making suggestions, then shooting them down as often as not.

The title is a bit of a bait and switch, but here are some hints,

P433 14-1 Dennett’s Consciousness Explained.

How could the brain be the seat of consciousness? This has usually been treated as a rhetorical question by philosophers, suggesting that an answer to it would be quite beyond human comprehension. A primary goal of this book as been to demolish that presumption. I have argued argued that you can imagine how all that complicated slew of activity in the brain amounts to conscious experience.

My argument is straight-forward: I have shown you how to do it. It turns out that the way to imagine this is to think of the brain as a computer of sorts. …"

It’s also an example of how they like building up great narratives, only to blast them to hell. It’s more about the debate than a pragmatic solution.

A) Talking about activity in the brain, while ignoring all the brain activity that occurs within our body.

B) We are a biological system that works via mechanisms way beyond binary switching. - The computer analogy has very limited realistic utility and invoking as an element of consciousness is a cop out.


p.455 14-4 start of final paragraph

"My explanation of consciousness is far from complete. One might even say that it was just the beginning, but it is a beginning, because it breaks the spell of the enchanted circle of ideas that made explaining consciousness seem impossible. I haven’t replaced a metaphorical theory, the Cartesian Theater (of the mind), with a nonmetaphorical (“literal science”) theory.

All I have done, really, is to replace one family of metaphors and images with another, trading in the Theater, the Witness, the Central Meaner, the Figment, for Software, Virtual Machines, Multiple Drafts, a Pandemonium of Homunculi. It’s just a war of metaphors, you say, . . . (Metaphors are tools we can’t do without) . . .
Look what we have built with our tools. Could you have imagined it without them?

Spoken like the superb story teller and intellectual entertainer that Dennett is. Some great ideas, but a lot of chaff.
{cuthbertj I’ll make a point to offer a more meaningful concise 200 words, after I’ve done more homework and chew on it a bit more.}

If you want to really think about your consciousness in a real world sense, I’d suggest a better bet than philosophy would be getting up to speed on work Dr. Solm and that direction of the science. And if you want to tantalize yourself with images of the mind in action check out the Human Connectome Project.

NERV Online - July 29, 2020

David Chalmers’s (1995) hard problem famously states: “It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises.” Thomas Nagel (1974) wrote something similar: “If we acknowledge that a physical theory of mind must account for the subjective character of experience, we must admit that no presently available conception gives us a clue about how this could be done.” This presentation will point the way towards the long-sought “good explanation” – or at least it will provide “a clue”. Prof Solms will make three points:

(1) It is unfortunate that cognitive science took vision as its model example when looking for a ‘neural correlate of consciousness’ because cortical vision (like most cognitive processes) is not intrinsically conscious. There is not necessarily ‘something it is like’ to see.

(2) Affective feeling, by contrast, is conscious by definition. You cannot feel something without feeling it. Moreover, affective feeling, generated in the upper brainstem, is the foundational form of consciousness: prerequisite for all the higher cognitive forms.

(3) The functional mechanism of feeling explains why and how it cannot go on ‘in the dark’, free of any inner feel. Affect enables the organism to monitor deviations from its expected self-states in uncertain situations and thereby frees homeostasis from the limitations of automatism. As Nagel says, “An organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.” Affect literally constitutes the sentient subject.

The Royal Institution

The Royal Institution - March 4, 2021

Mark Solms discusses his new theory of consciousness that returns emotions to the centre of mental life. Mark’s book “The Hidden Spring” is available now: https://geni.us/CWaA Watch the Q&A: https://youtu.be/gmOzBePcRg4 Understanding why we feel a subjective sense of self and how it arises in the brain seems like an impossible task. Mark explores the subjective experiences of hundreds of neurological patients, many of whom he treated. Their uncanny conversations help to expose the brain’s obscure reaches.

Mark Solms has spent his entire career investigating the mysteries of consciousness. Best known for identifying the brain mechanisms of dreaming and for bringing psychoanalytic insights into modern neuroscience, he is director of neuropsychology in the Neuroscience Institute of the University of Cape Town, honorary lecturer in neurosurgery at the Royal London Hospital School of Medicine, and an honorary fellow of the American College of Psychiatrists.

Back on the grid after a few days.

What strikes me as humorous about this is, when I first went looking for proofs of God, this was a bedrock assumption for many. They would point to creation and say something amazingly powerful must have created it. Then wave their hands and connect that to their particular deity.

Evolution has the advantage of connecting many dots, having real theories with data and logic.

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Yeah feels good doesn’t it? Also feels tenuous, how easy connection can disappear.

Me I’m celebrating the rain and with a bunch running around and transferring water here and there I was able to collect a good 500/600gal of rain water, 36 hours ago my cube was empty and the pair at the garden we were down to one days worth of garden water, now our cube is full and the garden pair are 2/3 rd up. What a nice feeling. :hugs: :cowboy_hat_face:

But the river flow has bombed, that’s sad. When it’s flowing life just feels better.

Then we had rain and the river got a reprieve

Then I had a chance to work on that introduction a bit more, now I’m feeling way more comfortable with it.

Introduction: I am, therefore I think.

This won’t be a critique, so much as an intellectual road trip through Dr. Daniel Dennett’s 1991 book Consciousness Explained. As an Earth Centrist I’m setting off on a journey through Professor Dennett’s mindscape and his philosophical suggestions regarding human consciousness.

Why? In order to better understand and enunciate my own Earth Centrist concept with its claim that an explicit appreciation of the Human Mindscape ~ Physical Reality divide provides a sort of benchmark to help us better orient ourselves between fact and self-inflicted pipe dreams.

I’m finding that these insights have produced a radically different philosophical outlook in me. One build up around an increasing awareness of my evolutionary creature origins and the realization that Earth is my touchstone with reality, with its implications.

Quite a leap down from the oft repeated philosophical conceit that: “I think, therefore I am.” Which to me seems a profound disconnect from Earth’s Evolutionary reality and the consequences of being kin with all other creatures on this planet.

Descartes was blind to so much that we’ve learned. I would argue with him: “I am, therefore I think!” My physical being is what creates my mind, and my body’s interaction with the world is all I know. Take away my body and I am gone, but for memories in others.

(take two)

Been chewing on Descartes’ four century old declaration: “I think, therefore I am,” for a long time, like an old wad of cud that just won’t go down. Though now I think it’s finally gone down with the recognition that in truth:

I am, therefore I think!

Does a much better job of reflecting the physical reality that we humans aren’t the magical result of a God, we aren’t the center of creation, we are evolved biological creatures - formed by Earth’s processes.

Four hundred years ago the human imagination was just beginning to escape the Catholic (and others) Church dogmas. The European/world view was that we were created by God in an of magical thinking. I’m not faulting it, it was genius, which is why it’s still discussed, but humanity’s knowledge base and intellect as outgrown those days when church dogma was like a straight-jacket upon society and sober learning about our planet and the processes that produced us.

It also occurred to me that the mental process, rationale, he used to arrive at his famous declaration is a most quintessential example of one aspect of this Abrahamic mindset I speak of.

The complete self-centeredness, even self-serving:

I think, therefore I am, and thereby I set the world into motion.

I also see an unrecognized undercurrent driving this mindset: the universe needs to prove itself to us.

It seems to me a very human impulse, but one that most balanced humans come to terms with somewhere between childhood and adulthood.

Of course, it’s the philosophers job to question everything, problem is they too often lose their bearings. The bitting questions, the provocative suppositions are their stock and trade, arriving at pragmatic solutions get’s a shrug. As the world burns.

In 1650, it was a radical idea, but philosophy was pretty bad back then. Things got a lot better a couple hundred years ago. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Perhaps the most profound effect that Descartes had on early modern epistemology and metaphysics arose from his idea to examine the knower as a means to determine the scope and possibilities of human knowledge. Among his immediate followers, Malebranche most fully developed this aspect of Descartes’ philosophy. Subsequent philosophers who were not followers of Descartes also adopted the strategy of investigating the knower. The epistemological works of Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, Thomas Reid, and Immanuel Kant pursued this investigation. These authors came to different conclusions than had Descartes concerning the ability of the human mind to know things as they are in themselves. Hume and Kant especially—and each in his own way—rejected the very notion of a metaphysics that reveals reality as it is in itself. They did not merely deny Descartes’ particular metaphysical theories; they rejected his sort of metaphysical project altogether. But they did so through the type of investigation that Descartes himself had made prominent: the investigation of the cognitive capacities of the knower.

Hume died in 1776. He didn’t quite work out the problem of being skeptical of everything. Camus is my favorite 20th century guy. He flies in the face of philosophy, something I’d think you would like. Albert Camus (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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Thanks, interesting read that put a fresh spin on Sisyphus

… For Camus, Sisyphus reminds us that we cannot help seeking to understand the reality that transcends our intelligence, striving to grasp more than our limited and practical scientific understanding allows, and wishing to live without dying. Like Sisyphus, we are our fate, and our frustration is our very life: we can never escape it.

But there is more. After the rock comes tumbling down, confirming the ultimate futility of his project, Sisyphus trudges after it once again. This “is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock” …

… This is how a life without ultimate meaning can be made worth living. …

Thanks, there’s a lot more to take there. But it’s late and I"m tired. I’ll be revisiting it, looks like a fun diversion from the consciousness game.

I’ll have to check Pyrrho, see what he writes about him… Someone I know, but only through the eyes of Robert M. Pirsig via 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

What a book that was especially at 19, on a Greyhound Bus literally across the USA, CA to the Atlantic Ocean, even got to walk into the US Capital Building , casual as walking into one of those grand cathedrals, but this was American, this was the place… Sat in the gallery for an hour or so, American society has lost a lot during our life time. That sense Fair Play, hard work, earning your pay, trust and respect. I know it was eroding already, but for this nice white boy if a bit of a freakster it was a kind, trusting, even welcoming place, all over the states… Oh well, so it is, good night, . . .

Professor Dennett shared this paper with me and I think tomorrow I’m going to share this with him:

“Consciousness Explained, at Thirty” - By Jared Warren

Page 13

This ‘multiple drafts’ account is not yet a full theory of consciousness. Instead, it sets up Dennett’s theory. The most important parts of the set- up are those I have detailed:

  1. consciousness can be indeterminate in various ways; and

(ii) the consciousness-enabling architecture of the mind does not include anything like an inner observer, instead something becomes conscious when it reaches system-wide influence. (what about the physical body - isn’t that a constant inner observer who is providing constant feedback to the brain?)

Why is our physical body most always ignored by philosophers?

Isn’t your body your one companion through every moment of life that you experience?

Love it or hate it, your body is the vehicle through which you’ve experienced everything and learned everything. Show it some respect.

It deserves a bunch more credit, the brain in a vat doesn’t exist, the brain exists within a body, the two combined create a living creature and it’s the living that creates consciousness.

A thorough appreciation of Earth’s Evolution over deep-time indicates that awareness appeared with the first living cells on Earth, billions of years ago, then came the complex internally cooperative metropolis of the eukaryotic cells !

By and by some 600 millions years ago those cells created organisms that evolved into basically ever more complicated sensing, processing, and action creatures.

From the physical reality of Earth’s Evolution, a Theory of Consciousness would recognize that, “Consciousness” is in fact, a fundamental biologic imperative.

The knowledge needed for a Theory of Consciousness would need to begin with understanding the Ediacaran and Cambrian Periods and the birth of complex creatures and ecology and biomes and competition and so on. Day by day as time raced ever forward.

Human consciousness is the cherry upon Earth’s Consciousness Sundae.

I love this metaphor’s poetic coincidence, in that this human cherry of an introspective mind is nestled within a mountain of mammalian whipped cream.

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In the above #15, I see nothing I can object to. In fact, I believe my various missives tend to support this perspective and even lend some science to the philosophical perspective.