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Daniel Dennett, Author of ‘Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking’ (nytimes.com)
54 points by krg 1518 days ago | hide | past | web | 31 comments | favorite



It's interesting because I'm from a neuroscience training and have traditionally and reflexively and argumentatively sided with the idea that things like consciousness and free will are emergent illusions.

However, I've recently had a crisis of confidence when for some reason I tried to think about the fact that my experience of consciousness and color and etc does actually exist somehow inside the universe and that others seem to experience it similarly. Of course there's a similarity of physical structure that's common to brains that have those experiences. But more from the point of view of if you stumble upon some complex object for example, you could wonder whether it is experiencing the illusion of free will. If that's all purely emergent from known physical laws, we should be able to determine whether a particular object possesses/produces the illusion, right? So, that got me wondering what is the minimal hardware/spatial configuration that could produce this sort of illusion and are illusions actually "something"? It seems like it's presupposing that certain arrangements of matter generate "illusions" and yet we seem to want to insist that at some level these "illusions" don't really exist. How far down do illusions go? Some people are born blind or deaf/have strokes, so the illusion of color vision or sound can be isolated and removed from the illusion of consciousness. Do "and gates" experience some sort of atomic illusion of "and"? Can the presence of illusion be tested? Anyway, not sure I'm making a cogent statement, I'm still not entirely clear on what's bothering me about this, but something "feels" intuitively wrong/missing to me about the purely physical emergent neuroscience approach now.


You might find The Mind's I [1], co-edited by Dan Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter, to be valuable. In particular, a piece called "Prelude... Ant Fugue" [2], written by Hofstadter, covers some of this territory.

[1] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mind%27s_I [2] - http://themindi.blogspot.com/2007/02/chapter-11-prelude-ant-...


Have you read any of David Chalmers' work? He attempts to provide a framework for thinking analytically about qualia in "The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory." [1]

Nearly all of his papers are accessible via his website. [2]

[1] http://consc.net/books/tcm/

[2] http://consc.net/papers.html


Thank you for the book recommendation. I have not read David Chalmers' work, but I have seen his name mentioned often. I've been trying to figure out where to get started with learning about the current understanding of the mind-body problem and keep getting recommendations to start back with the Greeks and work forward (which seems both quite daunting but also baroque given lack of influence from modern neuroscience). I think I'll start reading there. Thanks again!


I would also recommend The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger.


I second Chalmers' book. It's an excellent introduction to how contemporary philosophers think about these issues.


"If that's all purely emergent from known physical laws, we should be able to determine whether a particular object possesses/produces the illusion, right?"

Lets talk about if a computer program, given some pretty simple physical and logical rules, halts, and is there any easier way to prove if all programs halt and what it's answer will be, other than pretty much letting it run and see what happens?

So if I wrote an AI and asked it if it would end, it would not really have much to say beyond the mundane (when you yank the power cord or whatever). You can probably twist that into a free will argument somehow. Will asking it if it can prove it has free will (or consciousness) ever complete that program? It doesn't look like that program ever halts with biological processors and there seems to be no good answer.


Could you clarify what you mean by "emergent illusions"?

What is it emerging from, what is it emerging into, and who is the subject of the illusion?


I believe s/he meant emergent in the sense that it rises from the interactions of multiple smaller components, rather than "by design".


Illusion is just what we call a model that we've determined isn't an accurate reflection of reality. It's curious that you're asking your questions about "illusions" in particular -- you should be asking them about "mental models" in general. Your idea of a lightbulb doesn't exist outside your brain any more than your idea of redness or free will does. Your brain is playing a trick on you and correlating your idea of a lightbulb and lightbulbs in the real world. That's a useful trick, of course, because otherwise we wouldn't be able to interact with the world, because obviously our brains can't shuffle real lightbulbs around inside itself like it shuffles idea-of-lightbulbs around. But it leads to confusion when dealing with mental models that may be useful but don't correspond to anything in reality.


Makes me wish I had taken a class with him while at Tufts. It's a hard truth that you can usually plot a good course through your university experience AFTER you are finished.


I got to see him speak in Melbourne last year, he has a very enjoyable speaking manner. If I recall correctly, it covered looking at things from a teleological perspective (as a tool for thinking, not as proposed fact) and then free will and morality in relation to that. I'm not certain, but I think there was the suggestion that believing we have free will is useful because it makes us act as though we have free will!


> The elusive subjective conscious experience — the redness of red, the painfulness of pain — that philosophers call qualia? Sheer illusion.

I wonder if the qualia debate isn't just an elaborate exercise in missing the point. Experience doesn't work the same way as matter, you can't subdivide it until you get the "experiential atom". Divide an experience into parts, what you get is separate experiences, each unique in their own right.

What if, instead of trying to define the "fundamental experience", we instead acknowledged all experiences as unique, subjective to context and underlying biology, and moved from there? Someone's experience of red will depend on his rod/cone balance and his neuro-chemistry. He can think about a "abstract, ultimate red" but that will be an experience of thinking about red, not an actual ultimate red.


That's pretty much Dennet's position.


Right, I was hoping someone more familiar with the debate would offer the other side of it.

Intuitively, qualia is an attempt to get to the fundamental nature of experience. But its endless divisibility seems to indicate that there is no such animal. Does the debate exist simply because some can't grasp the notion of a concept without underlying fundamentals? Or am I missing something?


> What in the world do you mean by "endless divisibility"? In your previous post, you said that everyone may have a different experience of red, which is more like "endless variation."

A qualia is, according to Wikipedia, an "individual instance of subjective, conscious experience." Individual means you can't subdivide it any more and still call the divisions experience. The canonical example is the "redness of red". So, you'd look at a sunset, and divide that experience up into qualia, individual instances of experience. You might come up with [redness of sky, yellowness of sun, roundness of sun] The question is, can you get to a point where you can't subdivide anymore, are there absolute elements of experience?


> 'Qualia' is the name given to experience after everything else is stripped away.

'Stripping away' is just division in another form. You're dividing experience into that which your stripping away and that which you're keeping. You keep doing this division until you get to the qualia. I think you can keep going with this. Say you look at a red dot at noon for ten seconds. There's no individual 'redness of red', there's the red you saw for the first second, the red you saw for the second second, and so on. This just leads to your next point though...

> Yet, we intuitively feel that there is something above and beyond those aspects of the experience.

Right, intuitively, we feel there is something more to the process of experience. I get that. Yet many things we conceptualize don't work in an intuitive fashion. Why do we require experience to?

I certainly think that there's more to experience and consciousness than meets the eye, I just wonder if examination of the process and trying to individuate experience as qualia is actually helping towards that goal.

I think the reason rejection of qualia is the mainstream point of view right now is because most everyone believes consciousness works like a computer. Sure, there's this world of hardware underlying the operating system, in the same way that there's a biological brain underlying consciousness, there's still this entire world we can reason about and play in and theorize about even despite this. There's no reason to go "Oh, we're just robots" because much of our behavior can be deduced from our neurology. Dennett says this, but it's clear he doesn't really feel like a robot and is being a little tongue in cheek.


> 'Stripping away' is just division in another form...

I'd say that the terms "stripping away" and "division" are being used in slightly confusing ways here, and I'm not sure if "stripping away" is "division in another form". But I guess that's not your point. Anyhow, you started off this thread by essentially saying something like "experience varies, so it can be endlessly subdivided", and someone else chirped in with "Yeah, that's basically Dennett's point of view." I want to emphasize that variation in experience doesn't lead to endless subdivision, nor does Dennett make this claim.

Regarding the idea of "qualia over time", I think that sounds like an interesting line of thought. Let's just assume that qualia have some atomic structure -- an experience particle, if you will. Maybe it exists in the other half of some Cartesian reality. Well, much like an electron persists over time (perhaps varying states along the way), I don't see why this imagined "qualia particle" cannot exist over time without requiring us to subdivide it indefinitely.

Of course, I find this idea of "qualia particles" to be ridiculous and I bet you do too. It's just a tool to point out that persistence over time doesn't require indefinite subdivision.

> Right, intuitively, we feel there is something more to the process of experience. I get that. Yet many things we conceptualize don't work in an intuitive fashion. Why do we require experience to?

I don't think that our intuition about experience is the last word on qualia. On this point, I'm in complete agreement with Dennett.

EDIT: This whole issue of divisibility is a massive red-herring anyhow. The stanford encyclopedia does a much better job of defining qualia: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia/ .


Leading thought is that we are neural networks with neurotransmitter "macros", not common computers. Of course computers can simulate this model.


> can you get to a point where you can't subdivide anymore, are there absolute elements of experience?

I have no idea. You had previously said:

>...But its endless divisibility seems to indicate that there is no such animal.

From where do you get this conclusion? Earlier, you described that the rod/cone balance in my eye is likely to be different than yours, and that this results in different qualia upon viewing the color red. That's variation -- not divisibility -- and I doubt that it's endless (lest we have infinitely many rods/cones).

'Qualia' is the name given to experience after everything else is stripped away. I view a sunset: I'm aware of it, I have certain emotional and physical reactions, memories are triggered, and so goes that functional account of my experience. Yet, we intuitively feel that there is something above and beyond those aspects of the experience. Dennett wouldn't argue against our intuition for qualia, he'd just say that it's some combination of material/functional phenomenon.

His view is not radical: it conforms to the mainstream scientific account of our world. The minority view is to say, "Wait, no! These qualia are actual. There is something about experience above and beyond the functional correlates of consciousness."


I want to add that, according to the standard scientific view, it ought to in theory be possible to catalog every component of experience down to whatever level necessary (neuron, molecule, electron... whatever).

So, according to the mainstream view that Dennett holds, yes -- qualia (or rather, or illusion of qualia) can be cataloged and put into some framework of so-called "absolute elements".

Philosophers on the other side of the table, who hold that qualia are non-illusory (and not mere epiphenomena), have varying and incomplete accounts. The best frameworks, by my own judgement, involve some sort of neutral monism. [1]

[1] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/neutral-monism/


What in the world do you mean by "endless divisibility"? In your previous post, you said that everyone may have a different experience of red, which is more like "endless variation."


No, it's not. There is nothing to vary by Dennett's account. Our two "red qualia" are exactly the same: non-existent.

Dennett argues (actually, he just asserts it over and over), that there is no such thing as subjective experience, so to speak. He argues that, whether or not my version of red is different than yours, we're sharing a common delusion -- the delusion of subjective, conscious experience.

(Of course, we're aware of an experience, but more along the lines of a webcam program that, upon sensing the color red, flips some boolean is_aware variable.)

I'd add that -- ok, qualia have many variations. From where do we deduce that it's a grand illusion? Matter has many different variations.


> He argues that, whether or not my version of red is different than yours, we're sharing a common delusion -- the delusion of subjective, conscious experience.

I don't think Dennett is arguing that we're all zimboes.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_zombie


Correct, he argues that the formulation is incoherent. That is, certain parts of our physical makeup give rise to experience, and that we cannot entertain a coherent world containing minds that lacks subjective, conscious experience while retaining the other functional correlates of consciousness.

This is exactly what I meant by 'delusion'... that, according to Dennett, there are no "qualia", nothing above and beyond the ordinary physicalist/reductionist (and scientific) account of experience.

It's surprising from a personal view because experience seems so essential and real.


I don't know about Dennett, but most materialist philosophers don't argue that qualia are an "illusion" or that they don't exist. Rather, they argue that qualia have a physical explanation. Or, as a philosopher would word it, "Mental properties supervene on physical properties."


Yes, but there are so many brands of materialism. I'm not an expert on Dennett, but I believe he is best characterized as an eliminative materialist. He denies that qualia exist (or at least he used to).

As for "mental properties supervene on physical properties" as a characteristic of materialism, even a dualist might consent to nomological supervenience.


> He denies that qualia exist (or at least he used to).

That seems almost nonsensical to me. Certainly people feel pain, etc. The question is what pain amounts to, not whether pain exists.

There was a time, however, when some philosophers used the term "qualia" to refer definitionally to whatever parts of phenomenology could not be explained physically. Then other philosophers would deny the existence of qualia, but that way of speaking was rather muddled, so as far as I'm aware, this usage is uncommon these days.

As for some dualists consenting to nomological supervenience, yes that is certainly the case. Epiphenomenalists such as Chalmers would indeed. But when one speaks of supervenience in this context without qualification, it usually refers to metaphysical supervenience. Or at least that's been my experience.


Dennett uses a strong definition of qualia (intrinsic, ineffable, nonphysical) and attempts to demonstrate that, under such a characterization, qualia cannot exist.

Dennett's view (at least in the 1980s) is that, yes -- the weak (phenomenal) form of qualia you've described is coherent and obvious, but anything beyond that, particularly anything leading to an explanatory gap, is illusory. For example, he objects strongly to the existence of Nagel's intrinsic and non-representational qualia.

Are you saying that the term 'qualia' (without qualification) nowadays refers mainly to phenomenal qualia? I agree that it's nonsense to deny phenomenal qualia.


Well, this is a mighty difficult discussion to have in little HN boxes. I guess I can see what Dennett is getting at from your summary, but I've read other philosophers who would just argue instead that qualia are wholly representational. But not even all representationalists agree that qualia are wholly representational.

Some of them, known as "externalists" (last I checked) believe, for instance, that the qualia of redness that you feel when you look at a ripe tomato--that feeling that feels irreducible--is actually the property of redness that the tomato itself has.

That position seems completely nutty to me, but I guess one often becomes a famous philosopher for making nutty but interesting arguments.

The last time I studied philosophy seriously, the typical wording to deny dualism would be to assert that "there is no explanatory gap" or "no 'hard' problem of consciousness".

As for the different senses of qualia, when last I was studying philosophy, the primary sense of "qualia" used was that of phenomenal qualia. Sometimes other senses would be discussed, but I don't recall seeing many clear and compelling arguments being made based on these distinctions. Most of the debate at the time seemed to center around The Knowledge Argument.


Could the title be edited so that it doesn't sound like an obituary?




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