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Daniel C. Dennett talks about an imaginary bright green dog, heterophenomenology, and how the self can ...
2017-10-17 07:00:00

Non-Divine Software
An Interview with Daniel C. Dennett

Non-Divine Software

On this September day, the campus of Tufts University looks exactly like in those photos on the website gallery. Low brick buildings, lots of trees, sunshine lighting up small courtyards. Academic life seems to be going slowly; one could almost say lazily. Well-dressed, athletic young people wander around, talking, smiling. Some are sitting on benches and reading; others are holding hands or hugging in the midday glow. They are young and attractive, hungry for knowledge, full of dreams about a wonderful future.

Read in 27 minutes

Approaching the Center for Cognitive Studies, where I am to meet with Daniel C. Dennett – one of the greatest living philosophers – I cannot help but think that in somewhat similar surroundings lived a young prince by the name of Siddhartha, better known as the Shakyamuni Buddha. Everything around him was perfect. Wherever he looked, he saw young, healthy, beautiful people. That was because his protective father wanted to spare him any disturbing experiences, and banished everything that had to do with old age, illness and death. When Siddhartha finally discovered those things, he rejected his life and went on his way to find enlightenment. Does the Tufts campus also have some secrets?

It’s not as eccentric an association as one could think. After all, Dennett, just like Buddha, claims that our consciousness, our sense of ‘self’, the very thing that feels most real to us, is merely an illusion; something akin to a user interface on a computer screen. We wouldn’t call our computer desktop real. And what about the folders in which the files are kept? They don’t really exist; they’re only a graphical representation of complicated processes inside the computer. Same thing with our ‘self’. It is just like that folder – a result of a program installed in our brain by culture and language. A human being is therefore a creation of two evolutions: biological and cultural. The first is responsible for the development of hardware, the second is responsible for software. That’s all there is. No mysteries, no immortal soul, no divine spark.

Would Buddha sit behind a desk laden with books, newspapers, pictures of loved ones? Would he fish not far from his home in Maine? Would he be able to build a house with his own hands? Would he drink black coffee from a massive mug, publish books, present papers at conferences? Would he sometimes call people who don’t share his views “nuts”?

I don’t think so. Who, therefore, is this man, who 2500 years after Buddha claims that we are merely illusions?

Judging from his massive frame, long silver beard, booming voice and massive hand, which he extends to me when we meet, I can say one thing for sure: Daniel Dennett exists and is real. Whatever else he claims on this subject.

Tomasz Stawiszyński: Who are you?

Daniel C. Dennett: In one sense I’m many people, but more or less unified into one professor of philosophy who spends more time these days with psychologists and computer scientists and evolutionary biologists than with philosophers. But I’m still a philosopher and I still have some big philosophical projects to work on.

I thought you would say that there’s no ‘you’ at all. You’re well known thanks to your statement that consciousness and the sense of self are merely illusions.

Yes, and people refuse to understand that. Many people simply can’t get their heads around what I mean by that. I obviously don’t mean that we don’t exist. We do. But then visual illusions exist as well – they just aren’t what people think they are. And what I’m calling “the user illusion” is in this sense a perfectly real phenomenon. It just isn’t what it appears to be to others and to you. Dollars and euros exist, but they’re not made of anything. We understand currency much more abstractly now than just pieces of paper or coins. Basically, we realize that currency is information and it doesn’t need any physical embodiment. We can think of it as coins and notes, these salient movable objects, but they’re not like tables and chairs. And the self isn’t like a table or chair. My favourite analogy goes that the self is like a centre of gravity. Is a centre of gravity real? Yes. But what does it weigh? What is it made of? Is it an atom? No, of course not. But it’s quite real. And selves are real in the same way that centres of gravity are real. And dollars. [laughs]

Dollars are a convention. We have simply agreed to assign certain value to pieces of paper, coins or numbers on screen. Similarly, a centre of gravity is just one way of describing gravitational pull. We could think of another one. However, our sense of ‘self’ – our experience of subjectivity, individuality, personhood – is the most intimate and direct experience we can have. Not only that, it is the only reality directly available to us.

And that’s what’s illusory. Yes, you’re absolutely right: it feels as if the self is a real thing and that it isn’t somehow a product of a lot of social and environmental forces. But in truth that’s all it is. And it’s not made of anything. It is the way it is because of the constraints and forces that shape it. In a way, it’s just as much a social construction as a dollar. The difference is that dollars were very consciously and deliberately designed as a social construction in a process that was itself political, economic and rational. Our selves, however, pre-date any such process, since they are a result of biological evolution and cultural evolution.

So the ‘self’ is a result of social interactions, just as a centre of gravity is a result of gravitational forces?

Let’s use a threadbare thought experiment. If we raised a human being from birth in complete isolation – on a desert island or in a laboratory, without language, without interaction with other human beings, just as a sort of primate animal and a lone primate animal – no sense of self would develop.

How do you know that?

I don’t, but it’s an implication of my views. To me, it is just as obvious as the claim that such a being would never think that it was Thursday. How do I know? Because in order to be able to think that it was Thursday, you have to be embedded in a social context. Similarly, in order to seem to experience a distinct self, you have to be embedded in a social context. Of course, such a being would be horribly disabled. It would be an awful thing for a human being to grow up like that, but not because that human being would have a terrible stream of consciousness. Like I said, I don’t think he would have any sense of ‘self’. And certainly not in the way we do.

He would be a living being operating in a real world. But in what way?

The same way the clams do. And oysters. Lots of animals live very competent lives without ever comprehending anything. They don’t have to and it doesn’t worry them. They haven’t got the space to think about how terrible their plight is any more than a tree does. And a human being without all the scaffolding, all the support of growing up in a culture, would simply not have this mental structure of sense of ‘self’. They would get hungry and feed on whatever was available that tasted good [laughs]. But otherwise there would be no ‘self’ there, no stream of consciousness.

You’re stating that the ‘self’ is relative and culturally-produced because the brain is a computer and consciousness is an operating system?

The view that I’m combating is very closely related to vitalism. [Vitalism is a notion present since antiquity. According to it, every living being is driven by certain mysterious life force – author’s note]. Not so long ago, if you told somebody that the only difference between a living thing and a non-living thing is just the well-structuredness and competence of the machinery, they’d say: “No, no, there has to be a spark of life there too, élan vital.” Well, nobody believes that anymore. Oh, there are few nuts out there, but vitalism has been properly discarded, and we now understand that a living thing is a self-perpetuating collection of nanorobots, for that’s what motor proteins and other machinery operating at the molecular level are. There is nothing more to being alive than that. Similarly, a brain is just a brain and there’s no mystery stuff in there. But when the software is right, when the organization is right, this creates a point of view that gets occupied, if you like, with a torrent of content reflecting the conditions of the outside world and of the internal reactions to those outward conditions. It is therefore reflective and reflexive. We get a sort of hall of mirrors in our heads, and the point of view that we occupy has some features that are often misdescribed. Thanks to a letter I got from a reader, I can put it thusly: we have no access at all to the medium of information, only to the content, that is, to our experiences, judgements, observations, thoughts, remembrances and sense of self. We have no idea what the physical features of the medium are, but we do have access to a lot of the content it carries. We can communicate this content, reflect on it, we can recall it, we can consider and reconsider and remember it.

All right, so we are simply physical beings, there is no mysterious élan vital. Biological machinery creates a medium, cultural and social relations program it with content, and so selfhood is born. But then why is everyone different? Why do we have different characteristics, personalities, tastes? Why are we so unique and special?

Because we all have different histories of experience. And also, we all start with differences in our brains, which are not necessarily differences in competence, but some people have more mathematical ability, or more musical ability, or more spatial ability, or more athletic hand-eye coordination ability, and so forth. One of the beautiful and striking things about human culture is that it’s like the Java programming language. You don’t need to know what hardware the Java is running on. It’s designed so that you write it once and then it’ll run anywhere. Java is a great technological accomplishment, isn’t it? It managed to create this virtual machine that does all the translating and executing. And, amazingly, language does that for us. It permits me to talk to you. I don’t have to know what model brain you have. I only have to know that you’re an English speaker and you’ve got the ‘English virtual machine’ in your brain. That’s enough for me to shovel ideas into your head, at a very, very great rate using language and diagrams and so forth. That, however, changes your mind, so be careful, huh? [laughs]

I can already feel it changing, but I still don’t understand what exactly my mind is, where it came from, and how come that this lump of matter is a base for all my experience, my ‘self’, emotions, recollections, desires and fears. Your critics often accuse you of bypassing this problem. They say that you actually don’t explain the phenomenon of consciousness, but merely expose it as an illusion.

There are several important questions here. One, am I explaining consciousness away? In a sense, yes. But it’s exactly parallel to somebody saying: “Oh, biology does not explain life, it just explains it away.” If you think that life involves élan vital or something else like that, then of course that’s the complaint you should articulate, but you’re just expressing your allegiance to a myth. My view of consciousness is that there is no magic, that it is an illusion of which we were talking earlier. So this whole problem doesn’t exist, because consciousness doesn’t exist. It just seems to exist. Imagine someone sees a magic trick explained and then says: “But you’re not explaining the magic of it!” Of course, because there is no magic. To explain a magic trick is to show that magic is merely an illusion. So if people accuse me of that, that’s their problem.

So is there really nothing more to explain?

There is! Myself and people who think like me have a huge job ahead that we have hardly tackled. Take the “And then what happens?” question. People who do psychophysics put subjects in an experimental situation and ask them to push buttons or say certain things, so that they can study confidence levels, reaction times, and all this stuff. For example, a subject must push a button when they see a certain object. But the machinery that gets from the visual processing to the button pushing has been has been pretty much ignored because it’s very hard to study it. And of course, we individually are just as blind and have no access to how we do it. If I ask you right now: what’s on my desk?

A few books, a laptop, a framed photo, two newspapers, a cell phone, some printouts, a coffee mug…

How do you know?

Well, I looked with my own eyes.

How do you know that’s how you did it?

Well, if I close my eyes the image disappears.

But then what happens after the retina does its job? Well maybe you know the answer to that because you’ve read a lot of books, but not because you have any direct access to those processes. And now close your eyes and imagine a capital letter ‘A’, bright blue on a black background.


Now, how do you know? You don’t.

Of course I know. I did it. I saw a blue letter ‘A’ against a black background.

No you didn’t. You didn’t see it in your mind’s eye – that’s a metaphor. You don’t have a mind’s eye and you weren’t looking at a screen in your head. That has to be a metaphorical description of something that’s going on in your mind. We’ve only just began to look at that issue and, to give you a very crude, simple example, it is simply out of the question that when you imagine that blue letter ‘A’ the thing going on in your brain is blue. It’s not out of the question that it might be ‘A’-shaped. The brain uses topological information, location information to represent shape to some degree. So we come to an empirical question: was there anywhere in your brain an ‘A’-shaped pattern of excitation when you imagined the bright capital ‘A’? We’re now getting closer to being able to answer questions like that. The people at Berkeley, for instance, have got some software that can do a pretty good job of distinguishing what you’re remembering or imagining. But the visual display yielded by that software is tremendously misleading because it presents it all as if there were a screen in your head. There isn’t. It takes an incredibly complex and largely inscrutable algorithm to tease out the information that then generate those pixel displays which you see on the screen built by scientists, so we shouldn’t take those as literal pictures of what’s going on in your head. Those are only pretty good metaphors. By the way, did you really imagine that letter ‘A’?

Yes, I did.

What font was it? Or maybe you didn’t get that far?

I didn’t get that far.

How do you know? [laughs]. You just said some words. Of course, I suggested those words to you. And so, if the charge is that I haven’t answered the “And then what happens?” question, that’s exactly right. But at least I’m asking it. Those very processes of trying to remember and not coming up with detail, they’re full of hints and they’re all part of the “And then what happened?” questions, which we now should start addressing more and more experimentally or fully, coming up with theories. That’s the work for the future.

In your famous 1991 book Consciousness Explained you tried to lay foundations for heterophenomenology.

Heterophenomenology is my term for what we as third parties, experimenters, can sympathetically extract from individual subjects, which then provides the data for the empirical research to follow.

As all this is completely external, it is somewhat similar to behaviourism, a school of empirical psychology that set out to bypass consciousness and internal experiences, focusing instead only on behaviours, which were treated as a basic data.

Yes, it is a kind of behaviourism that we otherwise call science. A meteorologist explains the behaviour of hurricanes and typhoons and so forth. The science of chemistry explains the behaviour of atoms and molecules and bonds. Similarly, the science of consciousness will ultimately explain the behaviour of conscious entities. And that’s all there is. I don’t deny the existence of complex, information-laden interactions going on between your ears, but of course, in a sense, the science of consciousness treats all that simply as more behaviour.

There is an old joke about behaviourism. Two behaviourists meet and one asks the other: “How do I feel today?”

Let me let me bring it up to date with a joke that won’t seem like one in the near future. You go into the heterophenomenology lab and you engage in a series of experiments where you’re presented with various things, and you respond in various ways – you give answers verbally or by pressing buttons – and then in the end, you ask the experimenter: “What was it like to be me today?” And they will tell you, and they will surprise you, because it will turn out that you had no idea of many things that were going on in your own mind.

But how can something be a component of ‘me’ if I have no idea about it?

Well, here we can draw a distinction between what was going on in you and what seemed to be going on in you.

Seemed – to me?

Yes, seemed to you to be going on in your brain. What seems to you to be going on in you, that’s your heterophenomenological world. That’s what I try to isolate. In a certain sense, you have an author’s privilege with regard to that information, just the way a novelist does. When a novelist writes a novel, we don’t ask him or her: “How do you know that this particular character was angry?” He or she is simply telling a story. However, somebody might come up and say: “Aha! I have looked deeply into your mind and your psyche and I have determined that most of the features of that fictional character in your novel are disturbing features of your mother.” That might be true, and it might be that the novelist didn’t realize that. He or she may even adamantly deny it and be wrong. Similarly, can I ask you to imagine a bright green dog? Right now, an actual bright green dog.

I can see it as if it was here in the room.

Now, what kind of a dog was it? What breed of dog?

To be honest, I didn’t notice.

Was it big or small?

Rather big.

We could expand this question. However, the point is, you’re in charge. You could lie to me, of course, but if you do your very best to tell the truth and be sincere, then what I get from you is your account of what it was like for you to try to imagine a green dog. Now, I then look in your brain and I find out what was going on and it’s entirely possible – not yet, but within the bounds of practicality in the near future – that I could at some point come back to you and say: “You didn’t tell me about the leash!” And maybe you’ll go: “Oh, my gosh. You’re right! It did have a leash!” And I would have evidence for that. Maybe the leash wasn’t a part of your heterophenomenological world, but it might have been influencing your behaviour in other ways. Here’s something that people are often surprised to learn: a very large percentage of the words that we hear or read in a day are actually ambiguous, and so experiments show that when you encounter a word that has several meanings, the brain can summon many of those meanings, even despite clear context. To take a threadbare example, the word ‘bank’ can mean a river bank or a money bank. It turns out that even if the context very strongly suggests river bank, the money bank is enlivened in your brain. A lot of experiments that prove that. Why? We have no idea. But, of course, the fact that the money bank sense was strengthened, was enlivened and was awakened in your brain could affect the next thing you think about. You might be thinking about sitting on the bank of the river and fishing, and the next thing you know, you’re thinking: “Gee, I’ve got to pay so-and-so for such-and-such.” And there would be that link, which would be inscrutable to you, but nevertheless there.

The idea that someone can know better than I what was going on in my head still seems quite abstract to me. If I didn’t see the leash and don’t remember the leash, then I didn’t experience it. A story about what some instruments have found is completely alien to me.

Well, be careful. I think in one sense it’s completely alien to you in that your initial reaction to this claim is: “Oh no, I know there wasn’t a leash.” But that conviction of yours too is just as fallible. After all, people are strongly convinced that they have colour vision all the way out to the edges of their vision. They don’t, and I love to prove that to them with my little trick with a deck of cards [laughs]. So one of the first things that people have to come to grips with is that they shouldn’t make the mistake of clinging to an ideology that inflates their sense of control and intimacy with what’s going on in their minds. Of course, it is an extremely attractive idea, and certainly Descartes hit a bullseye when he expressed it. However, his conviction that there’s an inner sanctum where our access to our own thoughts is, where we could not be wrong about the meaning of our thoughts, just isn’t true. People clearly care for the privacy and sanctity of their own lives, and for very good reasons. They try to protect that from science, they dig a moat and say: “From here on, it’s something that’s absolute.” In my view, absolutism of that sort is almost always a mistake. You end up with a more fragile view of things.

All right, so I can be wrong about the details of some imagined picture, but surely I can’t be wrong about the emotions I’m experiencing?

Of course you can. We know that in experimental conditions, people are misreading their own emotional state. Take one famous experiment: a graduate student – a woman with a clipboard and a questionnaire – interviews young males about something or other while standing on a pedestrian bridge over a canyon, so in very scary and exciting surroundings. As for the control group, she conducts the interviews in a more mundane setting, right nearby the bridge, but not on in. At the end, she hands every subject a postcard with her address on it and says: “If you want to know the results of the study, just send me the postcard with your name and address, and I’ll reply.” There is a huge difference in the likelihood of sending the postcard depending on the setting. The males she interviewed on the bridge were much, much more likely to send in the postcards, because they were misreading their state of anxiety as the thrill of romantic interest. Now, is that mistaking your own emotional state? I think so. There are many more experiments like this.

I’m not convinced. Maybe we’re lacking as interpreters of our internal states, but we experience them in a certain way. If I felt excited and not anxious, I felt excited, period.

Well, that’s just trivial. Indeed, you’re also the experiencer of your metabolic rate, and your body temperature, and of hundreds of other fluctuating conditions. Yes, it’s your temperature, not my temperature that is affecting you. But what of it?

It may seem controversial to you, because you’re well known from your critique of both religion and psychoanalysis, but I have the impression that your views are somehow a synthesis of Buddhism and Freudism. With Buddhists you share the conviction that consciousness is illusory. What reminds me of Freud is your statement that we’re often wrong about our intentions and motivations, and that most psychic processes are unconscious.

One of the great curiosities of the 20th century is that before Freud, the idea of unconscious thought, unconscious intention, unconscious drives, was sort of almost self-contradictory. Freud broke that barrier. Cognitive science came along and broke it further. Now things are reversed. People have a lot easier time explaining unconscious informational states and drives, so we sometimes stop and think: “Wait a minute, but what of the conscious ones?” So, yeah, I can thank Freud for breaking the ice on this, but otherwise my position is very unlike his. And true, I’ve heard about similarities with Buddhism many times.

In theory, Buddhism and psychoanalysis are not only tools for knowledge, but also for change. Has the discovery that consciousness is an illusion changed you in any way? It must be a shock to realize that you’re not that different from a dollar or an optical illusion, and moreover that everything you think and feel may be wrong.

It doesn’t have much effect at all, nor should it. This body you see before you has to get through the world, and who’s going to do it better than me? [laughs] It’s my responsibility to take care of it. And I’ve been fortunate to be able to steer it into all sorts of wonderful environments, and lots of great adventures, and keep away from doing anything particularly bad. I think the thing that affects me is the recognition that since people don’t have immortal souls, they’re all the more valuable, because this is the only life they have or will have. And when it’s over, it’s over. All that gathering of resources and information, all the goals and projects, will cease and disappear once we’re dead, unless associates, descendants or friends will carry them on. People are unique and valuable, and they wouldn’t be more valuable if they had immortal souls. To me this idea just seems pathetically crude.


I’ve used this example before, making fun of Americans who come to Europe and complain that people there “don’t know the value of the dollar.” But what about euros, pounds, other currencies? “Oh, they don’t have any intrinsic value.” It’s just a fantasy, for there’s no such thing as intrinsic economic value. And similarly, if you think having an immortal soul makes you more valuable, that’s just a naive mistake. In fact, in a way it makes you less wonderful. Seems to me that the picture that we’re now beginning to put together of what people really are is just staggeringly beautiful and exciting. And the idea that you could instead say: “Well it’s all about this little bit of magic in us” – that’s just so cheesy, a total cop out.

I wonder about the cultural evolution that takes such a prominent place in your last book. You say it is responsible for the development of the human mind and our sense of self. How can one explain in that context so-called altered states? Thanks to various plants or chemical substances, such as ibogaine, ayahuasca or LSD, we can experience states that differ radically from those that our everyday software offers. We feel a complete oneness with the universe, a total love, a dissolution of ‘self’. How does that fit in your theory?

What we have between our ears is amazingly complex, on every level, from cellular to chemical. We’re learning now that there are not dozens, but hundreds of different neuromodulators, for instance. They’re doing all kinds of things for all sorts of reasons. Human beings have tried just about everything. We’ve discovered alcohol, sugar, tobacco, LSD, morphine, and a host of other things that if you smoke or put in your mouth, will have amazing effects on your brain. Some of them are terrible, some of them wonderful. There’s also stuff we put in our ears, namely music and sounds. And what about humour? And what about all these other things and practices like meditation or running marathons, which, as we now know, create the runner’s high through endorphins? We are becoming ever more sophisticated in our ability to modulate the responses of our own nervous systems, and some of those responses create distortions in the manifest image that are fun or exalting or thrilling, and some of them create distortions that are terrifying and depressing. We are people who are now beginning to systematically explore the role of different chemicals as neuromodulators. One day we will be able to predict the effects of novel, synthetic molecules that have never before existed on the planet. So we’re entering a whole new age of stimulation of the nervous system.

You distinguish between the “manifest image” that we experience under the influence of various substances, and the “scientific image” of the world and ourselves presented to us by science. But the science itself is changing and with it the scientific worldview. It was different at the beginning of the 20th century and it’s different now, in the era of quantum physics. What today is a part of this image, may be gone tomorrow. Also, every theory is just a way of describing and naming things, and those ways are in constant flux.

It is a crude oversimplification to think that the manifest image stays the same, that no real innovations have occurred for thousands of years, that the manifest image is the same for you and me as it was for Plato and Aristotle, and that science develops when we find ourselves surprised and puzzled by elements of the manifest image. Of course, Aristotelian was different to Newtonian physics, Einsteinian physics is different to quantum physics, and we keep discovering more and more remarkable properties, some of which we can predict. So the scientific image has changed dramatically in the last century. It may well change dramatically in the next century, or even in the next twenty years. But there is a tremendous amount of continuity as well. Einstein in physics didn’t reverse Newtonian physics. For most practical purposes, Newtonian physics works beautifully. Now, to go back to step one: couldn’t the manifest image change, too? And the answer is yes. I think the manifest image is changing, sometimes at an alarming rate, because we have become more and more accustomed to all the prosthetic extensions of our senses. And once we start putting these in our bodies – for example, once we have little monitors installed in our bodies that keep track of things that nobody could keep track of before – this will actually change our manifest image. What is more, the manifest image largely depends on the concepts available. We know from anthropologists that some societies treat time or direction differently to us. Their languages embody changes, differences. In order to make sense of how the people in those societies interact, you have to learn to think about your position in the world differently.

Since you like terminology derived from computer sciences, perhaps the brain should be considered a hardware, and the mind a software…

The metaphors I use have, I think, an important and benign role to play in getting people to turn their attention to information. Take language for example. Poems aren’t made of ink. What are they made of? What’s music made of? The answer is: information. We live in a world of informational entities, and they are just as real as stones and flowers, but this way of thinking is a very recent, 20th-century innovation. So we have plenty more problems to solve, although I think really we’re getting closer and closer to putting these ideas together in a good way.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Daniel C. Dennett. Photo by Phil Wickens
Daniel C. Dennett. Photo by Phil Wickens

Daniel C. Dennett:

A professor of philosophy at Tufts University. He works mainly on the philosophy of mind and of science.


Introduction translated by Jan Dzierzgowski

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Tomasz Stawiszyński

Tomasz Stawiszyński

was Editor of the Society section (2016-2020). He is a philosopher, essayist, and editor at Radio TOK FM. He is the author of “Clashes with Freud. Myths, Pitfalls and Temptations of Psychotherapy” (2013)."