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Dennett's heterophenomenology

5 Post author: RichardKennaway 16 January 2010 08:40PM

In an earlier comment, I conflated heterophenomenology in the general sense of taking introspective accounts as data to be explained rather than direct readouts of the truth, with Dennett's particular approach to explaining those data.  So to correct myself, I say that it is Dennett, rather than heterophenomenology, that claims that there is no such thing as consciousness. Dennett denies that he does, but I disagree. I defend this view here.

I have to admit at this point that I have not read "Consciousness Explained".  Had either of the library's copies been on the shelves last Tuesday I would have done by now, but instead I found his later book (and his most recent on the topic), "Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness".  The subtitle suggests a drawing back from the confidence of the earlier title, as does that of the book in between.  The book confirms me in my impression that the ideas of "C.E." have been in the air so long (the air of hard SF, sciblogs, and the like, not to mention Phil Goetz's recent posts) that reading the primary source 19 years on would be nothing more than an exercise in checkbox-ticking.

I'll give a brief run-through of "Sweet Dreams" and then carry on the argument.

The book is primarily writing against, a response to objections arising from earlier works.

In chapter 1 he shoots down the "Zombic Hunch", the idea that a being could be physically identical to a human, but lack consciousness, and therefore that consciousness must be non-physical.  I'll take it that we all agree the zombie story is insane.

Chapter 2 introduces the concept of heterophenomenology.  This has already been introduced to LW.

The corpse of the Zombic Hunch got up again and walked, so in Chapter 3 he shoots it down again.

Chapters 4 and 5 attack qualia.  They don't exist, says Dennett, because of such anomalies as change blindness, Capgras syndrome, and various thought-experiments that defy all coherent accounts of what qualia are.

Chapter 6 is entitled "Are We Explaining Consciousness yet?" (Er, what was that first book called?)  It cites neurological research and briefly sets out the Multiple Drafts hypothesis.  He confronts critics who say (which I also say) that Dennett is really denying the existence of consciousness, not giving an account of it.  His answer is that he is giving (or seeking) a third-person explanation of first-person accounts.  Well, yes, that is indeed what he is doing, and what his critics on this point are complaining that he is doing.  The question is whether there is more to do, which goes unaddressed here.

Chapter 7 says some more about Multiple Drafts.

Chapter 8 argues against qualia of consciousness again. It closes by saying that if ever his heterophenomenological program runs into a roadblock and something more is clearly needed, then the Zombic Hunch gets to eat his braiiinnzzz.

Ok, his actual words are "If the day arrives when...we plainly see that something big is missing...those with the unshakable hunch will get to say they told us so."

So, why do I claim that Dennett's account of consciousness amounts to denying there is such a thing, contrary to his own claims that consciousness exists and he is explaining it?

The problem I have is with his differing accounts of consciousness and qualia.  The former he says exists, and claims to give an explanation of; the latter he denies.  Yet the evidence he adduces regarding both topics is of the same sort: experimental observations or thought experiments demonstrating the incoherence of all existing accounts of what they are.  But he comes to different conclusions about them.  Why?

I believe the reason is that any physical account of consciousness, including his, will meet the objection (as it has) that yes, that may be an accurate account of what is physically happening in the brain, and yes, that might even be necessary and sufficient for consciousness to exist in a brain, but it leaves unanswered what Dennett calls the Hard Question: how does that physical process produce the experience of being conscious?  That is, how does it account for the qualia of consciousness itself?  The only way to overcome that objection is to argue against the existenceof qualia (as Dennett does).

But the qualia of consciousness looks to me like the very thing that people are talking about when they talk about being conscious.  To deny the qualia of consciousness is to deny that there is any such thing as consciousness.

That is why I claim that Dennett's theory amounts to denying the existence of consciousness.  Dennett is describing beings with no inner experience, philosophical zombies, and avoids the Zombic Hunch by denying there is such a thing as inner experience. What he is explaining is not consciousness, but why the zombies say that they are conscious.

And so back to the word "heterophenomenology".  This is Dennett's word, and I think it fair, on heterophenomenological grounds, to look for Dennett's meaning in his practice rather than in his account of that practice.  His account is that he wants to explain people's talk of their inner experiences without taking that talk to be a reliable account.  But his practice is to explain such talk without taking it to be an account of anything, not even an unreliable account, not even an account which might be about something.  He sketches a mechanism that could produce such talk, no more.  He explains first-person talk, and says nothing of first-person experience. And so a negative answer to the question of whether there is anything being talked about, however imperfectly, whether there is such a thing as first-person experience, gets palmed into the definition.

 

I do not have any account of what qualia are, neither qualia in general nor the experience of being aware. But I do believe that this experience exists. The heterophenomenological program is to hit Ignore on that experience.

Comments (23)

Comment author: Morendil 17 January 2010 11:43:41AM *  11 points [-]

The issue with this post isn't that no one here is interested in consciousness. That would be a strange blind spot for people thinking about improving their own rationality, which entails knowing more about the mind.

What's wrong here, at least for me, is that this is a hatchet job. It takes only one sentence to say "I assert that consciousness is real, and h17y fails to account for it". Say that, and expand with what conclusions you arrive at from there. If you're going to critique Dennett, at least make more than a half-hearted effort to extract some insight from his books.

A worthwhile critique of Dennett's views would require a guardedly sympathetic examination of his claims. You need to internalize the claims, which means you can convincingly, in your own words, reproduce Dennett's actual reasoning, and then point out where that reasoning fails.

A worthwhile critique would use Dennett's own tools: the Tower of Generate-and-Test, which is a key ingredient in constructing "stuff that thinks" from "stuff that doesn't think"; the Intentional Stance, indispensable to find shortcuts through the vast number of reductionist layers you'd have to traverse from atoms to mind; the Multiple Drafts hypothesis, which shows how to dissolve the questions "when does this thought become conscious" or "which parts of me are conscious"; the User Illusion model of consciousness, which explains why the sense of being conscious is adaptive, and its cousin the Self as Center of Narrative Gravity.

This is what I'd like to see - a post (or if necessary a sequence) introducing these individual thinking tools, showing what work they do in Dennett's hands, where they touch on topics relevant to this community, and possibly explaining where they fall short.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 17 January 2010 05:18:53PM 2 points [-]

I think that posts like this still serve a purpose. The problem with this topic is that people have very different intuitive ideas about what would constitute a "solution" to the problem of consciousness. Remarkably, that's true even in a community like ours, which is comparatively homogeneous in terms of approaches to philosophical questions.

This means that any post that is useful to a broad section of the readers here will need to understand the different approaches to the question. The only way to gain that understanding is to see the approaches in action and to see how they react to the other approaches. The OP helps to bring that about. It brings us closer to the point where someone can give a "guardedly sympathetic examination" of the other approaches used here.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 17 January 2010 06:07:16PM *  1 point [-]

The problem with this topic is that people have very different intuitive ideas about what would constitute a "solution" to the problem of consciousness. Remarkably, that's true even in a community like ours, which is comparatively homogeneous in terms of approaches to philosophical questions.

Good observation! Evidence, perhaps, that unknown differences in experience contribute to the disagreement?

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 17 January 2010 02:30:55AM 3 points [-]

but it leaves unanswered what Dennett calls the Hard Question:

I think that Chalmers was the one to start calling it that.

Comment author: Kutta 17 January 2010 06:11:07PM *  2 points [-]

I think the issue that underlies much of the gnashing of teeth and confusion that often arises around consciousness-involving discussions is that we simply don't yet have a real, technical, comprehensive theory of how our brains work. As soon there is one, the confusions around the fuzzy, hard-to-grasp concepts, like "qualia", "experience" or " consciousness" should either dissolve or transform into other concepts that describe phenomena and regularities better in the context of a technical understanding.

Right now, one obvious mistake is to have excessive doubts about the fabric of reality as it is established by science and reductionism just because some seemingly paradoxical, mysterious thing that goes on in our heads.

On the other hand, people arguing in favor of a reductionist account - this is my impression - tend to trivialize the problem that we are having philosophical debates mostly made of magical concepts and black boxes. Because the case for a reductionist ontology is so solid, it's tempting to play the game by the rules of philosophy, not technicality, and to argue our ways towards our preferred reductionist belief. As far as we don't exactly know how consciousness works, there is no guarantee that any step of reasoning involving it is not completely invalid or nonsensical; it's just building a castle from a heap of black boxes.

The Dissolving the Question technique is a pretty good example of how this should be done, and I think Eliezer provided some genuine insights in the free will sequence and in How an Algorithm Feels from Inside. But both are rather limited compared to the totality of human experience. In hindsight, the problem of free will in particular does seem relatively easy because there we don't have to work exclusively within the domain of the human mind; we're aided by "outside" musings about algorithms, causality and physics.

In short, we'd better have trust in reductionism and at the same time not make up complicated philosophical arguments until we have a grasp of what consciousness & co. are all about.

Comment author: Dre 18 January 2010 04:36:20AM 1 point [-]

I think the first problem we have to solve is what the burden of proof is like for this discussion.

The far view says that science and reductionism have a very good record at demystifying lots of things that were thought to be unexplainable (fire, life, evolution), so the burden is on those saying the Hard Problem does not just follow from the Easy Problems. According to this, opponents of reductionism have to provide something close to a logical inconsistency with reducing conciseness. It would require huge amounts of evidence against reducing to overcome the prior for it coming from the far view.

The other side is that conciseness requires explaining a first-person experience. This view says that the reductionists have to demonstrate why science can make this new jump from only third-person explanations.

IMHO, I think that problems similar to the second view have been brought up against every major expansion of reductionism and science and have generally been proven wrong, so I vote that the burden of proof should be on those arguing against reductionism.

Whichever side ends up being right, it is important to first agree on what each side has to do to win or else each side can declare victory while agreeing on the facts.

Comment author: DCrowe 29 July 2011 10:15:47PM 0 points [-]

For my money, the best challenge to Dennett's position on how to understand the role of introspective accounts in psychology is Alvin Goldman's 'Science, Publicity and Consciousness' and the most stimulating work being done from a position relatively consonant with Dennett's is that being produced by Eric Schwitzgebel. If you're interested in introspection you should check out his new book 'Perplexities of Consciousness' but at the very least you should have a look at some of the papers he has on his website on the subject, especially 'Introspection, what?' which has what I believe to be the only published 'boxological diagram joke'. Dennett has responded to a number of criticisms in an article entitled 'Heterophenomenology Reconsidered' though you may need a journal subscription to access it, I don't remember if he has made it available on his site.

As regards the qualia point, obviously (?) there have been papers and papers and papers offering definition after definition of qualia, however one taxonomy which I've found useful with regards to clarifying the discussion of the connection between qualia and attitudes towards consciousness is Hugh Frankish's 'Quining Diet Qualia' which distinguishes 'Classic' 'Diet' and 'Zero' qualia (after types of Coke) with 'Zero' being the kind associated with Dennett (as well as the type Frankish is inclined to defend) and Diet being associated with materialists who nonetheless have a robust account of qualitative consciousness and the introspectibility of the same (such as Michael Tye, Ned Block and Peter Carruthers) - this would be the sort of 'materialist qualia' implicated in the notion of qualia inversion or qualitative absence (zombies), both of which Dennett claims are intuitively tempting but incoherent notions. Frankish' taxonomy is useful for linking the issue of qualia back to introspection and clarifying in your own mind how what might seem like separate strands of Dennett's thought tie together and contrast with other leading contemporary philosophers of mind.

Comment author: wedrifid 16 January 2010 10:59:38PM *  0 points [-]

The heterophenomenological program is to hit Ignore on that experience.

What do we call it when people experience the qualia 'Irk' upon more exposure to the same old 'qualia' stuff rehashed and hit 'Vote down' then Ignore it? It seems to be working for them.

Comment author: Nubulous 17 January 2010 03:49:10AM 0 points [-]

When alleged rationalists experience an "irk", because someone has reminded them that their theories describe a world utterly unlike the one that actually exists, we call this "cognitive dissonance". When they vote it down we call it "denial".

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 17 January 2010 04:01:41AM 3 points [-]

Downvoting a post on consciousness doesn't mean you think consciousness has been successfully explained. It means that you're not interested in seeing more posts about consciousness.

Comment author: wedrifid 17 January 2010 05:22:35AM 4 points [-]

It means that you're not interested in seeing more posts about consciousness.

Or perhaps that you're not interested in seeing more posts about consciousness with the same kind of confusion.

Comment author: Christian_Szegedy 17 January 2010 05:51:26AM *  5 points [-]

Or simply, that you don't like the post for some reason.

I'd love to see some refreshingly new viewpoints or insights on consciousness, but I guess it will have to wait.

My personal opinion is that Dennett's explanation is incomplete at best, but that pseudoscientific numerology is really inappropriate (and frustrating) on a rationalist forum.

IMO, the thread-opener is an overly lengthy, but valid criticism on Dennett's book, while avoiding most useless speculation, which is so prevalent here and elsewhere. The biggest problem with it is that it's about 5 times longer than it should be, so it fails to make a focused impact.

Comment author: Bo102010 17 January 2010 03:58:14AM 2 points [-]

Perhaps it would be instructive to think for a moment about why these people, who probably experience the world just as well as you do, have come to accept proposed explanations of consciousness.

It would also be nice if you'd engage these proposed explanations instead of saying that anyone who disagrees is in denial.

Dennet clearly thinks a lot about why other people think that qualia are real things that must be explained. He also makes it a point of engaging these intuitions and showing that they often fall apart under scrutiny rather than assuming that somehow they all must be correct.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 18 January 2010 11:21:15PM *  1 point [-]

Dennet clearly thinks a lot about why other people think that qualia are real things that must be explained.

Indeed -- the debate runs and runs, nearly two decades on from the original book. I do not think the conflict will be resolved soon (and if it is, it won't be in the pages of philosophical journals).

He also makes it a point of engaging these intuitions

Yes, and that is good.

and showing that they often fall apart under scrutiny rather than assuming that somehow they all must be correct.

What falls apart is the explanations people try to give of the experience.

Comment author: Nubulous 17 January 2010 08:00:09AM 0 points [-]

The only proposed explanation of consciousness I've seen on Less Wrong is "maybe if we arrange stuff in the right way, consciousness will happen". Even if true, it's not enough of an explanation to enable argument about it.

Dennet

Dennett presents a resolutely functionalist description of experience, then tells us that nothing resembling qualia can be found within it, to the great surprise of no-one at all.

think that qualia are real things

To believe that the phenomenal world, the world you actually live in, is a fiction, while an invented "physical" world, for which no evidence exists, is the real world, is not merely wrong, it's an irrationality which makes a complete mockery of the goals of this website.

Comment author: timtyler 17 January 2010 10:47:44AM 4 points [-]

There is evidence that the "real" world exists, for most reasonable uses of the term "evidence".

Comment author: Nubulous 18 January 2010 09:50:25AM -1 points [-]

Evidence implies observation. Observation implies conscious experience. So your evidence for a world independent of conscious experience turns out to be ... conscious experience. I expect you can see why that isn't going to work.

Comment author: timtyler 18 January 2010 06:30:29PM *  4 points [-]

No, I can't. Conscious experience is our evidence for the existence of the real world.

The hypothesis that the real world exists seems favoured heavily by Occam's razor.

If there was no world out there, life would probably be a lot more like dreaming is.

Comment author: RobinZ 18 January 2010 04:26:02PM 0 points [-]

In what sense does this "not work"? All of modern technology was designed and constructed under the paradigm that there is a world independent of conscious experience - the competing framework has produced bupkis.

Comment author: JanetK 17 January 2010 11:39:43AM 3 points [-]

“To believe that the phenomenal world, the world you actually live in, is a fiction, while an invented "physical" world, for which no evidence exists, is the real world, is not merely wrong, it's an irrationality which makes a complete mockery of the goals of this website.”

This seems to be the root of the problem. How do you start to argue with this statement? Why would anyone choose the map rather than the territory as their foundation? Why engage in science if you are not willing to accept the inferences that it makes about reality? Am I not going to believe in atoms because it doesn't match what I see with my eyes? If there is no evidence of the physical world then why don't you walk through walls? Do you have any explanations of illusions? Talk about making a mockery of rationality!

If we want to be rational then lets start with: consciousness is real and important but not yet explained by science, however we assume (at least for now) that the explanation is possible in materialistic terms. We can make this assumption because science is making steady progress in understanding brain function, (starting a decade or so ago) and when science makes steady progress it usually ends up with an explanation in materialistic terms.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 17 January 2010 06:22:03PM 5 points [-]

Why would anyone choose the map rather than the territory as their foundation? Why engage in science if you are not willing to accept the inferences that it makes about reality? Am I not going to believe in atoms because it doesn't match what I see with my eyes? If there is no evidence of the physical world then why don't you walk through walls? Do you have any explanations of illusions? Talk about making a mockery of rationality!

The parent post may have been exaggerating a bit; in any case, its basic point is right. We have to start with the map; we don't have direct access to the territory. We believe in physical reality and atoms because they seem to explain our experiences well. It's not naive realism or idealism to point this out.

Comment author: RobinZ 18 January 2010 01:23:48AM 2 points [-]

But by that interpretation the remark has no bearing on Dennett's philosophy. In this way Nubulous's statement is a sort of deepity (to use a term which Dennett invented): it hides between two meanings, a trivial but true one, and a revolutionary but false one.

Comment author: Nubulous 18 January 2010 11:42:21AM 0 points [-]

Why would anyone choose the map rather than the territory as their foundation?

I couldn't agree more, which is why I was attempting to discourage people from doing so.

Why engage in science if you are not willing to accept the inferences that it makes about reality? Am I not going to believe in atoms because it doesn't match what I see with my eyes?

But the justification for any physical theory is precisely that it predicts what you see with your own eyes. Indeed, that's what a physical theory is - a means of predicting what you will experience. Atoms, as a feature of such a theory, seem quite useful and worth "believing" in.

Do you have any explanations of illusions?

Illusions are when your theory of what you should experience breaks down, and produces wrong answers.

when science makes steady progress it usually ends up with an explanation in materialistic terms.

But as I pointed out above, physics is not materialist, so your claim is untrue.