17 September 2010

Sweet Dreams

Thoughts On Sweet Dreams

Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness is a 2005 book by philosopher Deniall Dennett.


Dennett's understanding of consciousness

Dennett builds on his earlier ideas about consciousness, in particular the Multiple Drafts Model. He argues for a definition of consciousness as analogous to fame1. Thoughts that we are aware of are like famous people, while thoughts that we don't notice are like unknown wanna-bes. Here I say "thoughts", but that's just my term for convenience and brevity; Dennett makes it clearer what he means but I can't sum it up in a few words.

But don't imagine little mental homunculi as fans of the "famous" thoughts. The analogy doesn't go as far as that. The "audience" are simple mental modules. They may be made of even simpler modules. At the bottom, it's just tiny mental robots.

He says that an important point of the analogy is that what makes thoughts part of one's consciousness or not are their ~sequelae~2. He argues this by asking us to imagine a situation where an up-and-coming author was about to hit it big - new book coming out with much publicity, big TV interviews lined up, maybe even already taped - and on the day that he would have gotten famous, some natural disaster occurred and the news was all about that, eclipsing the hopeful author. That wouldn't be fame, even though fame would be the normal consequence, because the normal sequelae of fame did not occur. Similarly, Dennett argues, thoughts that are otherwise the same as normal conscious thoughts but don't become mentally "famous" - say because one was distracted at the time - are not conscious because they lack the sequelae that would normally make them conscious.

Mental rehearseal as uniquely human

Dennett also adds some thoughts about mental rehearseal, "our habit of immediately reviewing or rehearsing whatever grabs our attention strongly". He speculates that mental rehearseal:

  • may be what makes a conscious thought stay conscious rather than lapsing into obscurity.
  • may be a uniquely human activity (vs animals)
  • lack of it may account for infantile amnesia, ie it's why we don't remember our very early years.

My thoughts

So are computers conscious?

Following Dennett's definition leads me to the surprising conclusion that not only are computers conscious, they are super-conscious. Computer behavior not only fits the definition, it fits it far better than ours does.

Computers can, if suitably instructed, call up any piece of data in their RAM and send it essentially anywhere in themselves: to the CPU, to the peripherals, to the larger world via the net. (Add many "etc"s here to cover the various possibilities) They do the echoes/reverberating/recollectability thing much more perfectly than we do.

Maybe it makes more sense to say that computers are extremely conscious, just not at all self-willed.

What if fame and consciousness are really the same?

As I said above, Dennett makes it clear that his fame analogy is not literal; "famous" thoughts are appreciated by mechanical mental modules, not by an audience of tiny people. But of course at the sub-human granularity he's talking about, there couldn't be a human audience. At the coarser granularity of human communication, that doesn't apply.

What if we take the fame = consciousness analogy as actually correct?

  • Consider famous thoughts - perhaps the phrases of Shake-speare or the equations of Newton. Do their continued sequelae make their thinkers still conscious?

    I'd say no. Obviously the thoughts are part of some consciousnesses, but not part of Newton's no-longer-functioning consciousness.

  • Contrariwise, consider a thought that never has public sequelae - a thought that never gets out into the world at all. Perhaps the thinker dies without ever communicating it by word or by deed. So those thoughts have no public sequelae, which we're assuming are of a piece with mental sequelae. Are those thoughts conscious or not?

    It misses the point to answer, "Of course! If you had asked him, he would have said so, and been miffed at you for doubting it". We just said that that never happened, and the real3, actual sequelae are at issue, not hypothetical ones.

  • If at some dark point in the future humankind is all destroyed, then there will have been no ultimate sequelae to any fame. By our hypothesis, neither will there have been any to our thoughts. Does that imply that nobody was ever conscious?

    In my view, yes in the large cosmic view, but we observers live within the smaller view. The (ultimately doomed) culture surrounds us and we can see it just fine. We may reasonably answer no, while still knowing that some day it will all be gone.

On being misunderstood

Daniel Dennett writes in a very gentle style. Phrases like "These idiots did not understand what I was saying" are not to be found in his books. Nevertheless, I get the impression that sometimes his patience is sometimes tried by misunderstandings that he is responding to.


1 He suggests "influence" as another inexact word for what he is describing, but does not expand on that.

2 Again, I can't do justice to sequelae in a few words, but basically he means "consequences", in a slightly technical philosopher's sense. See here for more.

3 This is not to contradict the many-worlds interpretation. If this concerns you, then just read "real" as "in the same branch as the observer".

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