Reply To: Daniel Dennet's claim that consciousness is an illusion

  • Paul

    May 10, 2023 at 1:14 pm

    This is a lively an interesting conversation. So many things to consider in all these posts.

    Hi @thaumasmus

    You ask…

    “Does anyone else feel as though metaphysical materialists, and so-called illusionists in particular, often appear to conflate consciousness with its contents – as if thoughts, feelings and perceptions were the whole story?”

    Yes, I do feel precisely this and you have put it very eloquently. I notice, even from highly regarded scholars (including those I have a lot of time for, Karl Friston for example) frequently conflate consciousness with cognition, perception or both.

    It is clear to me in the Dennett video that his premise, that we are machines made up of smaller machines (or a bag of tricks) is self-fulfilling: he suggests this premise and then simply assumes that everything confirms it. He is quite interested in mis-perception of ambiguous presentations but because of the stimuli he’s chosen he completely misses out on elevating his argument.

    He gets closer with the Bellotto that, on approach he discovers has a resolution limit (well I never!) and then follows this catastrophic failure of imagination- he contrasts this with Canaletto whose paintings contain so much detail he can see the clothing. So why doesn’t he extend this and ask, “Why can’t I see the eyelashes in the Canaletto?” In other words, he doesn’t use the very contrast he cites to question his own premises. Instead he abandons the effort at the point he finds an agreement with them.

    But this isn’t even his biggest error here: This is a very large painting and we ‘know’ Bellotto was well aware of exactly how he was applying the paint and the effect it would have at various distances from the canvas. I mean, come on Daniel, Bellotto painted it… With a brush, up close, and then stood back as an observer, probably thousands of times. It does not seem to occur to Dennett that Bellotto was actually hoping this effect would be noticed- that the future observer would notice the transition between meaningless, small detail and the meaningful ‘bigger picture’, to wonder at what that meant in terms of their perception, not just of the painting itself but of the world they live in and perhaps the cosmos itself. I don’t think there could be a more eloquent argument against Dennett’s position than this painting and the questions it asks the observer. And Bernardo Bellotto somehow smuggled it from the 18th Century into Dennett’s video. Bravo Barnardo, bravo!

    To ground this position in the here and now then: employing a paradigm based on ‘meaning’ rather than ‘effect’, the artist’s intention comes into our present. In very important (and I think intended ways) we are in conversation with that artist. I suspect also that if this was not a possibility, no artist would ever stoop to pick up a brush.

    So for me, the lesson here is that the sorts of questions you ask dictate the sorts of answers you get. If I pose questions about the limits of perception, I can generate answers about that. But if I don’t ask questions about meaning then I will not get answers about meaning.

    And I might avoid questions about meaning because I think there is no such thing. I might be Daniel Dannett sitting in my office scripting a TED talk about how I don’t think there is any meaning in the universe because the universe is simply a machine and machines are meaningless. Then get in my car and drive home to an environment simply replete with meaning: my wedding photographs, my dog greeting me, a large bill to pay, an unexpected call from a childhood friend- and still be completely untroubled by my view that all of this meaning is totally illusory.

    Is this actually rational? No, it is not. I propose Dennett’s arguments are simply an artefact of language, of compartmentalisation and categorisation.