FW: [evol-psych] Book Review: Daniel Dennett and the Brick Wall of Consciousness
From: firstname.lastname@example.org [mailto:email@example.com] On Behalf Of Robert Karl Stonjek
Sent: Monday, June 05, 2006 12:34 AM
To: Cognitive NeuroScience; Mind and Brain; Evolutionary-Psychology
Subject: [evol-psych] Book Review: Daniel Dennett and the Brick Wall of Consciousness
Volume LIX, Number 1 (Spring 2006). Copyright © 2006 by The Hudson Review, Inc.
Daniel Dennett and
the Brick Wall of Consciousness
“Like” and “like” and “like”—but what is the thing that lies
beneath the semblance of the thing?
—Virginia Woolf, The Waves
How could a physical system give rise to conscious experience?
—David J. Chalmers, The Conscious Mind
Only a theory that explained conscious events in terms of
unconscious events could explain consciousness at all.
—Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained
SWEET DREAMS IS BY NO MEANS THE BOOK you would want to start out with if you have never read anything by Daniel Dennett. There are two distinguished classics in his oeuvre to be read first, Consciousness Explained (1991) and Darwin ’s Dangerous Idea (1995), in that order. Dealing as they do with two of the most pressing themes in current philosophy (not to mention certain of the sciences), these books would rank pretty close to the top of my list of what every twenty-first century intellectual should know. Sweet Dreams, on the other hand, is a slight book that has been patched together from various talks, articles in professional journals, and newly written passages, all of which serve to tweak Dennett’s major doctrines in the light of subsequent criticisms and rethinkings. Unlikely as it may seem, the book reads well—like everything else by Dennett. It’s sheer pleasure to be in the company of a consciousness like this—if you could believe in consciousness at all after reading what he has to say.
Still, the basics are hardly in dispute in the matters of self, consciousness, and free will, given the extraordinary accomplishments of the neurosciences over the past twenty-five years and their assimilation by philosophers in the field of consciousness studies. Although there might be demurrals about particular points here and there, the current picture is clear enough. The brain involves somewhere between fifty and a hundred fifty billion neurons; let’s say a hundred. These are a variety of fine, threadlike, long “brain cells” that are not only wound up inside the brain but that extend throughout the body to link to your brain everything from your big toe and five senses to your internal organs. Within the brain these neurons connect with each other via synapses across which neural impulses send electrochemical “messages.” The sheer number of connections is beyond reckoning, greater, it is said, than the number of stars in the universe. Besides registering the performance of the body, this network is the place where cerebration, emotion, and all forms of psychological experience take place. The sheer activity going on every microsecond means that our sense of the smooth continuity of our consciousness is a gross illusion, like the illusion of visual continuity. In the case of our eyes, 100 million rods and 7 million cones in our retinas—the receptors of light from the scenes we behold—send electrochemical impulses to the brain via neurons. Since our range of clear sight consists of a very small area directly in front of us, we are constantly refocusing our eyes and moving our head at the rate of several “saccades” (or eye movements) per second. This means that the smooth-seeming panorama that we view is completely redrawn several times a second, since every rod and cone receives a different light particle with each refocus. Just as we don’t hear the 44,000 interruptions per second between the samples of music coded on a compact disk, don’t see the individual frames of a movie film or the many redrawings per second of our TV and computer monitors, we are completely unaware of the pointillistic nature of our vision.
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Robert Karl Stonjek