Daniel Dennett on consciousness and the hard question

This interview is pretty much classic Daniel Dennett.  He starts off pointing out that introspection is unreliable, that our beliefs about our inner experience are what need to be explained, not necessarily what the beliefs purport to be reality.  He doesn’t name the meta-problem, but it’s clear that, and related concepts, are what he’s talking about.

What’s worth noting here is the discussion on the hard question: “and then what happens?”  At its root, this question gets at the fact that phenomenal experience can’t be considered in isolation, but has to be assessed in terms of the its downstream effects, how it fits in overall survival framework.  He uses this to disseminate the nature of something like pain, and of seeing a blue sky.

(This video is about 41 minutes.)

Dennett did a paper on the hard question, which I’ve been meaning to read, although I really already buy it’s main premise.

The so-called hard problem of consciousness is a chimera, a distraction from the hard question of consciousness, which is once some content reaches consciousness, ‘then what happens?’. This question is seldom properly asked, for reasons good and bad, but when asked it opens up avenues of research that promise to dissolve the hard problem and secure a scientifically sound theory of how the human brain produces the (sometimes illusory) convictions that mislead us.

Unfortunately, despite the obvious play on Chalmers’ hard problem, I doubt if this concept will spread like it did.  The hard problem seems to affirm our own importance, the hard question sheds a clarifying light that often does the opposite.  Still, for anyone trying to understand this stuff, it’s an important question.

People always seem to have strong opinions about Dennett, probably related to his role in the New Atheism movement, but I’ve generally found his views on consciousness to be far more informed than most in the philosophy of mind.  But then I often agree with him, so I would.

What do you think of the hard question?  Or about the other topics discussed in the video?

41 thoughts on “Daniel Dennett on consciousness and the hard question

  1. I listened to him around the time the 4 horseman became a big thang. But his position on consciousness I’m not nearly as attuned as I should be. So I am looking forward to seeing this discussion. I do remember a Sam Harris podcast (I believe) when they sat down at some bar, or what have you at a talk-fest event and debated free-will.
    I am a proponent (for now at least) that the ‘hard question’ heralds the limits of what science can explain. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to dig deeper (on the contrary), but there is something unassailable about how only as conscious beings do we see particles come into existence. As I contested in my previous comment in another post to you (based on that fantastic video and the experiments within) The Copenhagen ( inc. Niels Bohr) interpretation is at least backed up by Science, which ironically shows there isn’t any science/rationality behind why nature does what it does except only as conscious beings do we see it. For now at least…. That is a fact until it is refuted. So Copenhagen to my mind is still the best scientifically proven interpretation of the nature of reality after all these years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, but just to be clear, the hard question is different from the hard problem. The question essentially allows us to transcend the hard problem.

      On Copenhagen and the other major interpretations, they actually all explain the experimental results. Copenhagen was just one of the earliest ones, and for decades the “official” one more because of Bohr’s prestige than science. And “Copenhagen” itself means different things to different people.

      When it comes to interpretations, I think we may be in a period of history similar to the late 16th century, when astronomers were debating geocentrism vs heliocentrism, both of which at the time predicted observations, at least until the telescope. We need the equivalent of the telescope to break the current stalemate.


      1. You are much more educated about this subject than me. I don’t presume to know anything apart from what I have gleaned. So I am just putting this out there. But, am I right in saying that Bohr and Einstein had a profound conflict about the nature of reality that still exists in many circles today? Ok, if so, based on my understanding Bohr WAS CORRECT.


          1. No worries.

            The Einstein / Bohr story is complicated, and it raised issues still being debated today. Usually it’s presented as Einstein not being able to cope with indeterminism, but Einstein’s real beef was with non-locality. It’s why he wasn’t enthusiastic about the deBroglie-Bohm interpretation, even though it’s deterministic. I wonder at time what he would have thought of the interpretations that do preserve locality, like many worlds, or the relational one.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Thanks for clarifying Einstein’s problem – non locality rather indeterniminism. I have heard Sean Carroll discuss the Everett’s ‘Many World’s’ interpretation many times and I understand his penchant for it since you don’t need to include consciousness in it and what we observe is much less than what exists. I think you do have to include consciousness in it since we are breaking down the wave function all the time. Look at what we see and why see it that way. I understand that reality isn’t what we see at the microlevel, but it is our reality at the macro.
            The (more) scientific rationalists seem to be more refutative of the Copenhagen and drawn to other interpretations such as many-worlds..Their rationality seems to hinge on – ‘We shouldn’t be starting with the classical theory of relativity and then applying rules to turn it into a quantum theory. Maybe we should be starting with quantum mechanics’. However John Stewart Bell’s Theorem seems to suggest that the nature of reality is that only as conscious observers do we conjure particles into their existence. So how can you separate consciousness from a valid interpretation. Otherwise it’s just waves and more waves – ‘non locality’ and ‘inderterminsm’ unless I’m mistaken.


          3. Most physicists today that adhere to Copenhagen don’t see consciousness as what causes the collapse, but interaction with a complex system. The concept of decoherence, where the information spreads into the environment, is interpretation independent.

            Supposedly many worlds and related interpretations preserve both realism and locality while being compatible with Bell’s theorem. I won’t pretend to understand how, but it might have to do with the possibilities being spread over multiple wave branches.


    1. Thanks. I noticed and just updated the post. I got that link directly from Dennett’s tweet, so I’m keeping the embed in case it shows up again, or another copy surfaces that I can link to. Very annoying.


        1. Yeah, I used to link to images, and occasionally still do, but like you, I mostly copy them now. But doing that with videos isn’t feasible. I’ve learned if the post can stand apart from the video, to put it at the bottom so if it goes bad, it’s not disruptive. But this one was all about the video, and it came straight from the source, which is usually safe.


          1. True, no way to copy videos, and I’ve had a fair number of video links break. (Musical videos are the worst — copyright issues get a lot of them taken down at some point.)

            As an aside: A very long time ago I had a long debate with someone about how fragile file system path names are (and this applies to internet path names, too). If a resource is just moved (let alone deleted), your path name breaks. This person thought we should do away with path names and just use attributes, properties, or tags.

            Which does have some attraction,… until you actually try to implement or use such a system. The main problem being that only path names can provide a unique identifier for a resource. Any number of objects can share the same properties or tags.

            And if you’ve ever dealt with a set of lots of objects by just their properties, you know that’s a confusing mess. Path hierarchies help organize, although they do suffer from the same issues as class hierarchies.

            Broken links are just something we have to live with, is what I’m saying… 😉


          2. I agree. Even going to meaningless keys has problems. That’s what bit us with the Youtube video. If it had been name driven, the publisher probably could have just swapped the new video (with the improved audio) in with no disruption.

            When it comes to videos, I just hope they stay up long enough for us to have interesting discussions. I know a certain percentage of them will disappear over time. Of course, any blog post about something else anywhere on the web has that issue.


          3. Heh, yeah,… the web is so ephemeral that I’m often surprised if a website I visited ten years ago is still there. (Two of the ones I had in the 90s certainly aren’t. Ah, good old Geocities — you always remember your first. 😀 )


          4. Many sites get captured by archive.org, although often with important aspects of the functionality broken. And famous sites are a lot more likely to be there than niche players.

            Your comment just made me check to see if a site I frequented back in the 90s is still there: The Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5. I remember the site author promising they’d keep it up until they were buried. It’s still there, and even has recent updates.

            Liked by 1 person

          1. [just listened to it … still searching for pieces of my brain …]
            Okay, my head didn’t actually explode, but there was much gesticulating, and more than one exclamation. (“Just say it! Unitracker!”)

            There’s one major part which I think Dennett gets kinda wrong. He talks about an experience happening, and then the “hard question” of “then what happens”. He specifically references Millikan as talking about the “consumers” of representations. Personally, I would say there is no experience until the representation is “consumed”. The experience is not the production (by a unitracker!) of the representation. The experience is the consumption of the representation. I think he would agree with this point because he talks about what happens if you take away all the responses to something (which is taking away all the consumers). There’s nothing left, which suggests no consumers = no experience.

            There’s also another part where I think he’s more wrong, namely the part about the role of language. I think the main feature that separated humans from primates was the capability of generating generic unitrackers by combining arbitrary pre-existing unitrackers. Once you can do that, you can assign arbitrary gestures, speech acts, etc. to unitrackers. This gives the possibility of language as well as the possibility of recursion.

            What did you think?


            Liked by 1 person

          2. I haven’t quite finished listening to it yet, but I think I agree with everything you say here. I did catch his mention of Ruth Millikan, so he’s apparently familiar with her work.

            I also disagree with his continued insistence on calling consciousness an illusion. Too many people when they see “illusion”, don’t think, “oh, something different than what I thought.” Instead they think “mirage.” If he wants to use the user interface metaphor, he’d be better off just calling it “user interface”.

            And I think he’s inconsistent, resisting the “illusion” label for free will. I think they both exist at a certain level or organization and can be reduced to components that are not them. Both can be called an illusion in the sense he means for consciousness.


          3. Actually I’m sympathetic with Dennett using “illusion” as “not what you think it is”, and so illusion for Consciousness and not for free will. The goal of using the term in Consciousness is simply breaking people away from the idea that a phenomenal property is as it appears. Confusing “not what it seems” with “doesn’t exist” is a smaller problem. But with free will, confusing these two things is a major problem, because those who come down on “doesn’t exist” can change their moral decisions based on that view, which is bad. Better to not give them that option.

            As for the user interface idea, I think that’s problematic because it injects a bad concept, namely, the monolithic user. We create computer interfaces because there are entities used to working in one arena (the world of physical stuff) which we want to control a different arena of digital stuff. So we have to interject things that in some way appear like physical stuff. This can’t be what the brain is doing. There may be a big screen, the global workspace, but there is an audience, each member watching the big screen as well as other small screens (cell phones?) for their one thing, and if they see it, they perform their one act (which can have multiple effects). But the audience knows what it’s looking for, so it doesn’t have to look like something else.



          4. “As for the user interface idea, I think that’s problematic because it injects a bad concept, namely, the monolithic user.”

            Dennett himself uses the phrase “user illusion”, so arguably he’s already injecting it to whatever extent “user interface” does. Even the word “illusion” by itself is frequently responded to with something like, “Who’s experiencing the illusion?”

            On the big screen analogy, you’re right that each audience process is only watching the piece or aspect of the screen it cares about. Only the community of brain processes overall can be characterized as watching the whole show. But that community could also be characterized as “the user”.

            All metaphors ultimately have limitations.


          5. Wait James, “illusion” doesn’t mean “not what you think”, it means “not what you *see* (or hear or etc). I can study the Muller-Lyer illusion and related psychology all year long, and still be subject to the illusion. But I won’t *think* the lines are unequal!

            I don’t think every mistake should be called an “illusion” – that cheapens the word too much. Only those misperceptions, like the Muller-Lyer illusion, that stubbornly resist cognitive efforts to repair, should be called illusions. Most of what philosophers criticize as “illusions” about experience are just beliefs, thoroughly open to revision in the face of new evidence. (Well, to the extent that the person holding them is open to evidence, anyway.)

            Liked by 1 person

          6. Paul, maybe I missed something. You said “Only those misperceptions, like the Muller-Lyer illusion, that stubbornly resist cognitive efforts to repair, should be called illusions. ”. But that describes qualia perfectly. No understanding of what’s going on will repair the illusion of seeing magenta.



  2. I suffer from severe confirmation bias and I have become happy to acknowledge and live with that. I don’t care what Dennet or Blackmore think ~ I choose to disbelieve them because their hypothesis depresses me. While I have never been a ghastly God bother I nonetheless have some conviction that there may be some sort of ultimate of which we may be a part. I’m not just physics and I don’t care who says otherwise. 😁😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fair enough. You’re far from alone in that stance. And I appreciate your honesty on why you hold it. I learned a long time ago not to debate that type of conviction. But you do seem to hold a fascination for this stuff, and I hope that continues.


      1. I do, I do. But I’m afraid I tend to stick to Chalmers and his ilk! Of course I can see that this is an irrational and unscientific act of closed minded ignorance. It is also however a form of self protection. Some nutters comvince themselves into a belief in the monotheistic god. This particular nutter likes the views of Frank Tipler and his ilk.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I did a post on Chalmers last summer, and was struck by how much I agreed with him. In terms of observable phenomena, we mostly agree. He just posits an extra irreducible something that he sees as necessary to complete the picture. But that extra commitment is so innocuous, for many purposes, I can ignore it.

          I recognize Frank Tipler from somewhere. I must have seen him on TV or youtube at some point. His ideas sound, based only on his wikipedia, very Kurzweilian. (Or maybe Kurzweil is Tiplerian.) As a skeptic, I think it’s overly speculative, even neo-religious. As an aspiring science fiction author, it’s interesting.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. You become conscious of something – and then what happens?

    Sometimes the answer is we just don’t know what happens next. But then the thing to do is NOT to discard the experience, as I think Dennett is suggesting. The memory of the experience still remains in our evidence base. The *only* rational way to defeat “it seems to me that X” is by combining “it seems to me that Y” (Y can represent a long string of facts) and “it seems to me that if Y, then not X”. This remains the case regardless of whether X or Y is an “inner” or “outer” perception of self or world. And by the way, the history of philosophy (and of science) is littered with “it seems to me that if Y, then not X” inferences that had to be discarded.


    1. I think the “what then” boundary Dennett is discussing is the preparation of the information of the experience, and then the consumption of it. So even if I just go “Hmmm, that’s interesting,” something is happening after that preparation. It doesn’t exist in isolation. In other words, the audience matters, and once we get into the audience, a lot of the mystery evaporates.

      Why does it feel like something to have the experience? Because the sensory image is formed, and then one or more affects are generated, and then we’re disposed toward certain actions or deliberations, and then…, etc. Stopping at the image to marvel at the mystery of it all, is creating the mystery, a mystery that disappears with the rest of the sequence.


      1. Well if Dennett’s point is that there’s always something that comes next (even if we don’t always know what it is), then of course I’m all for that. But only epiphenonemalists deny that, and there aren’t too many of them.


      2. Just wanted to point out that a memory is one of the things that “happened next”, i.e., the mechanism for creating the memory is a consumer.

        Also, Paul, isn’t everyone who says p-zombies are conceivable an epiphenomenalist?



        1. No, people who say p-zombies are conceivable are just poor thinkers. So poor as to make attribution of any isms impossible, short of self-declaration 🙂
          Slightly more seriously, it’s conceivable that the laws of nature could have been different, and perhaps those philosophers think (wrongly) that humans could still have the same physical properties even if the laws of physics had been different. So the p-zombies in that universe would say “ouch” because of some physical property they share with us, while we say it because of pain.
          Or maybe I’m working too hard to make sense of nonsense.


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