Here's a link to a free, seemingly legal, PDF of an awesome book, Sweet Dreams by Dan Dennett. I finished reading it a day or two ago.


Chapter 3 begins with this:

It seems to many people that consciousness is a mystery, the most wonderful magic show imaginable, an unending series of special effects that defy explanation. I think that they are mistaken: consciousness is a physical, biological phenomenon—like metabolism or reproduction or self-repair—that is exquisitely ingenious in its operation, but not miraculous or even, in the end, mysterious.

Part of the problem of explaining consciousness is that there are powerful forces acting to make us think it is more marvelous than it actually is. As I noted in the previous chapter, in this regard consciousness resembles stage magic, a set of phenomena that exploit our gullibility, and even our desire to be fooled, bamboozled, awestruck. The task of explaining stage magic is in some regards a thankless task; the person who tells people how an effect is achieved is often resented, considered a spoilsport, a party pooper. I often get the impression that my attempts to explain some aspects of consciousness provoke similar resistence. Isn't it nicer if we all are allowed to wallow in the magical mysteriousness of it all? Or even this: if you actually manage to explain consciousness, they say, you will diminish us all, turn us into mere protein robots, mere things.

In the passage, Dennett claims that some say that if he managed to explain consciousness, he would diminish us all. I take "us" to mean the members of the human race.

But Dennett doesn't say who says or said this. I wonder whether it's true?

Googling phrases like "Don't explain consciousness" turned up an article called "Science as we know it can’t explain consciousness – but a revolution is coming." that argues in favor of panpsychism. It contains a link to the author's bio. His name is Philip Goff, says the bio, which also says that:

Philip Goff is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Durham University. Goff’s main research focus is consciousness, but he is interested in many questions about the nature of reality. Goff is most known for defending panpsychism, the view that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the physical world. Goff has authored an academic book with Oxford University Press – 'Consciousness and Fundamental Reality' – and a book aimed at a general audience – 'Galileo's Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness.' His new book 'Why? The Purpose of the Universe,' argues that the universe has a purpose, and will be published by Oxford University Press in November 2023. Goff has published 48 academic articles as well as writing extensively for newspapers and magazines, including Scientific American, The Guardian, Aeon and the Times Literary Supplement. The interview with Goff by Pulitzer Prize winning author Gareth Cook was one of the most viewed of the most viewed articles in Scientific American of 2020. Goff has appeared on many high-profile podcasts, including the Joe Rogan Experience and Lex Fridman's podcast.


Goff writes:

The problem of consciousness, however, is radically unlike any other scientific problem. One reason is that consciousness is unobservable. You can’t look inside someone’s head and see their feelings and experiences. If we were just going off what we can observe from a third-person perspective, we would have no grounds for postulating consciousness at all. Of course, scientists are used to dealing with unobservables. Electrons, for example, are too small to be seen. But scientists postulate unobservable entities in order to explain what we observe, such as lightning or vapour trails in cloud chambers. But in the unique case of consciousness, the thing to be explained cannot be observed. We know that consciousness exists not through experiments but through our immediate awareness of our feelings and experiences.

I find it especially interesting that Goff wrote, "If we were just going off what we can observe from a third-person perspective, we would have no grounds for postulating consciousness at all." but does not expand on this. The article makes no mention of Dennett, Frankish, or anyone like that, nor of illusionism, delusionism, AST, or anything like that, and indeed makes no further mention or use of the phrase "third-person". You read that right. The phrase "third-person" is used only once in the entire article.

It seems to me that he should have said why he was ignoring those that say a third-person theory of consciousness is possible. Unless perhaps he thinks that you shouldn't try to explain consciousness that way, perhaps because he thinks we would all be diminished if anyone succeeded?

Later, one comes to this passage:

The result is a type of “panpsychism” – an ancient view that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the physical world. But the “new wave” of panpsychism lacks the mystical connotations of previous forms of the view. There is only matter – nothing spiritual or supernatural – but matter can be described from two perspectives. Physical science describes matter “from the outside”, in terms of its behaviour, but matter “from the inside” is constituted of forms of consciousness.

The bit where it says, "nothing spiritual or supernatural" really got me, and made me think of what I call "the gaps ghost in the machine" which is an inelegant phrase I generated by mashing together parts of two extremely elegant quotes: Gilbert Ryle's "The Dogma of the Ghost in the Machine" and the famous alliterating phrase, "God of the Gaps" which has a complicated history that you can read about in Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_of_the_gaps). My phrase just means that the ghost in the machine has got smaller over time until now it seemingly doesn't do anything except get called "qualia".

This idea is supported by this article https://www.britannica.com/science/death/Descartes-the-pineal-soul-and-brain-stem-death.

Descartes' ghost in the machine idea is likely based on human instincts that cause people to think a person (and even an animal) leaves their body when the body dies, and indeed this is what death means and its immediate cause. We now know that death is a biological machine ceasing to function. Descartes thus inherited the ghost in the machine idea from antiquity, and ultimately from prehistory, and his own biological instincts as a normal person inclined him to believe it.

In antiquity, animals were thought to have souls, too. Souls were thought to do pretty much everything in living things. I guess the life force idea was included in the soul idea of antiquity. Besides feeling, the soul also calculated, and moved the body parts, digested food, and everything else the body and brain are now known to do without a soul.

Descartes's ghost in the machine was in fact a cut down version of the ghost in the machine (soul including life force) of antiquity (ancient Greece, about 500 BC) and animals didn't have souls, and in a human the soul only did things that only humans (and not animals) could do, such as rational thinking, and persisting after death.

This actually shows a certain consistency in that if your soul goes to heaven, why would it be able figure out that it was in heaven, and talk to God and the angels, and other souls, if it itself could not think rationally? The modern conception of the soul seems to imply redundancy, and consequent waste of the body's energy that comes from food (and/or oxygen), with both brain and soul being able to think rationally.

Science no longer believes in a soul, supposedly. Or does it? It seems to me that "phenomenal consciousness", "qualia", and so on are the latest version of soul/ghost in the machine, cut down in size still further. Qualia don't even think rationally. Nor do they persist beyond death. They don't cost the body any calories/joules because they don't do any work in the brain or body.

So it's kind of a case of an "incredible shrinking soul" (gaps ghost in the machine) analogous to an "incredible shrinking God" (God of gaps). And panpsychism seems to have noticed that the gaps in neurophysiology are fast disappearing and therefore in desperately looked around for a gap, any gap, anywhere. And there is a sort of gap in physics. It might not be a real gap, because it might be more accurately described as the edge of the universe or of reality.

This "gap" seems to exist because physics doesn't say what electrons and quarks and so on actually "are", or what they are actually "made of". Physics only says what effects they have on each other, and so on. According to ontic structural realism (OSR), if I understand it correctly, they aren't "made of" anything. They exist but not in the way macroscopic things exist. They kind of have less to them than macroscopic things can be imagined to have to them.

It looks like asking what a quark is made of is like asking what a number is made of. The number seven isn't really made of anything. It is defined as six plus one. It has relations to the other numbers, and that is all that there is to seven. Proving that two plus two is four is actually fairly simple, since you don't even need to define what numbers are, beyond defining the rules about how they relate to each other. You don't even need to know what "next" means, when you define two as next after three, as this video explains at the five and a half minute mark: https://youtu.be/0-pL2J0ZB8g. It may be that quarks, like the natural numbers, only have relations to each other, and no composition. So to say that quarks are composed of consciousness is kind of meaningless, but also kind of convenient, because this is one gap that can't ever be closed (Hey panpsychists! How about claiming that numbers, or all mathematical objects, contain or are composed of consciousness? It would make about as much sense). But, it is less of a gap in physics than simply being not part of reality. Being outside of reality, like God is sometimes said to be, as in "God doesn't exist, but He is so powerful that he can save us without existing", as some Christians say (they call themselves Christians but Dennett says they are atheists).

So physics will likely never be able to close this "gap", and will never care. So it's quite a good final refuge for the ghost in the machine. Note also the similarity to what happened to the God of the gaps. First he was in the sky, and then when telescopes were invented, "everywhere". Now "qualia" will likewise be said to be "everywhere", by panpsychism. Never mind that it's absurd to compare something extremely complex like "qualia" with electric charge or mass or other properties of the fundamental particles. And that there isn't the slightest evidence for such a property of fundamental particles.

As long as the public can't see that, and one or two physicists are irrational enough (and/or self-serving enough) to say as professionals that they endorse panpsychism, it can seem plausible to the public. And that could be enough, given the yearning of people everywhere to believe it.

Panpsychism is mysticism, and calling it scientific would be pseudoscience. It's dualism in disguise.

To me, pseudoscience is claiming to be science while not really being science. Goff takes panpsychism, an unfalsifiable claim that is totally at odds with science (because it's just the soul idea in another form) and calls it science.

Goff's article really looks a lot like it's promoting pseudoscience or religion to me. And a religion tends to either say openly that it's a sin and/or capital offense to contradict it, or at least insinuates or secretly believes that it's not nice to contradict it. And naturalistic explanations of religion tend to count as contradicting it in the minds of the religious.

By sweeping Dennett et al's views under the carpet he implies that those views shouldn't be heard. And that's very close to implying that those views shouldn't be expressed.

So although I couldn't find anyone saying what Dennett says they say, I already found a top philosopher (Goff) who seems to believe it.

But did anyone actually say it?

  • 3
    "Explaining is not explaining away."
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 20, 2023 at 20:26
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    @ScottRowe Thanks. I like that quip.
    – J D
    Jun 20, 2023 at 20:30
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    Goff is offering an explanation for consciousness, why imply that he is against explaining consciousness? It is DENNETT who is not explaining consciousness, Dennett DENIES that we are conscious.
    – Dcleve
    Jun 20, 2023 at 21:15
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    "who bends not his ear to any bell, which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." -John Donne.
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 20, 2023 at 22:17
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    @AmeetSharma -- the following paragraph, in which a half dozen prominent neuroscientists are cited as saying that qualia exist, and Dennett is using an invalid and dogmatic definition of science, is even more decisive in gutting Dennett's claim to be doing science.
    – Dcleve
    Jun 21, 2023 at 15:25

2 Answers 2


As a preamble, the values concern about Dennett's delusionism is not the primary objection to it. Instead, most philosophers treat conscious experience as basic data, and a model of consciousness that dismisses this basic data is to reject the core principles of science. Dennett throwing in the towel on actually explaining consciousness, is why most philosophers dismiss his work.

However, there is a second question you are asking about, and this one too is relevant, but I am not sure you have framed it clearly yet. The question is why any individual matters in any way.

This question becomes highly relevant once you start trying to figure out how to ground any ethics or morality. Utilitarians, for instance, consider it critical for developing a moral theory that humans (and animals, for animal welfare utilitarians) can experience happiness and suffering. Tom Regan, in The Case for Animal Rights, based his thinking on an argument that all adult mammals will have a point of view, a welfare, and ability to feel pain, etc. Very similarly, in The Moral Landscape, as part of his argument for a naturalist morality, Sam Harris argued that the ability of humans to feel, to be conscious, is critical to valuing them.

Every one of these rationales is destroyed by illusionism's claim that we are not conscious. They are similarly destroyed by eliminative reductionism's claim that consciousness is "nothing but" mechanics.

IF we humans are just machines, then we have no more nor less value than machines.

Keith Frankish tried to respond to this point here: https://www.keithfrankish.com/blog/illusionism-and-compassion/ A problem for Keith's response, is that it calls for extending compassion to every sensory system that has a response. Such as the motion detector that turns on my floodlights. And my thermostat. Keith is unable to morally distinguish humans and animals from mechanical sensors. And every NPC in a video game would also, per his rationale, deserve compassion.

WHY we should extend compassion to systems with data streams and responses, Keith leaves unclarified. He just asserts, without justification, that any processing stream can CREATE value: "We create value and self-worth through our engagement with the world around us and the people in it." So -- NPCs and my thermostat are creating value for themselves? And I should treat them as valuable, because of their value-generation?

Note, that philosophers in general tend to consider the process of creating value to NOT be automatic. There is an entire school of philosophy, existentialism, which is focused on the rationale for and process of creating value. And both willing and agency are critical to their proposed approach. But Frankish, and Dennett, hold that we have no will, and they redefine "agency" in a "compatibilist" way that makes it useless to do what the existentialists think they need it to do. Frankish's declaration that self-creation of value is automatic in action, is not plausible.

Keith would probably be better off with the classical reductionist response of claiming morality and values are an illusion too!

At any rate, the problem that you are searching for, for Frankish and Dennett is not THAT they are trying to develop an explanation for consciousness, but that SOME explanations remove any ability for humans to create or have value, or justify morality.

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    @AmeetSharma Context. We are aware that a movie is not a set of real events happening to real people, but a recording of people pretending to experience events which were fabricated.
    – JMac
    Jun 21, 2023 at 10:02
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    @JMac, from his blog: "So being in pain, say, doesn’t involve being acquainted with a private mental awfulness, but reacting in a host of negative ways to sensory information about the state of one’s body. " So if we react in a "negative" way to certain stimuli, that is what "being in pain" means to Frankish. He doesn't really explain what "negative" means exactly here. Jun 21, 2023 at 10:13
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    @AmeetSharma The behaviour isn't the same though, because one can use context to be aware of what others reactions and behaviours really mean about their mind state. Sometimes a viewer cant tell that an actor isnt really in pain, but that's entirely different than suggesting that acting pained is the same as being pained, even with what Frankish said.
    – JMac
    Jun 21, 2023 at 11:11
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    @AmeetSharma I'm saying the behavior of someone in pain and someone acting in pain is different. Someone in pain will be exposed to different stimuli than someone acting, and thus will react with different behaviour. Just because some observers may lack information to determine if it is actually pain or not, doesnt mean they arent different situations.
    – JMac
    Jun 21, 2023 at 11:40
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat. Jun 21, 2023 at 11:45

"Qualia don't even think rationally. Nor do they persist beyond death. They don't cost the body any calories/joules because they don't do any work in the brain or body." Don't they consume the energy needed to sense them, when we perceive?

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