The exchange can be found here. (it's very worth reading)

Searle's and also others like Strawson accuses Dennett of denying consciousness. His term is only about the 3rd person perspective, where materialism would show that qualias (and experience altogether?) are illusory.

For context here is the criticism by Searle. My question is at the very end.

Searle says:

I think we all really have conscious states. To remind everyone of this fact I asked my readers to perform the small experiment of pinching the left forearm with the right hand to produce a small pain. The pain has a certain sort of qualitative feeling to it, and such qualitative feelings are typical of the various sorts of conscious events that form the content of our waking and dreaming lives. To make explicit the differences between conscious events and, for example, mountains and molecules, I said consciousness has a first-person or subjective ontology. By that I mean that conscious states only exist when experienced by a subject and they exist only from the first-person point of view of that subject.

Such events are the data which a theory of consciousness is supposed to explain. In my account of consciousness I start with the data; Dennett denies the existence of the data. To put it as clearly as I can: in his book, Consciousness Explained, Dennett denies the existence of consciousness. He continues to use the word, but he means something different by it. For him, it refers only to third-person phenomena, not to the first-person conscious feelings and experiences we all have. For Dennett there is no difference between us humans and complex zombies who lack any inner feelings, because we are all just complex zombies.

[Dennet's theory] is not about consciousness, but rather is a third-person account of external behavior.


I'm trying to get a better view of what they seem to be thinking of.

  • Isn't all of what is experienced by a subject, subjective ? What is an example of an objective experience, then ?

It seems to me that 'objective' implies a device's measurement, not us (even though we still read the values and so on.), but the experience is always subjective, or at best something that we believe to be considered reasonably independent of the subject.

  • Since Dennett's disregards Qualia which in turn is all of the properties of experience, and in turn is most or all the subjective experience (unless you disagreed earlier), Is his theory only a 'third person account' of consciousness ? (as implied by Searle.)
  • We can be "devices" that make measurements too, we do so prolifically without calling them that and then report them to others. So "device's measurements", when done by us, are your "objective experiences", or rather objective aspects of experience. Those same experiences also have subjective aspects, qualia, etc., so "the experience is always subjective" is technically true, albeit misleading. Dennett acknowledges only objective aspects as legitimate and dismisses the rest as "illusory" (they are reducible to reports of them to him, with mythology attached), Searle acknowledges both.
    – Conifold
    Jan 1 at 17:06
  • Life is so much more interesting with the myth of human existence! I think Dennett would agree. If not, no reason for him to stick around.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 1 at 23:08
  • @Conifold In other words, what is left if I remove 'my blue' which in turn means the way I perceive its brightness, its hue,...? Shall I assume that those parts are what a human would see with exactly equal senses (and stimuli), but different brain, and that would more clearly separate subjective and objective parts ?
    – Mah Neh
    Jan 2 at 6:19
  • 1
    Once you remove 'your blue' what is left is an abstraction that no one can see, only think. As Aristotle already emphasized, it is only in thought that we can separate bronzeness of a bronze sphere from its roundness. Abstractions are not parts of experience, only aspects, derivatives, but they do have the benefit of being sharable. We do assume that (under normal circumstances) certain features that other humans (with unimpaired faculties) would abstract from what they see will match ours. And those are objective.
    – Conifold
    Jan 2 at 10:24

2 Answers 2


In general yes, human observations are first person. Behaviorists like Dennett, and functionalists, both like to pretend this is not so. But yes, doing science without the first person is generally not possible.

It is only generally not possible, because we are able to train our neurology to do repetitive tasks without engaging our consciousness. Record 2000 measurements off a meter, one after another, and you may very well not have qualia during the last quarter. Likewise we can drive while our minds wander and parallel process. This is an exception, but philosophy likes to look for exceptions.

Dennett’s theory of mind does have us be zombies. His model is complex though, and he does not ignore qualia or consciousness completely. He specifically claims that we evaluate options and make decisions between “multiple drafts” unconsciously, but that when when our memories of the winning draft get recorded in our long term memory, the writing process creates backdated false memories of experiencing qualia.

This is a bizarre theory, which he does not explicitly defend in Consciousness Explained. The best defense is found in Susan Blackmore’s A Very Short Introduction to Consciousness.

The reason Dennett does not defend or justify his theory, is that as a (mostly) behaviorist, he thinks our rational mind is not causal. He instead thinks we are motivated by intuition pumps. He fills Consciousness Explained with intuition pumps intended to make his model more plausible to a reader.

Blackmore explicitly spells out a rational case for delusionism. She argues that physicalism is certainly true, AND that all the physicalist efforts to explain consciousness physically fail one test case or another (her book is filled with lab experiments on consciousness, and she explains how they refute physicalist models). These tests also show how we are often misled/mistaken even about the content of our own experiences. She infers that it is reasonable to postulate that we are also misled about our even being conscious. As dismissing the validity of the data of consciousness is the only way to save physicalism, and physicalism is true with "certainty", she argues that delusionism is the most rational view.

Here is my review of Blackmore: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1C1TJFIWBZ8ZQ?ref=pf_ov_at_pdctrvw_srp I recommend her over Dennett for anyone trying to understand what he is arguing for.

  • Interesting, but isn't "It is only generally not possible, because we are able to train our neurology to do repetitive tasks without engaging our consciousness." yet another interpretation of consciousness ? In that case, I'd think that I'm still perceiving the device, feeling the touch of it and so on; I'd say I'm only a little bit less conscious. But not-conscious would be when the movie is off, in a way in deep sleep, not even when dreaming.
    – Mah Neh
    Jan 2 at 6:01
  • I think I will never understand how can we be Zombies which equate to me to not having representations at all. Representation being all the content of my living experience (dreaming or not, illusion or not, objective or not); especially the 'physical' theatre in which I move around. For example, how can I be seeing a computer right now, as I type ? I think they agree in this part, right ? And the explanation would be a brain process ? But does it really follow that we would see a computer ?
    – Mah Neh
    Jan 2 at 6:12
  • 1
    @MahNeh -- philosophy is a very diverse field, and understanding it is not possible without reading and absorbing a lot of different thinkers. I am not big on Schopenhauer, and you may not be after reading him either, but reading a diversity of thought is always a plus.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 2 at 15:11
  • 1
    Dennett calls the Chinese Room, the inverted color spectrum, and Mary the color scientist "intuition pumps" designed to attack particular theories of consciousness, ande make them seem less plausible. He learned how to do philosophy from Gilbert Ryle, whose attack on dualism HAD no data or rational argument, just rhetoric and intuition pumps. The high opinions of Ryle despite the rational/empirical failings of his work were a valuable lesson to Dennett: amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/…
    – Dcleve
    Jan 2 at 15:18
  • 1
    Does Blackmore explain how physicalism can be certain if all our perceptions are illusions?
    – Ludwig V
    Jan 2 at 16:27

You ask three questions.

1 Isn't all of what is experienced by a subject, subjective? What is an example of an objective experience, then?

There’s always a subject – a being that experiences – for every experience. Searle says:-

consciousness has a first-person or subjective ontology. By that I mean that conscious states only exist when experienced by a subject and they exist only from the first-person point of view of that subject.

And this explains what it means to say that all experiences are subjective.

Sometimes, we can assess an experience as correct or true – which means identifying an objective correlation or verification for them – and we can classify those experiences as objective, though they still have a subject and are subjective in that sense. Some kinds of judgements do not seem to have any objective correlation or verification; aesthetic and ethical judgements are the largest categories.

You mention measurement by means of a device. We do indeed treat those as objective and tend not to trust purely subjective (i.e. unaided) judgements. However, we often get judgments of size and distance right without any “artificial” aids, so perhaps we are sometimes unduly suspicious of them. But in some circumstances, we prefer to measure distances with a rule or tape, because they are more accurate and more reliable – and are easily checked by other people. Those measurements can be classified as objective.

2 Since Dennett's disregards Qualia which in turn is all of the properties of experience, and in turn is most or all the subjective experience (unless you disagreed earlier), Is his theory only a 'third person account' of consciousness? (as implied by Searle.)

That’s Searle’s version of Dennett’s argument, and it would be a good idea to look carefully and see what Dennett actually says before buying it.

  1. That takes me to the final element in your question, which is I'm trying to get a better view of what they seem to be thinking of.

This means looking carefully at what they say, with an eye for what they disagree about and what they agree about.

A caution – we can’t expect that they will engage with the nitty-gritty arguments here. The NYRB is not a suitable environment for that. But we can expect an understanding of the strategic structure of the argument.

Dennett doesn’t exactly disregard qualia or inner, subjective experiences, but he does deny that our experiences are ineffable and not shareable with others. Searle agrees that this is the critical issue, but he objects to Dennett’s position.

Dennett frames the argument as a critique of an intuition – and intuitions notoriously can be wrong, which allows the possibility of his critique. For Searle, there can be no argument about the nature and existence of qualia. They are evident to everyone. He sees the issue in a very different way

.. the disagreement is not about intuitions and it is not about how to study the mind. It is not about methodology. It is about the existence of the object of study in the first place.

So it is rather surprising that he admits that each has his own definition of “consciousness”. If that’s true, they are talking past each other.

So what they should be talking about is qualia or “inner subjective experiences.” However, SEP - Qualia articulates four different senses of the term and it would be necessary for them to agree on which of these they are using. SEP attributes to Dennett the view that

“qualia are intrinsic properties of experiences that are also ineffable, nonphysical, and ‘given’ to their subjects incorrigibly (without the possibility of error).”

It is possible that Searle is using the term in the same way in this context, we shall see that this is not certain.

The issue comes to a head in the question how a scientific account of consciousness or our conscious experience might be developed. Dennett says that a third person perspective will be essential, which Searle thinks is simply to ignore the data on which research needs to be based. Yet the practice they envisage is very similar and suggests that Searle does not think that inner subjective experiences are ineffable and incommunicable.

Dennett articulates an objective scientific method which he calls “hetero-phenomenology”, but doesn’t give any details here. So it is worth quoting Heterophenomenology - Wikipedia:-

… hetero-phenomenology ("phenomenology of another, not oneself") is an explicitly third-person, scientific approach to the study of consciousness and other mental phenomena. It consists of applying the scientific method with an anthropological bent, combining the subject's self-reports with all other available evidence to determine their mental state. The goal is to discover how subjects see the world themselves, without taking the accuracy of the subject's view for granted.

Searle’s says of Dennett's project:- -

“Dennett … thinks the objective methods of science make it impossible to study people’s subjective feelings and experiences. This is a mistake, as should be clear from any textbook of neurology. The authors use the objective methods of science to try to explain, and help their students to cure the inner subjective pains, anxieties, and other sufferings of their patients. There is no reason why an objective science cannot study subjective experiences. Dennett’s “objective science of consciousness” changes the subject. It is not about consciousness, but rather is a third-person account of external behavior.”

How do the authors and students know about the inner sufferings of their patients? By self-reports, of course. But Searle protests -

“the fact that many people have back pains, for example, is an objective fact of medical science. The existence of these pains is not a matter of anyone’s opinions or attitudes. But the mode of existence of the pains themselves is subjective. They exist only as felt by human subjects.”

The difference between the two is about the significance of first person reports of experiences. Searle thinks they are reports of data. So far as I can see, Dennett thinks they are data. I don’t see that there will be much difference in practice between these two views.

Illusionism does not seem to be a feature of this disagreement. But it is a prominent feature in the debates around Dennett’e work. Searle does come up with a powerful argument against it: -

But where the existence of conscious states is concerned, you can’t make the distinction between appearance and reality, because the existence of the appearance is the reality in question. If it consciously seems to me that I am conscious, then I am conscious.

However, Dennett doesn’t seem to have any difficulty about distinguishing between illusion and reality in an entirely orthodox way in any of the many cases that he discusses in his writings, and Searle comes up with his own example – “the common-sense intuition that our pain in the arm is actually located in the physical space of the arm”. So I don’t see that Searle’s argument undermines anything that Dennett says.

Dennett’s cases show that some of the conscious states that we experience are illusory; they do not show that all conscious states are illusory, never mind the extraordinary thesis that consciousness itself is an illusion. I’m not clear that he makes either claim.

What he does say (From Bacteria to Bach cap. 14 "Consciousness as an Evolved User-Illusion" p. 392 ff and Consciousness Explained III.10.4) is that consciousness is (like) a “user-illusion” – an analogy with the screen symbols in standard use on computer screens.

I can understand why Dennett wants to compare these to our conscious states, but I’m not sure that it is accurate to describe these as an illusion – certainly they are not mistakes or errors and so not directly comparable to the kinds of illusion which he presents from empirical research.

I think the issues I’ve considered are the most important ones, so I’m going to skip the parts of these letters that deal with the Chinese room argument, AI and the strategy Dennett used in writing Consciousness Explained.

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