Even though qualia are generally considered to be unexplainable, there are philosophers like Daniel Dennett attempting to get to the core of consciousness with scientific methods. In his view, consciousness is an "illusion", on the physical base, created by our brains.

But I think I don't fully understand what is meant by that. Let's say that the discovery could be made and we would be able to fully understand the phenomena behind everything we experience. Would we change the way we think about consciousness in the sense it wouldn't be considered to be a "supernatural" thing outside the laws of physics? With what we know, which is tones of expierence of consciousness, is it possible to say it's less real than it seems?

I know his point isn't that consciousness isn't real (because the illusions surely has to exist for him to criticize :) but I feel like his philosophy implies qualia isn't real. And at the same time, it seems to me that I think, therefore I am. * has to be an axiom for any philosophical theory formulated in human words. So if someone managed to fully explain the illusion of consciousness, would it started to be considered a standard "physical" phenomenon (just like the theory of abiogenesis started to push more and more thinkers to leave the idea of divine intervention in the formation of biological life)?

As for a non-philosopher (and Czech), it's hard for me to put my thoughts into words so please feel free to reword it if you think you've captured the idea.

*_ Let's consider thinking a quale for sake of the argument (it could be any other quale)

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    "I think, therefore I am" is not an axiom of philosophy, many consider it to be a fallacy. Dennett compares qualia to spirits of trees and rivers, while people certainly meant something real that they observed and felt when they talked about spirits eventually we came to express ourselves in a more precise and less misleading manner. This will have to happen under anybody's position because at present when people talk about "qualia" it is always obscure what exactly is being talked about.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 20:03
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    Possible duplicate of How can consciousness be an illusion? Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 22:12
  • @AlexanderSKing I've read it several times but those are exactly the questions I couldn't find here
    – Probably
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 22:45
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    You can have axiomatic "definitions" that are non-circular. The problem with qualia is that there is no agreed upon set of principles governing them, nor agreed upon way to discover anything about them empirically. From what little is commonly said about them they can not be part of any empirical truth simply because they are not repeatable, not propositional and not sharable. I have a feeling from your previous questions that what you are trying to get at is not what is usually called "qualia", but rather (propositionalized) introspective data of empirical psychology, like "color space".
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 0:39
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    There is no need to define them, all you need is a set of rules for manipulating them, like the axioms of arithmetic, those rules "define" the meaning of symbols used in them. It is similar with informal natural (scientific) language, but the "rules" are agreed upon social (scientific) practices, what Wittgenstein called "customs". We do not have them for private qualia, and unless they are radically reinterpreted their very privacy excludes the possibility of such linguistic customs. They can only be evoked through indirect expression in art, say.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 21:55

2 Answers 2


I think the notion of illusion, here, is not something that does not exist, it is something that is wholly other than it seems. As you note, if it did not exist, it would not be there to label.

Dennet has no problem with the idea that you think, or that you are, or that it is necessary to do the latter in order to do the former. But he thinks we are badly served by viewing ourselves (and other animals) in terms of sequentially processing machines like those that we build, which principally process language by running it through a centralized nexus or a small number of highly general processors. He contends that the biology just does not support it, in terms of the sequencing, in terms of the generality of the processors, or in terms of the centralization of any part of it.

The fact that we express our experience of consciousness in a way that is highly artificial does not make it any less real. Explaining it surely shouldn't make it go away. Explaining speciation did not make speciation go away. It did replace a non-explanation with an explanation. Hopefully we can do the same thing with the stream of thought. Unlike divine design, consciousness will survive being demystified.

The notion of a sequential stream of thought is one part of the problem, and it is that notion that he is attacking when he says "consciousness is an illusion". So he proposes a metaphor for thinking that dismisses the three aspects of serialization, general processing and centralization, but presents the same surface appearance. He speaks in terms of 'multiple drafts'.

Dennett's 'multiple drafts' model of human processing is much like the psychoanalytical model. The brain is a parallel process with disconnected entities making calls based on specialized subsets of information extracted asynchronously from different aspects of the available data. Most of these processes use heuristics less precise than actual logic to make their determinations, so they conflict and compete.

The feeling that it is a coordinated whole is constructed as it is composed for memory, because we have specialized our memory socially to record stories, and not raw data. This is what is meant by a 'draft' -- it is a possible story competing to take up space in memory. As data stabilizes, it is edited. And edits continue even after it is transcribed.

So what does the 'drafting' process do to the notion of a quale?

Well, each of the competing processes has treated the same stimulus that we would ultimately attribute the quale in a slightly different way. They don't agree on the quale. Without consent from the full consciousness, does it exist? And the composing process does not compose a single unified version of the experience unless it is relevant to some aspect of a storyline that can be expected to verify the experience in a future reference. So it creates only the memory of the quale, and then only if it predicts that it might matter. At the point where agreement about the actual artifact is stable enough to record, it is no longer currently being experienced, it is a memory. At that point, was there any original?

So there are not quale, there are memories of quale, but those are not quale, especially since they begin changing almost immediately so that related events can increase in consistency of recall over time.

That means, as you deduce, that quale are just part of the illusion of unity. They exist, in some sense, or we could not remember them. But you cannot pin one down in the form we would expect it to have given how we will experience it in memory.

Consciousness as a single storyline that is deterministically composed before or at the time it is experienced is an illusion we experience because whenever we experience a previous time, including the time immediately before the present, we are handed a storyline that is temporarily frozen in a state that makes it appear consistent with our logic. But it is only one among many actually present in memory, and it is currently under revision.

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    Citations to Dennet's work would help distinguish your opinions in this answer from his position. Also your comment about labels is preposterous - that we label horses with a single horn does not mean that unicorns exist.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 22:48

So if someone managed to fully explain the illusion of consciousness, would it start to be considered a standard "physical" phenomenon?

That is the idea and precisely why Dennet's hermeneutic approach is irrelevant to neuroscience. A heuristic approach to consciousness and the philosophy of mind, once adequately framing and identifying the issues at hand, will pass off the empirical research to science. For a long time consciousness was thought to be beyond the purview of objective scientific research. While there is an epistemic limitation in that we cannot verify statements from a first-person subjective perspective (e.g. "I feel glad"), we most certainly can have a third-person objective investigation which advances knowledge claims regarding first-person subjective ontology. Stuck in an informational-computational model Dennet has literally missed this bus which is actually heading to Cognitive Neuroscience town.

If consciousness was an illusion, would it be less real?

Per Professor John R. Searle, "where consciousness is concerned the existence of the appearance is the reality" but as far as Dennet is concerned consciousness simply does not exist.

As for what is meant by "illusion": in the sense that a rainbow is the illusion of, in the French l'arc en ciel, or, an arc in the sky, there is no actual arc, only a literal (figurative, or, metaphorical) arc in the sky. In the sense that this illusion is the refraction of light through a prism, the actual lightwaves do exist and, given the perspective of the observer, appear as an arc through the sky. Similarly, a sunset - from the vantage of an observer - appears as if a giant glowing orb descends below the horizon, yet we know that this descent is only illusory as the observer circumnavigates the glowing orb upon their own rotating sphere (Earth). In Dennet's sense of illusion, he is denying the existence of both the arc and the lightwaves; both the observer and the descending spheres. In his "Consciousness Explained" all he does is offer a metaphorical explanation of consciousness:

Human consciousness is itself a huge collection of memes (or more exactly, meme-effects in brains) that can best be understood as the operation of a "von Neumannesque" virtual machine implemented in the parallel architecture of a brain that was not designed for any such activities. [italics in the original, p.210]

Like Dawkins, the inventor of the meme, he relies on a teleological explanation and is begging the question as to purpose. Dennet merely presents a way of looking at consciousness instead of offering a heuristic approach to obtaining knowledge regarding consciousness. 10+ years after writing "Consciousness Explained", Dennet is still trying to "begin to imagine how the brain creates consciousness." In short, Dennet is advancing what John Searle describes as a "Strong AI" accounting of consciousness. Dennet's behaviorist reduction of consciousness to an undesigned algorithm and his mistaken materialistic mis-read that consciousness cannot be examined objectively, amounts to little more than simply denying accounts of consciousness which purport an irreducible first-person subjective ontology and labelling them "obscurantist":

Postulating special inner qualities that are not only private and intrinsically valuable, but also unconfirmable and uninvestigateable is just obscurantism. [p.450]

In "Consciousness Denied: Daniel Dennet's Account" - chapter five of Searle's "Mystery of Consciousness" suggests a direct approach to testing Dennet's specious claims:

[Dennet's] rhetorical flourishes here are typical of the book, but to bring the discussion down to earth, ask yourself, when you performed the experiment of pinching yourself were you "postulating special inner qualities" that are "unconfirmable and uninvestigatable"? Were you being "obscurantist"? And most important, is there no difference at all between you who have pains and an unconscious zombie that behaves like you but has no pains or any other conscious states?

Searle sums up Dennett's position:

Dennet, as Kierkegaard said in another connection, keeps the forms, while stripping them of their significance. He keeps the vocabulary of consciousness, while denying its existence.

Earlier Searle points out that:

The subjective feelings are the data that a theory of consciousness has to explain ... The peculiarity of Daniel Dennet's book can now be explained: he denies the existence of the data. He thinks there are no such things as ... the feeling of pain. He thinks there are no such things as qualia, subjective experiences, first-person phenomena, or any of the rest of it. Dennet agrees that it seems to us that there are such things as qualia, but this is a matter of a mistaken judgment we are making about what really happens.

As for whether consciousness is real if it is an illusion, Searle suggests that it is very real even if an illusion:

But couldn't we disprove the existence of these data by proving that they are only illusions? No, you can't disprove the existence of conscious experiences by proving that the are only an appearance disguising the underlying reality, because where consciousness is concerned the existence of the appearance is the reality. If it seems to me exactly as if I am having conscious experiences, then I am having conscious experiences. This is not an epistemic point. I might make various sorts of mistakes about my experiences, for example, if I suffered from phantom limb pains. But whether reliably reported or nor, the experience of feeling the pain is identical with the pain in a way that the experience of seeing a sunset is not identical with a sunset.

In short, perspectival and situational accounts (i.e. "what is true to [you; me; us; them]) may differ with empirically verifiable accounts (i.e. what is true), but this does not diminish the value, meaning or existence of the conscious experience as described situationally or relative to perspective.

There is a very informative series of NYRB reviews and exchanges between Searle and Dennet which may add to your understanding of Dennet's position:

"The Myth of the Computer" by John Searle, a review of "The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul" composed and arranged by Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett

"The Myth of the Computer: An Exchange" Daniel C. Dennett, reply by John R. Searle

"The Mystery of Consciousness" John R. Searle

"The Mystery of Consciousness: Part II" John R. Searle

‘The Mystery of Consciousness’: An Exchange Daniel C. Dennett, reply by John R. Searle

  • There is nothing teleological in any part of the theory in "Consciousness, Explained." And the statement above it, which is supposed to motivate it, very clearly has nothing teleological about it. He indicates what he means by the brain not being intended for 'any such activities' very clearly in the book, and the arguments proceed from genetics and not teleology. This being the only honest reference to Dennet in the whole piece, it reduces your main argument to a misunderstanding.
    – user9166
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 23:02
  • @jobermark Dennet plainly comments upon what brains were not designed for & cites Dawkins equally fallacious and absurd memetics. Both present a teleological fallacy of begging the question.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 23:20
  • He is using designed in the sense biologists use it when discussing genetics. This is the classical fallacy of equivocation, not logic. That reduces the number of attempts to actually understand anything in the book to zero. An honest reference would be one that is either in context, or actually means what you say it means. There are none of those here.
    – user9166
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 23:27
  • @jobermark At the very least I have cited what Dennet has actually written in conveying his argument. As stated earlier, without any citation your answer is wholly unsupported.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 0:42
  • Anyone who can claim evolutionary biologists like Dawkins are reasoning teleologically when they talk about genes (or since memes and genes are meant to be parallel, about memes) and the 'argument from design' simply does not understand the nature of biology, and probably does not understand how science works. Consider reading Dawkins' "The River out of Eden" and his explanation of bee-dances and how, even though the language sometimes tricks people, including himself, the actual process implied is not about teleology.
    – user9166
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 4:05

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