Dennett frequently talks about consciousness as if it has already been solved and that we're just inventing new problems because of some innate fear of naturalism.

In his (now rather old) book Consciousness Explained, he sets out to dispel as many of the problems with consciousness as he can.

Obviously, no one seems to consider consciousness to be a settled philosophical matter, despite the book's title.

Why has Dennett failed to resolve or satisfactorily describe consciousness and settle the philosophical debates in philosophy of mind?

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    i hope this question can generate some good answers, even-though it may seem so broad! you could consider asking if anyone has explicitly objected to dennett, in print, if you want a better question or whatever
    – user38026
    Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 4:15
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    He has failed to explain because he has no understanding of how to do so. Helpfully he has made this clear in his click-bait titled book. It's obvious by about page three that he is not going to explain anything. A better question might be - what made Dennett believe he could write a book explaining something he knows he doesn't understand. I imagine it was the mortgage payments. .
    – user20253
    Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 12:15
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    Because Dennett and his critics have different notions of what "explaining" consciousness amounts to, in essence, they are talking past each other. To physicalists, it just means a working model of brain activities predictive of behavior. "Others thought that he’d missed the point entirely. To them, the book was like a treatise on music that focused exclusively on the physics of musical instruments... These skeptics derided the book as “Consciousness Explained Away”", Rothman, A Science of the Soul
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 20:21
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    @PeterJ I think that's a bit unfair and harsh. He does an extremely good job of dismissing some of the nonsensical dualist positions. In that respect, he's explained something.
    – Sermo
    Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 20:35
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    @Richard - The idea that he battles against ignorance is a new one on me. I see him as promoting it.
    – user20253
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 13:44

8 Answers 8


There are several reasons why Dennett's "Explanation" of consciousness is not accepted as definitive:

  1. Dennett did not construct "Consciousness Explained" as a classical reasoning argument, with precepts, justifications, and rebuttals of counterarguments. He instead constructed it mostly as a set of intuition pumps. His objective, as he admitted later in the book, was to try to overwrite the operating system of his readers, with a new operating system which would not include the delusion of consciousness. He was inspired to attempt this by the theorizing of Julian Jaynes, who thought we humans had used a different fundamental operating system up until ~2000 BC, when our current Cartesian paradigm replaced the "Bicameral Mind" that Jaynes thinks we humans lived with previously. Without an actual explanation -- and with at best a small success rate at overwriting how his readers think (read brainwash, to be less charitable to Dennett), CE is an important philosophic work, but was going to depend on the success of it overwriting, rather than its "explaining", and the overwrite plan seems to have been a pretty thorough failure.

  2. There actually IS an explanation, or reasoning approach, embedded behind the intuition pumps of CE. The best detailing of it, can be found in Consciousness, a Very Short Explanation, by Susan Blackmore. Blackmore follows Dennett in focusing on the data about consciousness that has been uncovered by multiple lab experiments, and uses this data to argue the following case: a) Dualism cannot be true, consciousness cannot perform a causal role because of physics (note she does not elaborate, nor cite a consensus position of the AIP). Dennett had at least asserted that the conservation of energy prohibited causal dualism. b) Various reductive and most Identity Theory physicalist explanations of consciousness fail one test case or another from the lab experiments and neurologic investigations of consciousness. We have no Von Neuman Machine in our intrinsic wiring, for example, which is all neural net architecture. And there IS no place that our brain does integration. Meanwhile, lots of our "experience" seems to be manufactured fill-in or rationalizations after the fact, rather than identical to any actual physical decision processing. For more "delusionist" authors, see also Wegener's The Illusion of Conscious Will, and Eagleman's Incognito.
    c) Based on the various delusions and illusions that Dennett and Blackmore cite, they extrapolate that the entirely of consciousness is an after the fact delusion. Dennett postulates that our brain operated with "multiple drafts", operating in parallel, and that one of those drafts of the world rises to dominance and determines our action, and its processing is then summarized and written into memory. He considers this commitment to memory to be what we experience as consciousness, which our neurology backdates to avoid any temporal confusion.

This reasoning can be criticized at each step, and this too is a further reason that Dennett's "Explained" is not taken as definitive.

For a) the causal closure of physics cannot be true for any useful definition of physics (Hempel's Dilemma). Within science -- physicalist reductionism is no longer accepted as viable -- science requires emergence and pluralism to arrive at acausal explanations of our world (See SEP's Scientific Reductionism entry), and how to integrate these causally into physics is currently an open question. Keith Augustine actually asked physicists about conservation of energy, in his Introduction to his anti-dualist compilation, The Myth of an Afterlife, who told him that conservation of energy does not always hold. And physics itself had found aspects of itself that are underdetermined (quantum mechanics, and chaos phenomena), such that multiple outcomes are compatible with physics -- opening the door for non-physics causation.

For b) -- other physicalists take a Latakian rather than Popperian approach to refuting test cases, and treat them as problems to be investigated, with TBD patches needed, rather than absolute refutations.

For c) -- the inference from some cases of consciousness being after the fact to all cases being so, and therefore all of consciousness being a delusion, is a massive leap beyond the data that Dennett and Blackmore cite. And Dennett's claim that consciousness is identical to the writing of our decision history into long-term memory -- does not itself stand up to all the empirical/evidential test cases that he and Blackmore cite. Specifically, the "moment awareness entered consciousness" tests explicitly refute the delusionist model. Also, evolutionarily tuning of consciousness, which is apparent in evolutionary psychology, could not happen unless consciousness is causal.

So --Why Dennett's explanation is not accepted? Dennett himself did not make an argument, but tried to use a holistic immersive method to transfer into his readers head an entirely new reference frame and operating system, without much success. And once the explanation is laid out as an argument, it is problematic at each of its three steps.


Dennett doesn't generally speak in the mode of a scientist or philosopher, despite various suggestions he's both. Dennett speaks in the mode of a theologian, but from a secular-materialist perspective. In other words, he does not demonstrate his points the way a scientist would, and he does not reason his way to a conclusion the way a philosopher would. Instead, he asserts a worldview as a normative truth, then spends the remainder of his time either undermining any argument or person who does not embraced the worldview or lionizing any argument or person who does embraced the worldview.

Note that I'm not suggesting any malicious intent (though Dennett would probably think I am). Dennett is engaged in a time-honored practice used by religious, political, and economic leaders everywhere: define a narrative about how the world ought to be viewed for the benefit of all, then ask people to embrace it for their own good. Sometimes people use this practice maliciously, yes, but mostly people use it in earnest good faith. I suspect Dennett really wants to help people, and thinks people will be happier if they just believe him. He clearly gets his nose out of joint on occasion, but that too is typical of even the best-intentioned leaders.

  • This is a valid critique of Dennett. While I consider him to be one of the most insightful as well as important philosophers of our era, he also eschews reasoning arguments, and makes no pretense of being fair minded. He seeks to persuade his readers in any way possible.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Nov 20, 2021 at 19:05
  • As a caveat, Dennett is capable of clear and subtle reasoning, and this seems to me to be how he arrives at his views. It is just that he does not make this reasoning the centerpiece of his writing.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Nov 20, 2021 at 19:08
  • @Dcleve: Well, without questioning Dennett's intelligence (which I respect), I don't think I would call him a philosopher. i haven't made a great study of his work, mind you, but what I have seen has all fallen into ideological/pundit territory. There's a kind of reasoning peculiar to philosophical work that I haven't seen Dennett produce. a lacuna that makes me question his capacity for it. Being smart does not necessarily make one wise, if you follow me... Commented Nov 20, 2021 at 20:48

Why? Because Dennett basically (and absurdly, to my mind) argues that consciousness does not actually exist. You can't very well explain something you believe doesn't exist....


I would say Dennett's explanation of consciousness as emerging from a personal narrative (if I remember correctly) is insufficient. He never adequately explains consciousness, in my view, because he is a dyed-in-the-wool materialist, and so is incapable of entertaining concepts necessary to understand and explain consciousness.

In my view, to explain consciousness you also need to explain existence. This is strictly necessary in order to have any idea, and hence opinion, regarding states of being that are pertinent to the question of consciousness. It is not enough to start only with "I think therefore I am", we must also start with "What would there be if there was nothing?" My answer is here.

The bottom line, as I see it, is that "Nothing" necessitates a platonic style world of universals, and without that, as Mr Dennett certainly is, there can be no consciousness.

This morning I was writing down my thoughts leading from the idea of The Zombie Mind, and I think it is relevant to the question, by way of explaining why something like a Plato type explanation is needed.

So here it is:

If we can say that there are physical particulars, we can also say that there are non-physical relationships between two such particulars, that either supervene on the particulars or are entailed by them, but not both.

Such relationships occur necessarily whenever there are meaningful connections between particulars, or between particulars and universals, or between universals.

Such relationships are either metaphysical (Plato) or brainmade (Aristotle).

Universals may also be particulars under some circumstances, such as when they are thoughts.

The brain apparently encodes particulars and universals

Thoughts apparently supervene on physical brain activity of neurons etc.

Thoughts when meaningful connect to other thoughts either as remembered connections, or as realised connections.

If Ockham is correct then the connections that form universals are the physical connections within the brain, hence not actually universal.

If Aristotle is correct, the connections are within the brain, but accidentally share a similarity to other universals in other brains.

If Plato is correct the connections may be within the brain, but are always real as universals that are not “in” the brain.

The Platonic mind is then that which supervenes physical brain activity that produces thoughts, and entails the relationships between those thoughts. Crucially the relationships necessarily exist, even if just as a consequence of having been thought, but their meaning may not be much. Some relationships between thoughts will have more importance than others, and so may result in memory being formed. Such relationships are not physical until replicated by electrical and chemical activity, and by the growth of neural connections.

The Platonic mind is therefore composed of non-physical universals, maybe better referred to as virtuals. Virtuals may be created by thoughts connecting. Virtuals may also connect to thoughts and prompt the appropriate brain activity, although this will always be coloured by circumstance and may draw in inappropriate brain activity!

This describes the process of thinking, but not of consciousness. Clearly some brain activity can be unconscious, in which case neural activity happens, but no meaningful connections occur. We operate on autopilot and forget everything that does occur. This is commonly experienced when driving. This is exactly the zombie experience.

If when driving something out of the ordinary happens, we notice and it becomes conscious and acquires meaning accordingly.

So it seems consciousness is more likely to be the relationships between thoughts, and that is potentially Platonic

Any experiments which see to deny free will, because they appear to relegate physical mental activity to a reactive and secondary role, may actually be supporting the cause of the free will of the Platonic mind.

Thoughts, the mental activity of neural networks, only encode reality. The process of thinking, manipulating thoughts is different to the unconscious activity of thought when performing routine tasks. Routine is as conscious as a computer can get, which is nil. The encoding of anything real is also different from encoding anything mental. So a camera records data and a computer stores it, and nothing conscious takes place. It is all purely mechanical, although impressive enough. AI may seem intelligent, but could never be more than a facsimile because it never leaves the encoding behind.

The brain also encodes data from experienced reality, so why is that different to the computer?

The materialist might say, but there is no difference, but that is just words and I doubt they could ever demonstrate that the digital computer, however strong its AI, or for that matter a purely physical mind, actually has consciousness.

There is something about brain activity, which is physically unlike the computer. The computer for all its clever programming, and immense speed, and even parallel processing, is never actually doing anything more complex, metaphysically, than reinforcing the laws of Boolean logic. That is what digital computers do, typically converting hexadecimal representations of ascii, ebcdic, or some other character set, into binary and then pushing that through circuitry that is not a lot more than plumbing, to obtain some output by applying simple logical rules to 0s and 1s. In each instance of digital computing there is nothing more complicated, no other relationship to be reinforced than already proven logic.

So there is no chance of AC from AI, it is all a conjuring trick. Things may be different with biological computers, or quantum computers, I don’t know. But to create or recreate relationships on the virtual level of universals the relationships have to be between the actual concrete particulars, or some direct encoding of them, an icon in the true sense.

Just to recap, so there can be no mistake, true AI is impossible because computers deal in the relationship between 0 and 1, which while useful, is not in itself very meaningful, and so cannot give anything to mind, and mind is the bridge by which concrete reality connects to the virtual reality of consciousness and universals.

The brain, because its neurons very closely pattern at least the stimuli from the senses, and their memory, is able to provide thoughts that are just such icons for objective reality. These thought icons are subjective brain states, so fallible, but they are sufficient to have their own relationships, unencoded. This is the difference between brain and computer, and the reason why brain can support mind, i.e. the brain is capable of iconic thought and hence of forming iconic relationships.

This then is the solution to Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia’s question to Descartes; the problem of mental causation. Consciousness being of the same virtual stuff of mind, i.e. of the nature of universals and relationships, can naturally bring to mind ideas, that is; it is part of its nature to express will by recalling ideas, which it does by initiating a virtual relationship. This process “merely” being the reverse of what happens when the brain represents ideas as icons of some reality (real or imagined) and enables meaningful connection to occur. Meaningful connection is what drives the brain. The question is where does that connection take place?

In the first instance, before physical adaptation, there is of necessity whatever meaning is actual, and that, it is argued, is of a platonic nature and is a network of meaning that links anything real via the senses, the brain's icons, and the meanings that relate those icons, to the meanings that relate to universals, and the universals themselves. Furthermore, that is a two way street that can and does allow the will to interact with mind and body, and for the body to affect physical reality.

So is the Platonic mind a real thing? It brings us back to all the fundamental philosophical questions. Although I think that now the onus is on materialists to show that Aristotle is correct, because the balance has swung, investigating consciousness.

Although it is not conclusively proven that Plato has the upper hand, it is undoubtedly a stronger case to say this is how consciousness emerges from and connects to physical brains, invoking the reality of universals, rather than insisting that simple physical reality is either sufficient, or a valid limitation on reality as a whole.

Also, this the Platonic view, while very far from anything Plato actually wrote, is in the spirit of Platonism. It may still be arguable which is most real, the universal, or the particular, but it is perhaps closer to the truth to say that both are equally real, and are intermingled, both objectively in the outside world, and subjectively in the inner world of the mind where we manipulate icons of reality, and they are just as real as the objective reality.


Short answer:

Because no one did successfully, as of yet. And because Dennett's view is counterintuitive; very far from common-sense.

A little longer answer:

Daniel Dennett thinks that when you are experiencing the qualia of the colour red, what really happens is something else. The experience of qualia is merely an illusion. Namely, what really happens is an activity of V4 visual cortex. That, in turn, is also, by the way, not what really happens. What is really going on is [put particle physics explanation here]. (And so forth.)

The analogy is similar to a magician's trick. The magician cuts a woman in half and the audience cheers in awe, but everybody knows that this is not really what is going on. What is really going on is a clever trick; a sophisticated series of steps and instructions that create an illusion of "magic".

This view, that Dennett advocates, is called homuncular functionalism. The real (ultimate) explanation is somewhere at the bottom of all the homunculi chain. After peeling all the layers, until there is nothing more to explain - only then we have succeeded. This view differs radically from identity theory, as it does not assert identity (!) between a brain state B and some mind state M. There is no identity because there is only a single one thing going on, and not two. It is B, of the two.

Dennett represents a very dedicated commitment to Scientific realism1 which describes the ultimate reality. Ontologically, the ultimate reality exists on the level of anything that severs as our current bottom-level scientific explanation. Following Wilfrid Sellars, Dennett is committed to the division of Manifest image and Scientific image:

The manifest image includes intentions, thoughts, and appearances. Sellars allows that the manifest image may be refined through 'correlational induction', but he rules out appeal to imperceptible entities.

The scientific image describes the world in terms of the theoretical physical sciences. It includes notions such as causality and theories about particles and forces.

The two images sometimes complement one another, and sometimes conflict. For example, the manifest image includes practical or moral claims, whereas the scientific image does not. There is conflict, e.g. where science tells us that apparently solid objects are mostly empty space. Sellars favours a synoptic vision, wherein the scientific image takes ultimate precedence in cases of conflict, at least with respect to empirical descriptions and explanations.2

Manifest image is largely the relic of our tribal life that was devoid of science in the previous stages of humanity. Because we are "stuck" in Manifest image, we now have conflict between what science tells us and how we perceive things. For instance, science tells us that colour is just a photon frequency, and not the experience of redness, which doesn't really exist.

Ultimately, says Dennett, we will abandon this "folk" view along with Manifest image whatsoever. We will replace it with the scientific jargon of Scientific image entirely. This will be a gradual process, as we are getting closer and closer to the truth; truth which doesn't reside in the "practical illusions" of reality. Truth is not in the world of chairs, feelings, or colourful objects, but in the reality itself - the world of fields, quarks and leptons. We will inevitably be replacing the folk image with the image that is closer to truth. So, consciousness described in the language of colours, objects, chairs and love letters, is just a folk psychology that will be gone for good, one day. It is not real, says Dennett, and we will evolve to abandon this immature view of the universe, as all creatures that evolve towards the truth.

Whether it's a convincing view, or not, or maybe you agree (who knows?), I will leave it to you to ponder on.

  • This is not Denett's view. What you just articulated in eliminative materialism, as held and argued by the Churchlands. Illusionism is a different view. It is also ultimately motivated by a very similar goal, but Dennett actually argues an Identity Theory claim, that qualia are identical to writing into long term memory after the fact of our decision-making.
    – Dcleve
    Commented May 25 at 16:32

There are two distinct perspectives or point of view on consciousness. The first we acquire as we grow up is the objective perspective. We can see people being either awake and therefore, by definition, conscious, or asleep, and therefore by definition, unconscious. In the objective perspective, people are conscious if they are responsive to their environment, and whether they are is entirely an empirical matter, which as such is susceptible of being agreed on by other people. Being conscious or unconscious in this sense is therefore a public, objective, empirical question.

The second point of view is of course the first-person, private, subjective, perspective. It seems that individuals become aware of their own subjective point of view on their own mind only gradually, and sometimes apparently very late in life, if at all. A similar timeline seems to apply to humanity as a whole. Consciousness as seen from a subjective perspective only became a public topic of conversation late in the history of humanity, not to talk about its pre-history.

Thus, the reality of consciousness as subjective experience seems at least much more difficult to verify, and possibly impossible to verify. As far as we know, each of us the only person to have a subjective access to his or her own consciousness, and none of us can prove its existence to other people, at least not with anything like a scientific proof. The corollary is that it is possible for anyone to publicly deny that they themselves experience consciousness subjectively, without anyone capable of falsifying or verifying the claim.

Dennett didn't even try to explain subjective consciousness. He reduces consciousness to the objective perspective we have on it. It is, presumably, possible to explain objective consciousness in terms of human biology, neural networks and such. Going into such an explanation is completely irrelevant to subjective consciousness. Dennett dismisses subjective consciousness as an "illusion". For anyone with subjective experience, the notion that it could be an illusion is simply absurd. However, in Dennett's perspective, an illusion would have to be an illusion to the brain of the subject, and as such, the notion of illusion could not explain subjective consciousness. The information content of our minds is definitely an illusion in the sense that it is at best data inside the brain. Thus, we can only, at best, mistake these perception data for the real world. Thus, the impression that we have that we are looking at a tree in our garden is properly an illusion, although it is a useful illusion if it helps us navigate the world. So objective consciousness is definitely an illusion. The idea that subjective consciousness is an illusion would make no sense. Thus, Dennett may have "explained" something rather trivial about objective consciousness, while completely missing the crucial point about subjective consciousness.

Dennett's book either only explained objective consciousness, or describes Dennett's own delusion that he explained subjective consciousness. In the first case, the account would be essentially trivial and at best a repeat of the science of the time. In the second case, the only reasonable explanation for a seemingly rational and reasonably well-informed intellectual who denies the existence of subjective experience of consciousness, experience most human beings say they have, is probably ideological bias. His book would be essentially a futile effort to explain away what most people report as their own subjective perspective on the contents of their mind.

Either way, Dennett failed to explain consciousness because he didn't even try to explain it, as he certainly didn't provide any meaningful explanation for it.

  • Speakpigeon -- have you read the book?
    – Dcleve
    Commented Nov 20, 2021 at 0:01
  • @Dcleve No. Tell me where I am wrong. Commented Nov 20, 2021 at 10:25
  • Dennett’s entire book is about subjective consciousness. He does not deny that we have apparent subjective experience. He cites data about those experiences to show how they “really” are different from what we think they are. Delusionism is an interesting and substantive view, with significant evidences cited in its favor. Your dismissal is based on false characterizations of both Dennett and his thinking.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Nov 20, 2021 at 19:01
  • @Dcleve Sorry, I don't see where it is you justify that what I say is factually wrong. You say it is, you just don't justify that it is. Please quote the bit you think is wrong. Commented Nov 21, 2021 at 11:55
  • Once more, actually reading Dennett is a precondition to commenting usefully on Dennett's thinking. Basically any of his writings will reveal your commentary to be wrong.
    – Dcleve
    Commented May 25 at 16:26

The reason Dennett does not explain consciousness is that he knows very little about it. It really is this simple. A more interesting question is why he chose his book title and how he got away with it.

I see no evidence that Dennett has studied consciousness. He seems to be happy to speculate about some abstraction he has created. I'd agree with Jeremy above that to explain consciousness we have to explain metaphysics. Dennett has no grasp of metaphysics and doesn't seem to bother thinking about it.

I see his title as click-bait. His writings makes clear how much he knows about the subject. When Chalmers complains about the amount of 'sleight-of-hand' that goes on on in scientific consciousness studies I suspect he has Dennett at the front of his mind.

I don't think many people see his book as important.

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    I'm amazed at your personal disdain at Dennett. Saying that most people don't find his book or work on consciousness to be important is just false. It is a best selling book and all of his work is consistently taught in philosophy courses around the world. Lighten up.
    – Sermo
    Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 15:57
  • @Semo - I would need a reason to lighten up. The fact that he is taught to students is not a reason. I would need to understand what he has contributed. I see nothing. My low view is not uncommon. .
    – user20253
    Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 11:40

I think you are misinterpreting his book a bit - I believe that he believes he HAS explained what consciousness is! [whether he has actually done so is another thing entirely...]

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    Welcome to philosophy SE. Please visit our tour: philosophy.stackexchange.com/tour Also, here is a guide to how to write a good answer: philosophy.stackexchange.com/help/how-to-answer. This particular answer does not answer the question, which is why philosophers in general do not think Dennett "Explained Consciousness". Link or other reference materials show the reason behind these views would make for a strong answer.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 19:09

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