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 matter, despite the book's title.

Why has Dennett failed to explain consciousness?

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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
    Apr 17 '19 at 4:15
  • Dennett is a wise man, but philosopher or not, he's very STEM. I come from his camp so I understand him, but in this argument he's guilty of a kind of double-think. He claims others are so dogmatic that they won't accept that consciousness is subject to determinism. Yet as you point out when asked to provide a succinct description of conciousness is, he fails. Personally I share his opinion that consciousness is produced by the brain, and that the vast majority of thought is just regurgitation of previous learning. But raw free will is not so readily dismissed.
    – Richard
    Apr 17 '19 at 12:10
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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
    Apr 17 '19 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
    Apr 17 '19 at 20:21
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    @PeterJ There are many people who believe dolphins have a pelvis because God made them like that
    – Richard
    Apr 18 '19 at 14:08

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.


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.

  • 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
    Jun 10 '19 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
    Jun 11 '19 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
    Feb 20 '20 at 19:09

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