Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Daniel Dennett on Consciousness - And a Buddhist Response

In this TED Talk, Daniel Dennett looks at how much we know -- and how little we know -- about consciousness.

Philosopher Dan Dennett makes a compelling argument that not only don't we understand our own consciousness, but that half the time our brains are actively fooling us. As he puts it, our bodies are made up of 100 trillion little robots, none of them with an individual consciousness. So what makes us feel we have one? Or that we're in control of it? Dennett's hope is to show his audience that "Your consciousness is not quite as marvelous as you may have thought it is." He uses thought experiments and optical illusions to demonstrate to the TED audience that even very big brains are capable of playing tricks on their owners.

Dennett's arguments are not without merit, but he is making broad generalizations about the nature of our consciousness based on specific brain functions. His major objection as a philosopher is to the idea of a central homunculus controlling consciousness, or that IS consciousness.

The reality is that our ability to focus on a single thought or idea has a duration of about 5-15 seconds, but this is not the whole story. This fact is often cited to suggest that our ability to control our thinking (to be conscious) is very limited. However, we can expand this capacity through meditation and other means. But consciousness is not merely limited to what we can hold in short-term memory, which is what this number represents. Actual consciousness seems to reside in what is called intermediate memory space, which lasts much longer.

From this space, we seem capable of watching those thoughts over which we seem to have so little control over. In Buddhism, and many other forms of meditation, we are taught to watch our thoughts without attaching to them. What we see is often referred to as monkey mind -- a mind that rattles off thoughts, and lists, and memories in a way that seems almost completely beyond our control. But those who meditate know that over time we do gain control.

But embedded in that argument is the single greatest rejection of the "modules" theory of consciousness that Dennett and the neuroscientists hold up as truth (the basic premise is that the brain is composed of many little modules all working beyond our control to maintain awareness) -- there is a witness to our thinking, a Self that can watch thinking occur. This Self -- the observing self, witness, aware ego, Buddha nature -- is the actual seat of consciousness. The problem is that most studies are not looking for this feature, and in fact, many of the study participants likely do not have access to this feature of their own minds.

Until science begins looking in the right places to find consciousness, all they will continue to find is programmed brain functions. This is great in that it helps us understand how the brain works, but it does nothing to explain (away) consciousness.


Anonymous said...

"This Self -- the observing self, witness, aware ego, Buddha nature -- is the actual seat of consciousness. The problem is that most [scientific] studies are not looking for this feature..."

Is consciousness itself, Buddha nature, some feature? Is it some particular object, some phenomena, that is present at one moment and not at the next? Is it something that has distinguishable characteristics at all?

Unknown said...

I agree and that is why the Alan Wallace
is so important.

Loden Jinpa

william harryman said...


I likely erred in equating Buddha Nature and consciousness -- the reality is something closer to what Ken Wilber calls the anterior self -- Buddha Nature transcends that.


Thanks for stopping by -- I added your cool blog to my feeds. And I agree, Alan Wallace is great.


Anonymous said...

"Until science begins looking in the right places all they will continue to find is programmed brain functions." So where in the brain haven't they been looked, is there a particulate region you are aware of in the cerebellum that isn’t at the cellular level operated by a series of small electrical signals? Perhaps the thousands of brain scientists in the world have not realised that the hypothalamus is run on liquid Karma, or the Pineal gland excretes love and kindness?

If you can sit back (how wonderful that your brain came fully furnished, I’ve had a terrible ear ache ever since I installed the reclining arm chair) and watch your thoughts then what is this “you” made of, I assume it must be made of something mustn’t it? If it is a thing that has yet to be found then clearly it is made of something!

You say that you can watch your thoughts through meditation, could you please explain what exactly constitutes a thought from your point of view? Where does one thought begin and another end. Is a thought a sentence or a paragraph? If I hit my hand with a hammer and shout does that shout constitute a thought?

I take it also that when you sit back and watch your thoughts you also can watch yourself having the thought that you are watching your thoughts, otherwise you would not be watching all your thoughts. But then wait a minute! You must also then be able to watch yourself watching yourself, having the thoughts! This must go on forever, an infinity of awareness, such a mind! You must have a big television in there to be able to see all that!

Did not a great Zen master once say, "Show me you mind and I will open it." Everything is made of what it is made of. People are made of organs and systems which, are made of cells and fluid and are organised in way that is functionality otherwise it would never have survived. There was a time people thought ant hills had souls as they couldn't fathom such a system organising itself so efficiently and well it without a central point of ego or spirit. Some (Dennet for one) point out that our brains are no different to ant hills or indeed any complex self sufficient system. There is no king every part has it’s role, some sections govern the senses, some control movement, some special awareness.

If you have anything you feel need to be passed on to the scientific community by all means please do so, if on the other hand you haven't a clue what your talking about then perhaps you should keep your breath-takingly large ego in check long enough to consider the possibility that the thousands who dedicate their lives to the study of mind and brain might possibly know a bit more than you.

My brain recommends that your brain takes more meditation and TWO readings of "Consciousness Explained."
ss Explained."

Anonymous said...

There is no self that is aware OF thinking. That's what buddhism is all about : no self, anatman. What is "observing" the think is what is "observing" the viewing, the earing, etc... and, what is it ? The very substance of the thinking, the seeing, the earing, itself! In other words, thinking is awareness appearing as thoughts, seeing is awareness appearing as colors and light, earing is awareness appearing as sounds, and so one. There is only awareness! It's non-dual, there is no seer vs what is seen... there's only the seeing itself. That's what Dennett AND buddhism tell, both of them, though it seems Dennett never came so clear about it.
And the whole debate about whether or not Dennett really did explain consciousness or not, is a terminology problem. Dennett never explainded what awareness is, what's its nature and how does it relate to what's outside awareness, the supposed "real world", if there is any.