PtE: Consciousness Does Not Exist

June will be Philosophy of Mind month.  All four meetings will be dedicated to the theme of "consciousness".  And, as the organizer/moderator of these meetings is somewhat convinced that we currently have one clear "greatest" philosopher of mind right now, Daniel Dennett, one could also consider this Dennett Month, though of course his ideas will serve as an entry point and is open to challenges of any stripe.

Combining the theme of consciousness with our 4-week framework of: Science Night, Philosophy Night, Pushing the Envelope Night, and Book Club night we get these meetings for June:

  • Scientific Approaches to Consciousness
  • Dennett's Intentional Stance and Consciousness Explained
  • PtE: Consciousness Does Not Exist
  • Dennett: Short Texts and Videos


Though in our first meetings we were able to have reasonably meaningful discussions for at least part of the time without clear definitions: for this meeting that will have to change.  If we're going to talk ontology (the consideration of what we count as "real") we would do well to be very clear about what it is that we're talking about.

One aspect of ontological thinking that seems near the foundation is the stipulation that the agent making the positive claim assumes a "burden of proof".  Basically, if I want to claim that something exists, be it a coffee cup, a Jaberwocky, or "consciousness" I better be able to tell you at least 2 things:  What is it?  and  Why should I include it in my list of things that exist?

Some of us do not think that the proponents of "consciousness" have satisfied these requests.  That is one tack in the case I will present against believing in consciousness.  The very difficulty of defining it counts against it in the court of ontology.  Nevertheless I will do my best to pull together a definition that includes most of the criteria that I think the consciousness crowd is looking for, and then argue that that conception might not have its ontological passport.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy includes the following as features of consciousness that various philosophers have found important:

  1. "First-person" or "Subjective" character-- consciousness is a phenomenon that is accessed through introspection or phenomenology.
  2. "Qualitative" character-- "raw feels", "what it's like-ness", subjective experience.
  3. Phenomenal structure-- the "stream of consciousness", the ordering of experiences.
  4. Unity-- the singular nature of the "self", identity, psychological consistency over time.
  5. Intentionality-- "mental states" have "aboutness" or "directedness", "representational" quality.

So, for the purposes of this discussion (and we will be open to minor modifications or additions to this) we will define "consciousness" as: The subjective phenomenon of awareness of mental objects which have a phenomenal, qualitative character and an intentional or representational aspect and which takes place in the mind of a single person or self.

(Personally, the more carefully I attempt to define 'consciousness' the more meaningless it appears!  Feel free to add your comments about definitions below and/or bring them to the meeting.  Also, check out this cute page for some prominent people's comments on this issue.)

The more sophisticated version of the provocative claim of the title which I will actually be attempting to describe and defend is this:  When all is said and done, in the most complete and best argued for ontology that science and philosophy can describe; "consciousness" in the sense defined above will not be included.  In other words, we ought not include "consciousness" in our ontology.  In other words, a positive case for consciousness (beyond emphatic foot stomping) has not been made, the burden has not been met to define and motivate the case.



If you are in the mood to do some homework before this meeting, try reading Dennett's fascinating article: "Quining Qualia" to get an idea as to how we might go about attempting to argue for this contentious claim.

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  • Harland

    Kristen-- Of the many problems with what you are attempting to present I will concentrate on this one first: You repeatedly say and write things like these, "consciousness and awareness remain"..."we're leaving out the essence of what consciousness really is, as we can be conscious and aware without those lower level traits." This sort of thing is what some philosophers call "begging the question". In this discussion one is not "allowed" to simply state and repeat emphatically that they simply are conscious. We need evidence and/or argument, not assertions or assumptions. I find the Wilber chart meaningless and doubt that is what we will talk about. Likewise "Consciousness is simply all that is, there is nothing that it is not." does not sound like a definition or anything else helpful to me. For the rest of you, fear not! I will attempt to keep the conversation at a more clear level than this stuff.

    June 14, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      OUCH! What's left of my ego is begging me to pass the pain relievers ;). Harland, what I offered was simply what you said we were free to add, our "comments about definitions." In addition, after reading over what I posted earlier, I'm going to stand up for myself a little bit here and state that a) I presented exactly what I intended to present, b) I do not believe it was fundamentally unclear; but as is so very often the case, some people will get more from it than others c) despite this pre-meeting conversation being something that has traditionally been pretty informal, my comments do fit into your criteria for the more formal discussion we are apparently having, in that they do constitute an "argument" for expanding the definition. That all being said, what I presented clearly took things in a direction you don't want to go and I respect that. Whatever definition you settle on, I do think it will be an interesting conversation, and it's one I'm still looking forward to.

      2 · June 14, 2013

    • blue o.

      K, sorry you weren't at the meeting. I missed your input. -Jim (AKA: blue)

      June 20, 2013

  • Joan

    I've been out of town, so I have not had a chance to do the reading, and I'm not sure if I'll be able to make this meeting. But I am guessing that Harland is starting with a materialist/reductionist bias, which not everyone shares and which can't be "proven" any more than other biases can be proven. In fact, it is possible that individually we may have different biases which are so different that the "realities" we believe in may be mutually exclusive. In that case, it does not mean that consciousness does not exist, but rather, that we can't agree on any assumptions which we would have to agree upon before we can define consciousness. And therefore, the burden of proof is not on the person who believes in consciousness, but rather on all of us who hold these different assumptions to prove that ours are correct. I would bet that Dennett's ideas are based on some assumptions which he can't "prove" to everyone's satisfaction.

    1 · June 18, 2013

    • Harland

      "Albert's on my team!" "Nuh-uh! He's on MY team!" One of the potentially negative aspects of the internet is easy access to shallow-level out-of-context quotation. Large historical figures who almost everyone respects get claimed by all sorts of different sides without in depth knowledge of their overall work. Most people who quote Einstein have never READ a single book or article written by Einstein. I discourage this sort of thing; don't be lazy people. Think, read, do the work.

      June 19, 2013

    • Rod M.

      All I meant by referring to Einstein and Darwin was a shorthand for saying Dennett attempts to rest his theory on the discoveries of physics and biology. Unfortunately I couldn't make it tonight as I'm recovering from a cold or allergies or something but definitely next week.

      June 19, 2013

  • Joan

    Looks like I gotta keep working tonight.

    June 19, 2013

  • mary

    Can't attend, though not entirely sorry. Is this a discussion or a lecture?

    June 19, 2013

    • Harland

      The meetings take the same format... I "lecture" for 10-20 minutes and the rest of the 2 hours (the vast majority) is group discussion. Sorry you're not sorry!

      June 19, 2013

  • Dannon R.

    Its getting closer to the end of the day and I can allready tell I'm gonna be working late. Must.. finish.. project... I will really come to this someday.

    June 19, 2013

  • Henry

    My son and my nephew, both thinkers, would like to come.

    June 19, 2013

  • Joan

    I will try to be there, but I can't promise--working on meeting deadlines.

    June 18, 2013

  • Curt G.

    In "QQ", graf4, Dennett writes: "Everything real has properties, and since I don't deny the reality of conscious experience, I grant that conscious experience has properties."

    Taking this statement at face value, it seems reasonable and linguistically correct to talk of 'consciousness' in the following sense: "of or about conscious experience". Dennett seems interested in probing/challenging ideas about conscious experience (ways in which it does not match 'the known world' for ex.) and how such experiences arise. I see a lot of room for exploration here, different flavors for various tastes.

    But there's also a sense of 'consciousness' as a 'thing' - a special part of the brain, a homunculus, or something else - and this is where it seems clear that Dennett and any materialist will insist there is no "special consciousness thing" - and Dennett insists there is no single part of the brain that makes conscious experience happen (though I suggest we let the scientists keep at it).

    June 14, 2013

    • Tom R.

      I found QQ very helpful in illuminating some interesting distinctions, primarily what it means for qualia (or consciousness) to "exist". I had been equating "the reality of the ... experience" with "existing". A more narrow (some would say more precise) definition seems to be about "intrinsic" or "special" as opposed to something "relational" that arises from more fundamental elements. I find the intrinsic/relational dichotomy interesting, however I wonder if anything "intrinsic" actually exists.

      1 · June 15, 2013

  • Emily

    In case anyone's interested in mainstream media coverage of our topic, here's a link to the audio from Talk of the Nation today in which several scientists discuss their work mapping consciousness via neural connections:

    1 · June 14, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    (pt 3 - continued from below)

    People who move into, temporarily or permanently, the higher states of awareness on Wilber's chart have a distinct lack of subjectiveness to their awareness. The judgments and preferences and fears and attachments associated with their personal sense of self have fallen away. The "I" they believed themselves to be by and large ceases to exist. And yet, again, consciousness and awareness remain, and reality is experienced absent the pollution and distortion of what can be called the egoic mind (what people generally believe themselves to be, absent moving into the higher levels of consciousness). So if we do limit our definition of consciousness to one that describes the egoic mind/the lower levels of consciousness, it seems to me we're leaving out the essence of what consciousness really is, as we can be conscious and aware without those lower level traits.

    1 · June 14, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      Emily - I think that we are maybe not that far from being able to measure this in some way - for instance, we're learning a lot from measuring the brainwaves of meditators, and I think there's almost certainly physical changes in the brain as these states are reached and integrated. It's one of those things that science can probably help us understand, but just not science as it exists right now.

      June 14, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      Tom - I think you're correct in the sense that even absent any reaching of a higher level of consciousness, many of the practices can be extremely helpful in allowing us to much improve our experience of life even while fully identified with the egoic mind. However, at the same time, many people undertake a spiritual practice with the specific intent of transcending the egoic mind, of "waking up," and for some people, "waking up" just happens spontaneously. As for the property of consciousness that can "hold and cultivate beliefs with no real evidence of ways that we find useful," I find it more interesting (and completely perplexing) that we much more often end up using that property to hold and cultivate beliefs that when we take as truth we then use as the basis for actions that are directly harmful to us. And in fact, that seems to be the primary activity of the egoic mind.

      June 14, 2013

  • Carmen

    Thanks, Kristin. This fits well with my perspective on consciousness and awareness. Should be an interesting discussion!

    June 14, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    (pt 2 - continued from below)

    The definitions we have thus far don't address anything higher than level F-5 (with possibly a bit of overflow into F-6) in the chart I linked to in my earlier post. I think this is problematic; I'll do my best to explain why:

    In a video called "The Illusion of Consciousness," Daniel Dennett refers to a New Yorker cover ( which he refers to as his favorite picture of consciousness. The problem is that all of that noise/mind chatter/stream of consciousness stuff in the thought bubble on the New Yorker cover can drop away, and we're still conscious. We're still aware. So what is it that remains?

    The same question arises when we look at the definition of and qualities of consciousness given above.
    (continued next post)

    June 14, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    I'm still mulling over what I would consider a concise and practical definition of consciousness given the premise of this particular discussion, but here's some thoughts on the subject in general:

    1. From the largest perspective, consciousness (or awareness, a term which I think conveys a bit more tangibly what we mean when we say "consciousness") is simply all that is; there is nothing that it is not. 2. In another (MUCH more limited) sense, consciousness/awareness could be seen as the animating spark of life itself. 3. Restricting ourselves to consciousness/awareness as it is experienced by humans, we find a broad range of experiences and states of consciousness, much broader than the definitions given in the meeting info above address. This chart by Ken Wilber shows the evolution of a person's consciousness:

    Continued in next post...

    June 14, 2013

  • Michael G

    I'm out of town this week. Wish I could skype it.

    May 24, 2013

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