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Exploring consciousness: Daniel Dennett’s legacy

“The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” This was said by Daniel Dennett, a world-renowned American Philosopher who sadly passed away on 19 April. He certainly followed his own word and left a legacy of his work on consciousness, free will, ethics and artificial intelligence. Let’s explore some of his ideas!

This post is also available in Dutch.

Since our earliest moments of thought, humans have likely pondered the question of their own experience. You, too, may have found yourself asking: What exactly is consciousness? Let’s explore the insights of Daniel Dennett on this intriguing subject and reflect on some ideas that shaped our study of the mind until today.

Multiple Drafts Model

In his book Consciousness Explained (1991), Dennett proposes the Multiple Drafts Model of consciousness, which suggests that there is no single brain region that enables consciousness. This contrasted with the dominant, intuitive concept of the Cartesian Theater, that there must be some place in the brain where “it all comes together” which is the seat of consciousness.

Instead, Dennett suggests that consciousness emerges from the dynamic interaction of multiple neural processes distributed throughout the brain. This mechanistic view of consciousness caused a paradigm shift in the neuroscientific study of consciousness. His approach sees the mind in terms of information processing. Following, this model would suggest that other information processing units such as AI can also have consciousness.

His view was seen as controversial among philosophers of mind because they considered consciousness as a fundamental aspect of reality and focused on the unexplainable subjective experience. David Chalmers argued for the existence of a hard problem of consciousness: that even with a complete understanding of the brain’s mechanisms, there remains an explanatory gap as to why certain physical processes give rise to subjective experiences, like the redness of an apple or the feeling of pain (called qualia). In contrast, Dennett argues that consciousness is more like an illusion. He suggests that our subjective experiences of consciousness arise from the brain’s interpretation of its own processes. 

Evolutionary Perspective: Consciousness, Free Will & Ethics

Dennett approached his study of the philosophy of mind from an evolutionary perspective, seeing the human embedded in the rest of the natural world. Firstly, he argues that consciousness likely evolved because it has a survival benefit. He suggests that consciousness allows us to create and manipulate representations of our environment, enabling us to navigate complex social interactions and solve problems. Secondly, he argues that despite actions being determined by brain processes, free will should be understood within the context of our evolved cognitive capacities and the ability to make decisions based on reasons. He highlights that the processes by which we deliberate, weigh options, and make choices constitute a form of freedom that is meaningful.

Lastly, he applied his research into human ethics to AI and advocated for an ethical framework in AI that is informed by a deep understanding of human cognition and evolutionary biology. His thoughts on the potential consciousness of AI systems and the ethical responsibilities of AI developers have encouraged a more cautious and enlightened approach to AI development.

By challenging traditional notions of his time, he made many people reconsider fundamental questions about the nature of reality and our place within it. And his work is also relevant today for neuroscience and the development of AI.

In 2018, Daniel Dennet was awarded an honorary doctorate by Radboud University. During his stay in Nijmegen, he gave a Radboud Reflects Lecture and delivered the Nijmegen Lectures co-hosted by the MIP and Donders Institute. Also, you can check-out the recap of the Radboud Reflects Lecture “Who was Philosopher Daniel Dennett” that took place on 15 May.


Author: Swantje Neil

Buddy: Siddharth Chaturvedi

Editor: Elena Markantonakis

Translation: Eline de Boer

Editor translation: Lucas Geelen

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