Dennett's heterophenomenology


In an earlier comment, I conflated heterophenomenology in the general sense of taking introspective accounts as data to be explained rather than direct readouts of the truth, with Dennett's particular approach to explaining those data.  So to correct myself, I say that it is Dennett, rather than heterophenomenology, that claims that there is no such thing as consciousness. Dennett denies that he does, but I disagree. I defend this view here.

I have to admit at this point that I have not read "Consciousness Explained".  Had either of the library's copies been on the shelves last Tuesday I would have done by now, but instead I found his later book (and his most recent on the topic), "Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness".  The subtitle suggests a drawing back from the confidence of the earlier title, as does that of the book in between.  The book confirms me in my impression that the ideas of "C.E." have been in the air so long (the air of hard SF, sciblogs, and the like, not to mention Phil Goetz's recent posts) that reading the primary source 19 years on would be nothing more than an exercise in checkbox-ticking.

I'll give a brief run-through of "Sweet Dreams" and then carry on the argument.

The book is primarily writing against, a response to objections arising from earlier works.

In chapter 1 he shoots down the "Zombic Hunch", the idea that a being could be physically identical to a human, but lack consciousness, and therefore that consciousness must be non-physical.  I'll take it that we all agree the zombie story is insane.

Chapter 2 introduces the concept of heterophenomenology.  This has already been introduced to LW.

The corpse of the Zombic Hunch got up again and walked, so in Chapter 3 he shoots it down again.

Chapters 4 and 5 attack qualia.  They don't exist, says Dennett, because of such anomalies as change blindness, Capgras syndrome, and various thought-experiments that defy all coherent accounts of what qualia are.

Chapter 6 is entitled "Are We Explaining Consciousness yet?" (Er, what was that first book called?)  It cites neurological research and briefly sets out the Multiple Drafts hypothesis.  He confronts critics who say (which I also say) that Dennett is really denying the existence of consciousness, not giving an account of it.  His answer is that he is giving (or seeking) a third-person explanation of first-person accounts.  Well, yes, that is indeed what he is doing, and what his critics on this point are complaining that he is doing.  The question is whether there is more to do, which goes unaddressed here.

Chapter 7 says some more about Multiple Drafts.

Chapter 8 argues against qualia of consciousness again. It closes by saying that if ever his heterophenomenological program runs into a roadblock and something more is clearly needed, then the Zombic Hunch gets to eat his braiiinnzzz.

Ok, his actual words are "If the day arrives when...we plainly see that something big is missing...those with the unshakable hunch will get to say they told us so."

So, why do I claim that Dennett's account of consciousness amounts to denying there is such a thing, contrary to his own claims that consciousness exists and he is explaining it?

The problem I have is with his differing accounts of consciousness and qualia.  The former he says exists, and claims to give an explanation of; the latter he denies.  Yet the evidence he adduces regarding both topics is of the same sort: experimental observations or thought experiments demonstrating the incoherence of all existing accounts of what they are.  But he comes to different conclusions about them.  Why?

I believe the reason is that any physical account of consciousness, including his, will meet the objection (as it has) that yes, that may be an accurate account of what is physically happening in the brain, and yes, that might even be necessary and sufficient for consciousness to exist in a brain, but it leaves unanswered what Dennett calls the Hard Question: how does that physical process produce the experience of being conscious?  That is, how does it account for the qualia of consciousness itself?  The only way to overcome that objection is to argue against the existenceof qualia (as Dennett does).

But the qualia of consciousness looks to me like the very thing that people are talking about when they talk about being conscious.  To deny the qualia of consciousness is to deny that there is any such thing as consciousness.

That is why I claim that Dennett's theory amounts to denying the existence of consciousness.  Dennett is describing beings with no inner experience, philosophical zombies, and avoids the Zombic Hunch by denying there is such a thing as inner experience. What he is explaining is not consciousness, but why the zombies say that they are conscious.

And so back to the word "heterophenomenology".  This is Dennett's word, and I think it fair, on heterophenomenological grounds, to look for Dennett's meaning in his practice rather than in his account of that practice.  His account is that he wants to explain people's talk of their inner experiences without taking that talk to be a reliable account.  But his practice is to explain such talk without taking it to be an account of anything, not even an unreliable account, not even an account which might be about something.  He sketches a mechanism that could produce such talk, no more.  He explains first-person talk, and says nothing of first-person experience. And so a negative answer to the question of whether there is anything being talked about, however imperfectly, whether there is such a thing as first-person experience, gets palmed into the definition.


I do not have any account of what qualia are, neither qualia in general nor the experience of being aware. But I do believe that this experience exists. The heterophenomenological program is to hit Ignore on that experience.