Daniel C. Dennett is Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, and author of such highly praised books as Consciousness Explained, Elbow Room, and Brainstorms. His latest book is Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (Simon & Schuster, 1995). The following interview was conducted by FREE INQUIRY editors Tom Flynn and Tim Madigan. - EDS.
FREE INQUIRY: Synthesizing the work of many thinkers, yourself included, Adam Carley wrote a recent article in FREE INQUIRY (Fall 1994) in which he described "consciousness" as an illusion arising from the operation of short-term memory. In his view, consciousness is an evolutionarily useful fiction that enables the intelligent brain to reflect on its own decision-making processes and learn from its experiences more effectively, but it is altogether fictional in any naive sense of reality. What do you think of that model, and how would you go about testing it?
DANIEL DENNETT: I think that's partly right, but it's very misleading in some regards. The way I would put it is that the brain needs what's called a "user illusion" the same as when we use a word processor. You can use a word processor without knowing what's actually going on inside the computer. You need to have some useful metaphors though, and that's the user illusion. But notice, it's a benign and extremely useful illusion.
Well, the brain works similarly - the brain of a human being, not of any other species. It is equipped with a very powerful user illusion. It sounds like a trick with mirrors, I know, but I'm saying that the brain is both the user and the provider of the user illusion. There are various agencies in the brain that require information from other agencies within the brain, and this is provided in limited useful form by the way the brain is organized. This gives rise to the illusory sense that there is this one place - which I call "the Cartesian theater" - where it all comes together: the subject, the ego, the "I." There's no denying that that's the way it seems. But that is just the way it seems. That is the benign illusion of consciousness.
FI: If we dismantle the Cartesian theater, if we abandon the idea of an "I" who makes our decisions, what are the implications for moral philosophy? Is there any point in talking about moral responsibility if the moral agent cannot be conceived as a unitary entity?
DENNETT: The moral agent can be conceived as a unitary entity, but not as a sort of organ of the brain, or a particular subsection of the brain. It is, if you like, an artifact of the organization of the brain. The unity is imperfect and changing and problematic, and it is something that is achieved - it's not something one is born with. The idea that one has, for instance, an immortal soul, which is the locus of responsibility - we replace that idea with one of a developing, virtual center of control, what I call "the center of narrative gravity." Once it develops, and once it is trained by enculturation and learning, then the body that is thus organized has a self, is a person, and is a locus of responsibility.
But we are all familiar with the ways in which people move the boundaries of the self. There is nothing more familiar than to hear somebody say, after having uttered something terrible, "That wasn't me speaking, no, no, I disown the recent motion of my own body. The real me would never have said anything like that."
FI: "It was the booze talking."
DENNETT: Yes. "The devil made me do it." Or "That wasn't me, that was just the darn urge that I have somewhere that sometimes takes control." This is a very natural way of talking and there's an element of truth in it. That is to say, a person is in fact a rather delicately poised committee - or not even something as well organized as a committee - sort of a crowd of sometimes cooperating, sometimes competing agencies, and one is just the sum total of …