Philosopher Daniel Dennett does a fine job explaining the wonders and mysteries of the world from a naturalistic point of view. However, his answer to the problem of consciousness is different from his other answers. I illustrate this point with an analogy.
Daniel Dennett has a good record of explaining deep aspects of our existence in a way that is based on science and reason without losing the sense of wonder and meaning in the world. Of course, not everyone agrees. Whenever you explain things like the evolution of life or the freedom of the will (or, goodness forbid, religion) in a naturalistic, demystifying manner, some people will be dissatisfied. They want to keep the “mysterious” level of explanation that’s not really an explanation. For a perfect example of what this means, see my review of Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel.
You can see it in Dennett’s writing that he’s aware of this, and he has mentioned that people who can’t get into his way of thinking make the strangest statements about what he supposedly believes. However, there’s one question where his opponents have a point: the problem of explaining phenomenal consciousness.
I have no desire to keep consciousness mysterious or embrace dualism. I’d love it if it had already been explained in the kind of way Dennett does with everything else. However, I’m forced to admit that it hasn’t been — and that Dennett’s answer this time only skips the problem.
So, when Dennett explains most things, what happens between him and his critics is usually akin to this:
Dennett meets a man who, like Tarzan, has lived most of his life in a jungle. There were no mirrors in the jungle, and the water was always murky, so when the jungle man sees a real mirror for the first time, he asks Dennett why there’s an identical stranger behind a window mimicking his every move.
Dennett explains that there is no man in the window; it’s just a reflective surface turning back light so that the jungle man sees his own image in it. He points out that this explains everything that the jungle man is seeing.
The jungle man protests that he can clearly see that there’s a real man and Dennett’s explanation is useless because it doesn’t explain the man. (Dennett sighs. This again.)
However, when Dennett is explaining phenomenal consciousness, something different happens.
The jungle man asks Dennett why there’s an identical stranger behind a window mimicking his every move. This time, Dennett explains that there is no man because the theory of all physical objects doesn’t need to postulate such a man. You can’t touch him — no matter what you do, you can only touch the mirror’s surface — and he doesn’t exert gravity on other objects and so on. So while there is a mirror and all that, it makes no sense to ask about a man.
The jungle man protests that Dennett hasn’t explained the appearance that there’s a man in the mirror. So maybe it’s not a physical object – then what is it? Maybe it’s an illusion, but what creates it?
Dennett sighs and tells everyone that the jungle man won’t stop making the assumption that there must be a physical man in the mirror.