Is consciousness just an illusion?

The cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett believes our brains are machines, made of billions of tiny “robots” – our neurons, or brain cells. Is the human mind really that special?

In an infamous memo written in 1965, the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus stated that humans would always beat computers at chess because machines lacked intuition. Daniel Dennett disagreed.

A few years later, Dreyfus rather embarrassingly found himself in checkmate against a computer.

And in May 1997 the IBM computer, Deep Blue defeated the world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

Many who were unhappy with this result then claimed that chess was a boringly logical game. Computers didn’t need intuition to win. The goalposts shifted.

Daniel Dennett has always believed our minds are machines. For him the question is not can computers be human? But are humans really that clever?

In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific, Dennett says there’s nothing special about intuition. “Intuition is simply knowing something without knowing how you got there”.

Dennett blames the philosopher Rene Descartes for permanently polluting our thinking about how we think about the human mind.

Descartes couldn’t imagine how a machine could be capable of thinking, feeling and imagining. Such talents must be God-given. He was writing in the 17th century, when machines were made of levers and pulleys not CPUs and RAM, so perhaps we can forgive him.

Robots made of robots

Our brains are made of a hundred billion neurons. If you were to count all the neurons in your brain at a rate of one a second, it would take more than 3,000 years.

Our minds are made of molecular machines, otherwise known as brain cells. And if you find this depressing then you lack imagination, says Dennett.

“Do you know the power of a machine made of a trillion moving parts?”, he asks. “We’re not just are robots”, he says. “We’re robots, made of robots, made of robots”.

Our brain cells are robots that respond to chemical signals. The motor proteins they create are robots. And so it goes on.

Like a phone screen

Consciousness is real. Of course it is. We experience it every day. But for Daniel Dennett, consciousness is no more real than the screen on your laptop or your phone.

The geeks who make electronic devices call what we see on our screens the “user illusion”. It’s a bit patronising, perhaps, but they’ve got a point.

Pressing icons on our phones makes us feel in control. We feel in charge of the hardware inside. But what we do with our fingers on our phones is a rather pathetic contribution to the sum total of phone activity. And, of course, it tells us absolutely nothing about how they work.

Human consciousness is the same, says Dennett. “It’s the brain’s ‘user illusion’ of itself,” he says.

It feels real and important to us but it just isn’t a very big deal.

“The brain doesn’t have to understand how the brain works”. Source BBC

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