Coffee and Consciousness

Imagine two coffee tasters, Chase and Sanborn. Every morning they drink the same coffee at the same coffee house. One morning while drinking their coffee they both decide that they no longer like it. Although the coffee they taste has not changed, the pleasure they get from it has ceased to be. Chase says “My tastes have changed. I’ve become a more sophisticated coffee drinker. I no longer like that taste at all.” Sanborn rationalises “But my tastes haven’t changed; my... tasters have changed... I think something has gone wrong with my taste buds...”.

So who is right? Which explanation best describes the change as it really is? The philosopher Daniel Dennett would suggest that to ask the question is to presume a difference that is not there.

“You seem to think that there’s a difference between thinking (judging, deciding, being of the heartfelt opinion that) something seems pink to you and something really seeming pink to you. But there is no difference. There is no such phenomenon as really seeming – over and above the phenomenon of judging in one way or another that something is the case”

To talk about what an experience is like is, Dennett claims, to refer to our own reactive dispositions, how we are prone to react to certain stimuli, and how these dispositions interact with each other; there is no mysterious inner show where things ‘as they really seem’ are presented to our conscious mind. So for Dennett the ‘taste’ is not itself a distinct mental property, instead it is the processes that take place inside our body and brain concerning memory, emotion state and other behavioural dispositions etc. that constitute the experience of the taste “it is the reactions that compose the ‘introspectable property’ and it is through reacting that one ‘identifies’ or ‘recognizes’ the property”.

Daniel Dennett denies the existence of ‘real seemings’, that is he denies that there is anything to conscious experience that is over and above the complex of reactions and behavioural dispositions that constitute it. He rejects this notion as it implies an outdated conception of the mind which can be shown to be incoherent.

Whilst almost all modern philosophers reject Cartesian dualism, the idea that the physical and the mental are separate realms, Dennet claims that most contemporary theories still contain an element of what he dubs ‘Cartesian materialism’. Descartes held that there was a place in the centre of the brain where the immaterial soul interacts with the material brain. Whilst the idea of an immaterial soul has for the most part been rejected, the idea of a point in the brain where consciousness happens still pervades. Dennett claims that there are good reasons to question most common assumptions about the nature of consciousness since many of these implicitly or explicitly presume what he calls a ‘Cartesian theatre’ in the mind – a central place where conscious experience takes place, where sensory information is gathered together and then observed by the mind. Dennett would suggest that there really is not a certain distinct place or time in the brain at which the conscious experience takes place.

Dennett uses observations from experiments involving the ‘colour phi phenomenon’ to illustrate his argument. The participant is shown alternating flashing dots of colour, a red dot to the right and a green dot to the left. When the timing of the flashes reaches a certain rapid rate the participant experiences the perception of a single dot moving from left to right and gradually changing from red to green. An interesting fact of the experiment is that the participant experiences the red dot moving and beginning to change colour before the green dot has been displayed.

Presuming Cartesian materialism there are at least two explanations available. Firstly what Dennett refers to as the ‘Stalinesque’ option, that both dots are perceived unconsciously until a ‘final cut’ is assembled out of the two and then finally displayed to the consciousness mind. The second option is the ‘Orwellian’ one, both dots are consciously perceived but after the event the memory is altered to show the moving image version. Chase’s explanation is like the ‘Orwellian’ one, in that the change takes place after moment of experience. Sanborn’s like the ‘Stalinesque’, change happens before the moment experience.

Dennet claims that these arguments are not as different as they at first seem and that any empirical evidence could be interpreted either way. A verbal report would get the same response from both participants, it is unclear whether a button push would be generated consciously on non-consciously and neurological evidence could be interpreted both ways as both interpretations could agree on when and where the brain activity took place but disagree about the point at which the experience became conscious. So despite the apparent differences of the two accounts they only differ on the question of when and where the events have entered conscious. Since the data can be explained without referring to this moment of conscious Dennett develops an argument that has no need to propose it in the first place.

As an alternative to Cartesian materialism Dennett proposes a model based on ‘multiple drafts’ and the ‘Joycean machine’. Instead of taking the form of a singular unitary narrative Dennett argues that instead thought processes are of a more multi-track nature with neural subsystems creating something like multiple drafts that are continually and simultaneously circulated and re-edited and written over. Moreover, since there is no ‘Cartesian theatre’, there is no final draft or line that is crossed for the final version to enter into consciousness. What gives conscious experience its sense of unity, according to Dennett, is our culturally developed habit of inner speech. We can ask ourselves questions, this asking causes certain pieces of information, which are like fragments of a narrative, to be passed between neural subsystems. The more widely this information is distributed the more influence it has across the whole system. Through these means more stable patterns of behaviour and control are established, this ‘Joycean machine’ (named after the stream of consciousness style writing of James Joyce) functions not through making and executing orders but by allowing certain ideas to rise and fall in influence.

“Postulating a ‘real seeming’ in addition to the judging or ‘taking’ expressed in the subject’s report is multiplying entities beyond necessity. Worse, it is multiplying entities beyond possibility; the sort of inner presentation in which real seemings happen is a hopeless metaphysical dodge.. When you discard Cartesian dualism, you really must discard the show that would have gone on in the Cartesian Theatre...”

So for Dennett, independent of the participants responses to particular questions, there are no fixed facts about the stream of consciousness, no real seeming over and above what is reported. There is no single definitive final version of experience, instead there are multiple versions in existence at all moments.

Dennetts view may seem counter intuitive at first, our naïve impression of conscious experience does lead itself more to an explanation of the ‘Cartesian theatre’ kind. But, as always, first impressions can be very misleading. Dennett opens the door for his viewpoint by showing how our unexamined notions about visual perception are misleading, once he succeeds in doing this his other arguments seem less challenging. If we can be misled about such common and everyday experiences where else are our intuitions going wrong? As the physical sciences have shown that reality is very different place from that of our immediate common sense intuitions it would seem reasonable to suppose that the traditional narratives that we use to describe conscious experience to ourselves and others may also be ultimately shown to be false.


Quotes are from Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained, Quining Qualia, and The message is: there is no medium.

Image credit: "Coffee" by michelle is licensed under CC BY 2.0