GUEST ESSAY: Daniel Dennett’s brain: deluded or deceptive

By Stephen Davies

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, where it was extensively reviewed and critically commented on by forum members. The opinions expressed in it are those of its author.)

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.
Philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett has a theory that if I deny it, he will say I don’t understand it; if I posit an alternative theory, he will say I am quite simply wrong, mistaken. He is without doubt a supremely confident, persuasive and intelligent interlocutor. His must be an impressive theory—it couldn’t possibly be "the silliest claim ever made" (Strawson), could it?

So what exactly is his theory? He starts off demonstrating how the brain plays tricks on us. We see things that literally are not there. They are illusions. We experience illusions that are ostensibly brain-generated.

Okay, so far so good. Let’s just remind ourselves that this theory is assuming the brain’s fundamental role in experience. This is a choice. The correlations between experience and brain states are there; we then choose a side from which to explain such correlations. The argument is that we experience brain-generated illusions because the physicalist chooses the side of the brain as the primary one.

What do allegedly brain-generated illusions tell us about why we have any subjective experience at all? Precisely nothing

The trickiest thing the physicalist needs to account for so as to justify choosing the brain isn’t merely the huge variety and subtlety of conscious experiences we have; it isn’t merely the great complexity and sophistication of abstract thoughts we have; it isn’t even the profound meaning and emotionality that we experience.

No, the trickiest thing for the physicalist to account for is why we have any experience at all: Why is there the experience you are having right now of being an experiencer? Why doesn't your brain operate functionally correctly but 'in the dark'?

The content of your experience is irrelevant to this question. I’ll repeat this: the content, the particular experience, is irrelevant. It is possible to have subjective experiences that are simple, basic, bland; experiences at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum to the most complex, emotional and meaningful. These bland experiences are just as mysterious.

Equally, we can have subjective experiences that are illusional, delusional, magical and fantastical. And at the other end of the spectrum we can have shared, veridical, consensual subjective experiences of insight, clarity, and perspicacity. The illusory nature of an experience makes no difference to the fact that we are having an experience nonetheless.

The particular content of your experience is irrelevant to the question: Why do we have any subjective experience at all?

Daniel Dennett describes how, from a physicalist perspective, the correlations of brain activity and illusory subjective experiences—when we see things that are not there—show us that these are brain-generated illusions. What does this tell us about why we have any subjective experience at all? Precisely nothing. The veracity of the particular contents of those subjective experiences is irrelevant.

So Dennett can only make use of these assumed-to-be-brain-generated illusions by saying they are analogous to what he thinks is happening with regards the question of why we have any experience at all. We will shortly look at what his argument by analogy is, but it is important to be clear that it is an analogy. There is no direct evidence here.

A non-subjectively-experiencing brain cannot experience the illusion of being subjectively experiencing anything because illusions, too, are subjective experiences

That the analogy itself involves the brain and subjective experiences might lead some to think that there is something more than analogous reasoning going on. But there isn’t. Dennett's analogy holds no more evidential power than if it were about gold and rainbows, or about trains and steam. The analogy is not the thing being tentatively explained.

So what is Dennett’s explanation as to why just having a brain means we also have any experiences at all? He says experience is an illusion, a magical trick, analogous to the magic tricks the brain performs when we fall for a visual illusion. He is arguing that the subjective experience you are having right now is a trick of your brain just like the visual illusions that your brain performs.

Actually I’m not sure that he realises this is merely an argument by analogy. I wonder if his confusing choice of an analogy involving aspects of the thing to be explained has actually confused him to think the analogy is the actual explanation. He actually does appear to be arguing that subjective experience is another trick of the brain, just one more trick alongside the visual tricks.

This is a perforce false step for Dennett because the analogy breaks down, it simply doesn’t work. For Dennett not to see this he must either be being deceptive or have confused himself; maybe he actually believes visual illusions are the same as the supposed illusion of having any experience at all.

Another reminder as to why it can only be an analogy: the veracity—or lack thereof—of your subjective experiences is irrelevant to the question of why we have any subjective experience at all; for illusions are also experienced. The explanation of visual illusions cannot simply be copied and pasted to answer the question of why we have any experience at all.

A non-subjectively-experiencing brain cannot experience the illusion of being subjectively experiencing anything because illusions, too, are subjective experiences. The brain has to either be a subjectively-experiencing brain or a non-subjectively-experiencing brain. If it is the former then this is what needs to be explained by the physicalist. If it is the latter, then it can have no experiences at all, including experiences of illusions of being able to experience.

Dennett attempts to explain the actuality of subjective experience by saying it is due to a non-subjectively-experiencing brain having the subjective experience of an illusion that it is subjectively experiencing. When confronted with the glaringly self-contradictory nature of his position, slippery Dennett says, "I’m not saying subjective experience is an illusion, I’m just saying it isn’t what you think it is." He says things like "You cannot possibly know what the true nature of consciousness is merely through introspection. I have proven how wrong introspection can be."

In the face of the absurdity of Dennett’s position, maybe we should reconsider the initial choice: that of trying to explain subjective experience in terms of the brain. Instead, maybe it’s time to account for the correlations between brain states and subjective experience by taking the latter to be the primary side

This is just restating his argument: you are a non-subjectively-experiencing brain tricking itself into having the subjective experience of the illusion that you are having a subjective experience. But if the brain can have a subjective experience of any kind, even if it is a trick, it still needs to be explained how the non-subjective-experiencing brain can perform a trick that leads to subjective experience.

And here the question remains, as unexplained and as mysterious as ever: How can the allegedly non-subjectively-experiencing brain be responsible for subjective experience?

In the face of the absurdity of Dennett’s position, maybe we should reconsider the initial choice: that of trying to explain subjective experience in terms of the brain. Instead, maybe it’s time to account for the correlations between brain states and subjective experience by taking the latter to be the primary side. This avenue of exploration has already proven to be a fruitful one that does not end up in the confused contradictions of Dennett. I encourage all to make the journey.

Copyright © 2020 by Stephen Davies. Published with permission.


  1. As well as snooker, Steve Davis can write a great essay! My joke is probably dated, just like the ideas of Dennett and his cocksure crew.

    1. Thanks Moesy. It certainly is dated - not heard that since my school days :)

  2. I think perhaps the most difficult thing to explain is how Dennett forms his opinions. This is most definitely a 'hard' problem. It is no easier to explain why anyone takes him seriously. Nice essay. It's a strange world in which all this needs saying.

  3. Maybe, Daniel is hallucinating whatever scientists mean by that catch all term.

    Bernardo, I came across this article that is written by a physicist who is suggesting that we exist in a neural network and that reminds me of your own hypothesis that we exist in Big Mind or Cosmic Mind:

  4. Bravo, Stephen!

    I'm always amazed, even though it happens frequently, that an evidently very smart person (e.g. Dennett) exhibits a patently absurd blind spot - amazing, silly.


  5. "The content of your experience is irrelevant to this question. I’ll repeat this: the content, the particular experience, is irrelevant."

    THANK YOU!!!

    This is a point that so many philosophers of mind get wrong, even ones who are open to or even endorse a non-physical basis for consciousness -- specifically, EXPERIENCE.

    But to me, there's an even bigger mystery: Where does the experiencing subject who is having the experience come from? There can't be half an experiencer, so in materialism, there must be a threshold where adding or relocating A SINGLE PARTICLE should necessarily cause an experiencing subject to either pop into or out of existence. This seems more than a little bit ridiculous, but I guess that's just an aesthetic preference on my part.

    And all of this focus on getting rid of qualia (an OBVIOUSLY incoherent and ridiculous project) is so very misguided. Qualia are clearly non-physical, but they are completely unnecessary for showing that consciousness cannot be physical.


    1. If you start with one overarching consciousness, one experiencing subject, then you can see the multitude of experiencing subjects as disassociated alters of the one. Bernardo sees metabolising life as the image of such a disassociation, so anything that is alive is an experiencing subject that is also, fundamentally, part of the one experiencing subject.

  6. Hey, be nice to Santa Claus! His crazy idea that subjective experience does not actually exist and that we only think we are having subjective experience may be a bit contradictory and off the wall, but he delivers presents to children on Christmas ever single year!

  7. The mystical "experiencer" is termed as "witness" in Hinduism/Buddhism and is considered as the God which is the core of every living organism and also the universe. This witness was supposedly present before the big bang and will be there after the universe ends.
    When self realisation occurs in a human being then his identity with his body-mind complex gets broken(termed as dissolution of the ego) and he experiences himself as God. Such a person will both claim that "I am nobody" and also that "I am that (God)" and in his eyes there will be no logical contradiction between the two statements.

    1. Nicely put. The One consciousness sees through the eyes of everyone.

  8. My experience of Daniel Dennett is an illusion. He doesn't actually exist. My brain concocted him to fill gaps in my observations and knowledge, but he isn't really there. And anything he says is just a jumble of hallucinated ideas which promote my evolutionary fitness. I am just not sure how, though, since everyone who tries to explain it is just a nin-existing hallucination which my brain concocted, ostensibly because it must just require endless loops of self-recursion.

  9. As a scientist and a psychologist, I wonder why all the fuss?
    Sure this is fun but not very instructive.
    There are things that we, perhaps cannot know.
    I do know this: We do not have direct experience of physical reality. We at best,sample some cues and often agree on a meaning. Clearly a evolutionary strategy. But we do not have metaphysical confirmation of our experience. Our agreement too might be illusion! I don't LIKE solipsism ..but there you are a dead end. Just as I have a working hypothesis that you too experience, I have a working hypothesis that a physicality exists, though I cannot know it directly.I also take the requirement that my nervous system is required for consciousness as a good working hypothesis, until convinced otherwise.(by my experience).
    Rather than either/or , how about a experience being a arising somehow from a brain. Dennett et al can (some day , maybe) describe the neural conditions under which consciousness emerges ...but that does not tell us what it is!
    I would like to take the entire "problem" outof the realm of metaphysics and put it into epistemology, where I thinks all this belongs. The psychologist part of me knows that we humans hate ambiguity but this one, I think is not solvable by the either / or choice in which it is usually framed.

    1. I think metaphysics is vital for this topic as without it people tend to assume correlations are causation with the arrow of causation going from their assumed, and often unexamined, metaphysical assumption. E.g ‘neural conditions under which consciousness emerges‘ assumes a materialist metaphysics.

  10. Nietzsche introduced the idea of perspectivism: in the final analysis, all we really have is a manifold of interlocking perspectives. For example, consider the following toy model. If humans are small finite, represent each possible human perspective by a small non-empty subset of {1,...,n} where n is a large natural number. Then, there are minimal perspectives, but no maximal human perspective. Still, there is an ideal finite perspective which sees everything! If n=infinity, then there is still an ideal infinite perspective which sees everything! (God's eye-view!) If one accepts the standard quantum logic, then one has a manifold of perspectives which cannot-by Gleason's Theorem-be embedded into any single perspective! There are now maximal perspectives, but no universal perspective!

  11. Might words like "consciousness" and "experience," useful as they are, be themselves abstractions? Might they refer or point to something even more elemental? Schweitzer criticized Descartes for the abstraction of "thinking" unconnected to the subject of thought, an inherent component, Schweitzer believed, of the thought process. Descartes' thinker, for example, was thinking about what we can or cannot know about ourselves and our perceptions. So we don't just think, but think something; we aren't just conscious, but conscious of something; we don't just experience but experience something. Which takes us back to Schweitzer's postulate of that first thought, that primal act of consciousness, that initial experience of ourselves and/or the world. All, he believed, were manifestations or expressions of our innate will to live, shared on some level with all living things. "Even the small worm turns when trod upon."

  12. I have heard Daniel Dennett claim that consciousness is an illusion of the brain. However, I can't help but wonder; how do you have an illusion without a conscious observer? What is it that is experiencing this illusion? He never seems to answer this question.

  13. I guess from an enactivist perspective the visual system is the most environmentally immersed system of the brain or it is "all over" the neocortex. However can Dennett induce everyone in the audience to feel a pain in their stomach which is not there?

  14. Dennett focuses on visual illusions which essentially are hacks in the most complex system in the brain. The visual system is distributed throughout the neocortex. From an enactivist viewpoint the entire Dennett audience gets immersed in these hacks. However if you involve the more basic parts of the brin and nervous system it is very difficult for Dennett to make the same argument about a pain in your body like your leg.

    1. And even if he could, that would still just be an illusion of the contents of experience not an illusion of experiencing itself.

  15. Just putting on the Dennett hat he does write for his publisher and the general audience which would make me think the title "Consciousness Explained" sells. It is also pointed out that many who work in this field do not think about a hard problem or considers himself a philosopher for science. Dennett's pov is the alien who visits and has no sense of color, taste or smell so observes the people talking about colors, tastes and smells. Of course the alien still engages in his own illusions of observing shades of gray or tests his food for safety with a harmful chemical detector.

  16. Stephan Davies here makes a case of Dennett offering up the analogy for the real thing---which Davies points out violates the purpose of the analogy as a heuristic leading to a better understanding the object of analysis. The consideration of "brain states" rather than illusions gets past the premise that an "illusion" is an incomplete or flawed representation of the perceived object, which in many uses of the term implies the existence of an ultimate reality which may or may not exist. We recognize our limitations in perceiving colors which physicists tell us are points along a continuum ranging along the limits of our vision to distinguish frequencies of light from infrared to ultraviolet. But is red therefore an "illusion?" I don't think so for a number of reasons along the lines of how Davies dissects Dennett's argument.

  17. Thanks for the article, Stephen.

    The funny thing about denying the existence of consciousness, I find, is the fact that, in order to being able to do so, you need to be conscious.