The Trickiness of Consciousness

Is the ghost in the machine nothing more than information?

Justin Brierley has been doing a series of interviews entitled “the Big Conversation” on his Unbelievable? podcast on the British Premiere Christian Radio. In the latest, and I believe the last, episode, he interviews Daniel Dennett, the Tufts professor and so-called “new atheist” and Keith Ward, the British philosopher, theologian, priest and scholar. Their topic is consciousness. The idea of the “ghost in the machine” comes up about half way through the discussion, and Dennett responds in the segment below:

Among other things, Dennett says that the “ghost in the machine” is nothing more than information. He says, “Information is embodied in the brain”, and “the user of the brain is the brain.” There is no “ghost”.

Of course, to call what Keith Ward describes as the most important aspect of you and me a “ghost” is to minimize it and to reduce it to something of insignificance. Dennett, though would say that the information is the significant thing. There is nothing going on other than the embodiment, transfer and process of information.

So what about consciousness?

Dennett says, “Consciousness is the user illusion of the brain itself…. The brain has been designed to have user interfaces inside it…. Consciousness is a user illusion that is designed by evolution and by learning and by cultural evolution to make our brains capable of getting out bodies through this complicated world.” [Emphasis added]

These remarks are the backdrop for my thoughts today.

Ward responds by saying that the thing Dennett calls a ghost (a non-entity) is the most important thing about you and me. It is what makes you you and me me. It isn’t reducible and can’t be reduced to “molecules in motion” (as Frank Turek likes to say).

Ward says there is something else going on: there is a “supra-natural” (other than natural) thing going on that isn’t reducible to the biology, physics and mere information embodied in a physical brain.

Dennett, interestingly, embraces the idea that information isn’t physical (“like poetry”). I wonder: how then does something non-physical, like information, get embodied into something physical, like a brain, such that we have difficulty determining whether the brain is primarily a physical thing or a metaphysical thing?

That question is the very subject of the podcast.

More importantly, though, in my way of thinking, Dennett doesn’t merely reduce the idea of a ghost in the machine to insignificance; he reduces the idea of information to insignificance – nothing more than the chance interaction of (physical) material producing (or “designing”) the remarkably  complex functions of the human brain and this sublime thing we call consciousness. By reducing the totality of the human experience (consciousness) to information, he minimizes the very thing he calls significant.

I’ve said it before, and I am likely to say it again (and again), materialists like Dennett can’t talk about evolution without using words of agency, like “design”. He doesn’t’ mean the word like you and I do, though. For him, this design doesn’t have a designer (an agent). The English major in me protests the use such a word that implicitly and necessarily assumes agency as part of its very meaning in a way that eliminates the very crux of the meaning. To me this is very indicative of the reductionism that informs the evolutionary idea – the attempt to eliminate God from the equation of the world and to reduce the “soul” of man to nothing more than the material of the world.

As for science (and not philosophy, which is all we have addressed so far), where do we see information in the world? How does the information we see in the world manifest itself? What generates the information we see? These are the questions I think we need to ask.

Through science, we have determined that a thing like DNA is essentially information – exquisitely intricate, complex, nuanced and resilient information that interacts with its environment, adapts to it and even changes it. Where else do we see information at work?

In libraries and universities and in all aspects of human activity is an obvious answer. But is it really information that is at work? Is it really information at work in a library, fir instance, or in the interactions at a university? Does information drive the interactions and activity of humans? Or is it humans at work using, manipulating and creating information?

When we think of information, generally, we don’t think of what generates information; we think of who generates information. Before computers, we didn’t have examples of systems designed to generate information apart from human agency, except for the concept of evolution. And what a novel concept evolution is, therefore!

Now that we have computers it seems much more of a possibility that information can generate itself – except that isn’t really what happens.

Computers generate the information, but humans design and create the computers with the intention that computers will generate the information. Computers don’t construct themselves, and computers don’t generate information without an awful lot of human agency – not just in the design, but in the maintenance of the computer. When glitches happen, it takes human agency to fix them. Thank God for IT departments!

Conceivably, we might someday create a computer that could fix itself, but that would take a tremendous amount of human effort (agency and intention) to work through all the possibilities and write the programs to make that happen.

I guaranty it won’t happen by itself.

That is the conundrum. Dennett says, essentially, that there is no agency (no ghost in the machine), though he uses words (like design) that are at their very nature and core dependent on the idea of agency. Agency, to him, is just an illusion, a trick the brain plays on itself.

I wonder, why then (and how then) did we conceive of the very idea of agency? Where does that concept even come from if it is illusory – having no reality?

I can’t help think of the absurdity of it. Does Dennett’s view of the world make more sense than Keith Ward’s view of the world? I don’t think so.

Dennett’s view of the world only works if we strip the ordinary meaning from words and concepts that even children understand. We have to deny aspects of reality to embrace Dennett’s view of the world and reality that we all experience, from the least of us to the greatest (or call them merely illusion).

And before I conclude, I am reminded that illusionists are agents who trick others into thinking that reality is something other than what it is.

As for Dennett, he would have us believe that consciousness is some evolutionary trick the brain plays on itself to get on in a complicated world. But there we go again, using a word that implies agency: a trick. I wonder who is playing a trick on who?

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