The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
Inquire about purchasing the book | Table of Contents | Annotated Bibliography | Class on Nature of Mind

These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Multiple Drafts

The US philosopher Daniel Dennett believes that, despite the apparent unity and continuity of our experience, consciousness is non-localized and non-linear. “Non-localized” means that there is no place where it happens. “Non-linear” means that it is not a flow of feelings.

Dennett argues that the time-scale of some cognitive processes rules out the possibility that perceptions are integrated in a "Cartesian theater" in the brain before action is generated (the Cartesian theater is a metaphor for the idea that there is a central locus in the brain that directs consciousness). Despite the apparent unity of our experience, consciousness does not involve the existence of a single central self.

Dennett, instead, argues that the mind is occupied by several parallel "drafts". A "draft" can be roughly viewed as a narrative that occurs in the mind, and that is typically triggered by some interaction with the environment. At every point in time, one of those narratives is dominant in the brain, and that is what we are conscious of. "Consciousness" is a vague term, which simply refers to the feeling of the overall brain activity. But the truth is that there are many drafts, all working in parallel. There are several narratives in the mind going on at the same time.

Dennett is opposed to the idea that there is an enduring mind because it would imply that there is a place in the brain where that mind resides. He thinks that such "Cartesian theater" is absurd and that the mind is implemented by multiple parallel drafts.

A mental content becomes conscious by winning the competition with other mental contents and therefore lasting longer in the mind.  A mind is an organization of competing mental events.

Despite the apparent continuity of our experience, consciousness does not flow at all. There is no single stream of consciousness ŕ la William James because there is no “Cartesian theater”, no central control. There are parallel circuits, which produce parallel drafts of narratives. The continuity of consciousness is an illusion.

Consciousness doesn't even exist all the time, as "probing precipitates narratives": people are not always conscious of what is happening to them until, for example, somebody else asks them about it.

Dennett also believes that the goal of those drafts, the goal of the mind, is truly to manage "memes". The mind was created, evolutionary speaking, when memes "invaded" the brain. The mind of each individual is created little by little as memes invade it. The brain has become a computer that collects memes. The mind is a machine to process memes, not too different from the body, the machine that processes genes. Consciousness is but a collection of memes.

Several psychologists have argued that "memes" shape our mind, even before Dawkins gave them a name. The Polish psychologist Solomon Asch ("Studies in the principles of judgements and attitudes", 1940) showed that the opinions of the crowd are more influential than our own senses in our judgment of the events that we witness. The US psychologist Elizabeth Loftus showed that we can easily be made to remember non-existent facts, i.e. that hints from fellow humans prevail over our observation. Howard Bloom wrote that "reality is a shared hallucination". This "hallucination" starts at birth because the newborn's brain is mostly shaped by the interaction with other humans, i.e. by the culture in which the baby is born.

The British psychologist Susan Blackmore has expressed the same view in more radical words. The conscious self is but a story built by memes. In this sense, it makes no sense to talk of free will. Free will is the consequence of the story (the very complex story due to many interacting memes) that is playing in the brain.

Dennett views religions and ideologies as memes that spread from mind to mind. These memes created our consciousness by degrees (mildly put, they had a tremendous influence on our thinking). Memes such as religions were originally ideas that sprung into somebody's mind. Jesus' meme, for example, was that all humans are alike: you are like me, regardless of your name, tribe or country. Each meme like this creates a new degree of consciousness. Around the world religions and ideologies made people think and become aware of the others, of death, of the world. They are contagious: once somebody talks to you about everlasting life, you can't stop wondering about it and will tell someone else. Each religion introduced minds to novel ideas about the world. Before the birth of science and ideology, religion was the main way in which minds kept expanding their consciousness.

Ultimately, thinking is processing of memes: our "mind" is the process of absorbing, understanding, adapting and broadcasting memes.

People tell us what to think and we think their thoughts. What we think are other people's thoughts. Are any of our thoughts "ours"? Or are we only vehicles for thoughts to spread from mind to mind?

However, one could argue that the "reproduction" of a meme is often not conscious (e.g., when I start whistling a song that I heard on the radio). After all, i am truly conscious only when I  rid myself of memes. Then I can focus on what is truly "me". Consciousness is a failure of memes: the more powerful the memes the less conscious your mind. And, conversely, the more conscious your mind the less powerful the memes that try to invade it.


Back to the beginning of the chapter "Consciousness: the Factory of Illusions" | Back to the index of all chapters