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Dennett’s critique of Qualia #1: inversion goggles

(Below are some quick notes based on discussion of Dennetts ‘Consciousness Explained’ with the study group at the TU Delft. For a second note, follow this link)

So this is my problem: Dennett often seems to be rather unclear. He seems quite willing to conflate several problems and ideas which to me seem worthwhile to be presented one at a time. Of course, this might rather be a feature than a bug of Dennetts thinking. Yet below is some reconstruction of one possible way to cut into the argument of chapter 12 of Consciousness Explained. (I won’t introduce some terms which might require introduction, like Qualia, Sub-personal, etc)


  1. Versus unity: Exploding the experience

So one way to get on Dennetts boat, might be the following:

Someone taken in by Qualia is pre-supposing a ‘simple-ness’ to the experience, which Dennett thinks is misguided. So a ‘qualiophile’ might presuppose that when a subject meets an object (like a piece of fruit, or a ball of snow being thrown at it) it just has a particular private ‘experience’ of what is going on. It doesn’t just respond to it with behavior, but it also responds by having an experience of ‘what it like to be that subject at this point’.

Surely Dennett might agree that there is an ‘experience’ going on in the subject, but he might complain that this experience has no clearly defined ‘edge’ to it. We don’t need to presuppose a simple consistent responds from the subject to its environment.

If we move to a sub-personal level, we might analyze the responds of the subject as something consisting of several smaller responses which might have no clear edged consistency. Parts of the brain might be interested in eating the object, because they identify it as a banana. And other parts of the brain might not be so interested, because they draw on experiences with light reflection in dimly lit rooms, and conclude that the object is made out of plastic.

On a personal level, only one response is given. Yet Dennett argues that even these responses might not have the consistency we might expect of ‘there just being this particular way things seems to me’. For instance, people wearing goggles with mirrors which ‘flip’ their visual field might be said to now have an experience which is ‘upside down’. As time passes however, they seem to hardly notice wearing these goggles anymore. They are able to ride bikes and do some skiing.

 Yet they might still not be consistent. For instance, at some point they might use the right words when prompted (correctly identify top and bottom of a picture) yet still duck when stuff approaches them from a low angle (and thus they unintentionally get hit by flying snowballs). Different prompts (probes) produce different reactions.

“It may help to break down the residual attractiveness of this idea if we consider further the invited parallel with image-inverting goggles. When the adaptations of the subjects wearing these goggles have become so second nature that they can ride bicycles and ski, the natural (but misguided) question to ask is this: Have they adapted by turning their experiential world back right side up, or by getting used to their ex- periential world being upside down? And what do they say? They say different things, which correlate roughly with how complete their adaptation was. The more complete it was, the more the subjects dismiss the question as improper or unanswerable.” (397)

” In some ways things look the same to them (as judged by their reactions), in other ways things look different (as judged by other reactions).” (397)

In such a case, should we say that ‘the’ experience is flipped? Dennett proposes we don’t commit ourselves on this. The question is not well taken. My proposal for interpretation (at this point) is that qualia presuppose a simpleness in the responds to – and relations with – the environment of the subject, which Dennett thinks is flawed. Real experiencing is complex.


  • HvS


(The argument above presupposes that 1. the ‘multiplicity’ on the sub-personal level turns out to be of direct relevance for the personal level. It explodes the personal level itself; 2. that the prompts or probes of the environment (or internally) are particularly relevant for what someone is experiences)

(Apparently you can buy these goggles at


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