On Daniel Dennett -- Consciousness as a Virtual Reality Machine

In Consciousness Explained (Back Bay Books, 1992), Daniel Dennett asserts that human consciousness is an illusion, because there is no specific place in the human brain where consciousness occurs.  He calls consciousness an illusion in part because he believes that there is no location or, as he calls it, no “Cartesian Theater,” where a person can experience and control consciousness as an integrated totality of experience.

Like consciousness, all human perception occurs inside the human being.  Our experience of the external world occurs through sense perception which can only be experienced internally.  One can say that humans do not have a bridge to the reality outside themselves because the only things they can experience are inside themselves.  Consciousness can be thought of as something very similar to a virtual reality machine.  And every person has a different machine.

Dennett points out that human perception of its own consciousness is necessarily flawed as we do not know where our consciousness comes from and are not reliable reporters of how it operates.  This may be.  But consciousness is no more an illusion than anything else we experience in our virtual reality machine.  All of our perceptions share this infirmity that they are observer dependent and thus cannot not be reliable reporters of our experiences whether they be internal or external.

Using the loaded term “illusion” to describe consciousness, means that Dennett must believe that there is something that humans can perceive that is not an illusion.  For the word illusion to mean anything, there must also be a graspable reality beyond illusion or that term has no meaning.  Yet we have already seen that our access to reality through sense perception is flawed and whatever it shows us is not reality but the interpretation of reality that our senses and our consciousness make of it at the time.

To call consciousness an illusion is therefore quite a trivial observation.  Consciousness is no more an illusion than anything else that we humans can perceive. Dennett’s statement does not advance our understanding of consciousness.  Human perception is always observer dependent.  The only theoretically objective observer would be “god” and that of course is yet another illusion present in some of our virtual reality machines.

Dennett has been well paid for arguing that consciousness is an illusion.  Of course he has also shown, as many others have before him, that money itself is an illusion--an indisputable fact that has never diminished in the least the intense human desire to acquire and accumulate it.