By Nonie Arora

Daniel Dennett, Co-Director Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, spoke last week to a packed room at Duke University’s annual Mind, Brain, and Behavior lecture. He said that The Hard Problem of Consciousness, which describes how we have subjective conscious experiences, rests on a series of straightforward mistakes. 

“The Hard Problem is a cognitive illusion,” Dennett said.

Cartesian Theater. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Cartesian Theater. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dennett’s conclusion rests on two tenets: (1) there is no Cartesian theater and (2) there is no second transductionThe Cartesian theater is an image of a place where the show happens; Dennett said it is where the decisions get made, according to some philosophers.

The second transduction is the idea that the nervous system first converts outer stimuli to neural signals and then the brain translates these signals to some other medium of consciousness, as originally suggested by Descartes. Some theorists still believe that there is a second transduction into a physical medium in the brain that has not been identified, but according to Dennett’s book Kinds of Minds, this idea is a myth.

Dennett said that the features in our brain are more similar to DVDs than to cinema films. They are not iconic. If you show a caveman a DVD, what will he think? He’ll think: where are the mini pictures, where is the sound? Anybody who thinks that there is a Hard Problem is making the analogous naive error about consciousness, Dennett explained. 

Depiction of consciousness. Credit: New Yorker 1969 Saul Steinberg

Depiction of consciousness. Credit: New Yorker 1969 Saul Steinberg

We are the “unwitting creators of fiction,” he said. “Babies are not inherently cute. They’re cute because we adore them. Shapes of babies faces stimulate nurturing behavior… This is an evolved adaptation. We misinterpret an inner reaction as an outer cause,” he said.

He believes that we project our innate predispositions into the manifest world. Thus, we have a propensity to think that babies are cute. “We have expectations about our expectations,” he said. “Not only do we feel the urge to reach out and cuddle, we expect to feel that urge. Our satisfaction of that expectation confirms our perception of cuteness of the baby.” 

Interested in hearing more from Dennett?

Learn more about the illusion of consciousness or why babies aren’t actually cute.