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Consciousness Studies

Consciousness Studies

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Dennett is well known for his "Multiple Drafts Model" of consciousness. The Multiple
Drafts Theory or Model of Consciousness is a theory of consciousness based upon the
proposal that the brain acts as an information processor. The Theory is described in depth in
the book Consciousness Explained, written by Dennett in 1991. It proposes a form of strong

Dennet describes his theory (CE p117) as operationalist, as Dennett says: "There is no
reality of conscious experience independent of the effects of various vehicles of content on
subsequent action (and hence, of course, on memory)." (Not to be confused with

Dennett's starting point in the development of the Multiple Drafts theory is a description of
the phi illusion. In this experiment two different coloured lights, with an angular separation
of a few degrees at the eye, are flashed in succession. If the interval between the flashes is
less than a second or so the first light that is flashed appears to move across to the position
of the second light. Furthermore the light seems to change colour as it moves across the
visual field. A green light will appear to turn red as it seems to move across to the position
of a red light. Dennett asks how we could see the light change colour before the second light
is observed.

An example of the phi illusion in the format described by Dennett is shown here: phi
illusion (use the 'test' option to select the simple phi demonstration).


Dennett explains the change of colour of the light in terms of either Orwellian or
Stalinesque hypotheses. In the Orwellian hypothesis the subject develops a narrative about
the movement of the lights after the event. In the Stalinesque hypothesis the subject's brain
would have a delay in which the movement of the green light towards the red light could be
modelled after the sensory information from the red light had been received. He then says
that it does not matter which hypothesis applies because: "the Multiple Drafts model goes
on to claim that the brain does not bother 'constructing' any representations that go to the
trouble of 'filling in' the blanks. That would be a waste of time and (shall we say?) paint.
The judgement is already in so we can get on with other tasks!"

According to the Multiple Drafts theory there are a variety of sensory inputs from a given
event and also a variety of interpretations of these inputs. The sensory inputs arrive in the
brain and are interpreted at different times so a given event can give rise to a succession of
discriminations. As soon as each discrimination is accomplished it becomes available for
eliciting a behaviour. A wide range of behaviours may occur ranging from reactions to the
event such as running away to descriptions of the experience of the event etc.

At different times after the event a person is able to relate different stories of what happened
depending upon the extent to which the event has been analysed. Dennett compares this
with a 'Cartesian Theatre' model of consciousness in which events suddenly appear on some
sort of mental screen and then disappear as quickly. He provides numerous examples to
show that events are analysed over a period of time rather than instantaneously.

Although Multiple Drafts is described as a model or theory of consciousness that differs
from other models, Dennett points out that even Descartes was aware that reactions to an
event could occur over a period of time with reflexes occurring first and judgements later.
What makes Multiple Drafts different is that Dennett, in different sections of Consciousness
Explained, either denies that normal conscious experiences actually occur or describes these
as emerging in some unspecified way from the sheer complexity of information processing
in the brain. His emergentism is clear when he defends the Multiple Drafts Model from
Searle's chinese room argument by saying of the critics: They just can't imagine how
understanding could be a property that emerges from lots of distributed quasi-understanding
in a large system (CE p439).

As an example of denial of conscious experience Dennett denies that there is any internal
experience of colour, instead he says that qualia in general are "mechanically accomplished
dispositions to react". This view originates in Dennett's belief in the method of
heterophenomenology in which narrative is thought to be the most crucial tool for
investigating consciouness. However, Dennett does not deny conscious experience (see

The origin of this operationalist appoach can be seen in Dennett's immediately earlier work.
Dennett (1988) redefines consciousness in terms of access consciousness alone, he argues
that "Everything real has properties, and since I don't deny the reality of conscious
experience, I grant that conscious experience has properties". Having related all
consciousness to properties he then declares that these properties are actually judgements of
properties. He considers judgements of the properties of consciousness to be identical to the
properties themselves. He writes:

"The infallibilist line on qualia treats them as properties of one's experience one cannot in principle


misdiscover, and this is a mysterious doctrine (at least as mysterious as papal infal libility) unless we
shift the emphasis a little and treat qualia as logical constructs out of subjects' qualia-judgments: a
subject's experience has the quale F if and only if the subject judges his experience to have quale

Having identified "properties" with "judgement of properties" he can then show that the
judgements are insubstantial, hence the properties are insubstantial and hence the qualia are
insubstantial or even non-existent. Dennett concludes that qualia can be rejected as non-

"So when we look one last time at our original characterization of qualia, as ineffable, intrinsic,
private, directly apprehensible properties of experience, we find that there is nothing to fill the bill. In
their place are relatively or practically ineffable public properties we can refer to indirectly via
reference to our private property-detectors-- private only in the sense of idiosyncratic. And insofar as
we wish to cling to our subjective authority about the occurrence within us of states of certain types
or with certain properties, we can have some authority--not infallibility or incorrigibility, but something
better than sheer guessing--but only if we restrict ourselves to relational, extrinsic properties like the
power of certain internal states of ours to provoke acts of apparent re- identification. So contrary to
what seems obvious at first blush, there simply are no qualia at all. " (Dennett 1988)

This identification of qualia with judgements rather than experience is the key to the
Multiple Drafts Model, once accepted there is only a need to explain behaviour rather than
personal experience itself.

The origin of this identification of qualia with judgements can be seen in Consciousness
p407-408. Dennett considers the experiences of someone looking at the world,
and describes his idea of the relationship between conscious experience, mind and

"It seemed to him, according to the text, as if his mind - his visual field - were filled with intricate
details of gold-green buds and wiggling branches, but although this is how it seemed this was
an illusion. No such "plenum" ever came into his mind; the plenum remained out in the world
where it didn't have to be represented, but could just be. When we marvel, in those moments of
heightened self-consciousness, at the glorious richness of our conscious experience, the
richness we marvel at is actually the richness of the world outside, in all its ravishing detail. It
does not "enter" our conscious minds, but is simply available"

For Dennett minds have no "plenum", no space with objects in it, the plenum is things
outside the mind. Dennett considers mind to be processes. In his imaginary dialogue with
'Otto' in Consciousness Explained Dennett has Otto say "Are you denying then that
consciousness is a plenum?" to which he replies "Yes indeed. That's part of whatI am
denying. Consciousness is gappy and sparse, and doesn't contain half of what people think
is there!". (CE p366). Unfortunately Dennett's assertion is difficult to understand because
even half a plenum is a plenum, perhaps his remarks given above that 'conscious experience'
has a plenum but 'mind' does not, explain his equivocation. More than one thing at an
instant defines a space or "plenum" so the denial of a plenum would seem to be equivalent
to denying that conscious experience exists.


Dennett makes a sharp distinction between information in the world and information in the
brain. The information in the world seems to be allowed to be a plenum that can enter
conscious experience but ceases to be a plenum in the mind. In contrast, according to
Dennett the information in the brain is a "logical space":

"So we do have a way of making sense of the idea of phenomenal space - as a logical space.
This is a space into which or in which nothing is literally projected; its properties are simply
constituted by the beliefs of the (heterophenomenological) subject."

Although how a "logical space" differs from a real space if it contains several things at an
instant is not explained and how this "logical space" appears like phenomenal space at each
instant is also not covered.

Dennett also attacks "Cartesian materialism" which he defines very precisely as the idea that
there is a Cartesian theatre in the brain:

Lets call the idea of such a centered locus in the brain Cartesian materialism, since its the view
you arrive at when you discard Descarte's dualism but fail to discard the imagery of a central
(but material) Theater where "it all comes together". The pineal gland would be one candidate
for such a Cartesian Theater, but there are others that have been suggested - the anterior
cingulate, the reticular formation, various places in the frontal lobes. Cartesian materialism is the
view that there is a crucial finish line or boundary somewhere in the brain, marking a place
where the order of arrival equals the order of "presentation" in experience because what
happens there is what you are conscious of."(CE p107)

It seems that Dennett is unaware of earlier uses of the term "Cartesian materialism"
meaning the concept that the mind is in the brain and co-opts the term for his own use.

Dennett(1998) describes consciousness as distributed in time and space: "Consciousness
doesn't have to happen at an instant; it is much better to think of it as distributed in both
space and time." but, unlike Descartes, Broad or Whitehead uses an early materialist
conception of time to describe it.


Daniel C Dennett. (1988). Quining Qualia. in A. Marcel and E. Bisiach, eds, Consciousness
in Modern Science, Oxford University Press 1988. Reprinted in W. Lycan, ed., Mind and
Cognition: A Reader, MIT Press, 1990, A. Goldman, ed. Readings in Philosophy and
Cognitive Science, MIT Press, 1993. http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/quinqual.htm

Dennett, D. C., 1998, The Myth of Double Transduction in S. R. Hameroff , A. W.
Kaszniak, and A. C. Scott, eds., Toward a Science of Consciousness, II , Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press/A Bradford Book, pp97-107.

Daniel C Dennett. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Little, Brown & Co. USA. Available
as a Penguin Book.

Dennett, D. and Kinsbourne, M. (1992) Time and the Observer: the Where and When of
Consciousness in the Brain. (1992) Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15, 183-247, 1992.
Reprinted in The Philosopher's Annual, Grim, Mar and Williams, eds., vol. XV-1992, 1994,
pp. 23-68; Noel Sheehy and Tony Chapman, eds., Cognitive Science, Vol. I, Elgar, 1995,


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