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Dennettian Panpsychism: Multiple Drafts, All of Them Conscious

Abstract

I explore some surprising convergences between apparently opposite theories of consciousness—panpsychism (specifically constitutive panpsychism) and eliminativism (specifically Dennett’s multiple drafts model). I outline what a ‘Dennettian panpsychism’ might look like, and consider some of the challenging but fertile questions it raises about determinacy, holism, and subjecthood.

What unites constitutive panpsychism and the multiple drafts model is that both present the unitary consciousness we can report as resting atop a multiplicity of independent processes; both reject as misguided the search for a definite threshold between processing that is truly conscious and that which is merely preconscious. What divides them is that Dennett regards it as unreasonable to posit inaccessible consciousness, but reasonable to doubt or deny the existence of consciousness, while panpsychists think the opposite.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For my interpretation here, I am indebted to Akins (1996), who pulls out a number of key theses that constitute the multiple drafts model: the three most important for the discussion in this section are:

    • ‘There are no’fixed facts’ about the events and contents of conscious experience other than facts about probes (and bindings). […].

    • On a small time scale, there is no distinction, in principle, between a revision of perceptual input and a revision of memory. […].

    • There is no determinate time of occurrence for conscious events. (Akins 1996, pp.2–3).

  2. 2.

    On ‘fusionist’ panpsychism, defended by Seager (2010, 2017) and Mørch (2014), the phenomenal field of a human being is an indivisible whole, which arises when many simpler phenomenal elements come together in the right configuration but is not in any literal sense composed of those elements: once the whole exist, the parts are gone. A similar mutual exclusion between conscious parts and conscious whole is built into the Integrated Information theory (Oizumi et al., 2014; Tononi 2012), which is not panpsychist but close to it.

  3. 3.

    Dennett talks about the multiple drafts almost always in representational terms: he is interested in what seems to the subject to be happening, how the world is presented to them. Most panpsychists are not pan-representationalists: that is, they generally do not take all forms of consciousness to have representational content. This means that the account of determinacy and indeterminacy given here can’t go ‘all the way down’ to the level of molecules and atoms. But it is perfectly compatible with this to think of consciousness as mostly or always representational once we reach the level of neural subsystems.

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Acknowledgements

This paper expands on some themes first discussed over pages 222 to 225 of Roelofs, 2019. Its further development owes a great deal to helpful conversations with, among many others, Sascha Benjamin Fink, Krzysztof Dolega, Burke Hendrix, Donnchadh O’Conaill, and anonymous referees for Acta Analytica.

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Correspondence to Luke Roelofs.

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Roelofs, L. Dennettian Panpsychism: Multiple Drafts, All of Them Conscious. Acta Anal (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12136-021-00496-8

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Keywords

  • Consciousness
  • Panpsychism
  • Eliminativism
  • Multiple drafts
  • Dennett
  • Cognitive science