Literary Analysis of Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett

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About this sample

About this sample


Words: 1386 |

Pages: 3|

7 min read

Published: Nov 22, 2018

Words: 1386|Pages: 3|7 min read

Published: Nov 22, 2018

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Brain in a Vat
  3. Brain/Body dislocation
  4. New Body old Brain
  5. Computer Brain built
  6. Divergence of selves


What I want to do here is just itemize the points Dennett brought up, and then briefly describe each. This reading is one that ventures into a lot of areas regarding the idea of self. A discussion about this usually yields good clarity in class, but it is a bit trickier in written lecture form. I will try to keep it simple.

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Brain in a Vat

- Where am I

- Brain vs. Body transplant

- Interdependence of Brain/body relationship

- Body as perceptive device (window to the world)

- Brain vs. Mind distinction

- Point of View

In the beginning, Dennett is just setting the stage. He gets an offer to do this incredible scientific feat and as a scholar he can’t say no. Going through the operation, and being in the unique position of staring at his own brain, it makes him start to ask some basic questions. What is more important to a person’s identity and why? Is it the body or the brain? We are so physically oriented in the world, so much so for so many of us that we automatically associate physical identifiers as indicators of self. But we are smart enough to know that our brains house or thoughts and consciousness, and that seems to be crucial to determining, or even having the capacity to determine the location of self.

Some of us find that the self maybe lies in the ethereal space that connects the body and brain…or do we mean mind? What is the difference between the two? Are they the same, can a mind be dissected like a brain can, and if so, why say mind, and not brain? What else are we referring to when we say mind, and where is it? Does it take up space in the world? Lastly, he gets into another option, that of experience, of how we perceive the world, from our point of view. Maybe the self is not a tangible thing, maybe it is a phenomenon, and would that make it any less real?

Brain/Body dislocation

- Signal lag

- Immediate relocation of consciousness

- Loss of body

- Mainlining experience

He goes on his mission, and he encounters trouble along the way. First he notices the lag time, as he gets farther from the physical location of his brain. This would make sense, and maybe start to suggest physicality to the idea of self. But when the body shuts down his consciousness is said to have traveled immediately back to the brain’s location, seeming to defy physical parameters. So the idea, briefly, of a soul gets implied, something non-physical about who we are that does not require a body. And for some amount of time, Dennett is left in a dream-like state of awareness, bodiless, and “mainlining” experiences such as music, without the typical auditory apparatus, linked directly to that part of the brain. It would seem at this point that the body may be superfluous to the reality of self.

New Body old Brain

- Resemblance of physicality

- Ship builder analogy

- What must remain for “I” to remain

- Is this a new person

- The role of memory in identity (and the implications)

He gets a new body, one that resembles his old one, for practical purposes, to ease the shock no doubt. We might find this far-fetched, but remember that the story is not real, nor is it trying to argue for its realistic depiction. It is science fiction; only asking what if? Certainly, what is being suggested is not impossible, just beyond our current capacities. We stretch signals of information across space, we transplant organs daily; what about this is entirely impossible? But that is not the point. Philosophy is about questions, so let’s ask.

People have accidents, illnesses that change them drastically, beyond physical recognition, how different is that from the change in resemblance Dennett is now having with this new body? What if they told him that it is his body, it was recovered and badly damaged, and through great plastic surgery they were able to save it and bring back some of its original resemblance along the way. How would Dennett know any different? What comes to mind is what is referred to as the “ship builder analogy”.

I will bring it into modern times and talk about a car rather than a ship. If you own a car for many years then you replace a lot of parts, and it is conceivable that at some point, if you own the car long enough, you may have changed out every part, is it the same car? And if not, at what point did it cease to be the same car you purchased 20 years ago? Now apply that logic to our body, at what point given all the physical change we encounter, that as far as we know our cells are all different now than they were when we were born, what is it that maintains our identity exactly? Is it consciousness, memories, mind, soul, what if anything remains the constant among all the variables of our existence?

Computer Brain built

- Are there two Dennetts

- Ethical responsibility

- How does this effect personhood (identity)

- Materialism vs. Dualism

- What ought to be done (another self on the planet)

He comes to find out that they had a back-up plan for Dennett in case the mission failed. They had made an exact replica of his brain. It was so accurate that when he toggled the switch between the brains, he could sense absolutely no shift in self-awareness. Had they succeeded in building a conscious self? So it appeared. If this was indeed true then what does that imply about self-hood…that it is a physical construct, and that like all such things it can be reduced to an equation; the self may be a quantifiable entity.

At this point, Dennett is unsure of how to proceed, he does not need the back-up brain, but since he cannot discern between the two, he feels like shutting it off is like killing a person, himself! So he thinks about some options, about how if they were separated both would feel a rightful claim to the other one’s life, career, family, and yet they cannot both have those things. Eventually, he settles on keeping both brains connected to the same body, since he cannot distinguish between the two anyway. And then he removes the labels so that when he switches between the two, he will not know which is actually in charge, and he will not give one preference over the other. He believes this resolves everything he has had to endure in a fair and humane way.

Divergence of selves

- How did this happen

- What does it imply

- What might we conclude

- Overall perspective provided by Dennett

The story finishes with him addressing his audience, in a lecture hall somewhere, having recounted his incredible story and brought the crowd to the present state he is in. He brandishes the switch he has spoken about, and flips the switch to demonstrate to the crowd that there is no distinction between the two selves taking turns being in charge. To his surprise, the self that is switched into action suddenly takes over, complaining of its imprisonment, and promising the newly imprisoned self that he will go back to the scientists and have them separated right away and have new arrangements made that will be beneficial to both.

Now, when this occurred, some of you may have been lost as to what transpired. What I will do here is give you an example of the “implications” that I talk about with regard to analyzing philosophy, or doing the 4 Pillar Notes:

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If the dormant brain felt imprisoned, then it must have wanted to act differently than the active brain. But if they were identical, then they would have always chosen to act the same. They did not, so they must not have been identical. Now, the question is, in what way were they different? Did they diverge because they were made of different physical stuff, and so they aged differently, and grew dissimilar? Or, were the two never identical in the first place because either self is not quantifiable, or we do not yet know enough about identity to recreate a perfectly accurate formula of an individual? Those are the implications of Dennett’s divergent selves for you to contemplate.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Oliver Johnson

Cite this Essay

Literary Analysis of Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. (2018, November 05). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 3, 2023, from
“Literary Analysis of Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett.” GradesFixer, 05 Nov. 2018,
Literary Analysis of Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 3 Dec. 2023].
Literary Analysis of Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Nov 05 [cited 2023 Dec 3]. Available from:
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