Consciousness as multiple drafts

Daniel C. Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, has kept me entertained and interested for a couple of days now. How could I refuse a book with that title? And Dennett–whose conversational writing style appears to toss off one idea after another in quick succession–actually stays mostly true to classic philosophical reasoning in his arguments as he endeavors to make claims for what consciousness is. He begins with phenomenology as one way to initiate the concatenation of empirical science (physics, biology, neurological research) with logic. He dispenses with Husserl and the early Phenomenologists but invents his own form–hyperphenomenology–breaking phenomena into three divisions and exploring each until he arrives at a way to destroy the long-held concept of the mind, hence consciousness, as “Cartesian Theatre,” and replace that model with a construction more biologically sound.

The book is far too complex to summarize, but the concept he develops that most appeals to me is what he calls the multiple drafts theory of consciousness. Dennett draws upon neurological and psychological research as well as past and current philosophical thinking to propose that what we term consciousness may consist of multiple narratives created through physical input, memory processing, and other processes that result in fraction-of-a-second “revisions” in thinking. Narratives! Revisions! As a writer, I can certainly relate to this idea. The theory of multiple drafts consciousness would explain many phenomena, such as the unreliability of eyewitnesses, the repression and re-constructing of traumatic experiences, the embellishment of stories (as Dennett puts it, “What I should have said at the party becomes what I said at the party”)…and it has examples in the way we “tell” fiction, movies, and family stories.

Currently, I am engaged in the work of revising dozens and dozens of poems. Many drafts. Many narratives, many layers. Subtle shifts in perspective or story or language or style–which version is the real me? All of them, across a continuum.

Derek Parfit’s Reasons & Persons suggests some of the same conclusions through a more traditional philosophical approach (harder to read than Dennett’s often-humorous prose which is geared more toward the non-philosopher and which employs considerable neurological and psychological research as part of its rational evidence).

Although these texts intrigue, and are convincing, they remain speculative. For me, the science aspects of the inquiry remove none of the mystery or delight I experience in terms of my own consciousness. Nor do they negate my sense of myself as individual, unique as to perspective, or whole in myself and in the cosmos. I know that many people resist the idea that consciousness is not soul, who feel that scientific research somehow diminishes human beings into–what? Fancy hardware for intelligent software? Automatons with the illusion of free will? Purposeless life forms? Robotic zombies with no moral bearings?


A continuum version of tao

Apparently, we desire awe; but knowledge doesn’t have to kill awe.

I find myself fascinated with the ideas posed by Douglas Hofstadter wherein he theorizes consciousness-as-continuum (see this post). People love to default to a black & white way of analysis, thinking, and judging, but everything in nature contradicts that concept. No doubt our brains, wired to make quick decisions using the simplest shortcuts, sieve out a great deal of content and then justify later (Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow covers this process in fascinating depth). It’s simply easier to think of balance as tao, perfectly harmonious black and white, or to sort people or objects or ideas into yes-or-no categories. But the distinctions are seldom so clear–there’s a continuum that stretches from the black to the white, as in the spectrum, as in the fringes of a forest or a meadow, as in the so-called races of human beings, as in places where societies and cultures meet and often intermingle, as in the coastline of the sea or a riparian environment. And all of those things are awesome, even miraculous.

In Dennett’s Chapter Five, “Multiple Drafts vs. the Cartesian Theater,” he offers this diagram:


dennett003It’s a proposed version of what happens when we think.

You will have to read the book to decipher this illustration; but I recognize in it the way I tell a story, think about a story, remember an event, record an experience, and the narrative method of the many kinds of stories (many genres, many media) that I love.

One thing it is not is straightforward. We have all those revisions to make, to layer our experiences with, to explore along the fringes of, and to find deeply miraculously awesome. Wading among my drafts now, I feel revitalized. These reflections and revisions are part of my Self as a conscious being in a physical and wonderful world.





8 comments on “Consciousness as multiple drafts

  1. I don’t like either set of paradigms for time in memory. We don’t remember time distinctly as a memory element. I see time as an aspect of a memory which may or may not be precise or tagged with ‘real time’ values. Memories are often referenced to time in the manner of came before this memory and after that memory.

    If each memory slice comes with a relative time we can hook any memory up in time order in any order we choose. Where the diagram shows experienced time as a meandering but sequential series I believe this is wrong. We create the sequence or time line as we remember thus time sequence is embedded in some aspect(s) of the memories themselves.

    Try creating a sequence of your memories from childhood. You’ll find you create the time line from the memories themselves without reference to an external timeline.


    • I left a great deal out of the summary of this book, and it is likely Dennett has honed his ideas quite a bit since 1992. As I understand it, and I may be interpreting it incorrectly, his suggestion is that thoughts occur in “parallels” (not meandering sequentials) and that the brain creates linkages (ie, we create time as well as time lines). This would result in what you’ve noticed–that the sequentiality is sort of cobbled together from the incomplete memories. What intrigues me as a writer is that we turn those slices of thought or parallel steams of mostly-random thought into narratives. These narratives then enable communication between human beings.

      Thanks for the comment!


  2. Fascinating stuff! The diagram is tantalizing. I’ve been thinking about time in poetry so this is great, thanks.


  3. […] Interestingly, this suggestion more or less jibes with the multiple-levels-of-self version of consciousness as theorized by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett. […]


  4. […] value to human beings in ways we are still discovering; see my previous posts here, here, here, and here (among others). I keep coming across claims for the significance of story in surprising […]


  5. […] this relates to the science of neurology, I return to the framework on consciousness proposed by Douglas Hofstadter in his book I Am a Strange […]


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