6/20/11

Consciousness Explained

Our fundamental tactic of self-protection, self-control, and self-definition is not spinning webs or building dams, but telling stories, and more particularly concocting and controlling the story we tell others -- and ourselves -- about who we are. And just as spiders don't have to think, consciously and deliberately, about how to spin their webs, and just as beavers, unlike professional human engineers, do not consciously and deliberately plan the structures they build, we (unlike professional human storytellers) do not consciously and deliberately figure out what narratives to tell and how to tell them. Our tales are spun, but for the most part we don't spin them; they spin us. Our human consciousness, and our narrative selfhood, is their product, not their source.

These strings or streams of narrative issue forth as if from a single source --  not just in the obvious physical sense of flowing from just one mouth, or one pencil or pen, but in a more subtle sense: their effect on any audience is to encourage them to [try to] posit a unified agent whose words they are, about whom they are: in short, to posit a center of narrative gravity. Physicists appreciate the enormous simplification you get when you posit a center of gravity for an object, a single point relative to which all gravitational forces may be calculated. We heterophenomenologists appreciate the enormous simplification you get when you posit a center of narrative gravity for a narrative-spinning human body. Like the biological self, this psychological or narrative self is yet another abstraction, not a thing in the brain, but still a remarkably robust and almost tangible attractor of properties, the "owner of record" of whatever items and features are lying about unclaimed.

-Daniel Dennett
from Consciousness Explained