Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Questioning Dennett's narrative self

I've spent part of this week thinking about Daniel Dennett's account of the self as narrative and, at the moment, am reading Roger Scruton's The Face of God, where he deals with accounts of the self as a perspective, inspired by Thomas Nagel.

Thinking about this recalls a puzzle that I have long had about Dennett's account of both the self—to which I am sympathetic—and consciousness—less so. Roughly, he believes that the self is a narrative—a story or a web spun out of words. I like this idea. It is supposed to be authorless, that is, he does not think there is some particular faculty or authority or homunculus that is putting the narrative together. I can understand this idea. It is as if it were a story being written by committee or better one written as a party game, with each person adding a line or two. 

But, here I start to get confused. The narrative self, like the web of a spider or the dam of a beaver or the bower of a male bower bird, is supposed to be part of a survival strategy. It is spun as a presentation and representation of my____ (I hesitate to say "self") to make sense of my____ and to make my____ understood to others. This mutual understanding is necessary for success: for planning, for cooperation, for mating, etc. 

But this means that there is something that must understand it. What is this thing? It seems that it has to be a thing with a perspective. I can understand that the system—like the termites in a termite mound, says Dennett—creates the narrative without any guiding intelligence, but it presents the narrative to something. And, it seems that it is this something for which the narrative is the strategy.

Again, he compares the narrative self to a blip on a radar screen: a representation of the location of a boat that allows the captain of the boat to steer it successfully. But, in that sort of case, it is the boat (and the captain, really) who matter, not the blip. The blip is a tool for the captain in his project of protecting the boat. If the narrative is a strategy, isn't the thing for which it is the strategy, i.e., the audience to whom the narrative is presented the thing about which we are concerned? And, since, unlike the case of the termite mound, there is a perspective had by that thing, isn't that really what we mean by the self?

And, once we are there, why not think whatever has the perspective is also the selector of the bits of the narrative, the thing that decides to include and exclude items from it—as he thinks the narrative is edited but without an editor? Why not just then go to a full blown self?

There are, I think, similar issues in the account of a non-centralized consciousness.

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