The possibility of a science of consciousness Critical reflections on Dennett and Merleau-Ponty

  • A Olivier


In his latest book, entitled “Sweet dreams”, Daniel Dennett confirms and expands on his argument for a natural science of human consciousness. He dubs his view heterophenomenology: a third-person, scientific form of phenomenological description that can account for the most private and ineffable subjective experiences. A central part of his book consists of a
reinvention of Jackson's thought experiment about color blind scientist, Mary, who tries to figure out what color experience is like. I explore another variation of this thought experiment asking whether an informed but inexperienced Mary can really know what it is like to have sex. My contention is that while Dennett's third-person approach to consciousness is valid on an epistemic level, it fails ontologically. Mary does miss something if she knows all about but does not have experience of the real thing. The opposite goes for Merleau-Ponty whose first-person ontology does not account for third-person epistemology. The question is ultimately how far a science of consciousness is really possible. This paper enquires about the possibility of an approach that allows a scientific account of consciousness, specifically qualia, without dissolving the ontology of subjective experience. I suggest a possible direction that new work on the hard problem of consciousness might take.

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eISSN: 0258-0136