The following first appeared on 15 January 2006 at the old Powerblogs site. Here it is again, considerably reworked.
I saw Daniel Dennett's Sweet Dreams (MIT Press, 2005) on offer a while back at full price, but declined to buy it: why shell out $30 to hear Dennett repeat himself one more time? But the other day it turned up for $13 in a used bookstore. So I bought it, unable to resist the self-infliction of yet more Dennettian sophistry. What am I? A masochist? A completist? A compulsive consciousness and qualia freak?
The subtitle is "Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness." That raises the question of how there could even be philosophical obstacles to such a science. I am not aware that philosophers control the sources of funding for neuroscience projects. And what could a philosopher say that could stymie brain science?
But let's look at a passage:
If we are are to explain the conscious Subject, one way or another
the transition from clueless cells to knowing organizations of
cells must be made without any magic ingredients. This requirement
presents theorists with what some see as a nasty dilemma . . . . If
you propose a theory of the knowing Subject that describes whatever
it describes as like the working of a vacant automated factory --
not a Subject in sight -- you will seem to many observers to have
changed the subject or missed the point. On the other hand, if your
theory still has tasks for a Subject to perform, still has a need
for a Subject as witness, then . . . you have actually postponed
the task of explaining what needs explaining.
To me, one of the most fascinating bifurcations in the intellectual
world today is between those to whom it is obvious -- obvious --
that a theory that leaves out the Subject is thereby disqualified
as a theory of consciousness (in Chalmer's terms, it evades the
Hard Problem), and those to whom it is just as obvious that any
theory that doesn't leave out the Subject is disqualified. I submit
that the former have to be wrong. . . . (p. 145)
Dennett has done a good job of focusing the issue. On the one side, the eliminativists who hold that the only way to explain the conscious Subject is by explaining it away. On the other side, those who are convinced that one cannot explain a datum by denying its existence.
What we have here fundamentally is a deep philosophical dispute about the nature of explanation, and not a debate confined to the philosophy of mind. What's more, it is not a debate that is going to be resolved by further empirical research. Not all legitimate questions are empirical questions.
It ought to be self-evident that any explanation that consigns the explanandum (that which is to be explained) to the status of nonexistence is a failure as an explanation. Eliminativist moves are confessions of failure. Any genuine explanation of X presupposes (and so cannot eliminate) the
existence of X. One cannot explain something by explaining it away. Two related points:
1. One cannot explain what does not exist. One cannot explain why unicorns roam the Superstition Wilderness, or why the surface of the moon is perfectly smooth. There is nothing to explain. In the case of consciousness, however, there is something to explain. So it at least makes sense to attempt to explain consciousness.
2. An explanation that entails the nonexistence of the explanandum is no explanation at all.
Both (1) and (2) are analytic truths that simply unpack the concept of explanation.
I once heard a proponent of Advaita Vedanta claim that advaitins don't explain the world; they explain it away. Now it is surely dubious in the extreme to think of this insistent and troubling plural world of our ongoing everyday acquaintance as an illusion. Whatever its exact ontological status, it exists. If it didn't there would be nothing to explain or explain away. And if one were to explain it away, as one with Brahman, then one would have precisely failed to explain it.
What Dennet is maintaining about consciousness and the Subject is even worse. There is some vestige of sense in the claim that the world is an illusion. It makes sense, at least initially, to say that there is an Absolute Consciousness and that the world is its illusion. But it is utterly absurd to maintain that consciousness is an illusion. The very distinction between illusion and reality presupposes consciousness. In a world without consciousness, nothing would appear, and so nothing would appear
falsely. Necessarily, no consciousness, no illusions. Illusions prove the reality of consciousness.
This is a very simple point. It is an 'armchair' point. All you have to do is think to know that it is true. But neither its being 'armchair' nor its being simple is an argument against it. The law of non-contradiction is simple and 'armchair' too.
The denigration of a priori knowledge is part and parcel of the pseudophilosophy of scientism.
Since consciousness exists, the project of explaining it at least makes sense, by (1). By (2), an eliminativist explanation is no explanation at all.
The thing about consciousness is that the only way to explain it in terms satisfactory to a materialist is by denying its existence. It is to Dennett's 'credit' that he drives to the very end of this dead-end road, thereby showing that it is a dead-end.
My most rigorous demolition of Dennett's scientistic sophistry is in Can Consciousness be Explained? Dennett Debunked.
If Dennett were right, then we would all be zombies, including Dennett. (See Searle, Dennett, and Zombies.) But then there would be no consciousness to explain and to write fat books about.
The demand that consciousness be exhaustively explained in terms involving no tincture of consciousness is a demand that cannot be met. Explanation of what by whom to whom? Explanation is an inherently mind-involving notion. There are no explanations in nature. There is no way the science of matter can somehow close around the phenomena of mind and include them within its ambit. Science, like explanation, is inherently mind-involving.