Are the Christian and Muslim Gods the same? Why not settle this in short order with a nice, crisp, Indiscernibility argument? To wit,
a. If x = y, then x, y share all intrinsic properties. (A version of the Indiscernibility of Identicals) b. The God of the Christians and that of the Muslims do not share all intrinsic properties: the former is triune while the latter is not. Therefore c. The God of the Christians is not identical to that of the Muslims.
Not so fast!
With no breach of formal-logical propriety one could just as easily run the argument in reverse, arguing from the negation of (c) to the negation of (b). They are the same God, so they do share all intrinsic properties!
But then what about triunity? One could claim that triunity is not an intrinsic property. A Muslim might claim that triunity is a relational property, a property that involves a relation to the false beliefs of Christians. In other words, triunity is the relational property of being believed falsely by Christians to be a Trinity.
Clearly, a relational property of this sort cannot be used to show numerical diversity. Otherwise, one could 'show' that the morning and evening 'stars' are not the same because Shlomo of Brooklyn believes of one that it is a planet but of the other than it is a star.
Now consider a 'mind' argument.
a. If x = y, then x, y share all intrinsic properties. (A version of the Indiscernibility of Identicals) b*. This occurrent thinking of Venus and its associated brain state do not share all intrinsic properties: my mental state is intentional (object-directed) whereas my brain state is not. Therefore c*. This occurrent thinking of Venus is not identical to its associated brain state.
Not so fast! A resolute token-token mind-brain identity theorist will run the argument in reverse, arguing from the negation of (c*) to the negation of (b*).
But then what about intentionality? The materialist could claim that intentionality is not an intrinsic property, but a relational one. Taking a page from Daniel Dennett, he might argue that intentionality is a matter of ascription: nothing is intrinsically intentional. We ascribe intentionality to what, in itself, is non-intentional. So in reality all there is is the brain state. The intentionality is our addition.
Now Dennett's ascriptivist theory of intentionality strikes me as absurd: it is either viciously infinitely regressive, or else viciously circular. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the infinite regress is benign. Can I show that it is not without begging the question?
Question for the distinguished MavPhil commentariat: Are there good grounds here for solubility-skepticism when it comes to philosophical problems?
Much as I disagree with Daniel Dennett on most matters, I agree entirely with what he says in the following passage:
I deplore the narrow pragmatism that demands immediate social utility for any intellectual exercise. Theoretical physicists and cosmologists, for instance, may have more prestige than ontologists, but not because there is any more social utility in the satisfaction of their pure curiosity. Anyone who thinks it is ludicrous to pay someone good money to work out the ontology of dances (or numbers or opportunities) probably thinks the same thing about working out the identity of Homer or what happened in the first millionth of a second after the Big Bang. (Dennett and His Critics, ed. Dahlbom, Basil Blackwell 1993, p. 213. Emphasis in original.)
I would put the point in stronger terms and go Dennett one better. Anyone who thinks that intellectual inquiry has value only if it has immediate or even long-term social utility is not only benighted, but is also a potential danger to free inquiry.
One of my favorite examples is complex numbers. A complex number involves a real factor and an imaginary factor i, where i= the square root of -1. Thus a complex number has the form, a + bi where a is the real part and bi is the imaginary part.
One can see why the term 'imaginary' is used. The number 1 has two square roots, 1 and -1 since if you square either you get 1. But what is the square root of -1? It can't be 1 and it can't be -1, since either squared gives a positive number. So the imaginary i is introduced as the square root of -1. Rather than say that negative numbers do not have square roots, mathematicians say that they have complex roots. Thus the square root of -9 = 3i.
Now to the practical sort of fellow who won't believe in anything that he can't hold in his hands and stick in his mouth, this all seems like idle speculation. He demands to know what good it is, what it can used for. Well, the surprising thing is is that the theory of complex numbers which originated in the work of such 16th century Italian mathematicians as Cardano(1501 - 1576) and Bombelli (1526-1572) turned out to find application to the physical world in electrical engineering. The electrical engineers use j instead of i because i is already in use for current.
Just one example of the application of complex numbers is in the concept of impedance. Impedance is a measure of opposition to a sinusoidal electric current. Impedance is a generalization of the concept of resistance which applies to direct current circuits. Consider a simple direct current circuit consisting of a battery, a light bulb, and a rheostat (variable resistor). Ohm's Law governs such circuits: I = E/R. If the voltage E ('E' for electromotive force) is constant, and the resistance R is increased, then the current I decreases causing the light to become dimmer. The resistance R is given as a real number. But the impedance of an alternating current circuit is given as a complex number.
Now what I find fascinating here is that the theory of complex numbers, which began life as something merely theoretical, turned out to have application to the physical world. One question in the philosophy of mathematics is: How is this possible? How is it possible that a discipline developed purely a priori can turn out to 'govern' nature? It is a classical Kantian question, but let's not pursue it.
My point is that the theory of complex numbers, which for a long time had no practical (e.g., engineering) use whatsoever, and was something of a mere mathematical curiosity, turned out to have such a use. Therefore, to demand that theoretical inquiry have immediate social utility is shortsighted and quite stupid. For such inquiry might turn how to be useful in the future.
But even if a branch of inquiry could not possibly have any application to the prediction and control of nature for human purposes, it would still have value as a form of the pursuit of truth. Truth is a value regardless of any use it may or may not have.
Social utility is a value. But truth is a value that trumps it. The pursuit of truth is an end in itself. Paradoxically, the pursuit of truth as an end in itself may be the best way to attain truth that is useful to us.
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.
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.
Dennett is so alienated from his own nature as a conscious, thinking being that he denies qualia and holds an ascriptivist theory of intentionality. It is amazing how, in the grip of a theory, one can bring oneself to deny the self-evident.
One of the striking features of Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking 2006) is that Dennett seems bent on having a straw man to attack. This is illustrated by his talk of the "deformation" of the concept of God: "I can think of no other concept that has undergone so dramatic a deformation." (206) He speaks of "the migration of the concept of God in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) away from concrete anthropomorphism to ever more abstract and depersonalized concepts." (205)
Why speak of deformation rather than of reformation, transformation, or refinement? Dennett's view is that the "original monotheists" thought of God as a being one could literally listen to, and literally sit beside. (206) If so, the "original monotheists" thought of God as a physical being: "The Old Testament Jehovah, or Yahweh, was quite definitely a super-man (a He, not a She) who could take sides in battles, and be both jealous and wrathful." (206, emphasis in original). The suggestion here is that monotheism in its original form, prior to deformation, posited a Big Guy in the Sky, a human being Writ Large, something most definitely made in the image of man, and to that extent an anthropomorphic projection.
What Dennett is implying is that the original monotheistic conception of God had a definite content, but that this conception was deformed and rendered abstract to the point of being emptied of all content. Dennett is of course assuming that the only way the concept of God could have content is for it to have a materialistic, anthropomorphic content. Thus it is not possible on Dennett's scheme to interpret the anthropomorphic language of the Old Testament in a figurative way as pointing to a purely spiritual reality which, as purely spiritual, is neither physical nor human. Dennett thereby simply begs the question against every sophisticated version of theism.
Dennett seems in effect to be confronting the theist with a dilemma. Either your God is nothing but an anthropomorphic projection or it is is so devoid of recognizable attributes as to be meaningless. Either way, your God does not exist. Surely there is no Big Guy in the Sky, and if your God is just some Higher Power, some unknowable X, about which nothing can be said, then what exactly are you affirming when you affirm that this X exists? Theism is either the crude positing of something as unbelievable as Santa Claus or Wonder Woman, or else it says nothing at all.
Either crude anthropomorphism or utter vacuity. Compare the extremes of the spectrum of positions I set forth in Anthropomorphism in Religion.
Dennett's Dilemma -- to give it a name -- is quite reasonable if you grant him his underlying naturalistic and scientistic (not scientific) assumptions, namely, that there is exactly one world, the physical world, and that (future if not contemporary) natural science provides the only knowledge of it. On these assumptions, there simply is nothing that is not physical in nature. Therefore, if God exists, then God is physical in nature. But since no enlightened person can believe that a physical God exists, the only option a sophisticated theist can have is to so sophisticate and refine his conception of God as to drain it of all meaning. And thus, to fill out Dennett's line of thought in my own way, one ends up with pablum such as Tillich's talk of God as one "ultimate concern." If God is identified as the object of one's ultimate concern, then of course God, strictly speaking, does not exist. Dennett and I will surely agree on this point.
But why should we accept naturalism and scientism? It is unfortunately necessary to repeat that naturalism and scientism are not scientific but philosophical doctrines with all the rights, privileges, and liabilities pertaining thereunto. Among these liabilities, of course, is a lack of empirical verifiability. Naturalism and scientism cannot be supported scientifically. For example, we know vastly more than Descartes (1596-1650) did about the brain, but we are no closer than he was to a solution of the mind-body problem. Neuroscience will undoubtedly teach us more and more about the brain, but it takes a breathtaking lack of philosophical sophistication — or else ideologically induced blindness — to think that knowing more and more about the physical properties of a lump of matter will teach us anything about consciousness, the unity of consciousness, self-conciousness, intentionality, and the rest.
This is not the place to repeat the many arguments against naturalism. Suffice it to say that a very strong case can be brought against it, a case that renders its rejection reasonable. (See J. P. Moreland's The Recalcitrant Imago Dei for one case against it.) Dennett's reliance on naturalism is thus dogmatic and uncompelling. Indeed, when he pins his hopes on future science and confesses his faith that there is nothing real apart from the system of space-time-matter, he makes moves analogous to the moves the theist makes who goes beyond what he can claim to know to affirm the existence of a spiritual reality within himself and beyond himself.
Dennett needs to give up the question-begging and the straw-man argumentation. His talk of the "deformation" of the God concept shows that he is unwilling to allow what he would surely allow with other subject-matters, namely, the elaboration of a more adequate concept of the subject-matter in question. Instead, he thinks that theists must be stuck with the crudest conceptions imaginable. Thinking this, he merely projects his own crude materialism into them.
Genuine religion is ongoing, open-ended and (potentially) self-correcting. It is more quest than conclusions. We don't hold it against science that its practioners contradict each other over time and at times. That is because we understand that science is an ongoing project, open-ended and self-correcting. That is the way we should treat religion as well. If you protest that there are huge differences between religion and science and that the latter has been highly successful in securing consensus while the former has not, I will simply agree with you and chalk that up to the great difference in their respective subject-matters.
It is no surprise that natural science secures consensus: it has available to it the touchstone of sense experience. We all have sense organs, while the same cannot be said of moral and spiritual 'organs.'
Daniel Dennett is a compatibilist: he holds that determinism and free will are logically compatible. (Compare Dennett's position to Coyne's hard determinism and free will illusionism.) On p. 134 of Freedom Evolves (Penguin, 2003), Dennett considers the following incompatibilist argument. It will be interesting to see how he responds to it.
1. If determinism is true, whether I Go or Stay is completely fixed by the laws of nature and events in the distant past. 2. It is not up to me what the laws of nature are, or what happened in the distant past.
3. Therefore, whether I Go or Stay is completely fixed by circumstances that are not up to me.
4. If an action of mine is not up to me, it is not free (in the morally important sense).
5. Therefore, my action of Going or Staying is not free.
Dennett considers the above argument to be fallacious: "it commits the same error as the fallacious argument about the impossibility of mammals." (135) The 'mammals argument' is given on p. 126 and goes like this (I have altered the numbering to prevent confusion):
6. Every mammal has a mammal for a mother. 7. If there have been any mammals at all, there have been only a finite number of mammals.
8. But if there has been even one mammal, then by (6), there have been an infinity of mammals, which contradicts (7), so there can't have been any mammals. It's a contradiction in terms.
The two arguments, says Dennett, "commit the same error." He continues:
Events in the distant past were indeed not "up to me," but my choice now to Go or Stay is up to me because its "parents" -- some events in the recent past, such as the choices I have recently made -- were up to me (because their parents were up to me), and so on, not to infinity, but far enough back to give my self enough spread in space and time so that there is a me for my decisions to be up to! The reality of a moral me is no more put in doubt by the incompatibilist argument than is the reality of mammals. (135-136)
It is clear that the 'mammals argument' goes wrong since we know that there are mammals. There are mammals even though there is no Prime Mammal nor an infinite regress of mammals. Gradual evolutionary changes from reptiles through intermediary therapsids led eventually to mammals. Thus mammals evolved from non-mammals. Dennett wants to say the same about events that are 'up to me.' Events before my birth were not up to me, but some events now are up to me since they are the causal descendants of acts that were up to me. Dennett seems to be saying that events that are up to a person, and thus free in a sense to support attributions of moral responsibility, have gradually evolved from events that were not up to a person, and hence were unfree. Freedom evolves from unfreedom.
This is a creative suggestion, but what exactly is wrong with the above consequence argument? I see what is wrong with the 'mammals argument': (6) is false. But which premise of the incompatibilist argument is false? The premises are plausible and there is no error in logic. If the error is the same as the one in the 'mammals argument,' as Dennett say, what exactly is this error? Presumably, the error is the failure to realize that the property of being up to me is an emergent property. So is Dennett rejecting premise (1)?
But the truth of (1) is merely a consequence of the definition of 'determinism.' Since Dennett does not reject determinism, it is quite unclear to me what exactly is wrong with the incompatibilist argument. The analogy between the two arguments is murky, and I fail to see what exactly is wrong with the incompatibilist argument. Which premise is to be rejected? Which inference is invalid? Talk of freedom evolving is too vague to be helpful. Or am I being too kind? The notion that freedom evolves from unfreedom is perhaps better described as inconceivable, as inconceivable as mind emerging from "incogitative Matter" in Locke's memorable phrase.
To answer the title question we need to know what we mean by 'explain' and how it differs from 'explain away.'
1. An obvious point to start with is that only that which exists, or that which is the case, can be explained. One who explains the phenomenon of the tides in terms of the gravitational effect of the moon presupposes that the phenomenon of the tides is a genuine phenomenon. One cannot explain the nonexistent for the simple reason that it is not there to be explained. One cannot explain why unicorns run faster that gazelles for the simple reason that there is no such explanandum. So if consciousness is to be explained, it must exist.
2. A second point, equal in obviousness unto the first, is that a decent explanation cannot issue in the elimination of the explanandum, that which is to be explained. You cannot explain beliefs and desires by saying that there are no beliefs and desires. A successful explanation cannot be eliminativist. It cannot 'explain away' the explanandum. To explain is not to explain away.
3. Summing up (1) and (2): the very project of explanation presupposes the existence of the explanandum, and success in explanation cannot result in the elimination of the explanandum.
4. Daniel Dennett points out that there can be no explanation without a certain 'leaving out': "Leaving something out is not a feature of failed explanations, but of successful explanations." (Consciousness Explained, 1991, p. 454.) Thus if I explain lightning as an atmospheric electrical discharge, I leave out the appearing of the lightning to lay bare its reality. That lightning appears in such-and-such a way is irrelevant: I want to know what it is in reality, what it is in nature apart from any observer. The scientist aims to get beyond the phenomenology to the underlying reality.
5. It follows that if consciousness is to be explained, it must be reduced to, or identified with, something else that is observer-independent. Dennett puts this by saying that "Only a theory that explained conscious events in terms of unconscious events could explain consciousness at all." (454) For example, if your explanation of pain in terms of C-fibers and Delta A-fibers (or whatever) still contains the unreduced term 'pain,' then no satisfactory explanation has been achieved. There cannot be a "magic moment" in the explanation when a "miracle occurs" and unconscious events become conscious. (455)
6. Now if a successful explanation must explain conscious events in terms of unconscious events, then I hope I will be forgiven for concluding that consciousness CANNOT be explained. For, as I made clear in #2 above, a successful explanation cannot issue in the elimination of that which is to be explained. In the case of the lightning, there is a reduction but not an elimination: lightning is reduced to its observer-independent reality as electrical discharge.
Now suppose you try the same operation with the sensory qualia experienced when one observes lightning: the FLASH, the JAGGED LINE in the sky, followed by the CLAP of thunder, etc. You try to separate the subjective appearance from the observer-independent reality. But then you notice something: reality and appearance of a sensory quale coincide. Esse est percipi. The being of the quale is identical to its appearing. This is what John Searle means when he speaks of the "first person ontology" of mental data.
7. It follows from #6 that if one were to explain the conscious event in terms of unconscious events as Dennett recommends, the explanation would fail: it would violate the strictures laid down in #2 above. The upshot would be an elimination of the datum to be explained rather than an explanation of it. To reiterate the obvious, a successful explanation cannot consign the explanandum to oblivion. It must explain it, not explain it away.
8. I conclude that consciousness cannot be explained, given Dennett's demand that a successful explanation of consciousness must be in terms of unconscious events. What he wants is a reduction to the physical. He wants that because he is convinced that only the physical exists. But in the case of consciousness, such a reduction must needs be an elimination.
9. To my claim that consciousness cannot be explained, Dennett has a response: "But why should consciousness be the only thing that cannot be explained? Solids and liquids and gases can be explained in terms of things that are not solids, and liquids, and gases. . . . The illusion that consciousness is the exception comes about, I suspect, because of a failure to understand this general feature of successful explanation." (455)
Dennett's reasoning here is astonishingly weak because blatantly question-begging. He is arguing:
A. It is a general feature of all successful explanations that F items be explained in terms of non-F items B. Conscious items can be explained Ergo C. Conscious items can be explained in terms of nonconscious items.
(B) cannot be asserted given what I said in #6 and #7. I run the argument in reverse, arguing from the negation of (C) to the negation of (B): conscious items such as pains are irreducible.
10. Recall from #4 that Dennett said that successful explanations must leave something out. But in the case of a conscious item like a pain, what is left out when we explain it is precisely what we needed to explain! For what is left out is precisely the sensory quale, the felt pain, the Feiglian "raw feel,' the Nagelian "what it is like."
11. Amazingly, on p. 455 he retracts what he said on the previous page about successful explanations having to leave something out. He now writes:
Thinking, mistakenly, that the explanation leaves something out, we think to save what otherwise would be lost by putting it back into the observer as a quale -- or some other "intrinsically" wonderful property. The psyche becomes the protective skirt under which all those beloved kittens can hide. There may be motives for thinking that consciousness cannot be explained, but, I hope I have shown, there are good reasons for thinking it can. (455)
Do you see how Dennett is contradicting himself? On p. 454 he states that a successful explanation must leave something out, which seems plausible enough. Then he half-realizes that this spells trouble for his explanation of consciousness -- since what is left out when we explain consciousness in unconscious terms is precisely the explanandum, consciousness itself! So he backpedals and implies that nothing has been left out, and suggests that someone who affirms the irreducibility of qualia is like a lady who hides her 'kwalia kitties' under her skirt where no mean neuroscientist dare stick his nose.
The whole passage is a tissue of confusion wrapped in a rhetorical trick. And that is the way his big book ends: on a contradictory note. A big fat load of scientistic sophistry.
12. To sum up. A successful explanation cannot eliminate the explanandum. That is nonnegotiable. So if we agree with Dennett that a successful explanation must leave something out, namely, our epistemic access to what is to be explained, then we ought to conclude that consciousness cannot be explained.
The mind-body problem divides into several interconnected subproblems. One concerns the relation of consciousness to its material substratum in the brain and central nervous system. A second concerns the aboutness or intentionality of (some) conscious states. A third problem is how a physical organism can be subject to the norms of rationality: How does an abstract argument-pattern such as Modus Tollens 'find purchase in' and 'govern' the transitions from one brain state to another? A fourth subproblem has to do with mental causation. Obviously, mental states are causally efficacious in bringing about physical states and other mental states. My desire for another cup of java is part of the causal chain that eventuates in the physical process of ingesting caffeine. Note also that knowledge of the physical world would presumably not be possible unless physical states could enter into the etiology of mental states. (I say 'presumably' because my formulation begs the question against idealism. And don't let anyone tell you that idealism is not a live option! The fact that it is not much discussed these days doesn't mean anything. Academic philosophers can be as fashion-conscious as teenage girls, and as worried about how they appear; idealism is currently not discussed in the more fashionable salons.)
Divide and conquer is one approach to any complex problem: separate out the subproblems and try to solve them separately. For example, separate the 'qualia' problem — which is part of the first subproblem mentioned — from the intentionality problem.
It might be that there is nothing specifically mental about intentionality at all. Perhaps intentionality is to be found in nature and in artifacts below the level of mind. If so, it may be possible to understand intentionality at the level of mind by working up to it 'from below.' It may be possible to build a 'gradualist bridge' from mindless intentionality to minded intentionality. One might then come to understand how intentionality in us has 'evolved.'
Now one very serious question is whether intentionality can be prised apart from consciousness and treated separately. This is a question Colin McGinn raises with great skill. It deserves a separate post. In this post, however, I will examine a passage from Daniel Dennett in which our man, having separated the qualia and intentionality problems, tries to get from mindless intentionality to the minded variety. The passage is from Kinds of Mind, p. 35:
Intentionality in the philosophical sense is just aboutness. [. . .] A lock and key exhibit the crudest form of intentionality; so do the opioid receptors in brain cells — receptors that are designed to accept the endorphin molecules that nature has been providing in brains for millions of years. [. . .] This lock-and-key variety of crude aboutness is the basic design element out of which nature has fashioned the fancier sorts of subsystems that may more deservedly be called representation systems, so we will have to to analyze the aboutness of these representations in terms of the (quasi?) aboutness of locks-and-keys in any case.
If I am thinking about Jude Acers, my thought is about him: he is not about my thinking. Generalizing, we can say that intentionality is an asymmetrical relation: if X stands in the intentional relation to Y, then Y does not stand in the intentional relation to X. (Brentano rightly pointed out long ago that intentionality is not a relation, strictly speaking, but ein Relativliches, something relation-like; but this nuance does not harm my point.)
Now in Dennett's example, is the lock about the key or the key about the lock? Well, there is a sense in which each is about the other. By studying the key, I can infer something about the lock, and by studying the lock I can infer something about the key. Each provides information about the other, and to a locksmith, a great deal of information.
There are many cases like this. Animal droppings on the trail provide information about what manner of critter has been by recently. Bear scat 'means' bears have been around. One sort of footprint 'indicates' that a coyote has passed by, another sort a mountain lion. The paw of a coyote provides information about the type of print it would leave if it were to leave a print, and a footprint provides information about the design of the paw. (Here 'design' just means pattern.)
So in the coyote case as in the lock and key case we have symmetrical aboutness: lock is about key, and key about lock; paw is about footprint, print is about paw. Or consider a compass needle. It is about magnetic North in the sense that one can infer where magnetic North is from the direction in which the the needle is pointing. But equally, one can infer from the location of magnetic North where a properly functioning compass needle will point.
The symmetry of this sort of aboutness — call it aboutness1 — gives us excellent reason to distinguish it from intentionality, or aboutness2, which is asymmetrical.
From this one can see that Dennett is completely mistaken in his claim that lock-and-key aboutness is a "form of intentionality." It is not a form of intentionality, and to think that it is is to confuse the the two senses of 'aboutness' lately distinguished. Dennett himself seems to be aware of this since at the end of the passage quoted he shifts his ground and speaks of "quasi-aboutness." This fudge is very telling. No doubt there is some likeness as between lock-and-key aboutness and intentional aboutness, but that proves nothing since everything is like everything else in some respect.
The point is that one gains no insight at all into how intentionality emerges — if it does emerge — by having it compared with locks and keys. Note also that to infer something about the lock from the key presupposes genuine intentionality on the part of the locksmith.
To sum up. To build his gradualist bridge, Dennett looks for a form of primitive intentionality below the level of mind or consciousness. He thinks he has found it in his lock and key example. But what I have just shown is that the symmetrical aboutness in the lock and key case is not, and cannot be, a form or type or species of intentionality — which is asymmetrical. The former merely resembles the genuine article. But if A resembles B, it does not follow that A is a form of B. A decoy duck resembles a duck but is not type of duck.
Daniel Dennett is a brilliant and flashy writer, but his brilliance borders on sophistry. (In this regard, he is like Richard Rorty, another writer who knows how to sell books.) As John Searle rightly complains, he is not above "bully[ing] the reader with abusive language and rhetorical questions. . . ." (The Mystery of Consciousness, p. 115) An excellent example of this is the way Dennett dismisses substance dualism in the philosophy of mind:
Dualism (the view that minds are composed of some nonphysical and utterly mysterious stuff) . . . [has]been relegated to the trash heap of history, along with alchemy and astrology. Unless you are also prepared to declare that the world is flat and the sun is a fiery chariot pulled by winged horses — unless, in other words, your defiance of modern science is quite complete — you won't find any place to stand and fight for these obsolete ideas. (Kinds of Mind, Basic Books, 1996, p. 24)
There is something intellectually dishonest about this passage since Dennett must know that it makes a travesty of the dualist's position. Yes, I know he studied under Gilbert Ryle and had phrases like "ghost in the machine" drummed into him at an impressionable age; but he is smart and well-connected and has had plenty of opportunity to be set straight. A substance dualist such as Descartes does not hold that minds are composed of some extraordinarily thin intangible stuff. The dualism is not a dualism of stuff-kinds, real stuff and spooky stuff. 'Substance' in 'substance dualism' does not refer to a special sort of ethereal stuff but to substances in the sense of individuals capable of independent existence whose whole essence consists in acts of thought, perception, imagination, feeling, and the like. Dennett is exploiting the equivocity of 'substance.'
Of course, it is very difficult for the materialistically minded to understand this because they cannot understand how anything could be real that is not material. This incapacity on their part leads them to construe the Cartesian dualist as talking about some sort of rarefied matter, some sort of spook stuff, a kind of immaterial matter if you will.
The incapacity in question also leads Dennett to the preposterous notion that a defender of dualism must stand in complete "defiance of modern science." (Note en passant that Descartes was among the founders of modern science.) But where in modern science is it established that everything that exists is material or physical in nature? Which branch of physics is competent to establish this meta-physical result? Observe the difference between the following two propositions:
1. Nothing in the physical world is in principle insusceptible of natural-scientific study.
2. Nothing is in principle insusceptible of natural-scientific study.
(1) is unobjectionable, but (2) presupposes that everything is physical. But that everything is physical is a metaphysical proposition that is neither entailed by any scientific result, nor presupposed by scientific investigation.
Since Dennett is the exact opposite of stupid, one has to conclude that he is either intellectually dishonest or simply in the grip of an ideology, the ideology of scientific naturalism. He seems to think that the substance dualist, with his supposed postulation of spook stuff, is in some sort of unscientific competition with a scientific approach to the mind. But he can make this blunder only by presupposing something obviously false, namely, that the progress of natural science has shown, or is showing, that everything is at bottom physical in nature.
1. Original/Derived Intentionality. All will agree that there is some sort of distinction to be made here. A map is not about a chunk of terrain just in virtue of the map's physical and geometrical properties. Consider the contour lines on a topographical map. The closer together, the steeper the terrain. But that closer together should mean steeper is a meaning assigned by the community of map-makers and map-users. This meaning is not intrinsic to the map qua physical object. Closer together might have meant anything, e.g., that the likelihood of falling into an abandoned mine shaft is greater.
So some things derive their referential and semantic properties from other things. What about these other things? I draw you a map so that you can find my camp. I use the Greek phi to mark my camp and the Greek psi to mark the camp of a heavily-armed crazy man that you are well advised to avoid. I intend that phi designate my camp. That intending (narrow sense) is a case of intentionality (broad sense). This is not in dispute. What is in dispute is whether my intending is a case of original or of derived intentionality.
If the latter, then a regress ensues which appears to be both infinite and vicious. But before discussing this further, I need to bring in another point.
I think it is important to distinguish the supernatural from the miraculous especially inasmuch as their conflation aids and abets the 'Dawkins Gang.' (That's my mocking moniker for Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and their fellow travellers.) Let's briefly revisit Daniel Dennett's definition of religions as
. . . social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought. This is, of course, a circuitous way of articulating the idea that a religion without God or gods is like a vertebrate without a backbone.(Breaking the Spell, p. 9, emphasis added)
A zombie is a critter that is physically and behaviorally exactly like a human being (or any being that we consider to be conscious) but lacks consciousness. That is a stipulative definition, so don't argue with me about it. Just accept it. I'll use 'zombie' to refer to human zombies and won't worry about cat zombies, etc.