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Thursday, April 23, 2009


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One problem I have with usual discussions about Dennett's take on consciousness is that the 'Dennett denies consciousness' charge gets turned away like this:

"No he doesn't! He simply explains it, and says we're confused about what it really is! Nowhere does Dennett say he denies consciousness! Searle and the others are making a baseless charge!"

As you've illustrated, Dennett's denial comes across by how he 'explains' consciousness, and insisting he's left nothing out. That combination is where the charge gets leveled - Dennett doesn't have to admit to denying consciousness for the claim to have force. So I'm appreciative of these illustrations.

J.L. Austin would be a household name if he had entitled his influential 1946 paper “the Zombie Problem” instead of the “Other Minds”. Some of his disciples, including the lesser Wisdom, made this topic a philosophical cause celebre in the 60’s. Searle came visiting and launched his career dueling with the OL’s. This is where his “naturalism” developed.

In 1975 grad students and young professors renamed this issue “the Dating Problem” or “the Stepford Problem” , after a soon-to-be-cult movie. Privately, we preferred to the frame it this way: how could we know whether the attractive young things we were all addicted to dating had any interior life. Many colleagues sincerely believed they had been on dates with attractive Stepfords=zombies.

My utterly ad hominem explanation of his Dennett’s denial of consciousness looks to his dating experiences in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Some of us became solipsists, but Dennett just took the next step and decided that even the self-ascription of consciousness was suspect.

I hope this clarifies things from a historical perspective.

I read Searle's book last year and agree. He really demolishes Dennett, and you could tell from Dennett's responses to his review that he was pissed.

A lot of evolutionary biologists aren't exactly wowed either by Dennett's deification of natural selection in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

That said, I've had some cordial correspondence with him in the past.

Most of us have had the experience of performing some routine task while thinking about something else, only to realize at some point that we had completed the task. Take away the part that was "thinking about something else" and you've got your 'zombie.' Or perhaps your 'animal soul.'

From the discussion here, it seems that Dennett is confusing How with What. Engineers sometimes make this error in design work and confuse the performance requirement [what the thing is supposed to do] with the design parameter [how the thing is supposed to do it].

Were consciouness an illusion, who, exactly, is it that is experiencing the illusion (or delusion)?

In agreeing with Searle on this point, I by no means endorse his own theory of the mind — which I find to be quite hopeless. To my mind, John Searle's great merit is that of critic.

I fully agree here. I loved Rediscovery of the Mind when I first read it in college. But even then it was obvious that his own position was the attempt to have his cake and eat it too. He's expanded things over the years, but the fundamental problems remain (IMO). He wants there to be the mental, wants it to be physical but keeps trying to say it isn't like any other theory.

The idea that there is no conscious experience is just wild to me. It seems the most easy to refute claim ever. It's one thing to say consciousness isn't like what philosophers or folk theories claim. It's quite an other to claim that I'm not really having the experiences I'm clearly having. It's almost worse than brain in the vat thought experiments.

Dr. Vallicella, this is my first comment here so I sent you an email saying so.

While reading this post about Dennett's strict naturalism, I had a thought I haven't had before about that position.

I take it Dennett's naturalism is antithetical to the existence of all manner of abstract objects. Plato's Forms are a good enough example of that kind of object. But perhaps there's a resemblance between the ways these two apparently divergent views, Dennett's scientism and Plato's metaphysics, are structured. After all, both are intent on piercing the veil of appearances to arrive at what's really real. Through education Plato would like to reorient our eyes, as he puts it in the Republic, toward immutable truth, and so allow us to see this world as a poor copy of that transcendent realm. And Dennett believes that by educating ourselves about science, I suppose especially physics, chemistry, and biology, we are brought to see (though not really "see," as that's the whole point) that consciousness can't exist after all, our years of lived "experience" notwithstanding.

Both views struggle mightily against appearances and beckon us to be rigorous with ourselves so that we don't slip into thinking in terms of the popular conception of how things are. I wonder whether, when doing philosophy, there is wisdom in approaching with skepticism those views which pretend to demolish our apprehensions and experiences. More basically, I wonder whether, a priori, we should expect our philosophical conclusions to "save the appearances," qualify and explain them to some degree, or demolish them after all. Perhaps it makes sense to state from the outset that when evaluationg positions one will only accept so much undercutting of how things appear, and that one equally won't accept as final or conclusive mere descriptions or reports of appearances.

A new little book called Naturalism by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro has a chapter against strict naturalism and eliminativism and all that.


Good comment. You are getting at a tension between philosophy as metaphysics, as the attempt to penetrate appearances to arrive at ultimate reality as it is in itself, and philosophy as phenomenology, as the attempt to describe and understand the world, not as it is in itself, but as it is is its human involvement. Scientism could be understood as an extreme form of the metaphysical tendency. It suffers shipwreck on the reef of certain appearances that are simply undeniable.

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