Sunday, August 15, 2010

Meet my lawyer…

…he dreams of studying law someday.

And allow me to introduce my chauffeur.

He'll be learning how to drive next year or so.

Now, let's have a chat with Daniel Dennett.

He is a well-known materialist philosopher of mind.

In the following clip Dennett discusses consciousness and free will. He begins by saying, "Most people think consciousness––whatever it is––is just supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," by which he means that consciousness "is so wonderful, wonderful, wonderful" that we must divide the world into conscious and non-conscious reality, the implication being that consciousness is too ineffable and mysterious for a reductive scientific explanation. Dennett says he understands why people think this way, admitting that consciousness is wonderful, "but it is not a miracle, and it isn't magic: it's a bunch of tricks." As he says at the end of this video, "What isn't there doesn't have to be explained. [Consciousness is] just not there."

For Dennett, the similarity between consciousness and stage magic is not a metaphor but an actual working model for how we fall for the illusion of consciousness. For instance, in his lecture, "The Magic of Consciousness", Dennett explicitly seeks to explain consciousness as a form of "brain magic." In that lecture he confesses that a "talisman" of his came from reading a book on street magic in India. In the book, the author recounts how, when he mentioned he was writing a book on magic, people frequently asked, "You mean real magic?" to which he would reply, "No, I mean parlor magic, stage magic." The author's point is that the kind of magic people want is "real magic," which can't be done, whereas the magic we enjoy watching––even though we know it's "fake magic"––is accomplished by mere tricks. Dennett's talismanic attachment to this paradox vis-à-vis consciousness and the philosophy of mind is that, just as when most people refer to "real magic" they mean magic that in fact can't be performed or explained by natural means, so when most people speak of "real consciousness" they are after something that can't be achieved or explained by any natural means.

In the clip below, Dennett notes that the very suggestion that consciousness is merely a cluster of brain tricks is disappointing and very offensive to many people, a veritable assault on their dignity. Dennett considers this umbrage a big mistake, since it blockades paths to real research by "holding out for more specialness than is really there." Dennett admits how hard it is for people to admit that "consciousness is an amazing collection of sort of mundane tricks in the brain."

These comments cover about the first two minutes of the clip, so you can watch them now if you like and then keep reading.

Dennett's disquisition on people's attachment to "real consciousness" is followed by his claim that the underlying motive for protecting "real consciousness" is the desire to preserve free will. Dennett, however, sees this as a non sequitur, since, on his account, "the kinds of free will worth having" can still be had on evolutionary naturalism. Some traditional notions of free will do turn out to be impossible, but, he asks, "Why do you want them?" He then proceeds to say that for billions of years "there was life but no free will… but now we have free will." Physics has not changed, Dennett says, for the emergence of free will has nothing to do with determinism or indeterminism. Rather, the "entirely naturalistic story" of how we came to have free will is based on a progressive accumulation of competencies. The cognitive competencies of a dolphin or of a chimpanzee are highly superior to those of a lobster, but human competencies are even more vastly superior to all others in the biological world. It is this power which sets humans aside from other species: we don't just act for reasons, but act for reasons which we represent to ourselves. Being able to represent our reasons and being able to respond to challenges to our reasons––"Why did you do that?"––grounds human responsibility.

And then the other shoe drops (at about 5'30"):

"Why? Because we don't just act for reasons; we act for reasons which we consciously represent to ourselves. And this is what gives us the power––and the obligation––to think ahead, to anticipate, to see the consequences of our action, to be able to evaluate those consequences in the light of what other people tell us, to share our wisdom with each other." (My italics.)

Allow me to introduce Mr. Consciousness.

He doesn't exist but he is what gives us the power to act rationally and live ethically.

According to Dennett, there is no such thing as "real consciousness" but we are really responsible and free because we "consciously" represent our own actions to ourselves. Insofar as Dennett presents himself as a Zen guru of the mind, this has got to be his most egregious koan. The immediate defense is of course that Dennett, and any other reductive materialist, is just using "conscious(ly)" as a "metaphor." This however only begs the question, since Dennett's entire viewpoint is based on the thesis that we ourselves unwittingly resort to "conscious experience" as magical metaphor for neuromuscular behavior simpliciter.

As I have noted again and again in the last few posts on these matters, those hostile to phenomenal consciousness as an irreducibly subjective and non-quantitative reality––and therefore hostile to it as an irremediable gap in an otherwise totally reductive, objectively scientific worldview––are sawing off the branch on which they sit to make their most conscious pontifications. As another example of this hamhandedness, consider how in this video (beginning about the 1st minute) Marvin "People Are Meat Machines" Minsky, in the very act of attempting to refute the immediacy, intensity, and vividness of phenomenal perception (of, say, blue! or red!), he invokes the reality of "red lights" and "colored patches [and] colored regions," which of course exemplify precisely the features of perception Minsky seeks to deny. Here Minsky is minced by his own word-mincing. His denial that we perceive blue! includes an assertion that we see blue matter, which is as hapless a gaffe as Dennett's deflation of consciousness based on conscious representation. Interestingly (at about 6'10"), Minsky likens our wonder at the mind to the same wonder we feel during magic shows. Once you know the trick, he says, then "the sense of wonder will go away." If we grant Aristotle's maxim that "it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize" (Metaphysics, I, i, 2), is it any wonder that such "philosophy" is inimical to coherent philosophizing? Call me shallow but all I can think of when I see Minsky is Gargamel. How fitting that both characters target blue! for deconstruction.

Not long ago I wrote a post on a major "intuition pump" Dennett deploys against non-reductive consciousness, but I think it's more economical to say that Dennett himself is a walking, talking intuition pump––a self-bilging pump, a mental vacuum propelled by the sheer emptiness which his own voice carves around him. Place Daniel "Ouroboros" Dennett in a well of profound issues and he will dredge out impressive verbiage, for quite a while, but ultimately he will shudder to a halt as he bilges his own coherence in one end and out the other. Since he lacks a tail to swallow I can only surmise that the reason Dennett can't see his own mind, much less anyone else's, is because his head is up his ass.


Crude said...

I always love this Galen Strawson quote whenever anyone plays the "consciousness is just an illusion!" card:

They are prepared to deny the existence of experience.' At this we should stop and wonder. I think we should feel very sober, and a little afraid, at the power of human credulity, the capacity of human minds to be gripped by theory, by faith. For this particular denial is the strangest thing that has happened in the whole history of human thought, not just the whole history of philosophy. It falls, unfortunately, to philosophy, not religion, to reveal the deepest woo-woo of the human mind. I find this grievous, but, next to this denial, every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green.

But, you know the replies, because they're so easy. There is no illusion without an agent for the illusion to appear to. No trick without a person who is tricked. And the only way for consciousness to be something that "matter does" is to make matter downright incredible stuff. Maybe (even probably) downright Aristotilean stuff.

Another quote, from Fodor: Anyhow, Strawson is right that the hard problem really is very hard; and I share his intuition that it isn’t going to get solved for free. Views that we cherish will be damaged in the process; the serious question is which ones and how badly.

Fodor's "we" is clearly "materialists". Though I don't think it's Strawson's "intuition" so much as his "blindingly obvious observation". And it probably explains why "materialist" and "naturalist" have seen such an explosion in redefinition over the years: Preparation for the inevitable.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Those are good quotations, Crude, did you get them from Dr. Feser's blog? I"ll root around for a proper citation. :)

Crude said...

No, not Feser's blog, I don't think. I may have been tipped off to Strawson by Feser originally though (I do recall him mentioning Strawson referring to Dennett-style materialism as "moonshine".)

Fodor's quote was from his review of Strawson's Consciousness and Its Place in Nature.

Strawson's quote was from Real Materialism.