Thursday, March 14, 2013

Consciousness unexplained

I find it difficult to write about Daniel Dennett.

Dennett, in case you have not had the opportunity to get to know his work, is a philosopher from Tufts University. Dennett is an atheist, and is one of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism-- along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.

Dennett's primary interest in philosophy is philosophy of the mind. He has written several books on the mind, including Consciousness Explained and The Intentional Stance.

So why do I find it so hard to write about Dennett? He is perhaps the most evasive and incoherent philosopher I have read. He rambles endlessly, and just as endlessly delights in bizarre conceptual constructs that serve only to obscure the topics he feigns to investigate. He is perhaps the most shameless sophist I have encountered, although Hume would give him a run.

Dennett, as you might imagine, is enamored of Darwin (he famously described Darwinism as "the best idea anybody ever had"), and his philosophy of mind is strictly materialist, to the extent that it is strictly coherent, which I will allow only for the purpose of discussing it.

He utterly denies the reality of qualia, which is the subjective experience of a sensation-- the "what it is like" to experience something. The feel of pain, the smell of coffee, the sight of red are each a quale. Qualia are notoriously difficult to explain materialistically. How can meat (the brain) "feel" anything. We can explain input, output, processing, behavior using material concepts of synapses and neurons, but how can we explain how it is that we feel something. No part of materialist science is subjective. Materialist science is objective, and seems incapable of explaining subjective experience. Dennett dismisses qualia rather abruptly as incoherent concepts, not really amenable or even worth philosophical investigation. This of course is convenient for a materialist, because it removes a huge philosophical obstacle to the materialist explanation for the mind. If qualia aren't real, that makes a materialist philosopher's job a lot easier.
Yet Dennett's dismissal of qualia, like Dennett, can't be taken too seriously.

Dennett still asks for novocain at the dentist, presumably.

Dennett takes the second bugbear of materialist philosophy of the mind just a little more seriously. Intentionality is the property of the mind that refers to the "aboutness" of a thought. Material things are, of course, themselves (philosophers love to say things like that), but they are not inherently "about" anything. Imagine an uninhabited world, with a seashore. Imagine that the waves arranged a few of the pebbles on the seashore in the shape of the word "Hi". If there were no minds in this uninhabited world, the rocks arranged as "Hi" wouldn't be "about" anything. They wouldn't mean anything. They would have no intentionality.

But in an inhabited world, rocks arranged as words might mean something, depending on the agent that arranged them. Perhaps it was a greeting made by a child playing on the beach before you arrived. Perhaps the arrangement was made by a mind.

In traditional terminology, intentionality is the mark of the mental. I've discussed intentionality in much more detail here.

Dennett's materialistic explanation for intentionality is, like his oeuvre, muddled, and he managed to get an entire book out of the muddle.

Succinctly, Dennett believes (of course) that intentionality can be explained in entirely materialist terms. He proposes that we assess things in our experience in terms of "stances", which are assumptions we make about them based on our experiences with them and on our survival needs vis a vi them. We assess inanimate objects via a physical stance, we assess designed objects via a designed stance, and we assess living things via an intentional stance, in which we attribute meaning and predictability to its behavior.

Although Dennett seems to believe that he has gone a long way to explain intentionality using materialist presuppositions, it should be fairly obvious that such hand-waving does nothing to explain how it is that a physical system-- a brain for instance-- could generate the "aboutness" that is the hallmark of the mind.

Dennett explains his agenda surprisingly candidly in Consciousness Explained:

"My fundamental strategy has always been the same: first, to develop an account of content that is independent of and more fundamental than consciousness-- an account of content that treats equally of all unconscious content-fixation (in brains, in computers, in evolution's recognition of properties of selected designs)-- ad second, to build an account of consciousness on that foundations.  First content, then consciousness. "(1)
Dennett evades the fundamental problem with the materialist explanation for intentionality by conjuring analogies between the mind and computers and natural selection. Yet he evades the obvious: materialism shipwrecks on intentionality. Matter provides no meaning without mind. So how can mind be mere matter?

The intentionality conundrum is solved, in my view, only by hylemorphism, which is the traditional Aristotelian view of nature as comprised of substances, which are themselves composites of matter and form. Form is the intelligible principle of a thing, and the "aboutness" of a thought is the consequence of the incorporation of the form of the thing into the mind, which is itself a form.

Hylemorphism avoids the banality of materialism and its intrinsic inability to explain the fundamental properties of the mind. It provides a natural explanation for intentionality. A concept related to hylemorphism, essentialism, provides a natural explanation for qualia as well.

I'll try to post more about Dennett when I can. Perhaps for Lent, as part of my penance.

I met Dennett at a seminar a few years ago, a story worth telling, soon.

(1) 1991, Back Bay Books, Little Brown p457


  1. All of philosophy is hand-waving, so don't complain about Dennett.


    1. That is a philosophical argument, Hoo!

    2. Not quite, crus. It's a metaphilosophical take. And I am hardly alone expressing it. It goes back to Wittgenstein at least.

      Wittgenstein claims that there are no realms of phenomena whose study is the special business of a philosopher, and about which he or she should devise profound a priori theories and sophisticated supporting arguments. There are no startling discoveries to be made of facts, not open to the methods of science, yet accessible “from the armchair” through some blend of intuition, pure reason and conceptual analysis. Indeed the whole idea of a subject that could yield such results is based on confusion and wishful thinking.

      Was Wittgenstein right?


    3. It's worth reading the entire NYT article about Wittgenstein that I linked. Here is another juicy excerpt:

      This attitude is in stark opposition to the traditional view, which continues to prevail. Philosophy is respected, even exalted, for its promise to provide fundamental insights into the human condition and the ultimate character of the universe, leading to vital conclusions about how we are to arrange our lives. It’s taken for granted that there is deep understanding to be obtained of the nature of consciousness, of how knowledge of the external world is possible, of whether our decisions can be truly free, of the structure of any just society, and so on — and that philosophy’s job is to provide such understanding. Isn’t that why we are so fascinated by it?

      If so, then we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. So it should be entirely unsurprising that the “philosophy” aiming to solve them has been marked by perennial controversy and lack of decisive progress — by an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues.


    4. Hoo:

      The assertion that philosophy is irrelevant is self-refuting.

      Wittgenstein's issue with metaphysical reductionism is not a denial of the salience of philosophical investigation-- after all, "Philosophical Investigations" is the title of his most influential work. The questions he asks and problems he poses are profound. Yet they are very much philosophy.

      Invoking the most profound philosopher of the 20th century to deny the relevance of philosophy is quite funny.

      Wittgenstein would have laughed.

    5. I don't think that you read much past that title, doc.

      When the most famous scholar thinks his own discipline is profoundly misguided, it does not bode well for the discipline.


    6. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyMarch 14, 2013 at 2:01 PM

      What does not bode well for the discipline of philosophy is scientism. According to your source, at least (with whom I agree).

      [T]he various kinds of theoretical move [sic] designed to resolve such conflicts (forms of skepticism, revisionism, mysterianism and conservative systematization) are not only irrational, but unmotivated.The paradoxes to which they respond should instead be resolved merely by coming to appreciate the mistakes of perverse overgeneralization from which they arose. And the fundamental source of this irrationality is scientism.

      Scientism is, of course, a misguided, dogmatic, and simple-minded faith in the methodology of science (i.e., methodological naturalism) as the only source of knowledge.

    7. @Hoo:

      [When the most famous scholar thinks his own discipline is profoundly misguided, it does not bode well for the discipline.]

      Newton's revolution-- he thought that the 17th century understanding of force, gravity, and mass was profoundly misguided-- didn't bode well for physics?

    8. Admiral,

      Wittgenstein argued that philosophy should not follow the path of science:

      Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. I want to say here that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is “purely descriptive."

      In other words, philosophy should get out of the way of science.

      Philosophy of mind has been trying to get answers for 2 millennia. So far it got nowhere. Maybe it's time to give it a rest.


    9. Egnor: Newton's revolution-- he thought that the 17th century understanding of force, gravity, and mass was profoundly misguided-- didn't bode well for physics?

      There is no parallel between Newton and Wittgenstein. The former created a new framework of mechanics that is still profitably in use. The latter merely criticized his predecessors. I'll take Newton. You may keep Wittgenstein.


    10. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyMarch 14, 2013 at 3:35 PM

      The words "philosophy should get out of the way of science" are not "other words" for "philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer in the way science does."

      They are completely different words, that mean a completely different thing.

  2. Michael,

    Hylemorhism explains nothing, beyond the fact that you don't have a clue about neuroscience.

    And I knew that already, after you claimed in your comments on your thread on confirmation bias on December 6, 2012 that Benjamin Libet had demonstrated that a person is aware of a touch sensation before the action potentials resulting from a touch stimulus reaches the brain.

    Libet didn't demonstrate that. It's an impossibility anyway. You proceeded to 'double up' on your nonsense by stating that it possibly suggests that the peripheral nervous system is self-aware.

    You're just incoherent. Substance = matter + form is just hand waving.

  3. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyMarch 14, 2013 at 8:46 AM

    I'm not particularly disposed to take advice from my dog, except on matters of his need to eliminate (when he's in the house) and the location of sharptail grouse.

    My dog is meat. Cleverly assembled meat, to be sure. But meat. Hence, his opinions on matters metaphysical - assuming he has any - are inconsequential to me.

    Personally, I am inclined to take the word of hairless primates when they claim to be nothing but meat. So why would I bother attending to the maunderings of meat-people? Their utterances and gesticulations are necessarily and by definition no more meaningful than a bonobo punching out "Koko want banana" on a symbolic keyboard. It's all handwaving in the most literal sense possible, contingent on a few cheap tokens.

    1. That pretty much sums up my view of philosophers, materialist or otherwise.


    2. Personally, I am inclined to take the word of hairless primates when they claim to be nothing but meat.

      Why should anyone take anyone seriously who makes the entirely unevidenced assertion that they are more than meat? All of the talk about "qualia" is just so much hand-waving without anything of substance to support it.

  4. Adm.

    You should take your dog far more seriously than the meat machines.
    He/she (the dog) could well be a transcendent being. A vehicle or vessel of God's work. The soul of that beast could be exceptional somehow; here or in what comes after.

    Animals, as we are all aware, have thoughts, experience qualia, and apply an 'about-ness' to their actions too.

    They enjoy things, dislike things, leave messages and communicate with each other. They have a genesis similar to our own, and form deep emotional connections with their masters and other dogs (and even other intelligent animals).
    Dogs are extreme examples of this, for sure.
    Not only do domestic canines become humanized from close contact with us, they often outscore our 'relatives' in the primate family at intelligence tests. They are one of a handful of creatures that lives in such close quarters with mankind. Only savages and desperate men eat dog and horse.

    What I am saying is that while a dog cannot tell you whether he believes his soul is transcendent, or he wonders about reincarnation, or that he has never considered the matter - there is the possibility your dog has purpose and meaning.
    A very high possibility. He exists.
    The dog is of worth (self, and to you at least) and may well be considered a kind 'person' who is granted 'rights' and privileges based on behaviour and choices.

    The hairless ape (aka Dennett), on the other hand, can talk.
    And what wonders he tells us!
    He tells us he has no soul, no purpose, no meaning and feels no pain - that he is, as you state, 'arranged meat'.Perhaps more basically: A sack of accidental chemical arrangements.
    The Dennett unit objectively denies the objectivity of morality, and thus it's existence as anything more than an illusory construct: A tool for meaningless survival.

    Anyway, that brings us to one reasonable junction: This naked hominid designated as 'Dennett' is either, at best, telling the truth (about himself) and therefore is of no importance what-so-ever, or he is lying and seeks to deceive others about their meaning and is therefore worse than worthless.

    Either way, your dog holds far more value than Dennett. Even if we only consider the grouse hunting.
    I should consider the dog's advice (danger, intrusion, to stay home, a grouse etc) far more seriously than that of the purely accidental and self proclaimed pope of purposeless, Dennett.
    You dog does not self refute.

    1. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyMarch 14, 2013 at 12:54 PM

      "Either way, your dog holds far more value than Dennett. Even if we only consider the grouse hunting."

      Amen, brother. Especially if we consider the grouse hunting.

  5. Replies
    1. Atheists like to contemplate their navel from the inside!

      It's their philosophical position...

  6. This is where Dennett gets his philosophical inspiration.

    1. The reason that most God-deniers are at least "liberals", if not outright leftists, and that most "liberals" are God-deniers, is that both stances depend upon the same sort of refusal to reason correctly and to correct one's erroneous reasoning once the error is made known -- both *refuse* to see, and act upon, the truth right in front of their faces.

  7. Michael,

    I don't know if you've accurately given what Daniel Dennett has stated. Given your problems with reading comprehension and logic, I doubt it. I'll repeat your comments from a previous thread on 'confirmation bias' from December 6, 2012:

    'Libet's work is complex. His work on sensory perception is less well-known than his work on motor intention. He was quite disturbed by his finding that perception of touch precedes arrival of the action potential from the periphery into the brain. He explained it by asserting that the brain "backdated" the sensation. It was a weak explanation, and he knew it'.

    'Libet invoked back-dating to elide the evidence. It is not impossible that we are aware of a sensation before the AP reaches the brain, if our awareness extends to our peripheral nervous system. The hypothesis that only the brain mediates awareness is merely a hypothesis-- perhaps this is evidence against that'.

    'You might enjoy "Mind Time", which Libet co-authored, on Kindle. Educate yourself'.

    I quoted "Mind Time" to you disproving you:

    "No, you're wrong, as usual. You've confused 'evoked potential' with 'action potential'. Page 72 on in Libet's book explains it:

    'Antedating of Delayed Sensory Experience'. After skin stimulation, there's a primary evoked response, which the subject is unaware, occurring with only the delay due to nerve conduction, and the subject only becomes aware of stimulation when it persists for 0.5 seconds. And the brain is capable of antedating the awareness back to the time of the primary evoked potential'".

    I'll leave it to your readers as to who is wrong.

    1. ^^
      I was going to hold my breath, waiting for this foolish person to give even one ecample of Egnor getting Dennett wrong -- it should be so easy for someone like him to do, right? But then, the idea made me start laughing, and so much for holding my breath.

    2. Ilion,

      You're a farking idiot. I don't know whether Egnor has got Dennett wrong. I don't read Dennett's books, this one in particular.

      I was laughing at Egnor's serious problems in reading comprehension and logical reasoning. As shown by his inability to get what Libet was claiming correct.

      Religious people, such as Egnor, are strongly 'authoritarian'. They want authorities to tell them what to do and think. Benedikt XVI. Francis I.

      They have the delusion that if they can disprove any authority on secular science (TM) then they've disproved secular science.

      Dennett isn't an authority. Even if he was, in secular science anything an 'authority' states isn't true because the authority stated it. It's true because it's true (and then only provisionally).

      Secular science doesn't disprove the existence of god(s). It just doesn't include them in their explanations.

      Scientific theories always have to include a way in which they can be disproved. A theory which explains everything explains nothing. Egnor's hylemorphism isn't science (Egnor has admitted as such). It can't be disproved. It can be made consistent with whatever observation you can make. It doesn't make any predictions.

    3. CrusadeRex,

      And what is the subject? Dennett's writings (you haven't read Dennett either)? Or Egnor's ability to accurately discuss what Dennett actually wrote?

      Egnor's comments about Benjamin Libet were addressed originally to you. He got them wrong. He also promised that he'd write a longer thread on Libet.

      Let's see? December 6 to March 20. I don't think he's going to do it.