on March 2, 2009
Dennett came as a huge and surprising disappointment to me. For years I had thought (and feared...) he would be THE great challenger to spiritualist views concerning the philosophy of the mind. I was so shocked when I finally read Consciousness Explained (zero stars) that I simply had to check out how his views might have evolved during the ensueing 15 years or so till the present day (from 1991 to 2005, and then to try to imagine how it might be now, in 2009). The answer is: failure is still alive... How it can be that so much attention and serious consideration is given to Dennett's views is something that I simply cannot grasp. But it is certainly not due to the quality or to the depth of his reasonings on these matters of philosophy/science of cognition.
Some "improvements" seem to have happened (though, since they were not explicitly acknowledged, I cannot really tell if, instead, I am just being delusional in these perceptions of mine). Dennett's "heterophenomenology" now seems to have lost almost completely all of its emphasis on the "conclusion" that the "subject's report is merely an illusion, a fiction like any other fiction and nothing more than it (like Sherlock Holms and Harry Potter)." It was almost a hundred percent clear (i.e. present) in Consciousness Explained (1991) that the subject's report was merely an illusion; and this view is almost a hundred percent absent now in Sweet Dreams (2005). Quite a change... Another absence that I noticed is his previous ill-conceived idea that it is impossible that we are slaves living in The Matrix (he actually put it as "we cannot be brains-in-vats surrounded by illusory reality created by aliens"). Obviously I don't think we are slaves in The Matrix, or brains-in-vats either. But to claim that this is IMPOSSIBLE (like Dennett did in 1991) is simply nuts. He seems to have grasped it at last, fortunately. (My hunch is that he got overwhelmed by the very movies The Matrix 1, 2, and 3 plus the various computer software available nowadays). Another welcome absence is his previous unreasonable notion that the brain does not fill in for the background color in the eye blackspot experiment (picture on page 324, Consciousness Explained - Performing the experiment myself on me, I found it quite surprising that this "not filling in" was red when the background was red, was blue when the background was blue, and so on. I could never have dreamed of a "not-filling-in" that actually was... coloured!).
On page 1 (! nice start, ain't it?), we find a bad factual mistake. He says "Most of the cells that compose your body are descendants of the egg and sperm whose union started you (there are also millions of hitchhikers from thousands of different lineages stowed away in your body)." Actually, we have about 10 trillion human cells in our body (zygote descendant), and ten times as much hitchhikers... (bacteria mostly). Also faulty is Dennett's description of the experiment with the deck cards in the peripheral vision: actually you can identify indeed the color and even the number of the deck card far away from the center of your vision; provided it is only some seven centimeters away from your eye! (in Consciousness Explained he described this experiment faithfully, though; if you hold out your arm, then it gets very hard to do this task, as Dennett correctly put it back in 1991).
Key points where he failed miserably (despite my fellow reviewers' disagreement...) were, 1-the zombies issue, 2-the qualia issue, and, 3-the locked Mary issue. Looking closer on these:
1- On page 92, Dennett sets out to destroy the zombie hunch. He says: "I doubt that anybody who gets the idea of a zombie, an agent without qualia, in its full implications, can fail to recognize that it is an irreparably incoherent idea. To bring out the covert contradictions in the very idea of a zombie... ...I want to explore..." What stuns me is that some people simply do not realize that Dennett ended up not showing absolutely any contradiction/incoherence in the idea of a zombie whatsoever in the following ten pages up to the end of that chapter! I was so shocked at it that I had to read it three times to triple check it. I challenge anyone who thinks otherwise (Dennett included - we now have a comment section in Amazon reviews). As a matter of fact, I think philosophers are too light on the defence of the idea of zombies. Zombies - according to the correct materialist interpretation of our knowledge of physics and biology - are not a possibility: they are an inevitability! They do not make sense in a spiritualist or dualist view of reality. But in a materialist view, they are the necessary conclusion. If you put together what we know about physics and biology, especially about neo-darwinism and natural selection, plus what we really know about consciousness, then we must conclude that most of the people around us are zombies. What we need, then (if we want to stick to materialism), are better materialist theories. And Dennett has provided none.
2- Regarding qualia, Dennett is correct in pointing out people's (non philosophers and even philosophers, especially when drinking in bars with Dennett...) misunderstandings regarding the use and the very notion of this term. In fact, Dennett himself is rather poor in his "handling" (understanding) of this notion (I could make a big list of instances of his feebleness on that). But the fact is that subjective experience exists, no matter what you call it (qualia, Hard Problem, whatever). If you read his book carefully, you will notice that the answer "no," on page 85 of Sweet Dreams (to a specific question Dennett challenges the reader with), actually survives unharmed to Dennett's scrutiny. And "no" has always been my answer. (Oh My, checking it right now, even the answer "yes" goes unharmed. What a fiasco! Only the answer "don't know" would be problematic).
3- I agree with Dennett that the hypothetical cognitive scientist Mary, who knows all that there is to be known about colors but that has never seen colors for herself, would, when shown true colors for the first time, come to know absolutely nothing new. She wouldn't be surprised and actually she, IMO, would already have had the subjective experience of the colors. But Dennett goes to bizarre lengths in defending his idea on this. He makes Mary create in her own mind a replica of herself that would have subjective experience (he does this with "Locked RoboMary," on page 126). This is quite bizarre coming from the man who would so dogmatically deny that we can be brains-in-vats (or slaves in The Matrix) back in 1991. Incoherence and lack of rational thinking remains... (just check out on page 118 for the same reasoning, but coming from dreams inducing subjective experience).
Getting to the core of Dennett, the "Heart of Darkness" (i.e. of his theory), we see that he has fallen in love with the Global Neuronal Workspace Model. On page 132, he presents a summary of it (after Dehaene and Naccahe, 2001): "At any given time, many modular cerebral networks are active in parallel and process information in an unconscious manner. An information becomes conscious, however, if the neural population that represents it is mobilized by top-down attentional amplification into a brain-scale state of coherent activity that involves many neurons distributed throughout the brain. The long distance connectivity of these 'workplace neurons' can, when they are active for a minimal duration, make the information available to a variety of processes including perceptual categorization, long-term memorization, evaluation, and intentional action. We postulate that this global availability of information through the workplace is what we subjectively experience as a conscious state." And Dennett adds on page 171 (coincidently, my "home country's number" for deceit... ;-) ), "I have ventured the empirical hypothesis that our capacity to relive and rekindle contentful events is the most important feature of consciousness - indeed, as close to a defining feature of consciousness as we will ever find; and the empirical hypothesis that this echoic capacity is due in large part to habits of self-stimulation that we pick up from human culture, that the Joycean machine" (i.e. a computer software that "thinks" about itself - reviewer's note) "in our brains is a virtual machine made of memes." Also, on page 136, ..."it is the specialist demons' accessibility to each other... ...that could... ...explain the dramatic increases in cognitive competence that we associate with consciousness"
Well, I get the feeling (from the above extracts) that Dennett et al have put in the place of The Homunculus a House of Mirrors, where it is the screen (or screens) itself that is conscious (rather than the audience) whenever anything "looks" at it. Also, a lion's (or your mother's) moment of pain, when briefly stung by a thorn (or by a needle), is not to be considered consciousness... (not echoic enough, as it seems). Surely something seems to be amiss. Now add to it this quote from Dennett, on page 102, "Is there anything it is like to be a tree? Most of us, I suppose, will be inclined to answer in the negative, but if we then cast about for a reason for our judgement, there will be little to present." Well, now we just end up stunned and lost. What the hell does Dennett think?
The key point, nonetheless, is this: nowhere in Dennett's writings is one to find just any explanation whatsoever of How and Why consciousness emerges, and What For (that is, what is the benefit it brings). Those are the keystones of materialistic explanatory protocol. And Dennett's house is one made out of empty stones.
I repeat what I have said in my recent review of Consciousness Explained: consciousness is an Almighty Anomaly in light of our materialitic interpretation of our physical and biological knowledge of the universe. It brings down altogether the Huge Cathedral of Materialism. This does not mean that materialism IS wrong (and this does not mean that we will survive our deaths). It just means that, presently, materialism cannot account for the emergence of consciousness (dualism can; panpsychism can; solipsism can; but it does not mean necessarily that any of these views IS correct). Maybe one day it will. But then it will take true theoretical breakthroughs, and not Albus DumbleDennett's Hocus Pocuses & Wand Wavings. We should expect and demand more from philosophers and scientists. They are in on a public endeavour. And they must always bear that in mind.
As for Dennett himself, he definetely needs to learn more about subjective experiences, ordinary and anomolous. His previous clumsly knowledge regarding dreams (in 1991) led him astray into remarks that he now forswears (the impossibility of The Matrix - Wake up, Dennett; There is No Spoon! :-) ). And he needs to make a choice as to whether he is going to deal with these matters following his political/anti-religious agenda or if he is going to try to bring to us true advances in the philosophy and science of cognition. Both paths are precious. But only once an honest and true choice is made...
When, at last, Dennett has chosen, then he may be able to overcome his simplemindedness in regards to issues like "illusions", "miracles", "magic", "mechanics", and "causation." I will be most eagerly looking forward to witnessing this day come...
site: Criticizing Skepticism