A New Species of Mind-Matter Explanation

I am at last reading and considering this TLS piece in which Tim Crane presents the Papineau / Dennett exchanges on Dennett’s “From Bacteria to Bach and Back”.  I’ve had it bookmarked for over a week and so far made only passing references.

Tim Crane’s a professional, I’m an amateur, when it comes to the formalities of philosophical classifications.

“Papineau and Dennett are both well-known materialists.”

Likewise, I consider myself a materialist in the sense that the stuff of physics – the whole of the natural world including our knowledge of it – is all there is. Hence the centrality of this issue:

“one of the big debates here is between materialists – who think the mind is wholly material or physical – and dualists – who think that the mind is something else, something over and above its physical basis in the brain.”

(See here for a recent public presentation by Crane on many confusing views that arise in mind-matter theories.)

Like Dennett (and Rovelli to name but one physicist) I happen to believe this physical stuff is more fundamentally information than the particles of matter, energy and force of physics’ current standard models. All that belief does is move philosophical materialism a step further from common notions of material as everyday stuff having mass occupying space, but it’s been long removed from that by both philosophy and physics. The natural world is the unity of physics, nothing more, nothing less. Given a choice I prefer to self-identify with the term physicalism rather than materialism.

Papineau’s original critique contained this:

“… it is a category mistake to think of the mind as some inner pilot guiding [our] behaviour …”
[that just shifts the problems of understanding our mind to the “mind” of this ghostly homunculus]

“This is the source of Dennett’s strange views on consciousness. The more other philosophers complained that he was missing the point, the more he condemned their idea of special access to inner brain states, and accused them of sliding towards dualism.”

Which is my understanding of (and agreement with) Dennett on two counts – that is, not in the least strange to me. Firstly, that – “we” – “are” – “our minds” – at all conscious and subconscious levels – there is no separate thing communicating with us from within. And secondly, his “life’s too short” response to continuing to address specific criticisms on his critics terms.

Crane summarises Papineau’s taking issue with

Dennett’s idea of “competence without comprehension” [using the meme analogy to blind genetic evolution]

Dennett’s view that consciousness is a kind of illusion (“illusionism”) [where Papineau] argues that materialists should have no difficulty accepting the reality of consciousness.

Again, I’m with Dennett on both counts.

On the first he’s not saying all competence is automatic or unthinking, simply that most of it can be. Here I regularly use the top class tennis player returning a serve. Only a small fraction of the action requires conscious free-won’t / fine-tuning action, most of it is pre-programmed before the actual service. Most mental activity is subconscious.

On the second, it’s important to notice use of the “kind of” qualifier – in fact Dennett uses his kinda / sorta operator all over the place. He’s not denying the reality of consciousness, simply that it has an illusory “virtual” aspect to it, like any image, like the user display on a computer. It’s not what is actually going on inside the machine, simply a representation of it. Like the finger and the moon, both are real, distinct but physical (material). Most computer activity is invisible to the user in the same way most mental activity is subconscious. Consciousness is our user interface.

And on both points Crane continues:

“For one thing, it turns out that the illusion Dennett speaks about is not consciousness itself, but our mistaken ideas about consciousness. And on this point, perhaps, Papineau can agree. On the role of comprehension, things are a bit more subtle – Dennett and Papineau both agree that comprehension comes in degrees and cannot be completely dismissed.”

Comprehension is the knowing of the conscious mind, and the mind has degrees of consciousness from comatose to nirvana. And the level of knowing surely varies across individuals of all sentient species. How can this be remotely controversial?

I could go on cherry-picking points to respond to. Crane’s summary is a good one, and the Dennett / Papineau exchange is exemplary as philosophical discourse – progressively narrowing disagreement rather than either aiming to undermine or score a win over the other.

In fact Papineau ends the polite and respectful exchange with these:

“I am glad we agree on so much …,
our remaining differences strike me as no more than terminological.

Why then does your book go out on a limb  …,
so adamant that this is the only way to put things?

[But] there seems no route to your view that the agreed science eliminates animal thought and human consciousness.”

Excellent on all fronts.

Terminology – We are indeed suspended in language games, which is why Wittgenstein is probably the only philosopher I hold in higher regard than Dennett. As Crane suggests, perhaps more controversial is how to draw a line that says what is and is not conscious on the otherwise uncontroversial scale of consciousness (above). But that’s a definitional (linguistic) problem, and Dennett’s strategy has always been to hold off settling hard and fast definitions of terms that might limit explanations until after understanding has been achieved. This necessarily implies the need for evolutionary iteration of terms and definitions.

Out on a Limb – Dennett is indeed riskily sticking his neck out. In B2BnB he reduces his argument to a sporting bet – effectively, “I bet we’ll get the right explanation if you look at it my way” – having used up all his avuncular patience over many years entertaining all his critics criticisms on their “agreed science” terms.

The Route to a Full Explanation – There are inevitably gaps in establishing Dennett’s thesis at various levels of detail. The content of the bet concerns that route to better agreement. Current agreed science is greedily reductionist and necessarily reliant on well-defined objects in its hypotheses and logical explanations. He puts his money where his mouth is and, whilst he doesn’t actually say this, he suggests we take our own medicine. That is, if we also believe in evolution – across all of its Darwinian / Lamarkian / Human-Designed variations in the available design space – then we should let it work on our philosophical and scientific arguments too. Take the bet, work with his arguments in their current state of development, and the route to bridging the gaps will evolve without our predefining it. That route will probably involve the evolution of both science and philosophy, evolution in their forms, not just iteration of their content. Like any new species we will only recognise it for what it is with hindsight.

Also published on Medium.

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