The Denial of Dennett’s Consciousness

[I’ve now reviewed this thread in reasonable detail
and have some additional conclusions

The Consciousness Deniers
13 March 2o18 – Galen Strawson

Magic, Illusions, and Zombies
Rebuttal – Undated – Dan Dennett
With Reply
3 April 2018 – Galen Strawson

I recall seeing the original consciousness deniers piece by Strawson, but not really taking it seriously. Why in 2018, I thought, would anyone think Dennett was a consciousness denier and why would they go back to his 1991 Consciousness Explained in order to attack him on that false premise?

Plenty of scientistic types, both scientists and philosophers, do indeed appear to deny consciousness, for its inconvenience in fitting the received wisdom of – objectively determined and causally reductive – physical explanations. Dennett sure is not one of them. There can be few people making greater efforts, with ever more successful arguments, than Dennett in the last 25 years.

Like many working at the boundary between physics and consciousness, Dennett often warns us that our intuitive impression, of what our consciousness is, is kinda illusory, but nowhere does he suggest our consciousness is not real. It wouldn’t be the first time Dennett has set some public intellectual straight on that point.

Dennett starts with that very point, as his justification for a rebuttal:

I thank Galen Strawson for his passionate attack on my views, since it provides a large, clear target for my rebuttal … He clearly believes what he says, thinks it is very important, and is spectacularly wrong in useful ways. His most obvious mistake is his misrepresentation of my main claim.

This kinda attack, defence and counter-attack style of argument is suited to proper rational discourse – where people genuinely follow the rules of mutual respect – but I fear it is bad for public debate. Galen’s Straw-man is massively disrespectful to start with.

Anyway, as I type I’ve not had chance to digest Strawson’s reply to the rebuttal, but I’ll be back. He really ought to be embarrassed at so gratuitously missing Dennett’s point.

[Continuing …]

I’m simply further baffled.

Dennett’s rebuttal is exactly as anyone knowing his work would expect. In addition to reinforcing the original premise, that Dennett in no way denies the reality of consciousness, he is saying that, whatever our impressions of our own consciousness are, (a) it is real and (b) it is natural, a naturally evolved phenomenon. Against Strawson he is arguing there is no reason to posit any magical or supernatural causes that must remain obscured from any natural investigation.

He quite rightly points out that Strawson’s argument is largely an expression of fear. The fear that consciousness is somehow devalued and at risk if we explain it as merely natural. That fear is of course perfectly rational, and we do well to explore how better understanding might be exploited for misguided ends as well as well intentioned purposes. Indeed that’s a reasonable statement of why people like myself are keen to understand it – to be able to take an informed position on any future developments. Lots more that could be said about potential consequences, but fear of a natural explanation is no substitute for explanation and argument. In fact, as I said in my own most recent review of Dennett, his case is as much about allowing honest processes of argumentation to evolve an explanation as it is about the content of the argument – rationality itself, I suggested.

What is especially baffling is that Strawson’s reply to Dennett’s rebuttal makes absolutely no reference to anything Dennett has said in the rebuttal or even in his most recent work on the topic. Strawson simply makes something of a selection of much earlier statements, disconnected from the current dialogue. For example, the “Zombie” topic – pointing out that we might not be able to tell the Zombie behaviour from the real thing – says nothing about natural explanations of the real thing.

Frankly, ignorant and dishonest not to address what Dennett is actually saying. If Dennett is denying anything, it’s that consciousness is supernatural.


[Post Note: And timely to see the latest Michael Gazzaniga book “The Consciousness Instinct – From Brain to Mind”. (And PPS – notice Gazzaniga is part of Ian McGilchrists “The Divided Brain” – need to read his book first hand.) Though it’s never a good look when people mention mind and quantum mechanics in the same breath, this makes an important point:

“[Consciousness] might vie with quantum mechanics for sheer counter-intuitive weirdness, hovering way beyond our intuitions …”

Puts me in mind of Terry Bisson’s “Thinking Meat” – where advanced (sci-fi) AI beings have trouble accepting that meat-based life can actually think. No reason to conclude that consciousness is supernatural simply because our natural intuitions struggle to get to grips with its reality.

Interesting that Nature magazine concludes:

“it might all be better left to the theologians”

I give theologians a great deal more credit than the typical scientistic type, but we shouldn’t give up on natural explanations just because they’re hard to reconcile with existing intuitions. The “difficulty” in ever reconciling this may lead the likes of Strawson suggest natural philosophers are misguided in our mission. However, the real defeatists here, as I already said, are the scientists whose “greedy determinism” leads them to brand consciousness as an epiphenomenal illusion, impossible in reality. Dennett isn’t one of them.]

[Post Note: Strangely, that mismatch “triad” between

  • objective reality,
  • our intuitions and
  • our formal models

is also very close to my previous post.]

5 thoughts on “The Denial of Dennett’s Consciousness”

  1. So Dennett doesn’t deny that we have a subjective, first-person, qualitative experience? Does he deny any of those qualifiers (defined as they’re actually defined)?

    Hasn’t he flat out said he denies phenomenal consciousness? Because if he does deny it, he’s denying consciousness as almost always defined by physicalists and non-physicalists alike in the context of these kinds of discussions.

    Is it really unfair to call him a consciousness-denier if he denies what the vast majority of people mean when they talk about “consciousness” in this context?

  2. Interesting. He’s clearly not a consciousness-denier, even if he has made phenomenal-consciousness-denying statements in the past (which I agree he did).

    The crux of your disagreement lies in “definition” and of course that’s pretty central to Dennett’s more recent arguments, that definition comes after, emerges from, proper explanatory understanding. The kind of consciousness worth having, to use his words. And explanation of consciousness based on the right kind of rationality, as I’ve written elsewhere.

    Put simply he’s not denying consciousness, he’s denying existing models. Consciousness is real enough, but misguided explanatory models of it are illusory.

    (And FWIW, re-reading my own post here, I can see I went back over to clarify / reinforce what I intended, so I stand by it if you want to address any of my specifics.)

  3. The link to Dennett’s rebuttal is paywalled (even if the price for the single article is only to sign up). Here’s an alternative:

    I’ve always assumed Dennett’s claim is simply what many say it is, an inexplicable absurdity. I looked forward to reading an explanation in his own words. Unfortunately his swaggering reply to the “full-throated, table-thumping” Strawson is mostly to explain what consciousness is not, which is apparently equivalent to whatever Strawson thinks it is. Here we have a straw man of Dennett’s own. He seems to think that Strawson is offering some kind of “magical” explanation of consciousness, as opposed to Dennett’s hard-nosed materialist explanation, or would-be explanation (I’m not sure anyone’s explanation is done and dusted yet).

    Dennett grants that consciousness has a phenomenological aspect, but he thinks this aspect has little or no value for an explanation of consciousness — as if that were the issue. The issue is actually that Dennett’s own explanation of consciousness seems to fall short of explaining the interesting part, in the sense that any material analysis of matter never needs to go beyond mindless material interactions. I suppose you could say that the materialist account notes, in passing, a curious epiphenomenon or emergence, which Dennett is happy to acknowledge as consciousness. It might be going too far, though, to treat it as an illusion. It may indeed have no explanatory value, but it’s definitely there in some sense.

    Strawson and others who balk at the idea that consciousness is an illusion, in the interesting sense of being “not real” or “not important,” are not trying to “explain” consciousness in a magical way that bypasses materialism. Dennett doesn’t seem to get that. They simply don’t agree that materialism can get all the way there with its own explanation by reducing consciousness to things that it patently isn’t, and adding unhelpfully that that’s all there is to reality, apart from this “phenomena” business, which we have scarcely to acknowledge or talk about.

  4. Yes, good summary.
    Essentially not agreeing on what the explanation is … but that it is real and important. Elusive of explanation, but not an illusion.

    Obviously in the ancient “Consciousness Explained” no-one, not even Dennett, has that explanation.

    “Materialism” can only supply the explanation with a stretching of what we mean by that, certainly beyond what the orthodox physicalist / scientist means by that. It’s that which Dennett is really pushing – hoping the penny will drop with materialists – that’s what Bacteria to Bach and Back is about.

    Strawson is primarily expressing scepticism at any “materialist” explanation – which, to those orthodox “scientists” looks like hoping for a magical explanation. (Strawson’s own position has evolved enormously in that same 30 years, and is practically pan-psychist these days – but he and Dennett are much closer than he realises, with Dennett a “materialist” pan-proto-psychist. Dennett has largely given-up the critical game – “contact sport” – with philosophers.)

    (Whilst not done and dusted – I still consider Dennett’s “circular” approach in B2BnB has the answer. Dennett’s audience is primarily those “scientists” where the penny needs to drop.)

  5. BTW – I noticed I mentioned the Strawson <> Dennett exchange elsewhere last year

    “(Even Dennett, a hero of mine on the right side of this topic has been known to respond with ridicule in the name of “pan-niftiness”. He nevertheless entertains pan-proto-psychic ideas. Strawson tries the opposite linguistic tack, suggesting all will be well if simply use the familiar word “physical” to describe conscious life, then the physical scientists will give the idea an easier ride. He’s nevertheless transparent that this is simply a tactical, linguistic convenience; your equally valid choice may differ.)”

    Their differences (IMHO) are about the tactics of argumentation and their target audiences.

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