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”. 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.]

Also published on Medium.

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