“The Denial” of Consciousness

I’ve been referring to those that insist that our subjective conscious mind cannot be real, because – by definition – their objective science is unable to explain it, as deniers since I first wrote on Searle, back here in 2005. Since then I’ve been like a cracked record on consciousness denial.

This week Galen Strawson has an essay extracted from his “Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, Etc.” (2018) published in the New York Review of Books.

The title of the extracted essay is:

The Consciousness Deniers

Many people already tweeting assorted quotes from his opening para:

“What is the silliest claim ever made?

Some people have denied the existence of consciousness: conscious experience, the subjective character of experience, the “what-it-is-like” of experience.

Next to this denial—I’ll call it “the Denial”—every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green.”

He’s right. It’s actually a long and worthwhile read – I’m guessing it’s practically a whole chapter from the book. Of particular interest to me is that amongst his list of those who are explicit in their denial of the reality of consciousness is “the generally admirable” Dan Dennett!

Certainly at times in his long quest to explain consciousness Dennett may have seemed to deny the subjectivity – he certainly refuses to entertain qualia as separate dualist subjective stuff. But along with a number of enlightened physicists he has homed in on explaining consciousness as just as much a part of physical reality as any fundamental physics. The way we experience it may be “kinda” illusory – making us seek the qualia – but the fact it and our experience are real is beyond doubt. His explanation is deflationary. And Dennett has spent much effort putting many a behaviorist-psychologist and naturalistic-philosopher right on the topic.

Strawson is right to point out that a mechanical functionalist take on the rise of Information Technology – computing – may itself have contributed to the hardening of The Denial in the 21st Century, but Dennett shows how computation independent of its physical embodiment is what real consciousness is in fact made of and just as physical (as some physicists would agree).

Not been a fan of Strawson, but it’s good to see him taking sides against the deniers. It may take a bit more reading to find where he fits in constructive dialogue with Dennett.

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