Goff’s Radical Dennett?

I’m reading Philip Goff’s “Galileo’s Error” as mentioned previously. As usual before reading the main content, I read all the intros and the end notes / bibliography / index / refs to see who’s work is mentioned, though I can never know whether positively or negatively at this point.

My favourite check is whether the author mentions Daniel Dennett and if so, whether their sole reference is to his 1991 “Consciousness Explained (Away)”. My pet hate being those who ignore ten books and 30 years of evolution in understanding. Goff passes that test. Dennett’s 2003 “Freedom Evolves” also gets a mention though that’s still almost 2 decades before his “From Bacteria to Bach and Back” (B2BnB). Creditably Goff’s first mention of Dennett is also based on a conference-meeting-in-person at the arctic cruise conference set up as a Dennett vs Chalmers contest mentioned here as “a few years” before 2017 when he said “lately he’d been gravitating toward pan-proto-psychism” (Seems to have been June 2014 if this equally interesting account is to be believed.)

Sadly Goff’s first mention – echoed in those linked reports – is that:

“Daniel Dennett is one of the most radical and uncompromising of materialist philosophers”

It’s a commonly held misconception. (Just like the idea that Dennett suggests consciousness and will are some epiphenomenal illusions – he does no such thing. Sam Harris has learned a lot from his dialogues with Dennett.)

Anyway, Dennett never really had any metaphysical claims, materialist or otherwise, he was always about evolving pragmatically what is known, from “here and now”. His target audience (bar the God vs Science detour) has always been the scientists of consciousness, and the evolution of scientific reasoning. Most of those scientists are surely materialist, but his journey is to show (has already shown) that is an untenable position.

As I said in the closing statement of my own review of Dennett’s B2BnB in 2017 (linked above), the need for science to relinquish this untenable position means that:

“Our very rationality is at stake.”

On a par with the logical positivists misunderstanding Wittgenstein’s message to Russell.

Anyway, this is only page 77 out of 217, so time for Goff to redeem himself and recognise Dennett’s evolutionary understanding aligns totally with modern pan-psychism. Dennett’s work is about the style of argument that will allow materialist scientist types evolve that kind of understanding.


[Tononi & IIT get positive mention, Kastrup doesn’t get a mention. Despite Kastrup’s literal pan-psychist claims he is really, like myself and Dennett, a pan-proto-psychist too. That proto-psychical (and proto-physical) stuff being information – in the active verbal sense, a la Whitehead) – nothing new under the sun again?]

[Reading on.]

[Good news, Goff confirms later in that same chapter:

That Dennett’s “illusory” views are qualified by “in a sense”.

That Dennett was persuaded the dualist view couldn’t be true, and therefore a physicalist metaphysics can’t be true (since mind & consciousness are real). But as I say apart from debating on the side of the scientists – an artificial argument – Dennett hasn’t been concerned with metaphysical claims anyway.

Therefore odd that Goff continues – after these 2014/2017 statements – with another 1991 quote from Dennett – re the “black & white Mary” thought experiment. We agree already. Consciousness (and rational understanding of it) evolves. Let’s move on, evolution waits for no man.]

[And a charitable reading of Goff on Dennett, this whole chapter is entitled “Can Physical Science Explain Consciousness?” If the best living philosopher there is, debating on the side of science, can’t get to “Yes”, then the answer is probably “No”. Like Wittgenstein with objective logic, I’ve always said Dennett, with orthodox scientific argumentation, the point was always to show the need for something else to explain the real world.]


[Post notes:

This Dec 2019 interview of Dennett by Louis Godbout includes an interesting passage where Dennett recalls being hit by physical / materialism way back when he was a grad student, but before finishing that sentence to talk about continuing to “crank the same handle” for the whole of his career, he switches to calling it “naturalism”. He has no metaphysical position materialist or otherwise – it’s all about the effects of natural processes.

Also great reference to the “coda” by Joshua Rothman in this New Yorker piece. Thinking evolves through interaction  with the world, aka dialogue. A piece I linked to and used in earlier talks – worth a read in its own right.

Also review of Goff by Baggini in the WSJ – disappointing on first read?

Never did follow-up the IOU for a fuller review of Goff.]

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