November 10, 2017


The Illusionist : Daniel Dennett's latest book marks five decades of majestic failure to explain consciousness. (David Bentley Hart, Summer 2017, New Atlantis)

It seems to me that we have come this way before. Some of the signposts are new, perhaps -- "Bacteria," "Bach," and so on -- but the scenery looks very familiar, if now somewhat overgrown, and it is hard not to feel that the path is the same one that Daniel Dennett has been treading for five decades. I suppose it would be foolish to expect anything else. As often as not, it is the questions we fail to ask -- and so the presuppositions we leave intact -- that determine the courses our arguments take; and Dennett has been studiously avoiding the same set of questions for most of his career.

In a sense, the entire logic of From Bacteria to Bach and Back (though not, of course, all the repetitious details) could be predicted simply from Dennett's implicit admission on page 364 that no philosopher of mind before Descartes is of any consequence to his thinking. The whole pre-modern tradition of speculation on the matter -- Aristotle, Plotinus, the Schoolmen, Ficino, and so on -- scarcely qualifies as prologue. And this means that, no matter how many times he sets out, all his journeys can traverse only the same small stretch of intellectual territory. [...]

In the pre-modern vision of things, the cosmos had been seen as an inherently purposive structure of diverse but integrally inseparable rational relations -- for instance, the Aristotelian aitia, which are conventionally translated as "causes," but which are nothing like the uniform material "causes" of the mechanistic philosophy. And so the natural order was seen as a reality already akin to intellect. Hence the mind, rather than an anomalous tenant of an alien universe, was instead the most concentrated and luminous expression of nature's deepest essence. This is why it could pass with such wanton liberty through the "veil of Isis" and ever deeper into nature's inner mysteries.

The Cartesian picture, by contrast, was a chimera, an ungainly and extrinsic alliance of antinomies. And reason abhors a dualism. Moreover, the sciences in their modern form aspire to universal explanation, ideally by way of the most comprehensive and parsimonious principles possible. So it was inevitable that what began as an imperfect method for studying concrete particulars would soon metastasize into a metaphysics of the whole of reality. The manifest image was soon demoted to sheer illusion, and the mind that perceived it to an emergent product of the real (which is to say, mindless) causal order.

Here, in this phantom space between the phenomenal and physical worlds, is just where the most interesting questions should probably be raised. But Dennett has no use for those. He is content with the stark choice with which the modern picture confronts us: to adopt either a Cartesian dualism or a thoroughgoing mechanistic monism. And this is rather a pity, since in fact both options are equally absurd.

Not that this is very surprising. After five decades, it would be astonishing if Dennett were to change direction now. But, by the same token, his project should over that time have acquired not only more complexity, but greater sophistication. And yet it has not. For instance, he still thinks it a solvent critique of Cartesianism to say that interactions between bodies and minds would violate the laws of physics. Apart from involving a particularly doctrinaire view of the causal closure of the physical (the positively Laplacian fantasy that all physical events constitute an inviolable continuum of purely physical causes), this argument clumsily assumes that such an interaction would constitute simply another mechanical exchange of energy in addition to material forces.

In the end, Dennett's approach has remained largely fixed. Rather than a sequence of careful logical arguments, his method remains, as ever, essentially fabulous: That is, he constructs a grand speculative narrative, comprising a disturbing number of sheer assertions, and an even more disturbing number of missing transitions between episodes. It is often quite a beguiling tale, but its power of persuasion lies in its sprawling relentlessness rather than its cogency. [...]

Admittedly, part of the problem bedeviling Dennett's narrative is the difficulty of making a case that seems so hard to reconcile with quotidian experience. But that difficulty is only exacerbated by his fierce adherence to an early modern style of materialism, according to whose tenets there can be no aspect of nature not reducible to blind physical forces. For him, the mechanistic picture, or its late modern equivalent, is absolute; it is convertible with truth as such, and whatever appears to escape its logic can never be more than a monstrosity of the imagination. But then the conscious mind constitutes a special dilemma, since this modern picture was produced precisely by excluding all mental properties from physical nature. And so, in this case, physicalist reduction means trying to explain one particular phenomenon -- uniquely among all the phenomena of nature -- by realities that are, in qualitative terms, quite literally its opposite.

Really, in this regard, we have progressed very little since Descartes's day. The classical problems that mental events pose for physicalism remain as numerous and seemingly insoluble as ever. Before all else, there is the enigma of consciousness itself, and of the qualia (direct subjective impressions, such as color or tone) that inhabit it. There is simply no causal narrative -- and probably never can be one -- capable of uniting the phenomenologically discontinuous regions of "third-person" electrochemical brain events and "first-person" experiences, nor any imaginable science logically capable of crossing that absolute qualitative chasm.

The dishonesty at the core of Cartesian Metaphysics--which relieves Rationalists of the obligation to demonstrated that Reason is rational--can obviously never be overcome.  And poor Mr. Dennett has spent years apologizing for his one moment of honesty.

Posted by at November 10, 2017 6:00 AM


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