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21 October 2023

What Daniel Dennett gets wrong

Is consciousness an illusion? Only a philosopher could convince himself of something as implausible.

By Thomas Nagel

Daniel Dennett, one of the most famous and prolific philosophers of his generation, now in his early eighties, has written a memoir recounting the achievements, battles and pleasures of an extraordinarily full life. His career in philosophy has also included frequent forays into the related disciplines of neuroscience, computer science, psychology and evolutionary theory, and there have also been serious engagements with music, sculpture, sailing, farming, carpentry and the brewing of cider and calvados. We get a lot of detail about these pursuits, and a sense of the joy Dennett derived from his huge appetite for doing, making, and knowing things.

Dennett was born in Boston in 1942 but spent his early years in Beirut, the son of a historian of Islam who was the cultural attaché of the American legation there, though he really worked for US intelligence. He was the first CIA agent to die in action, killed in a plane crash in Ethiopia in 1947 when his son was five. Dennett grew up in Massachusetts, got an undergraduate philosophy degree at Harvard and then went to Oxford, where he studied with Gilbert Ryle. He says he was no good at exams, so to avoid them he pursued a doctorate – which at Oxford required only a dissertation – and finished it, amazingly, in just two years. He was then recommended by Ryle to the philosophy department at the new University of California at Irvine, and began his teaching career there at the age of 23, with most of his philosophical education ahead of him – he learned the subject mainly by having to teach it.

Dennett is unusual among establishment figures in never having held a permanent position in a leading philosophy PhD programme. From Irvine he moved back east in 1971 to Tufts, which had only an MA programme, and stayed there for the rest of his career. He achieved prominence by his writing, which is always lucid, witty, charming and accessible. He also had a network of friends among the leading figures of the fields in which he worked – including Richard Dawkins, Marvin Minsky and Douglas Hofstadter, with whom he published the successful collection The Mind’s I.

Early on, Dennett and his wife bought a 200-acre farm in Maine, where they spent the summers and Dennett could engage with the material world, restoring the buildings, fixing things, farming, brewing and sailing. The book is studded with passages of arcane craft vocabulary that display Dennett’s multidimensional expertise. It is a pleasure to read about all this activity, and about his travels. But what makes him a person of interest is his philosophical career, and the book will be of most interest to those familiar with his work. While it includes brief accounts of his most important writings, those who haven’t read him before will have to turn to his other books for a proper introduction to his ideas – for example, the recent summation, From Bacteria to Bach and Back (2017).

Here, Dennett gives us the human and academic-sociological background, recounting his interactions with some of the leading personalities in philosophy, cognitive science, computer science and evolutionary biology. In a bit of score-settling, he singles out four of them as bullies, claiming that in their arguments with him they didn’t fight fair: Stephen Jay Gould, Gerald Edelman, John Searle and Jerry Fodor (though Fodor was also a good friend). Dennett urges a certain intellectual etiquette: not treating one’s academic opponents with contempt, trying to understand their point of view, and not relying on caricature or rhetoric to win an argument. On the whole, he has conducted himself in a civilised manner, though he is not above the sense of philosophy as a form of combat, with teams, winners and losers.

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[See also: Mario Tronti’s divine comedy]

He has always been a strong partisan of materialism – the view that the only thing that exists in its own right is the world described by the physical sciences. For Dennett this is intellectual bedrock, and it determines his approach to all other questions. Since there seems to be a lot else in the world that can’t be analysed in terms of particle physics, this sets him the task of explaining the rich contents of our human world as a collection of interpretations or illusions that we superimpose on the underlying physical reality. Most conspicuously he applies this strategy to the understanding of our own minds and the minds of other creatures.

Dennett is a materialist about the mind, but unlike many materialists he doesn’t identify mental events with physical events in the brain. Instead, he maintains that while we are nothing but complex physical systems controlled by what happens in our brains, we can’t in ordinary life understand ourselves in those terms. We operate instead with a useful fiction, namely that we are controlled by a mind full of sensations, intentions, beliefs, emotions, desires, and so on. This rough explanatory scheme enables us to understand and predict the actions of others, and to communicate with them. We treat ourselves and others as if we had these inner conscious lives. Like the rest of our natural, unscientific take on the world – colours, sounds, ordinary objects – these ideas about the mind are tools given to us by evolution, according to Dennett. Even though they don’t depict reality with scientific accuracy, they help us to function and survive, so they have been entrenched by natural selection.

In my view this is one of those philosophical positions that represent the triumph of theoretical commitment over common sense – or, as Aristotle put it, the desire to maintain a thesis at all costs. Dennett’s commitment to materialism leads him to regard his immediate first-person awareness of his own experiences as merely a set of beliefs, rather than the direct apprehension of something that is really happening. When I bite into a chocolate bar, I get a pleasant taste sensation of a particular subjective quality. It seems undeniable that, in having it, I am aware of the real quality of this experience. But that is just what Dennett denies. He denies the authority of the first-person point of view over what our conscious experiences are really like – though he does not deny that we believe we have experiences with these qualities.

Descartes made famous the distinction between appearances of the external world, which were subject to doubt because we could conceive that they might be entirely false (as they are in a dream), and appearances of what is going on in our own mind. We cannot doubt that we are conscious, he argued, and our conscious experiences have the qualities they appear to us to have, because there is nothing between us and them: we apprehend them directly, unlike external objects, which we apprehend only through our perceptual experiences.

But Dennett goes one better than Descartes, proposing that the appearance of consciousness and its contents is an illusion – the illusion that when I bite into a chocolate bar, for example, something more happens than can be fully described in terms of physics, chemistry, neurophysiology and behaviour. If materialism is true, that is impossible, so we are left with the problem of explaining why we find it so natural to believe it. The data for Dennett’s theory do not include any of the subjective qualities apprehended in experience (since according to him such qualities do not exist) but only our beliefs that there are such qualities.

To be consistent with materialism, those beliefs must be interpreted behaviouristically – in terms of their tendency to produce verbal and other physical behaviour. Dennett doesn’t reject the label “behaviourist”. As he says,

“Science is a sort of behaviourism; once you’ve got a scientific explanation of all the behaviour, inner and outer, large and microscopic, of any phenomenon, there’s nothing else to explain – except why some people are so uncomfortable with your explanation! I coined a term in 1982 for the third-person method (“heterophenomenology” – the phenomenology of other minds), but I didn’t invent the method, which is standard procedure in cognitive science. I was just drawing attention to the importance of treating subjects’ beliefs about their own consciousness as data to be explained, not necessarily as true accounts of mental reality. This is the major fault line in philosophy of mind today.”

I am one of those he puts on the other side of the fault line, and I think it is obvious that a theory of mind based fundamentally on what can be observed from outside will miss the essence of mental reality. I find it truly extraordinary that Dennett can regard the appearance from the inside of what is going on in his own mind as an illusion, overridden by a theory constructed from the outside. Only a philosopher could convince himself of something so implausible.

Let me emphasise: this is a philosophical project. There is an anecdote in the book about a conversation with WV Quine, the distinguished US philosopher who taught Dennett at Harvard. Quine indicated that he wasn’t comfortable as a philosopher – that he was a philosopher malgré lui – and Dennett thought “me too”. But the lifelong effort to interpret all the familiar things of life in a way that is consistent with a materialist metaphysics can only be explained by the philosophical yearning for a comprehensive understanding of reality, constrained by radical assumptions. Dennett is a philosophical revisionist like the 18th-century philosopher George Berkeley, who argued that only mind is real and matter is an illusion.

Dennett has been a central figure in other controversies as well – over how much can be explained by the theory of evolution by natural selection, over the causes of religious belief, over the frequently exaggerated claims made for AI. There are some nasty encounters that still bother him, but for the most part this is a sunny story, without significant darkness.

He ends with the question, “What if I’m wrong?” – something every philosopher should keep at the back of his mind. While I think he is wrong, I don’t know what’s right. We’re nowhere near a solution to the mind-body problem, so even the elaboration and defence of a mistaken theory can be a contribution to our perpetually incomplete search for self-understanding.

Thomas Nagel’s most recent books are “Analytic Philosophy and Human Life” and “Moral Feelings, Moral Reality, and Moral Progress” (both Oxford University Press).

[See also: EP Thompson’s dystopian visions]

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War