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Consciousness is an Illusion . . .
. . . but truth is not? An inconsistency in Dennett
From an interview with Daniel Dennett in the pages of The Guardian (HT: Dave Lull):
I was thinking that perhaps philosophers are exactly what’s needed right now. Some deep thinking about what is happening at this moment?
Yes. From everybody. The real danger that’s facing us is we’ve lost respect for truth and facts. People have discovered that it’s much easier to destroy reputations for credibility than it is to maintain them. It doesn’t matter how good your facts are, somebody else can spread the rumour that you’re fake news. We’re entering a period of epistemological murk and uncertainty that we’ve not experienced since the middle ages.
Dennett in 2017 was much exercised over Donald Trump's alleged lies, exaggerations, unverifiable speculations, and whatnot. But I don't recall Dennett taking umbrage at the unprecedentedly brazen presidential lying of Barack Obama or the seemingly congenital lying of Hillary Clinton. Apparently, he is a typical uncritical Left-leaning academic. Still, he is right to take aim at postmodernism. Read on:
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There’s a perception that philosophy is a dusty discipline that belongs in academe, but actually, questions such as what is a fact and what is the truth are the fundamental questions of today, aren’t they?
Philosophy has not covered itself in glory in the way it has handled this. Maybe people will now begin to realise that philosophers aren’t quite so innocuous after all. Sometimes, views can have terrifying consequences that might actually come true. I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.”
So far, so good.
My understanding of postmodernism – and you’re a very prominent atheist – is that in the absence of a single meta-narrative, which is God, you had competing narratives…
Yes and one’s true and the others are false. One of those narratives is the truth and the others aren’t; it’s as simple as that.
Is it really so simple? Dennett is suggesting that his naturalist narrative is not a mere narrative, but the true narrative. If so, then there is truth; there is a way things are in themselves apart from our stories and beliefs and hopes and desires. Dennett and I agree that there is truth. But I wonder how logically consistent it is for Dennett to hold that there is truth given the rest of his views. This is a man who holds that consciousness is an illusion. He explains consciousness by explaining it away. Now I would say that the urge to explain and understand is the central animating nerve of the philosophical project. But Dennett takes it farther than I would. As Dennett says,
I put comprehension as one of my highest ideals. I want to understand everything. I want people to understand things. I love understanding things. I love explaining things to myself and to others.
Wanting to explain everything, Dennett wants to explain consciousness; but he finds that he can explain it only by explaining it away. But as I have already shown,
his attempt to explain consciousness fails to achieve a reduction to something more basic; it succeeds only in eliminating the very datum that he set out to explain.
My present question, however, is how consciousness could be an illusion but not truth. I say neither is an illusion. Consciousness cannot be an illusion for the simple reason that we presuppose it when we distinguish between reality and illusion. An illusion is an illusion to consciousness, so that if there were no consciousness there would be no illusions either.
This is because illusions have a sort of parasitic status. They are ontological parasites, if you will, whose being is fed by a host organism. But let's not push the parasitological comparison too far. The point is that, while there are illusions, they do not exist on their own. The coyote I wrongly take to be a domestic dog exists in reality, but the domestic dog does not. But while the latter does not exist in reality, it is not nothing either. The dog is not something in reality, but it is something for consciousness. If in the twilight I jump back from a twisted root on the trail, mis-taking it for a rattlesnake, the visual datum cannot possibly be regarded as nothing since it is involved in the explanation of why I jumped. I jumped because I saw (in the phenomenological sense of 'see') a rattlesnake. Outright hallucinations such as the proverbial pink rat of the drunkard are even clearer examples. In dreams I see and touch beautiful women. Do old men have nocturnal emissions over nothing?
Not existing in reality, illusions of all sorts, not just perceptual illusions, exist for consciousness. But then consciousness cannot be an illusion. Consciousness is a presupposition of the distinction between reality and illusion. As such, it cannot be an illusion. It must be real.
But here comes Danny the Sophist who asserts that consciousness is an illusion. Well, that is just nonsense sired by his otherwise laudable desire to explain things coupled with an uncritical and not-so-laudable conceit that everything can be explained. If consciousness is an illusion, then it is an illusion for consciousness. But then our sophist has moved in a circle, reinstating the very thing he was trying to get rid of. Or else he is embarked upon a vicious infinite regress. For suppose you say that consciousness is an illusion relative to consciousness*. Then either consciousness* is real or it is an illusion. If real, then game over. If illusory, then illusory relative to consciousness ** which is either real or illusory. Ergo et cetera ad infinitum. Not all infinite regresses are vicious, but this one clearly is.
Calling Dennett a sophist is not very nice, even though I have very good reason to impugn his intellectual integrity, as you will discover when you read my further critical installments. So let me try to be charitable. Our man is a naturalist and an explanatory rationalist: he is out to explain everything in naturalistic terms. But not everything can be so explained. Consciousness is not only presupposed by the distinction between reality and illusion, it is also presupposed by the quest for explanation. For where would explanations reside if not in the minds of conscious beings?
So I say consciousness cannot be an illusion. One cannot explain it the way Dennett wants to explain it, which involves explaining it away. For details, see the above embedded article.
But if consciousness, per impossibile, were an illusion, why wouldn't truth also be an illusion? Consciousness is supposedly an illusion because naturalism has no place for it. Whatever is real is reducible to the physical; consciousness is not reducible to the physical; ergo, consciousness does not exist in reality: it is an illusion.
By the same reasoning, truth ought also to be an illusion since there is no place for it in the natural world. Note also that Dennett obviously thinks that truth is objectively valuable and pursuit-worthy. Where locate values in a naturalist scheme? So he and the members of his tribe face two problems: find a place for objective truth in a material world, and do the same for objective values.
Wouldn't it be more consistent for Dennett to go whole hog and explain away both consciousness and truth? Perhaps he ought to go POMO (post-modern): there is no truth; there are only interpretations and perspectives of organisms grubbing for survival. What justifies him in privileging his naturalist narrative? It is one among many. Dennett calls his narrative the true narrative. He means that it is objectively true and thus uniquely in line with reality. But where, I would like to know, is there place for objective truth in the naturalists’ world? Could a brain state be true? That doesn’t even begin to make sense. One could wax mysterian at this point in the manner of Colin McGinn, but that escape route is not open to Dennett who is out to explain everything. He can’t just say: the mind is the brain; all mental activity is in reality brain activity; it is a mystery how this could be so, but it is so! That would be a ‘theological’ move akin to saying: Jesus Christ is fully divine and fully human and this is true despite its being logically absurd (Tertullian, Kierkegaard, et al.) Dennett’s going ‘theological’ would comport none too well, or rather not at all, with his scientistic need to explain everything and banish all mystery.
No physical thing, state, or process could be either true or false. A diffusion of sodium ions across a synaptic junction is neither true nor false; it just is or occurs. The vehicles of the truth values cannot be material items. A candidate vehicle is a judgment. But then mind has been brought back into the picture. Suppose you say instead that the truth-bearers (the vehicles of the truth values) are ideal or abstract objects along the lines of the theories of Bernard Bolzano and Gottlob Frege and numerous others who take a platonistic tack. Then you have brought in entities which, even if not mental, cannot be material. Will you tell me that sentences in the indicative mood are either true or false? But a sentence is just a string of physical marks on paper or a series of acoustic disturbances or suchlike and nothing like that could be either true or false. And what makes a sentence indicative (as opposed to imperative, interrogative optative, etc.) if not the intentions of the person who uses the sentence to say something? But then mind has been re-introduced in the intentions of the speaker. Only minds have intentions. If the mind is just the brain, then there are no intentions. And what about intentions themselves? Intentions in the narrow sense are a species of intentional (object-directed) mental states. Explaining the intentionality of beliefs, desires. intentions. memories, etc. is a major challenge for materialists/naturalists/physicalists and no one of their tribe has ever successfully pulled it off. It is not that Dennett has not thought hard about these problems; my point is that his explanations of the phenomena of mind are lame and must be lame given his antecedent commitment to metaphysical naturalism and its corresponding epistemology, scientism.
I say consciousness and truth are on a par: neither can be explained away. Neither is eliminable. Neither is an illusion. Both are part of what we must presuppose to explain anything.
Nietzsche had a great insight: No God, no truth. For the POMOs there is neither. For me there is both. For the inconsistent Dennett there is the second but not the first. Again, there is simply no place for truth in a wholly material world.
Dennett interview here.
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