My Issues with Daniel Dennett

Dennett has been absent from philosophy of mind conferences for some time now. In fact I seem to remember being at an Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness meeting in Pasadena in 2005 and overhearing him say that he was passing on the torch to the younger generation (I forget who he was talking to at that time, and in fact it may have been at the Neurophilosophy conference held at CalTech that same weekend). At any rate he was true to his word and was absent from the scene for a period of time. He came back to participate in a few conferences, including the Online Consciousness Conference in 2013, now with his new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, he is back in full swing.

There has been a lot of discussion of his new book, including by himself, by Thomas Nagel in the New York Review of Books, and an extensive profile in The New Yorker, as well as a bunch of other places. I don’t know him personally, though we did email bunch as I co-ordinated the online consciousness conference and I did review a book that was devoted to his work and which had a response from him. Anyway, he seems like a really nice guy and he is certainly very smart but his philosophical views, and his way of doing philosophy in general, have always really bothered me.

I first encountered his work in a philosophy of mind course that I had with Kent Bach. This was at San Francisco State University and we were using the newly released The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates. We must have read three of Dennett’s papers in that class and I remember being very irritated with Dennett’s Quining Qualia and Time and the Observer papers. At the time I was a staunch supporter of Ned Block in his opposition to Dennett and I remember I wrote a lot about how I thought that Dennett was a verificationalist about consciousness. I remember I was in my modern philosophy class and the professor was talking about Descartes and how ‘radical’ his doubt was and he asked us if we could think of anything that Descartes hadn’t doubted and I said that he hadn’t doubted his own consciousness. He never asked the question, “am I a zombie, with no conscious experience (even though I believe that I have it)?” and so his method of doubt was not as radical as he thought. Dennett, on the other hand, had a truly radical kind of doubt. One that seemed impossibly absurd to me but even so it was struggling with Dennett’s arguments and ideas that really drew me into the philosophy of mind.

I had to re-read a lot of Dennett’s work to write the review of Content and Consciousness Reconsidered (linked to above) and now I have read his latest book (and watched his Talk at Google) and I can say I am as frustrated as ever with his work. I understand that he has a view (and that it is an interesting and clever one) and that he has been at this for a long time but it is astonishing to me that there is absolutely no engagement with the literature on this stuff. He does cite a lot of work but it is mostly people that Dennett is sympathetic to (or vice versa) or past students of his. He makes almost no attempt to engage with anything like a serious version of the arguments that people who don’t share his views have. And one starts to get the feeling that this is because he hasn’t read anything in the philosophy of mind during his absence.

For instance, in setting up his polemic he trots out the usual Cartesian Strawman to beg the question in effigy. He says,

The problem with Dualism, ever since Descartes, is that nobody has ever been able to offer a convincing account of how these postulated interactive transactions between mind and body could occur without violating the laws of physics. The candidates on display today offer us a choice between a revolution in science so radical that it can’t be described (which is convenient, since critics are standing by, ready to pounce) or a declaration that some things are just Mysteries, beyond human understanding (which is also convenient if you don’t have any ideas and want to exit swiftly).

I am not much of a supporter of Caresian Dualism but I am a supporter of taking one’s opponents seriously, and this doesn’t even come close!

Later he goes on to say,

Doggedly pursuing the idea that qualia are both the causes and the intentional objects (the existing intentional objects) of introspective beliefs leads to further artifactual fantasies, the most extravagant of which is the idea that unlike our knowledge of all other kinds of causation, our knowledge of mental causation is infallible and direct: we can’t be wrong when we declare that our subjective beliefs about the elements of our conscious experience are caused by those very elements. We have “privileged access” to the causes or sources of our introspective convictions. No logical room for any tricksters intervening here! We couldn’t be victimized by any illusions here! You might be a zombie, unwittingly taking yourself to have real consciousness with real qualia, but I know that I am not a zombie! No, you don’t. The only support for that conviction is the vehemence of the conviction itself, and as soon as you allow the theoretical possibility that there could be zombies, you have to give up your papal authority about your own nonzombiehood. I cannot prove this, yet, but I can encourage would-be consciousness theorists to recognize the chasm created by this move and recognize that they can’t have it both ways.

It is passages like this that drive me up the wall. I am not a dualist and I have spent a lot of time arguing that zombie are not actually conceivable but it is absolutely not the case that once you allow the possibility of zombies you loose knowledge that you aren’t a zombie. To even try to conceive of zombies requires first acknowledging that consciousness is real. My conviction that it is real comes from my own experience of it. It is a perfectly coherent view to say that I know that I am conscious and yet there could be creatures who had ‘beliefs’ like mine and yet lacked consciousness. I don’t hold that view but Dennett is much too glib here!

This is a general problem with Dennett’s work. He may be (re-)presenting his world view but there is very little effort to engage with the other side in a serious way. It is as though it is still 1965 and the main bad guy is Descartes-as-Ryle-understood-him and that doesn’t seem true. In addition Dennett’s discussion is so vague that it could fit with any number of actual theories of consciousness, including dualist ones! And there is almost no discussion of what is probably his actual view on consciousness which is almost certainly Global Workspace Theory (with some special Dennett-spice added in).

Here is his big argument against dualism:

Let’s suppose then that there is a subjective property of some kind that “explains” your current introspective convictions and abilities. Let’s suppose, that is, that when you experience what seems to be a horizontal red stripe, there really is, somewhere, a horizontal-shaped red quale (whatever that is) and it is somehow the cause or source of your conviction that you are experiencing a horizontal red stripe, and that this rendering in some unknown medium is caused or triggered by the confirmation (the absence of disconfirmation) of all the expectations generated by the normal operation of your visual system. Just to make the supposition as clear as possible, here is a somewhat expanded version of the purported explanation of the red afterimage effect:

Fixating on the real green stripes in front of you for a few seconds fatigues the relevant neural circuits in the complementary color system, which then generate a false signal (red, not green), which does not get disconfirmed so long as the fatigue lasts, so somewhere fairly high in the process betwixt retina and, um … the philosophical conviction center, a red stripe-shaped quale is rendered, and it is the appreciation of this quale that grounds, fuels, informs, causes, underwrites the philosophical conviction that right now you are enjoying a stripe-shaped red quale.

This spells out the idea behind the rhetorical question: We need something like this— don’t we?— to explain the undeniable fact that it sure seems to you there’s a red stripe right now. You’re not just saying this (the way a robot might, if programed to be a model of complementary color afterimages); you believe it with all your heart and soul. Fine. So now we have qualia installed in our sketchy model of the process. What next? Something would have to have access to the rendering in that medium (otherwise, the rendered qualia would be wasted, unwitnessed, and unappreciated, like a beautiful painting locked in an empty room). Call whatever it is that has this access the inner observer. Now what do you suppose an appropriate reaction to this rendering by this inner observer would be? What else but the judgment that there sure seems to be a red stripe out there, part of an apparent American flag? But that conclusion had already been arrived at in the course of the nondisconfirmed expectations. A red stripe in a particular location in visual space had already been identified by the system; that conclusion was the information that informed the inner rendering (the way a bitmap informs the rendering of colors on your computer screen). The postulation of qualia is just doubling up the cognitive work to be done. There is no more work (or play) for consciousness to do.

Now again, I am no fan of dualism but this is not fair at all. To name just one thing, for the dualist conscious experience is a datum and a theory needs to account for that. This is a point I am in agreement with them on. We start from the first-person knowledge that we are conscious. Hypothetical zombies, were they really conceivable (instead of just seemingly so), would not start from the position of first-person knowledge (by stipulation we differ from them in this respect). In addition I would add that from the panpsychist or panprotopsychist position there is a role for consciousness to play as the fundamental basis of the causal powers manifested by physical objects but to know that you might have to read something that has been written in the last 10 years and Dennett seems not to have done that!

This is why it has been nice to see philosophers like Keith Frankish defending illusionism with actual arguments. In fact one might wonder if the HOROR theory that I sometimes defend should count as a kind of illusionism. On the HOROR theory phenomenal consciousness consists in having a suitable higher-order representation of oneself as being in a mental state. I was originally going to write something for the Illusionism special issue but the newly acquired duties of parenthood (not to mention a 6/3-6/3 teaching load) overwhelmed me.

But I like to think that if I had managed to write that paper I would have suggested that the HOROR theory is compatible with illusionism but I myself do not see it as a version of it.

17 thoughts on “My Issues with Daniel Dennett

  1. So, we are talking about physiological, and neurological, properties of the body and brain. Physiological properties that follow the laws of physics, chemistry , biology and that evolved over 3-4 billion years.

    And ALL these folks discuss is the solipsistic, self referential semantics of everyday language and academic english at that!? Boy, what a gig.

    • You obviously are not aware of the literature surrounding consciousness or have given it much thought. To say “happiness” is merely physically described as physics, and chemistry, and biology and nothing more is to dismiss the very notion of a mental state which, some argue and I agree, in a way which leaves out one of the main components of it: the qualitative experience. This seems to be something above mere physical description, or so it seems to me. Dennett’s book ‘Consciousness Explained’ has been referred to as “Consciousness Explained Away’.

      And what is “academic english”?

      • This is very simple – take any of the so-called “concepts” in philosophy/consciousness/theology/etc and describe how they are measured across species — as any valid biological concept must be.

        “I am not sure where you get ad hominem out of this……I do not know of any other philosophers who have acted in this way for so many years. It is quite an interesting phenomenon.” Duh, so the ideas are valid or not based on how DD “acted.” Is this claim unintelligent or dishonest? Probably both.

        • Hi Rich and Co. I don’t think there was any ad hominem here because no one was trying to say that Dennett is wrong. Also, frankly, I don’t care for your tone and would ask that if comment here further you do so with more respect. I am happy to discuss these issues, including whether there was anyFinally, ad hominem fallacies committed, but commenting here is not something that you are entitled to so please behave or you will lose that privilege.

          Finally, these ideas have been tested in humans and animals…why not read a couple of the papers on this? There is now a lot of literature out there aiming to empirically test theories of consciousness (I have even occasionally contributed to that literature).

      • Argument by authority. But I do agree with your conclusion. It seems to me qualia or subjective experience itself is the elephant in the room that Dennett is carelessly trying to sweep under the rug. We all see it but Dennett pretends its not there and not even trying to make real arguments against it. It looks to me like he’s trying to claim
        1 . A homunculus is required for Qualia to exist.
        2. Homunculus arguments are wrong
        3. There fore qualia doesn’t exist.

        None of us agrees with the first premise and I think he (Dennett) knows that yet still insists on feeding us these red herrings to argue against Qualia.

        I also agree that his reductional balck arguments about Qualia and emotional experience are inapropriate as they don’t explain how or why we feel this “Illusion of Qualia”.

  2. I think you have this quite right. I saw Dennett at two APAs in the early 90s and I was struck by his utter indifference to direct, cogent objections to something or another he said. I mean, it was to the point that he came as, well, RUDE (certainly vastly uncharitable) in his responses. I was quite taken with Quining Qualia and I think there is lots of room in philosophy for learning from philosopher’s mistakes. Dennett certainly became a voice one had to respond to and some of my favorite papers are the Block/Dennett/Shoemaker debate of the 80s. But I learned a lot from digging through the obliviousness to try and figure out where Dennett got things wrong. His voice has such certitude he almost brow beat’s with it.

      • I am not sure where you get ad hominem out of this. And Dennett does deal with real issues as do others questioning Dennett. That is what philosophers DO. However, I agree with Richard when he notes that Dennett seems side-step cogent objections by ignoring them and doing it for years. This is not say Dennett is wrong because of this. But it is an issue which is strangely centered on Dennett. I do not know of any other philosophers who have acted in this way for so many years. It is quite an interesting phenomenon.

        • Hi Ben Ricker, thanks for the comments…sadly I think his example encourages others to imitate and we may see more of this from less interesting thinkers…

    • Richard, I hope you do not mind me stepping in here but I am interested in this topic and have some resources at hand.
      Kevin, unfortunately your question is rather hard to answer. Philosophy does not necessarily have “main texts” within “10 years or so” which Richard (and I) have in mind when we say Dennett ignores them. Richard pointed to Dennett’s use of a particular notion of dualism which is hardly shared with anyone else’s extant writing. Dennett just POSITS that this is what dualism IS and it question begs many dualist’s notion of dualism. Mainly dualism is a negative stance (generally construed; Not Dennett’s sense): dualist’s argue that materialism (or physicalism) cannot explain aspect of consciousness. That is, to explain consciousness fully, a theory of consciousness must explain aspects which, the dualist argues, materialist/physicalist theories cannot explain adequately, or at all.
      So getting back to your question: maybe Richard can name off some, but I would suggest you look for yourself. Here is a resource: . The papers are sorted by type of objection to materialism/physicalism, then alphabetically. You can easily look at the dates of publication for the 10 year mark and look for “online” next to the title for online texts. I do not know your access to papers behind academic paywalls.
      Finally, I would throw in the following which is closer to Dennett: This is particular papers regarding all kinds of responses to Dennett and what he misses. I am sure that many of them have the same issue with Dennett that Richard does.
      Do this will give you primary texts that dualists have written objecting to mere physical theories of consciousness and dualists (and others) objections to Dennett’s work on consciousness specifically. I think the pattern will be clear.

      • Forgot to say: you might want to key on the following sections on Dennett:
        1.4e Eliminativism about Consciousness
        1.7c Eliminativism about Qualia
        4.1c Eliminative Materialism

        Note also that many papers are people agreeing with Dennett as well. You can mostly tell by the titles/abstracts where someone stands on Dennett’s work.

      • Good, now this seems a much more productive discussion. We have ideas vs an assumption that ideas are somehow attached to an individual, which seems a separate question.

        Maybe yes, maybe no, but that “belief” is a cultural trope and not empirical fact – yet. As a rhetorical convention it seems innocent but is perhaps not. Anyway….

        Can I ask for an unpacking of the simple phrase “mere physical theories.” What other kinds of theories are there? Magical, imaginary?

        What kinds of word referents could possibly be used to “explain” non physical aspects. I don’t see the problem-solving value of semantics but – doesn’t “explain” imply statements that predict measurable events in the future? Or how can the claim of “explain” be validated, across people?

        • I do not see your response as productive. You seem to be asking for a theory of: meaning, reference, explanation, and theories while seemingly assuming beliefs around those yourself (which are also undefended). I do not have the time nor the inclination to respond.

        • mere physical theories = “Materialism” which is what you believe clearly (Not sure why you think belief is a trope). Which theories are non physical or rather non materialist theories? Idealism and modern dualism comes to mind off hand.

          by your definition of “Explain” requiring a deterministic universe I guess we can’t Explain quantum physics, free will or the idea that freewill is an illusion or Qualia. It sounds to me like your playing up to the loki’s wager fallacy. You declare just like dennett that if something is undefinable its not worth discussing which is of course would be very convenient for you and dennett if it were true.

  3. This is a good analysis. I have literally never seen this much goalpost-moving, hand-waving, and blatant denial of reality from one writer to the point where I have a hard time interpreting his arguments in good faith. I believe that you can disagree with someone and still respect their beliefs, but I really have no respect for Dennett’s ideas on consciousness because of how ill-founded they are. The concept of “intuition pumps” is so baffling to me because it’s a concept he invented to solve a problem that didn’t exist because he misread someone else’s paper. Yet he uses these dishonest appeals to intuition in all of the subsequent works of his I’ve read. Perhaps his main aim is to sell books, I really can’t tell.

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