Daniel Dennett and the Man in the Mirror

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett does a fine job explaining the wonders and mysteries of the world from a naturalistic point of view. However, his answer to the problem of consciousness is different from his other answers. I illustrate this point with an analogy.

Daniel Dennett has a good record of explaining deep aspects of our existence in a way that is based on science and reason without losing the sense of wonder and meaning in the world. Of course, not everyone agrees. Whenever you explain things like the evolution of life or the freedom of the will (or, goodness forbid, religion) in a naturalistic, demystifying manner, some people will be dissatisfied. They want to keep the “mysterious” level of explanation that’s not really an explanation. For a perfect example of what this means, see my review of Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel.

You can see it in Dennett’s writing that he’s aware of this, and he has mentioned that people who can’t get into his way of thinking make the strangest statements about what he supposedly believes. However, there’s one question where his opponents have a point: the problem of explaining phenomenal consciousness.

I have no desire to keep consciousness mysterious or embrace dualism. I’d love it if it had already been explained in the kind of way Dennett does with everything else. However, I’m forced to admit that it hasn’t been — and that Dennett’s answer this time only skips the problem.

So, when Dennett explains most things, what happens between him and his critics is usually akin to this:

Dennett meets a man who, like Tarzan, has lived most of his life in a jungle. There were no mirrors in the jungle, and the water was always murky, so when the jungle man sees a real mirror for the first time, he asks Dennett why there’s an identical stranger behind a window mimicking his every move.

Dennett explains that there is no man in the window; it’s just a reflective surface turning back light so that the jungle man sees his own image in it. He points out that this explains everything that the jungle man is seeing.

The jungle man protests that he can clearly see that there’s a real man and Dennett’s explanation is useless because it doesn’t explain the man. (Dennett sighs. This again.)

However, when Dennett is explaining phenomenal consciousness, something different happens.

The jungle man asks Dennett why there’s an identical stranger behind a window mimicking his every move. This time, Dennett explains that there is no man because the theory of all physical objects doesn’t need to postulate such a man. You can’t touch him — no matter what you do, you can only touch the mirror’s surface — and he doesn’t exert gravity on other objects and so on. So while there is a mirror and all that, it makes no sense to ask about a man.

The jungle man protests that Dennett hasn’t explained the appearance that there’s a man in the mirror. So maybe it’s not a physical object – then what is it? Maybe it’s an illusion, but what creates it?

Dennett sighs and tells everyone that the jungle man won’t stop making the assumption that there must be a physical man in the mirror.


“The Machine” and the big problem with the continuity of consciousness

Existential Comics is a webcomic about philosophy — mostly about parodying philosophers and philosophical ideas for inside joke laughs, sometimes making profound observations. Perhaps the most profound comic is the first one, “The Machine”. I recommend that you take a few minutes to read it right now. Either way, I’m going to use it to illustrate an important question that it brings up.

The comic begins with the invention of teleporters that can be used to flawlessly teleport even people. However, some people think being teleported means death, and not without reason.

Existential Comics The Machine 3-4

If the teleporter takes you from one place to another instantly, without your passing in between, then what it really does is in at least some sense to destroy the original you and create a new one in the next place. If you don’t think so, what do you say to the two examples of thought experiments at the end of the panel above? But then, doesn’t this mean that when you teleport, you die and a clone is created in your place, one that thinks it’s you but isn’t because you’re forever dead? Continue reading

Review: Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel

Mind and CosmosThomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos is subtitled “Why the Materialistic Neo-Darwinist Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False,” so obviously it’s moving in controversial territory. Unsurprisingly, it has been hotly rejected by the orthodox (though not that hotly), and praised by theistic creationists even though it entirely denies creationism and theism. Nagel thinks that Darwinian explanations of evolution cannot explain the emergence of things like consciousness and that a different kind of explanation will be needed.

I’m not crazy about this book myself, but it has some good points, and I have some respect for Nagel himself. I will review it as objectively as I can and in some detail.

It should be made clear that Nagel does not actually question the fact of evolution, merely the explanation that it has been guided by natural selection. For some reason or other, Nagel is not convinced by the power of natural selection to do this. He doesn’t really say why — it’s pretty much just an argument from incredulity. The first chapter does contain enough references to sources I hadn’t read that are supposed to support his views that it left me thinking maybe there’s something there worth looking into, but that something wasn’t given here. Mind you, the only author referenced whom I had really read was Stuart Kauffman, who surely would not support Nagel’s stance. Kauffman thinks self-organisation in addition to natural selection has had a role in evolution, but his self-organisation is something you get free as a surprising result of the known laws, not something you need to add like Nagel supposes. So Kauffman’s view mainly implies everything could have evolved more easily than Darwinism supposes — not less easily. (It should be said that Kauffman does think natural selection without self-organisation would not be enough.) Nagel’s stance that creationist arguments against evolution have brought out good points doesn’t really inspire confidence either, considering what I know of them. Continue reading