D. R. Khashaba
Thomas Nagel has published penetrating review of Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach abs Back: The Evolution of Minds: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/03/09/is-consciousness-an-illusion-dennett-evolution/ – In what follows I do not intend to comment on either Dennett’s book (which I have not read) or on Nagel’s review (which I am just beginning to read) but am simply giving some marginal thoughts that, following my inveterate habit, I note down as I read.
The very title of Dennett’s book reveals the vicious rut positivist thinking cannot escape. “From bacteria to Bach” runs the title. Since we can trace the emergence of humans back to bacteria then Bach is complicated bacterium and nothing more. As Nagel says, “Dennett holds fast to the assumption that we are just physical objects”: that says it all, for that ‘assumption’ is just the programme of scientific inquiry. Science investigates all things, animate and inanimate, as ‘just physical objects’, and that is what enabled science to work all its wonders up to the digital revolution we are living through. If only scientists could acknowledge what Socrates knew long ago (and Kant re-affirmed more than two centuries ago), that ‘investigation into things’ only tells us about the superficies of things but not about what is inside, perhaps the raging battle of Gods and Giants (Plato, Sophist, 246a-c) would abate. It would be asking too much to expect that scientists would further acknowledge that ‘the inside’, the subjective, the nous, psuchê, phronêsis, is what is really real as Plato maintained.
I maintain, and have repeatedly asserted, that even if and when we succeed in making a living organism from matter and if and when we can make a computer that has initiative and will, we will only have prodded nature to produce in a short time what previously took millions or trillions of years to produce, but we will not even then have cracked the mysteries of Life and Mind, which are as stubborn as the mystery of Being.
At the root of the contrast between the “manifest image” and the “scientific image I see what A. N. Whitehead termed “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness”. We live, we experience our joys and sorrows, ambitions and disappointments, in a world of rainbows and smiles and tears; not even Dennett or Stephen Hawking lives in a world of electrons and quarks.
My mind boggles at “design that is not the product of intention and that does not depend on understanding.”. I readily agree that there is design in DNA and I not only agree but insist that we have no need for an outside designer _ but it is at this point that the tables are turned, for, to my mind, that can only mean that there is intelligence inside the DNA. And if Plato insists that all things are fundamentally nothing but dunamis , I say that Reality is ultimately intelligent creativity.
I also pause at: “organisms like bacteria and trees that have no comprehension at all”. What justification do we have for making such a statement? That only humans have conceptual thinking is something we can believe. But what do I know about what goes on inside any other being other than myself?
Nagel refers to ‘an illuminating metaphor’ of Dennet’s where he asserts that the manifest image that depicts the world in which we live our everyday lives is composed of a set of user-illusions,”. I suppose these useful ‘user-illusioms’ are the concepts (Plato’s forms) that the mind creates to give identity and meaning to things and events. I often term them ‘fictions’, particularly those used by scientists, because they do not represent actual things. It is the intelligence behind those illusions that is the one reality we know and know immediately and indubitably. All else is passing shadow. — But what Nagel goes on to say indicates that Dennett rather had in mind our bodies’ and nature ’s processes, which is a different thing, about which however I see no problem. I am grateful that I am not conscious of the working of my liver and kidneys. — But again, when the ‘user-illusion’ is tied to the ‘manifest image’ we are back to the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”. The colour and the scent of the rose are not an illusion any more than the thirst-quenching water is an illusion because to the scientist it is a combination of hydrogen and oxygen.
A ‘mindless machine (can) do arithmetic perfectly”for the simple reason that the whole of arithmetic is an artificial structure created bt the human mind on the basis of the brilliant idea of the number series.
A marginal question by the way: for an illusion to be an illusion must there not be a mind that fabricates the illusion and entertains the illusion?
How language originated is a legitimate concern of science but as a philosopher what matters to me is that language gives me a meaningful world where I live a meaningful life. It would be sheer folly to deny myself the enjoyment of that life because Dennett labels it an illusion. Dennett does not commit that folly: he enjoys writing books and enjoys the celebrity those books bring him.
The “biological evolution of the human brain” may have given us conceptual reflective thinking which is the glory and the bane of human beings, but to my mind, we have a profounder intelligence evidenced in our spontaneous activity and in poetic and artistic creativity and I see no reason why that profounder intelligence may not be shared by all life or even all being. This I call a metaphysical myth, for about ultimate things we must confess that we know nothing, but mythologize we must, for in mythologizing we create for ourselves visions in which we live intelligently in intelligible worlds. Call that illusion if you will; I call it creative thinking. Further I maintain that when we acknowledge our myths to be myths, then that clears it of self-deception.
I don’t say with Nagel “if Dennett is right that we are physical objects”: of course we are physical objects, but we are other things as well. I prefer to see a human being as a unity of multiple planes of being. I explained what I mean by this in several places of my writings: what I want to affirm here is that however we might have become what we have become, what concerns me as a human being is that my mind, my thought, my feelings, my ideals are what give me character and value and worth; what concerns me as a philosopher is to assert that I find these more real than galaxies and than electrons and quarks. The reductionist standing before a bed of daisies closes his eyes to the flowers and only sees the soil.
To say that “consciousness is not part of reality in the way the brain is” is a platitude. Of course consciousness is not objective and therefore not observable or measurable; it is sheer subjectivity; and of course there is no such thing as consciousness because consciousness is not a thing; and the word ‘consciousness’ does not correspond to any entity since it is a token we use for our inner reality, hence I am prepared to call it (the word, the concept) a fiction, but that is what I call all concepts and in the first place the concepts of science; Dennett calls consciousness a user-illusion, I say it is the one reality of which we are immediately and indubitably aware. (In my writings I regularly shun the word ‘consciousness’, preferring to speak of mind or intelligence instead.)
Without intending any offence, I think that Dennett’s position can be characterized as a kind of reverse insanity. An insane person lives in a world of his own not shared by others. Dennett chooses to deny himself the world shared by all others seeing it as an illusion, though he is obliged to share in it in practice.
When we say that the concept of mind “does not capture an inner reality” that only means there is no object within us to captire and that is perfectly true. Our inner reality, as I have repeatedly asserted, is not an object; I refuse even to call it an entity; it is sheer creative intelligence or, better said, intelligent creativity. Hence I call for a revolutionary change in our terminology: what is really real does not exist precisely because it is real; all that exists is essentially transient: Plato saw all things outside the mind as passing shadow; it is the mind and the ideas of the mind that he indifferently called ousia, to on, ho estin.
What will the effect of Dennett’s book be on its readers? They will certainly continue to live according to their ‘user-illusions’ but they will tend to belittle all things of the mind, all ideals, all sentiments, all spiritual values.
There is no denying that “there is much more behind our behavioral competencies than is revealed to the first-person point of view”. I am quite happy with that. A competent physiologist would find it difficult to describe what goes on when I take a sip of coffee; this does not diminish my enjoyment. I know nothing about acoustics; that does not prevent me enjoying a Mozart concerto. And it is these, the relish of the coffee and the beauty of the music that matter to me. Here again, Whitehead’s insight regarding the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ is releant.
I would not say that the reality of subjective experience is incompatible with scientific mechanism but that it is on a plane of being not amenable to the methods of objective science. Socrates long ago saw that the investigation into things (en tois ergois) and the investigation of pure ideas (en tois logois) answer different questions and belong to different worlds (Phaedo, 95e-102a). But this is a lesson that even professional philosophers have failed to absorb.
I go completely with Nagel where he says: “The spectacular progress of the physical sciences since the seventeenth century was made possible by the exclusion of the mental from their purview.” But I have to differ when he goes on to say that “science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain.” To my mind this can never be. Even if scientists achieve the dream of a ‘theory of everything’ the theory will apply only to everything physical. The things of the mind – meanings and ideals and values – can only be approached when, as Plato says, the mind by itself and in itself looks within itself. Failure to see this is what has exposed philosophy to ridicule and mockery and led brilliant scientists to talk nonsense. Science will always deal with the outside of things and philosophy with the inside, not of things, but of the mind alone.
Nagel quotes approvingly what Dennett says about the hopes we place on the development of artificial intelligence. Dennett wisely sees the real danger in that “we will over-estimate the comprehension of our latest thinking tools, prematurely ceding authority to them far beyond their competence.” This is indeed a real and imminent danger. I am glad I can end on a note of agreement with both Dennett and Nagel.
D. R. Khashaba
March 5, 2017
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