BA77 points us to Galen Strawson’s brilliant The Consciousness Deniers in the New York Review of Books. Strawson takes to task his fellow materialists, especially Daniel Dennett, for espousing what he calls the Great Silliness. The Great Silliness is, of course, denying what I have called “the primordial datum” — each person’s subjective experience of his own consciousness.
Strawson notes that toward the middle of the twentieth century materialist philosophers began to argue that naturalistic materialism compels the conclusion that consciousness does not exist. He continues:
They reach this conclusion in spite of the fact that conscious experience is a wholly natural phenomenon, whose existence is more certain than any other natural phenomenon, and with which we’re directly acquainted, at least in certain fundamental respects.
Why do many materialists deny the primordial datum? Because they assume that the experience of consciousness cannot be reduced to physical causes, and since, by definition physical causes are the only kind of causes there are, it follows that consciousness does not exist, and what we perceive as consciousness must be an illusion.
Of course, this is idiotic, and Strawson heaps much deserved scorn on a view that absolutely demands that we deny as false that which we know to be true more than any other truth. How can prominent materialists like Daniel Dennett espouse a view that is so gobsmackingly stupid? Strawson answers with this sparkling gem:
The explanation is as ancient as it is simple. As Cicero says, there is “no statement so absurd that no philosopher will make it.” Descartes agrees, in 1637: “Nothing can be imagined which is too strange or incredible to have been said by some philosopher.” Thomas Reid concurs in 1785: “There is nothing so absurd which some philosophers have not maintained.” Louise Antony puts it like this in 2007: “There is… no banality so banal that no philosopher will deny it.”
Strawson is full of derision for his fellow materialists who assert that consciousness must be an illusion. But he remains a fully committed materialist, which leads to the question of how he proposes to explain consciousness on materialist premises. Here he disappoints. He says he has no idea how consciousness can be reduced to the physical properties of the brain and employs a tried and true materialist tactic. He issues a materialist promissory note. We have no idea now, but eventually we will. He takes essentially the same position that Thomas Nagel took in Mind & Cosmos – current materialist pronouncements on consciousness are uniformly bunkum, but that is no reason to give up on materialism. We must await developments.
Strawson says there is no reason to believe that materialism is incompatible with consciousness being a real phenomenon. He is wrong about that. A bag of chemicals otherwise identical to the bag of chemicals that is the human body is not conscious and never will be. Strawson’s belief that if the chemicals in the bag are configured just so, they will magically become subjectively self-aware is materialist superstition of the grossest sort.
At the end of the day Strawson’s and Nagel’s faith commitments to philosophical materialism allow them to follow the evidence only so far and no further. That’s OK. Nagel’s book and Strawson’s essay are still brilliant. C.S. Lewis said that when a group has taken a wrong turn, the most progressive one is not the one who doggedly keeps on going the wrong direction, but the one who turns around and starts back the other way. Philosophy took a serious wrong turn when the Daniel Dennetts and Sam Harris’s of the world started spouting their “consciousness is an illusion” drivel. Strawson and Nagel are the most progressive materialists, because they have performed a crisp about face and headed back toward sanity. Sure, they have not arrived at the destination yet. But at least they are heading in the right direction.