In a sense, the entire logic of From Bacteria to Bach and Back (though not, of course, all the repetitious details) could be predicted simply from Dennett’s implicit admission on page 364 that no philosopher of mind before Descartes is of any consequence to his thinking. The whole pre-modern tradition of speculation on the matter — Aristotle, Plotinus, the Schoolmen, Ficino, and so on — scarcely qualifies as prologue. And this means that, no matter how many times he sets out, all his journeys can traverse only the same small stretch of intellectual territory. After all, Descartes was remarkable not because, as Dennett claims, his vision was especially “vivid and compelling” — in comparison to the subtleties of earlier theories, it was crude, bizarre, and banal — but simply because no one before him had attempted systematically to situate mental phenomena within a universe otherwise understood as a mindless machine. It was only thus that the “problem” of the mental was born.
In the end, Dennett’s approach has remained largely fixed. Rather than a sequence of careful logical arguments, his method remains, as ever, essentially fabulous: That is, he constructs a grand speculative narrative, comprising a disturbing number of sheer assertions, and an even more disturbing number of missing transitions between episodes. It is often quite a beguiling tale, but its power of persuasion lies in its sprawling relentlessness rather than its cogency. Then again, to be fair, it is at least consistent in its aims. No less than the ancient Aristotelian model of reality, Dennett’s picture is meant to be one in which nature and mind are perfectly congruent with one another, and in which, therefore, the post-Cartesian dilemma need never rear its misshapen head.
And that — though agonizingly protracted over several hundred pages — is the tale Dennett tells. Were it not for a half-dozen or so explanatory gaps, some of which are positively abyssal in size, it would no doubt amount to something more than just a ripping yarn. But, as it stands, it is nonsense.
Yes, nonsense. But we will not understand our times unless we grasp that this sort of nonsense sells! And little else does.
Dennett is known for claiming that Darwinism is the single greatest idea anyone ever had. It made him a hit among talk show hosts, celebs, and science writers. Easy, agreeable nonsense, suited to their intellectual capacities and aspirations.
But, alas, his story does not hold together. Some of the problems posed by mental phenomena Dennett simply dismisses without adequate reason; others he ignores. Most, however, he attempts to prove are mere “user-illusions” generated by evolutionary history, even though this sometimes involves claims so preposterous as to verge on the deranged.
Not to worry, Big Pharma is bringing out a pill for those times when naturalists worry that nonsense might be a problem. Dennett is best known for claiming that consciousness is a user illusion, like the icons on a computer screen. Hart replies,
The entire notion of consciousness as an illusion is, of course, rather silly. Dennett has been making the argument for most of his career, and it is just abrasively counterintuitive enough to create the strong suspicion in many that it must be more philosophically cogent than it seems, because surely no one would say such a thing if there were not some subtle and penetrating truth hidden behind its apparent absurdity. But there is none. The simple truth of the matter is that Dennett is a fanatic: He believes so fiercely in the unique authority and absolutely comprehensive competency of the third-person scientific perspective that he is willing to deny not only the analytic authority, but also the actual existence, of the first-person vantage. At the very least, though, he is an intellectually consistent fanatic, inasmuch as he correctly grasps (as many other physical reductionists do not) that consciousness really is irreconcilable with a coherent metaphysical naturalism. Since, however, the position he champions is inherently ridiculous, the only way that he can argue on its behalf is by relentlessly, and in as many ways as possible, changing the subject whenever the obvious objections are raised.
For what it is worth, Dennett often exhibits considerable ingenuity in his evasions — so much ingenuity, in fact, that he sometimes seems to have succeeded in baffling even himself…
But ingenuity in evasions wouldn’t diminish Dennett’s popularity among those who Stand For Science, would it? They’re all evading the problem of the invasion of post-modernism in science, looking for irrelevant causes and parties to blame.
Simply enough, you cannot suffer the illusion that you are conscious because illusions are possible only for conscious minds. This is so incandescently obvious that it is almost embarrassing to have to state it. But this confusion is entirely typical of Dennett’s position. In this book, as he has done repeatedly in previous texts, he mistakes the question of the existence of subjective experience for the entirely irrelevant question of the objective accuracy of subjective perceptions, and whether we need to appeal to third-person observers to confirm our impressions. But, of course, all that matters for this discussion is that we have impressions at all.
Hart is right, of course, but the fact is, people with degrees think themselves clever for not grasping such an obvious fact. Maybe their ignorance is a rite of passage. It signals that they are truly In and can’t be attacked.
Certainly, if Dennett’s book encourages one to adopt any position at all, reason dictates that it be something like the exact reverse of the one he defends. The attempt to reduce the phenomena of mental existence to a purely physical history has been attempted before, and has so far always failed. But, after so many years of unremitting labor, and so many enormous books making wildly implausible claims, Dennett can at least be praised for having failed on an altogether majestic scale. More.
It’s hard to think of a more consummate takedown of the Darwinblather that infests public discussion of consciousness these days, frequently funded by skeptical but helpless taxpayers. But so? Dozens of elegant and worthless “consciousness is just a … ” essays are doubtless in the works, facing few objections.
Should we start by refusing to fund philosophy departments until they start addressing real issues instead of fronting lazy garbage for pop science writers at failing media?
See also: Thomas Nagel: Daniel Dennett “maintaining a thesis at all costs” in Bacteria to Bach and Back
Lots of elegant but futile essays about consciousness
Post-modern science: The illusion of consciousness sees through itself
Would we give up naturalism to solve the hard problem of consciousness?