Daniel Dennett interviewed by Richard Marshall.
[Photo: Steve Pyke}
Daniel Dennett is the mild mannered super wizard of philosophical brainstorms. Everyone knows about him by now and his books are read all over whenever people want to get straight ideas on Darwin, minds and consciousness, religion and how to philosophise. This makes him a rare case of a contemporary philosopher who is now a baddass public intellectual. His new book is ‘Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking‘ and is making waves. There are interviews and articles and events galore about this new book so instead of talking about it 3ammagazine talked about a whole bunch of other stuff instead but unfortunately not Freedom Evolves, nor his ideas about the singularity because he’s written about that here, nor any of his other sassy books either. You’re velcro.
3:AM: You’re a naturalist but in philosophical circles this isn’t a precise term. So what do you mean when you call yourself a naturalist philosopher?
Daniel Dennett: I mean that I assume, defeasibly, that nothing is supernatural, in the sense of violating the laws of nature (as understood today). But more, I think the signs are good that we won’t discover any phenomena (e.g., paranormal phenomena, ESP, . . . ) or devise any theoretical innovations (superluminal speeds, etc) that oblige us significantly to expand or truncate the set of what currently are accepted as laws of nature. New principles (e.g., of string theory or one of its competitors) may unify elements of our current scientific image, but not by overthrowing any of them. I see no reason to believe that the ontology of nature will be significantly enlarged in the future (we have recently discovered vast numbers of unicellular life forms–bacteria, archaea, . . . — that more than double the catalogue (in both number of lineages and in sheer mass) of life on earth, but these are “more of the same”, not altogether new life forms. And if we discover life forms on other planets, their chemistry may be different from our biochemistry, but it will be explicable in terms of the chemistry and physics we already have. In other words, I am fairly conservative about what counts as the laws of nature, and see no good reason (yet) to anticipate revolutions.
I also hold, defeasibly, that all the real patterns discernible in biology, and via the social sciences, will be explicable in these terms, though not “reducible” in any simplistic ways. (I don’t expect economics to “reduce” to chemistry, but I think the regularities of economics are higher-order regularities of physical, chemical, biological structures.) And I think that such human phenomena as art, music, literature, humor, and ethics can be explained with theories that build on the same foundations. I do not view this as a ‘reductionist’ stance because I think many of the real patterns discernible in these high-level (or ‘special’) sciences cannot be compactly described at any lower levels. (See my “Real Patterns,” for the details.)
3:AM: In the conference ‘Moving Naturalisim Forward‘ there was a clear contrast between ‘mad dog naturalist’ Alex Rosenberg’s position and yours. Alex’s view seemed to be both austere and clear – perhaps the clarity came from the austerity of his vision – and seemed to find yours far too lavish. Why doesn’t Alex’s position appeal to you?
DD: Because it sets a standard for “reality” that is gratuitously demanding. As I understand Alex’s position, he has to say that dollars, numbers, opportunities, free will, colors, . . .. are illusory, not real at all. There are no home runs, no coronations, no elections, no purchases, . . . . That is his mad dog naturalism, as I understand it. I take my inspiration from Sellars about “things in the broadest possible sense” and have no qualms about accepting, as things, many candidates for thinghood that Alex is obliged to reject. But in the end, I suppose he has some way of granting that economics, for instance, is getting at real patterns, even if the ‘things’ mentioned in economic models are not real. I find that Pickwickian, but hey, that seems to make it an aesthetic preference on my part, rather than a substantive difference of opinion. His view is, however, deeply misleading to non-philosophers, I would think. I pity the person who burns his bank records in a celebratory spirit of ontological austerity because he has been convinced by Alex that they express fictions; there is no money, not really.
3:AM: A big issue in that conference was how we can explain ‘emergent’ things like consciousness and biology and economics from physics. This has been something you’ve been grappling with most of your philosophical life – especially in the area of minds. If the building blocks are unconscious and governed by laws then how can there be things like consciousness, freewill and the like? Do you agree that there are these building blocks or do you agree with someone like James Ladyman who refuses to say the small things of quantum mechanics are any more fundamental than things at another scale?
DD: I am tempted by Ladyman and Ross, but I still think that the building-blocks imagery is very useful. I hold that opinion for the same reasons that we can all agree (can’t we?) that even though atoms aren’t colored, and electromagnetic radiation isn’t colored, macroscopic objects are genuinely colored. And even though proteins and carbon atoms aren’t alive, they and their ilk can be the proper parts of things that are, genuinely, alive. I think we no longer have a hard time understanding and accepting that the existence of color, or life, doesn’t depend on these properties being instantiated “all the way down”. Living things can be made of non-living things, colored things out of non-colored things, and—one of my pet examples of the same perspective—things with free will worth wanting can be constructed of things that do not have free will in any sense.
3:AM: Consciousness is one of your big issues that you’ve been wrestling with for years and years. You have the theory of homonculi to do the explaining, although you’ve recently adapted it a little haven’t you? Could you say something about how you think we should think about these matters and in particular say a lttle about how your theory of mind has been subtly nuanced recently?
DD: I used to think that by the time you got down to the individual neurons, you had operatives that could be “replaced by a machine”. I have come to see neurons as actually too agential, too autonomous, too complex, for this to be an appropriate way of putting it. OF COURSE the whole person can be replaced by a machine, but a vastly complicated machine unlike any machine we have ever built. Imagine a Martian saying that, say, New York City, with its millions of people playing thousands of roles, could be replaced by a machine. Yes, but some of the pivotal “machine parts” of NYC are whole people, with lives, biographies, religions, aspirations, . . . Better to hold off the idea of machine replacement until we get down to the level of, say, motor proteins. They are mindless little machines, not alive, “just” very well designed macromolecules.
3:AM: You say consciousness is a kind of illusion. I’ve always wanted to ask you what you think it is an illusion of? After all, you like it to a magic trick where the magician makes us believe we’re seeing something eg a woman being sawed in half, when of course we’re not. But with, say, the green cross we see after we’ve stared at a red cross on a white screen and then the lights go off, you say there is no green – not in the head nor out of the head, just the illusion of green. But that relies on having a real consciousness of green to be tricked into thinking we’re seeing. But you generalise and say all consciousness is a trick. So there’s nothing for the illusion to be of! (I’m sure I’ve got this wrong but I heard you give a talk some years ago and wanted to ask you then but missed the chance to have you clear up my confusuion!)
DD: At the risk of just being seen to be obscure (and outrageously provocative) let me put it this way, very briefly: The idea that there is a “double transduction” is demonstrably wrong. Electromagnetic radiation is transduced into neuronal spike trains by the rods and cones, pressure waves are transduced into spike trains by the hair cells, etc. and these spike trains are never transduced again (e.g., “back into colors and sounds” that play out somehow in the inner theater). Consciousness is NOT like television, there is no transduction into a second medium which is then experienced by the self, sitting in the theater. It is spike trains all the way, until beliefs are laid down, expressed, behaviors are guided, etc.
Suppose, contra this flat assertion of mine, that there were a second transduction, into some internal consciousness-medium (made of figment, to use my deliberately abusive term). That wouldn’t suffice for consciousness, for the apparitions made of figment would then have to be (re-?)experienced by some inner figment-perceiving system in order to get back into the spike-train patterns that lay down, or just are, the beliefs about what you are conscious of. Since you can talk about what you seem to see, hear, etc., the information has to be transduced into the sort of spike trains that can modulate and guide speech and other behaviors, so there would have to be a third transduction, analogous to the transduction accomplished by the rods and cones, to get the information back into some spike train encoding. Isn’t it obvious that the second and (obligatory) third transduction are just gratuitous? We can cut out the inner rendering in figment and appreciation of the figment rendering without loss, and arrive at the same place: the neural representation of a manifold of beliefs about how the world seems to you.
Similarly, when we read a Sherlock Holmes story, we don’t have to render Sherlock and Watson in some new medium (call it fictoplasm). Our brain does extrapolate from the descriptions on the page to further, more detailed descriptions “in our imagination,” but these representations are not alive, not colored, etc. They are representations of things that are colored, alive, solving mysteries, etc. Fiction is fiction; fictional characters aren’t real. Perceptual hallucinations or complementary-color afterimages (for example) are also fictions—false representations that refer to nothing real in the world. They too need NOT be rendered in fictoplasm. They don’t need to be rendered at all.
3:AM: In the Moving Naturalism Forward conference you seemed to be a little suprised by how far the scientists and philosophers disagreed or misunderstood each other at times, even though they all shared the same naturalistic viewpoint. Am I right that you hadn’t thought there would have been such a gulf? Where in particular did you feel there was further clarifying to be done? Is it that the philosophers don’t explain themselves clearly enough, or that scientists don’t? Or is it just different cultures?
DD: Yes, I guess I was too optimistic, going in, about the level of agreement we would easily reach. I’d have to watch all the video-tapes to see more precisely what further work needs to be done. It would be a long job, but might well be worth doing.
3:AM: I guess related to that last point was the recent spat between Krauss and the philosophers about his book about how to create something out of nothing. The issue to me seemed to be one where he was answering a legitimate scientific question and showing how an amazingly elegant solution had been found but thought he was answering another question that philosophers were asking. Am I right to think that this was like that, and further, some have been heard to mutter that the science question is just a better question. What do you think?
DD: I think that Lawrence could/should have been rather more circumspect and modest about what he was doing—since he was neither answering the philosophers’ ancient question flat out nor clearly replacing that question with a better question. I think he was doing something almost as good: he was showing how the traditional question was in fact a somewhat confused amalgam of several questions, one of which, he showed, physics could really answer (assuming he’s right about the physics), and the other of which could be seen, in the light of this progress, to be less interesting, maybe even of vanishing triviality. It now looks to me like a much less important question and maybe not even a question worth trying to answer at all.
3:AM: Recently there’s been quite a lot of discussion about the relationship between science and philosophy. It seems that Fodor’s recent claim that the natural selection mechanism in Darwinism seemed too close to the Associationist principle in Behaviourism was also brushed aside for fears that the religious right might use it rather than for a close examinatiom of the philosophy. Nagel’s recent book has been roundly attacked by most philosophers and scientists even though Nagel says he’s not religious and isn’t saying anything theological at all. He’s arguing for some sort of teleological law of nature isn’t he? Is this a case of a kind of scientific illiteracy or are Fodor and Nagel doing what philosophers should be doing, making sure that all the conceptual doors are locked and bolted before feeling that the issue is secure?
DD: First, Fodor’s claim evaporates on close inspection, in my opinion. It depends on a rather brittle reading of some of the presumed verities of cognitive science that are more myth than matter of fact. (Of course, this opinion of mine is what leads Fodor and those who are persuaded by him, to declare that I am thereby revealed to be a bad old behaviorist in cognitivist clothing. I view that as trying to get by with empty name-calling in place of a good argument. As I have said for many years, behaviorism wasn’t all wrong, and its principle of non-miraculous trial-and-error learning (otherwise known as design improvement or adaptation) is still the best way to think of learning. I am not sure why philosophers accept Fodor’s pronouncements on Associationism. The tactic of what might be called displaced refutation, where you “show” that Xism is “just” Bism, and Bism was refuted centuries ago, has been exposed, I think, as a generator of mythology.
I think both Fodor and Nagel are trying to do something philosophers should try to do, but neither one has learned enough of the relevant science to be trustworthy. In some instances the simplistic understanding of the issues they exhibit is embarrassing.
3:AM: When you’re doing your philosophy how much of the hands on cognitive science stuff are you involved in yourself? Do you work in collaboration with the scientists or do you read their papers and brood alone
DD: I spend a lot of time not just reading the papers but discussing, consulting, querying, visiting labs, proposing experiments, so I’m fairly hands-on, as you say. And I’ve learned over the years that if I don’t get that experience, I tend to display naïve and distorted understandings of the issues.
3:AM: Of course you’re well known as someone defending science against a strong religious lobby, especially in the USA. Sean Carroll does a neat job just giving us scientific reasons for why there couldn’t be a God – basically, if there was God stuff around we’d know about it because we do know all the stuff of the scale that could affect us etc. But philosophy has always had a strand of metaphysical thinkers that don’t think all questions can be answered by science. Even though Dave Chalmer’s recent survey suggests God belief is a minority position in academic philosophy there are still smart guys defending the view. Shouldn’t philosophers be exactly the people we’d want to be asking the strange questions and not going along with what the crowd converges on – just in the name of intellectual freedom? Doesn’t this put you in a rather odd position when you argue that thinking about religion is perpetrating a kind of fraud?
DD: If only those philosophers defending religion did the due diligence and put the religious doctrines they are intent on defending to the sort of severe tests that they hold other propositions and arguments to. I find that when asked to name the good stuff, many will cite Alvin Plantinga’s work. As my recent little book with Plantinga makes clear, I find his arguments to be remarkably easy to dismantle. I offered my example of Supermanism as strictly parallel to his hypothesis about the Christian God playing an interventionist role in evolution. I have yet to hear any grounds for distinguishing his hypothesis as more worthy of respect than my deliberately preposterous alternative, which meets all the tests he claims for his view, with flying colors. Some of his supporters fall back on “Don’t several millennia of adherents to Plantinga’s view count—billions of adherents–count for anything?” to which the answer must be NO, why should they? The historical process that generate them is well enough studied to show that these biblical tales have all too human provenances, vetted by political processes that were the farthest thing from peer review. On no point of evidence is biblical material better attested than, say, the mythology of ancient Rome.
3:AM: There’s a worry amongst some philosophers that religious lobbyists with a lot of money are distorting philosophical agendas – the Templeton Foundation is the parade case. Jason Stanley and Sean Carroll have come out strongly against taking the money because they say it makes religion respectable whereas Tim Maudlin has said there’s nothing distorting about it at all and there’s no reason not to take the money if it funds good philosophy and science. What do you think?
DD: The Templeton people, under severe pressure from many scientists and philosophers to change their policies, are getting better and better, but they are not yet out of the woods, in my opinion. I specifically challenged them to break the Templeton Foundation into two foundations, with different names; one could fund religion-supporting work (research, teaching, whatever) and the other could support science. They refused, in spite of the fact that, as their director told me, the Templeton Foundation is already legally split in two—in fact into three independent foundations. They could with a few strokes of a pen achieve this important separation. They won’t. Why not? Because their mission is still to use the fine work they fund in straight science to leverage the reputation of their other work. I put it this way to scientist friends who want to take Templeton money: “would you be comfortable with a provision that required you to report annually on your work at a public conference where your work was sandwiched in between two presentations on their religious projects?” Most say they wouldn’t agree to do that. I tell them that they have already agreed to do that if they take the money, since Templeton makes it very clear that they see these programs as all part of the same quest. (Another nice litmus test: ask them if they would accept money from the late Rev Moon’s Unification Church, and if not why not. Several excellent scientists got briefly sucked into the Moonies’ propaganda machine until they wised up and got out. Templeton has a lot more money to dole out, but otherwise strikes me as a very similar operation.
3:AM: Looking at the contemporary philosophical scene, how has it changed since you started and do you think it’s now in a better shape than it was or are the worrying attacks and closures a cause for some alarm? I was also wondering if the idea that only sciences are important is becoming a dominant idea in universities and that the erosion of other disciplines is a genuine issue of concern?
DD: I am very concerned that “STEM” research (Science, Technology and Medicine) is now favored very much at the expense of the humanities, arts and social sciences, and I do what I can to resist this pressure. I certainly think that philosophy needs to stay in the humanities, and that it should not be engulfed by cognitive science, or turned into strictly philosophy of science.
3:AM: And finally, if there were five books (other than your own) that you’d have us read to understand all this in more depth, what would you recommend?
DD: The books by Quine, Sellars, and, more recently, Ruth Millikan and Andy Clark, and Judea Pearl, Causality. (I’d add books by some non-philosophers: Ray Jackendoff’s Foundations of Language, Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, and Terence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species.)
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 3rd, 2013.