Atheism · Consciousness / mind

New Atheism, The Hard Problem, and Dennett

Yea I sort of got really lazy about the writing and did not feel like proofreading anything. Apologies to my single reader (myself). Maybe I’ll fix it at some point to get rid of the guaranteed errors that will haunt me at night. Or not. Haha. Enjoy some more hatred of New Atheists. 

One of the issues that most annoys the New Atheist subculture is The Hard Problem: how does our phenomenal consciousness fit into our scientific description of the world? There are a couple clear reasons for the aggravation this issue raises, but chief among them is the blind, New Atheist adherence to Scientism and the kneejerk dismissal of anything that could remotely be advantageous to the theistic position. The former is quite obvious, but the latter is an at least subconscious recognition that immaterial consciousness potentially allows for souls, and that dualism gets the Argument From Consciousness off the ground.  So what is the New Atheist to do when confronted with this complicated technical issue that threatens their Scientistic worldview? Enter the “appeal to Dennett.” The motivations for this move are plentiful: Dennett is highly respected in cog sci and philosophy; Dennett is, at least nominally, a member of the New Atheists; Dennett endorses (maybe has endorsed?) a memetic theory of religion; and he takes a strong evolutionary view of the world. Oh, and that whole thing about endorsing materialism. So case closed! The New Atheist can point and say, “look! This expert rejects your so-called ‘hard problem, so you are wrong… now please go away, theist-apologist!”

Unfortunately they fail to actually understand Dennett’s position, being unable to see it as anything more than an endorsement of materialism and a rejection of religion. And science. This is where my aggravation comes into play; New Atheists are rejecting a problem they do not understand by pointing to an expert they also do not understand. The rough purpose of this post is to (1) briefly explain the Hard Problem, (2) give a short exposition on syntax, semantics, and intentionality, and (3) explain Dennett’s elegant – but wrong, IMO – position and make it clear why most New Atheists, or people in general, might want to reject it. And I supposed there’s a possible (3.5) by pointing them to Searle who, although there are plenty of criticisms that can be leveled against him, adopts a lower-case-S scientific worldview and rejects the tradition of “God, the soul, and immortality.” Go find any of the thousand places Searle says that. I can’t be assed to source something that insignificant.

The Hard Problem

Time to set the stage while maturely avoiding penis jokes (does that count?). The simplest start is to put the issue in the form of a question: why is there phenomenal consciousness at all? It’s important to emphasize that this is the experiential, what it is like, aspect of being rather than a question about whether (for example) awareness is evolutionarily advantageous. For the sake of argument, and because this level of physics is sufficient to demonstrate the problem, let’s assume the world behaves strictly according to deterministic Newtonianism. In such a world it seems that, in principle, an objective description of every particle would wholly account for human behavior. Light reflects off a rock, the reflected light reaches the eye, and after various physiological processes (which can be likewise be described mechanically) the person dodges the rock.   Nothing about this description necessitates that it feel like something to be the person, and textbook materialism requires that higher-level facts are necessitated by the base facts. And this holds no matter which level the explanation is taking place at – the description of neurobiological activity found within a textbook offers no more than the particle description did. But the one thing we are most familiar with is that there is something it is like to be a person – regardless of necessitation, the world in which we find ourselves has these physical processes accompanied by experience. The issue becomes clear: if no scientific fact about the world makes mention of, or necessitates, phenomenal consciousness then how can science account for its existence in principle? To quote the IEP:

The usual methods of science involve explanation of functional, dynamical, and structural properties—explanation of what a thing does, how it changes over time, and how it is put together.  But even after we have explained the functional, dynamical, and structural properties of the conscious mind, we can still meaningfully ask the question, Why is it conscious? This suggests that an explanation of consciousness will have to go beyond the usual methods of science.  Consciousness therefore presents a hard problem for science, or perhaps it marks the limits of what science can explain.

Perhaps it is useful to imagine a very simple machine, like a mouse trap. It is entirely mechanical and there is no reason to believe, or ask if, the mouse trap has conscious experience. Now let’s pretend that over millions of years we make adjustments and add parts to this machine – each adjustment incredibly tiny. Let’s say the result of our tinkering is a robot that behaves just like a human being, maybe in such convincing fashion that recognizing it as a conscious being is mandatory. At which point in the tinkering did some tiny adjustment suddenly result in the mechanical processes being accompanied by conscious experience? There does not seem to be a satisfactory answer to this question, and that’s precisely because all of our machine’s tasks could seemingly be carried out without any sort of experiential aspect. And yet there is.

For some of us this simply represents a fascinating question. For many of us, this represents a hard question that is really fucking boring. But for the Scientist this is a devastating attack – if a scientific description cannot, in principle, account for everything then their entire worldview is upended. Dennett – not a Scientist – looks like a lifeboat. And, to be fair, Dennett’s position would legitimately rescue their Scientism from consciousness – they just fail to understand the bullets it requires them to bite.

Syntax, Semantics, and Intentionality. And China.

This is the second section that must be understood in order to see where Dennett is coming from. The syntax, as anybody who has not yet forgotten their high school English classes will know, of the previous sentence is the technical arrangement of the letters and words. The semantics is the meaning on top of that arrangement – that the link between these three is necessary to appreciate Dennett. The same meaning can be expressed by the same syntax, and vice versa. Intentionality is simply the aboutness of consciousness. We aren’t just conscious, we are conscious of; mental semantics. We can also distinguish between derived intentionality and original intentionality; the former is that the symbols on this screen receive their meaning from us, and the latter is the sort of intrinsic intentionality that we have as people – it exists independent of anything else, and derived intentionality can only exist in virtue of original intentionality.

Maybe we can combine these into a brief, but hopefully illustrative, example. A genius programmer has written the code for consciousness (just pretend the irrelevant details of this situation make sense, okay?) – put it into any robot and you will end up with a conscious machine. This code is a framework, describes how various symbols and variables are shoved around (pretend, okay?), and what those symbols represent, what they mean, is determined by the robot’s senses as it interacts with the environment. Imagine the robot has a visual experience and some various combination of symbol arrangement represents the rock it is staring at; that’s the part that we are referring to when we talk about intentionality –  that the representations are about something. Just making explicit what’s already right there with the semantic content.

Searle’s major claim to fame has been his Chinese Room thought experiment. It was a response to (well, attack on) a specific artificial intelligence program, and its intent was to demonstrate that syntax is not sufficient for semantics. I will assume some familiarity, but a description of the experiment is provided on the same page as the following quotation. The conclusion of the thought experiment, as stated by the IEP (emphasis original), is that:

In imagining himself to be the person in the room, Searle thinks it’s “quite obvious . . . I do not understand a word of the Chinese stories. I have inputs and outputs that are indistinguishable from those of the native Chinese speaker, and I can have any formal program you like, but I still understand nothing.” “For the same reasons,” Searle concludes, “Schank’s computer understands nothing of any stories” since “the computer has nothing more than I have in the case where I understand nothing” (1980a, p. 418). Furthermore, since in the thought experiment “nothing . . . depends on the details of Schank’s programs,” the same “would apply to any [computer] simulation” of any “human mental phenomenon” (1980a, p. 417); that’s all it would be, simulation. Contrary to “strong AI,” then, no matter how intelligent-seeming a computer behaves and no matter what programming makes it behave that way, since the symbols it processes are meaningless (lack semantics) to it, it’s not really intelligent. It’s not actually thinking. Its internal states and processes, being purely syntactic, lack semantics (meaning); so, it doesn’t really have intentional (that is, meaningful) mental states.

To someone outside of the room it is going to appear that whoever is pushing the symbols around understands Chinese, however, there is no understanding present in the individual; any assignment of understanding will be derivative. Searle, in criticizing what he calls Strong AI, believes that true artificial intelligence must have the same sort of intrinsic intentionality that humans do. There are numerous responses to the CRA, but for our purposes we just need to understand the concepts involved.

Dennett on the ‘Real’ Magic of Consciousness

In his talks about consciousness Dennett likes to use an analogy about magic tricks. Keeping this example in mind throughout the next section should be very helpful; the above is linked directly to the time in the talk. To be very simple, when people talk about real magic they mean the kind of magic that does not exist. But the magic that does exist, that performed by stage magicians, is fake magic. Dennett finds consciousness to be the same way: real intentionality does not exist, and the type that does is considered to be fake intentionality.  I’m like 99% I keep switching words around but whatever. It really doesn’t get in the way of the message.

When philosophers wonder about the Hard Problem they traditionally operate in a top-down fashion. Descartes’ skeptical exercise led him to the conclusion that all he could be entirely certain of is his own thinking; as you can see in the above descriptions of the Hard Problem, philosophers go looking for it in the scientific, mechanical world and fail to find anything resembling what we know to exist, and this gives us the Hard Problem. Searle’s CRA is a beautiful example of this treatment of intentionality – he is judging artificial intelligence on whether or not such intrinsic, undeniable intentionality is present. Dennett, however, sees this as a mistake and operates from the bottom up. He looks at the picture being drawn up by cognitive science and treats that as the fundamental, undeniable piece of the puzzle – if there is no such real intentionality present in that picture then it simply does not exist. Dennett sees minds as incredibly complex syntactic engines that are the result of millions of years of evolution, and that are capable of sufficiently emulating what one would expect from genuine semantic engines. The, in my opinion, most appealing part of this view is how nicely it ties into our evolutionary picture of the world (where on earth would the first real intentionality show up in the evolutionary process? It seems difficult to say that something less than real radically jumped to being wholly real) and the happy conclusion it provides for artificial intelligence.

There does happen to be, however, that small issue of what this view entails – denying that aspect of ourselves we are most certain of and most intimately familiar with: that our thoughts have real intentionality. I am going to directly quote his example of what this means for Descartes:

Note how this point forces the order of dependence of consciousness on intentionality. The appreciation of meanings – their discrimination and delectation – is central to our vision of consciousness, but this conviction that I, on the inside, deal directly with meanings turns out to be something rather like a benign ‘user illusion.’ What Descartes thought was most certain – his immediate introspective grasp of the items of consciousness – turns out to be not even quite true, but rather a metaphorical by-product of the way our brains do their approximating work. (Dennett 1994)

And this is where the New Atheist should worry for their brakes as they come to a screeching halt. This is biting off a bit more than what they wanted – that is, a simple, materialist, evolutionary picture of the mind. But how did we get here? Let’s look back again at Dennett’s approach to intentionality. We start at the bottom, with the world as given to use through cognitive science, and work our way up to what consciousness/intentionality has to be like (or, maybe more accurately, the boundaries of what it can be like). Our brain does not remotely resemble, and Dennett would argue that our phenomenal experiences attest to this, a neat package of holistic beliefs/experiences/etc, and that sort of packing is what Descartes thinks he has access to – but, no matter what it might seem like, you cannot actually have access to what does not exist. Even though this strongly conflicts with our intuitions (indeed, that’s the point!) it seems to naturally follow from the rest of his view.

Most of the time, however, the New Atheist does not grasp what this actually means – they cannot actually get over the intuition that they have real beliefs and that these beliefs pick out something in the world. Often the response is simply, “Well of course the brain does not look like that! That sort of confusion is exactly what causes people to believe in souls and other sorts of immaterial consciousnesses!” So let’s elaborate a little bit. The elaboration will serve a purpose regardless as it moves us toward an easier understanding of Dennett’s perspective on phenomenal consciousness – or qualia.

Folk Psychology

I believe that Dennett is the one who coined this term, or at least he gives that impression in the works I have read, but folk psychology refers to the sort of discourse about mental states we use in our day to day lives. For example: Bob is going to bring an umbrella with him because he has the belief it is going to rain. There’s nothing particularly confusing about this – just think of any situation in which you have attributed that sort of analysis to another person or oneself and you’ve got it. But what is this discourse like? One perspective – this is going to be a very general eliminativist view – is that folk psychology is a theory about the world, and as that sort of theory it posits theoretical entities in its attempts to explain our observations. In our example above the theoretical entity would be Bob’s belief, and in the broader sense, beliefs in general. This is pretty standard – our current physics does the same thing in positing the existence of atoms, quantum fields, one-dimensional vibrating strings, etc; however, and this is the important part, we take these entities to actually exist because of the success of the theory that posits them. 

So if we assume that folk psychology is this type of theory (do note that this is contentious – I do not want to accidentally give the impression it is a settled matter) then we should take beliefs, and other mental states, to exist so long as the folk psychological theory is successful. But, as we all know, our sort of folk talk does not have the same reliability that physics does. We make mistakes in our assessments, our predictions routinely fail, so on and so forth. And here is where the second part comes in: a complete, or at least sufficiently advanced, neuroscience, according to the eliminativist, will have much more theoretical success. So, okay, we have a better theory. This means that we should abandon the original theory in favor of it, but this does not necessarily mean that folk psychology cannot be in some way reconciled with the neuroscientific theory – after all, even though we know that Newtonian mechanics is not right, we still find it to be applicable and have powerful predictive power at the level of our day to day lives. Folk psychology could be rescued in the same way.

But it can be argued, and Dennett gives example after example, of how incredibly mistaken folk psychology can be. It does not have the effectiveness of Newtonian physics but is more like the theory of mental illness that posited evil spirits – we do not say that evil spirits did pick something out but our understanding of what they picked out has advanced, we see the idea of evil spirits as utterly absurd. They never referred to anything at all and should be abandoned wholesale. If folk psychology is wrong to a similar degree, and its predictive failures coupled with theoretical entities that do not seem to be at all present in neuroscience suggest this is a possibility, then we have to drop it entirely – and the existence of beliefs and other mental states goes with it.

Dennett treats things like beliefs as narrative centers of gravity – he’s not a strict eliminativist about them, and you can read more about this in his paper Real Patterns. 

Qualia and Dennett

The New Atheist does not particularly care about theories of mental states – they are interested in the spooky aspect of consciousness that those evil, irrational religious folk use to argue the existence of an immaterial aspect of consciousness that demonstrates the falsity of the materialist worldview… and therefore opens the door to God, the soul, and immortality. The ‘appeal to Dennett’ is intended to defeat the idea that qualia are some sort of immaterial, floating-in-the-void aspects of reality and “rescue” materialism from the threat of phenomenal consciousness. When a New Atheist says that qualia do not exist they are not intending to say that our experience of red (why is red always the example anyway?) is an illusion, they simply want to say that there is no magic involved, that there is not actually any redness out in the world. They will, and completely missing the point in doing so, say things like “there is no such thing as red light, there are just certain wavelengths that our brains interpret to be red.” That is, of course, the very issue: we seem to have this ineffable experience of redness when there is no corresponding thing in the physical world.

Dennett recognizes this and says that it is the typical philosophical mistake to take our experiences as these sort of Qualia (capital qualia means ineffable, real, whole, etc; Dennett, in denying that such things exist, does not refer to what the rest of us mean when he uses the word) as genuine and, upon seeing no such thing in the physical world, invent the problem of where Qualia are in our reality. Because of his adamant distaste for dualism of any sort, he sees the absence of Qualia in the physical world as meaning they do not exist – that we are mistaken, and deeply so, about the nature of our experiences. There are countless examples of curiousities (ie blindsight, split brain patients, cases where subjects will say, “I am in pain, but it does not hurt!”) that Dennett uses to point out how confused we can be about our own experiences. It is much like the example with magic! It may seem like we have these sorts of ineffable experiences with genuine, private semantic content, but that is nothing more than a user illusion – and an incredible confusion. In his famous paper Quining Qualia he writes:

Which idea of qualia am I trying to extirpate? Everything real has properties, and since I don’t deny the reality of conscious experience, I grant that conscious experience has properties. I grant moreover that each person’s states of consciousness have properties in virtue of which those states have the experiential content that they do. That is to say, whenever someone experiences something as being one way rather than another, this is true in virtue of some property of something happening in them at the time, but these properties are so unlike the properties traditionally imputed to consciousness that it would be grossly misleading to call any of them the long-sought qualia. Qualia are supposed to be special properties, in some hard-to-define way. My claim–which can only come into focus as we proceed–is that conscious experience has no properties that are special in any of the ways qualia have been supposed to be special.

The standard reaction to this claim is the complacent acknowledgment that while some people may indeed have succumbed to one confusion or fanaticism or another, one’s own appeal to a modest, innocent notion of properties of subjective experience is surely safe. It is just that presumption of innocence I want to overthrow. I want to shift the burden of proof, so that anyone who wants to appeal to private, subjective properties has to prove first that in so doing they are not making a mistake. This status of guilty until proven innocent is neither unprecedented nor indefensible (so long as we restrict ourselves to concepts). Today, no biologist would dream of supposing that it was quite all right to appeal to some innocent concept of lan vital. Of course one could use the term to mean something in good standing; one could use lan vital as one’s name for DNA, for instance, but this would be foolish nomenclature, considering the deserved suspicion with which the term is nowadays burdened. I want to make it just as uncomfortable for anyone to talk of qualia–or “raw feels” or “phenomenal properties” or “subjective and intrinsic properties” or “the qualitative character” of experience–with the standard presumption that they, and everyone else, knows what on earth they are talking about

To anyone who is not a philosophical zombie this should be a very, very hard pill to swallow – that when we say “I am in pain” we are not referring to anything at all. When we have our unified experience of consciousness that seems genuinely indivisible (the binding problem, for crying out loud!) we are mistaken to think that’s actually how it is. Because even in the examples Dennett gives we can say “sure, the subject is very mistaken about their experiences, but it is the seeming that is what matters.” So when a New Atheist appeals to Dennett as an argument against non-materialism of the mind they are, and almost always not realizing it, denying the existence of our entire phenomenology – arguably what we are trying to explain in the first place!

It’s really tricky to do justice to Dennett in so few words and in an (admittedly) horribly organized blog ramble but just think of it like this: if someone talks to you about how experiencing a bright color, maybe a sky blue painting (get fucked, red), has an ineffable qualitative nature to it you likely feel you have an understanding of what they mean. Dennett is denying that sort of Qualia – there is, after all, no such thing as real magic. If it seems a ridiculous thing to do then you have understood what’s going on. And do remember that lots of ridiculous sounding ideas have very compelling arguments behind them.


(1) Searle

If I am a New Atheist who realizes that I do not agree with Dennett’s assessment of Qualia and find my own experiences to be of the ineffable sort that healthy people talk about then I need to look in a different direction for my materialist champion. I think Mr. Searle, who we have mentioned above, is the perfect replacement. Searle similarly does not believe in an immaterial aspect of consciousness (though he would object to using that material/immaterial, physical/mental terminology!), finds “God, the soul, and immorality” to be the result of a confusion, and is similarly fierce in embracing the evolutionary picture and putting the understanding of consciousness into the hands of cognitive neuroscience. And, to top everyting off, he believes that our subjective experience is real! A higher level feature of the brain, much like a car is a higher level description of the workings of its parts – the car exists even though there is nothing more than its parts. Now, there are some real criticisms toward Searle’s ‘biological naturalism,’ but this at least gives the New Atheist a well known philosopher who they can appeal to without denying the existence of consciousness. Though they may take issue with his feelings on artificial intelligence (and maybe be sad that he does not write bad books about religion and memes), but at least that is tangential to the main concern of denying anything more that our physical world.

(2) Panpsychism

This is probably an unrealistic alternative. New Atheists are close-minded and panpsychism’s unfortunate association with the embarrassingly vacuous, and unfortunately growing, New Age demographic is enough for force a kneejerk reaction of saying, “Please shuttup, Deepak Chopra.”The thinking individual’s panpsychism is very different than the 2nd grade “thought” that characterizes the New Age versions, however. Let’s look back above at the IEP entry about the hard problem. As it points out our scientific descriptions deal with structural properties and, to grit my teeth and (philosophically) misuse the phrase, this begs the question: what is science describing the structure ofGalen Strawson has a famous paper  that makes the case for the intrinsic, or categorical, properties being experiential. It is a very accessible paper and essentially argues that a monist, physicalist ontology necessitates panpsychism – at least some of these intrinsic properties are experiential and need to be included in any realistic physicalism.

Let’s go through his line of thinking very quickly. When we engage in introspection, regardless of the unreliability of introspection, we know that we have subjective experiences that are not accessible to science’s structural description. Strawson says that if we are realists about our experiences – that they are Qualia rather than Dennett’s qualia – then we can make the conclusion that experience is at least one of the categorical properties the structural properties refer to.  A traditional physicalist might say that experience is real but it emerges from the wholly non-experiential, but Strawson does address this in pointing out that this sort of emergence is not like the other cases of emergence we see in nature. Anyways I am pretty sympathetic to panpsychism, which like every other position has big hurdles to overcome, and this is an ontology that would reduce a New Atheist’s fear of the hard problem.

Alright, I’m done. I was going to like look back and edit because I know I have switched around which terms I was using, likely made typos because for some reason my browser does not alert me to misspelled words, and almost certainly made some embarrassing mischaracterizations. Not to mention wrote this at a passionate, rushed pace. But then I somehow ended up with 4300 words and there is no fucking way I am going back through that for an imaginary audience. Anyway the takeaway is that I’ll correct things if they are pointed out and give me the benefit of the doubt where you find silly things.


2 thoughts on “New Atheism, The Hard Problem, and Dennett

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