The Flesh and Daniel Dennett

 Dancing cow

A cow’s reaction to being released unto grass in spring.

The Ancient Greeks believed that it was his rationality which made man, that is – the male of the species, man in the image of God.  They understood man to have two souls, the rational immortal soul which was encased in the head, and a lower mortal soul which was encased in the body.  This mortal soul, incorporated the pleasures, emotions and senses, all of which led to destruction unless ruled by the rational soul.  This belief is given mythic form in Plato’s dialogue Timaeus.

Now of the divine, he himself was the creator, but the creation of the mortal he committed to his offspring. And they, imitating him, received from him the immortal principle of the soul ; and around this they proceeded to fashion a mortal body, and. made it to be the vehicle of the soul, and constructed within the body a soul of another nature which was mortal, subject to terrible and irresistible affections: first of all pleasure, the greatest incitement to evil ; then, pain, which deters from good ; also rashness and fear, two foolish counsellors, anger hard to be appeased, and hope easily led astray. These they mingled with irrational sense and with all-daring love according to necessary laws, and so framed man. Wherefore, fearing to pollute the divine any more than was absolutely unavoidable, they gave to the mortal nature a separate habitation in another part of the body, placing the neck between them to be the isthmus and boundary, which they constructed between the head and breast, to keep them apart.

Plato  Timaeus 360 B.C.Translated by Benjamin Jowett

The negative attitude to the flesh, i.e. the pleasures, emotions and senses, that became incorporated into some versions of Christianity, came from interpreting  the  New Testament in the light of Greek philosophy, rather than directly from the Scripture . A point referenced by Jonathan Swift in the following paragraph of  his satirical argument against abolishing nominal Christianity.

Does the Gospel anywhere prescribe a starched, squeezed countenance, a stiff formal gait, a singularity of manners and habit, or any affected forms and modes of speech different from the reasonable part of mankind? Yet, if Christianity did not lend its name to stand in the gap, and to employ or divert these humours, they must of necessity be spent in contraventions to the laws of the land, and disturbance of the public peace.

 Jonathan Swift  An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity  1708

Jonathan Swift didn’t just object to the Ancient Greek view of the flesh being treated as a Christian truth, he also regarded the notion that man was a rational animal as a fiction, and wrote to his friend Alexander Pope, that he had written Gulliver’s Travels, to illustrate this point.

I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of , that definition animal rationale, and to show it would be only rationis capax.

Jonathan Swift  Letter to Alexander Pope  September 29th 1725

The Scottish Philosopher, David Hume 1711-1776 agreed, arguing that the sole function of human rationality was the service of the passions.

The American philosopher Daniel Dennett takes a different tack. He argued in, “Consciousness Explained” 1991, that pleasures, emotions and perceptions,  i.e. those parts of human experience which Ancient Greek philosophy identified as the flesh, should be regarded as brain generated fiction.

Daniel Dennett contrasts his position with that  of the philosophical dualist René Descartes.(1596 -1650)  Descartes’ vision  was for the most part of a mechanical world of simple matter interacting according to universal laws, something that Dennett has no problem with, but for Descartes the natural world also included an immaterial mind, that in human beings was directly related to the brain through the pineal gland. And this does provide Daniel Dennett with a problem.  For the materialist Dennett, to say that something is immaterial is to say that it is non-existent, yet we do indeed seem to have experiences consistent with that which Descartes identified as the existence of an immaterial mind or soul.  Dennett solves this dilemma by basically accepting that Descartes was right, in regarding  mind experiences as immaterial; and arguing that therefore they have no reality, i.e. they are illusions, tricks of the brain, that are best regarded as fictions.

People do sometimes use words in unusual ways, which can be misleading to those who do not understand that this is what they are doing.  Identifying the word fictional as a synonym for immaterial is one of those  misleading uses.  Time, direction, and process, while they are undoubtedly related to the material, are themselves immaterial.  Yet I think it unlikely that Daniel Dennett regards these as fictional.  I suspect he would take it as proof of their contemptible irrationality, if Creationists used this definition, as evidence that the process of evolution was the brain-generated fiction of godless scientists.

It is possible, as Dennett alleges, that some people’s ideas of consciousness are so tied up with the dualist notion,  that mind substance is an independently acting substance, that their minds are closed to the possibility of there being a materialistic explanation for our awareness of sensation. I think this is unlikely to be the case for very many.  I would for instance be surprised to find even one person, whose immediate reaction, on hitting their thumb with a hammer, was to blame their immaterial soul for the sensation of pain. If however the word consciousness does mislead people into thinking that they understand more about its causes  than the data allows, then it would be a good idea to use a word other than consciousness to name our awareness of sensation.

What Dennett argues isn’t that consciousness needs a rename but that it is fictional; so that for example,  all oaths, expletives, and other reports of pain issuing from the mouth of the thumb hitter, are to be regarded as brain induced fiction, not evidence of awareness of pain. Even if you are the thumb hitter, you are not in pain, you just think/feel you are.

This strikes me as the equivalent of arguing that the term horsepower implies that engines contain immaterial horses, and that as there is no reason to believe that this is true, we must regard those effects that are normally associated with the idea of horsepower, as engine induced fictions.

In neither of the above cases is the argument about reality.  In the horsepower example the vehicle will still move, and in Dennett’s argument the pain will still hurt. All that is different is that the word fiction is being used in a bizarre way.  A bizarre way that  almost makes it appear rational to claim that as the effects of consciousness or the internal combustion engine are fictional, that neither require an explanation.

The Problem of Pain

Daniel Dennett claimed in “Consciousness Explained” that the problem of pain was, “why does it hurt so much?” And I have to say that I really liked his answer.  He suggested that pain was selected for because it discouraged our distant ancestors from eating themselves.

For simpler organisms, it is true, there is really nothing much to self-knowledge beyond the rudimentary biological wisdom enshrined in such maxims as When Hungry, Don’t Eat Yourself! and When There’s a Pain, It’s Yours! In every organism, including human beings, acknowledgment of these basic biological design principles is simply “wired in” — part of the underlying design of the nervous system, like blinking when something approaches the eye or shivering when cold.

Dennett, Daniel C.  Consciousness Explained  1991

Notice that he is assuming,  that simpler organisms are the experiencing subjects of pain and hunger. When you hit your thumb,  stub your toe etc., the affected part of your body moves, before the information reaches the brain; a blink works on the same principle. They are reflex actions.  What reason does he have to believe that simple organisms have any more awareness of pain than is contained in a big toe, or the reflex system that causes the movement?  Or more awareness of hunger than the salivary glands?

Dennett’s argument that pain was selected for  in simpler organisms because it discouraged self-cannibalism, is an interesting idea, but as the pain response is slower than simple reflex, it is reasonable to assume that very simple organisms would be better served by reflex than pain, and that is what would be selected for.  Pain and hunger, a form of desire, are not simple reflexes, and the problem of pain is not, why does it hurt? but  how do you get something that is basically a machine, a biological machine, to be the experiencing subject of pain?

It is bizarre enough to require explanation, that a materialist should equate pain and hunger with reflex actions seeing they involve such very different structures in the nervous system.  It is likewise bizarre that a philosopher should treat the philosophical notion of a zombie, as identical with that of automaton.

The Myth of the Zombie Cow

Whirligig paper cow automatonPhilosophers use the term zombie to mean beings that are indistinguishable from us in every way except that they are without consciousness.  This means that their behaviour is identical to ours and so is their neurological wiring.  Like Bertrand Russell’s tiny orbiting teapot, no-one  actually believes they exist.  The point seems to be that, while there is no reason to believe they exist, and good reason to believe they don’t, there is no way to prove their non-existence.

An automaton is an entirely different concept.  There is good reason to believe that non-conscious mechanical systems exist, and no reason to believe that they don’t.  The only reason, we have to believe that it is possible for some machines to experience conscious awareness, is that we ourselves have the experience of being such a machine.

For most of us the so-called theory of other minds, the idea that other people are experiencing subjects of conscious awareness, isn’t a theory at all, but an instinct. It is something that makes social engagement  easier to manage, than it would be otherwise. This belief isn’t rationally caused, but it is rational to believe that people whose behaviour is similar to our own, and whose neurological wiring we have no reason to believe is different from ours, are experiencing life in a similar way to us.

We apply this theory of other minds instinctively not only to our own species, but to others as well. In Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett makes the  following comment:

 Horses, at least when they are colts, seem to get a kick out of being alive, but cows and sheep usually seem either bored or indifferent.

Dennett, Daniel C.  Consciousness Explained 1991

This suggests to me that he has never seen the way cows behave when they are released unto grass in spring after being cooped up all winter. They enter the field like a high kicking explosion of happiness.  I have seen this a few times and just watching filled me with empathetic joy.

Dancing cowsRationally my pleasure cannot prove that cows are the experiencing subjects of joy.  I cannot prove that cows are not automatons. Even proof that their brains were behaving like human brains experiencing joy, would not prove that they were experiencing similar sensations. Rationally  I am agnostic, but I have faith in the joy of cows.

The Conscious Machine

Number 5 – the robot hero of 1986 film Short Circuit.

It is conceivable that the robot Johnny Five, portrayed in the 1986 film Short Circuit could have failed the Turing test for intelligence in a machine, either by being too honest, or by displaying  too much knowledge to pass as human.

His ability to acquire knowledge, interact with humans, moral nature, and innovative problem solving, demonstrated more than adequately within the fictional world of the film, that Number 5 was intelligent.

He is not however one of the fictional robots that Daniel Dennet mentioned in Consciousness Explained as evidence that we are capable of conceiving  machines as  being conscious .  This may be because Number Five, is a dualistic,not a materialistic conception. He acquired his consciousness not from the running of a computer program, but as a miraculous consequence of being struck by lightning.

It is possible to conceive of ways in which an intelligent computer system could fail the Turing test.  It is also possible to conceive of  the existence of systems which could pass the Turing Test for successful communication as a human, without being themselves intelligent..The philosopher John Searle’s Chinese Room is such a scenario.

Searle asks you to imagine the situation of a person in a room who has no knowledge of Chinese. He  receives Chinese symbols as input, interprets them according to a rule book, and posts them as output.  This output is sufficiently good to convince Chinese people that he understands Chinese, therefore this system passes the Turing Test. He argues that this is the equivalent of what a computer is doing.

Clearly following the rules indicates a degree of intelligence so he has failed in his task, of proving that computers are unintelligent.  However regardless of how intelligent the man in the room is he will not understand Chinese.

Daniel Dennett argues that while the man does not understand Chinese the system does. Searle doesn’t disagree with this, providing you include the programmer or programmers as part of the system.  This is not what Dennett had in mind.  He thinks the room has the understanding.

In a situation like Johnny Five, where the computer is part of a robot, receiving sensory data, the situation is less clear cut.  This is a situation in which the man in the room, could  learn to understand Chinese.  With the right programming a computer could conceivably also learn to understand Chinese.

This in my view would make the computer intelligent, but it is not enough for Searle. For him intelligence also requires consciousness. Without consciousness the robot is an automaton, lacking drive and intentionality.  Or in other words he agrees with David Hume, that rationality is the servant of the passions, and he is arguing that, that which has long been metaphorically referred to as the flesh, is literally dependent on the actual flesh; it is not a digital program. And that it is the flesh that gives us the gift that separates the us from the automatons – consciousness.

Johnny Five acquired the drive to be truly alive by a miraculous strike of lightning.  John Searle is not claiming that we have our consciousness as a consequence of a miracle, but as a consequence of the behaviour of the stuff of which we are made.  He is not claiming that it is impossible for us to build conscious machines, just arguing that their consciousness will not be the result of running a computer program. That is as a good materialist he is arguing that the stuff matters.

An Unjust Accusation

Daniel Dennett, regards John Searle as a dualist in denial of his own beliefs.  And in the academic world where these men dwell, dualism is, according to Dennett, socially unacceptable, the sign of lack of intellectual rigour.

Given that Searle is claiming that the material is essential to consciousness, it was not immediately obvious to me anyway why Dennett was identifying him as a dualist. That is until I realized that Searle is claiming that feelings change things.  That an emotion, in this case drive, has an effect on the material. This is for Dennett just a re-imagining of that dualistic heresy – the Cartesian Theater- with materialistic camouflage.

Before reading Dennett I would have thought there were only two ways of imagining the relationship between thoughts including feelings, and actions. Either our thoughts and feelings, things like I want to finish this post, I’ll type this word rather than that one etc, have an effect on what happens, or they are epiphenomenon, that exist alongside and are caused by the physical, but have no effect on the physical. And as an evolutionist I would have regarded the last one as ridiculous.  Something as complex as emotion and thought is an adaptation, not just a happenstance, and as nature can only select between things that make a difference, then feelings and thoughts are not epiphenomenon.  They make a difference to the average reproductive fitness of the organism experiencing them.

Dennett argues that his is a different imagining of the relationship That thoughts and feelings are just what it feels like to be a brain, running a program. That there is no  difference between conscious and unconscious thought . That beings without the ability to communicate, because they are not running a sophisticated enough information processing program, also lack the ability to suffer.

It follows — and this does strike an intuitive chord — that the capacity to suffer is a function of the capacity to have articulated, wide-ranging, highly discriminative desires, expectations, and other sophisticated mental states.

Dennett, Daniel C. . Consciousness Explained 1991

If desire is not an internal experience or drive, which in Dennett world would be an impossibility, but merely the illusion of reality created by the running of a complex computer program, then there is in Dennett’s fictional world every reason to believe that computers have the ability to suffer, that the person making the most noise at the scene of an accident is hurting the most, unless there is other readily available evidence that this is not true, that babies suffer less than, slightly older children, who have the ability to articulate their desires, and the sufferings of a highly sophisticated man such as Daniel Dennett are immensely greater than those of others with less wide-ranging and highly discriminative desires.  So that it would be reasonable to conclude that Daniel Dennett’s man flu  must involve more suffering for him, than a similar affliction would cause in any less articulate human being.

This certainly strikes an intuitive chord with me, but not I think the one that Dennett is aiming for.

Suffering is not a matter of being visited by some ineffable but intrinsically awful state, but of having one’s life hopes, life plans, life projects blighted by circumstances imposed on one’s desires, thwarting one’s intentions — whatever they are.

Dennett, Daniel C.. Consciousness Explained 1991

Part of the case that Daniel Dennett is attempting to make in Consciousness Explained is that there are no private feelings whose reality can be known only by the being experiencing them. The above comment was made in a section related to animal suffering.  Note that he has defined suffering in a way that does not include physical pain, that ineffable,(for animals any way) intrinsically awful state, which is extremely hard to explain as the running of a computer program, but rather forms of suffering more amenable to his theory.

By this definition a person driving on a  journey, who stops the car because she feels a migraine coming on, and waits the attack out at the side of the road, has suffered not because of the headache, but by having her intention to complete her journey thwarted.

The  factors that caused the migraine suffering driver to stop as she became aware of a headache coming on are open to different philosophical interpretations.  If feelings are epiphenomenon  then the feeling did not have any causal effect, the stopping of the car was a consequence of entirely physical processes and although correlated with, independent of the drivers feeling of pain.  For a Dennettian  the feeling of pain did not have any causal effect on the stopping of the car, it was the fiction arrived at by brain narrative to explain why the car stopped. Only someone holding a view similar to Searle, would believe that the feeling of pain was a causal factor in stopping the car, and if they were a materialist think that this was something that science needed to come up with an explanation for.

I am an intuitive materialist at least on the subject of pain , and have confidence that such an explanation must exist.  .  I also  have confidence that there must be a material cause for the bizarre nature of the argument that Daniel Dennett is making about consciousness.

His description of the Cartesian Theater, and his assumption that this is the natural way that most of us view the world, until we receive enlightenment I think gives a clue.  He for instance argues that the instinctive interpretation of stubbing your toe, is to think that once the signal is sent to the brain another signal must be sent back to the toe.  I would argue that the instinctive reaction is to believe that the pain is in the toe.  The same with the visual images of the world around us.  He argues that we instinctively imagine these as being projected inside our heads in a Cartesian theater.

I would argue that our instincts lead us to believe that what we our seeing is in fact out there, and that this idea of an internal Cartesian Theater is secondary. It is the narrative fiction of someone who instead of just accepting the gift, tries to figure out how consciousness works, while having insufficient information to do so.  My suspicion is that these secondary intuitions are fixed deeply in Daniel Dennet’s thought processes, and that he has found himself in a social milieu where dualist beliefs gain you pariah status.

Now pariah status is something that I would expect to make a difference to the average reproductive fitness of the people experiencing its consequences. Intuitive beliefs arise from the unconscious not the conscious.  An intuitive belief that is contrary to the beliefs of your community could make forming relationships or acquiring positions of dominance within that community difficult.

Just pretending to hold the views required is likely to be recognized by others. Any mechanism that operated to suppress from the holder of the intuitive belief, the true nature of his thought would be selected for.  A great big, socially induced “here be dragons,” would work in conjunction with a submissive nature, and could prevent some from accepting the validity of their intuition.  This won’t  work for more dominant personalities. They would either find themselves expelled from communion, regarded as the community eccentric, or they could engage in a process of rationalisation that manages to successfully disguise from them and those around them the reality of their intuition. It is the last of these activities that is likely to be selected for by natural selection.   An adaptation that gains selective advantage by ensuring that we are not animal rationale but only rationis capax; rationalizers  rather than rational.

Rationalisation processes can be observed in operation in scientific creationist communities, where intelligent people, maybe not as intelligent as Daniel Dennett,  who is as the quality of his rationalizing  shows a very intelligent man,  make very complex arguments against evolution. Arguments that serve to disguise from themselves, and their followers, that they are not capable of for instance, holding a straight forward belief that the kangaroos hopped off the ark and bounced all the way back to Australia.

Bobby Henderson’s imagining, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, is I think a brilliant metaphor, for the sheer twisty noodliness, of human rationalisation.

The same noodliness that has resulted in Genesis Park, can also be seen in “Consciousness Explained”  My intuition is that Dennett’s theory of consciousness is the result of his refusal to recognize the dualism of his own intuitions, and his instinct to protect his own social standing by projecting  this socially unacceptable belief unto others, perhaps most notably John Searle.


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