The Sceptical Believer.

Allan Ramsay, David Hume, 1711 - 1776. Historian and philosopher

David Hume portrait by Allan Ramsay

The Scottish Philosopher David Hume wrote  the following defence of his scepticism, in response to  claims circulated, by those opposed to his appointment to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University

In Reality, a Philosopher who affects to doubt of the Maxims of common Reason, and even of his Senses, declares sufficiently that he is not in earnest, and that he intends not to advance an Opinion which he would recommend as Standards of Judgment and Action. All he means by these Scruples is to abate the Pride of mere human Reasoners,  by showing them, that even with regard to Principles which seem the clearest, and which they are necessitated from the strongest Instincts of Nature to embrace, they are not able to attain a full Consistence and absolute Certainty. Modesty then, and Humility, with regard to the Operations of our natural Faculties, is the Result of Scepticism; not an universal Doubt, which it is impossible for any Man to support, and which the first and most trivial Accident in Life must immediately disconcert and destroy.

David Hume  A Letter from a Gentleman to his friend in Edinburgh 1745 taken from The Writings of David Hume#, ed. James Fieser (Internet Release, 1995)

To function as a human being we must act as though we believe in the real existence of the material world.  And this of itself provides evidence that we believe in its existence. We generally also require social relationships and this requires us to believe not only in our own existence, but of the existence of other people.

Many of us go beyond this, believing that reality has purpose. It is not just the theists amongst us that are believers in Providence. My atheist friends are as likely as my theist ones to hold that some things are so right that they are just meant to be. Drawing attention to the illogicality of this kind of  statement coming from an atheist, when that which is being endorsed is positive, seems to me a mean act. One not conducive to the forming of healthy social relationships.

Not every providence related belief expressed by theists or atheists is so positive.  For instance the belief that bad things don’t happen to good people, or that people get what they deserve, are two related negative concepts which can be used to justify our indifference to the suffering of other people, and the endorsement of torture and rape.

It can be argued that this sense that reality is purposeful, has evolutionary advantages and that this is why it is so widespread. Obviously a widespread feeling does not make it so. Nor does a natural explanation for why this feeling is prevalent, mean that it is not a true impression.

But whether or not the believer in Providence, feels the need for capitalisation, the credited actions are widely prevalent, with by and large no suggestion that they require the overturn of natural law.

Providence is experienced within the normal workings of natural law. Which means that miracles, that is events that are contrary to the laws of nature, are as foreign to the experienced reality of believers in divine Providence, as they are to atheists.

David Hume’s claim that the miracles recorded in the Bible did not provide evidence for the truth of Christianity, strikes me as  common sense, possibly rather in the way that the works of William Shakespeare appear to be riddled with clichés.  (An Enquiry Chapter 10)  What was then original appears commonplace now.

However not all Christians understand that recorded miracles only provide evidence of the truth of Christianity if you already believe in the truth of Christianity.

I remember the first time I heard a Christian apologist offer the resurrection as “proof” for the existence of God. I rejected his argument, not because of historical doubts or because of its miraculous nature per se, but because I didn’t even take it seriously.

Jeff Lowder  The Miracle of the Resurrection 1995

In fact even if one believes that Christ is the divine Messiah, the miracles, for most of us anyway, are so different, from the non-showy way in which one experiences God/Providence acting in the world, that they are a cause for doubt.  Something extra that you have to believe.

This, if the Gospels are literally true, does not apply to the first followers of Jesus, who had the chance to experience showy miracles so often, that they were commonplace. For them they would indeed have provided evidence for Jesus divine mission.

That a major world religion is based on the belief that a young man who suffered an agonising and humiliating public execution almost 2000 years ago, is God, seems improbable beyond belief.  And yet it is demonstrably true that this is the case.

It is the sheer improbability of this belief , that is sometimes used as proof that the miracles recorded in the New Testament, most particularly the bodily resurrection of Christ, must have taken place.

Those who make this type of claim, notably the English theologian Tom Wright, are basing it on empirical evidence, the demonstrably real, both historical and present, existence of Christianity.

The claim being made in the following quote is the induction based; similar acts have similar effects. Wright states that in every other case where a proclaimed messiah died, his followers ceased to believe that he was the Messiah, but the same thing didn’t happen with Christ.  He says that this evidence demands an explanation.

The historian is bound to face the question: once Jesus had been crucified, why would anyone say that he was Israel’s Messiah?

Nobody said that about Judas the Galilean after his revolt ended in failure in AD 6. Nobody said it of Simon bar-Giora after his death at the end of Titus’s triumph in AD 70. Nobody said it about bar-Kochbar after his defeat and death in 135. On the contrary. Where messianic movements tried to carry on after the death of their would-be Messiah, their most important task was to find another Messiah. The fact that the early Christians did not do that, but continued, against all precedent, to regard Jesus himself as Messiah, despite outstanding alternative candidates such as the righteous, devout and well-respected James, Jesus’ own brother, is evidence that demands an explanation. As with their beliefs about resurrection, they redefined Messiahship itself, and with it their whole view of the problem that Israel and the world faced and the solution that they believed God had provided.

N.T. Wright Jesus Resurrection and Christian Origins 2002

For any given evidence there are a myriad of explanations possible.  We are constrained only by our worldview and the limits of our imagination. And the following quote from Tom Wright is a faith statement. A reiteration  of his belief in his own belief. Anyone holding a different worldview, or expressing the notion that other interpretations are possible must be wrong, because Tom Wright is certain that his worldview is true.

But, as far as I am concerned, the historian may and must say that all other explanations for why Christianity arose, and why it took the shape it did, are far less convincing as historical explanations than the one the early Christians themselves offer: that Jesus really did rise from the dead on Easter morning, leaving an empty tomb behind him.  The origins of Christianity, the reason why this new movement came into being and took the unexpected form it did, and particularly the strange mutations it produced within the Jewish hope for resurrection and the Jewish hope for a Messiah, are best explained by saying that something happened, two or three days after Jesus’ death, for which the accounts in the four gospels are the least inadequate expression we have.

N.T. Wright Jesus Resurrection and Christian Origins 2002

Tom Wright’s claim is not only that something must have happened within 2 or 3 days of the crucifixion, but that this something was the miraculous raising of a man from the dead, as recorded in the gospels.

Such an event does have precedent within the gospels, where others were raised from the dead.  But it is unparalleled in our ordinary experience of life.  This according to David Hume, is what gives us good reason to doubt it.  Tom Wright is not arguing with this.  He is merely claiming that the rise of Christianity is so without precedent, that a miraculous explanation is more likely than any other explanation.

When horrific things happen to human beings, the frequent  response is that they must have been asking for it.  They brought it upon themselves. And those claiming this will use all their powers of intellect in the service of, the possibly instinct driven monster that is, confirmation bias.

That this doesn’t happen with all of the people all of the time, can be demonstrated by events following the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris in January 2015. Then millions marched to proclaim that the dead were risen in them. ‘Je suis Charlie.’

A similar explanation for the rise of Christianity strikes me as possible.  That those very first Christians were proclaiming, that Christ is risen from the dead.  He is risen in us.  ‘Nous sommes tous Christ.’

Evidence that the first Christians did make this kind of claim can be found in the New Testament, in documents written much closer to the events of that first Easter, than were the gospels.

Now you are the body of Christ 1 Corinthians 12:27

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: Galatians 2:20

I think this statement  from 1 Corinthians is also very relevant.

22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

1 Corinthians 1 22,23

The gospels are full of miraculous signs, and theologians have long since found ways, although they haven’t always agreed, to explain the logic of the crucifixion.  Yet here, comparatively early in the history of Christianity, when Paul proclaims the centrality of the crucifixion, the plain reading is that the signs and the logic did not exist. That the miracles with which the gospels are packed are later additions, which served to confirm for subsequent generations the depth of meaning that the first Christians had experienced.

The German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, in arguing for the need to demythologise scripture, made  the following claim, a hostage to fortune, gifted to those who might want to discredit his argument.

It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless [radio] and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits.

Rudolf Bultmann Kerygma and Myth 1948 quote taken from Radical Faith

Here Bultmann strongly underestimates the power of the human mind.  We have evolved with the capacity to believe all manner of things, that our cultures and social groupings expect of us. Even when they are in contradiction of each other. We have also the amazing capacity to affirm these beliefs in all sincerity, while completely failing to notice that our behaviour is at odds with our acclamations.

And he has misidentified the problem. The problem isn’t modern science, but that the miracles are inconsistent with the way we experience the world.

There is within scripture, evidence that the high significance the first Christians placed on the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, was wrapped up by later generations, in Jewish Mythology. And it is in this form, that it has been transported through time.

I think  Rudolf Bultmann may have been right that it is impossible to disentangle the historical Jesus from the mythology. But the gospels deliver something else, in the God Man at their hearts. An image of what it means to be good. An image of goodness that exposes the omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent god of traditional Western theology as an imposter.

David Hume argued that the existence of an, omnipotent, omniscient, and all good God was incompatible  with the fact that evil exists in the world. This very much depends on how you interpret the words.

The first two claims are normally interpreted as meaning all the power and all the knowledge that it is possible to have, without logical contradiction. So that for instance the claim that God could not make a stone to big for Himself to lift, and then lift it, is not evidence against omnipotence.

It does seem obvious that if these first two claims are true, and as suffering exists in the world that God cannot be all good. But that depends on how you interpret the word good. There has been a tradition within Christianity from at least the time of St Anselm (1033-1109), the first of the scholastic philosophers, of believing that ‘Might is Right.’

Anselm sees the duty of every rational creature as subjecting every inclination to the will of God. Of this Anselm writes, “This is the debt which angels and men owe to God. No one who pays it sins; everyone who does not pay it sins. This is the sole and entire honor which we owe to God, and God requires from us. One who does not render this honor to God takes away from God what belongs to him, and dishonors God, and to do this is to sin”.

Scott David Foutz  A Brief Survey of Anselm of Canterbury’s ‘Cur Deus Homo’ 1994

In the Medieval Feudal system the weak had a duty to the powerful, but not the other way around.  This is the system that Anselm translated into Christian Doctrine.  In this system it is impossible for an Omnipotent, Omniscient Being’s goodness to be impugned by anything that he does or allows to happen to us.

If you accept this interpretation of the word goodness, then the existence of an Omnipotent, Omniscient, and all good God, is logically possible.

Providentially the Gospels do not restrict themselves to the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  They also tell of his behaviour, teaching and miracles.  The incarnated God that walks these pages, is not King Herod.  The God Man at the centre of the Gospels gives the lie, to Anselm’s Omnipotent Monster.

If to be an atheist is to deny the existence, of the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent monster of Anselm’s imagination, then  to be loyal to the Gospel of Christ, one must be an atheist.







Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” was composed in the 1950s by Noam Chomsky, as an example of a sentence which was grammatically correct, and yet unlikely ever to have been spoken.

This is not as is sometimes claimed a sentence that has no meaning. It has no inherent meaning, but It is capable according to context of being understood in many different ways.  A fact more than adequately demonstrated by a competition hosted by Stanford University in 1985, where entrants were asked to create contexts in less than one hundred words which made the sentence meaningful.

Some of the entries can be read here.

The different interpretations are possible because words such as colorless and green have more than one meaning, and because metaphor is a recognized way of communicating ideas.

Because green is sometimes used as a synonym for Irish, this inherently meaningless sentence can be linked to the myth that St Patrick drove all the snakes in Ireland into the sea, where the  mythical beasts became the currents around our shores. Colourless green memes sleeping, sometimes furiously.

The story of St Patrick and the snakes is a metaphorical account of the ancient Celtic religious beliefs of Ireland being driven out by Christian beliefs. It is obviously not literally true, and it isn’t metaphorically true either.  The ancient memes weren’t driven out, some of them were incorporated into the new belief system, others remained as myths and legends, part of a system that enabled people to derive meaning from the world around.

The world is like Chomsky’s sentence, all syntax and no obvious semantics, structure without meaning.  It is the stories we know, the memes we bear, that determine how we understand reality. And what new stories we tell about it.

A True Metaphor

Richard Dawkins has argued that memes (ideas) should be regarded as lifeforms whose natural habitat is the human mind.

This strikes me as a rather good way of describing what is happening. Just as the world provides a range of different habitats, so does the mind. The lifeforms that evolved in Australia are different to those that evolved in Africa, or South America.  The Life forms of the Jurassic are different from those that evolved later.  But where there were niches to fill, organisms evolved to fill them.

So it is with culturally transmitted memes, there are niches to fill in the habitat of the mind. Within different cultures these niches are filled in different ways.

But by far the most important variable determining your religion is the accident of birth. The convictions that you so passionately believe, would  have been a completely different, and largely contradictory, set of convictions, if only you had happened to be born in a different place.

Richard Dawkins  Viruses of the Mind 1993

Richard Dawkins is of course right that the religion you hold is pretty much an accident of birth, or at least the society you find yourself in. The same is true for any other culturally transmitted view.

Belief is not a choice. It creeps in unannounced, as does unbelief.

Richard Dawkins was not the first to note that ideas spread by epidemiology. A very similar point was made by Mark Twain in an essay, which he wrote in 1901, although it wasn’t published until 1923, after Twain was dead.

 Morals, religions, politics, get their following from surrounding influences and atmospheres, almost entirely; not from study, not from thinking. A man must and will have his own approval first of all, in each and every moment and circumstance of his life — even if he must repent of a self-approved act the moment after its commission, in order to get his self-approval again: but, speaking in general terms, a man’s self-approval in the large concerns of life has its source in the approval of the peoples about him, and not in a searching personal examination of the matter. Mohammedans are Mohammedans because they are born and reared among that sect, not because they have thought it out and can furnish sound reasons for being Mohammedans; we know why Catholics are Catholics; why Presbyterians are Presbyterians; why Baptists are Baptists; why Mormons are Mormons; why thieves are thieves; why monarchists are monarchists; why Republicans are Republicans and Democrats, Democrats. We know it is a matter of association and sympathy, not reasoning and examination; that hardly a man in the world has an opinion upon morals, politics, or religion which he got otherwise than through his associations and sympathies.

Mark Twain Corn-Pone Opinions  1901

Mark Twain argued that the epidemiology was being driven by an instinct for social conformity.

Richard Dawkins and his friend the philosopher Daniel Dennett, both argue that memes have been liberated from their biological substrate, and it is the meme and not human instinct, that is in control of the relationship. As is illustrated by the following sentence, part of a passage from Daniel Dennett, that provides the introduction to Viruses of the Mind.

The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind, but a human mind is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes.  

Daniel Dennett  Consciousness Explained in Richard Dawkins  Viruses of the Mind 1993

Mark Twain’s theory is simpler. We already know that instincts control the behaviour of other animals and there is no reason to believe that memes have the creative powers being attributed to them.

It is Mark Twain’s theory and not Richard Dawkins’ that satisfies the demands of scientific method.

The Serpents of the Mind

Scientific ideas, like all memes are subject to a kind of natural selection, and this might look superficially virus-like. But the selective forces that scrutinize scientific ideas are not arbitrary and capricious. They are exacting well-honed rules, and they do not favor pointless self-serving behavior. …….

Richard Dawkins  Viruses of the Mind 1993

(Note that in the above passage the entities being exonerated, because of the intercession of Scientific Method, from exhibiting, ‘self-serving behavior,’ are the memes not people. Note also  that the adjectives, pointless and self-serving, which he uses to describe the behaviours, are mutually exclusive.)

Scientific method allows us to make increasingly accurate models of reality , which can then be used to make predictions, and suggest further avenues for research. It can never give certainty but is an excellent way of finding out about the probable structure of the world. This is not how Richard Dawkins is using it.  For him it has become a saving myth, a St Patrick driving snakes from Sacred Ground.

And just as the old Celtic myths were not driven from Ireland, but became incorporated with the new beliefs, so the old myths, including that which theologian Peter Rollins identifies with a belief in the Big Other, are incorporated within new atheism.

The Big Other:

Without getting too caught up in the specifics of what the term means in psychoanalysis, its theological significance relates to the, often unconscious, belief in some Thing that will bring wholeness and overcome anxiety.

Peter Rollins You Don’t Need to be an Atheist to be a Christian February 2015

Richard Dawkins references scientific method as the saving Big Other.  And just as the theologians of Christendom, seem to have felt free to disregard the teaching and example of Christ, when developing their theologies, so in developing his ideas on the Selfish Gene and Meme, Dr Dawkins by his own admission ignored the ‘exacting well-honed rules’ that are used to scrutinize scientific ideas.

I want to argue in favour of a particular way of looking at animals and plants, and a particular way of wondering why they do the things that they do. What I am advocating is not a new theory, not a hypothesis which can be verified or falsified, not a model which can be judged by its predictions. … Rather, I am trying to show the reader a way of seeing biological facts.

Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype Chapter 1 1982 

In this way Richard Dawkins has been able to accommodate within atheism people, probably himself included, who intuitively feel that the complexity of nature is such that it must be an act of intentionality.  Rather than quote them something like the following passage, and tell them to get over themselves, their intuitions have no rational justification:

The design stance and the intentional stance are useful brain mechanisms, important for speeding up the second-guessing of entities that really matter for survival, such as predators or potential mates.  But, like other brain mechanisms, these stances can misfire. Children and primitive peoples, impute intentions to the weather, to waves and currents, to falling rocks.  

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion 2006

He merely uses it to argue that the god botherers have been deceived.  And offers them the allegedly scientifically endorsed view that there really is a purpose. Everything is being driven by purposefully acting memes and genes seeking their own survival.

The old niches have been filled.  The purposeful creators, the genes and memes.  The saving myth- scientific method, saving us from our creators, and the chosen people – the intelligent.  The duty of the saved – to mock and ridicule as irrational those who fill the niches differently.

Passion’s Slave

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

David Hume  A Treatise of Human Nature 1739-40

The Scottish philosopher David Hume regarded the desire for truth as a human passion.  This is something that I wouldn’t disagree with, but there are other drives also.  There is for instance the desire to prove that you are right, and the perhaps the even more powerful one, to prove that other people are wrong.

Scientific method evolved as a way of protecting the search for truth, from the noodly many tentacled deceiver, that psychologists identify with the unpoetic label, Confirmation Bias: the instinct that makes the brain, as Voltaire remarked, a wonderful organ for enabling a man to continue believing whatever it is he wants to believe.

Science is an effective way of finding out how the world works.  It can help us produce increasingly accurate models of reality, but it cannot imbue it with either purpose or meaning.  It provides the syntax not the semantics.

Meaning and purpose are the gifts of passion not rationality.

The Meme Bonded Ape

We are social animals who bond on shared ideas.  Crazes and fashions have no depth and last only a short time, they cannot be the basis for a stable society.

One way of acquiring strong within group bonds, is to label those who hold different memes, as evil and dangerous  – those evil awful people over there. i.e. factionalism

It is possible that  factionalism was once a useful adaptation, that caused our species to spread across the world, so that when bad times came, all our eggs, so to speak were not in one basket.  And it may in part explain why our species survived, when all the other species of hominid (upright apes) became extinct.

Those of us living in Northern Ireland have good reason to understand just how dangerous such factionalism can be, in our crowded modern world.

Some atheists such as Richard Dawkins; and Lawrence Krauss, who can be seen here debating with Peter Rollins, believe that the problem lies with religion (the meme).

Lawrence Krauss argues that we don’t need religion, but should bond on the truth of science. Arguing that the wonder and awe that he feels for nature is better than anything that religion can give because it is based on truth.

And this could well be so, but this isn’t what he suggests people actually bond on.  He suggests  rock concerts or music, not science.

The activity that he acknowledges engaging in, is the ridicule of religious believers, to demonstrate how ridiculous this minority are, to the “vast middle the rational people.” Basically he is encouraging people to bond on how rational they are compared to those  ridiculous god botherers.

The laugh of this being that the most ridiculous belief of all is that we are rational animals.  There is, as real world economist Dan Ariely demonstrates scientific evidence that man is not a rational animal. The best science can tell us about the possibility that the Universe has a Conscious Creator, is that there is no reason to believe it.  Probability arguments don’t hold in infinities.

The human passion for truth is not as all compelling as the search for community.  Science is a way of finding out the truth about the world.  It can give us the world’s syntax but not its semantics. It is a very useful tool, but it is too shallow to provide the glue required to hold communities together.

Like Noam Chomsky’s sentence, reality has many possible interpretations.  We can bond in many different ways.  What Northern Ireland  theologian Peter Rollins argued in his  debate with Lawrence Krauss is that the truly dangerous beliefs are those that scapegoat others as those evil awful people, the people who have the problem, while we have the solution.

For him the function of religion, as far as I understand it, is to come to grips with the human realities, the reality that we are all broken and that none of us have the answer. And he argues that this is the ultimate reality that can be found in Christianity.

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.