Consciousness Denialism: Galen Strawson vs. Daniel Dennett

Denialism? The term suggests something irrational at best, maybe even malicious. After all, that’s the word used by climate scientists for those who don’t believe climate change is happening. Is it a good idea to invoke such a concept when we talk about philosophers who have counter-intuitive views on consciousness?

Well, yes, as it turns out. Because these philosophers have convinced themselves that, in the last analysis, there is no such thing. At least not in any recognizable sense.

Galen Strawson, in this recent piece worth reading and commenting on(1)*, calls this idea the Great Silliness. Surely that’s harsher than calling such philosophers denialists. I would have stuck with denialist, but that’s just me.

What do we mean, consciousness? That is, after all, the $50,000 question. In the case of human beings, surely we mean, if anything, this first-person point of view that in my case, tells me (a) immediately that I am alone in my home office (except for two cats) writing this blog entry, that there are pictures and post-it reminder notes on the wall above my laptop, that daylight is coming in my side window, that I can hear random sounds from out there, and so on. Philosophers use the term qualia for such experiences. (b) While being aware of all these things I can become aware of my awareness of them, supposing I choose to be. All of these things I am consciously aware of. Doubtless, since you are receiving a different array of sensory experiences, reading this, your consciousness has different content than mine, but we all have this first-person point of view (as some philosophers have begun calling it), qualia plus awareness of our awareness of qualia, which seems at once elusive because it is so all-pervasive, but also both immediate and — this is crucial — irreducible, not to be explained in terms of something radically different from it.

Is this what is being denied? Why? Does consciousness denialism even make sense, if it means we are, in some sense, not really having qualia, but only seem to be having them?

Strawson identifies the major denialists: folks like Daniel Dennett, author of numerous books on what is called the philosophy of mind, a strange term to use just in case there is no room for anything in our ontology to be called mind. Strawson also mentions Brian Farrell, Richard Rorty, Paul Feyerabend (early in his career, at least); he might have mentioned the Churchlands (Paul and Patricia), two of the leading voices for eliminative materialism, the idea that all of our propositional attitudes — our talk about beliefs, thoughts, experiences, etc., is capable of being replaced in a Feyerabendian wholesale fashion by the language of a completed cognitive neuroscience. The way Strawson describes this: “One of the strangest things the Deniers say is that although it seems that there is conscious experience, there isn’t really any conscious experience: the seeming is, in fact, an illusion.” There we are. Or are we there? If we’re not really conscious, how do we know where we are?

While those final rhetorical questions might seem at first glance like gibberish, they help underscore an important point about denialism regarding consciousness: ultimately it doesn’t make any sense. This senselessness, moreover, reflects negatively on any larger philosophy or worldview that finds itself having to embrace denialism about consciousness, and perhaps on the institutions (and the profession as a whole) which nurtures this sort of thing.

Wittgenstein remarked numerous times about the strangeness of saying things like, “I think I am in pain,” or, “I thought I had a pain, but I was wrong.” What was motivating him? The fact that having a pain is immediate! It makes no sense to “think” it, or “think” I can be wrong about it. So I should say (unless I am delivering a philosophy lecture!) “I have a pain” (or “I am in pain”) said while indicating where the pain is, say, in my left foot.

Having a pain in my left foot may surely be coordinated with certain neuro-chemical events going on there, events which may have a specific cause I could seek out. But these events are not the pain, anymore than what causes them is the pain. Pain is information. It is what we might call a vertical systemic communication that something is wrong. It is, that is, a communication from the complex systems in my foot to that great complex system in my head which manifests as my conscious experience — the experience of a person, that is, not a mere organ or body system — that “I have a pain in my left foot.” To find out what’s wrong, I might slip off my left shoe and discover to my dismay that I stepped on a nail. I immediately recall an earlier conscious stream of experiences, that of walking through a construction area when I was out earlier. I am conscious, moreover, of my consciousness of these memories now.

So what ever motivated anyone to believe there is some kind of philosophical problem here, that something as basic as consciousness needs explaining? Is there something truly mysterious about the fact (for fact it is) that I am conscious — and conscious of being conscious?

While we don’t have time here to relive the whole historical trajectory that eventually led to so strange a conundrum, we can single out the metaphysics (and worldview) that has had the most problems with consciousness: materialism, which has come in many forms: mechanistic and reductive, Marxian, identity, and eliminative being the Big Four of the past century, with much of the debate in philosophy of mind being between advocates of one over the others. Modern philosophy of mind, in fact, developed essentially around a single question: how can consciousness exist and have the properties it seems to manifest (e.g., intentionality, capacity to formulate and grasp concepts, capacity to receive visceral information in the form of qualia, i.e., of pain, capacity to serve as the agency for correct inference of conclusions from premises) in a material reality?

Much of the activity of the philosophy of mind, in other words, has consisted of trying to jam square consciousness into one or another of the round holes carved for it by materialists. As a branch of philosophy the field is still very active because of how consciousness has resisted every effort to fit its square pegs into one of these round holes: from the “paradox of the thinking behaviorist” formulated almost a hundred years ago by Arthur O. Lovejoy to the “hard problem of consciousness” observed by David John Chalmers in the 1990s.

Maybe the inability to fit something so basic and ineliminable as consciousness into one of the boxes supplied by materialism is a sign of a fundamental problem with materialism, with the materialist theory of reality. Maybe it is a sign of the inadequacy of that theory.

But so strong is the grip of this theory of reality on professional philosophy, though, that to challenge it is to risk being deemed “unscientific” or “irrational” or labeled with some worse epithet. Even Strawson hedges his bets on this point. He says, at a crucial juncture in his account of consciousness denialism, “What people often mean when they say that consciousness is a mystery is that it’s mysterious how consciousness can be simply a matter of physical goings-on in the brain. But here, they make a Very Large Mistake, in Winnie-the-Pooh’s terminology — the mistake of thinking that we know enough about the physical components of the brain to have good reason to think that these components can’t, on their own, account for the existence of consciousness. We don’t.”

Later, Strawson invokes naturalism, from which, as he puts it, it does not follow that consciousness does not really exist, only that if it exists it is a natural process … not something supernatural or non-natural (whatever this means). What do we mean, naturalism? Is naturalism something meaningfully distinct from materialism? Are their nonmaterialist forms of naturalism? Strawson tells us, “Naturalism states that everything that concretely exists is entirely natural…,” which could serve as a textbook illustration of the circular definition. But “given that we’re specifically materialist or physicalist naturalists (as almost all naturalists are), we must take it that conscious experience is wholly material or physical. And so we should, because it’s beyond reasonable doubt that experience … is wholly a matter of neural goings-on: wholly natural and wholly physical” (emphases Strawson’s).

All of which means that by invoking a separate concept, naturalism, we went nowhere except in a large circle. Strawson would disagree, of course. He contends that the problem is our vast ignorance of the physical, especially how the brain and central nervous system “generate” consciousness. The problem: he is still trying to explain consciousness in terms of something consciousness is not, and thus participating in a research program that has given us a hundred years of false leads and dead ends. His position is closer to Dennett’s than he thinks.

Suppose one could have a full and complete account of every event in the brain, accepting for now that the word physical applies to events in the brain. Would we have an account of, say, the intentionality of consciousness, of the fact that when I am conscious I am invariably conscious of something in my proximate environment (or it could be awareness of an idea of which I am thinking at a given moment)? I submit that in asking the question we show that we would have pushed the problem back a step rather than resolved it, creating another explanatory conundrum (or epicycle): how intentionality as a property emerges from a concatenation of physical events, or how we can justify assuming that it does in advance of empirical results that point specifically to this. Such results might emerge … or, if history is any guide, they might not.

I believe the “problem” of consciousness has resisted and continues to resist solution is because consciousness is not the sort of thing that can be explained within the constraints supplied by materialism — in any form. We cannot claim to explain it by having “reduced” it to something else; we cannot honestly claim to have “eliminated” it!

So what should we do? Go back to being Cartesians? No. Lapsing back into dualism is probably the worst thing we could do! But we could begin by suggesting that the most radical-seeming of the post-Cartesian British empiricists, Bishop George Berkeley, was onto something by denying, not mental substance as early post-Cartesian materialists like de la Mettrie did, but material substance. “To be is to be perceived,” said Berkeley; what exists, that is, is mind-dependent. But with Berkeley, we are still stuck inside substance metaphysics. What happens if we jettison substance metaphysics (no matter, never mind — at least not as Western philosophers have usually talked about these things!). Do we need to talk about substances to provide descriptions of our experiences, or, for that matter, whatever it is that is going on in my brain and senses when I have an experience?

Going back to my consciousness of being here, in my home office, typing this on my laptop, two cats in here (both sound asleep), light coming in from the window, random sounds also coming in from outside. Have I left anything crucial out by omitting all references to substance? Or is such a concept anything more than an abstraction, the philosophical equivalent of an item of debris just shaved off by Occam’s Razor? I have referred to what is within my proximate environment, that of which I am conscious, with no intended implication that there aren’t many, many things that are quite real but of which I am not immediately conscious: the fact that my laptop is made of molecules, for example, its molecules made of atoms, etc.; or that the light and sound have specific properties for which physicists have reserved the term physical, e.g., wavelengths of light, that fact that processes are occurring in my brain, triggered by my having experiences of events or processes in my proximate environment?

Where is the material substance?

I submit that it isn’t anywhere, because there simply is no such thing! Philosophers should get rid of it!

This means not being materialists? (And, for now, leaving the naturalism question aside as an evasion.)

In favor of what? My suggestion (although I am aware, this is only a start): take consciousness seriously. Take it for what it is, observe what it actually does, and do not try to eliminate it, reduce it to something it is not, or otherwise explain it away. Do, at the very least, what phenomenology started to do, which is provide a description of its operations and contents (regrettably, like so much academic philosophy, phenomenology as a research program soon got lost in a forest of neologisms). Since consciousness seems to be ineliminable without the results being either self-contradictory or unintelligible, I suggest taking the existence of consciousness as a basic datum in an account of reality that includes intelligent beings, and perhaps all living things (as capacity for self-awareness may be a mark of intelligence).

For there isn’t just human consciousness, there are many kinds and levels of consciousness. My cats are conscious when they are awake. They don’t have the same consciousness of a first-person point of view that I have, but they are capable of experiencing pain, aware of their surroundings or proximate environment, and able to navigate around in the latter.

Go back to the pain in my left foot, which arose because the tissues in my foot received a sudden injury. Nerve-endings were able to communicate this vertically: I received the information as pain. Clearly, materialists are not wrong in saying there are chemical and neurological events that correlate with my experience of pain (although there are “phantom pains” which amputees claim to “feel” in the amputated limb even though the limb is no longer there; thus we have qualia which correspond directly with nothing at all). Where are they wrong, in this case?

Their orientation is wrong, as it forces them to deny the basic nature of consciousness by trying to explain it in terms of that which is not (on their terms) conscious. The orientation I will suggest is supplied by replacing material substance … to the extent we should replace it … with systems: structured wholes consisting of cooperating elements or components that are themselves systems and not basic units (subsystems, that is). To ask, Are systems material? is then no better a question than, Are systems mental? All we can say … and I will try to bring this to a close with this thought: systems are by their very nature conscious, if by this we mean the capacity to apprehend, sometimes anticipate, interact with, and respond to, events including other systems in a proximate environment. By this last term (as I have used it several times now) all I mean is the aggregation of surroundings able to affect a system or be affected by it, whether through interaction or mere passive recognition.

Looking at consciousness and its objects this way will require a mental-cognitive leap, if for no other reason than because philosophers are so accustomed to talking about such things as the interactions of systems and transmissions of information (in, e.g., the human body) in materialist terms. But I will submit that if we can cease the attempts at reduction, or the attempts to explain which just explain away … much less the attempts at elimination — denialism — our capacity to appreciate the richness of our experience and our interactions with other systems, especially that category of system we call persons, will be that much more enhanced.

We may even find new ways of thinking of systems, taken as they are, in ethical terms. We do this now, of course; it’s another thing the materialist view of the universe has difficulty making sense of. Eliminate materialism instead of consciousness, though, and we may see new integrations of thought, experience, and morality that would never have occurred to us before.

Dennett tried to rebut Strawson, and Strawson replied at the same place.(2) The thrust of Dennett’s attempted rebuttal is that he doesn’t really deny that consciousness exists: “I don’t deny the existence of consciousness; of course, consciousness exists; it just isn’t what most people think it is,… I do grant that Strawson expresses quite vividly a widespread conviction about what consciousness is. Might people — and Strawson, in particular — be wrong about this? That is the issue.” (Italics his.) What, then, does Dennett think consciousness is?

Invoking the “pragmatic policy of naturalism” (there’s that word again) in attempting to sigue explanations of consciousness into the world as the materialistic naturalist understands it, Dennett argues against the first-person point of view calling it “privileged insight” and adding that “we have no immunity to error on this score.” While it is true enough that I can be mistaken in some of my direct perceptions (seeing the pencil in the water appearing to be bent, immediately correcting the error with reasoning from my knowledge of refracted light), I do not see how I can be mistaken about having that pain in my left foot. That’s what we non-denialists mean by the “privileged insight” of the first-person point of view.

Strawson stands his ground, quoting numerous past statements by Dennett where he certainly does seem to be denying that any such thing as conscious experience of qualia exists. Consider his zombie analogy: a “zombie” in this context is (these are Dennett’s words from his Consciousness Explained (1991)) “is behaviorally indistinguishable from a normal human being, but is not conscious.” Dennett proceeds to say, “Are zombies possible? They’re not just possible, they’re actual. We’re all zombies.”

Later, Strawson quotes him as saying, “When I squint just right, it does sort of seem that consciousness must be something in addition to all the things it does for us and to us, some kind of special private glow or here-I-am-ness that would be absent in any robot. But I’ve learned not to credit the hunch. I think it is a flat-out mistake” (Intuition Pumps, 2013).

So is Dennett denying that consciousness really exists in any form other than a purely behavioral sense, in which we are to assume that if two entities are behaviorally alike they are psychologically alike? It seems to this reader that he is. What separates first-person consciousness from other kinds of phenomena able to be studied, whether by scientists or by philosophers desperate to seem scientific, is that in the final analysis, we are inside of it. This is what makes it ineliminable.

When Dennett has a splitting headache, as all of us do from time to time, does he really and truly refuse to “credit [that] hunch” that he is experiencing qualia, and that his being mistaken about his having a splitting headache ultimately does not make any sense?

It does seem likely, of course, that materialism combined with the sort of scientific empiricism that refuses to credit the validity of any argument or the truth of any conclusion reached through private introspection leads logically to the idea that first-person consciousness can be eliminated from our philosophical bestiary. But to some of us, this does not count against first-person consciousness, it counts against materialism. I would conclude with the note that unless we have a materialistic explanation of this sense of “being inside” streams of experience about which skepticism or denial simply fail to make sense, we should bite the bullet on this one and try to consider alternatives to materialism as our metaphysical worldview — for this is, after all, what it is: not an a priori truth nor the conclusion of specific empirical studies but a philosophical and methodological presumption, and, to my mind (a word I just had to get in here somewhere), an unnecessary one.



*For some reason WordPress is not allowing me to add links or otherwise format this text, and have proven impossible to contact about this. Please accept my apologies for the lack of italics where there should be, in-text links that are missing, etc.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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One Response to Consciousness Denialism: Galen Strawson vs. Daniel Dennett

  1. The views of people like Dennett, the Churchlands, Rosenberg, Harris, etc. depend on pivotal equivocations. The careful avoidance of precision about the definitions of key terms, and the fact that the theories themselves are arbitrarily self-exempting and never the first order of business in their own elaborations, are tell-tale. Dennett and company are counting on people remaining clueless.

    The way to counter this nonsense is through pragmatic-to-theoretic pedagogy about supervisory criteria, combined with simple questions about the implications of these theories for themselves. The question of “What about that theory itself?” strikes the foolish, and the simple are becoming streetwise to what essentially amounts to the praxis of “You’re a bigot and I’m not”.

    If anyone wonders why only in the last few years rich technological elites have begun sounding alarms about a.i., look no further than self-referential analysis. The bots are not going to privilege *any* assumptions, especially the ones that have been behind the curtain at least since the rise of positivism. The reflexive/recursive cat’s out of the bag, and all the hardware-crippling in the world won’t put Humpty back together again.

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