Saturday, September 19, 2020

Searle contra Dennett

In 1992 when John Searle published The Rediscovery of the Mind. Daniel Dennett reviewed the book in The Journal of Philosophy, and you can read his review here. Then Searle published a critique of several then-recent books on philosophy of mind, including Dennett's Consciousness Explained in his column in The New York Review of Books, which you can read here: scroll down to the bottom, or do a page search on "Quotes 11".

Here's where it gets interesting: Dennett then wrote a letter to the NYRB blasting Searle, to which Searle responded, and you can read both here. Prior to this, Searle and Dennett were, I think, friendly rivals. Not after. Dennett writes, "Searle doesn't have a program of research. He has a set of home truths to defend. They land him in paradox after paradox, but so long as he doesn't address the critics who point this out, who’ll ever know? ... There is not room in these pages for Searle to repair fifteen years of disregard, so no one should expect him to make good here, but if he would be so kind as to tell us where and when he intends to respond to his critics with the attention and accuracy they deserve, we will know when to resume paying attention to his claims."

I have to agree with Searle's assessment of Dennett's accusations: "Dennett’s letter has a peculiar rhetorical quality in that he is constantly referring to some devastating argument against me that he never actually states. The crushing argument is always just offstage, in some review he or somebody else wrote or some book he published years ago, but he can’t quite be bothered to state the argument now."

I should also point out that I tend to agree with Searle's argument:

An intuition in [Dennett's] sense is just something one feels inclined to believe, and such intuitions often turn out to be false. For example, people have intuitions about space and time that have been refuted by relativity theory in physics. In my review, I gave an example of an intuition about consciousness that has been refuted by neurobiology: the commonsense intuition that our pain in the arm is actually located in the physical space of the arm. But the very existence of my conscious states is not similarly a matter for my intuitions. The refutable intuitions I mentioned require a distinction between how things seem to me and how they really are, a distinction between appearance and reality. But where the existence of conscious states is concerned, you can’t make the distinction between appearance and reality, because the existence of the appearance is the reality in question. If it consciously seems to me that I am conscious, then I am conscious. It is not a matter of “intuitions,” of something I feel inclined to say. Nor is it a matter of methodology. Rather it is just a plain fact about me—and every other normal human being—that we have sensations and other sorts of conscious states.

However, I am suspicious of making it into an argument because it allows Dennett and others (like the Churchlands) to argue that you can make a distinction between appearance and reality with regards to conscious states, and their philosophies of mind explain how. All they have to do is deny that premise. Certainly that's not a very plausible option, but they could do it. I'm not sure if you could prove Searle's point via an argument to someone who was dead-set against it.

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