Counterfeit "Subjects": Dennett, Gide and the Problem of Consciousness

Article excerpt

Strictly speaking, this story should not be written at all. To write it or to tell it is to spoil it. This is because the man who had the strange experience we are going to talk about never mentioned it to anybody, and the fact that he kept his secret and sealed it up completely in his memory is the whole point of the story. Thus we must admit that handicap at the beginning--that it is absurd for us to tell the story, absurd for anybody to listen to it and unthinkable that anybody should believe it.

Flann O'Brien, John Duffy's Brother

I wrote down his statement and immediately after it the sentence. Then I had the man put in chains. It was all very simple. Had I first called the man in and questioned him it would only have led to confusion. He would have lied; when I succeeded in refuting the lies he would have told fresh ones in their stead; and so on.

Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony

Metaphilosophy and Mind

One of the favorite topics of discussion on the loftier-browed BBC radio chat shows--and the one with which this paper is concerned--is the problem of consciousness. In subliminal deference, perhaps, to C. P. Snow's characterization of the "two cultures," these invariably pitch a celebrity scientist like Richard Dawkins or Roger Penrose (or Steven Pinker when he's over for a book launch) against a religious or literary type with somewhat predictable results: while the latter gesture towards the numinous, the ineffable, or the existential mysteries of life, the former are apt to issue promissory notes in the name of a future neuroscience (whilst conceding that it's a tough nut to crack) or invoke the relevance of quantum indeterminacy or Godels's Incompleteness Theorem.

Assuming that these debates tap into something of broader public interest, one reason may well be the tacit recognition of the fact that for both sides in the debate a line of no little cultural importance has been drawn in the sand. If no place for Mind can be found in Nature, then faith in the explanatory completeness of the Natural Sciences looks groundless, endangering the hitherto unchecked expansion of its cognitive authority. Conversely, if the disenchantment of Mind turns out to be the last and greatest victory of the scientific over the manifest images, what would remain of that legacy of self-understanding that seems to underpin so much of our experience?

Even if its broader significance is not always appreciated, the debate about consciousness in Anglo-American philosophy of mind can likewise be seen to have arrived at something of an impasse, even for those who strive to remain non-partisan. Consider, for example, a notice on the science-friendly Daniel Dennett's version of The Phenomenology, Consciousness Explained, (1) in which David Papineau (himself no friend of the ineffable) avers that "[i]n the end Dennett's materialism is probably right, since the ghostly alternatives make even less sense."

For Papineau, then, a materialist victory is close at hand; and yet he sounds a discordant note, for it seems that Dennett "would be a better apostle if he spent more time diagnosing the seductive pull of inner flames and less trying to blind his readers with cognitive science" (Papineau). This illustrates the philosophical tension nicely: Materialism, like other varieties of reductive naturalism, is primarily concerned with what would count as an explanation, and yet a champion of cognitive science is grudgingly told that while he might be philosophically correct, it is not a circus parade of the successes of cognitive science that is going to drag the audience of the Cartesian Theatre onto the stage and make them the actors in their own drama. It is not by a display of the empirical evidence for this position that Dennett is held likely to "convert many believers in mental ghosts" (Papineau), but by diagnosing their Sickness unto Death!

The question this raises is precisely what sort of narrative could do this sort of job. …