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Daniel Dennett, mystic?

by Greg Krehbiel on 21 January 2013

One way to view the world is to break it down into its smallest parts and then try to construct larger things from there. So you might see the world as particles and forces, or as strings, or even as numbers and math, and then you try to see baseballs and trees and monkeys as very complicated collections of those things.

This can lead to weird stuff like Laplace’s demon — which assumes a clockwork universe — and it can lead to what David Chalmers calls “the hard problem of consciousness” — which is that it’s very hard to imagine how particles and forces end up explaining subjective experience.

Another approach is to go about the issue the other way. Rather than starting out with material stuff and working our way up, you start with subjective experience and work your way down.

We know we are conscious. We suspect dogs are conscious, to some extent. We suspect fish are conscious to a lesser extent. From time to time you read about weird studies that allegedly imply that plants have something almost kinda like awareness.

From this perspective you could imagine some property that is related to subjective experience and that exists in nature and is expressed in different degrees by different things.

(I’m not advocating this point of view, by the way. Just thinking out loud.)

Robin posted something on Facebook about Chalmers, which reminded me of this train of thought, and sent me over to, where I saw this very interesting talk by Daniel Dennett.

Dennett is saying that the “brain as computer” model is in need of revision because neurons don’t behave the way anything in a computer behaves. Specifically, they don’t seem to be as deterministic. In fact, “each neuron, far from being a simple logical switch, is a little agent with an agenda, and they are much more autonomous and much more interesting than any switch.”

A neuron has an agenda?

Everybody who has taken a science course gets confused from time to time when the professor uses language that seems to imply that something “wants” to do this, or “prefers” to do that. Along those lines, look at all the “anthropomorphisms” in Dennett’s comments about cells in the article cited above. As one brief example …

They had to develop an awful lot of know-how, a lot of talent, a lot of self-protective talent to do that. When they joined forces into multi-cellular creatures, they gave up a lot of that.

If you were to challenge Dennett on this I’m sure he would say, “oh, it doesn’t really ‘give up’ things, this is just a way of speaking about it that makes it easier to understand.”

Science teachers do this sort of thing all the time. But exactly why is it wrong to say that a cell “wants” to do something?

Let’s just imagine for a moment that we reconstructed our view of the world along the lines of desire and preference. Electrons really do “want” to be in such and so orbit. Cells really do cooperate.

It sounds strange, but we know perfectly well that subjectivity exists. We experience it directly. In fact, we experience it more directly than anything else. So rather than trying to explain it in terms of particles and waves that supposedly don’t have subjectivity (how do we know that?), why don’t we just take subjectivity as a given? As part of the universe.

I haven’t thought too terribly much about this, but I don’t see how anything is lost here. We already talk that way in any event. What would we lose if we quit trying to make excuses and simply said, “in some cases it helps to view these things as having their own desires — and maybe they do in some rudimentary way.”

What we gain — perhaps — is that we quit having to play all these games with ourselves and pretend that we have to explain subjectivity as emerging from a materialist, physical system.

Or, rather, you can still believe in a “materialist, physical system” in all the normal ways — except that you don’t impose mindlessness on it. You don’t treat it like a circuit board. You admit to the existence of something you already admit to anyway, which is that subjectivity exists.

All that’s changed is an attitude towards physical things. Or, in other words, nothing really changes except that we allow subjectivity to be part of the universe. That’s it. Everything else goes on as normal.

-- 2013-01-21  »  Greg Krehbiel