Saturday, December 01, 2007

D'Souza vs. Dennett (preview)

I write this before hearing anything about the 11/30/07 debate between these two, but even so let me say a few things (and perhaps get an idea of how it will go at the debate). Besides, in my recent post about D'Souza and his, um, encounter with Kant, I didn't get to Dennett's response. I'll assume familiarity here with what D'Souza says (or see here for a taste).

I'm actually a big Dennett fan. His naturalism bugs me sometimes, but he's been a tiger in the fight against the Cartesian conception of the mind. (I know that sounds funny – his naturalism is central to his thought – but you'd be surprised how often it doesn't come up.) In this context, though, he does have a bit of a tin ear, and I'm not at all sure he'll do well in a debate in which the stated topic is "Is God a Human Invention?"

First of all, he just asks for it with his ridiculous self-labelling as a "bright." He tells us we need a word for "a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view." But we've got one already: it's "naturalist." Yes, there's another sense of the word – that in which John Muir is a "naturalist" – but that sense doesn't entail disbelief in "supernatural" entities, as Dennett wants. So how about "philosophical naturalist"? Anything but "bright," which is monumentally stupid, and does indeed sound, no matter how many times Dennett denies the implication, like "brights" are smarter than you.

Also, in responding to D'Souza (about Kant), Dennett strikes me as remarkably unable, given his committed anti-Cartesianism, to see Kant as an ally rather than an opponent. It's disappointing to see him let D'Souza bait him into dismissing Kant as a deluded mystic desperately trying to prove the existence of another world beyond the veil. I guess that's easy for me to say, having grown up with the "one-world" interpretation of Kant advocated by Henry Allison and Graham Bird, among others (not that that's the only issue by any means; but it sure helps). Still, I would have thought that the scorn Kant pours on traditional metaphysics in the Critique would be hard to miss. In reply to D'Souza's Kant, though, Dennett is all snark:
If Dinesh D'Souza knew just a little bit more philosophy, he would realize how silly he appears when he accuses me of committing what he calls "the Fallacy of the Enlightenment." and challenges me to refute Kant's doctrine of the thing-in-itself. I don't need to refute this; it has been lambasted so often and so well by other philosophers that even self-styled Kantians typically find one way or another of excusing themselves from defending it.
Ah yes, the famous "doctrine of the thing-in-itself." If you want to make Kant look ridiculous, it is indeed helpful to hang around his neck the "transcendental illusion" he explicitly rejects, together with the insinuation that "self-styled Kantians" (like Allison, presumably) have to resort to sophistry in order to wiggle out of their manifest obligation to attribute sheer virtually unadulterated Platonism to him.

But of course D'Souza has no intention of wiggling out of it. As we saw, he embraces it:
So powerful is Kant's argument here that his critics have been able to answer him only with derision. When I challenged Daniel Dennett to debunk Kant's argument, he posted an angry response on his website in which he said several people had already refuted Kant. But he didn't provide any refutations, and he didn't name any names. Basically Dennett was relying on the argumentum ad ignorantium-the argument that relies on the ignorance of the audience. In fact, there are no such refutations.
Now that's chutzpah. Committing the argumentum ad ignorantiam (excuse me, "ignorantium") in the same breath as attributing it to your opponent: priceless. But of course in the context D'Souza has provided, the only thing that would count as a "refutation" is an argument showing not (say) that "noumenalism" (or transcendental realism!) is incoherent, but that the "Enlightenment Fallacy" – that we can know everything – is true. And of course even Hegel (who famously argued against Kant for the possibility of "Absolute Knowledge") didn't believe that. So in that sense D'Souza gets to be right. No such "refutations" exist. But so what.

Let's move on. In his 11/30 post, right before the debate, D'Souza served up some trash-talk for the occasion. He gleefully quotes the late Stephen Jay Gould (who was, as you know, a Prominent Biologist) referring to Dennett as a "Darwinian fundamentalist":
[Gould] suggested that just as religious fundamentalists read Scripture in a literal and pig-headed way, and unimaginatively apply biblical passages to everything, so Dennett has a primitive understanding of evolution and, with the enthusiasm of the fire-breathing acolyte, tries to apply Darwinism to virtually every human social, cultural and religious practice, with disastrous and even comical results.
There is indeed a controversy here, and Dennett is indeed more likely to err on the ambitious side w/r/t evolutionary explanation. But D'Souza is being ridiculous. All he does is quote dismissive rhetoric from Gould (and H. Allen Orr) to make Dennett look bad. But as that New York Review exchange with Gould makes embarrassingly clear, Gould never understood Dennett's response, or at least didn't address it, and in fact resorted to personal attacks and name-calling in a most unprofessional manner. But put that aside (after all, that doesn't make Dennett right). Dollars to doughnuts D'Souza doesn't understand it either, and is just looking for another way to hurl abuse.

Let me try to clear it up a bit. No doubt I too will oversimplify; but we can take a few steps in. The issue concerns Dennett's "adaptationism" – his tendency to try to explain a biological phenomenon in terms of its evolutionary advantages. Gould was right to point out that we cannot simply assume that we can do this for every biological phenomenon. In his famous example, which I will not explain, some things are "spandrels": they arise because other things are evolutionarily advantageous and bring the first thing along with them. The "adaptationist" makes it sound like some evolutionary developments are inevitable – as if nature says, hey, wouldn't feathers be a great idea here! Let's evolve some feathers! (Or intelligence, or – more relevant to Gould's rejection of sociobiology – incest taboos, or matriarchy, or whatever.) Such "explanations" can (and in the case of sociobiology, often did) end up sounding like a bunch of ad hoc Just So Stories. In response, Gould emphasizes the radical contingency of the evolutionary path: re-run the tape 20 times and get 20 different results (think "A Sound of Thunder" here).

Fair enough. But Dennett never denied these things. (Gould's original attack was on earlier "adaptationists," but then Gould turned his guns on Dennett later.) Somehow the debate got turned from an interesting one (about which particular sorts of appeals one can make to evolutionary advantage, and which particular such explanations work and which do not) into one about whether one could ever appeal to evolutionary advantage, or whether there could ever be what Dennett calls a "forced move in design space." But surely, even in the case of evolutionary psychology (where the danger of Just So Stories is very real) no such slam dunk is possible. I, at least, am willing to let the Ev Psychers make their case; as the name change indicates, they seem to have learned at least a bit of humility from the sociobiology debacle. Maybe this or that isn't so just-so a story after all.

But that's not the point. Let's abandon Ev Psych entirely, for the sake of argument, and take "adaptationism" in biology alone. Jerry Fodor recently claimed that the very idea of nature "selecting for" a particular trait is incoherent, because nature doesn't have desires that things be one way or another. We can't say that the polar bear's white fur was "selected for" – that it arose because of its evolutionary advantage, as "adaptationists" claim – because given the polar bear's white surroundings, nature can't distinguish between white fur and fur that matches the environment, so it can't "select" for either. Like a lot of what Fodor says, that sounds crazy to me. For one thing, not only would this render explanations in terms of evolutionary advantage necessarily insufficient, it seems to eviscerate the notion entirely, which is nuts. (Interestingly, for what it's worth, it's also reminiscent of Quine's argument for linguistic holism, which Fodor famously rejects.) For more on Fodor, see here and here.

As is their wont, Fodor and Dennett trade incredulous accusations of the other's not getting it at all (links at the previous link, at the bottom of the page). Granted, Dennett is on firmer ground (in this respect, i.e. that of accusing Fodor of not getting it at all) in the philosophy of mind than in biology; so maybe they're both not getting it. (Or I'm not, or nobody is.) But of course D'Souza is keen to set Dennett straight there too. Back in June he had a four-paragraph zinger which was very similar: he found some other authorities willing to dump on Dennett as a dogmatic ignoramus. (Actually, looking again, I see D'Souza brings up Dennett himself; but so do the authors in question, as I happen to know, so, no foul there.) Briefly, the idea is that Dennett is "committing a conceptual mistake" (as is Francis Crick, the original target) in ascribing intentional properties (believing, etc.) to the brain. According to D'Souza, "[b]rains aren't even conscious; the humans who have brains are conscious." How about that: that's my view as well. (I even go farther: in the sense with which we are concerned (though not in another), my brain isn't even alive.)

But again Dennett is perfectly well aware of the danger here, and is guilty at most of some loose talk and/or as yet uncashed promissory notes. Bennett and Hacker (for these are the authorities in question) claim that all such talk is necessarily loose and all such promissory notes knowable a priori to be uncashable. (I know Anton and N.N. disagree with me here, but I think Bennett and Hacker have been misled by Dennett's triumphally naturalist rhetoric into misconstruing his project, which seems to me to be construable (perhaps, I grant, against Dennett himself, at least to some degree) as perfectly acceptable, even (or even especially, qua anti-Cartesian) on Wittgensteinian grounds. But Hacker's Wittgenstein is not my own, as far as I can tell. I owe more explanation here, but this is not the place. See N.N.'s link for an exchange between Dennett and Bennett/Hacker.)

In any case, if the danger is one of misleading locutions, that charge cuts both ways. Bennett and Hacker are careful to deny dualism, but of course for D'Souza misleading locutions are mother's milk; he continues [I bold for emphasis]:
Crick and Dennett are erroneously ascribing qualities to brains that are actually possessed only by people. True, our thoughts occur because of the brain, and we use our brains to think just as we use our hands and rackets to play tennis. How foolish it would be, though, to say that "my arms are playing tennis," or even more absurdly, "My racket is playing tennis." In reality, I am the one who is playing, and arms and rackets are what I play the game with.

Crick and Dennett are guilty of a fallacy that has become quite common among cognitive scientists. This is the Pathetic Fallacy, the fallacy of giving human attributes to nonhuman objects. This practice is quite harmless if we do it in a whimsical, metaphorical way. I might write that "the stem of the oak raised its arms to the sun, searching for its warm embrace." The problem only arises if I actually start to believe that oak branches have intentions. Brains are very useful objects, but they aren't conscious and they don't know how to feel or think.
It's hard to tell, but I think he really thinks he has established dualism as true (I am not identical with my brain = My brain and I are distinct in the dualist sense). Wow. There's another related DD column I want to discuss (an amazing howler, which you may already have seen), but let's leave it for another time. Now let's hear about how the debate went!


N. N. said...


I’m a fan of Dennett’s in the sense that I never miss a chance to hear him speak. He’s a wonderful and entertaining speaker (not to mention a pretty imposing figure). But I disagree with almost everything he says. And I think his opposition to the Cartesian conception of the mind is a wonderful instance of irony given that his intentional stance supports a similar dualism, viz., brain-body dualism. Indeed, his view is merely a species of the homonculous fallacy. But before I complain any more about Dennett, let me say that I consider D’Souza to be much worse.

Why in the world would Dennett agree to “debate” him? While I’m sure that the exchange will be great fun, what’s the point? Or is fun the point? And why in the world is D’Souza taking up this cause? Does he think he can do better than Swinburne or Plantinga? Has he even heard of Swinburne or Plantinga? (I’m actually intrigued by Plantinga’s argument that belief in evolution together with belief in naturalism is self-defeating.) It seems to me that D’Souza should stick to writing biographies of Reagan.

Could you recommend the best text of Allison’s or Bird’s for the “one-world” interpretation. I must confess that I’ve never heard of it. My only encounter with the first Kritik was in a senior seminar as an undergraduate. My professor pressed Paton’s Metaphysic of Experience into my hands.

As someone who thinks that Wittgenstein and Ryle are right in their approach to the mind, and as someone who thinks that Hacker’s criticisms of neuroscience follow in their footsteps, I am bothered that D’Souza, who clearly hasn’t taken the time to think these matters through, has latched onto them merely because they are enemies of his enemy. He might be surprised to find out that Hacker is a “naturalist” (which, of course, isn’t the same thing as a “reductionist”).

I think Hacker’s principal complaint against Dennett can be summarizes this way: the brain or parts of the brain simply can’t satisfy any of the criteria for the ascription of mental concepts. Naturally, since all of those criteria are behavioral, and brains and their parts don’t behave in a way that is remotely similar to human behavior. Anyway, I look forward to discussing the matter when you give your defense of Dennett. Unitl then, I can share your dislike of D’Souza.


Daniel said...

Why would the "intentional stance" support a dualism of brain and body? I'm inclined to agree that Dennett might be vulnerable to some charge of this sort (it came up in the original Dennett/Hacker threads IIRC, but I'm not having any luck locating them), but the various stances strike me as harmless. And even congenial, insofar as they're another anticartesian tool in the box. They might come in handy at some point.

Where I think Dennett slipped up in the Dennett/Hacker debate was in trying to "bridge the gap" between the aspects revealed in the intentional stance and the aspects revealed in the physicalist stance. For one thing, if there appears to be a gap that needs bridging, I'm already wary that we've made a wrong turn. And secondly, Dennett seemed to want to go from physical aspects (which aren't mind-like) to intentional aspects (which are mentalish) through various grades of pseudo-minded intermediaries (systems that construct pseudo-maps, that pseudo-perceive, that pseudo-recognize, that pseudo-categorize, all below the level of persons (which are what is seen in the intentional stance)). I took Hacker/Bennett's criticism to be that there was no cashing out of these metaphors ("Like reading a map, except not normative" -- as I recall, Hacker claimed that all there was to the metaphor was that we had noticed an isomorphism), and that the prevalence of the metaphors was diverting attention from research at the more-micro level of individual cells etc. whose functioning would seem to be a more likely place to look if you want to start building up from simple systems to more complex ones. All of which I would accredit to Dennett's naturalism. The idea of various stances (including the intentional stance) strikes me as anodyne, and separable from any attempts to bridge-build.

(This reminds me: I need to reread "Real Patterns" to see if I've actually been misreading Dennett on the "predictive value" of the intentional stance. If wolfson's criticisms hold, then the stances start to look a whole lot more naturalistic, and a whole lot less amenable to deflating the sort of tensions I want to deflate.)

I suspect Dennett agreed to "debate" D'Souza because he likes to rant against religion, and this is a good way to get publicity for his ranting. I suspect D'Souza is "taking up this cause" because he thinks his arguments really are amazing and that Dennett cannot answer them. Though I would be surprised if he hadn't heard of Platinga & Swinburne (neither of whom I can stand, incidentally).

Allison's main work is "Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense". It's probably the most influential English-language work on Kant in the past few decades. Amazon tells me that Paton is from 1936. There has since been progress made in Kant Studies. Though I suppose it's better than my autodidactic approach to Kant; there never was a Kant seminar offered at my undergrad institution. Though you'd be surprised at how often I could get a theology class to derail into a discussion of transcendental idealism (without being off-topic!), and I had plenty of opportunities to talk with profs outside of class. But the only thing forcing me to actually slog through Kant's text was my own desire to read Kant; I am reminded of Sancho Panza being ordered to beat his own buttocks.

I also look forward to the Dennett post.

Ben Wolfson said...

I wonder when the last time D'Souza used his brain for anything was.

(I swear to god, in all earnestness, it didn't occur to me that the above sentence has a straightforwardly insulting interpretation until I had already composed it.)

Duck said...

Hey N.N., welcome back to the virtual world. Congratulations on your employment (what did you do, tell them your dissertation is actually on Kripke?)!

No more than Daniel do I see how the intentional stance leads to dualism. In Dennett's early writings it did look like instrumentalism, but later on it's less clear. I recommend Sweet Dreams for a short, clear, recent assessment of where he is now re: the mind. I see that I am now obliged to post on the matter. Just for that, I'll stop now; you'll have to wait.

As I understand it, these debates (with Hitchens, Michael Shermer, and Dennett so far; he keeps baiting Dawkins, but I doubt it'll work since his stand-up routine is already getting old) are D'Souza's idea, as a way to flog his new book. I'm not sure why the opponents agree to it; maybe they don't know what a slimy little weasel he is. I saw him at Columbia (just a speech), and unfortunately Spartacist hecklers made it easy on him (i.e., by heckling). It was ugly. I hate that he's on my side of this moronic debate (i.e. "Is Religion Just for Stupid-heads?"), and he's said some jaw-droppingly ridiculous things, so I think I'll pick on him some more. Wait til you see the next one – it'll make your teeth hurt.

Plantinga's argument, if we're thinking of the same thing, does not impress me, as it depends crucially on his reliabilist epistemology, which seems designed (no pun intended) primarily for delivering the desired result. And that's a charitable reading. Feh. But at least Plantinga and Swinburne are philosophers, and not pretentious political hacks.

Allison is the man – here's an excellent review of the second edition of his groundbreaking book, the first edition of which was assigned for my undergraduate course in the Critique (that is, the one I took – I don't think I could teach one). I hesitate to mention it here, lest further postage be demanded, but I cannot tell a lie: my favorite Kant book is Arthur Collins's Possible Experience, which I recommend even over Allison. (I understand Anton studied with Collins!) Also worth checking out is Bird's review of/response to Mind and World, taking McDowell to task for slighting Kant's realism (he misses McDowell's main points, allowing him basically to respond with: yeah, okay, fine, if you want to talk that way; but the review is a good summary of Bird's Kant – very forceful and pointed). Unfortunately I forget the reference.

Daniel, thanks for the link; I'll have to see what Ben says. Check out Sweet Dreams.

Ben, that's excellent.

By the way, how do you guys know immediately when someone links to you? Is there some blogger feature or something?

Daniel said...

Google Blog Search lets you set up RSS feeds for search terms; I have a feed for links to on Google Reader. That's how I did it, at least. Helps accommodate for the fact that Blogger doesn't support trackbacks very well.

I've never been convinced that Platinga's "evolutionary argument" even works on its own terms. I've yet to see much in the way of argument that a reliable method of forming true beliefs would not be of survival value; the claim that gets argued for tends rather to be that some false beliefs have survival value. But that's entirely consistent with the great bulk of beliefs formed by some given "belief-forming apparatus" being true, and this apparatus having survival value. So the argument doesn't even strike me as valid, not to mention that it uses a rather narrow sense of "naturalism" (one that makes epiphenomenalism seem likely) and it's tied to Platinga's mess of an epistemology. It's a failure on all fronts.

I'm guessing that this is what Duck was referring to with Bird.

N. N. said...

Thanks. You know you've been poor when an assistant's salary excites you. Surprisingly, I didn't have to lie about my Wittgensteinianism ("Are you now or have you ever been a Wittgensteinian?!") They were actually interested in Ludwig (my Aristotelianism didn't hurt either).

Sorry, I should have been clearer. I meant that Dennett's taking of the intentional stance toward brains and their parts commits what Anthony Kenny calls the "homunculus fallacy." (Hacker, who acknowledges taking this over from Kenny, calls it the "mereological fallacy.") Kenny puts it this way: "I shall call the reckless application of human-being predicates to insufficiently human-like objects the 'homunculous fallacy', since the most naive form is tantamount to the postulation of a little man within a man to explain human experience and behavior" (The Legacy of Wittgenstein, p. 125). By attributing mental predicates to parts of the brain, Dennett is, in effect, postulating a little man within to explain human experience and behavior. This is a form of dualism. (Actually, it is a form of nonsense. Brains and their parts cannot meet any of the criteria for the ascription of mental predicates.)

I can't follow the detailed version of Plantinga's argument as it involves the application of Bayes' theorem (I'm not on friendly terms with the probability calculus), but in general outline it argues that, if we are the products of an evolutionary process, and if naturalism is true, then it is probable that our cognitive faculties are unreliable means to truth. As such, it is a version of one of Descartes' reasons for doubt in the First Meditation: "There may indeed be those who would prefer to deny the
existence of a God so powerful, rather than believe that all
other things are uncertain. But let us not oppose them for
the present, and grant that all that is here said of a God is
a fable; nevertheless in whatever way they suppose that I have
arrived at the state of being that I have reached -- whether they
attribute it to fate or to accident, or make out that it is by
a continual succession of antecedents, or by some other
method -- since to err and deceive oneself is a defect, it is
clear that the greater will be the probability of my being so
imperfect as to deceive myself ever, as is the Author to whom
they assign my origin the less powerful."

The best way to keep up on new blog posts is Google Reader. I posted on this application a while back:

N. N. said...


You have to have a UT account to access that link.

Duck said...

D – I think you're right about Plantinga (like I said, I was being charitable), but as a Davidsonian I can barely make sense of his argument in the first place.

The Bird article is: "McDowell's Kant: Mind and World," Philosophy 71 (1996).

N (can I call you N?) – I don't want to get into it in the comments, but I think that to get Kenny's fallacy to apply to Dennett, you have to do more than simply point to Dennett's self-described "homuncular functionalism"; you need to show that its use of "human-being predicates" is indeed "reckless." I certainly don't think it's a straightforwardly fallacious regress (Dennett addresses this objection, which of course people have made since the beginning of time). Of course I'm not a functionalist of any kind, and one might indeed describe functionalism's defect as a sort of dualism (form/content, not brain/body); but this doesn't apply specifically to the homuncular variety.

I use Google Reader already (thanks to you, I think); as Daniel says, I'm concerned not with new posts by others but by links or trackbacks ("pings"?), which Blogger doesn't seem to have any way of telling you about, at least in any convenient way. I'll check out Google Blog Search, if my limited computer skills allow.

Perezoso said...

The Ivy League Atheist Lemma

--Theism and/or Cartesianism implies a realm of objective justice, where humans are held accountable for their sins (not that that is easily provable).

--Ivy League professors generally do not care to be held accountable for their sins.

--Therefore, Theism/Cartesianism shall be held as unsuppportable/indefensible/irrational, since it like, ruins the I.L. par-tay.

QE f-n D.

N. N. said...

I just watched the D'Souza-Dennett debate on YouTube. It was painful. D'Souza makes brief mention of Kant in part 14.

perezoso said...

D'Souza's basic claim on the limits of reason (which Descartes also noted back in the day) is actually correct, in terms of existential generalization, however it much it offends the philosophastry business:

Theist's claim: Assuming an infinite domain (or perhaps philosophasters might care to establish a finite universe?) ,
there is a Being somewhere in this domain which has godly attributes: Ex (Gx) (imagine E backwards).

Until one has aquaintance with everything in the domain (telescopes far more powerful than what we currently have, as well as ability to get information beyond light speeds), it cannot be assumed to be false. Thus the atheist claim (the negation of the theist's claim) is actually mistaken in so far that they have not examined the entire infinite domain , or somethin' like that. Bienvenido a La Malebolgia!

tanas said...

Hi Dave,

Re. Finding the links, you might try with technorati: e.g. this link for people that linked to you.

Daniel said...

Whoops. This is what I should have posted; I figured it's what the link I posted would redirect to if I wasn't logged in to the UT system. At least I correctly guessed the article Duck was referring to.

Also, Technorati picks up some links Google Blog Search didn't; it also tracks links in side-bars, it appears. Google never told me about this for instance (I'm a subheading!). But Technorati didn't notice the weird Bible site that linked to me. (Or at least Google says it did; Firefox crashed when I tried to load the page. Before crashing, I saw literally hundreds of links to books on Amazon, and nothing besides. It was, uh, interesting. I think I got linked because it automatically links to anything that uses the word "lord" in a post-title.)

I'm pretty sure the GBS feed Duck wants is this one.

Duck said...

Thanks guys. I'm not a link-hound or anything (thank goodness) – I just wondered how Ben got over here so fast once Daniel linked to him in the comments.

That's hilarious about the link to your post with "lord" in the title – not what they bargained for, I imagine.

Oh, I read Ben's post about Dennett, and while it does bring up some interesting considerations, I don't think it really hurts Dennett that much. I will add explaining why I think this to my list of things to do. Nice wordplay over there, btw.

J said...

Dennettism, or the Philosophastry of the Male Nurse. Philo-Nurses no longer can do metaphysics or logic--or even politics; at least they can rip off biologists and cognitive scientists in decent academic-parasite fashion.

Ben Wolfson said...

I check my referrers constantly, because each time I do so, I am given a food pellet. That is how I found the link from Daniel.