Commentary on Daniel Dennett on Sean Carroll’s podcast: Minds, Patterns, and the Scientific Image Part II

We are continuing our commentary into Dennett and Carroll’s second hour. They discuss zombies and free will, among other things. See Part I for the introduction. 

The Mindscape podcast:

Our edited transcript: 

Part I of our commentary

Part II

0:57:40 SC: The first time I ever was familiar with your work was the collection you did with Douglas Hofstadter called The Mind’s I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul (1982). I’m not sure that at that young age when I came across it, I absorbed it very much, but the one idea that kept coming through was this recursive self-awareness idea of looking at ourselves, and that has something to do with what it means to be conscious.

0:58:03 DD: Recursion, and Doug is the maestro there. His book I Am A Strange Loop is really a retelling of what he did in his earlier work in Gödel, Escher, Bach. And the amazing thing about Gödel, Escher, Bach is that it was a bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner, and a lot of people read it, but a lot of people didn’t understand it. 

DD: So I Am A Strange Loop is, in a way, Doug’s attempt to do what Hume did. Hume wrote A Treatise of Human Nature, which he said fell dead-born from the press. Then he had to write the Inquiry so that people would understand what he was saying in the Treatise. And so Doug had to write I Am A Strange Loop. Recursion is this capacity for indefinite reflection, and reflection on reflection. Because whenever you can reflect in this way, in effect you create a new object to think about. Let’s take a frog. A frog has a fairly complicated life, and it’s faced at every moment with a number of opportunities, and it survives if it makes good decisions at those opportunities. Those are degrees of freedom, and it controls them as best it can.

RL:  I don’t buy the importance of this recursion idea.  It you have a perceptual apparatus, no particular reason I can’t imagine why you can’t aim it at anything you want.  Decide something, there’s doubt there, look at the doubt.  Look at the looking at the doubt.  Every level up, you’re less likely to come up with anything useful.  Marvel at your own marvel.  

0:59:50 SC: Frogs are agents, they fend for themselves.

DD: Yeah. But they don’t know they have opportunities. There’s no sign that they can think about their opportunities as opportunities. The reason this, I think, quite obvious fact is hidden from us is what I sometimes call the Beatrix Potter Syndrome. Whenever we see a clever animal— or animal doing something that is appropriate and reasonable, sly— we find it almost irresistible to attribute to the animal the understanding that we have of what it’s doing. The fact is that very often it’s clueless. It’s the beneficiary of a very good system that it doesn’t have to understand. And that’s even true of a lot of human behavior. One of my favorite examples is Grice’s theory of meaning. According to Paul Grice, the late great Paul Grice, when you and I converse, when an utterer gives you a speech act— when I utter a speech act— I intend you to form a belief based on my speech act, but I also intend you to recognize that I have that intention. So we get third-order, I intend you to believe that I intend…

1:01:40 SC: The intentionality on both sides is key.

RL: Here Carroll says “intentionality”, when he really just means intentions, in the conventional sense.

DD: You’ve got reflexivity. Grice’s theory, there was something clearly wonderful about this theory. But as a theory of human everyday psychology, it’s nuts. Kids have deep and wonderful conversations with their parents and their peers long before they have the capacity to reflect in this way. What you have to understand is that Grice wasn’t lying. He was uncovering the free-floating rationales of human communication. He was doing the same thing that the ethologists are doing when they figure out what the stotting is all about. He’s finding the rationales. This is why communication has the forms it does. This is why it works, and these are the conditions. And various individuals can be more or less virtuosic in their sensitivity to this. You wouldn’t want to be constantly thinking about recognizing the intentions of this person you’re speaking to, because if you did, you couldn’t pay attention to what they were saying.

RL:  The assumption is that reflection can actually access what’s really happening. 

GNS: Grice’s theory was about how speech has meaning, not about any psychological goings-on. 

1:03:15 SC: This idea of the frog not worrying too much about its decision-making is fascinating. I did a podcast with Malcolm MacIver, who is a neuroscientist and mechanical engineer at Northwestern, and he is trying to explore the idea that one of the major transitions that led to consciousness was when fish climbed up on land, the idea being that a fish, swimming around at a few meters per second, is underwater and can only see a few meters in front of it. All of its evolutionary pressures are to make decisions very rapidly. Once you climb up on land and you can see for kilometers, there’s a new space of possibilities that opens up, namely imagine different possible things to do and contemplate which one would be best. And so he says that climbing up onto land enabled the evolution of imagination, which was a crucial step along the road to consciousness.

1:04:10 DD: Oh, that’s nice. I’m not sure I believe it, but it’s a nice variation on a theme that I’m very fond of, and that’s Andrew Parker’s idea about the Cambrian explosion. Parker hypothesizes that the shallow ocean became transparent in a way it hadn’t been before, and this suddenly permitted distal perception, permitted eyesight. And the book is called In the Blink of an Eye. He argues that the arms race of predator and prey locomotion, camouflage, armor— this all was generated by a growing transparency. It’s not the only theory out there, but it’s one that I think there’s got to be an element of truth in it. I’ve been arguing that what we’re facing right now is the second great transparency, and that’s the electronic transparency. Everybody’s now worried, and so they should be, about privacy. We can now see farther and we can see into things we could never see into before, but we can also be watched and we can be seen.

1:05:30 SC: Yeah, our sensory capacity’s for better or for worse…

DD: To invert the image, we’re all now living in a fish bowl.

1:05:41 SC: Okay, but wait a minute. You did not use the phrase “the hard problem,” but you did use the phrase “the hard question”. There’s at least a family resemblance between the distinction you’re drawing between the bottom-up theories of consciousness and top-down and Chalmers’s distinction between the easy problem and the Hard Problem.  

GNS: See also

1:06:00 DD: It’s not coincidental. I asked the Hard Question before David raised the Hard Problem, which I have been throwing pails of cold water on for decades now. I think that the Hard Problem, Chalmers’ problem, is precisely the fix you get yourself into if you stop and don’t try to answer the Hard Question. If you don’t ask the Hard Question “then what happens,” then you’re left with this gob-smacking, jaw-dropping, mind-deadening mystery.

RL:  I don’t see a real difference between calling it the hard question, instead of the hard problem.  DD is just jealous. 

GNS: Dennett denies that there is a Hard Problem in Chalmers’ sense. What he means by the “Hard Question” is not completely clear. I think he means that when all the tough scientific questions about brain function are answered, we’ll know all there is to know about so-called “consciousness”.  Chalmers calls all questions about brain function the “Easy Problem”, no matter who tough they are.

RL:  That seems fair.  DD does say the hard question is “And then what happens…”.

1:06:40 SC: For the audience, just let’s very briefly let’s tell them what the Hard Question is that you have and the Hard Problem that Chalmers likes to emphasize.

1:06:50 DD: David introduces the Hard Problem by contrasting it with the easy problems. The easy problems are how does your brain discriminate things, how does it move your tongue in language, how does it do all the cognition that you engage in, how does it recognize things and have memory and all the rest. Those are the easy problems. So what’s the Hard Problem?

1:07:16 SC: He, by the way, recognizes they’re not actually easy.

DD: Yes, he does. The Hard Problem is the problem of why is it like anything at all to be me. And what’s red? What’s my experience of red or pain? And these are so-called qualia. It’s a philosopher’s term, comes from the Latin, it just means quality or property, really. But qualia are a term of art in philosophy and I think it’s a bad one. It’s an artifact of bad theorizing which has led to hundreds of careers of misguided thinking about mind and consciousness, and alas, a lot of scientists have been seduced by it. So that they think that philosophers have this idea of qualia, and qualia that’s where the going really gets tough. It’s explaining qualia, those subjective properties. That’s the Hard Problem. How do we explain qualia? And Chalmers has been arguing for this for decades and recently he’s written a paper on the meta-problem. And the meta-problem is, “Why do we have a Hard Problem?” And to which part of my response is, “What do you mean we?” Dogs don’t have a hard problem. That doesn’t mean they’re not conscious, it means they’re not reflexively, ruminatively, theoretically conscious of their consciousness. That’s only for us. The Hard Problem arises as an artifact of the fact that we’re reflective. And in our reflections we focus on what is otherwise a stunning embarrassment. When we look inside to see what’s going on, mainly we can’t tell. 

1:09:49 DD: Well let’s think about seeing for a moment. I look out the window and I see a birdhouse on a stake between two trees. How do I know I see it? Well if I close my eyes, I can’t see it anymore. Alright, so I now know light has to bounce off, and the photons have to come into my eye, and blah blah blah, retina ganglion cells, lateral geniculate nucleus, and so on. But that’s nothing to which I have direct access. That’s something I had to learn from books. That’s third person knowledge of the process. My first person knowledge is very limited. I tell you there’s a birdhouse out there. “How do you know?” “I can see it.” “What do you mean?” “Well my eyes are open and there it is.” “Well how do you know that you’re seeing a birdhouse?” “Well ’cause it looks like I birdhouse.”

DD: “But how do you know it looks like a birdhouse? What’s going on inside?” “I don’t know, it just looks like a birdhouse. I can describe it in more detail if you want.” Now, nobody is freaked out apparently, by the fact that neuroscientists can come in and figure out all these amazing details about what happens between the eyeball and the lips, let’s say, mainly between the eyeball and your experience. Notice that that’s only half the story. The other half of the story is what happens between the experience and your ability to talk about it, and answer all these questions. It’s just as much neuroscience to go into that, as it is to go into the first part. If you stop with experience, then you simply like declaring victory half-way through the battle. No, you don’t have a theory of consciousness until you’ve explained what happens next. I like to point out that if you have a theory of consciousness that still has a witness in it, you’ve only got half a theory.

1:12:25 SC: So you wanna turn experience into something going on in the brain and the neurons, and that would be a necessary part of your theory.

DD: And all the reactions to the experience. A good theory of consciousness, when we finally have one, will be like Leibniz’s mill. It will be like a deserted factory. There’s nobody home, there’s no agents, it’s all just machinery. A theory of consciousness simply has to have that form. And people who resist that, like Chalmers, they’ve got a Hard Problem, in fact, they’ve got a systematically impossible problem. At least I can say, “I’ll show you how to get out of the Hard Problem.” Namely, by asking and then answering the Hard Question. And then what happens? 

DD: I’ve hit on this with the philosopher Keith Frankish. If you have ever piloted a drone, you’ve had the remote unit in your hands, and you’re making the drone go where it’s going. You’re looking at the little screen and using the joysticks and all that. That remote controller for the drone, that’s the Cartesian Theater outside. It’s a control room for the drone.

1:13:53 DD: So now, suppose we were to emancipate a drone. In other words, all the control decisions that you were doing while you’re piloting the drone, we’re going to upload those, put them on-board the drone. It’s already got a lot of self-control on board, but we want to get every last bit of decision-making and discrimination and noticing and control all into the drone. To do that, we’ll be asking and answering the Hard Question. Notice, by the way, the first thing you do once you start doing that is you throw away the screen.

1:14:40 DD: You don’t need the screen. You’ve already got all the spatial information in just the form you want it for uploading. Namely, you’ve got it into bit strings that can be computed. You’ve got just the medium you need. Now, that may not be the brain’s medium, but at least you’ve got it into the medium that you’re going to have to get it into for controlling the drone in various ways. In our thought experiment— very extended thought experiment, unpublished, we’re just working on it— we point out the importance of instead of just rewiring it when it comes back from each mission, or reprogramming it, we want to be able to inform it, suggest things to it, talk with it. We want it to be in the space of reasons.

1:15:30 DD: We want to install language. But we don’t want to install language the old-fashioned, good old-fashioned AI way by designing it and simply putting it in. We want it to learn in negotiation with us. We want it to be able to have its own way of making points. And as we think about the task of helping a drone create a language that it can use to communicate with us, we’d like it to be as close to English as we can get it. But we want the drone to learn English, not just be wired up for English at birth. This will give us models of answers to all the hard questions.

1:16:40 SC: It might not be the correct answer for our brains. 

DD: It might not be. I think that’s the way AI has always been. It gives you an existence proof. This may not be the way we do it, but it’s a way of doing this job. The idea that it’s magic or beyond human ken? We know it’s not beyond human ken because we found a way of doing it. It’s very hard to even ask the hard questions. First of all, we have no personal private knowledge about how we do it. Suppose I asked you to imagine three cows standing in the field, and the one on the left is brown and the other two are mottled. You can do it.

SC: I do it, yep.

DD: Yeah. How?

1:18:00 SC: I don’t know.

DD: You don’t know? You heard my request and you were able to act on it. Now, an interesting thing about just a simple case like that. Another example. I want you to imagine putting a plastic bucket over your head and climbing hand over hand up a rope.

1:18:25 DD: Now, I deliberately chose items that would not be alien to, say, a chimpanzee in the zoo. Can the chimpanzee stimulate its own brain? We can’t ask it. Can it ask itself? Does it have the layer of control over its own cognitive processes so that, as it sat there not otherwise occupied, it could manipulate those familiar items of its experience? Good question. I don’t know the answer, but I suspect the answer is no, and I suspect the answer is no because you can’t do that wordlessly until you can do it interactively with language. Without language, I don’t think you have the systems in your cognitive system for self-stimulation, for self-probing, that we have. We are virtuoso self-probers of our own brain.

RL:  And we can’t see shit.

1:20:08 SC: It’s very interesting that you say exactly that, because I once asked Steven Pinker, what is the role that language plays in consciousness? And he says none whatsoever. He said it’s a completely different thing.

1:20:20 DD: Yes, I know Steve’s view well, and I think Steve is tremendously smart, much smarter than some of his critics take him to be, but I think he’s wrong about this.

RL:  Language is content, goddamit.  Can’t recall a source for this, but seems true to me that lotta times we don’t know what we’re going to say until we hear it.  

SC: Got it, okay. I didn’t know whether all the experts had a point of view or there was contention.

DD: I’m pretty much out on a limb here in claiming, as I did in Consciousness Explained, that human language doesn’t just let us talk about what we’re conscious of. Human language allows us to be conscious of things that we otherwise wouldn’t be conscious of, things that bears and dogs and fish and birds are not conscious of the way we are.

1:21:20 SC: I think once you appreciate that recursion and self-representation are crucial, then obviously language is a hugely useful tool.

RL:  Self representation has gotta be one of the very first things that happened for mobile organisms.  This is me here, and that’s him over there.  

RL:  Occurred to me a couple days ago that our cat, Ozymandias,  doesn’t need to predict what’s going to happen 10 seconds from now, if he’s quick enough to react in less than 1.  Bears are better suited for their specific niche than we would be, if we tried to inhabit it.  

1:21:30 DD: This is a strange inversion of Chomsky’s view. Chomsky has the, I think, bizarre view that recursion is a shazam gift of natural selection— this giant leap so that once you have recursion, then everything else falls into place. It is the basis for language. There’s a sense in which I think he’s almost right, but I think it’s the other way around. I think language does not make any heavy use of recursion in its controls, yet gradually creates in us the capacity to create recursive levels in our own brains. And it goes back to some examples of a few minutes ago. I can ask you, now I want you to imagine a blue triangle, and you can do that. Not perfectly. Daniel Dor has a book called The Instruction of Imagination, which is a wonderfully un-Chomskian look at language, and I think he’s got a lot of this right.

DD: What language permits is the development of sort of a place to stand. You know, Archimedes and his “Give me a place to stand and I’ll move the world with a lever.” Language gives us places to stand in our own cognition, which permit us then to self-stimulate, to probe, to explore our own brains. That’s what creates recursion, and that’s what creates the creatures of recursion, which I think are like qualia. It creates a whole menagerie of properties that are not real properties. They are properties that are the effects. Well no it’s hard to say this. They are subjective in the sense that the appreciation of the property is what brings it into existence.

RL:  I think he’s saying that what we see when we look at ourselves has a qualitative aspect.  But no way language is essential for that to happen.  

GNS: Dennett’s discussion here is not easy to understand completely. He’s talking about language stimulating thought. There are some thoughts that can only be thought in a language. By “recursion” I assume he is talking about the way a predicate can be used to apply to a variety of objects. The predicate “is blue”, for example, is recursive. The sky is blue, the flower is blue, the water is blue, etc. This recursive function is thought to be essential to language. 

1:24:27 SC: I think I probably agree with you too much about all these issues, but for purposes of podcast conversation, let me try to channel the skeptics. They place a huge amount of emphasis on the distinction between an external third-person view and the internal first-person perspective. Chalmers goes so far as to imagine the possibility of a p-zombie that could act exactly like you do, but have no inner conscious experience. It always seems like a bit of a conversation stopper to me, that idea that you need to speak the language of first-person subjective experience even to have this conversation, because we’re all different.

GNS: Carroll thinks we can’t speak about our first-person subjective experience? Why not? “Because we’re all different”? We talk about our subjective experience all the time, as Dennett explains in a moment.

RL:  Is it possible that SC is assuming that the zombies would all be the same? 

GNS: Zombies are not all the same. The zombie version of you would be physically identical to your body, not mine.

1:25:18 DD: I think the idea of a philosophical zombie is just an embarrassment. One philosopher once said to me, “Dan, if I understand you right, if I wanna talk about philosophical zombies I should probably put a paper bag over my head.” I said, “Yeah.”

GNS: Let’s get clear on what we mean by a “philosophical zombie”. 

SEP: Zombies in philosophy are imaginary creatures designed to illuminate problems about consciousness and its relation to the physical world. Unlike the ones in films or witchcraft, they are exactly like us in all physical respects but without conscious experiences: by definition there is ‘nothing it is like’ to be a zombie. Yet zombies behave just like us, and some even spend a lot of time discussing consciousness.

Few people, if any, think zombies actually exist. But many hold that they are at least conceivable, and some that they are possible. It seems that if zombies really are possible, then physicalism is false and some kind of dualism is true. For many philosophers that is the chief importance of the zombie idea. But it is also valuable for the sharp focus it gives to philosophical theorizing about consciousness and other aspects of the mind. Use of the zombie idea against physicalism also raises more general questions about the relations between imaginability, conceivability, and possibility. Finally, zombies raise epistemological difficulties: they reinstate the ‘other minds’ problem.

1:25:40 SC: Well, I do think that they’re not possible, or not conceivable. I think they’re incoherent.

GNS: Not much by way of an argument here. 

RL:  I think “zombie” is a very useful term.  Machines are steadily encroaching on us, and the zombie is a way of designating what feels more essential than our capabilities.  Not to say it will ever get us where we want to go. 

GNS: Dennett and materialists of all kinds deny that Chalmers’ Zombie idea makes any kind of sense. Materialists deny that consciousness can be anything other than brain activity, brain function, behavior, or some combination of all of them. If the Zombie can have the same brain activity, brain function, and behavior as us, but lack consciousness, then consciousness must be something other than any physical activity or function.

 RL: I don’t see that as a necessary conclusion.   If the zombie version of you has ALL the brain activity that Gregg has, it would be conscious, because consciousness is brain activity (from the third-person perspective anyway).  We can imagine a zombie that could exhibit any and all of Gregg’s behaviors, and not be conscious.  Even if we assume that Darwin’s design requires consciousness to function as it does, that doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do a human.

GNS: 1/22/20 So the Zombie idea is coherent? I agree. If we assume 1) zombies have the same brain function we do, and 2) zombies do not have consciousness, then a necessary conclusion is 3) consciousness is not identical to brain function. That’s the main point of the Zombie argument.    

RL: I come from psychological thinking that emotions are not necessarily conscious. An emotion can be present, and influencing our behavior, without our being consciously aware of its presence, much less its source and actual identity.  Feelings, I would say, are a step closer; we’re aware of their presence, even if we don’t realize what they are trying  to tell us.  Fight-or-flight, for example, is something you feel, but it doesn’t tell you what to do. The emotion doesn’t determine what happens next.  

GNS: We are not aware of most of our attitudes toward the world most of the time. Unconscious emotions? OK. 

RL: So the zombie version of me would have emotions, in the sense that it would have dispositions to respond to both threats and opportunities, in proportion to their perceived importance.  I can even imagine that zombie detecting a possible threat/opportunity, and not being certain of its actual nature.  It would go into a higher state of alert, and its attention would focus accordingly.  

GNS: You are putting valid pressure on the zombie concept. Zombies do not have conscious mental states, but can they have unconscious ones? They certainly have dispositions toward the same kinds of behavior we have. Is that what we mean by “unconscious emotion”?

DD: Whatever it was trying to do, it doesn’t do a real job. And it creates just a distracting monster that should be ignored.  

Let’s look at the job it was trying to do. You had a pretty good version of it just now when you said it looks as if we can’t just stay with the third-person point of view, we need the first-person point of view. So let’s agree that what’s really amazing is that you have your point of view and I have my point of view, and we know that. We can spend all day comparing our points of view, and that’s a phenomenon that we want to explain. 

Let’s imagine some Martian scientists or utterly alien intelligences. They’ve got a lot of good science though, and they come to our planet. Let’s suppose that they— if we can imagine this and maybe we can’t— but let’s start with the idea that we can imagine they have no idea of consciousness or qualia at all.

1:27:27 SC: Martian zombies.

DD: They’re Martian zombies. Philosophical zombies that are earthlings know all about consciousness. They have to, to get by in the world. But these are aliens and they come in they study us. Are they going to discover the first-person point of view? Of course they are. How? By reading our novels and by hearing how we talk to each other. We have filled the world with public third person accessible representations of our own first-person subjectivity. Stream of consciousness novels. This is all available. This is data, hard data to the Martian zombies. They can go and hunt through our libraries or watch our television shows and just overhear conversations. If they learn the rules of baseball and how do the stock market works, they’re also going to learn that we all have a first-person point of view.

GNS: An odd point in the discussion. How can Dennett be making a cohernet argument about zombies, after agreeing the concept is incoherent? How can Carroll be going along with Dennett’s idea that Martians will easily learn about “our language of first-person subjective experience” when he just stated that trying to talk about subjective experience was a conversation stopper. Apparently not. 

Also, it’s unclear whether Dennett means his Martians to be zombies. The description is “they have no idea of consciousness or qualia at all”, which fits most folks outside philosophy. And they are not zombies. 

As Dennett suggests, zombies need to have a working knowledge of human behavior—no better or worse than our own. 

RL:  Agree.  And as far as first person point of view, manifest in novels and everyday speech, I can easily imagine a zombie doing just fine in a novel.  We can have feelings and emotions that never become conscious, but affect, even determine, our behavior.  Feelings that seem consciously to have one meaning, but in fact have an entirely different one.  It’s the feelings and the biases they cause that determine behavior, not the conscious experience of the feelings.  The zombie version of me has goals and threats written into him, and his behaviors will reflect degrees of both opportunity and threat.

GNS: If that novel described the character’s behavior only, then a zombie version would seem the same as a real person. However, zombies are not guided by “feelings that never become conscious”, because they have no feelings. The zombie version of you “has goals and threats written into him” in the sense that he has dispositions to behave in certain ways.

RL:  Zombie are creatures that do not have conscious experience, but I would draw a distinctions between 1) an emotion, 2) the conscious experience of an emotion, and 3) the interpretation of an emotion.  I imagine emotion in the raw as a disposition that has both strength and direction… a vector, if you will.   

1:28:55 SC: I did try unsuccessfully to convince Chalmers that the philosophical zombie argument was a great argument for physicalism, because if you really believe that the zombie would act exactly as the same collection of atoms that had consciousness would, then you could ask it what it was experiencing. It would say, “Oh I’m experiencing pain” or red, or whatever.  But by hypothesis, it’s not. So it’s lying. Therefore, you don’t know if you’re experiencing those things either, because that’s exactly what you would do. But he didn’t buy that.

GNS: How is this supposed to be an argument for physicalism? I don’t see how Carroll’s argument is supposed to work.  The zombie is not lying about having mental states, but he is wrong. Since the zombie is wrong, and we would say the same thing as the zombie, that means we’re wrong too? So we do not really have mental states either? That does not follow. Does Carroll really want to argue that we lack mental states? I have not understood him to be going that far. 

RL:  Maybe that if the zombie were a perfect replica, it would have feelings, just not be conscious of them.  But you gotta buy my feelings-that-you’re-not-conscious-of thing.  As in “No!  Goddamnit! I’m not angry!”  Or “No, dear… really I’m not.”  Better if I called them emotions, rather than feelings?

GNS: Zombies do not simply lack awareness. They have no feelings or emotions of any kind, conscious or unconscious. Yet they have the same behavior, and if you look inside one, all the same physiological functioning.  If that idea makes sense, the consciousness is something other than physiological functioning.

1:29:28 DD: I don’t know I haven’t tried the same argument on him. I think in the end, for David, and for Galen Strawson, they’re just so sure that their intuition about their first-person point of view is right that they can’t they can’t even for the sake of argument abandon that intuition. I appreciate that reluctance. I feel the same way when physicists start asking me to set aside some of my intuitions about space and time. I say “I hear you”, but if I try to abandon that intuition, I don’t know what to trust.

1:30:40 SC: It calls up the reliability of the usefulness of introspection generally. Introspection is where we get a lot of these ideas of our experiences. Should we be generally skeptical of introspection? Certainly we learn something from it?

1:30:54 DD: We learn something from it but yes we should be skeptical. First of all, let’s start small and build up. I love to point out to my students and others all the ways in which their consciousness isn’t the way they think it is. For instance, it seems that our color vision goes right way out to the edge of our vision. It doesn’t. It seems that we have high resolution vision out to the side. We don’t. I love to point out that a lot of things are surprising, that I can demonstrate to them. Who knew that? Well you didn’t, did you? So forget about the so-called incorrigibility of first-person acquaintance. That’s just a mistake. That doesn’t mean that we’re not reliable informants to ourselves and others about many features. But forget about this Cartesian idea that on the inside we are the masters of what’s going on.

1:32:03 SC: So you’re saying that even when we experience the outside world there’s a lot of stitching and jiggery-pokery that comes together to give us this image we have, so why shouldn’t the same thing be true about our introspection.

1:32:14 DD: I think that we have very clear cases where people miss-introspect, if you like, and that raises the possibility— which every theorist is really sort of honor-bound to take seriously— that their deepest intuitions, their most cherished intuitions about what their first person experience is, might be mistaken. Well, now you may go “I can see where Dennet is going here. He’s going to the idea that we’re all zombies, but that we have these strong intuitions that we’re not.” And in a sense, I think that’s right.

RL:  Better.

1:33:10 SC: In a sense.

GNS: In a sense, we’re all zombies? What sense might that be? 

RL:  Let’s pretend there is no free will, and that we never really know why we do what we do, or even the actual basis for the emotions we are currently “feeling.”  That we are having emotions we are not even aware of at all.  

GNS: Would that make us Zombies?

RL: Maybe we are effectively zombies, and Darwin is in the process of pruning away consciousness. Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, with his fast system one, slower system two;  system one gets good enough, you don’t need system two.  

DD: In a sense. That is, when we have a proper theory of consciousness, we look around inside, we’re not going to find any selves in there. We’re not going to find any witnesses in there. So, as far as we can tell, when we have that theory, it will be a theory which does not distinguish zombies from conscious beings. Now, is that a failing or is that the way it should be? I think that’s the way it should be. So in a sense, the distinction between a philosophical zombie and a conscious being— we can abandon that. But then, we have plenty of room to distinguish people’s being conscious of this or that, and being unconscious of this or that— being not in a coma, but not cognizant of various things that are going on around them, things happening beneath their notice, things that are subliminal, things that are unconsciously being done. We can have that wealth of cognitive science and psychology which has been building up for more than 100 years. That’s all untouched by this. The one thing you have to give up is this idea that you know that you’re not a philosophical zombie. No. That’s just an artifact of bad theorizing.

GNS: For Dennett, consciousness is nothing more than various types of behavior, such as the list he’s given us. Therefore, in Dennett’s view, since zombies behave the same as us, they are the same as us in every way.  Zombies do not lack anything we have.   

RL:  I go along with the idea that “self” is nothing close to what we imagine it to be.  But Dennett seems to be denying consciousness altogether.

GNS: Dennett would say that he does not deny consciousness, it’s just “not what you think it is.” We think it is something in addition to brains and behavior. It’s not, according to Dennett. I’m not sure Carroll fully appreciates Dennett’s perspective. Is consciousness an illusion? 

1:34:54 SC: So just to be super clear, to get the lingo right, you’re not claiming that consciousness is an illusion. It’s real in the same sense that the patterns that we talked about are real. These concepts of experiences play a useful role in how we explain what we go through.

1:35:12 DD: Well, I’m glad you asked that question. Because I like the term “illusion”. I think it’s a generational thing. The younger generation has no trouble with “illusion” as a positive term, as in the “user illusion”. Consciousness is a user illusion, in fact, the manifest image is a user illusion. It’s nature’s way of simplifying the world for us. In the same way that software engineers have brilliantly created these metaphorical icons and sound effects. Think of how badly you would misunderstand the computer if you tried to figure out how computers work by simply extrapolating from the user illusion.

1:36:13 SC: Yeah, taking literally the files on your desktop.

DD: That’s right. The user illusion of a laptop or a smartphone is brilliantly designed to exploit your perceptual, locomotory and hand dexterity powers, and your audition, to permit you to perform things you want to do, ignorant of the details of how it’s going on. The same thing is true in your brain. The one difference is that there’s no screen, because there’s no eyeball in there. So, you want to know who is the victim of the illusion? No. Who’s the beneficiary of the user illusion?

1:37:09 SC: But now I’m a little confused, because we agreed the elements of the manifest image are in oftentimes real.

1:37:15 DD: Well, yeah, they’re real illusions.

1:37:21 SC: Maybe the vocabulary is not up to the task. So consciousness is both real and an illusion?

1:37:27 DD: Yeah.

SC: Maybe “trick” is a better word than “illusion”?

GNS: Carroll talks as if doing philosophy is merely a matter of finding the right word.

1:37:35 DD: Well, yeah. For years, I’ve been saying consciousness is a bag of tricks. It’s a whole lot of different tricks. It’s not one metaphysical trick. It’s a whole lot of engineering tricks. And those engineering tricks create an agent that has an instant, reliable, dexterous, fluent use of a huge array of representations. The agent doesn’t need to know how those representations are created, or even where they are or whether they have the properties they seem to have. 

RL:  I’m closer to agreement with Dennett here.  

DD: Here’s a way of thinking about it. Think of stage magic. There’s a sort of honor code among magicians. You’re supposed to show something. Show, not tell. You haven’t done a trick if you’ve simply bribed the audience. Or we can test our intuitions here. What would you think of a magician that used mass hypnosis, and simply could hypnotize the whole audience and then have flaming elephants dancing on their toes, and no display at all. Nothing on the stage, the magician is all alone, but everybody is just going, “Ooh and ah.” We’d say, well that’s a sort of a cheat. That doesn’t really count. Well, why not?

1:39:40 DD: So instead of hypnosis, let’s do it scientifically. Hypnosis is apparently a real phenomenon, but let’s say that you got a magician who says, “I now ask people to wear a special headset to my magic shows.” This is a headset which simply beams directly to the occipital cortex V1, the first major way station for all visual information. It can simply create hallucinations there, bypassing the eyeballs. Photons, eyeballs, no longer part of the perception. Maybe what he’s doing is simply capturing the optic nerve with his device. Everything from the optic nerve in is as it would be if there was a flaming elephant standing on its trunk. Would that be magic? But at least we now have people that were darn-tooting sure that they had seen an elephant standing on its trunk on the stage. Question. Would they have qualia? No. We’ve thrown away the screen. There’s no more room. They think they have qualia.

RL: The term “qualia” is problematic here.  I’ve taken it to mean the what-it’s-like of blue.  I don’t know what he means by it here.  That dreams don’t have qualia? Hallucinations?

GNS: Dennett thinks that the term “qualia” is misleading; that it’s made up by philosophers who are confusing themselves and everyone else. In his paper “Quining Qualia” 1988, he wants to get rid of the whole business:

“Qualia” is an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us. As is so often the case with philosophical jargon, it is easier to give examples than to give a definition of the term. Look at a glass of milk at sunset; the way it looks to you–the particular, personal, subjective visual quality of the glass of milk is the quale of your visual experience at the moment. The way the milk tastes to you then is another, gustatory quale, and how it sounds to you as you swallow is an auditory quale; These various “properties of conscious experience” are prime examples of qualia. Nothing, it seems, could you know more intimately than your own qualia; let the entire universe be some vast illusion, some mere figment of Descartes’ evil demon, and yet what the figment is made of (for you) will be the qualia of your hallucinatory experiences. Descartes claimed to doubt everything that could be doubted, but he never doubted that his conscious experiences had qualia, the properties by which he knew or apprehended them… 

My goal is subversive. I am out to overthrow an idea that, in one form or another, is “obvious” to most people–to scientists, philosophers, lay people…

What are qualia, exactly? This obstreperous query is dismissed by one author (“only half in jest”) by invoking Louis Armstrong’s legendary reply when asked what jazz was: “If you got to ask, you ain’t never gonna get to know.” (Ned Block, 1978, p.281) This amusing tactic perfectly illustrates the presumption that is my target. If I succeed in my task, this move, which passes muster in most circles today, will look as quaint and insupportable as a jocular appeal to the ludicrousness of a living thing–a living thing, mind you!– doubting the existence of elan vital

My claim, then, is not just that the various technical or theoretical concepts of qualia are vague or equivocal, but that the source concept, the “pretheoretical” notion of which the former are presumed to be refinements, is so thoroughly confused that even if we undertook to salvage some “lowest common denominator” from the theoreticians’ proposals, any acceptable version would have to be so radically unlike the ill-formed notions that are commonly appealed to that it would be tactically obtuse–not to say Pickwickian–to cling to the term. Far better, tactically, to declare that there simply are no qualia at all. 

GNS: I think Dennett is wrong, but he is a damn fine writer.

1:41:30 SC: They think they’ve seen the elephant, but they haven’t seen the elephant. They think they’ve had the experience of seeing the elephant.

DD: That’s right. Well, they have had the experience of seeing an elephant. It’s a bogus experience, because there was no elephant out there. If we take the whole phenomenon— from the light hitting whatever’s on the stage up through the eyes and through to the conviction center, to what people will swear on a Bible they saw—at every point, we could in principle intervene and lay out the food for the consumers at the next level. And it might be very, very late. And if it was very, very late, you might get some very anomalous things like— “This is weird. For a moment there, I could have sworn that there was an elephant on this stage. It just sort of hit me”— but no details or anything. We do have experiences like that.

1:42:52 SC: So there’s a sense in which consciousness is real. There’s also a sense in which it’s an illusion.

1:43:00 DD: In particular, there’s the theorists’ solution. The theorists’ solution is what the theorists may have and the dog doesn’t. The dog doesn’t think it has qualia. The theorist does. That’s just false. That’s an artifact of bad theory.

1:43:23 SC: So would we take the same angle on free will— that there’s an aspect of it that’s real, aspect which is an illusion?

DD: Yes and no, of course.

SC: That’s a philosopher’s favorite answer to everything.

GNS: Or “Fuck it! Yes! That’s your answer. That’s your answer for everything! Tattoo it on your forehead!” The Big Lebowski,  Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998

1:43:36 DD: Yes, yes. The traditional idea of free will where somehow our bodies or our brains are shielded from causation, that’s crap. It’s just gotta be false.

SC: We’re not laws unto ourselves.

DD: There’s no miracles happening like that. So if that’s what you think free will has to be, if you think free will is incompatible with determinism, then there’s no free will. Then free will isn’t real. It’s an illusion. I would prefer to say free will is perfectly real, it just isn’t what you think it is.

GNS: Dennett uses this approach frequently. He does not eliminate consciousnesss or free will, he redefines it. 

1:44:23 SC: Yeah, which you did predict ahead of time that you were going to say. So the sense in which it’s real has something to do with the fact that it plays this explanatory role.

1:44:37 DD: Not just an explanatory role, it plays a huge role in people’s lives, as I was saying before. Since our society has the concept of free will, when I signed the mortgage papers for this house, I was asked if I was signing this of my own free will. I said yes, yes I am, yes.

SC: Did the agent have any idea who she was talking to?

GNS: Did she have any idea she was talking to someone who does not believe in free will in the usual sense? Dennett is a compatibilist on free will. 

Per SEP: Compatibilism is the thesis that free will is compatible with determinism… Suppose, as the thesis of causal determinism tells us, that everything that occurs is the inevitable result of the laws of nature and the state of the world in the distant past. If this is the case, then everything human agents do flows from the laws of nature and the way the world was in the distant past. But if what we do is simply the consequence of the laws of nature and the state of the world in the distant past—then we cannot do anything other than what we ultimately do. Nor are we in any meaningful sense the ultimate causal source of our actions, since they have their causal origins in the laws of nature and the state of the world long ago. Determinism therefore seems to prevent human agents from having the freedom to do otherwise, and it also seems to prevent them from being the sources of their actions. If either of these is true, then it’s doubtful that human agents are free or responsible for their actions in any meaningful sense…

Compatibilists, on the other hand, claim that these concerns miss the mark. Some compatibilists hold this because they think the truth of causal determinism would not undermine our freedom to do otherwise. As a result, these compatibilists tell us, the truth of causal determinism poses no threat to our status as morally responsible agents (notice the enthymematic premise here: the freedom to do otherwise is sufficient for the kind of control an agent must possess to be morally responsible for her actions). Other compatibilists show less concern in rebutting the conclusion that the freedom to do otherwise is incompatible with determinism. Compatibilists of this stripe reject the idea that such freedom is necessary for meaningful forms of free will (e.g., …Dan Dennett Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting 1984).

Kant called compatibilism a “wretched subterfuge”: On the compatibilist view, as Kant understands it, I am free whenever the cause of my action is within me. So I am unfree only when something external to me pushes or moves me, but I am free whenever the proximate cause of my body’s movement is internal to me as an “acting being”. If we distinguish between involuntary convulsions and voluntary bodily movements, then on this view free actions are just voluntary bodily movements. Kant ridicules this view as a “wretched subterfuge” that tries to solve an ancient philosophical problem “with a little quibbling about words”. This view, he says, assimilates human freedom to “the freedom of a turnspit,” or a projectile in flight, or the motion of a clock’s hands. The proximate causes of these movements are internal to the turnspit, the projectile, and the clock at the time of the movement. This cannot be sufficient for moral responsibility.

GNS: I’m with Kant, but Dennett has thought about it a lot more than I have. 

1:45:06 DD: The notary was reading this off a piece of paper and I was only too happy to answer. But some people don’t have free will. Some people are incapacitated. Some people aren’t in control. So there’s a very real difference, and it makes a huge difference in life. I like to put it this way. Consider back to our drone. Suppose we throw away the controller and just let it be its own self-controlled autonomous thing. Pretty dangerous. Well, you think that’s dangerous, think how dangerous we are.

SC: Empirically, we’re pretty darn dangerous, yes.

1:45:56 DD: Empirically, we have millions of degrees of freedom, and we’re not in anybody’s control but our own. Or we can try to control people. I like the idea that parents eventually have to launch their children, and once they’ve launched them, they’re no longer guided missiles. They’re now autonomous. How do we dare let people do this? We dare let people do this, because we trust that people will have done their best to turn their offspring into self-controlled responsible agents.

DD: And that’s what free will is and there’s no metaphysical bright line. But there are lots of legal bright lines. They’re negotiable and evadable. There’s this sort of arms race going on where as we discover one loophole or another, we either exempt or not various people from responsibility or diminish their responsibility.

1:47:18 SC: It’s the legal, responsible, moral questions that make this very vivid. I want to take this opportunity to clarify as much as we can. You’ve hinted at the idea that even though we sophisticated scientists and philosophers know that there are laws of physics and we all obey them, we should let the people have their free will in some sense, because it makes them act more morally. That may or may not be true for me personally. That fact has nothing to do with why I think that it’s sensible to talk about free will. My reason for talking about free will is just the answer you just gave, which is that it does play this role in helping to explain what goes on.

1:48:00 DD: I don’t think that the idea that we have free will is a sort of holy myth that we should preserve for the good of the hoi polloi. No, we all need it. I think it’s extremely paternalistic, patronizing to say, “Well I don’t need the illusion of free will, but everyday folks they need it.” First of all, I think that’s just obnoxious.

SC: Right.

DD: We all go through life, gauging our opportunities, making choices taking them as seriously as we do, which is sometimes not seriously enough and sometimes…

SC: In trying to persuade others.

DD: And sometimes too seriously, in trying to persuade others. It’s no secret that this pattern of activity— including mental activity, including hamlet-like thinking and mulling and musing and worrying— no secret why it exists. It’s what makes civilization possible. And I for one would rather live in a civilized world.

1:49:27 SC: That’s a very crucial distinction that has the danger of slipping by there. It’s not that we need to tell people they have free will to make them civilized. It’s that we have to appreciate that we have free will so that we create civilization.

DD: Yes, absolutely right, yes.

RL: We are going to treat you as if you had free will, because civilization requires it.  I think that’s what they are saying.  But I think that justifies cruelties.  Prefer “Unfortunately, you have demonstrated behavior that must be discouraged.”  

GNS: Does Carroll realize that for Dennett, “free will” just means a lack of external control. The compatibilist free will does not mean that you could have done anything other than what you actually did. That your actions are determined by your subpersonal bio-chemistry, over which you have no control, is perfectly compatible with Dennett’s definition of free will. 

1:49:45 DD: But then that does mean that the free will skeptics, including some heavy hitting scientists…

SC: Some of our best friends. Yeah.

DD: They’re really engaging in a sort of an anti-social behavior. It’s a sort of cognitive vandalism. I try to shock them with that term. I have a little thought experiment about that. If you have an obsessive compulsive disorder, it’s possible to have a little device installed in your brain that will help control it. So that’s facts so far, and now we’re going to add a little science fiction. 

So this chap has obsessive-compulsive disorder. He goes to his local neurosurgeon and asks for the installation and she installs it. Then after he wakes up after the operation, she says, “Now you’re free to go. Oh, and by the way, we’re in radio control here, we monitor you 24/7. And if you ever are about to commit some terrible act we intervene of course. Have a nice life.”

1:51:39 DD: So this fellow goes off, and reassured that he’s got this safety net, he becomes a little bit slovenly in his decision making, and he makes some bad decisions. Pretty soon he ends up in court. The judge confronts him and asks him, “What about this?” He says, “Well, no. I don’t have any free will. You know I’m controlled.“

1:52:09 SC: Just obeying the laws of physics.

DD: “I just obey the laws of physics. And the neurosurgeons, you know they are… I’m their puppet.” The judge calls in the neurosurgeon and asks, “Did you tell this man that when you put this device in that henceforth that he would be a sort of electronically controlled puppet.” And she says, “Yeah, we did.” The judge says, “It’s not true, is it?” She says, “No, of course not. We’re just messing with his brain.” 

Now, she did something evil. If she in her scientist white coat is doing something evil for that guy, what about you folks out there in science land who are going around telling everybody that free will is an illusion, that they’re all really just puppets? Why isn’t that the same sort of anti-social behavior that this imaginary neurosurgeon is engaged in?

GNS: Here’s why. The imaginary neuroscientist lied to her patient. She did not really have a way to control his behavior. But the folks out there in science land are telling the truth: our behavior is controlled entirely by subpersonal processes beyond our control. There is no free will in any meaningful sense. Telling the truth is not anti-social behavior. 

RL:  But I can do something that will change the probabilities of your future behavior.  When I insist that the prior Gregg could have done otherwise, that just gives me an excuse to be angry and self-righteous, and cruel.  Bad Gregg!

GNS: Yes, you can change my behavior and get angry and self-righteous. But what gives you the right to do it?  

RL:  Stand your ground?

1:53:24 SC: To wrap up, let’s deviate a little bit. You’ve had a long career with many greatest hits. We’ve hit some of them here. There’s a world view that you’re sketching out that is very coherent and fits together in various ways: laws of physics, Darwinian evolution, intentional stances, real patterns. What are the implications of that for morality, for ethics, for how we should live our lives? Is there a meta-ethical conclusion that comes from this or even ethical conclusion?

1:54:06 DD: Yes, I think there is. Another aspect to my work we haven’t mentioned is that it means we don’t need religion. Religion was maybe a good scaffold on which to build civilization. Maybe the myths of religion kept people in line and cooperating because they were worried about big brother watching them. I’m quite content with a hypotheses, not provable, but might be true— that civilization depended on religion. I don’t think it does anymore. I think we can grow up and simply abandon the myths. But when we do that, we want to be sure that we don’t destroy or discard some of the valuable things that came along with that. The one that most concerns me is one that you can get at with the line of Robert Frost: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.” [The Death of the Hired Man 1914] Now, in that sense, there’s a lot of people that are homeless and don’t trust the state to take care of them. One of the things that religions have done over the millennia is taken in and provided a sense of meaning and love for people who otherwise would not have that.

1:56:00 DD: And those of us who were fortunate enough to live exciting lives should recognize that this is a social service. To call it that is to under-play its significance by orders of magnitude. This is a life healing, life protecting, life improving feature of the world that we don’t want to throw away. The question is how do you save it without also saving the sort of brute irrationality or a-rationality, the valorization of unreason and superstition? I think it’s possible to domesticate religions a little further. They’ve been domesticated a lot, but I think we can go a little farther, and keep ceremony, keep community, keep music and art and celebration intact, and leave out the myths. That’s a tall order, but I see progress all around. I do share the concern that a lot of people have that while the fastest growing group in the world is the nones— the N-O-N-E-S, those that have no religion at all— if they have no community, if they have no allegiance, if there’s nothing that they think of that’s bigger than and more important than they are to guide their lives, then we’re in trouble. It just shouldn’t be religion. So I think morality is itself a human, a social construct.

1:58:27 SC: Not moral realism. [hard to hear this line]

1:58:30 DD: Yeah, and again it’s really just isn’t what you think it is. It’s not given by God. It isn’t deducible from a set of axioms. It’s in a certain sense political and rational creation of— ideally— an informed community of people. 

GNS: We agree that normative morality is not given by God. The problem is to understand how there can be morality without full-blooded consciousness and meaningful free will. Would a zombie world have normative morality? Dennett’s approach may lead to eliminative materialism and nihilism.  and

SC: Something that we exercise our free will to create.

1:59:06 DD: We can imagine a sort of grounding myth. Philosophers like to do this sort of thing. You all come, everybody come, you’re all welcome. You gotta obey some rules, some rules of discourse. And whatever your current beliefs are about what’s right and what’s wrong, share them with us. If there’s something that your group thinks is really, really wrong and the rest of us haven’t seen that yet— that might be eating meat or it might be any of the things that religions have taboos about— don’t just play the faith card and say, “Well, I’m an Xist and Xist think this is a sin.” No, your task is to convince the rest of us that you’re right.

2:00:14 SC: Give us reasons.

DD: Give us reasons. If you can persuade us that there’s a case to be made, we’ll listen. But if you play the faith card— if you say, “This is beyond reason, this is simply who I am. I can do no other”— basically what you’re doing is you’re saying, “I’m disqualified from this discussion. I’m disabled. My irrationality prevents me from playing the role that’s available to me here.” I think if we imagine morality as whatever emerges from that in the ideal circumstance, that’s the kind of human construction it is.

SC: Well, I think I’ve done a terrible job at playing the devil’s advocate here because I agree with you too much. But Dan Dennett, thanks very much for being on the podcast. It was very educational and fun.

DD: Well, thank you, Sean. You asked all the right questions.

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