The reason why I wrote so much about Arrival is because it mirrors exactly the same stuff I’ll discuss here. Same patterns, same category of problems, just different contexts we paint those themes onto.
Remember how we were all taught to toss out teleological thinking—the idea that there is a purpose or design to existence? We have all been taught that Darwin upended that idea. Mr. Dennett argues for another perspective. “Darwin didn’t extinguish teleology: he naturalized it.”
The teleological hypothesis is the one that created the basis for Arrival. But that quote comes from this article (it’s WSJ, it uses a paywall, so to bypass it and read it fully you have to use this link):
That’s Michael Gazzaniga reviewing Daniel Dennett’s latest book, but because they come from a fairly similar school of thought Gazzaniga doesn’t have much to criticize. In fact in the (awful) comments someone says something I find hilarious:
This reviewer doesn’t seem to critically engage the author at any point. A critical review doesn’t have to be entirely negative. But when nothing is challenged how is this a review that engages the subject?
The reason why I kept thinking about Arrival is that I keep banging my head at trying to understand if there’s a different perspective. At least something that can be considered plausible, like a different way to frame the problem. Maybe there is something I’m missing, and that’s exactly why Arrival engages me. I wrote so much not to explain that Arrival is bullshit, but to go deep into every perspective to carefully check if there were “gaps”. I write as a way to analyze. To see if there is actually something, in a kind of open ended way.
This “other” perspective is represented by Thomas Nagel. He does believe in a different way of looking at the problem. And Sean Carroll challenges his perspective here:
But as with Arrival, I’m not too quick to dismiss, and keep looking out for something that resembles something with some value. And here we have a much longer review of Dennett’s book, written by Thomas Nagel… But that you cannot read fully because it’s behind a paywall:
I did read it fully, though. It’s quite long, across three pages, but only a couple of small paragraphs have something interesting to say that actually challenges Dennett’s point of view. I’ll quote those, as the rest of the long article is just a description of the book’s content and thesis.
The first hint of disagreement is something quite common and that I categorize as a simple misrepresentation:
In keeping with his general view of manifest image, Dennett holds that consciousness is not part of reality in the way the brain is. Rather, it is a particularly salient and convincing user-illusion, an illusion that it is indispensable in our dealings with one another and in monitoring and managing ourselves, but an illusion nonetheless.
You may as well ask how consciousness can be an illusion, since every illusion is itself a conscious experience – an appearance that doesn’t correspond to reality. So it cannot appear to me that I am conscious though I am not: as Descartes famously observed, the reality of my own consciousness is the one thing I cannot be deluded about.
Nagel describes all this as a view that is “unnatural”. Because this view challenges what we intuitively feel as consciousness. And the concrete feeling of something that cannot be considered an “illusion”.
This is a common position. Thinking that all these books about “consciousness” just point at unexplained illusions, and so do not explain anything at all. But it is a misrepresentation. Bakker’s own Blind Brain Theory, or the weaker versions, don’t simply point to an illusion to just call it “illusion”. Because they are materialist positions, they need to explain WHY and HOW the illusion appears.
An illusion is not something that doesn’t exist. An illusion is a visual phenomenon (for example), so made of matter, that you have to physically describe to explain why it appears like that. It exists, but it is motivated in a way that is revealed as false. It’s not a negation of the existence of the phenomenon, it’s a negation of the way we explained it. What you saw wasn’t a “ghost”, it was just a trick of the light that bounced in that mirror and produced that effect. The image was REAL, but you interpreted it incorrectly.
Those theories of consciousness DO explain how consciousness works. They do explain why it “feels” like that, they explain the boundaries. It’s true they aren’t “complete” theories because we haven’t reached the point where we can artificially create a consciousness, but that’s because the problem is extremely complex. But we do know, or have plausible hypothesis, that describe how it works. They describe HOW that illusion works and WHY it feels like it feels. We’ve been there. We have a perfectly functioning hypothesis.
Consciousness the way it appears to us IS reality. But our intuitive model of it is simply incorrect because it relies on incomplete information. It’s not the “experience” of consciousness that is wrong, it’s our intuitive explanation we make for it. It’s the common belief of what consciousness is to be wrong. Or the belief that our intuitive explanation is sufficient.
And yes, we trade an incomplete, intuitive model for a scientific, non-intuitive but still a lot more accurate model. Current science cannot explain everything, but it can explain MORE.
Dennett asks us to turn our backs to what is glaringly obvious – that in consciousness we are immediately aware of real subjective experiences of color, flavor, sound, touch, etc. that cannot be fully described in neural terms even though they have a neural cause (or perhaps have neural as well as experiential aspects). And he asks us to do this because the reality of such phenomena is incompatible with the scientific materialism that in his view sets the outer bounds of reality. He is, in Aristotle’s words, “maintaining a thesis at all costs.”
This goes with this other part:
There is no reason to go through such mental contortions in the name of science. The spectacular progress of the physical sciences since the seventeenth century was made possible by the exclusion of the mental from their purview. To say that there is more to reality than physics can account for is not a piece of mysticism: it is an acknowledgement that we are nowhere near a theory of everything, and that science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain. It should not disturb us that this may have radical consequences, especially for Dennett’s favorite natural science, biology: the theory of evolution, which in its current form is a purely physical theory, may have to incorporate nonphysical factors to account for consciousness, if consciousness is not, as he thinks, an illusion. Materialism remains a widespread view, but science does not progress by tailoring the data to fit a prevailing theory.
Firstly, “science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain”, this is quite a bold claim, and entirely illogical. Science MIGHT have to expand, not “will have to”, unless Nagel can see the future as the aliens in Arrival. If you are going to propose an hypothesis at least make it clear it’s not some kind of absolute claim of faith.
Nagel’s thesis is: since science doesn’t have a theory of everything then it means we need new ways of thinking that go beyond physics. But this is a conclusive statement that is very far from being actually conclusive. It’s a classic “god of the gaps”.
Let’s break down the various options:
We don’t have a complete description of reality, we only have various approximate models that work in their own specific applications, but no “theory of everything” that unifies all of that into something complete and cohesive.
1- There might be more to physics. Since we don’t know.
2- Physics, itself being incomplete right now, might as well lead to a theory of everything, eventually (or get as close as possible).
Both of these remain open. Neither Nagel nor Dennett can prove the falsity of the other. But it’s obvious that the argument Nagel used is flawed. Just because we *currently* can’t explain everything doesn’t mean that an explanation doesn’t exist. We’re trying to predict what we’re going to find and the only true, honest answer is: we don’t know. Both those options are open and viable. We have no way of closing one or the other.
But of course we can make our own predictions, trying to explain why one hypothesis is for us more valid or more plausible than the other. We will lean toward one or the other until we can make more conclusive observations.
That’s why Nagel’s perspective seems so fraudulent to me. It’s presented illogically. The arguments that should convince one to prefer that perspective are very bad ones. When he says “there is no reason to go through such mental contortions in the name of science” it’s as if he chastises science for being too overly complex and challenge intuitive notions. All the big discoveries deeply changed human worldviews. We’ve gone through deep revolutions. And we were able to achieve that BECAUSE we challenged what was taken for granted.
In fact, Nagel’s own thesis would require an ever bolder stance to challenge the prevailing notion, so it seems logical. But the point is: the argument Nagel uses against Dennett’s thesis hits both ways. Dennett’s thesis is described as “mental contortion”, so it challenges intuitive experience, whereas Nagel’s thesis challenges what we currently know about science and physics. But while Dennett’s stance is justified as we’re trying to understand ourselves while within our own boundaries (which is a naturally hard if not impossible task), Nagel’s stance simply relies on the unjustified belief that the world is built in accord with human necessity (that it sticks to what we intuitively feel as true).
As if: we should take for granted that the world is built to be understood by the human mind.
This is purely anti-scientific. This idea that the universe exists *for* us, and so has to comply to our desires. This is the contrary of science: to actually challenge beliefs. To prove the world defies us constantly, doesn’t comply, and it’s not at our service. Science is a tool to find truth specifically because most of the times what we hope is right is revealed as wrong. Science challenges simplicity and intuition, you have to study. It doesn’t come easy.
But you can also twist this argument back, and say that Nagel’s position also requires us to challenge our views at an even deeper level. That’s correct, but let’s keep these arguments straight. Saying that Dennett’s stance is invalid because it challenges intuition or because physics is not complete is quite a ridiculous argument. And at least science continues to point in Dennett’s direction. It’s not a conclusive statement, but we make progress. On the other side when you decide to leave the path you’ve taken you have to provide good motivations to do so. And this is where Nagel’s argument is weak the most: it evokes an alternative without any idea about what it actually might be. Again, Nagel might be right, but he’s making a very poor case to prove that option can be fruitful. As if we’re deciding between “making good progress on one side, but still very far from coming out”, and “I’m bored digging there, we should try something else although I have no idea what”. To persuade people to look elsewhere you need to provide something more tangible than mere skepticism at where we’re currently looking. Otherwise you’re just exploiting the fact that since we don’t know everything, there’s space to ride the common human misconceptions until they last.
And this is where I quote Sean Carroll that I linked above:
Either matter obeys the laws of physics, or physics is wrong. And if you want us to take seriously the possibility that it’s wrong, you better have at least some tentative ideas about what would be a better theory.
Of course, Nagel has no such theory, which he cheerfully admits. That’s for the scientists to come up with! He’s just a philosopher, he says.
Which is why, at the end, his position isn’t very interesting. (Because he doesn’t have anything like a compelling alternative theory, not because he’s a philosopher.) He advocates overthrowing things that are precisely defined, extremely robust, and impressively well-tested (the known laws of physics, natural selection) on the basis of ideas that are rather vague and much less well-supported (a conviction that consciousness can’t be explained physically, a demand for intelligibility, moral realism). If someone puts forward even a rough sketch of how a new teleological view of reality might actually work, including how it affects the known laws of physics, that might be very interesting. I don’t think the prospects are very bright.
Nagel is a “god of the gaps” philosopher, the one who does his dance while others are busy working. As long science doesn’t explain everything there will always be someone who claims science MIGHT be wrong.
And yes, science might be wrong. So what?