Note: This transcript has not been proofread, and therefore its accuracy is not guaranteed.
Robert Wright's interview with Daniel Dennett
Wright: Daniel Dennett is Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. His books include "Consciousness Explained," "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," and "Freedom Evolves." I interviewed him at his home in Massachusetts. First of all, Dan, thanks for taking the time.
Daniel Dennett: You're welcome.
Wright: I'm looking forward to talking about consciousness, evolution and free will, each of which you have devoted at least a book to. I wanted to start off though with this crusade you've gotten involved with lately on behalf of a group called Brights.
Daniel Dennett: Interesting use of the word "crusade."
Wright: (laughter) Not a lot of people are doing it these days. Sometimes it's ill-advised.
Daniel Dennett: Yes.
Wright: In this context I think it's fairly harmless.
The Brights, in this context, are not smart people but it's a term that is now being used to refer to people who reject supernatural explanation.
Daniel Dennett: That's right.
Wright: And I guess loosely speaking, you could say they tend to be either agnostics or atheists.
Daniel Dennett: Yes, that's right.
Wright: And you have said "the time has come for us Brights to come out of the closet and to demand Bright rights." So, for starters, I'll let you come out of the closet as clearly as possible. Would you call yourself an atheist or an agnostic?
Daniel Dennett: I don't like the term atheist because it usually means somebody who is going around upbraiding people and trying to force people to listen to his arguments as to why there is no God. I don't think there is a God so I am an atheist but I don't make a deal of it. It's not that I passionately believe there isn't a God, it's that, of course there isn't a God, but so what?
Wright: So the difference in your mind is not one of how confident you are that there is not a God. You are 100% sure there is not a god.
Daniel Dennett: 100%? I'm not 100 sure of anything.
Daniel Dennett: I'm of sure of it as I am of anything.
Wright: But not 100%?
Daniel Dennett: Right.
Wright: The reason I ask is that that version of atheist has always struck me as, in some technical sense, logically indefensible.
Daniel Dennett: You can't prove a negative.
Daniel Dennett: I think it was Bertrand Russell who once said that he couldn't prove that there was not a teapot orbiting Mars. So he's a teapot agnostic. I'm a teapot agnostic with regard to God, too. I can't prove that God doesn't exist.
Wright: Right. And...
Daniel Dennett: For one thing, the reason I can't prove that is that apparently no two people mean the same thing by "God." And some people, what they mean by "God" is nature. That exists, so they worship nature. So do I in a way. Does that mean that I believe that nature is God? Who knows? It's not supernatural. As wonderful as all (()) but it isn't supernatural.
Wright: Do you feel you are missing anything? Do you wish you could believe in God?
Daniel Dennett: No.
Wright: There is no void in your life?
Daniel Dennett: No. In fact I think that's a much more interesting question to ask most people or actually hard to ask them because they don't want to answer it. I have a feeling that not that many people actually believe in God. Many people believe in belief of God. That is, they think it's a good thing, and they try to believe in God, they hope to believe in God, they wish they could believe in God and they say they believe in God, they go through all the motions, they try very hard to be devout. Sometimes they succeed and for some periods of their life they actual do, in some sense, believe that there is a God and they think they are the better for it. Otherwise, they behave like people who probably don't believe in God. Very few people behave as if they really believe in God. A lot of people behave as if they believe they should believe in God.
Wright: How would you behave if you believed in God?
Daniel Dennett: You would, perhaps -- and some people do this -- be prepared to take what other people would call suicidal risks because you believe God is going to be there to save you. You would be prepared to give away everything that you own because God commanded you to do it and so forth.
Wright: Although there you are talking about a specific conception of God.
Daniel Dennett: Yeah, right.
Wright: ...any conception of God that would make you think you could take risks without fear of death, and I guess that's ...
Daniel Dennett: ... that's one of the problems with belief in God is that it is so amorphous and undefined.
Wright: ... what I am saying is that there can be different definitions and they can also be amorphous but I'm just referring to the problem of there being many different definitions.
Daniel Dennett: Sure, many different definitions.
Wright: But, along those lines, are you rejecting the idea of any higher purpose of any kind?
Daniel Dennett: Higher than our purposes? Yes.
Wright: On the question of evolution I think you and I agree that evolution has, in a certain probabilistic sense, a kind of direction. That is to say, natural selection, once it acquired much momentum, was likely to produce diverse forms of life, increasingly complex life, and even properties like intelligence were not at all unlikely even if there was no way of predicting which lineages would lead to them and so on.
Daniel Dennett: Yes.
Wright: So you do believe evolution was headed somewhere?
Daniel Dennett: Yes. Headed somewhere.
Wright: But not by design?
Daniel Dennett: But not by design. And not guarantee to get there in any finite stretch of time.
Wright: Right. Bad things can happen.
Daniel Dennett: My favorite image of this is, if you think of going up, being the rise in complexity up to intelligence and so forth, yes, this is what we have seen but of course at any moment it could just crash. But then it would go up again and crash and go up again and we'd have a sort of saw-tooth. But, yes, the trend is in some sense up, there is some progress in design. Yes, absolutely.
Wright: You can imagine how someone can have a strictly materialist conception of natural selection as I do, believe in the directionality that we just discussed, as I do, and still think that it's possible that there is some larger purpose unfolding or that the natural selection was actually the product of design. You can imagine being basically materialist and still think natural selection is subordinate to some larger purpose we don't understand, there actually was a designer of natural selection is some sense.
Daniel Dennett: Yes, I can imagine that in some loose sense. I don't know that's a coherent idea but it's not obviously incoherent.
Wright: And you certainly don't buy it in any event.
Daniel Dennett: I don't buy it.
Wright: Let me suggest that there are ways that you can actually appraise that hypothesis, in other words there would be evidence for it and evidence against it.
Daniel Dennett: There could. I agree.
Wright: Let me be clear that I mean design in a very loose sense. I think you and I would agree that you can speak of individual organisms as being "designed" but not by an intelligent being by a process of natural selection and that process imbues them with what you might call purpose or goals.
Daniel Dennett: Absolutely. as real as purpose could ever be.
Wright: You mean getting genes into the next generation?
Daniel Dennett: Yes.
Wright: That's the criterion of their design?
Daniel Dennett: Yes.
Wright: Now there is a famous episode in intellectual history that inspired Richard Dawkins to call his novel "The Blind Watchmaker" involving this long dead theologian William Paley. What happened was, he argued that you could look at living forms and tell that there is a God. It's like if you are walking thru a field and you pick up a watch obviously it was designed to do something. That it is functionally integrated and so on. He said, look at animals, it's the same way. You can tell there is a God. He was right that there had to be a process of design.
Daniel Dennett: Absolutely right.
Wright: Here's among the things that I think you would agree are evidence in favor of that hypothesis. If you watch an animal grow from a single germ cell there's a directional growth towards functional integration at higher and higher levels of organization.
Daniel Dennett: Maybe. I'm not quite sure I like that way of putting it but I think I see what you are getting at.
Wright: There is that, as a matter of fact. You do observe that in the life of an organism.
Daniel Dennett: Well no. You have many more brain cells before you are born than you do shortly thereafter. There's a tremendous pruning. Is your brain more complex before you are born or after you are born? Development is not all in the direction of greater integration or greater complexity. In some regards. In some regards...
Wright: Much greater functional differentiation.
Daniel Dennett: Much greater functional differentiation certainly.
Wright: ...and correspondingly functional integration of differentiated things.
Daniel Dennett: Yes, sure.
Wright: And it gets bigger. It develops a nervous system and so on. These coherent functional things. I would submit that if you step back and observed life on this planet in time-lapse, including not just the evolution of human beings but including technological evolution that has lead to where we are today. the process would look remarkable like that and in fact you yourself in your most recent book, "Freedom Evolved," you say that the planet is finally growing its own nervous system. And it's true. It looks like that. And there is a functionality about it and you agree there is directionality about it. So, it seems to me that to the extent that is the case that argues maybe strongly maybe tentatively maybe barely, who know, but that is some evidence in favor of the hypothesis that natural selection in some sense is a product of design and in some sense may have a purpose.
Daniel Dennett: No, I don't think that is a good argument. I think that remains an open possibility but I don't think that the evidence we have before us give us any particular reason to think that it is more likely than not since the alternative hypothesis, namely that mainly natural selection happens because it can happen, and that's it not because it was supposed to happen and not because there is a purpose to it. It happens because it can and since it can happen all of the design accrual that is the mark of natural selection happens.
Wright: Well it certainly follows that it will happen if you have self-replicating material and finite resources and so on but it didn't happen to be the case that there was that on this planet, in fact it's still a little bit of mystery how it came to be. All I'm really saying is that you can imagine natural selection unfolding. Stephen J. Gould could have been right. It could be directionless and aimless and in 99 times out of 100 and nothing intelligent evolves, nothing complex evolves. If you compare that scenario with the alternative which you and I both believe, that there is a probabilistic direction toward complexity and intelligence...
Daniel Dennett: I don't think that is inconsistent with the claim you just made that 99 times out of 100 nothing intelligent evolves. That's probably true too.
Wright: But you agree that there is a probabilistic direction... I thought you said earlier that it was likely to lead to greater complexity and intelligence.
Daniel Dennett: Over the long long long run, yes. But in the same way that most of the organisms that have ever lived on this planet died childless and most of the lineages that have ever started off are extinct and so much more than 99 out of 100 of the lineages that have ever evolved have extinguished themselves without ever leading to intelligence. So intelligence is the rare thing. Yes. But given enough time...
Wright: I think that works in favor of the argument I am making. You said that tons of organisms die childless and yet you agree that they were designed by natural selection to create offspring. The fact that some of them don't do it doesn't rule out that possibility. Secondly, the fact that lineages go extinct well that's true in epigenesis as well. If you look at the cells that you started out with, tons of them go extinct and what goes on inside you body is more like the process of natural selection than a lot of people realize. And one thing it has in common with natural selection is that although certain properties are going to be very likely -- I was very likely to end up with eye-sight, with eye balls -- it wasn't at all inevitable which one of my stem cells would be the grandfather of the lineage that lead to the eyesight and this is also true of natural selection. I think we have agreed that observing ontology or inner development of an organism that it has its directional movement towards functionality by design and that's in fact the hallmark of design. To the extent that evolution on this planet turned out to have comparable properties that would work at least to some extent in favor of the hypothesis of design.
Daniel Dennett: Yeah I guess.
Wright: Ok, I'll declare victory and go on and talk about something else because at least after that it becomes an empirical question and something you can argue with. Unfortunately we only have one case to study whereas when you are looking at individual animals ....
Your book on free will... you're framing the issue of free will in what would strike most people as a very unusual way. People usually think of free will as opposed to determinism. By determinism we mean the idea that basically the future of this universe is inevitable because the universe is this mechanistic thing that works according to rules and, in principle, if you understood this, everything about the state of the universe and everything about rules that govern it you could predict what happens tomorrow and that includes peoples brains they are deterministic so free will is an illusion because of the truth of determinism. That is the tradition argument against free will.
Daniel Dennett: That's the traditional argument.
Wright: I think you are saying that actually the two are compatible in some meaningful sense of both words.
Daniel Dennett: Absolutely. I'm just a compatablist. There have been compatablists for hundreds of years. But I'm a little different than most of the earlier compatablists in that I want to deny flat out the premise that you started with that you mentioned yourself that the future is inevitable if determinism is true. First of all I want to say that that phrase "the fut. is inevit" just doesn't mean anything. The future's going to happen, whatever it is and that is true whether determinism is true or indeterminism is true. There is going to be a future. Now in what sense could you talk about the future being inevitable? I don't know. What we have to talk about is particular events being inevitable or particular types of events. In order to see what the word "inevitable" means, you have to take it apart and, oddly enough, although the word trips off the tongue of everybody writes about free will and determinism hardly anybody has ever looked at it. Of course what it means is "unavoidable." Evitable, inevitable. Avoidable, unavoidable. That's all the word means. But to avoid something this is something that an agent does, an avoider.
Wright: You don't mean a literary agent here?
Daniel Dennett: No. I didn't have literary agents in mind. No, or secret agents . Although those are both agents. I mean agent in the broad sense of being an actor that has some sensory capacities and some goals and that acts in the world to accomplish it's ends.
Are there agents that can avoid things? Sure. Tons of them! And, in fact, the reason that you have to look at free will from an evolutionary point of view is that's remarkable. That there are agents that avoid things is a remarkable fact. And there's many more avoiders now than there use to be and they are much better at avoiding than they used to be. In fact, it's as good as the definition of intelligence to be an expert avoider. To be able to foresee far into the future, to see things coming down the pipe and to take steps in a timely way to prevent those bad things from happening and in order to foster things that you want to happen. We don't have a good parallel word. Enhancer? Probablifier? We avoid harm and we try to get the Good. But there isn't a single verb for what we do in regards to good things they way there is for avoiding the bad. But now, that means that the whole concept of inevitability gets its meaning from a perspective in which there are agents that might want to avoid something and it might be in their power or it might not. Now if we start looking at particular worlds with particular agents in particular circumstances we can now start saying : in this world, what things are avoidable by this agent given its powers and it's circumstances? And the answer may be: if you throw a brick at it, it can duck because there is enough light to be able to see the brick, it's nervous system is good enough, it's reflexes are fast enough, so that it is pretty good at avoiding bricks. However, random lightning bolts, it's just no good at avoid those. It is just doomed. If there is a lightning stroke coming up in it's future it's toast. There's nothing you can do about that but if you try to throw a spear at it or something your chances of succeeding are next to nil because it is such a good spear avoider. In order to be able to talk this way, in order to partition the universe into things that are inevitable for that agent or evitable by that agent we have to have a way of talking about evitability and inevitability in a deterministic world. Since there's plenty of evitability in deterministic worlds that we find the implication that determinism implies inevitability is just false. It's just a mistake. It's 1000s of years old but it's just a mistake.
Wright: So, natural selection creates harm avoiders ...
Daniel Dennett: Natural selection is an explosion of evitability. We've had huge increases in the degrees of freedom, the powers that the products of evolution have the accrued powers, this is one of the most obvious facts in the physical world. this growth of evitability. If you look at evitability in that way then you see that the traditional philosophers notion of inevitability just isn't in the same picture.
Wright: And you can say that we are future alterers at least in the sense that if we had not evolved with capacities we have for harm avoidance the future would have been otherwise.
Daniel Dennett: And you have to be very careful when you talk about future alterers. Because what are you going to change the future from what to what?
Wright: But you can talk about what it would have been had I not evolved my whatever it was I used to avoid harm. But of course the reply you get from people is: yes, but you are still saying that given the fact that I have evolved these things given the condition in which I wake up this morning, in the way my brain is inclined to use these things the future is inevitable... you certainly hear this as a reply.
Daniel Dennett: You certainly do but I am going to say: but what on earth do you mean by "the future is inevitable"?
Wright: If you knew that an omniscient being could predict what's going to happen today and there is no possibility that I will behave in a way that is going to falsify that prediction. That's what people mean.
Daniel Dennett: First of all that would be true, if I understand you right, in an undeterministic universe too.
Wright: No. In that universe the omniscient being would do the calculation and go I think this is gonna happen, but caprice enters the picture magically...
Daniel Dennett: No the omniscient being is going to know the future.
Wright: Well no, omniscient about the present I mean and the laws that govern the present.
Daniel Dennett: So you mean a laplacian genius?
Wright: Yes a laplacian calculator but, lo and behold, t + 1 after the prediction is made, caprice enters the picture from we know not where, that's the traditional conception of free will.
Daniel Dennett: That's A traditional conception of free will and what I'm arguing is that is gratuitous... The motivation people have imagined for it is simply mistaken. Allowing for quantum indeterminacy or shall we call it laplacian determinacy does not give you any more powers any more freedom any more avoidable any more evitability than you have in a deterministic world. It's just an illusion to think that it does.
Wright: You say in the book, and this is maybe one example, that free will lacks - your conception of the kind of free will that is viable - lacks some of the tradition properties associated with free will. have we already covered all the trad properties or are there other things that people are going to have to let go of?
Daniel Dennett: Other people may make that choice. What I claim is that all the varieties of free will that are wanting we can have in a deterministic world. I can define varieties of free will that are incompatible with determinism but they're pointless. They don't give you anything that matters. They aren't needed for moral responsibility. They aren't needed to give your life meaning. They are completely gratuitous, sort of bizarre metaphysical conceits they don't pull their weight, you don't need them, who cares.
Wright: I have to admit I have never been able to full conceive of free will even though it feels like I have it but if you try and draw a graph of it you will run into trouble. I can imagine determinism, I can imagine a determined system, I can kinda imagine a random one although that's actually harder than it seems but freewill is a slightly fuzzy concept.
But on the issue of quantum physics though, I wanted to raise a second dimension of quantum physics that might enter the picture. As I understand what you are saying about quantum physics and free will is .... first we should say that according to quantum physics there is such a thing as truly indeterminate. At the quantum level, very microscopic level, things happen that you could not in principle predict even if you have all the information in the physical universe.
Daniel Dennett: That's right.
Wright: As Richard Fineman put it: "Nature herself does not know what she is going to do next" at the quantum level. some people have tried to use that to bring free will into the picture because it is antideterministic. I think I agree with you that lots of random fluctuations even in the brain, if you are truly random, don't amount to what people usually mean by free will.
Daniel Dennett: Good! So we don't need randomness, or at least, randomness can't give us free will.
Wright: If it's true randomness you would think not. On the other hand I would say one thing about quantum physics is you can't really know if random is the right word if you don't know what is causing the thing.
Daniel Dennett: Well no but that's what random means in quantum physics. No hidden variables.
Wright: Well no hidden variables in the physical universe but, let me put it another way, in the quantum world events happen for which there is no cause in the physical universe. Which is weird. But let me bring in a different weird aspect of quantum physics that may bear on free will. This business of the idea that the process of measurement for observation brings a quantum reality into definite existence. There are reputable business who say this and there are two different ways to put it. One is that it's just quantum particle encounters a microscopic measuring device and that alone causes it to assume finite form. But some serious physicists think no, you actually need a conscious being observing the measuring device to bring the thing into fixed, finite reality. If they are right, that would seem to me to open the possibility of free will in a different sense. What they're saying is that there is something we don't entirely understand about sentient beings.
Daniel Dennett: Yes, I can see where you are going and by wedding two bits of magic together you are going to say it's not magic. By letting consciousness be a mysterious and magical property, in saying that quantum enlargement in effect depends on consciousness you nicely tie together two themes and I think this is just magical thinking. There is no reason to believe either side of it. It's important to your view as you just put it that there be something really perplexing and mysterious about sentience about consciousness. And I of course deny that.
Wright: Ok. Now we've get to the part of the interview where we talk about consciousness. I always avoid talking about this because you can talk about it a long time without making any progress. But since we do disagree about it maybe we will generate heat if not light. What you've just alluded to -- you just called a mysterian. In any event, you called me that in your last book so it's an official allegation. I actually don't really deny. A mysterian in this context, at least as I understand it is somebody who believe that consciousness is really mysterious. First of all, by consciousness I think we both mean basically sentience, subjective experience. If I say, "I feel pain," the feeling was part of consciousness. I see the color blue that's seeing; the experience of seeing that. Similarly if you say I think lizards feel pain then you're attributing consciousness to lizards. I do believe it's mysterious in a couple of senses. Although I think science can tell us a lot about it, I think there is some fundamental questions about it that science may never answer. You think consciousness is more like a puzzle. There are pieces to be worked out but we get the big picture.
Let me try to characterize what you mean by consciousness and you stop me when I start getting it wrong.
Daniel Dennett: Alright. Ok.
Wright: I think you know where that will be. You believe that consciousness is a brain state or is the brain or is the state of the brain. You don't just mean consciousness can be explained in terms of this state of the brain. I believe that or at least I assume that, but it's certainly plausible that whenever I feel pain you can point to the part of the brain that is causing that feeling, whenever you see something... I can map my consciousness, one by one, onto my brain functioning. But that's not all you mean. When you say consciousness is the brain, you don't just mean consciousness is explicable in terms of the brain. One way you commonly hear this is... you're not just say that ... well, let me stop there. Have I gotten it right so far?
Daniel Dennett: You've put it in a slightly more extreme form than I myself would. That is a more simplified materialism than my own. When I say that my favorite metaphor these days is the fame and the brain or cerebral celebrity theory, that is that what consciousness is the relative political influence or fame of structures in the brain that win out in competition against rival structures for domination of the brain activities in various ways. That's putting it very programmatically but basically it's saying that in your head there's a sort of turmoil going on, the pandemonium and there's many different contentful events vying for king of the mountain. Vying for control.
Wright: Ok. Ok.
Daniel Dennett: And the ones that win, by default something always wins when you're awake, and that's what you're conscious of. And it's not that, when it wins, then consciousness happens or it you know kindles some further thing that's conscious. That's just what consciousness is. It's not as if an extra process has to happen. Winning, that's it; and then the next one that wins then it's conscious. So, for instance, a robot that instantiated this sort of competition in it's brain would be conscious. Absolutely.
Wright: We can build robots now that do these kind of things, that have competition among theories about the world. Are you saying they are conscious?
Daniel Dennett: They have the right sort of competitive structure but there isn't the complexity there. I suppose in a little way they're conscious but not in a very interesting way. It's the right sort of thing.
Wright: So there may be conscious computers right now according to your view. You say that there probably are conscious computers?
Daniel Dennett: In the sense that extremely rudimentary versions of the architecture that I say consciousness is exists, that's true.
Wright: You're saying it's true then. You're saying that according to your conception of what consciousness is there are now conscious machines in the world.
Daniel Dennett: Except that I, well when I talk about consciousness first of all, I talk about human consciousness and I think that human consciousness is very different from all other animal consciousness. And the level of complexity, just the informational breath of the architecture of human consciousness is enormous and a toy model of that, because it is a toy model, in a certain sense isn't really a substantiation of consciousness. But if it could be scaled up, the answer would be yes. If it could be scaled up...
Wright: But it hasn't been scaled up.
Daniel Dennett: No.
Wright: So there's aren't conscious computers.
Daniel Dennett: There aren't right now. But there could be. There really could be. Yes. Sure.
Wright: There may be...
Daniel Dennett: Sure in the future.
Wright: See, I ...
Daniel Dennett: I'm sure there aren't now because I know the state of robotics research and I know the state of A.I. research. Some people are on the right track and you know given enough money and time and there will be conscious robots.
Wright: I don't rule out the possibility and let me say that this idea of competing, competition within the brain and the winner is conscious, I would certainly agree that that could be the way that consciousness is shaped but I would say that's the way the brain generates consciousness and I think you would object to that.
Daniel Dennett: Yes. It's that last step where you have to turn on the magic projector and have this extra state created somewhere else.
Wright: No, it's not created somewhere else it's created in the brain. But that's different from...
Daniel Dennett: That's where you're asking for there to be an extra shine or something that just doesn't need to exist...
Wright: Ok well we should bring in another term to make clear what you're not. The term is "epiphenomenalist." An epiphenomenalist. view of consciousness is that consciousness is generated by the brain so the brain influences consciousness but consciousness is not in turn influence the brain.
Daniel Dennett: Anything. Anything.
Wright: Anything. Right.
Daniel Dennett: And that is one of the, I mean, to this day I am flabbergasted that anybody takes this view seriously.
Wright: That's not your view.
Daniel Dennett: It certainly isn't.
Wright: Let me just go on. Epiphenomenalism is like...
Daniel Dennett: It's insane!
Wright: So consciousness is to the brain the way a shadow is to my hand as I move my hand?
Daniel Dennett: No. No. No.
Wright: That's what Epiphenomenalism is.
Daniel Dennett: Ah. Thank you. That's what people thing Epiphenomenalism is. And it's not. Your shadow is perfectly visible. It has lots of effects in the world. It has lots of effect in the world. There's a perfectly innocent notion of epiphenomenalism.
Wright: I understand that but as my hand moves along, the shadow does in turn not effect my hand. It is a limited analogy...
Daniel Dennett: It is a limited and very...
Wright: ... influenced by the brain but does not in turn influence the brain, that is epiphenomenalism.
Daniel Dennett: Well, but...
Wright: And you are not an epiphenomenalist.
Daniel Dennett: Right because epiphenomenalism is exactly as absurd as the following view. Ready?
Daniel Dennett: In every cylinder of every internal combustion engine there are 7 epiphenomenal gremlins. They're caused by the action of the cylinder, they cause nothing internal. They are undetectable by any machine. by any test there couldn't be a gremlin-o-meter. They don't add to the horse power, they don't add to the weight they don't add to the mass. They are completely epiphenomenal.
Wright: What bothers you is that in this view, in the ephiphenomenalist view, consciousness cannot be detected by any scientific means.
Daniel Dennett: By any means at all.
Wright: Right. But you gotta understand it's detectable by the person's consciousness...
Daniel Dennett: No no no. No no no.
Wright: Yes! Trust me..
Daniel Dennett: No that's the mistake because if that were true then you wouldn't be an epiphenomenalist because if the fact that you are now telling me that you detect your consciousness is an effect of your detecting it then your detecting it is an effect of the epiphenomenon and that's ruled out by definition.
Wright: Now you've gotten it. That's an interesting thing that I've thought about a lot...
Daniel Dennett: That's the problem with epiphenomenalism is it's an incoherent view.
Wright: Ok but here's the interesting thing. I've thought about this a lot lately. That in the human species, even if your are an epiphenomenalist in this sense, you think when pain subjective pain arose in a lizard or in a worm or whatever, ok let's go back millions and millions of years in natural selection, subjective experience arose as an epiphenomenon. Ok. And you can imagine that, right? You can imagine that ....
Daniel Dennett: No I can't.
INT: ... a worm has an epiphenomenal consciousness.
Daniel Dennett: No I can't.
Wright: Why not?
Daniel Dennett: Because ... because ... I'll say it again slower I guess. The very concept of epiphenomenalism of effects that have no effects is completely unmotivated. Always. Always. Always.
Wright: What does that mean?
Daniel Dennett: It means... You agree, I think, that the view that there are seven epiphenomenal gremlins in every cylinder is a view that is not to be take seriously. Right?
Wright: It doesn't seem likely to be true.
Daniel Dennett: Well compare it to the view that there there's 6 epiphenomenal gremlins or 3 or 7...
Wright: Equally implausible.
Daniel Dennett: Not just implausible. It's defined in such a way that you could never possibly have any reason to assert it.
Wright: So it's not amenable to scientific analysis.
Daniel Dennett: No, it's worse than that. It's trivial in a certain way. There could be no motivation for asserting it.
Wright: If the engine said "I've got gremlins" I'd start taking it seriously. And that's what happens...
Daniel Dennett: If the engine said "I've got gremlins," one thing you would know is it couldn't be saying this because it had gremlins. Because if there were gremlins they wouldn't be causing it to say it because that would be a contradiction.
Wright: That is my point. You're critique of epiphenomenalism does become relevant when you have organisms talking about their consciousness. But tell me how it doesn't make sense in an earthworm or a lizard? I say, look the lizard, ok, it sticks out its paw into a fire and it retracts the paw. It feels pain at that moment and I think the pain is an epiphenomenon because what's really happening functionally that gets it to retract it's paw is this physical information goes up and down blah blah blah. It's feeling of pain is a kind of shadow of that. Now why could that not be the case? Don't get into gremlins, just tell me, in the case of the lizard, where is the logical contradiction there?
Daniel Dennett: Well because we don't what you mean by it's feeling pain in addition to the events going on.
Wright: You know what pain feels like. I assume lizards, if they feel pain, and you believe some nonhuman animals feel pain...
Daniel Dennett: Yes.
Wright: Feel something like it feels to us...
Daniel Dennett: But that doesn't get us...
Wright: But but.
Daniel Dennett: But that doesn't get us to epiphenomenalism. It just gets us to sensation.
Wright: Right, but we're talking about a sensation that I'm positing is an epiphenomenon.
Daniel Dennett: Well but we don't know what that means yet.
Wright: We do know what epiphenomenon means. It is caused by but does not in turn influence.
Daniel Dennett: Well but let's then let's then note that if it doesn't influence anything...
Daniel Dennett: ... then it doesn't influence the lizard.
Daniel Dennett: So it doesn't for instance cause the lizard to believe that it has pain.
Wright: No lizard's don't think about that kind of thing.
Daniel Dennett: So in fact the lizard is completely clueless with regard ... it is ... and the lizard ... the lizard's own mental state is precisely as if it didn't have the sensation of pain.
Wright: No, it's mental state is not...
Daniel Dennett: AH! Then you're contradicting yourself.
Wright: No, it's mental state is the consciousness. Of course it's consciousness...
Daniel Dennett: But now you're just....
Wright: No. No.
Daniel Dennett: But now you're just helping yourself to dualism.
Wright: Epiphenomenalism is a kind of dualism it's just not interactionist....
Daniel Dennett: Look...
Wright: I mean, the causality moves in one direction with epiphenomenalism. I mean, where is the contradiction in the case of the lizard. It's true that once you get to humans. In human's consciousness does start influencing things like it's the reason we're having this conversation. and that's an interesting fact. but if you go back earlier in evolutionary time an epiphenomenalist view of consciousness is a coherent concept. And the fact that a consciousness that's originally epiphenomenal might later have an effect is an interesting fact with philosophical significance.
Daniel Dennett: I suppose it's also a coherent concept that the pebbles on the beach feel... they sense the gravity. They have this...
Wright: I don't know. I doubt they do but the thing about...
Daniel Dennett: Do you think that's a serious hypothesis?
Wright: I find it highly highly unlikely.
Daniel Dennett: Just highly unlikely?
Wright: But the whole thing about consciousness is ... and this is where you know the thing about consciousness is is that it's one of those questions two people disagree it isn't just that they disagree they don't even understand each other. This is where ... this is the difference between you and people like me who have an alternative view. To us the central feature of consciousness is that no one other than the conscious being can ever verify the consciousness. It's an invariably private state.
Daniel Dennett: If you ...
Wright: That's the reason science may never penetrate... Science studies publicly observable things.
Daniel Dennett: If you define consciousness that way then you get your conclusion in a single step. Right? Science can't study it. But let me show you how I can define something the same way too which science can't study and you tell me how your view differs.
You know how naive Americans they go to Europe and they ask how much something costs and they're told so many Euros and they say how much is that in "real" money. This is to say in dollars. And they think dollars there's a sense in which dollars have value which Euros and Swiss Francs don't really. They have relative value, relative to dollars, but dollars have intrinsic value. Now... We say "No no, dollars don't have intrinsic value it's just the exchange for goods and services not as if dollars have an intrinsic value that the Yen and Euros don't have." And they say "No No I define the (()) of a dollar as it's intrinsic value and I submit that economic theory cannot ever explain the intrinsic value of the dollar." And they're right! By definition the intrinsic value of the dollar is something which is forever outside the purview of economics. The thing is that there is no reason to believe that dollars have intrinsic vale. The fact that somebody in their gut has this deep seated intuition that dollars have intrinsic value well that's an interesting fact about them but it's not ... science has to maybe explain why they have that weird hunch but they don't have to explain the intrinsic value of the dollar because there isn't any intrinsic value to a dollar. And similarly, I take on the burden of explaining why you have the intuition that you have that this is what consciousness is. I think I can give a pretty good explanation as to why it seems that way to you but you're just wrong.
INT: No, I don't want to hear that I want...
Daniel Dennett: I know you don't!
Wright: There is an explanation about dollars, lets not get into that. And why some people are confused about dollars ... the relevance of that to your claim that ... consciousness is something I'm not completely clear on.
Let me ... tell me some things that you said about consciousness that strike me as getting at the way we look at it. Ok? You've written that a chess playing computer is "manifestly not a conscious or self-conscious agent." How could you know for sure? I don't think that they are conscious I mean I don't know I doubt it but how can you know for sure that a computer is not having an internal subjective experience?
Daniel Dennett: Well because I have the view of consciousness as playing an important role and I know everything that is playing an important role in that chess-playing computer and there is nothing that is remotely like consciousness playing that role.
Wright: What... I mean why? It's not complicated enough? It's doing information processing... it's got goals...
Daniel Dennett: But... but... it is not, for instance, the ones that are now and in existence, it's not laying down memories of it's moves. Here's something it can't do. I'll give you a very simple thing. There's a joke line, a tag line, "Well it seemed like a good idea at the time." Right? You've heard that one? "Well it seemed like a good idea at the time." Rueful reflection of person who is just kind of ... in some way. Now, I think it's actually a wonderful thing to be able to say and mean. If you can say and mean. "Well it seemed like a good idea at the time," that means that you can recall how it seemed then and recall how it seemed and you can compare it to what you know now. Now that's a level of self knowledge and reflection and knowledge of your own past and of your own past thinking that's really potent it's the key to debugging, it's the key to improving, to self-improvement...
Wright: Sure. It's functional.
Daniel Dennett: It's functional. That's a really big important functionality. Chess-playing computers don't have it.
Wright: Ok, well neither do lizards...
Daniel Dennett: If they did...
Wright: Yea then they would have...
Daniel Dennett: ...then I wouldn't be confident that they weren't conscious.
Wright: Ok. Fine. Then we would have the experience of ruefulness but...
Daniel Dennett: ...and of being able to reflect on their past lives
Wright: ... lizards usually don't have ruefulness either but...
Daniel Dennett: That's right.
Wright: You agree that lizards may experience pain. So why...
Daniel Dennett: In one sense and then one sense no. That is, I think ... I actually don't agree to any sort of categorical statement like that because I don't think you or I have figured out what we jointly mean by that. I think this is one of the problems people have with consciousness is that they they point to, they allude to supposed sensations and they think they know what they mean the famous phrase: "What does it feel like to be a bat?"
Wright: Thomas Nagel's phrase.
Daniel Dennett: And ... I don't think. I think, in spite of the popularity of that phrase, it's a wild card. People don't know what they are agreeing to when they agree about the question that what we're going to talk about is what is it like to be a bat.
Wright: Ok, but leave aside the details of what it's like to be something, you agree that it is like something to be you, right?
Daniel Dennett: Yea.
Wright: And that means you're conscious
Daniel Dennett: Yea.
Wright: Ok. So that seems like a good working definition. This leads me to something else you've written...
...that points to a different word view... You write: "Nagel claims that no amount of 3rd person could tell us what it is like to be a bat. And I flatly deny that claim." You think that there is some amount of scientific study of bats and echo-location and everything else that could lead me to know exactly what it's like to be a bat?
Daniel Dennett: Yea.
Wright: To know it fully?
Daniel Dennett: Yea. As much... well fully. Diminishing returns ...
Wright: Ok, so you can never know exactly... You agree that you can never know exactly what it's like to be a bat.
Daniel Dennett: You never know exactly everything about a grain of sand. That's the only... everything everything everything? From you know everything about that grain of sand from the big band to the heat death of the universe?
Wright: The whole history of it? In principle yes you could follow the molecules.
Daniel Dennett: Ok, then in principle, you could know everything its like to be a bat.
Wright: You realize that for most people you just couldn't... I mean...
Daniel Dennett: I realize that many people think you just couldn't but I think that's a (()). I think that's an intuition which is honored by tradition but has nothing much going for it.
Wright: But, you agree that I can never know really what it's like to be Dan Dennett.
Daniel Dennett: No, I don't agree with that.
Wright: You think I can know fully thoroughly what it's like to be you?
Daniel Dennett: In principle sure.
Wright: And what would that consist of? Reading a lot of your descriptions of your...
Daniel Dennett: Well...
Wright: I mean if there were some machine that could magically transport me into your frame of reference so long as I felt like me looking at the world through your frame of reference, through your perceptual lenses, I wouldn't know what it was like to be you. Like me you know ...
Daniel Dennett: Yea.
Wright: And that's why a lot of us think consciousness is this inherently private thing that is just not amenable to scientific analysis that a grain of sand... the thing about a grain of sand, whatever the extent to which we can know it, you and I can know it equally. Ok?
Daniel Dennett: Yes.
Wright: That's not true of your consciousness.
Daniel Dennett: Well it's circumstantially true that I know a lot more about what it is like being me than you do because I hang around with me all the time.
Wright: I can go further than that and say "You are you."
Daniel Dennett: Well, no. In fact there's no ... that's not the point... the point is somebody else -- my wife say -- can know things about what its like to be me that would never occur to me to reflect on but she's right. I'm sure. And if, this horrible thought, if a team of observers didn't just wire up my brain but they hung around and they asked me questions and watched me and saw how I reacted to everything and they were to study me much more intensively than I could study myself, they'd know more about what it is like to be me than I did. They could write a they could write a better encyclopedia of what it's like to be Dan Dennett than I could.
Daniel Dennett: And they'd be getting at the inner-most me. Now the idea that you just can't do that well so people say but I just don't believe it.
Wright: Now, they could describe patterns in your behavior you are not aware of, even internal dynamics that you are not aware of but they could never know what it's like to be you the way you can know what it's like to be you.
Daniel Dennett: Says you.
Daniel Dennett: But I don't take that as an axiom. I don't take that as a premise. And I think that that the fact that philosophers in the past have tended to do that is a fascinating fact but doesn't persuade me that they were right.
Wright: This is a final quote of yours that I'll try to throw in your face and defy you to justify having so far I've failed to get you to capitulate. And I don't think this is going to work either to be perfectly honest. You were talking about mysterians. Some romantics, the philosopher Owen Flannagen calls "new mysterians," and as you subsequently said I am a kind of mysterian, have advanced the claim that there is an insurmountable barrier to the brain's understanding of it's own organization.
Daniel Dennett: Um-hum.
Wright: No, that's not what I believe. I believe I can understand my brains physical organization completely and I can understand your brain's physical organization completely in principle. I believe that consciousness is something more than the physical organization of the brain. And again I'm not saying that the phys organization of the brain doesn't account completely for subjective experience. I'm just saying that subjective experience is not the same. We've already kind of established why... we can look at the organization of your brain. Everybody can gather round and look at it. We would not know what it is like to be you. We wouldn't.
Daniel Dennett: There's a passage in your book where you say that the more Dennett and others say that consciousness is just an event going on in the brain, the more I come to realize what they're really saying is that consciousness doesn't exist.
Wright: Yes, it's a footnote of my book.
Daniel Dennett: It's a footnote.
Wright: It's in "Nonzero," but it's true that, when I read quotes like the one I just read where you seem to equate knowing about the consciousness of a being about know the organization of the being's brain that I start suspecting that. And you say things like consciousness ... you've said things to me like consciousness is the brain. Well, or you've said that "consciousness is the state of the brain." Well, if consciousness is the state of the brain why come up with another word for it? I mean I think we can talk about the state of the engine of my car and I don't and given and if you said let's use the word consciousness to mean that I would say what do we need with a new word?
Daniel Dennett: We invent words for states and powers all the time.
Wright: Fine, but if you think you're not adding any meaning ...
Daniel Dennett: Oh well certainly we're add meaning because it's the functionality and the organization of all of those states that makes the difference. And we can talk about which events you're conscious of and which events you're not. Of course. We can say what difference that makes. We can talk about the efficacy, the functional roles that conscious events play that unconscious events don't. There's a lot of it's a very useful term if you understand... if you don't define it in such a way that you wish it off the stage of functionality all together.
Wright: Right but when you say talk about the roles consciousness plays, the things consciousness does, you believe that in all those cases you could just substitute the workings of the brain and have the same statement, right?
Daniel Dennett: Just like life. I can talk about what life is on the planet, what life enables on the planet. And what the differences [are] between being alive and dead. But in every case I can get rid of the word alive and just talk in terms of functioning in terms of the metabolism of cells and the unity of the operations of ... the coherence of the operations of self-preservation and so we're and ... Life isn't some other thing. It's not something over and above all those functional details... and I'm saying consciousness is just like life.
Wright: Well that's what I when I say that's what it boils down to the question of whether you consider consciousness publicly observable or an inherently private phenomenon. That's how ... that's kind of what divides us on this and you and a lot of people...
Daniel Dennett: I think it's not normally publically observable in the same way that, lets say, that the metabolism of a person is ... a lot of that is private too but you can get out your...
Wright: No you can in principle look at it.
Daniel Dennett: Yea.
Wright: And you say you know there are lots of states of things that we give new words too, yes, but in all of those cases no one disputes that in principle it's publicly observable. In this case tons of people dispute that consciousness is publicly observable.
Daniel Dennett: Well, alright.
Wright: That's kind of the crux and is why, as is happening here, people who disagree fail to persuade each other. They just have a fundamentally different ... it's almost at an intuitive level. So you want to call it a truce?
Daniel Dennett: Probably call it a truce and talk about something else.
Wright: Something else?
Do you manage to be a good person?
Daniel Dennett: I think I'm ...
Wright: In your objective judgement.
Daniel Dennett: Like all the children in Lake Woebegone, I think I am above average in morality.
Wright: Congratulations. Above average for a Bright or for?
Daniel Dennett: No for ... There's the things I have done that are wrong. I've got my little bits of guilty conscience but I don't think I've done anything very bad. I think I've done a lot of good.
Wright: I guess the question is: You don't see belief in God or even belief in any kind of higher power or even a belief in a transcendent foundation for morality? You don't see any of that as really necessary as far as creating good behavior
Daniel Dennett: Let's talk about transcendent...
Daniel Dennett: ... and morality. One of the things that we have evolved to discover on this planet is arithmetic. We didn't invent it, we didn't make it. We found it. It is eternal. A priori. True. It's this great stuff and it's true everywhere in the universe. It's true anywhere in any universe. There's only one arithmetic. Is that transcendent, I would say yes. I don't know for sure what you mean by transcendent ...
Wright: Sort of a Platonic thing...
Daniel Dennett: Yes yes a sort of Platonism...
Wright: We happened upon it's truth.
Daniel Dennett: We discovered it and it's true. Could there be a sort of similarly Platonic ethics? Could we find the universal principles of good behavior for intelligent beings? I'm agnostic about that. I don't see why we couldn't. I don't see that the parochialism of our concerns would necessarily stand in the way of ... we can ask ... we can ask the same question about ethics that we ask about antithetic. If we went to another planet, if the search for intelligent life, for extraterrestrial life was intelligence, if this paid off if we discovered another civilization somewhere in the galaxy that was intelligent... What would they share with us? We'd certainly share arithmetic. Maybe not base 10 arithmetic that's anybodies guess. It might be base 12 or base 16 or base 8. Who knows? That's an accident. But it would still be arithmetic. Now, we can say and would it share ethical principles with us? And I think in some regards yes it would. I now does that make those principles transcendent. Yes. It's not might makes right. And it's not this is what our grandfathers did so this is what we're going to do. It's not just historical accident. I think that there could be a truly universal basis for ethics.
Wright: You mean to get to a point where any species could produce these great kind of collective products which technologies and things are they would have to come up with rules of the road for collaborative cooperative interaction.
Daniel Dennett: Sure, sure.
Wright: Ok and is that...
Daniel Dennett: It's like the evolution of cooperation.
Wright: Right, very much. You could almost say that it's like, I don't know, and I talked about this with Steve Pinker a little who discusses it in one of his books ... I don't know if he used the term "strange attracter" but it's kind of like ... a truth that's out there that...
Daniel Dennett: It's an attracter. Yeah, yeah.
Wright: ...certain kinds of evolution are going to happen upon when they get in the vicinity.
Daniel Dennett: That's what I call a Good Trick with a capital "G" and a capital "T" in "Darwin's Dangerous Idea." There are these Good Tricks of design which are going to be discovered again and again and again because they are the eternal Good Tricks. Arithmetic is one. I think ethics is another.
Wright: Now, what if somebody noted this by way of suggesting that that adds to the evidence that evolution had some purpose. it naturally happens upon something which you would agree is a moral truth ok natural selection is likely to produce a species that happens upon moral truth. Doesn't that lead credence to the possibility that there was some point to the whole exercise?
Daniel Dennett: No, I don't think so.
Wright: No? I was kind of thinking you might say that.
Daniel Dennett: It just happens and we can explain why it happens.
Wright: Does death bother you? you said that one definition of a Bright -- this emerging interest group to which you proudly belong -- is that they don't believe in life after death. Would you rather there was life after death?
Daniel Dennett: No, I'd rather live to be 1,000.
Wright: But then if you died at 1,000 what would be your preference as to an afterlife?
Daniel Dennett: I think the concept of an afterlife is a very useful fantasy for handling the grief of small children and others and I don't disparage it. I think it takes a very strong and brave person to take on the task of comforting a child whose parent has just died for instance. And the consolation value of believing that Mommy's up there watching you is a life boat in the storm if ever there was one. It is transparently useful at times like that. That I dare say is enough to explain it's popularity as an idea for our species for all time.
Wright: Yea. By the way, there is hope here. Here's a quote from, actually, a book called "Consciousness Explained," written by you: "If what you are is the program that run on your brain's computer then you could in principle survive the death of your body as intact as a program could survive the destruction of the computer on which it was created in first run."
Daniel Dennett: Yea. Yea. My friend Marvin Minsky has invested a large part of his Japan prize in the cryogenics contract of some sort so that his body or at least his brain can be kept in cold storage until some imagined future time when he could be brought back to life so that he could enjoy the 25th Century science or something like that. And I appreciate the motivation for this I suppose if I would have had a few million to burn I might think of I might consider I might do that... The technology right now is nowhere near, and he knows that too, it's not in position now to make that a very realistic project. I think that it is just as likely that you could store all the information in your body, store it on a hard disk, and then build another one, sometime in the future, fixing just the parts that need fixing and that would be a way of bringing you back to life.
Wright: Yea. And as you may be alarmed to know, I don't know, but an actual theologian that I interviewed, John Polkinghorn, used this very type of scenario to assert that it is possible to believe in an afterlife even now. In other words, granting that the physical body dies, we'd be saying that the essence of the body itself is a configuration of information then for all we know...
Daniel Dennett: Yes. There's a non-supernatural way you can believe in the afterlife. That's the path to immortality if that's what you really want.
Wright: Oh, I defiantly want it.
Daniel Dennett: I think the technology is going to be too late for you and me. But...
Wright: That's what I fear.
Daniel Dennett: But if teleportation is at all ... as it were eternal life is possible for the same reason. After all, the reason that we die is that our parts break.
Wright: Well, if you get any insider information on this technology you will drop me an email.
Daniel Dennett: Well, I don't know. There may be only room for one or two of us in the machine.
Wright: Information is rather cheap to....
Daniel Dennett: ... yeah but it's extracting the information from the body that's the hard part.
Wright: Yea well. Enjoy it. I guess we've covered enough. We've gotten all the way to death and if that's not a natural place to stop I don't know what is. Thanks a lot. This has been fun.
Daniel Dennett: It has been fun. It's always a delight to see how you...
Wright: Defend indefensible positions...
Daniel Dennett: How you defend indefensible positions... what's interesting is how we agree on so much.
Wright: It's true.
Daniel Dennett: By my lights I see you going on just beautifully. Then, suddenly, you veer off to the side and, wait a minute, where did that swerve come from? Must be free will.
Wright: well, there's no accounting for human behavior, as you know. Well, thanks a lot.