Dennett in The New Yorker

I wanted to bring to your attention a lovely profile piece on Dan Dennett, “Daniel Dennett’s Science of the Soul“.  It’s nice to see a philosopher as respected and well-known as Dennett come alive as a human being.

I’d also like to remind those of you interested in this sort of thing that Dennett has a new book out, From Bacteria to Bach And Back: The Evolution of Minds. The central project is to do what creationists are always saying can’t be done: use the explanatory resources of evolutionary theory to understand why we have the kinds of minds that we do. There are decent reviews here and here, as well as one by Thomas Nagel in New York Review of Books that I regard as deliberately misleading (“Is Consciousness an Illusion?“).

[Note: The profile and/or the Nagel review may be behind paywalls.]

 

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211 thoughts on “Dennett in The New Yorker

  1. I knew about that profile of Dennett. I’m not sure what I read that pointed to it, but it was a blog somewhere. Ah, yes, I remember. It was here: Philosopher Daniel Dennett Gets the New Yorker Treatment.

    I did not have any difficulty accessing either the New Yorker article or the Nagel review of Dennett’s book. But that’s no guarantee that others won’t have problems.

    I have thought about buying Dennett’s new book. The problem, though, is that Dennett is badly mistaken in his ideas about the mind and consciousness. Others (such as Nagel) are even more badly mistaken.

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  2. Neil,

    I have thought about buying Dennett’s new book. The problem, though, is that Dennett is badly mistaken in his ideas about the mind and consciousness.

    You won’t read books by authors whose ideas you think are mistaken?

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  3. Neil Rickert: The problem, though, is that Dennett is badly mistaken in his ideas about the mind and consciousness. Others (such as Nagel) are even more badly mistaken.

     

    And there you have it!

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  4. Neil Rickert: The problem, though, is that Dennett is badly mistaken in his ideas about the mind and consciousness. Others (such as Nagel) are even more badly mistaken.

    What do you see as Dennett’s major mistakes?

    I haven’t gotten into the new book yet, but my sense is that he doesn’t revise any of his substantive views. So if one thinks that Dennett is mistaken about mind and consciousness, FBBB won’t change your mind! What’s new about it is that it’s a magnum opus, one that shows how his works on consciousness and intentionality and free will all hangs together.

    Nagel’s mistakes are pretty obvious (to me), but I’m happy to discuss it if there’s interest.

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  5. Neil,

    I have read several of Dennett’s books.

    So why is your disagreement with him a “problem” that keeps you from reading the new book?

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  6. keiths: So why is your disagreement with him a “problem” that keeps you from reading the new book?

    It’s just that it makes the book less attractive, when I already know that I won’t learn much of importance from it.

    In any case, I went ahead and bought the book anyway (Kindle edition) before I saw your first reply.

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  7. before I saw your first reply.

    It was important to you to add that, wasn’t it? 🙂

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  8. Kantian Naturalist: What do you see as Dennett’s major mistakes?

    He is looking at it in the wrong way.

    Take the automobile. One can try to see how it works. So we can see the steering to keep it on the road. And we can find thousands of little details.

    But the real problem is “How to get from point A to point B”. The automobile and the roads themselves are only implementation details. Dennett is trying to explain the implementation details without first understanding what they are implementing.

    I haven’t gotten into the new book yet, but my sense is that he doesn’t revise any of his substantive views.

    I’m only at the beginning (after perhaps 2 pages). I agree that he probably has not made major changes to his view.

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  9. Neil:

    Dennett is trying to explain the implementation details without first understanding what they are implementing.

    What does he fail to understand about the mind and consciousness that dooms his project?

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  10. keiths: What does he fail to understand about the mind and consciousness that dooms his project?

    Everything.

    Or, to be more specific, he fails to understand our relation to reality.

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  11. In what ways do Dennett and I fail to understand our relation to reality, such that Dennett’s project is doomed to fail?

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  12. Neil Rickert: Or, to be more specific, he fails to understand our relation to reality.

    As far as I understand Dennett (which is pretty good, if I don’t mind my saying so), I think he understands our relation to reality quite well. In particular I think he’s pretty much right in saying that we take up different stances in order to detect and classify the real patterns that are important to us.

    And I strongly disagree with the suggestion that Dennett doesn’t understand what minds are for.

    Different kinds of minds are for different things, but generally, minds are for navigating environments by making predictions about what to expect and correctly those predictions based on what actually happens. Human minds are for something besides that, which is cooperating. We have to have some way of communicating our predictions, agreeing on how to revise them, and transmitting the corrections.

    Does that seem mistaken to you?

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  13. The new yorker has no credibility unless fully covering creationists and christian thinkers. Anyways its too late. They have been part of the post wwii establishment and are just a enemy within civilization.

    Predictions? That sounds like more evolutionist errors.
    We perceive reality, in this universe , accurately in order to perceive gods truth accurately. no deception is involved.
    Our mind is just a memory machine that connects to our soul.
    We do see reality.
    Well creationists do etc

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  14. Kantian Naturalist: In particular I think he’s pretty much right in saying that we take up different stances in order to detect and classify the real patterns that are important to us.

    I don’t expect that to ever work.

    From my perspective, the primary task is the construction of intentionality. Until there is progress in that task, there is no possibility of a relation with reality.

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  15. keiths:

    In what ways do Dennett and I fail to understand our relation to reality, such that Dennett’s project is doomed to fail?

    Neil:

    I cannot explain that to you.

    Oh, please. You’ve pulled the “my thoughts are too deep for mere words” stunt before, with predictable and embarrassing results.

    I’m calling your bluff. You say that Dennett and I “fail to understand our relation to reality”, and that this dooms Dennett’s project.

    Show us. Present an argument.

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  16. Miscommunication has nothing to do with it.

    The problem is that your bluff got called. You were hoping it wouldn’t.

    How are Dennett and I misunderstanding “our relation to reality”? Show us. Present an argument.

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  17. Thomas Nagel in New York Review of Books that I regard as deliberately misleading (“Is Consciousness an Illusion?“).

    What is misleading about Nagel’s review?

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  18. Erik: What is misleading about Nagel’s review?

    Three points:

    1. Nagel claims that according to Dennett, consciousness is an illusion.

    2. Nagel claims that Dennett believes this because Dennett is committed to 1950s-style behaviorism.

    3. Nagel claims that Dennett is committed to scientific materialism.

    In response:

    1. Dennett does not think that consciousness is an illusion (see How and Why Does Consciousness Seem the Way It Seems (PDF). From the introduction:

    People are often baffled by my theory of consciousness, which seems to them to be summed up neatly in the paradoxical claim that consciousness is an illusion. How could that be? Whose illusion? And would it not be a conscious illusion? What a hopeless view! In a better world, the principle of charity would set in and they would realise that I probably had something rather less daft in mind, but life is short, and we’ll have one less difficult and counterintuitive theory to worry about if we just dismiss Dennett’s as the swiftly self-refuting claim that consciousness is an illusion.

    2. Dennett rejects the first-person authority of conscious mental states not because he’s unfortunately trapped in an antiquated psychological theory but because he recognizes that there are philosophically cogent arguments for rejecting that authority, all of which turn on what Sellars calls “the Myth of the Given.”

    3. If scientific materialism means that holding that everything is reducible to physics (or physics + chemistry), then Dennett is emphatically not a scientific materialist. Dennett does not think that the physical stance has ontological priority over the design stance or the intentional stance. What matters for Dennett is whether adopting a stance allows for useful predictions, and the intentional stance does that just as well as the design stance does, which does so just as well as the physical stance. Moreover, there are all sorts of cases where we cannot get useful predictions without taking that stance. There isn’t any biology without the design stance, and there isn’t any psychology (or everyday practical dealings) without the intentional stance. Trying to understand everything in terms of the physical stance would be a waste of time. We wouldn’t be able to actually learn anything.

    Dennett is a clear and graceful writer, and all the points I made above are made in the book or are repeated motifs of Dennett’s work generally. So when Nagel ignores these points in order to misconstrue Dennett — and in order to promote his “alternative”, Mind and Cosmos — I think it’s not just misleading but deliberately misleading.

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  19. Kantian Naturalist,

    Dennett is a clear and graceful writer, and all the points I made above are made in the book or are repeated motifs of Dennett’s work generally. So when Nagel ignores these points in order to misconstrue Dennett — and in order to promote his “alternative”, Mind and Cosmos — I think it’s not just misleading but deliberately misleading.

    What do you think Dennett’s greatest contribution(s) to philosophy is (are)?

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  20. Kantian Naturalist: 2. Nagel claims that Dennett believes this because Dennett is committed to 1950s-style behaviorism.

    I have been a fan of 1950s style behaviorism and never heard anyone say consciousness is an illusion.

    I have read that consciousness is inaccessible to science. but the reasons that were given had to do with the limits of instrumentation rather than anything intrinsic.

    I have recently read that due to a pervasive software glitch in MRI machines, tens of thousands of papers written about brain activity will have to be reexamined.

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  21. petrushka:

    I have recently read that due to a pervasive software glitch in MRI machines, tens of thousands of papers written about brain activity will have to be reexamined.

    From the Guardian:

    Has a software bug really called decades of brain imaging research into question?

    Over the summer, some headlines suggested that a study highlighting issues in the way we analyse fMRI data renders the technique irretrievably flawed. But the reality is much more nuanced

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  22. KN:

    3. If scientific materialism means that holding that everything is reducible to physics (or physics + chemistry), then Dennett is emphatically not a scientific materialist. Dennett does not think that the physical stance has ontological priority over the design stance or the intentional stance.

    KN,

    You’re badly misunderstanding Dennett. He does grant priority to the physical stance. It’s just that he recognizes the impracticality of relying on the physical stance in many situations.

    We had a similar discussion in September, starting around here.

    My final comment in that exchange:

    keiths September 20, 2016 at 7:30 am

    KN,

    Just to drive a couple of my earlier points home — a) that the intentional stance is predictive and explanatory, not normative, and b) that the lower-level descriptions are more accurate than the higher-level ones — here is a quote from Dennett:

    An even riskier and swifter stance is the intentional stance, a subspecies of the design stance, in which the designed thing is treated as an agent of sorts, with beliefs and desires and enough rationality to do what it ought to do given those beliefs and desires. An alarm clock is so simple that this fanciful anthropomorphism is, strictly speaking, unnecessary for our understanding of why it does what it does, but adoption of the intentional stance is more useful—indeed, well-nigh obligatory—when the artifact in question is much more complicated than an alarm clock. Consider chess-playing computers, which all succumb neatly to the same simple strategy of interpretation: just think of them as rational agents who want to win, and who know the rules and principles of chess and the positions of the pieces on the board. Instantly your problem of predicting and interpreting their behavior is made vastly easier than it would be if you tried to use the physical or the design stance. At any moment in the chess game, simply look at the chessboard and draw up a list of all the legal moves available to the computer when its turn to play comes up (there will usually be several dozen candidates). Now rank the legal moves from best (wisest, most rational) to worst (stupidest, most self-defeating), and make your prediction: the computer will make the best move. You may well not be sure what the best move is (the computer may ‘appreciate’ the situation better than you do!), but you can almost always eliminate all but four or five candidate moves, which still gives you tremendous predictive leverage. You could improve on this leverage and predict in advance exactly which move the computer will make—at a tremendous cost of time and effort—by falling back to the design stance and considering the millions of lines of computer code that you can calculate will be streaming through the CPU of the computer after you make your move, and this would be much, much easier than falling all the way back to the physical stance and calculating the flow of electrons that result from pressing the computer’s keys. But in many situations, especially when the best move for the computer to make is so obvious it counts as a ‘forced’ move, you can predict its move with well-nigh perfect accuracy without all the effort of either the design stance or the physical stance.

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  23. The Extended Mind Thesis (EMT) is more fascinating and pregnant with possibilities than Dennett’s stuck spinning ‘evolution of minds’ yawning. EMT actually looks ahead, not just (1000s of years) backwards and is relevant to everyone, not just from an impersonal naturalised distance.

    (ETA – Which does more: How can my mind extend? vs. How did my mind evolve?)

    “Dennett is a clear and graceful writer” No, disenchanted Daniel is a bore, with less ‘gracefulness’ than his President. The person who called Dennett graceful himself rejects grace, not believing in Grace because he believes there is no G__. Why should anyone suggest the label ‘graceful’ for an atheist bore like Dennett but to distort English language?

    As for “respected and well-known,” if there weren’t so many skeptics/agnostics here y’all might be citing Charles Taylor, who dwarfs Dennett & his “freedom evolves” nonsense on a stick. That’s a “Lizzie’s Loser Pick” at the coherence discounted USA philosophistry shop. Having a fellow USAmerican philosophist praise Dennett is a pitiful sight – no, wait (TSZ filter kicks in), it is surely elegant, brilliant, cutting-edge, dynamic ‘evolutionary philosophy,’ dunked backside first into ideological naturalism that is undoubtedly inspiring for all! ; )

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  24. Kantian Naturalist:
    In response:
    1. Dennett does not think that consciousness is an illusion (see How and Why Does Consciousness Seem the Way It Seems (PDF).

    I have read it and “Consciousness is an illusion” is a pretty good one-sentence summary to it, even when he doesn’t like it. “Consciousness does not exist” is an even better summary.

    How else do you summarize something like, “There is no double transduction in the brain. (section 1) Therefore there is no second medium, the medium of consciousness or, as I like to call this imaginary phenomenon, the MEdium. Therefore, qualia, conceived of as states of this imaginary medium, do not exist. But it seems to us that they do.” ???

    Either illusion or doesn’t exist. What’s the third option?

    Kantian Naturalist:
    3. If scientific materialism means that holding that everything is reducible to physics (or physics + chemistry), then Dennett is emphatically not a scientific materialist. Dennett does not think that the physical stance has ontological priority over the design stance or the intentional stance. What matters for Dennett is whether adopting a stance allows for useful predictions, and the intentional stance does that just as well as the design stance does, which does so just as well as the physical stance. Moreover, there are all sorts of cases where we cannot get useful predictions without taking that stance.

    What does this gobbledygook mean? How does “physical stance” allow for predictions just as well as “intentional stance”? Without “intentional stance” (probably consciousness), how does “physical stance” (probably matter) allow for any predictions? Aren’t predictions always for somebody, a conscious person? What do you take predictions to be?

    Kantian Naturalist:
    Dennett is a clear and graceful writer, and all the points I made above are made in the book or are repeated motifs of Dennett’s work generally. So when Nagel ignores these points in order to misconstrue Dennett — and in order to promote his “alternative”, Mind and Cosmos — I think it’s not just misleading but deliberately misleading.

    Granted that Dennett is a better writer than Nagel (even though the difference isn’t too notable). But Nagel’s agenda is more transparent, that makes him more palatable. Dennett has too many silent presuppositions. Whatever his aim is, it isn’t human.

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  25. keiths: [Dennett] does grant priority to the physical stance.

    I suspect the same, because the way I interpret him, he pretty straightforwardly denies consciousness. There is no locus for consciousness in his account, only for nerve signals that don’t go anywhere. In his view there’s no mind, only brain.

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  26. “I’d also like to remind those of you interested in this sort of thing that Dennett has a new book out, From Bacteria to Bach And Back: The Evolution of Minds. The central project is to do what creationists are always saying can’t be done: use the explanatory resources of evolutionary theory to understand why we have the kinds of minds that we do.

    This is amazing!

    Why did anyone ever recommend this obviously reliable book to me? I don’t get it! Harshman kept it to himself, Larry Moran must have read it. I bet yeh, Jerry Coyne read this inspiration beyond his normal shit and just hid it because it was too good to be spread.
    When you write a book too good, nobody would read it. Right? Why would anybody read Larry Moran’s book on j”unk dna???” boring

    What do you think guys?

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  27. Gregory: (ETA – Which does more: How can my mind extend? vs. How did my mind evolve?)

    Both look like great questions to me. Why do we have to choose?

    As for “respected and well-known,” if there weren’t so many skeptics/agnostics here y’all might be citing Charles Taylor, who dwarfs Dennett & his “freedom evolves” nonsense on a stick.

    I love Taylor’s work! His criticisms of Rorty are extraordinarily insightful, and I like his distinction between assertoric and disclosive uses of language in his criticisms of Brandom. Not to mention that he is the great interpreter of Hegel. But why think that we have to choose between Taylor and Dennett?

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  28. J-Mac:

    This is amazing!

    Why did anyone ever recommend this obviously reliable book to me? I don’t get it! Harshman kept it to himself, Larry Moran must have read it. I bet yeh, Jerry Coyne read this inspiration beyond his normal shit and just hid it because it was too good to be spread.
    When you write a book too good, nobody would read it. Right? Why would anybody read Larry Moran’s book on j”unk dna???” boring

    What do you think guys?

    I think your dosages might need adjusting.

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  29. Erik:

    How else do you summarize something like, “There is no double transduction in the brain. (section 1) Therefore there is no second medium, the medium of consciousness or, as I like to call this imaginary phenomenon, the MEdium. Therefore, qualia, conceived of as states of this imaginary medium, do not exist. But it seems to us that they do.” ???

    Either illusion or doesn’t exist. What’s the third option?

    Well, he’s isn’t trying to persuade dualists. That way lies madness!

    But he isn’t denying that there’s subjective experiences, either. He’s arguing that we can explain subjective experiences in terms of what brains do, based on in part on how they process information they receive from their environments and in part on how a shared language is used in how we describe our own experiences as well as those of others.

    What there isn’t, on his view, is qualia: some ineffable medium standing in between the world’s causal impingements on our sensory receptors and our understanding of the world based on those causal impingements. That’s what he means when he says that there’s no secondary transduction.

    What does this gobbledygook mean? How does “physical stance” allow for predictions just as well as “intentional stance”? Without “intentional stance” (probably consciousness), how does “physical stance” (probably matter) allow for any predictions? Aren’t predictions always for somebody, a conscious person? What do you take predictions to be?

    Sure, it’s us who are stance-takers. There weren’t any stances in the world before we evolved, or creatures like us. (I look forward to finding out if he thinks nonhuman animals have stances. I have my own view on this and I’m interested to know what he thinks.) We take stances on the world in order to keep track of the patterns that are of interest to us. But we don’t invent the patterns. There were centers of gravity before we figured out how to take the physical stance, and there were purposes before we figured out how to take the design stance, and so on.

    Granted that Dennett is a better writer than Nagel (even though the difference isn’t too notable). But Nagel’s agenda is more transparent, that makes him more palatable. Dennett has too many silent presuppositions. Whatever his aim is, it isn’t human.

    Wanting to understand the universe and our place in it isn’t “human”?

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  30. Erik: I suspect the same, because the way I interpret him, he pretty straightforwardly denies consciousness. There is no locus for consciousness in his account, only for nerve signals that don’t go anywhere. In his view there’s no mind, only brain.

    Nerve signals don’t go anywhere?

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  31. Pedant,

    I have no doubt that Erik’s understanding of neuroscience is just as sophisticated as his understanding of axiomatizations of arithmetic.

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  32. I have finished reading chapters 1-4 of “From bacteria to Bach …”.

    I would characterize those chapters as Darwinist apologetics. I found it a bit tedious. Dennett goes around in circles, coming back to the same point time and again, but with different illustrative examples each time. And his point, each time, has to do with his seeing natural selection as a designer. It’s as if he doesn’t really have a good argument for his position, so he is relying on repetition to persuade the reader. I am unpersuaded.

    Chapter 5 is on “The evolution of understanding”. I have not yet finished it. But thus far, I have the impression that he is trying to explain away understanding.

    In my first reply (the very first comment for this thread), I indicated that I thought Dennett’s ideas were mistaken. What I have read, thus far, is consistent with that opinion.

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  33. Neil Rickert,

    I’m about 60 pages in myself. So far I’m still feel like I’m waiting to see how all of this build-up is going to pay off.

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  34. Got around to reading the review from Nagel. Is Dennett still actually hocking ‘memetics’? (Put on your best Bugs Bunny impression in response to something Elmer Fudd just did…) “What a maroon!”

    The bullshit that passes for philosophistry (worshipping sophists by acting like them in one’s worldview) in the USA never ceases to amaze.

    Grand evolutionary timescales shrunk-packaged and applied to everyday activities and events: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” – Marx Brothers

    “he [Dennett] 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’.” – Nagel

    Yup, scientific materialism will do that for ya. There’s your diagnosis. KN doesn’t know it could happen to him because there’s apparently no ‘himself’ there. Apparently. That’s part of the illusion of Dennett’s wannabe soul-less ‘intentional stance’. 😉

    “There is no reason to go through such mental contortions in the name of science.” – Nagel

    Perhaps atheists are starting to realise that selling (Sellars) out to ‘scientific materialism’ as a personal ideology is out of fashion for the vast majority non-agnostics/atheists of the world. We don’t care how far down that ideological rabbit hole you waste your timing in choosing to go because reality will be waiting for you when you return from fanatic evolutionism.

    “the theory of evolution … in its current form is a purely physical theory” – Nagel

    Unfortunately, this is where N. American philosophers are almost intentionally blind. Wake up to the ‘other theories of evolution’ and the landscape looks rather different, biologistic hype and nonsense aside.

    Expecting a ‘pay off’ from Dennett?! How absurd. And a waste of time when inspirational philosophy is readily available that doesn’t ask you to sell your soul, boringly, in an analytic Science-worshipping way.

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  35. “Why do we have to choose?” – Secular Judaism at its finest, apparently

    “It was kind of the counsel of despair.”

    Of course it was. Yet there are other ways out of the ‘naturalist’ (whether or not ‘Kantian’) ugly knot…

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  36. Notice the leading ‘skeptic’ philosopher at TSZ didn’t touch the EMT, folks? Does anyone know why?

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  37. “come alive as a human being”?

    Not down that path. It is as the non-religious (materialist) Jewish columnist writes of Dennett, more like “weary frustration.”

    Take another path … if you want to come alive from DRY BONES.

    No, you prefer ‘skepticism’ & ‘naturalism’? So then stay dry like those bones.

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  38. Kantian Naturalist: But he isn’t denying that there’s subjective experiences, either.

    Oh yes, he is. How do you interpret this? “It is just a theorist’s diagram of how subjective time can relate to objective time. Subjective time is not a further real component of the causal picture.” If subjective time is not a real component, then it is un-real. (Again: What’s the third option?) Given this, it would be nonsense to claim as if we actually had subjective experience (of time in this case), which is why he isn’t claiming it. He is just talking about it by way of deconstruction. For what purpose, nobody knows…

    Kantian Naturalist: Nerve signals don’t go anywhere?

    That’s what Dennett says. I can safely conclude that you haven’t read Dennett with any meaningful level of comprehension. And you’re evidently not planning to, even though your view of him is easily refuted.

    Kantian Naturalist: Sure, it’s us who are stance-takers. There weren’t any stances in the world before we evolved, or creatures like us. (I look forward to finding out if he thinks nonhuman animals have stances. I have my own view on this and I’m interested to know what he thinks.) We take stances on the world in order to keep track of the patterns that are of interest to us.

    So “physical stance” merely means “materialist point of view”? What’s the value of that point of view (or any “stance” at all) when it has no locus? Because when he is talking about medium, he actually means locus. That which has no locus, does not exist. He knows it, right?

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  39. Kantian Naturalist: I love Taylor’s work! His criticisms of Rorty are extraordinarily insightful…

    Rorty seems to have become everyone’s punching bag (except Dennett of course, who gracefully acknowledges his debt to Rorty). On looking for something by Taylor on Rorty, I came across Jonathan Rée on Rorty

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  40. Gregory:
    Notice the leading ‘skeptic’ philosopher at TSZ didn’t touch the EMT, folks?Does anyone know why?

    Off topic?

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  41. Kantian Naturalist: I love Taylor’s work! His criticisms of Rorty are extraordinarily insightful, and I like his distinction between assertoric and disclosive uses of language in his criticisms of Brandom. Not to mention that he is the great interpreter of Hegel.

    What an incredibly long and productive career he’s had. First book in 1964, most recent last year. I half-thought there were two philosophers by that name. But maybe I was thinking of Richard Taylor, who lived in Ithaca when I did. (He was somewhat notorious for marrying someone in her 20’s when he was in his 70’s, IIRC.)

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  42. Alan Fox: Rorty seems to have become everyone’s punching bag (except Dennett of course, who gracefully acknowledges his debt to Rorty). On looking for something by Taylor on Rorty, I came across Jonathan Rée on Rorty

    There’s much to admire in Rorty as well. And Rorty and Dennett are very good when writing about each other. I think that much of Dennett’s project is about cashing out what Rorty calls “introducing as few discontinuities as possible into the story of how we got from the apes to the Enlightenment.”

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