Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Chalmers' Naturalistic Dualism vs. Dennett's Third-person Absolutism


"Dualists" and the so-called "mysterians" aren't the only people who believe that Daniel Dennett is a "scientistic philosopher" – Dennett thinks that about himself!

Dennett refers to his own overriding philosophical position as "third-person absolutism".

So what does a third-person absolutist believe?

According to David Chalmers, Dennett believes that “what is not externally verifiable cannot be real” [2010]. To be more explicit: there's a fundamental connection between any x being real (or existing) and whether or not we can “externally verify” that x. Thus, if we can't externally verify x, it doesn't exist. It's not real.

This is a position one might have expected from the logical positivists of the 1930s and 1940s. In addition, the words “third-person absolutism” are a good way of putting the stance of certain forms of behaviourism in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s.

Dennett's third-person absolutism - which may water down his radical position - even deals with first-person phenomenological descriptions. It allows and encourages “a third-person perspective on one's first-person perspective” [1997]. Indeed if we follow the logic of Dennett's behaviourism to its end, can we accept a first-person perspective at all? (That is, even if that perspective is accounted for in third-person terms.) In other words, is there a first-person perspective on anything in Dennett's scientific book?

This position not only seems extreme: it also has the flavour of a diktat (if a normative scientific diktat). It's not unlike Karl Popper's falsificationism or the logical positivists' various principles of verification.

Dennett explains his third-person absolutism when he states the following:

"I wouldn't know what I was thinking about if I couldn't identify them by their functional differentia." [1996]

It's not surprising, then, that Dennett has asked David Chalmers

“to provide 'independent' evidence (presumably behavioral or functional evidence) for the 'postulation' of experience”. [2010]

Dennett's language here is ringing with scientific cliches. He talks of “independent evidence” and the “postulation of experience”. I wouldn't ordinary call the use of such scientific terms cliches. However, when it comes to discussing consciousness (or experience), the word cliche is surely apt. Or to put that another way: 

If we were talking about research into genetics or black holes, such words as “independent evidence” and “postulation” are certainly acceptable.

Thus the idea that consciousness is “postulated” is very strange. And that's why Chalmers says that consciousness “is a phenomenon to be explained in its own right”. Then again, if consciousness is behaviour plus functionality, then we do indeed have “independent evidence” for consciousness. Or as Chalmers expresses Dennett's position:

“[H]e thinks that the only sense in which people are conscious is a sense in which consciousness is defined as reportability, as a reactive disposition, or as some other functional concept.” [2010]

Of course this is simply to beg the question against consciousness being a phenomenon to be explained in its own right.

Chalmers goes further into Dennett's behaviourism (a word which Chalmers doesn't use here) when he says that (in Dennett's Consciousness Explained), “heterophenomenology” (like Quine's “overt behaviour”) is deemed to be “the central source of data” [1997]. He then says that 

“the only 'seemings' that need explaining are dispositions to react and report” [2002].

Thus Chalmers believes that it's an “unargued assumption that such reports are all that need explaining” [1997]. To top that: Dennett himself is quoted as saying that 

"'if something more than functions needs explaining, then materialism cannot explain it'". 

Chalmers, with added irony, says that he “would not disagree” with Dennett's account of materialism's possible failings. Dennett does say that it's a genuine threat to materialism and that's precisely why he fights the conclusion and comes out with so many “counterintuitive” (his own word!) positions.

Yes, Dennett sees consciousness, qualia and experience as a challenge to materialism. Others philosophers don't see such things that way. As for Chalmers, he does see such things that way. And that's why he writes the following:

“What's controversial about my own view is not so much that I defend the existence of qualia, but that I argue that they are nonphysical.” [1998]

It can also be said that functionalism serves Dennett's third-person absolutism: his third-person absolutism doesn't serves his functionalism. In other words, seeing things exclusively in terms of functions makes one's third-person fundamentalism purer and more complete (or “absolute”). Functionalism is a means to a third-person (therefore scientific) end.

Chalmers himself spots one problem with third-person functionalism when he says that “the idea that function is all we have access to at the personal level” is “false”. I would say: obviously false.

Chalmers as a Functionalist

On can get a measure of how complete Dennett's functionalism is (vis-a-vis consciousness) when Chalmers cites some examples of mental states which Dennett has given a functionalist explanation of. Chalmers writes:

“... it is far from obvious that even all the items on Dennett's list - 'feelings of foreboding', 'fantasies', 'delight and dismay' - are purely functional matters... One's 'ability to be moved to tears' and 'blithe disregard of perceptual details' are striking phenomena, but they are far from the most obvious phenomena that I (at least) find when I introspect.” [2010]

Prima facie, it does seem amazing that Dennett sees such things as solely functional matters. Indeed it's hard to understand what it could mean to say that the “ability to be moved to tears” is a purely functional matter. (What's with the word "ability"?)

The strange thing, however, is that Chalmers himself can be classed as a functionalist. Or at least as a mitigated functionalist. The problem is that Chalmers also believes that other things need to be added to the functionalist accounts of mind and consciousness.

For example, Chalmers says that he doesn't

“think that consciousness can be logically deduced from either structure or function, but it is still closely correlated with these things”. [1998]

Clearly that means that something non-functional (i.e., experience, qualia or experience) needs to be added into the functionalist pot.

Chalmers even goes so far as to say that he holds that “what matters is the functional organization”. Thus, if a

silicon system was set up so that its components interacted just like my neurons, it would be conscious just like me”. [1998]

Moreover, he states that

[a]ny two physically identical systems in the actual world will have the same state of consciousness, as a matter of natural law”. [1998]

Type-A & Type-B Materialism

Confusion is often created because what Chalmers calls “type-B materialists" don't deny that consciousness exists (as Dennett does). However, that's simply because 

“the term 'consciousness' is defined as something like 'reportability' or some other functional capacity”. 

In other words, to such a materialist, saying that consciousness exists is simply another way of saying that reportability, discrimination, internal access, etc. exist. What's more, according to Chalmers, type-b materialists also believe that

there is no interesting fact about the mind, conceptually distinct from the functional facts, that needs to be accommodated in our theories”. [1997]

Chalmers' “type-A materialists", on the other hand, believe that

there is not even a distinct question of consciousness: once we know about the functions that a system performs, we thereby know everything interesting there is to know”. [1997]

Dennett fits this latter description. Nonetheless, many fellow materialists claim that Dennett doesn't actually say that consciousness doesn't exist. Though, as just stated, that's because he believes that reportability, discrimination, etc. exist. (Though isn't this like someone saying that “God exists” and then it turns out that what he means by the word “God” is "The ghost who lives at the bottom of my garden"?)

Chalmers himself has Dennett down as a type-B materialist. Again, Chalmers doesn't claim that Dennett denies consciousness outright. Dennett simply states that the sum of mind-brain functions and behaviour are what constitute consciousness. Of course this, to many, still amounts to a complete denial of consciousness.

Chalmers' Naturalistic Dualism

One is tempted to think that the physicalists who class Chalmers as a “dualist” are effectively indulging in an ad hominem attack. In other words, it's almost a term of abuse. Nonetheless, Chalmers classes himself as a “dualist”; or, more accurately, his position is one of "naturalistic dualism".

Why “naturalist”?

Because Chalmers believes that mental states and consciousness itself are caused by physical systems.

So why “dualist”?

Because Chalmers believes that mental states - or consciousness generally - are ontologically distinct and also irreducible to the physical.


Chalmers, David. (2010) The Character of Consciousness

--- (1997) 'Moving Forward on the Problem of Consciousness'
--- (1998) 'An interview with David Chalmers', by David Chrucky
--- (2002] 'Conciousness and its Place in Nature'
Dennett, Daniel. (1991) Consciousness Explained 

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