Friday, 30 March 2018

Against Daniel Dennett's Heterophenomenology

This piece is a critical account of the 'Heterophenomenology' chapter of Daniel Dennett's book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking.


Daniel Dennett sums up his project with his own neologism: “heterophenomenology”.

Dennett's very own kind of phenomenology

is the study of first-person phenomena from the third-person point of view of objective science”.

Since phenomenology was originally seen simply as a (to use Dennett's own words) “catalogue of phenomena”, then there's no necessary reason why it should only be a first-person study of first-person mental states, experiences or consciousness. Instead what is studied is “first-person phenomena from the third-person point of view”.

Dennett goes into more detail when he adds that heterophenomenology

exploits our capacity to perform and interpret speech acts, yielding a catalogue of what the subject believes to be true about his or her conscious experience”.

Again, this isn't a “catalogue” of conscious experiences, pains, mental states, qualia, etc. "in themselves". It's a catalogue of the “speech acts” about these things. That is, speech acts, physiological responses, physical behaviour, "verbal reports", etc. are the subject of heterophenomenology - not consciousness, experiences or mental phenomena. However, by using this neat bifurcation, I am, of course, begging the question against Dennett (i.e., already assuming the truth of my own general conclusions).

Since phenomenology was originally seen to be the study of phenomena (again, according to Dennett) “before there is a good theory of them”, then how does this work in the case of third-person (scientific) accounts of first-person mental phenomena? After all, Edmund Husserl and other phenomenologists saw their own phenomenology as being “presuppositionless” and non-theoretical. Not only that: it was an attempt to provide a basis (or grounding) for science.

Now can it also be said that Dennett's own brand of phenomenology is presuppositionless, non-theoretical and a basis for – rather than a part of - science? Of course we can't. So, yes, it's indeed the case that studying any kind of phenomena can be seen as phenomenology. However, studying any kind of phenomena as a project in science (with its own presuppositions and theories which will be applied to that phenomena) surely can't be classed as phenomenology. That's unless Dennett is simply assuming that his own heterophenomenology isn't really phenomenology at all. However, if that's the case, then why use the suffix “phenomenology” in the first place?

Dennett's Arguments

Daniel Dennett makes a distinction between

(a) conscious experiences themselves”


(b) beliefs about these conscious experiences”.

Basically, to the behaviourist and verificationist Dennett, it's all about the latter. And in order to make us understand that, Dennett asks us this question:

Should we push on to (a) in advance of theory?”

He then states the following:

First, if (a) outruns (b) – if you have conscious experiences you don't believe you have, then those extra conscious experiences are just as inaccessible to you as to the external observers.”

The words “if you have conscious experiences you don't believe you have” must surely be rhetorical in nature. Or, more strictly, an example of a false inference.

Dennett is failing to make a distinction between experiences we don't make statements - or have beliefs – about (or even think about in any great detail - perhaps not at all), and having “having experiences [we] don't believe [we] have”. Clearly that latter phrase is constructed precisely in order to make it seem (or be) self-contradictory. How can a person have experiences that he doesn't believe he has? Nonetheless, it's actually the case that a person might have had experiences which he had no beliefs about when he actually had them. He simply might not have had “second-order” thoughts or beliefs about those experiences. That is, because “beliefs” weren't (as it were) attached to these particular experiences when they were first experienced, Dennett concludes that such a person must now have “conscious experiences [he/she doesn't] believe [he] has”.

So “conscious experiences themselves” (or at least some of them) do indeed sometimes “outrun[]” our “beliefs about conscious experiences” in the simple sense that they might originally have occurred before we had any beliefs about them. It's also the case that such experiences weren't originally accompanied by any second-order thoughts of any kind. It certainly doesn't follow from this that people “have conscious experiences [they] don't believe [they] have”. They might have had conscious experiences which came before any beliefs about them and which weren't accompanied with experience-regarding beliefs (or by any second-order thoughts).

Past and Present Experiences

It's not entirely clear if the “conscious experiences” Dennett refers to are past or present experiences. In the latter case, his position becomes absurd. Or, rather, Dennett is attempting to make other people's positions on these questionable experiences seem absurd. That is, if a person is currently having an experience, then how is it even possible for that person to also believe that he doesn't believe he's experiencing it now? Dennett, therefore, wants this position to be absurd. But that's because he's taking an absurd position on what he takes to be an absurd position.

So what about using the past tense?

If we use the past tense, then all this changes. That is, a person can't believe that he had conscious experiences which he now doesn't believe he once had. Dennett seems to believe this simply because those past experiences weren't accompanied by beliefs. But that's not strange at all. There are many experiences people have which aren't accompanied by experience-identifying beliefs (or by any second-order thoughts).

Now it's this very possibility that people are supposed to have experiences (or they claim to have experiences) which are unaccompanied with experience-identifying beliefs (or verbal expressions/reports) that Dennett has a problem with.

There are two main behaviourist and verificationist problems here:

i) These experiences occurred in the past.
ii) These experiences were unaccompanied by experience-identifying beliefs, verbal reports, or by any high-order thoughts.

Thus, in Dennett's book, these experiences are like Wittgenstein's “idle wheels in the mechanism”. (Wittgenstein himself was referring to such things as sensations.)

Dennett again fudges the issue when he says the following:

... if you believe you have conscious experiences that you don't in fact have...”

This is ridiculous. And, of course, Dennett also believes it to be ridiculous. However, it's only ridiculous if people really do have consciousness experiences which they don't in fact have. Or, more accurately, it's only ridiculous if people claim to have experiences that they don't believe they have had.

Again, is this a past-tense or present-tense problem?

It's obviously bizarre if, at this present moment in time, a person is having a conscious experience which he isn't in fact having. This is ruled out by Dennett's behaviourism and verificationism anyway. Indeed how could a third person, on the other hand, know either way? And how could the first person himself believe that he's having an experience that he isn't actually having?

So this scenario fails in both first-person and third-person terms. That's because it's a the position of a straw target.

What's absurd isn't that a person believes that he's having an experience which he isn't having. It's absurd that Dennett claims that someone would claim (or simply believe) such a thing. Similarly with the earlier case. It's not absurd that people have conscious experiences which they don't believe they have. What's absurd is Dennett believing (or simply stating) that there are people who believe (or state) this.

Again, these fictional subjects/persons appear to be straw targets manufactured so that Dennett can make his verificationist and behaviourist points.

I've stressed the big difference between beliefs about present experiences and beliefs about past experiences. Obviously it's absurd to argue that a person can have conscious experiences that he doesn't believe he's having. It's also absurd for the person himself to believe that. However, a person can have beliefs about past experiences which, at the time, he had no beliefs about – as already stated.

Thus Dennett argues that if a person had experiences which were unaccompanied by beliefs, then that same person having present beliefs about those past unaccompanied experiences won't thereby make those past experiences kosher from a scientific point of view. To repeat: Dennett must be arguing that present beliefs about past experiences (which weren't accompanied by beliefs when originally experienced) won't help make those past experiences acceptable to Dennett. That basically means that Dennett must also be arguing that there are no conscious experiences which aren't (or weren't) accompanied by beliefs and/or by overt expressions (i.e., verbal reports) about those experiences.

Dennett's position is that such “conscious experiences themselves” (as already stated) are idle wheels in the mechanism. Indeed Dennett himself (more or less) states this many times and in many places.

Ineffable Beliefs and Pains

Strangely enough, Dennett does seem to relent a little when he asks this question:

What if some beliefs are inexpressible in verbal judgements?”

I used the word “seems” for a good reason. It's of course the case that Dennett doesn't accept even the very notion of inexpressible beliefs. At least not (like his earlier views on “conscious experiences”) as they are "in themselves”. Instead, such inexpressible beliefs are actually accounted for by (later) “verbal judgements” or by physiological tests (depending on the particular case).

Take an inexpressible belief about a toothache.

According to Dennett, this is fully (or perhaps only partly) accounted for in terms of physiological “galvanic skin response[s], “heart rates” and “changes in facial expression and posture”. More fully, these things aren't responses to pains in themselves: they're responses to a test in which the subject

can press a button with variable pressure to indicate severity of pain”.

In other words, just as “conscious experiences themselves” were factored out of the equation earlier; so now Dennett also factors out what he takes the subject to believe are inexpressible beliefs. Or, rather, they aren't factored out in the sense that the tests for behavioral and physiological responses do all the work instead. What is factored out is the “inexpressible” itself; just as belief-free conscious experiences were factored out earlier.

In the specific case of a toothache, we no longer have a “ineffable residue[]” of experience (or qualia): we only have tests and physiological responses.

Studying a Person's False Beliefs

Dennett puts the icing on the cake by arguing the following (to paraphrase):

Sure, it's okay to accept that a person believes that some of his beliefs are inexpressible and that he also has belief-free experiences. However, what's not okay is to accept conscious experiences in themselves, beliefs that are truly inexpressible, and pains which entirely run free of behavioural expressions and physiological third-person/scientific data.

In other words, a subject's verbally-expressed belief that some of his other beliefs are inexpressible is indeed a fit subject for both science and philosophy. Or, as Dennett puts it, the statement

S claims that he has ineffable beliefs about X.”

is okay. It's an acceptable datum of science. What's not a datum of science is the actual ineffable belief (or pain/experience) itself. Indeed Dennett believes that it's an interesting and fit subject of science to explain why there are such beliefs and why people deem them to be “ineffable”. Again, what's shouldn't be a subject of science - and philosophy! - is the ineffable itself.

What Dennett Gets Right

Now it's certainly true that “pure experiences" are problematic from a verificationist or behaviourist point of view. (Indeed it can also be said that they're problematic from any point of view!) It may also be problematic to accept “conscious experiences” which completely “outrun” what Dennett calls “beliefs”. However, it doesn't logically follow from all this that certain conscious experiences can't be unaccompanied by beliefs and which are later referred to in some way. It certainly doesn't follow that people have consciousness experiences they don't believe they have. Dennett is attempting to turn his philosophical problem into a logical problem. It isn't.

As just stated, we can accept the verificationist and behaviourist problems a scientist or philosopher may have with “conscious experiences themselves” and with ostensibly inexpressible beliefs about experiences or pains. However, all of these things (e.g., conscious experiences themselves, inexpressible beliefs about experiences/pains, etc.) may still exist without their behaviourist or verificationist clothing.

To put all that in a more abstract way.

Because Dennett has a deep philosophical or scientific problem with x, he claims that x doesn't exist. Or, at the very least, Dennett argues that x doesn't serve any purpose. (Could that mean that x doesn't serve a purpose even if it does exist?)

Consciousness: a Third-Person Thing

What if speech acts, physiological responses, behaviour, verbal reports, mental functions, etc. - at least when taken collectively - literally constitute (or are) consciousness? And is that why Dennett's defenders say that he doesn't “deny consciousness”? Or, at the very least, if we accept Dennett's definition of the word 'consciousness', then we simply must conclude that he doesn't deny consciousness at all!

Thus it's not a surprise that Dennett sums up the virtues of his heterophenomenology by saying that by using it we

obviate the need for any radical or revolutionary 'first-person' science of consciousness, and leave no residual phenomena of consciousness inaccessible to controlled scientific study”.

A moment ago it was said that Dennett's supporters say that he doesn't deny consciousness at all. And that's why Dennett himself says (in the just-quoted passage) that we

leave no residual phenomena of [my italics] consciousness”.

That is, he doesn't say:

We leave no residual consciousness.

In other words, this may not be a case of “consciousness erased” or “consciousness denied” (as many people put it). It's more a case of this:

consciousness = that which is described by third-person/scientific data


consciousness = overt expressions, behaviour, verbal reports, mental functions, tests of physiological responses, etc.

Now if consciousness literally is all these things, then how on earth can anyone claim that Dennett “denies” or “explains away” consciousness? Nonetheless, Dennett does indeed see consciousness in a way which is radically at odds with the way the vast majority of people see it. Then again, Dennett wouldn't deny that. He'd probably say: Yes; so what?

Thus, with extreme facetiousness, it can now be concluded that Dennett's position is a little like this very-odd (fictional) theist's position when he states the following:

No! I'm not an atheist! I believe in God - just like you. However, unlike you, I take God to be that large lump of blue cheese which is now in my fridge.

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