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Contemporary Philosophers – Dennett and Searle: Two Philosophies of Mind

May 26, 2019

One could easily write a long book trying to cover all of the ideas of these thinkers, but in this post I am just going to focus on comparing and contrasting their approaches in the philosophy of mind. This is only going to be basic level stuff, I am not going to attempt to get into the technical details, I just want to give an outline to provoke future thought in others and myself.

Over the years I have tried to come to a clear understanding of the mind. One problem I have with much of the work in this area is that it places the mind isolated in the individual brain in the external world as naturalistic science tells us of it before it even begins its discussion. I have given my own reasons elsewhere on many occasions for doubting this. Namely that it relies on a hypostatisation of a particular understanding of the world, and it presumes science can be our basis for ontology. Where I prefer to see basic ontology as prior to science, founded on basic metaphysical assumptions in which we are not in anyway compelled to adopt the ontology that natural science tells us. Partly because this ontology changes all the time, partly because this ontology says contradictory things from one science, say relativity, to quantum theory, and partly because this view occupies a kind of fuzzy place of narrative consensus in society, rather than any well reasoned critical stance, and so it is not open to fair discussion and debate. For all these reasons I refuse to take this as my basis. But anyway lets get back to the views that Dennett and Searle offer.

Both as I say share this presumption of the truth of the ontology of natural science, whatever that may be, of course it is not clearly defined, but it entails in this case the obvious belief on their part that the mind and consciousness, insofar as it exists is located and isolated in the brain, and in some way supervenes on natural causal actions of the physical matter. Both share also a view of mentality as representational and both pay a lot of attention to the intentionality of mental phenomena. Another thing they share is a critique of Cartesian Dualism. Dennett dismisses it with his talk of the fallacy of the cartesian theater with some homunculus in the brain watching the screen, leading to an infinite regress of little beings watching screens. Searle argues against it with his view of direct realism in which we directly see objects as they are, we are not one step removed from them, looking at sense data of them, thus is this way he avoids the infinite regress, while remaining true to our common sense intuitions about a real world existing independently of us. From here on out they largely differ in their views.

One thing that inspired my interest in the philosophy of mind was reading a chapter of the book Brainstorms by Daniel Dennett, called Where am I? In this chapter Dennett gave a very interesting thought experiment, of a brain in a vat kind to show some issues of identity, do we identify with our brain or with our body when we control our body remotely from a brain in a vat? It seems we identify with the body, which of course would lend credence to the idea that mentality is not located or isolated in the brain incidentally. But anyway this book got my interest in the subject so I read many more books on the subject, some interesting, some more disappointing. In a later book Consciousness explained, Dennett begins more definitively his attempt to reduce mental phenomena into line with a functionalist account. In the process he tries to assure us that details such as qualia can be dispensed with and that we can get to a perspective from which we need no longer worry ourselves that we have a perspective!

Needless to say this kind of magic did not appeal to me, and seemed to rely on undermining many of our common sense notions of the mind. Here steps in John Searle, who offers a critique of functionalist accounts with his Chinese Room argument designed to illustrate that even a strong AI,  has at best only a syntax, a set of rules it follows, but this does suffice for mental understanding which also requires semantic content.

Searle then goes on to try to defend a view more in line with common sense while also trying to avoid the substance dualism of Descartes. For he still thinks there is just the one substance of the material world, and that the mind rather than being reducible to it in some way is a kind of emergent, but dependently emergent phenomena. Ultimately the mind must come from the biological matter that is the brain, and something about this matter must give rise to our common sense understanding of consciousness as intentional and having semantic content, being “about” things, the aboutness quality.

Naturally I disagree with this view also, but this is the nature often of philosophical debate, we don’t always have to agree on things. In my view any view of mind that already preplaces it in a hypostatised physical reality postulated by our current level of understanding in natural science, is making the mistake of trying to fit a real, empirical phenomena of mental awareness here and now on to a map of a real realm. As if we could search for and explore an actual island merely by moving about on the map of it.

In later work Dennett, for me, seems to have moved further and further down a dogmatic view in line with a specific materialistic interpretation of a natural science ontology underlying reality. Moving away from his earlier considerations of intentionality and his interesting thought experiments regarding identity. His book on Darwin, and his book on Religion I found to be particularly poor and obviously appeals to a mainstream simplified view like with Dawkins, that only moves the debate back to something we had with logical atomism and positivism a hundred years ago. Searle on the other hand seems to have taken an opposite course, rather than narrowing his field of enquiry he has expanded his views from the tight domain of speech acts in his early days, to incorporating mind, intentionality, self and society in later works. Some of this work is quite valuable and remains a source of fresh insights to myself.


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