TA 110 (Butterfield)


Commentary 5




by Herbert FJ Müller

10 November 2008, posted 15 November 2008




The following commentary is presented in response to the puzzling recent resurgence of metaphysics, the belief in a fictitious mind-independently pre-structured reality (MIR) in epistemology, which has been the topic in the discussion of TA110.   As the material below illustrates, the metaphysics issue has been under the surface of recent (materialistic, analytical, and language) philosophy for some time, even though it has not usually been emphasized.   Metaphysical assumptions cause a good deal of conceptual difficulties, ever since the time of Parmenides.



The philosopher Daniel Dennett has written a book with the title ‘Consciousness Explained’ (1991), full of stimulating ideas about physiology, artificial intelligence, zombies, etc.  He wants to (p.15f) ‘explain the phenomena that compose what we call consciousness (‘the last surviving mystery’, p.21), ... how they give rise to illusions about their own powers and properties ... sketch a theory of the biological mechanisms and a way of thinking about [them] that will let you see how the traditional paradoxes ... can be resolved’.   He briefly mentions ‘ontology’ (p.36) , saying that it now includes neutrinos and antimatter, but without using the term metaphysics, of which ontology is a branch.   He wants to ‘explain [everything] within the framework of ... science’ (p.40), and find ‘a materialistic account ... of all ... phenomena’ (p.65).  



He denounces the assumed primacy of subjective experience, which he calls  ‘the Cartesian Theater’ (Cartesian materialism) because Descartes said he was sure that his mind was distinct from his brain.   He calls subjectivity   ‘the illusion of a central meaner, a tempting idea to be overthrown’ (p.228),   saying that there is no such thing, because there is no locus for it in the  brain (p.107).   He wants to replace subjectivity by what he calls  ‘multiple drafts’ (p.254) in the interpretation by the brain of events such as the apparent motion of light flashes, the phi-phenomenon (p.138), and other psycho-physiological phenomena.   He considers consciousness, seen from physiology and behaviour, as a ‘black box’ (p.171), and discusses its evolution in functional terms, via selection. 



He comes back many times to this issue, but I still have not quite understood why he is more against the reality of consciousness than against other reality.    His hypothesis is (p.210) that human consciousness   ‘is a huge complex of memes (Dawkins;  ‘or more exactly, meme-effects in brains’) of favourable mutations ... understood as ... virtual machine ...’   The importance of language for consciousness is illustrated by a 1908 quotation from Helen Keller, deaf-blind since a brain disease (probably meningo-encephalitis) at the age of 19 months :  before she learned language she was not able to distinguish one mental state from another (p.227).  The meaning often crystallizes when speech is formulated (p.246).  ‘Many memes, mostly borne by language, but also wordless “images” and other data structures take up residence in a brain ... and turn ... it into a mind’ (p.263).  



On some occasions he gets close to the zero-derivation (0-D) pragmatic structuring view :  ‘Presentiments are like speech except that there is no actor and no speech’   but immediately ‘explains’ this by ‘content-fixation in the brain’, and adds that there is no phenomenology, because consciousness only appears to be a ‘plenum’ but it is not;  it is as-if there were a plenum – which amounts to ‘giving up one’s soul’, he says it is ‘abstraction’ anyway (pp.365ff).    And :  each human ‘makes a self’ with words and behaviour (p.416) :  ‘you are what you speak’;  il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ (Derrida);  the center of narrative gravity (p.431), etc.  At this point Dennett calls his view ‘semiotic materialism’ (pp.409ff).   He wants to ‘disqualify qualia’ like enjoyment, by reducing them to the ‘activation of neural circuits that pleases us’  -  but who is ‘us’ ?





Dennett himself suggests that he may have ‘explained away’ consciousness (p.454), but adds that this occurs in all successful explanations.    The main problem with Dennett’s proposal is however not his de-construction of the subject, but his one-sidedness :   that he does not also de-construct the myth of  materialistic metaphysics of the outside world,  which is triggered by the extrapolation from gestalt-formations  to MIR-belief.   He takes objectivity (MIR-belief) at face value, and does not mention  that the world of objective science is a human construction within mind, which is earlier than any objective explanation;  and then he wants to reduce the deconstructed mind to it.   He seems to share Wittgenstein’s peculiar opinion that referring to subjects is ‘a disease of thinking’.  



He does not really say why he claims that a ‘structured’ self would be less real than a ‘found’ (presumably self-pre-constructed) self or brain.   Are a piece of music, or an airplane, less real than the moon because they are human creations ?    Only some of what we structure is ‘invention’;   we structure but do not invent the brain, for instance.   But all of ‘reality’, including for instance both ‘the world’ and ‘the self’, is not found ready-made but results from our structuring and may be certified as  ‘real’  when it is thought to be reliable.     The start-point of ‘phenomenology’, as I understand it, is that one can only think starting from personal experience, not from knowledge of a fictitious (metaphysical-ontological) mind-independent world.   



Dennett states that there is no subjectivity because there is no locus for it in the brain, but the objective world too has no locus in the brain.    He wants to find out how the brain produces consciousness (p.434) rather than how the brain is structured in the mind.   Thus he presents and inverted view of mind and world (see my TAs 1, 45, and 78 in KJF).  Also, pace Derrida, it is incomplete :  I can have a toothache without saying so.   ‘0-D structuring’ means that both ‘self’ and ‘world’ have to be actively structured from no given structures; in this respect, it thus suggests the opposite of the metaphysics proposal.  







Dennett, D.C. (1991)  Consciousness Explained.  Back Bay Books, Little Brown and Co., New York, Boston, London.


Wittgenstein, L. (1953-58) Philosophische Untersuchungen - Philosophical investigations. 2nd Edition.  Blackwell: Oxford. (Part I, §255, §593ff)




Herbert FJ Müller

     e-mail <herbert.muller(at)mcgill.ca>