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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

Nietzsche and Dennett on Consciousness and Mother’s Mind

Posted by John Holbo on 06/03/07 at 12:02 AM

Consciousness.— Consciousness is the last and latest development of the organic and hence also what is most unfinished and unstrong. Consciousness gives rise to countless errors that lead an animal or man to perish sooner than necessary, “exceeding destiny,” as Homer puts it. If the conserving association of the instincts were not so very much more powerful, and if it did not serve on the whole as a regulator, humanity would have to perish of its misjudgments and its fantasies with open eyes, of its lack of thoroughness and its credulity—in short, of its consciousness; rather, without the former, humanity would long have disappeared! Before a function is fully developed and mature it constitutes a danger for the organism, and it is good if during the interval it is subjected to some tyranny! Thus consciousness is tyrannized—not least by our pride in it! One thinks that it constitutes the kernel of man; what is abiding, eternal, ultimate, and most original in him! One takes consciousness for a determinate magnitude! One denies it growth and its intermittences! One takes it for the “unity of the organism”!— This ridiculous overestimation and misunderstanding of consciousness has the very useful consequence that it prevents an all too fast development of consciousness. Believing that they possess consciousness, men have not exerted themselves very much to acquire it—and things haven’t changed much in this respect! To this day the task of incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive is only beginning to dawn on the human eye and is not yet clearly discernible—a task that is seen only by those who have comprehended that so far we have incorporated only our errors and that all our consciousness relates to errors! (Gay Science, §11)

I suppose I’ll contribute to the discussion Adam has gotten started by going off on a bit of a tangent.  I have been reading Dennett’s really quite interesting essay, “Evolution, Error and Intentionality“. (It contains an amusing trip to Panama “the poor man’s twin-earth” - I think the Panamian Tourist Bureau might consider that as a slogan. You know what they are always warning you, when you travel South of the border: don’t drink the XYZ!)

One of the interesting things about the paper is that Dennett arrives, basically, at Nietzsche’s philosophy of science (as I read it, in certain moods - mine and Nietzsche’s). Dennett:

Attributions of intentional states to us cannot be sustained, I have claimed, without appeal to assumptions about “what mother Nature had in mind,” and now that we can see just how much weight that appeal must bear, it is high time to cash out the metaphor carefully.

Some have seen contradiction or at least an irresolvable tension, a symptom of deep theoretical incoherence, in my apparently willful use of anthropomorphic—more specifically, intentional—idioms to describe a process which I insist in the same breath to be mechanical, goalless, and lacking in foresight. Intentionality, according to Brentano, is supposed to be the “mark of the mental” and yet the chief beauty of the Darwinian theory is its elimination of Mind from the account of biological origins. What serious purpose could be served, then, by such a flagrantly deceptive metaphor? The same challenge could be put to Dawkins: How can it be wise to encourage people to think of natural selection as a watchmaker, while adding that this watchmaker is not only blind, but not even trying to make watches?

Briefly: Dennett argues that if there were ‘original intentionality’, it could only be the ‘intentionality’ of natural selection. “What is particularly satisfying about this is that we end the threatened regress of derivation with something of the right metaphysical sort: a blind and unrepresenting source of our own sightful and insightful powers of representation.” But: this requires “a good model of determinate, incontrovertible function.” Because, after all, it is well and good for someone to intend to make a watch, and only succeed in making a fine paperweight. The real stickler with functionality is that it is a normative concept. You can have a leg that doesn’t work. How is that consistent with not attributing intentionality? But if there is no intention? Then what to make of ambiguous or functionally failed functionality?

This is a bit like Nietzsche on the waves:

How greedily this wave comes in, as if it were after something! How it crawls with terrifying haste into the innermost corners of this craggy cliff. It seems it is trying to get the drop on someone; it seems that something is hidden there, something of value, high value.—And now it comes back, a bit slower, but still gone white from excitement,—is it disappointed? Has it found what it was looking for? Is it just acting disappointed?— But already another wave approaches, yet greedier and wilder than the first, and its soul, too, seems to be full of secrets and lust for treasure hunting. So live the waves, —so live we, the willful—more I do not say. (GS, §310)

What is its secret? Probably that it is just a dumb thing and has no secret. Thus, in Human, All-Too Human:

Then is no man accountable? And is everything full of guilt and feeling of guilt? But someone or other has to be the sinner, if it is impossible and no longer permissible to accuse and judge the individual, the poor wave in the necessary wave-play of Becoming—very well: then let the wave-play itself, Becoming, be the sinner: here is free will, here there can be accusing, condemning, atonement and expiation. ("Assorted Opinions and Maxims, §33)

[See also, Galen Strawson on fatalism. The interview is quite an interesting introduction to the topic. I had my ‘film and philosophy’ students read it, to go with their viewings of films in which determinism and fatalism are themes: Minority Report (bad handling of the theme) and Eternal Sunshine (good handling).]

But setting aside fatalism, Dennett on intentionality as ‘reading Mother Nature’s mind’ has echoes with Nabokov in his discussions of animal mimicry. You can’t really mean that the butterfly is mimicking a poisonous colleague (since, of course, mimicking is intentional behavior). So, to be fastidious, you say it is just mimicking mimicry. That is, it is only ‘as if’ it is behaving ‘as if’ it is poisonous. So forth.

Here is Nabokov on ‘reading mother nature’s mind’ - but he refers to mother as ‘Agent X’:

Just as an increase in the brain’s complexity is accompanied by a multiplication of concepts, so the history of nature demonstrates a gradual development in nature herself of the basic concept of species and genus as they take form. We are right in saying quite literally, in the human, cerebral sense, that nature grows wiser as time passes, that in a given period it has reached this or that specific stage. The only nit that can be picked is that we do not know what we imply when we say “nature” or “the spirit of nature.” But, as we shall see, this monstrous “X” to which, taking advantage of its infinite spaciousness, we ascribe responsibility even for our ignorance about its true countenance, does not avoid us in some inviolable mist, but merely does not turn our way.

I’m writing a chapter on this as we speak. I throw some Davidson and Stanley Fish on interpretive communities for good measure.

I think it is correct to say that Dennett has backed himself in a position in which the only honest thing to say is he’s turned Kantian, 3rd critique-style. But naturalized, a la Nietzsche circa The Gay Science.

[Nota Bene: thinking you are regulatively bound to think of nature as having a mind is not quite the same thing as thinking panpsychism is true, but it’s close enough for government work.]


john, your nota bene is not a type of sentence that i can identify

By on 06/03/07 at 03:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Typo ‘a’ now expanded to correct ‘are’. Better?

By John Holbo on 06/03/07 at 03:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

yep, thanks

By on 06/03/07 at 03:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That Nietzsche liked his exclamation marks, didn’t he.  Or maybe that doesn’t come over quite so shouty in German.

By Adam Roberts on 06/03/07 at 03:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s not everyday that someone gets so excited by consciousness!!

By on 06/03/07 at 04:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m largely (and shamefully) ignorant of Nietzsche, but the passage you quote at the start sounds more like it’s about self-consciousness than about consciousness per se. The distinction I have in mind is that there’s something it’s like to be a bat (presumably); but (also presumably) the bat doesn’t know it, or reflectively endorse its desires, or reject some of its desires as alien or wrong. That is, bats are conscious but not self-conscious. The Nietzsche passage reminds me of Harry Frankfurt’s idea that what’s distinctive about humans is our ability to separate from the immediate flow of our desires and subject them to supervision (from which knack, according to Frankfurt, follows the possibility of reason, ongoing selfhood, free will and meaning). I’m guessing that Nietzsche might have agreed with Frankfurt that this ability is also the source of much misery.

By on 06/03/07 at 12:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The monstrous “X” is Whitehead’s God!

(For some reason I’m seeing Whitehead everywhere now, despite not having read the guy in a year—or maybe it’s only now that I’ve digested him to a suitable degree.)

By Adam Kotsko on 06/03/07 at 03:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, you seem to be exactly right that Dennett has arrived at a Nietzschean philosophy of science.  This is right out of the second essay of the Genealogy of Morals (section 12, I believe).

By Adam Kotsko on 06/03/07 at 04:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So, to be fastidious, you say it is just mimicking mimicry. That is, it is only ‘as if’ it is behaving ‘as if’ it is poisonous.

I’m not seeing how, if mimicking X won’t stick because mimicking is intentional when X is another butterfly, it sticks any better when X is mimicry itself—and to say that “it is only ‘as if’ it is behaving ‘as if’ it is poisonous” is not to say that the butterfly is mimicking mimicry, not unless the first “it” is, contrary to normal usage, actually referring to the butterful.  There is a seeming hereabouts that the butterfly is mimicking a poisonous colleague, but the butterfly isn’t pulling off any sort of mimicry itself.

Also here: <q>You can have a leg that doesn’t work. How is that consistent with not attributing intentionality?</q>—should that “not” not be there?  It seems quite obvious how something not functioning is consistent with there not being an intention (unless you’re asking about the identification of the leg as leg in the first place).

And in general I’d be interested in knowing what this Nietzschean phil. of science is, since he’s got a lot to say about science generally and while I’m sure the quotations you’ve given make sense as part of your understanding of the overall picture, absent that understanding it’s rather opaque.  To me, anyway.

By ben wolfson on 06/03/07 at 09:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ben, you are right about how the ‘just mimicking mimicry’ point: at best, paradoxical. I think Dennett is, rather uncharacteristically, embracing a really paradoxical position. See his “Real Patterns” (available online from Dennett’s page) paper. Also, John Haugeland’s response, “Pattern and Being” (available in his book, “Having Thought”, and somewhere else I’m not remembering). And, I came across another paper making the (to my mind) correct point that Dennett is really only going to get consistent by getting more Kantian: “A Kantian Stance on the Intentional Stance”, by Matthew Ratcliffe, in “Biology and Philosophy” vol 16, 2001.

Last but not least, nnyhav turned me on to a very interesting paper on Nabokov on biology, “Nabokov, Teleology and Insect Mimicry”, by Victoria Alexander. Googling will find it.

You are right that I am compressing my argument into rather a lossy format, for post purposes.

But I will say this much: as to the leg, yes the point is that identification of a leg as leg in the first place does not require a functioning leg. Broken and deformed legs are legs. So they need not even have a weak disposition to perform leg-functions.

By John Holbo on 06/03/07 at 11:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Haugeland’s “Pattern and Being,” which is an absolutely required complement to “Real Patterns,” is also available in Bo Dahlbom, ed., Dennett and his Critics, which also features a picture of DD on the cover wearing a neat hat (one perhaps from poor man’s Twin Earth?).

By Dave Maier on 06/04/07 at 12:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"See his “Real Patterns” (available online from Dennett’s page)”

Doesn’t appear to be available online anymore. Dennett’s page says it was reprinted in “Brainchildren”, so it would make sense that he’d be disinclined to offer it for download now. (Amazon has used copies for $9.99 after shipping.)

By on 06/04/07 at 11:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sadly, you are right Daniel. Thanks for pointing that out. It IS available in a 1991 issue of J Phil. If you have institutional access.

By John Holbo on 06/04/07 at 11:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The quotations a little opaque for me too; but I’m glad to find waves and butterflies in here, and not only living thermostats.

By on 06/05/07 at 12:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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