“[Daniel Dennett] regards the zombie problem as a typically philosophical waste of time. The problem presupposes that consciousness is like a light switch: either an animal has a self or it doesn’t. But Dennett thinks these things are like evolution, essentially gradualist, without hard borders. The obvious answer to the question of whether animals have selves is that they sort of have them. He loves the phrase “sort of.” Picture the brain, he often says, as a collection of subsystems that “sort of” know, think, decide, and feel. These layers build up, incrementally, to the real thing. Animals have fewer mental layers than people—in particular, they lack language, which Dennett believes endows human mental life with its complexity and texture—but this doesn’t make them zombies. It just means that they “sort of” have consciousness, as measured by human standards.”
The above passage comes from a recent New Yorker article about philosopher Daniel Dennett, written by Joshua Rothmans.
I haven’t stayed up with Dennett’s work but his whole “sort of” theory of consciousness thing is not really that far away from a Whiteheadian panpsychist position, for example; he’s right, there is no “light switch” for consciousness. The difference is that materialists/physicalists like Dennett still have trouble getting past the baked in Cartesian dualism, I think; they’re studying the “machine” in order to figure out how the wholly other “ghostly” mental stuff appears. Even with Dennett’s emergent “sort of” theory of consciousness, eventually, at some point, the subjective disappears completely into the objective and one is left with a “vacuous actuality,” as Whitehead terms it. So we’re asked to believe that piling vacuous actualities on top of other vacuous actualities eventually produces subjectivity, magically, somehow I suppose. I’m not inclined to buy it. I don’t see how Dennett gets around the hard problem with his emergent “sort of” theory. I mean, we can pile up pennies all day long, and yes we’ll eventually get 100 pennies that equal one dollar, but no matter how high we pile pennies they simply won’t magically turn into paper dollar bills, I’m afraid. The truth is that, from a purely hardcore materialist/physicalist perspective, there is no reason why humans should be self-aware. If materialism is correct then there are no meanings, emotions, purposes or values. As J.F. Martel puts it, in the materialist conception of things, “psyche is epiphenomenal, a kind of fume on the surface of the mathematical marshes of pure quantitative relations in space-time.”
Anyway, at the end of the article the writer, Joshua Rothmans, says that he has ultimately sided with Dennett’s material mind over David Chalmers’ pan-proto-psychism due to his mother’s catastrophic stroke which “devastated the left side of her brain, wrecking her parietal and temporal lobes and Broca’s area—parts of the brain that are involved in the emotions, the senses, memory, and speech. My mother now appears to be living in an eternal present,” Rothmans writes. “She can say only two words, ‘water’ and ‘time.’ She is present in the room—she looks me in the eye—but is capable of only fleeting recognition; she knows only that I am someone she should recognize. She grasps the world, but lightly.”
While this story about Rothman’s mother is incredibly sad—and I can honestly see how a senseless tragedy like this could push someone into a more bleak, hopeless sort of place (not that Dennett’s position is super bleak mind you; compared to some other materialists his position is rather cheerful. But the problem of evil essentially never goes away, does it?)—we must remember that physicalist arguments always cut both ways. Yes, if we damage the brain from the outside (e.g. cut off its blood flow) it changes the brain and can certainly affect consciousness. BUT, we can also affect the brain, and change our consciousness, from the inside by being mindful, for example, or by being intellectually rigorous; continuously learning new things, remaining highly focused or having intense experiences will also “change the brain.” Thank God for that, I say.
Poster above by Chris Sheehan