When I heard that Daniel Dennett’s new book on consciousness was released, I didn’t care. He has a tendency to argue in this format:
- Here’s an idea it isn’t worth explaining from the past.
- Here’s my alternative that uses sciency words.
- It cannot be explained by current science, but with enough scientific advances, it obviously will be explained.
- Logic, etc.
I’m hardly exaggerating. It’s like Sam Harris, but less endearing because it isn’t podcast format and he doesn’t look like Zoolander. I stopped reading Dennett’s books when I recognized that pattern.
David Bentley Hart refers to mistakes like this as the pleonastic fallacy, explaining qualitative distinctions in terms of quantitative increments toward some grander whole. He’s especially fond of the accusation in The Experience of God. In Breaking the Spell, Dennett basically argues that a bunch of physics explanations are true, biology is probably just as accurate, therefore there is no need for a first cause since more explanations will be found. In other words, being itself can be explained by things that already apparently possess being. Theodore Beale made this awesome meme about his style:
Having mentioned Hart, the silver lining of new Dennett books being released is that Hart lumbers forth from whatever tome laden cavern he inhabits in order to put pen to paper for a brief, scornful essay before returning to his arcane pursuits. Apparently, Dennett does not disappoint and continues his pattern of argument. And Hart, not to be outdone, makes fun of him for it:
Dennett, however, writes as if language were simply the cumulative product of countless physical ingredients. It begins, he suggests, in mere phonology. The repeated sound of a given word somehow embeds itself in the brain and creates an “anchor” that functions as a “collection point” for syntactic and semantic meanings to “develop around the sound.” But what could this mean? Are semiotic functions something like iron filings and phonemes something like magnets? What is the physical basis for these marvelous congelations in the brain? The only possible organizing principle for such meanings would be that very innate grammar that Dennett denies exists — and this would seem to require distinctly mental concepts. Not that Dennett appears to think the difference between phonemes and concepts an especially significant one. He does not hesitate, for instance, to describe the “synanthropic” aptitudes that certain organisms (such as bedbugs and mice) acquire in adapting themselves to human beings as “semantic information” that can be “mindlessly gleaned” from the “cycle of generations.”
But there is no such thing as mindless semantics. True, it is imaginable that the accidental development of arbitrary pre-linguistic associations between, say, certain behaviors and certain aspects of a physical environment might be preserved by natural selection, and become beneficial adaptations. But all semantic information consists in the interpretation of signs, and of conventions of meaning in which signs and references are formally separable from one another, and semiotic relations are susceptible of combination with other contexts of meaning. Signs are intentional realities, dependent upon concepts, all the way down. And between mere accidental associations and intentional signs there is a discontinuity that no gradualist — no pleonastic — narrative can span.
Similarly, when Dennett claims that words are “memes” that reproduce like a “virus,” he is speaking pure gibberish. Words reproduce, within minds and between persons, by being intentionally adopted and employed.
And so it goes.