Thriving on Ambiguity

Edward Feser correctly points out that Daniel Dennett is a model modern philosopher, since modern philosophy is nothing more than word magic that has no relevance to truth, reality, or the human condition.

How do you get blood from a stone? Easy. Start by redefining “blood” to mean “a variety of stone.” Next, maintaining as straight a face as possible, dramatically expound upon some trivial respect in which stone is similar to blood. For example, describe how, when a red stone is pulverized and stirred into water, the resulting mixture looks sort of like blood. Condescendingly roll your eyes at your incredulous listener’s insistence that there are other and more important respects in which stone and blood are dissimilar. Accuse him of obscurantism and bad faith. Finally, wax erudite about the latest research in mineralogy, insinuating that it somehow shows that to reject your thesis is to reject Science Itself.

Of course, no one would be fooled by so farcical a procedure. But substitute “mind” for “blood” and “matter” for “stone,” and you have the recipe for Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back. The philosopher Peter Geach once wrote that we should treat materialist claims to have explained the mind the way we would treat a claim to have squared the circle: the only question worth asking is “How well has the fallacy been concealed?” In Dennett’s case, not well.

Indeed, what the Tufts University philosopher and cognitive scientist gives us is a whole battery of blatant fallacies. For example, throughout the book, Dennett makes assertions to the effect that evolution “designed” this or that. Of course, evolution, which is an entirely impersonal natural process, doesn’t really design anything. The whole point of Darwinism, as Dennett well knows, is to get rid of notions like “design,” “purpose,” and the like. Rather, evolution merely simulates design. It is as if the products of natural selection were designed, though really they are not—just as water flows downhill as if it “wanted” to get to the bottom, though of course it doesn’t really “want” anything at all. Talk of evolution “designing” things, like talk of what water “wants,” can only be metaphorical.

The trouble is that Dennett’s entire edifice makes sense only if it is not metaphorical. For example, like other materialists, Dennett models the mind on the idea of the computer. But computers are the products of human designers. Hence it makes no sense to try to explain the mind in terms of computers, since the existence of a computer itself presupposes the existence of a designing mind. Dennett’s way of dealing with this problem is to say that the human minds or “computers” that design computers in the ordinary sense are themselves designed in turn by evolution. But again, evolution doesn’t literally “design” anything, so this is no answer to the problem at all. It only seems to be an answer if we fail to distinguish the literal and metaphorical senses of the word “design.”

Dennett thrives on such ambiguity and imprecision.

I wouldn’t say he “thrives” on it so much as he “depends” upon it. It’s virtually impossible to read so much as a single paragraph by a so-called philosopher anymore without encountering one of the rhetorical techniques that Aristotle listed in the category of sophistries.