I think maybe I'm too steeped in issues to do with mind and intentionality and agency to appreciate how this book must have been received when it wasI think maybe I'm too steeped in issues to do with mind and intentionality and agency to appreciate how this book must have been received when it was first published. It was a good read, and it certainly gave me a better appreciation for the nuances of some issues I was lumping together. But it didn't blow me away as it's "classic" status might imply. It's short enough though, that it's worth reading whether it ends up having a strong impact on your views or not. ...more
This is a really excellent intro to philosophy of book. Each chapter is on a different topic (mind, knowledge, ethics, science, politics, language, etThis is a really excellent intro to philosophy of book. Each chapter is on a different topic (mind, knowledge, ethics, science, politics, language, etc...) and handled in a really accessible way. Appiah basically gives a brief overview of the debate in each field, enough to give people new to philosophy a respectable understanding of the material, without getting too bogged down in the nuances that would be lost on (or boring to) those not steeped in the literature. ...more
When setting out to read a scholarly philosophical work on the nature of "bullshit," I expected some degree of humor. But I thought that this humor woWhen setting out to read a scholarly philosophical work on the nature of "bullshit," I expected some degree of humor. But I thought that this humor would solely come from the process of reading a boring essay where I happen to get to read the word bullshit regularly. But this essay was funny, like really really funny. At first I thought it was unintentional, but as I went along I started thinking that it was just too perfectly crafted to be unintentional humor. And yet, at the same time, Frankfurt elucidates a really import feature of human communication. The conceptual issues surrounding the nature of bullshit end up being far more important than you ever imagined.
This was a fantastic little book, and I promise, I'm not bullshitting you when I say that. ...more
On the whole, this little novella (long essay) was really fantastic. Sam Harris makes a really strong case for never lying. And I think the case he maOn the whole, this little novella (long essay) was really fantastic. Sam Harris makes a really strong case for never lying. And I think the case he makes transcends his commitment to utilitarianism (which he doesn't even mention in this essay), and resonates strongly with this virtue ethicist. I have two problems with his prescription.
1) Harris would be committed to the argument that even lying to someone to keep a surprise party you are throwing for them a secret is wrong. Examples along those lines strike me as times where it doesn't make sense to chastise lying.
2) One of his examples uses evasive tactics, which while not technically lying, seems to me to be in exactly the same vain and intent as a white lie would be in the same situation. i.e. - when someone asks you if you like a present they just gave you (a sweater in this case), rather than saying "no", and rather than telling a white lie and saying, "oh, yes, it's wonderful", Harris suggests answering with something like, "I'm really touched you thought of me, but I don't think I can pull this off" This isn't a lie, but it's also not an answer to the question, it's evasive, and I'm not entirely comfortable with using this as a tool to "get out of lying".
Those points aside, the broader conceptual framework that Harris sets up and the kinds of considerations he asks us to think about when contemplating lying, are quite piercing and thought provoking. I was sympathetic to something along the lines of what Sam Harris prescribes before reading this essay, but I have to say, reading it has given me another boost in the direction. ...more
For the past year or so I've been steeped in literature in cognitive science focused on addressing issues surrounding representation. Human beings canFor the past year or so I've been steeped in literature in cognitive science focused on addressing issues surrounding representation. Human beings can represent all sorts of things; chairs and cups, dogs and cats, the smell of a glass of wine, hunger and thirst, the meanings of words, and on and on. At any point in your moment to moment experience, your mental states are in some sense “about” something that the brain is capable of representing. But brains are just a vast web of interconnected cells, passing chemicals back and forth. Where is it that thoughts and concepts arise? How is it that representation can arise out of the electrochemical functioning of the brain?
Various theories have been proposed over the years to account for this, but the foremost theories in cognitive science, computationalism and connectionism, each are riddled with a myriad of problems that preclude the emergence of representation. Don't get me wrong, each of this research paradigms has allowed for really great breakthroughs in the functioning of computer and robotic systems. But while there has been some success in mimicking certain cognitive functions (to some degree), neither theory has been able to account for representation, for intelligence, for consciousness (there's also problems to do with learning, as well as what's known as the frame problem).
So I've been recently reading some of the embodied cognition and dynamic systems literature. These theories are radical departures from standard cognitive science, rejecting the fundamental assumption in cognitive science that the brain is basically an information processing device, and instead focusing on the embodied sensorimotor coupling of a dynamic system (whether biological or not). Research in these fields has produced robotic agents capable of engaging in many varied behaviors, including self organization, thus far outside the reach of classical theories. Each of these platforms separately provide strong predictive and explanatory power when dealing with issues of cognition or intelligent behavior, and combining them, which has so far only been discussed theoretically as far as I know, is an extremely promising research strategy. The only problem is...these theories eschew the concept of representation all together. And my main question coming into this book was...how? I really like many of the ideas in these fields, but how exactly do they account for consciousness, for subjective experience, for qualia?
I picked up this book hoping for an answer to that question, and I didn't get it. But I still found the book to be excellent on the whole. Their criticisms of standard cognitive science were in my opinion, spot on. Those sections alone would be worth it for anyone interested in these issues to pick up and read. And the real kicker is that for the most part I agree strongly with their own theories of cognition, or embodied action as they call it. Below are two quotes I pulled out of the book that I think do the best job of summarizing their basic points:
Embodied action: by using the term embodied we mean to highlight two points: first, that cognition depends upon the kinds of experience that come from having a body with various sensorimotor capacities, and second, that these individual sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological, psychological, and cultural context. By using the term action we mean to emphasize once again that sensory and motor processes, perception and action, are fundamentally inseparable in lived cognition. Indeed, the two are not merely contingently linked in individuals; they have also evolved together.
Enaction: perception consists in perceptually guided action and cognitive structures emerge from the recurrent sensorimotor patterns that enable action to be perceptually guided.
I think I'm with them 100% here, and if you're not quite ready to buy into what they say from those quotes, I can only say, pick up the book. They provide plenty of justification for these ideas, but even more so, much of the reading I've been doing over the last year bolsters their argument strongly.
Where I disagree with them is the conclusion they draw given this theory they've constructed. Which is that there is no such thing as representation. Worse, there is actually no objective pregiven world (a necessary conclusion give many of their arguments, but a regrettable one). Their basic criticisms of representation are actually completely valid given certain naive conceptions of representation, which is representation defined as the "act of re-presenting pregiven features of the world through a process of recovery of information from sensory signals". Their criticism hinges on the notion that there is an optimal fit correspondence between a pregiven world and our representation of it. i.e. - there is an object world, sensory signals hit us, our brain processes the information, and re-presents it accurately.
Sure, acknowledged. We don't experience a pregiven world. We experience a construction of that world. But some sort of object reality does exist. We interact with it with our sensory systems, and our construction as a result of this interaction can be in error. So what? What is it about about the possibility of representational error that is so hard to stomach? They don't address this idea. In fact, they seem to assume that all the theories of representation out there don't account for the possibility of error, don't even think they need to. Now, if they had argued that no popular theories actually do account for the normativity of representation, I would agree. But all theories agree that representation is a normative phenomena, it could be true or false. What justification we have for taking our representations to be accurate is certainly tricky (we can't compare our representation of the world with the actual world, since all we have access to is our own internal representation. No matter how much "external" justification you have, it must always be filtered through an internal cognitive process. this is a serious problem in epistemology).
So what is one of their main justifications for this argument against representation? It's an argument against a certain brand of evolutionary theory. What they argue against is the notion of evolution as resulting in organisms that have an optimal fit for their environment, and thus against the notion that our sensory systems can accurately represent the environment since they themselves are not optimally fit for representation. Again, I found this really frustrating to read because most of their criticisms against an "optimal fit" theory of evolution are also correct. To be fair, they're not even saying anything particularly new, but in general their chapter on evolution could have been excellent, if its sole purpose wasn't to argue that if you accept what they say about evolution you have to accept what they say about representation. Sure, evolution is not involved in optimization. They describe it perfectly; "selection discards what is not compatible with survival and reproduction. Organisms and the population offer variety; natural selection guarantees only that what ensues satisfies the two basic constraits of survival and reproduction." I.e - what is selected for is not what is optimal, but what is viable.
I see this happen all the time in philosophy, whether it's in consciousness studies or epistemology. Someone will come out with a brilliant work detailing all the problems in the popular theories, explaining in a more comprehensive way how things actually do work, and then simply throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Varela, Thompson, and Rosch are right on in what is a future action oriented process approach to cognition. Perception is not a passive process of representing the world, but an active process of construction. Objects aren't represented by sensory signals, objects present affordances for action through the sensorimotor coupling of a biological system interacting with sensory signals in the environment. None of this means representation doesn't exist. It means that our naive conceptions of representation as "sensory encodings" must be put behind us. It means that representation isn't "of things", but emerges from an internal process facilitated by "contact" with things. It means these insights into how cognition actually works themselves need to be accounted for in a theory of representation. I don't suggest this is easy, but look where getting rid of gets these authors. There is no pregiven objective reality. Not only that, but they have no account, not even a mention, of anything to do with consciousness or subjective experience.
I really do highly recommend this book, even with all my criticisms. Just keep in mind when you're reading their embodied action section that what they are saying should be input for theories of representation, not arguments against it. ...more
If you're interested in the topic of mental representation this may serve as a great exploration of some of the conceptual issues surrounding the topiIf you're interested in the topic of mental representation this may serve as a great exploration of some of the conceptual issues surrounding the topic. Bickhard explores James Gibson's theory of perception as not information processing and encoding of sensory inputs, but as an interactive process of direct perception of (for lack of a better word) sense data. Bickhard is really arguing for his own theory of interactivism here, but using Gibson as a case study. Gibson had the insight that you could derive information about an environment from interactions with that environment without encoding anything from that environment. It was this insight and the framework built around it that influenced Bickhard. But Gibson only went so far and the flaws in his theory were used to dismiss it by most psychologists and cognitive scientists. Bickhard elucidates the problems and points a way forward for a more plausible theory of perception and representation. Great read, but not for the layman. ...more
This book is a good ‘ol fashion philosophers slugfest at its best. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
T.H. Huxley famously said:
“how it is that any thin
This book is a good ‘ol fashion philosophers slugfest at its best. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
T.H. Huxley famously said:
“how it is that any thing so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as the result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp”
In recent decades the field of neuroscience has proclaimed to have a gone a long way towards answering this question. We have studied the inner workings of the brain and have been able to correlate neuronal activity in certain areas of the brain with specific cognitive processes. Knocking out the activity of certain areas prevents a person from engaging in the cognitive processes correlated with (controlled by?) that area. The visual cortex is responsible for vision. The auditory cortex is responsible for hearing. Memories are stored in the hippocampus and fear is in your amygdala. And so it is that the brain, or parts of it, see or hear, think or believe, hope and fear, plan and decide.
Along come Maxwell Bennett and Peter Hacker, a neuroscientist and a philosopher, and they write a book about how they are displeased with this pervasive aspect of neuroscientific terminology and its use by not only neuroscientists, but neuro-friendly philosophers as well. They argue that it’s not specific areas of the brain that see or hear or feel or remember; it is people that do! These are attributes of human beings, not of their brains. The brain is simply not an appropriate subject for psychological predicates, and making it so has serious consequences for both neuroscience and philosophy according to Bennett and Hacker. It leads us down dead ends and makes research difficult, if not futile.
Bennett and Hacker place the blame for this state of affairs squarely on the shoulders of Descartes. Ask any neuroscientist and they will strongly deny the plausibility of a dualistic theory of mind. And yet, the predicates which used to be ascribed to an immaterial mind, neuroscientists unreflectively ascribe to the brain instead. They replaced mind/body dualism with brain/body dualism, retaining the same basic structure. And so there is talk about maps in the brain, symbols, representations, information, etc…but the fact that certain features of the visual field can be mapped onto the firing of groups of neurons in a particular brain region does not mean that these maps actually “exist” in the brain, and that the brain actually “uses” these maps to “formulate hypotheses” about what is visible.
“by speaking about the brain’s thinking and reasoning, about one hemisphere’s knowing something and not informing the other, about the brain’s making decisions without the person’s knowing, about rotating mental images in mental space, and so forth, neuroscientists are fostering a form of mystification and cultivating a neuro-mythology that are altogether deplorable.”
Now, with that out of the way, here’s where things get interesting. In this book by Bennett and Hacker, they devote two whole sections to criticizing the views of Daniel Dennett and John Searle, respectively. And two years after publishing this book, they were invited to participate in a special session of the meeting of the American Philosophical Association entitled “Authors and Critics,” where their critics were, you guessed it, Dennett and Searle. Dennett and Searle dug into them over the course of this session through prepared remarks and questions, and some time later, Bennett and Hacker published their own “reply to the rebuttals” stemming from this conference. This book is that fight, laid out for our amusement, and education. The first part is a few specific selections from Bennett and Hacker’s original book, followed up by Dennett and Searle’s responses. Dennett and Searle don’t pull any punches in their criticisms, and Bennett and Hacker then fire right back. So the book ends up being worth it both for the show, and for the great philosophical work presented by a group of great thinkers.
Dennett and Searle (writing separately) make for some strange bedfellows given that Searle’s Biological Naturalism and Dennett’s functionalism (of the computational variety?) stand in strong opposition to each other. Searle’s formulation of the Chinese Room was in direct response to computational functionalist accounts of mind, and Dennett’s Intentional Stance, taken to its extreme ascribes beliefs and desires to lawn mowers and thermostats. And yet both agree that Bennett and Hacker are way off. Go figure that you have two philosophers defending neuroscience against the attack of a neuroscientist! But these are two great (scientifically minded) philosophers, and their criticizisms of Bennett and Hacker did the job of softening my support for them.
One that sticks out is Searle’s criticism of certain aspects of Bennett and Hacker’s positions in regards to the location of conscious experience. If you cut your foot, to Bennett and Hacker, the answer to the question of “where is your pain?” is an obvious one…It’s in your foot! But Searle brings up the point that there are people who are missing limbs who feel pain in their phantom limb. Where is their pain located? Bennett and Hacker say the pain is located where the person’s foot would have been. But Searle finds this ridiculous. The pain is then in the bed or under the sheet, it exists in a location where no part of the person’s physical body exists. Searle says that it only makes sense to say that the pain exists in the person’s brain. And this is true of someone with a real foot as much as it is of someone with a phantom foot. There’s an intuitive appeal here. Damage to your foot is just that, damage. For there to be pain, a signal has to be sent up to the brain. Stop that signal from reaching the brain, and the person feels no pain. So it does seem that the pain isn’t really *in* the foot, but rather, damage to the foot causes you to have an experience of pain, where it feels to you that the pain exists in the foot.
I happen to think that all of the responsible parties are wrong about the location of subjective experience. I’m not entirely convinced that it even makes sense to ascribe a location to subjective experience. As Dan Dennett so humorously and engagingly points out in his essay “Where Am I,” the question of *where* the self exists is not so easily answered, and our intuitions often pull us in contradictory directions. Regardless though, it does seem that Bennett and Hacker are more obviously in the wrong on this one. Bennett and Hacker also make some surprising claims about the lack of qualitative character associated with many perceptual experiences. They deny the almost standard philosophical maxim that there is a “something it’s like” character to all our conscious experiences. They argue that there might not be something that it’s like for someone to see something, or hear something. Dennett and Searle rightly criticize them on this, though in a small footnote they make an interesting point about the distinction they’re trying to draw with this.
This was a great read, both because you get to see some philosophical heavyweights duking it out, and because they cover some fascinating topics in neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language. I didn’t explicitly cover much of this last topic, but the specter of Wittgenstein was summoned regularly, and interestingly, by all parties involved. How these philosophers can all be so influenced by Wittgenstein, while simultaneously disagreeing with each other so much, was an amusement in its own right. ...more
I thought that this book was a brilliant follow up to End of Faith. I've always thought that End of Faith was somewhat of a misnamed book and that witI thought that this book was a brilliant follow up to End of Faith. I've always thought that End of Faith was somewhat of a misnamed book and that with a slightly different focus could have been truly masterful. What I really appreciated about that book was the nuanced exploration of the nature of belief, belief formation, and the role belief plays in behavior and how all of this relates to and affects our states of consciousness.
This book was a continuation of that theme in the moral sphere. And for the most part it was fantastic. I thought Harris made a strong case for accepting the strong role science can and should play in moral considerations. I thought his chapter on belief and his section on free will were brilliant. And I was even impressed with his discussion and acknowledgement of many of the problems and difficulties that come with utilitarianism.
I found his chapter on religion somewhat pointless though and think the book would have been better simply leaving it out. Especially because his chapter on religion didn't even focus on what I considered might be the obvious and more relevant way to discuss religion. Maybe he's just written so much on religion that he didn't want to rehash the same arguments, but then it just felt like he felt he needed to throw a bit of religion bashing in there, and anything would do.
On the whole though I found it marvelous. But rather than continue talking down that path, I thought I'd paste a recent blog post I made discussing some issues I find with Harris' argument. It's because I so strongly agree with the majority of his writings, that rather than focus on everything that was good, it'd actually be more valuable to the conversation to point out where I think he hasn't been careful enough or possibly wrong. These aren't insurmountable obstacles (at least I hope not), but rather holes waiting to be filled.
Sam Harris is one of most vocal writers around today promoting the strong relationship between scientific knowledge and morality. Not only does Harris believe that scientific knowledge can inform moral decisions, but he asserts that science can determine moral values. He’s not the only figure making these claims, but he’s definitely the most prolific. And with an undergraduate degree in philosophy and a PhD in neuroscience, he’s certainly well situated to make and defend these sorts of claims.
This is a pretty controversial claim to make though, and Harris is often attacked both by religious figures AND scientists. Ever since David Hume put words to the notion that you can’t derive values from facts, that you can’t derive what “ought” to be from what “is”, philosophers and scientists have behaved with this idea as a presupposition in all their dealings. Science describes facts about the world, science cannot tell you what is important or how to live your life. Some of the biggest names in moral research have concluded that all science can do is describe and explain the moral behavior of human beings, but is overstepping its bounds when it attempts to prescribe what to do, or to determine values.
Harris argues that this is-ought distinction is fundamentally mistaken, and I actually agree strongly with him in that. And while I agree with a vast majority of Sam Harris’s arguments, they are not problem free, and they are themselves based on some assumptions that need to be made explicit if we’re to make an informed decision about the quality of his overall argument.
Harris’s basic premise is this: If ethics is about anything, it is about the conscious states of organisms able to experience consciousness. Any other definition is meaningless. Any action that has no actual or potential affect on the conscious state of an organism is by definition valueless. I think we can accept this claim as long as we are responsible about thinking about the broader affects that stem from our actions. If my action isn’t immoral to me, or you, or anyone else in the world, or anyone that may ever come along, if it causes no pain or suffering to any creature able to experience those states of consciousness, if there is no one around to care one way or the other, then what could possibly be immoral about anything?
Harris’s next point is a simple small jump. If ethics is about the conscious states of organisms, then this must by definition translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world. This also seems uncontroversial. Assuming conscious states have a neurophysiological correlate (an extremely grounded assumption), then it’s obvious that science can give us a complete account of the ever evolving dynamic states of consciousness, the very thing that ethics is about. It’s worth pointing out that when Harris uses the word “science”, he is not talking about double blind research carried out in labs by people wearing white lab coats. Harris is defining science in the broadest way imaginable, as a process with respect for the scientific method, incorporating reason and logic and proper justification for beliefs (I sometimes think his definition of science is just "philosophy", a label and pursuit he tries to keep himself separate from). Agree or disagree with his definition, just keep it in mind when evaluating his assertions, since many who disagree with him tend to ignore his encompassing view of science.
But this can’t be it right? Ethics isn’t simply about conscious states; it’s about a certain type of conscious state. And here is where we start running into some conceptual problems, which to some degree I hate myself for having. Sam Harris’s next point is that ethics must specifically be about maximizing the well being of conscious organisms. On the one hand, this also seems uncontroversial. Moral concerns about the well being of other people very obviously translate into facts about how our thoughts and behaviors affect these people. Science can thus describe the result of this endeavor, and based on our goal of maximizing well being, determine what it is we ought to do.
Did you see the problem? Science can determine moral values if we accept three assumptions.
1) Ethics is about the conscious states of organisms. (okay) 2) Conscious states of organisms are within the realm of science. (okay) 3) Ethics is about maximizing the well being of conscious organisms. (hmmmm)
I think you’ll see why I dislike even having to question this last assumption, since generally I agree with it. But is this statement itself something that can be determined by science or not? And if it is, can science determine the specific nuances that go into it? Sam Harris, true to form, again defines “well being” in the broadest way possible. He does not mean simply physical health. And also doesn’t simply mean “happiness”. Sam Harris is using a definition of well being that itself is, or would have to be, the result of a very nuanced philosophical argument through this process of scientific exploration. This would involve taking into account the motivation for being kind and caring towards others, understanding the affect it would have on their mental states, on your mental states, and on the mental states of others. This is not a simple one to one relationship. This is a convoluted story that needs to incorporate the affect behavior may have on broader social, political, and economic systems, and how those systems themselves affect other people, and the resulting mental states of those people due to those changes.
How to balance various issues like civil liberties, individual privacy, free speech, and the importance of keeping citizens safe to maximize well being, surely has an answer, even if the complexities of it lay forever out of our reach. Harris is quick to point this out often. Harris isn’t arguing that science has all the answers, but that science can conceivably determine all the answers with enough information and enough time. But even accepting this we find ourselves in a dilemma, because this pursuit depends on a definition of well being that is itself part of the pursuit, and how those factors discussed weigh in a well being scale. How we define well being, how our conscious states change for the better is not solely dependent on biology, on genetics, it is also dependent in a very strong way on our values and beliefs (some of which are there for evolutionary reasons, yes). And as human beings who are prone to error, we know we can wrong about values and beliefs. If you’re neighbor believes they are the reincarnation of Jesus, we’re likely to assume they’re wrong. Someone might value money above all else, someone else might value respect for authority above all else, and someone else might value open mindedness above all else. Whether we can objectively determine which of these values should be preferred over others and by how much isn’t necessarily the point. The point is that as it stands, people currently value those things in different ways, and their conscious states will change differently based on the presence or absence of those things.
If somehow science determines that free speech should be weighed above the safety of the citizenry as a means to maximize well being, but the majority of the population values safety over freedom, their conscious states will not be maximized, because of the nature of their neurophysiology and psychology. Is the right thing to then disregard the scientific data? Or implement it regardless? What if science determines that the wearing of Hijabs by women in the Islamic faith is in fact a practice not conducive to maximizing well being, what do we do? A woman who has grown up in this culture and with this belief and value system believes this is the right way to live. Do you force her to take it off? Wouldn’t that objectively lower her well being since her entire psychology is geared towards reacting negatively to that? What if we found out that by immediately murdering half of the current population of the planet, 3 billion people, countless trillions and trillions of our descendents would be able to live lives where their well being was maximized? If we don’t commit this act of mass genocide, only 25% of those trillions of descendents will have their well being maximized.
How can we go about answering these questions through the process of science and empiricism? One problem is inherent in Harris’s espousement of utilitarianism (morality lies in the consequences of an action). Where is the point of evaluation of a utilitarian argument? Is it how the action will affect the recipient immediately? Is it how the action will affect everyone alive on the planet through the vast web of interconnectedness that the nature of cause and affect necessitates? What time frame do we judge by? Immediately? One year? 100 years? A million? Imagine I criticize you in some way that has the immediate affect of lowering your state of well being. But then after two weeks and some reflection you realize it was actually a good thing and it has helped you out and it raises your level of well being. But then a year from now it turns out this criticism and the changes it has made in you have actually drastically lowered your well being. How do we evaluate something like this? And how do we evaluate all the people you affected during that time with the mental states that I helped create?
Further, how do we compare various forms of well being and suffering against each other? How do ten headaches compare against one broken bone? Ten jailed innocents vs. the hunger of 1000 children? I’m skeptical whether these are questions a utilitarianist approach is capable of addressing due it's sole focus on outcomes. No matter how much consideration for outcomes a person takes into account, a decision can only be made in the now, with insufficient information. And well being is a temporal process, as is consciousness, and neither exist as snapshots in time.
Even had Sam Harris chose a different moral theory, we can argue that whichever theory is chosen relates to his other points about science in the same way. My argument is that whichever theory we choose will have the same problems for his argument. Science has to determine the rightness of the theory itself. A theory is only as good as the facts it's based on, and so this topic strays into what philosophers call epistemology, or theory of knowledge. How do we know anything about the world, and what warrant and justification do we have for believing things. Part of this process involves determining what is right and good to value, and providing justification for the very goal of morality. I don’t think this is impossible. In fact, using Harris’s broad conception of science I’ll even grant we can provide good reasons for being able to do this, since this endeavor of defining what is worth valuing will itself undergo a process that must respect the scientific method and rationality. What we value, how we act, and towards what ethical goal we are progressing is all intertwined, and arguably should not be separated in pursuit of morality. The problem is that Sam Harris doesn’t focus on this, and it leaves what I find to be otherwise impressively strong arguments with a hole waiting to be filled.
It begins a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away (think about it). And it's a beautiful story about mindDan Dennett wrote a fairy tale. No really.
It begins a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away (think about it). And it's a beautiful story about minds...all kinds of minds.
Dennett tell us a story through space and time that explains not only the evolution of minds from simple molecules, but of the evolution of minds in the developing human. Along the way he tackles intentionality and representation, and the importance of relative time frames and language. Not only does he explain difficult philosophical concepts, but he explains them in such an easy accessible manner that before you realize it's happened, you've learned a concept that philosophy students spend countless hours studying.
Dennett is masterful at storytelling, and in this book his style of writing really shines.
A few quibbles.
His story is mostly told from the standpoint of evolution, and I think it's dangerous to overgeneralize both evolved functionality and behavior from an evolutionary standpoint. It's a difficult story to tell, precisely because so much of it is dark to us.
Dennett believes, and makes a strong case for, the fact that language is absolutely necessary for thought and representation. That without words you can't have concepts, and without concepts there is nothing going on, on the inside. I spend a lot of time thinking about the relationship between language and consciousness, and I think Dennett certainly makes some very valuable points, but the fact is...we have no idea what it's like to be a creature of our prospective intelligence, but without a way to create structured symbols to represent concepts. Also, from a neurophysiological standpoint, I'd argue representation IS possible without language, though it's a degraded form of it.
But I will say, even with as much as I've read in this field, Dennett surprised me with a few examples and arguments that might have to make me rethink some concepts in Philosophy of Mind/consciousness that I took for granted.