Papineau vs Dennett: a philosophical dispute

Tim Crane in the Times Literary Supplement:

ScreenHunter_2780 Aug. 03 20.11Readers familiar with contemporary philosophy of mind may have been a bit puzzled by David Papineau’s recent critical review of Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back in the TLS (June 30). They will know that one of the big debates here is between materialists – who think the mind is wholly material or physical – and dualists – who think that the mind is something else, something over and above its physical basis in the brain. But Papineau and Dennett are both well-known materialists. So why did Papineau object to so much in Dennett’s book? Is this disagreement a bit like the bitter disputes between tiny left-wing Marxist splinter groups – Monty Python’s People’s Front of Judea versus the Judean People’s Front – or is something more substantial going on?

There were two main lines of criticism in Papineau’s review: one concerns Dennett’s doubts about explicit understanding or “comprehension”; the other concerns his views about consciousness. On comprehension, Dennett maintains that much animal and indeed human behaviour displays “competence without comprehension”, achieving ends without the subject’s understanding why. In a similar vein, he holds that human cultures can develop blindly, due to the natural selection of the “informational viruses” that Richard Dawkins has labelled “memes”, including some of the greatest products of human culture (hence Bach and bacteria). Papineau argues that Dennett fails to justify his downgrading of animal intelligence or his exclusion of deliberate design from cultural innovation, and hence that Dennett does not take sufficiently seriously the widespread role of intelligent insight. On consciousness, Papineau takes issue with Dennett’s view that consciousness is a kind of illusion (“illusionism”) and argues that materialists should have no difficulty accepting the reality of consciousness – the difficulty is finding the material basis of this reality in the brain.

More here.