‘Magic, Illusions, and Zombies’: An Exchange between Daniel C. Dennett and Galen Strawson

Dan Dennett in the New York Review of Books:

75400I thank Galen Strawson for his passionate attack on my views, since it provides a large, clear target for my rebuttal. I would never have dared put Strawson’s words in the mouth of Otto (the fictional critic I invented as a sort of ombudsman for the skeptical reader of Consciousness Explained) for fear of being scolded for creating a strawman. A full-throated, table-thumping Strawson serves me much better. He clearly believes what he says, thinks it is very important, and is spectacularly wrong in useful ways. His most obvious mistake is his misrepresentation of my main claim:

If [Dennett] is right, no one has ever really suffered, in spite of agonizing diseases, mental illness, murder, rape, famine, slavery, bereavement, torture, and genocide. And no one has ever caused anyone else pain.

I don’t deny the existence of consciousness; of course, consciousness exists; it just isn’t what most people think it is, as I have said many times. I do grant that Strawson expresses quite vividly a widespread conviction about what consciousness is. Might people—and Strawson, in particular—be wrong about this? That is the issue.

He invokes common sense against which to contrast “the silliest claim ever made” (I’m honored!), but here is some other common sense that pushes back: when you encounter people who claim to have seen a magician saw a lady in half, counsel them to postpone their extravagant hypotheses—backwards time travel, multi-world wormholes, quantum entanglement, “real magic”—until they have exhausted the more mundane possibilities. Unrevolutionary science has discovered good explanations for such heretofore baffling phenomena as reproduction, metabolism, growth, and self-repair, for instance. So while it is possible that we will have to overthrow that science in order to account for consciousness, we should explore the default possibilities first.

More here.