Dan Dennett

Daniel C. Dennett, one of the most famous and accomplished philosophy professors of the past fifty years, has died. I choose my words carefully, though I confess somewhat (certainly without intention) disrespectfully. Dennett was not a philosopher; he was a philosophy professor, a very different entity. And in saying that he died, I know that I am insulting his thought and that of his many acolytes in a manner that ought to be quite disagreeable to them, whether they understand how disagreeable or not.

Dennett devoted his long and successful career, and the bulk of his many published writings, to the effort to prove, mostly through sophistical and rhetorical arguments designed to confound opponents rather than to establish any knowledge, that consciousness, in the sense of intentional awareness, is an illusion, which is to say that the intentionality we ascribe to ourselves is no different in principle from that which we ascribe to a kettle when we say, in reaction to its whistle, that the kettle is “letting us know that the water is boiling.” We don’t really mean that the kettle has an intention of communicating any facts to us, implying awareness, self-awareness, or any genuine purpose in its action of whistling. Likewise, our own choices and declarations are mere material emissions with unconscious and impersonal causes, to which we, in a grand historical web of universal, species-defining, pragmatically useful illusion, ascribe logical structures representing an intention which is not actually there, since in truth nothing is really “there” apart from atoms and neurons in motion. Dennett may thus be seen as a kind of Zeno of modern materialist reductionism, which is to say that he is to modern materialism what Zeno of Elea was to Parmenides. Whereas Zeno was trying to prove through logic puzzles that nothing but one eternal and unchanging Being can exist, Dennett has spent his professional life trying to prove through logic puzzles that nothing but theoretically infinite bits of non-being can exist. I leave it to the reader to decide which project sounds more rational, not to mention more philosophical.

Dennett’s thought, at least as far as I remember it, resides almost entirely in the many examples and analogies through which, dare I say it, he “tries” to debunk the “attempts” of all his fellow specialists in the non-scientific study of cognitive science (i.e., “philosophy of mind” as its practitioners call it) to prove that there is something irreducible in our so-called conscious experience which cannot be entirely dismissed as illusion.

Whose illusion?” you might be tempted to ask. Don’t ask. That would lead us into the infinite regress that Dennett and his materialist philosophy of mind confrères have spent so much of their careers trying to evade. It would be particularly rude to go down that rabbit hole today, barely twenty-four hours after the non-death of the non-living non-thing that other non-living non-things for eighty-two years, as a matter of convenient collective delusion, have “insisted” (so they mistakenly non-imagine) on calling Dan Dennett.  

Rest in peace would be inappropriate here. Godspeed would be even more inappropriate. Then again, I suppose Dennett would have to forgive anything in this instance, since both the affront and his forgiveness would be mere illusions of intention anyway.

I never met Dennett, but I have always heard it said by those who did meet him, as well as by those who knew him well, that he was a nice man, gracious and collegial. I have no reason to doubt it. Practical success and acclaim within one’s chosen field poison the character of many men, but have the opposite effect on others, engendering a sort of unpretentious magnanimity.

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