Abstract Dennett argues that we can be mistaken about our own conscious experience. Despite this, he repeatedly asserts that we can or do have unchallengeable authority of some sort in our reports about that experience. This assertion takes three forms. First, Dennett compares our authority to the authority of an author over his fictional world. Unfortunately, that appears to involve denying that there are actual facts about experience that subjects may be truly or falsely reporting. Second, Dennett sometimes seems to say that even though we may be mistaken about what ur conscious experience is, our reports about “what it’s like to be us” must be correct. That view unfortunately requires a nonstandard and unremarked distinction between facts about consciousness and facts about “what it’s like.” Third, Dennett says that reports about experience may be “incorrigible.” However, that claim stands in tension with evidence, highlighted by Dennett himself, that seems to suggest that people can be demonstrably mistaken about their own experience. Dennett needlessly muddies his case against infallibilism with these unsatisfactory compromises.
Key words introspective infallibility . fictionalism . “what it’s like" from Eric Schwitzgebel (2007) No unchallengeable epistemic authority, of any sort, regarding our own conscious experience – Contra Dennett?
Earlier today, I posted a comment on facebook: "Dennett's views in the philosophy of mind are very well known (judging by citations and fame), yet critics misrepresent him all the time (and often make his position less interesting than it is--no need to cry for Dan he has done fine)." (That's not the whole comment.) That led to some interesting discussion about Dennett's writing style and the influences on his thought. But two folk, Michael Anthony, and Eric Schwitzgebel, decided to remind me of their work which purports to show serious inconsistencies in his views. (And if there are such inconsistencies, then, indeed, one can expect critics to misrepresent him.)
Now, before I say anything else, I don't claim no such inconsistencies exist in Dennett's thought (or that he, in turn, may be uncharitable to others in polemical contexts). There are people out there who have really studied his works in ways I have not, and because he has written so much (and on so many topics), for such a long time it would be astounding if there were no serious inconsistencies. In addition, they are experts in relevant fields, whereas i am not.* In addition, Dennett's informal and creative writing style certainly lends itself to misinterpretation to readers accustomed to the kind of defensive writing we see in journal articles. (There may also be an effect here related to the fact that Dennett stopped having to write for referees.) Even so, I think Eric's piece kind of represents something of what I had in mind. (One other disclaimer: I really love Eric's philosophy and writings!)
Eric presents what looks like a straight contradiction. I'll focus on the 'second form.' I am going to ignore the question of fiction in Dennett because that would require a lot more work and in fact, I think Eric was right to be worried about it. (Something Dennett acknowledges in his response: "I must grant that the problem is mine, not his. I have failed to make my claim clear, and it is high time I correct this situation." (254))** Let me start with the part which Eric gets right:
Dennett (2002, p. 13, emphasis in original; also Dennett, 1991, 2003, 2005) contends that we can be mistaken about our own conscious experience. That’s clear. “There is no proposition about one’s own or anybody else’s conscious experience that is immune to error.... You can’t have infallibility about your own consciousness. Period.” I agree absolutely (see Hurlburt & Schwitzgebel, forthcoming; Schwitzgebel, 2002, 2004, in preparation; Schwitzgebel & Gordon, 2000). But I am greatly puzzled about the way Dennett develops this claim, about certain other claims he stands beside it. (p. 107)
The quote is from Dennett's "How could I be wrong? How wrong could I be." It's not one of my favorite pieces (and uncharacteristic with its focus on propositions), but since Dennett is presenting his own views there, they are fair game. So far so good. Schwitzgebel then draws attention to some other writings that seem to contract the point made here.
For example, he writes:
Dennett repeatedly takes pains to grant us unchallengeable authority over something, while still recognizing the possibility of error. Thus he says, for example:
If you want us to believe everything you say about your phenomenology, you are asking not just to be taken seriously but to be granted papal infallibility, and that is asking too much. You are not authoritative about what is happening in you [so far, so good – ES], but only about what seems to be happening in you, and we are giving you total, dictatorial authority over the account of how it seems to you, about what it is like to be you (Dennett, 1991, p. 96, emphasis in original).
So let me ask: What is it, exactly, that we have this “dictatorial authority” over? (p. 108) [ES=Eric Schwitzgebel by that Eric!]
Eric asks the right question here, but he completely misses Dennett's answer. Before I get to that, I will grant that taken in isolation Dennett invites misinterpretation because the emphasized passage will indeed evoke Nagel's famous paper (as Eric goes on to remind the reader on p. 110). And so it may seem that indeed, Dennett is contradicting himself (or requires fancy distinctions that can help us distinguish between ''facts about conscious experience...and sometimes contrary facts about “what it is like” (p. 111) that Dennett never offers).
The answer to Eric's question is to make a distinction (Dennett's) between Dennett's methodology (heterophenomonology) and his ontology (real patterns) or findings. In his method, the heterophenomenological subject will be treated as somebody, who for the purposes of generating the data that will be studied in heterophenomology, will have dictatorial authority over the account of how things seems to her. To simplify greatly, she provides some of the imput and phenomena that will be studied in third person science (and hence the hetero). Heterophenemonology helps establish that nothing we think or report we experience is immune to error.
The previous paragraph is put a bit too strongly because Dennett admits (in context of responding to Eric's third complaint) that an "utterly neutral, utterly bracketed heterophenomenology is as unreachable, practically, in the case of hetero- as in the case of auto-." (263) (He does so because he thinks all science is situated.) But of course you can make an assumption in your method and go on to contradict it in your subsequent findings about reality.
It's a bit baffling to me that this escapes Eric because explaining and justifying heterophenomology+ is, in fact, the purposes of the context of all the main passages that he quotes (at length) from Consciousness Explained. For example, the reason why the passage above evokes Tom Nagel is that in it Dennett is imagining what happens when you are trapped in the "heterophenemonological clutches" in response to a Nagel (and Searle) style critic.
Let me close. Eric's paper raises interesting questions about Dennett's resort to fiction when he tries to explain consciousness. So, it's really worth reading and prompted insightful elaborations from Dennett. But Eric's paper also instantiates what I take to be the more general tendency, that when philosophical critics engage with Dennett they make Dennett seem more contradictory than he tends to be. I don't mean to suggest, finally, that Dennett's heterophenemonology is obvious; not until I became colleagues of Gualtierro Picinnini (ca 2003) did I learn to see how many complex issues it raises. But that's for another time.
*I don't mean to downplay my awareness of Dennett's views, but also think that students are not very good judges of the development of their teacher's views. I was an undergraduate at Tufts when he just published Consciousness Explained and I took two seminars with him in which he developed Darwin's Dangerous Idea; I spent a week discussing From Bacteria to Bach and Back with him in draft; I also read Freedom Evolving (which I dislike) carefully in manuscript together with John Haugeland. I wrote one paper on Nietzsche's influence on Dennett in graduate school. Outsiders may assume that students at Tufts were taught Dennett; but in fact there were very able and very critical in-house critics (McConnell, Steven White, and Mark Richard).
**I actually think Dennett is being here characteristically generous to a younger scholar and thereby also creating new interpretive problems. The quoted sentence makes it seems as if Dennett concedes all of Schwitzgebel's diagnosis offered in the paper. But I think it's clear from reading the rest of this part of the response he is primarily focused hereon the problems of why he resorts to fiction. (Later he returns to Eric's third criticism -- the one about incorrigibility (p. 264) -- and he is less concessive.) I suspect because Dennett is not interested in point scoring here (when he is engaging a junior scholar who he thinks has treated him fairly), he fails to make some of the claims he could have made to clear up some of Eric's other confusions.
+Debating heterophenomonologt (relative to species of phenomonology) also also seems to have been the main point of the very interesting symposium that Alva Noe organized. Much of Dennett's reply focuses on it, but then he ignores Schwitzgebel.