mind, matter, meaning and information

Daniel C. Dennett

It is tempting to suppose that some concept of information could serve eventually to unify mind, matter, and meaning in a single theory.

During a meeting on memetics—an evolutionary approach to culture—hosted by Kings College, Cambridge in May, 1999, a philosopher of biology called David Hull held up a piece of paper and suggested that we might make real progress if we could understand the difference between the sort of information printed on the surface of that sheet, and the information inherent in its structure. Daniel Dennett, one of the best-known of contemporary philosophers, who was also present, when it came his turn to speak ducked the issue, saying that we did not need to address it in order to move forward in memetics.

But it rang bells in my mind. I already suspected that information was extremely important, and for a wider range of issues. During the following months I realised that it was, in fact, the foundation I needed to underpin the ideas I'd been working on for twenty years. Then I came across the quote above, and saw that Dennett was also aware of the significance of information. I realised that, given the state of the art, he'd been right to steer that meeting away from it.

These ideas of mine, that finally found a solid base twenty years later, took their first vague form towards the end of the 1970s, when I was studying for a degree in philosophy and psychology at the University of Stirling. I was interested mainly in “the mind/body problem”: what is the mind, exactly, and how does it relate to and interact with the body?

In 1980, as the preeminent philosopher of materialism, Daniel Dennett was my ideological archenemy. Back then, I was motivated to defend consciousness against the materialist philosophers whom I felt try to diminish its significance and even eliminate it because they cannot explain it in material terms. (Thomas Nagel's essay “What is it like to be a bat?” is good on this.) Consciousness, the capacity to enjoy pleasure and suffer pain, had come to encompass all my ideals, and I felt that materialism was a serious threat to all human values. To deny consciousness was to reduce us to mere mechanism, to inhibit compassion for each other and for members of other species.

Although the concept of consciousness no longer plays quite the same part in my thinking, and I've ceased to wage virtual war against materialism (and, in fact, materialist philosophers are generally no longer as dismissive of consciousness as they once were) my basic motivation remains the same. Dan Dennett now elicits a great deal of respect from me, and even some warmth, because he has brilliantly taken materialist philosophy to its logical conclusion, and done so in a way that is probably just about as accessible as the subject matter allows. As a writer and speaker I'd love to be just half as good. Given Dennett's premises, his conclusions follow entirely logically, the arguments seeming sometimes almost preternaturally clear and precise. His premises, however, are what I question.

Taking “the objective, materialistic, third-person world of the physical sciences” as his starting point, Dennett inevitably comes to the conclusion that there is no real truth about what a person is experiencing, what is going on in their head, subjectively, at any given time. The difference between us is that, unlike Dennett, I believe subjective phenomena should be taken as seriously as objective ones. Whilst I agree there is no objective truth about the contents of anyone's consciousness, it is as certain as anything can be that people do experience things, and that experience can be as real for that person at that time as anything ever is. There is subjective truth, too.

The traditional Western viewpoint as taken by Dennett can reasonably be termed “objectivist”, meaning “biased towards objectivity” (not “Objectivist”, which means something quite different). My objections to it will come as no revelation to objectivists such as Dennett, who would take “real for that person” to mean “unreal”, and dismiss anyone saying such things as a typical relativist/postmodernist/subjectivist. But I have analysed that position down to its foundations, and then built up a picture that, while perfectly consistent with the positive things the objectivists have to say about the material world—because they have the right attitude there, as proven by the prodigious successes of science and technology—gives subjectivity in general, and consciousness in particular, their due.

The one issue that has remained at the centre of my concerns for over twenty years has been this: subjectivity versus objectivity. I suspect that subjectivists will be as likely to label me an objectivist, as vice versa, but in fact I am no more one than the other. I'm absolutely committed to valuing subjectivity and objectivity equally, in general terms, while being very clear, in any given context, about which approach best suits it. And social and other personal scenarios are not intrinsically less important, less worthy of serious consideration, than scientific ones.

Some people used to say, against a distinction that's often made, that “the personal is the political”. Whether that's right or not, what I'm quite sure of is that the personal is, in its own way, as real as the impersonal. Despite being subjective, consciousness is just as real as matter. I don't believe Dennett could ever go along with any such statement, but then, I'm not him.

There is a great deal of information about Dennett and his work on the web. Here is his homepage.

Copyright © 1998--2005 by Robin Faichney. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/). Distribution of substantively modified versions of this document is prohibited without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. Distribution of the work or derivative of the work in any standard (paper) book form is prohibited unless prior permission is obtained from the copyright holder.
Last modified 22-May-2005 09:54:57 by Robin Faichney .