Becoming an Existential Therapist
Emmy van Deurzen
Original draft for the programme “Existential Me” The Essay- BBC Radio 3
Shorter, revised version read on 15 November 2013.
Early decisions about religion
I can trace the moment when I decided to commit myself to the search for truth. I was seven years old and had just realized that other children in my class were generally baptised and thus somehow branded and defined by belonging to a particular creed or church. As this took place in the Netherlands in the nineteen fifties, they were mostly Protestant, Calvinist, Lutheran or Reformed. Some were Catholic or Jewish and in one or two cases Hindu. With so many options on offer, I was dismayed that I had been left out of this distribution of riches. It did seem to convey one slight advantage in that I was exempt from having to go to a place of worship on the weekend. Most of my friends and cousins seemed to find this tedious and annoying. But I was acutely aware that the lack of religious affiliation was also a social handicap, as it created an aura of difference and suspicion around me. I was not ‘one of the chosen’ as others seemed to think they were. Several times friends or their parents warned me that I would be barred from salvation and would not go to heaven after my death. This troubled me deeply although I had no image of hell or heaven and refused to believe them. I decided that I would have to start searching to figure out what the truth of the matter was and turned to my parents.
My parents were free thinkers, who had abandoned their childhood Christian beliefs after their trials and tribulations in the Second World War, in which they had come to question everything they had been taught. They had joined the theosophical society, an organization that looked at the great world religions to try and make sense of spirituality in a more pluralistic way. In practice it meant that they exposed me to Hindu and Buddhist ideas as much as to Judeo-Christian ones, though I cannot remember being told much about Moslem concepts till later on. When my primary school teacher asked everyone in our class to state their religion, I really was not sure what to say and said I had no religion, then went home to ask my parents what I should have replied. My dad laughed and scoffed. He provocatively suggested I tell my teacher that I was a heathen. This scandalized my mother, who thought I should call myself an atheist or an agnostic. When I was beginning to get my seven-year-old head around these terms, I found them troublesome and deeply wanting, for I did not want to be defined by what I was not. I wanted to engage with something.
I already had deep and secret beliefs of my own and wanted to commit my entire soul to something that was true and good and worthwhile rather than stating I was an unbeliever or a doubter. I loved nature and freedom and fairness and kindness, the sunshine on the North Sea waves, the wind sweeping me along or challenging me on my bike through the dunes. And I loved going camping with my parents, for four weeks each summer, trekking through Europe with little tents, meeting people from different countries, learning languages, realizing how many different sorts of existence there were for each person to choose from. I relished rain when it made the tent seem cosy or made the forest or mountain streams come to life. I loved watching clouds drifting through the sky and I was mesmerized by thunderstorms and sunsets. At night, sitting in the dark by our tents, the stars and planets overawed me. I was eager to know more about the universe and wanted to understand what it was all about.
Impact of my parents’ war experiences
Most of the time I lived in a confined situation however, in our tiny second floor flat in the North Sea dunes at the South West of The Hague in the Netherlands. We looked out towards the sea on one side and on all other sides to rows of new-built flats and post-war construction sites. My elder sister and I shared a box room so compact that one of our beds had to be stored under the other during the daytime. We were initially uncomplaining, as we were never left in any doubt that we were lucky to have this modest space at all. Never mind that our cousins were better off. We were on the move and life would improve.
The stories we were told by our parents on a daily basis were harrowing. We knew that The Hague had been occupied by the Germans for five years and had been bombed continuously. The population had suffered greatly from hunger, persecution and fear, especially for that last dire, ice-cold winter of 44-45, known as the Dutch Famine. My father had been in hiding in a freezing loft, in danger of his life for many months. He had contracted double pneumonia and continued to suffer from severe asthma as a result. My mother had nursed sick children, who suffered from starvation, diphtheria, tetanus and tuberculosis. Our maternal grandparents had lost their home and all their possessions twice over, first when their house was bombed to the ground in The Hague by the Germans and a second time when their new accommodation in Arnhem was bombed by the allies at the end of the war. Many of my uncles and great uncles had been deported to Nazi labour camps or in some cases had been summarily shot in the street whilst resisting. During the German blockade of food and fuel to the West of Holland, all of my family suffered and came to the edge of the tolerable. My parents were so traumatised by it all that they talked to us about it non-stop during our early years. I have no doubt that this created second-generation traumatisation and that many of my choices in later life were rooted in this sensitization. Our parents deliberately exposed us to different nations and languages so that we would become a force for the good in terms of fraternization in Europe. I grew up with an acute sense of scarcity and learnt to count my blessings from very early on. I felt responsible for making the world a better and more peaceful place if at all possible. Though I was born some years after the end of the war I can vividly remember the coupons my mum still used to buy sugar and butter. We lived with very little. What excitement when my mother was able to buy her first fridge for that diminutive kitchen. What luxury when a washing machine came along some years later and she no longer had to stand bending over a tub, hand washing our sheets and our smalls.
In that cramped and uptight environment we sometimes heard the nightly screams of the downstairs neighbour who suffered from recurrent nightmares after having been tortured in a Japanese war camp. We heard gruesome stories from other children about their fathers’ suffering and experiences of torture too. For a while I lived in terror of it happening to me. Our next-door neighbour had lost one of her arms in a bombing. We saw the tattoos on the forearms of those who had returned from concentration camps. My imagination ran wild and I used to picture myself living in such circumstances as I read books like Anne Frank’s diary when I was still a small child and I played out concentration camp scenes in my mind most nights, which led to horrific nightmares. No wonder we panicked during the Suez crisis when Dutch safety was once again severely threatened and we were made to practise running for cover to cellars and bomb-shelters, in case we were going to be under nuclear attack.
Search for knowledge
Reality was far too scary for me to be casual about my beliefs. I was searching for something that could make sense of it all, but did not have the luxurious assurance of creed or God. I grew up with an acute sense of danger in the world and an equally great sense of gratitude for every moment of relative safety. In that post war atmosphere of struggle, reading books was an exhilarating (and often secretive) activity that opened up new and more promising worlds and ways of life. As my father spent six months in Paris when I was a little girl and we went camping all around France early on, I was attracted to French literature. Reading Camus, Sartre and de Beauvoir was intoxicating. Their books spoke of choices that had to be made, freedoms that had to be fought for, living that had to be learnt and loves that could be earned. I wanted all that and wanted it badly. Anouilh’s plays of Antigone and Joan of Arc provided me with much needed female role models.
The way the existentialists questioned the bourgeois principles that my family had lost in the war gave me hope: perhaps it was an advantage to be so deprived. The existential rebellion against the dogma of religion gave me a home. These ideas all at once saved me, electrified me and called me to account. What was I going to do to make sure I would not go under in a world of easy options or hypocrisies? We were now moving towards the rewards of the early sixties and I was wary and aware of the dangers of going under in make believe as I swooned into the seductive sentiment of pop and blues music and yearned for a life of discovery and great love. How would I live my life? I had the urgent idea that it was important to make the most of the new opportunities and wanted to help create a better world rather than expecting it to be offered to me as a gift.
In secondary school, where I studied classics, I briefly but enthusiastically adopted the pantheism of the Greeks and Romans and read about their rituals and myths with the same eagerness I had felt in reading folk tales. I had a liking for the Stoics too and plastered Seneca, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius’ quotes all over my school diary. But I was ready for more serious fare and became fascinated with Plato, falling in love with Socrates’ dialoguing spirit and his fierce enquiry into truth combined with his firm challenges to those who only pretended to know. He gave me a method for my later work as a therapist as well: the Socratic dialogue in which two people try to establish what is right and what is wrong and at the best of times, collaboratively, come to reveal some elements of wisdom that enable them to live with more clarity.
After this I could never just fall in blindly with existentialism again. I would always come to it critically, challenging it from the perspective of my own experiential reality and from the method of enquiry that Socrates had shown me. Later on, as I studied science and logic, I became committed to checking any assertions against scientific facts and rational thought as well. At the same time the passionate nature of existentialism dovetailed beautifully with my own life preoccupations and with the desire to live a freer kind of life than my parents had lived. When Sartre showed that hell was other people this made good sense to me in the claustrophobic atmosphere of our tiny flat, where tempers flared and I felt oppressed and thwarted and craved privacy and respect. De Beauvoir’s questioning of female assumptions was also formative and inspiring, as I knew that I would never want to be a housewife in the way my mother was. I wanted to liberate myself from these narrow confines and find the existential freedom these authors promised.
Then, in 1967 on one of our long summer travels, this time in a still pristine pre-tourist Portugal, I fell in love with a Frenchman five years older than me. He was a student, a poet and an existential rebel. The vehemence of his feelings for me overwhelmed me. Our subsequent daily correspondence utterly transformed me and opened an entirely new vista in my life. His visits to the Netherlands where I was still a schoolgirl drew me into a world I had thus far only dreamt about. And then in May ‘68 came the French revolution with its total stoppage of post for months. My heart ground to the occasional halt but grew ever fonder, as I lived on the Parisian barricades with him in spirit. My emotions were strong and my commitment was entire and total. The relief of seeing him that summer was ecstatic. During the next year I found it hard to concentrate on my schoolwork and Latin and Greek seemed torrid and boring by comparison to the transcendent love I was swept up in. This was eased by the fact that my French grades kept improving as letters continued to fly back and forth. I was living the poetry, the love and the promise of a better future. But a year later, after another heady visit, sailing on the Dutch lakes and walking on the North Sea beach, spending the night watching the defining Apollo 11 mission, he abruptly and silently disappeared from my life, without a word or explanation, leaving me with an enormous inner vacuum, that I was unable to fill. I became desolate and suicidal and only barely managed to survive because of the kindness of family and teachers. It taught me much about the importance of friendship and the importance of contributing to the world. It taught me also about the vital need for self-reliance, autonomy and courage.
As soon as my final exams were over, I was off to France, a free spirit ready to live the life I had longed for but no longer burdened with romantic illusions and determined to remain alone for the rest of my life. Though I was very lonely, I was in terrific company, discovering a literature so rich that it soothed my soul. Alongside the existential authors came Flaubert and Proust and Rousseau and many others. But I was also immersed in Freud and Jung and Hesse and the poetry of Verlaine and Rimbaud. Music, as always made its own crucial contribution to my search for expansion and my groping towards redemption. I discovered the melancholy joy of French chansons and revelled in Aznavour, Brel and Brassens. As soon as my philosophy studies took off in seriousness I found that the huge precipice inside of me could easily accommodate the entire range of European philosophers. I delighted in their yearning for understanding and their search for meaning.
I was fortunate enough to study for my masters in philosophy with Michel Henry, an existential-phenomenological philosopher who knew Husserl and Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau Ponty, Marx and Engels, but also Kant and Hegel and Nietzsche better than most and whose search for human decency beyond philosophy was enlightening. He taught me much and was inspirational in the way in which he drew wisdom from controversy, remaining aloof from academic rivalries. He gave me the confidence to pursue my therapeutic practice as a form of applied philosophy. While I began to do so by thinking about it from scratch, inventing it in the process, I soon became aware of the rich tradition of existential philosophers like Buber, Scheler, Tillich, Jaspers and Marcel showing me the way. Then I discovered Binswanger and shortly afterwards R.D. Laing and realized I had found a field to which I wanted to contribute, as it badly needed further development.
The defining idea of existential therapy is that it is philosophy in practice. Existential therapists do not accept a restrictive picture of the human psyche and do not formulate the task of existence as one that is predetermined by human nature. If there is no essence of being and no blue print for morality, human beings have to struggle with the human condition and define the way they want to live, understanding the obstacles and difficulties they encounter in ever better ways. Since human beings evolve and change as they become more conscious and alter their position in the world, the objective of existential therapy is to awaken a person to consciousness and awareness of their own position in the world. Context is crucial. We are moulded by the culture and history we find ourselves embedded in. People create their lives out of what has been given to them and what they have managed to understand of life. Human life is a relatively brief experience, which starts with conception and ends in death, leaving each of us to make something meaningful out of what happens in between. The golden rule of phenomenology is to describe rather than to interpret and this allows us to approach the mystery of human consciousness in a careful and respectful manner, noticing that life is rather different according to our different cultures, situations and circumstances though we have some fundamental experiences in common and we are all capable of transcending our early givens to some extent.
Practising what you preach
I became involved in psychiatry through my relationship with a French medical student when I was myself a philosophy student in Montpellier in the early 1970ies. He decided to specialize in psychiatry and I decided to move on to psychotherapy training so that our disparate interests could come together. My study of the works of psychoanalytic authors like Freud, Jung, Lacan, Deleuze and Irigaray was absorbing and intriguing and affected me deeply, but it did not satisfy my search for a philosophical way to practice. As I joined my now psychiatrist husband in his work in various psychiatric settings, first with autistic children, then with young anorexic women, I was shocked at the lack of care given. I found that many people as soon as they became patients lost their own voice and self-respect, giving up their agency and humanity as they became dependent on medical care and chemicals. I was now being confronted with the depth of despair in people so alienated from themselves and society that they were often unreachable. In spite of this it was obvious to me that their struggles and suffering were not so dissimilar to my own, though they had fallen more deeply into desolation and isolation than I ever had. I was able to resonate with them strongly enough to sense what they wanted and needed. For they too had lost their gods, their identity and their sense of belonging and redemption. I had found a field of work in which I was at home and where my capacity for clear thinking and my desire for truth and understanding were wanted, needed and required to be further sharpened rather than to be blunted or silenced. I found in existential philosophy an endless source of inspiration and a wealth of ideas from which to draw when helping other people to make sense of their troubles and create new meanings in life.
It became essential to seek out places where working with people could be done in an experimental and more humane way than was possible in the psychiatric hospital of Font d’Aurelle in Montpellier. We chose to go work and live in a revolutionary psychiatric hospital in the Massif Central, in the small town of Saint Alban, Lozère, which was the birthplace of French social and community therapy. Here I was able to apply my philosophical understanding to my work with individual patients and groups and was for ever changed by this baptism of fire, in which I was stretched and changed. I summarized my learning in my master’s dissertation with Michel Henry on the phenomenology of solipsism, loneliness and schizophrenia. This also sparked his interest in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis on which he was to write a book later. For my part I decided to get further training and so I went back to University to qualify as a clinical psychologist, doing research on attempted suicide. I wanted to develop a method for helping people understand their shipwrecked lives better and realized that the time had come to begin to develop my own way of working.
During my training in Lacanian psychoanalytic therapy I disagreed with so much of that particular interpretation of reality that I searched high and low for alternative models and methods and came to appreciate the work of R.D. Laing and other radical psychiatrists who had been inspired by the work of Jean Paul Sartre. In the UK in the sixties and seventies these so called ‘anti-psychiatrists’ created therapeutic communities for people who were struggling with survival but who did not want to be consigned to mental hospitals or pumped full of medication.
I came to the UK in 1977 to work with this movement and lived and worked in one of these communities, immersing myself in people’s problems and experimenting with alternative ways of approaching mental illness. While the communities were often lacking in structure and good support, the idea was ground breaking and remains of value today. This way of working was not unlike what I had experienced in Saint Alban, except that my relationships with the people I lived with were much closer and led to life-long friendships. By now I could no longer take the method of psychopathological diagnosis seriously. What people needed was understanding not medication. They wanted to solve their problems, not suppress them. Their condition was not medical, but existential. I knew that the only way to overcome the problems was to face them with courage. This strengthened my resolve to describe more carefully how to actually do this, systematically and to this purpose I created a new training school for existential therapy and began writing about my way of working.
This existential therapy is firmly based in human living and in the philosophical wisdom I am committed to continue to study. I started teaching these ideas all over London, first at the Arbours Association, then at the Institute of Psychotherapy and Social Studies, Antioch University and South West London College counselling courses. I founded a School at Regent’s College in the 80’s and the New School in the 90’s. My objective was not to be clever or successful but to do justice to the suffering of the people I worked with and to spread the word about the alternatives available. None of it is valid unless it matches what people experience. Any philosophy worth having has got to be fit to be applied in practice. It has to be real and firmly based in life itself. It can’t be just about words and theories.
What I find in the writing of existential philosophers are sacred principles and intellectual riches that these authors have worked hard to extract from their own life experience and depth of suffering. I feel a profound sense of gratitude that human beings can be so creative and inventive and so generous with in sharing their understanding. It makes life worthwhile and right, in a world that continues to be riddled with conflict, anxiety, aggression, loss and sadness. I aim to contribute to the pool of wisdom, as much as I can.
The application of these existential ideas to existential psychotherapy means that clients are not offered reassurance or treatment for symptoms, but are encouraged to consider their anxiety as a valid starting point for the work that has to be done. They are helped to face facts and find the resilience to make changes for the better by affirming their freedom and capacity for choice, always in open fair-minded conversation and with a view to exploring the consequences of choices with a careful weighing up of rights and duties.
Philosophy can benefit all of us, not just psychotherapy clients. It encourages us to develop moral and existential principles for ourselves. Such ideas call us to live to the full, making the most of the time we have got, unafraid of suffering, and not shirking from plumbing our own depths, in which we sometimes lock up our passions as well as our fears.
When I work with my clients I aim to help them to understand their lives better, to regain their balance, their perspective, their sense of direction and to find the meaning that they have lost or purloined, or perhaps never found in the first place. And hopefully they will discover to their delight that times of crisis are moments for reflection rather than moments where we should rush into panicky action. They learn to thrive on anxiety and find their true depth when despairing or upset. People who are engaged with something of value always surprise themselves. They find fresh energy and purpose to engage with life in a new and wholehearted fashion. A calm and kind, quiet but searching dialogue is often all it takes to help them find their depth.
In that process people learn to recognize the contradictions and paradoxes of life, to face their troubles and solve dilemmas. They also learn to decide what is important and precious in life. I have done this job for over forty years and continue to be amazed at people’s resilience and intelligence in overcoming their problems once they put their heart and mind into it. Since it is Camus’ 100th birthday this year, I shall end on a couple of quotes by him, for they sum up so well what clients discover, as they face their fate and learn to love their life. Camus says it very elegantly and poignantly:
‘In the depth of winter, I finally learnt that there was in me an invincible summer.’
‘Happiness is nothing except the simple harmony between human beings and the life they lead.’
Review of Sam Harris’ FREE WILL.
2012, New York: Free Press.
by Prof. Emmy van Deurzen PhD, FBPsS, CPsychol.
(Middlesex University and New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling, London)
Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and philosopher of science who writes books that aim to challenge established opinion and provoke a strong response. There is no problem with that in principle, but it becomes disturbing when he overstates his case, creating a caricature of reality. Though he might claim he has played devil’s advocate and that his intention is to bring us to thought, I suspect that many of his readers will simply take his word for it and follow his mechanical materialism uncritically. It is unfortunate then that this little pamphlet lacks in factual accuracy and is philosophically naïve and misleading. Harris is simply getting it wrong.
I read the book The Moral Landscape by Harris, before I came upon Free Will and had similar problems with that book as well, but I will stick to his Free Will in this commentary, as the latter shows up the fault lines in Harris’ argumentation so well. Harris confidently extrapolates from neuroscience in a manner that is not warranted and not advisable. He also ignores most of the history of philosophy whilst setting himself up as a moral philosopher who might end the need for further speculation about the discipline of morality. Free Will sets out his views with simple strokes and with unstinting boldness and assurance. His entire argument is rooted in the mechanical view that life is limited to matter. Ironically in order to maintain his position he resorts to assertion rather than to demonstration and argumentation. This is regrettably much like the strategy of religious fundamentalism.
Let me correct any suggestion that my dislike of Harris’ work stems from its origins in neuroscience. Though I was trained as a continental philosopher in France in the seventies and completed a doctorate in continental philosophy many decades later in London, in between these times I also trained and worked as a clinical psychologist and later as a psychotherapist. After working for five years in psychiatry, my first academic job was in neuroscience, at the Science Department of Bordeaux University, where I worked under Prof. Bernard Cardo, who was the French champion of research on the reward system, particularly on the MFB or medial forebrain bundle of the hypothalamus, near the nucleus accumbens (Acb), a well known part of the neural network of gratification. In spite of my moral qualms I learnt much from placing electrodes in mice and rats’ brains with stereotaxic operations, watching these poor animals become addicted to self-stimulation at the expense of all else. I found it all rather unsavoury, especially when ideas were too easily extrapolated to human experience. I realized from the outset that big distinctions needed to be made between neuroscience experimentation and the reality of awareness and consciousness, especially where reflective thought comes onto the scene. I realized that many neuro-scientists become alienated from the evolution that human beings have been through over the past centuries in their capacity for understanding and self reflection. While much of my career was focused on helping human beings to live better lives by using that capacity for understanding and change, I was confronted with the neuro-science line of approach once again when I became honorary professor at Sheffield University in the ninety nineties. I was attached to the medical school and I watched the rush towards fMRI research in my department from nearby. I found it fascinating that the same issues were still at the foreground, though the investigative technology had so much advanced. It was a pleasure getting to know people like Sean Spence, who was always particularly receptive to ideas from clinical practice to inform his neuro-scientific research. But Sean was an exception, whose work I esteemed, as I do the neuroscience based work of my own husband, Prof. Digby Tantam, an expert on autism.
I much enjoyed reading the recent book Brainwashed by psychiatrist and psychologist team Satel and Lilienfield, who, like myself, are worried about the tendency of overestimating the knowledge provided to us by neuro-science. Their book is sound, factual and modest in its conception. It sums up nicely why people ought to be a little more cautious in evaluating the truth-value of Sam Harris’ contribution. They attack the all too often misleading features of the public presentation of neuroscience or rather of what they term ‘neuromania’, with the increasingly frequently distorted media attention it is given. They warn against the tendency of the wider public to be gullible about neuroscience because of their lack of knowledge from which to evaluate the facts. They ask the question of whether eventually bureaucrats will be replaced by neuro-crats and while they intend this as a humorous quip, I think that people like Sam Harris already believe that they can substitute philosophy and social science with the science of the brain. Of course in this Harris is wrong and misleading, as a read of the Satel and Lilienfield book will show you. Nevertheless Harris’s work will have many more readers than the Brainwashed book. His influence is far reaching and his public profile will distribute his ideas wide and far. I am somewhat surprised that Harris, as a scientist, allows himself to build a new mechanistic philosophy on fairly superficial findings. Nothing that we have discovered in neuroscience warrants such extrapolation. The facts can and have been explained and understood in other ways. Although it appears that Harris also has a degree in philosophy, he does not seem to set much stake by the history of philosophy and its established ways of constructing a logical argument after defining one’s terms. He builds his views on the non-existence of Free Will entirely on his own computations of neuro-science data, without seriously considering alternative interpretations.
All this is important. As Harris states so accurately at the outset: ‘The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about’. He then goes on to argue that if scientists could declare free will an illusion there would be an outrage and cultural war greater than the one ‘waged on the subject of evolution’. This is blatantly wrong as his argument is very much in line with the Darwinian and neo-Darwinian battle with creationism and does not really add anything new to either enlighten or calm that particular conundrum. In fact by arguing from proclamation and opinion he rather undermines the evolutionists’ usual minimum requirement of sticking with the facts of observation. Harris introduces misleading elements into the debate, which appeal to irrationality rather than building a case for a rational appraisal of human nature. Harris’ contention is that neuroscience will explain all of human behaviour and has accumulated sufficient knowledge to authoritatively dispense with the illusory notion that human beings have any kind of free will. His argument is based on flimsy evidence and is circular. It is mostly made by assertion and re-assertion of his opinions, which are based in an essentially neuro-centric view of the world.
Most of his pamphlet is polemic rather than factual and it is a shame to make it look like a treatise on philosophy, when it is only the expression of a very one-sided and wilfully extremist view. It seems as if Harris has chosen to tackle this issue to weigh in on an eye-catching controversy, but that he is doing so not just without having adequate knowledge of the existing debates on the philosophy of freedom, but also without having a new view to add into that debate. He briefly refers to existentialism, but only to show his ignorance of it, and he argues with Dennett’s compatibilist views, which are actually not all that far removed from his own, though at least they leave room for reasonable doubt and modesty of opinion (see my review of Dennett’s Intuition Pumps, 2013, below). It is not hard to come to the conclusion that Harris has published this booklet simply because he has the audience and the publishers’ backing and can get away with it. Had any novice author submitted this document to a serious publishing company they would have been eliminated after peer review, which would have found this work wanting in a myriad of ways. So why does Harris’ writing nevertheless find such a large audience and reach such a wide market? It is a puzzle and a worry. I would argue it may be because pragmatism in the USA leads to national pride in scientists and an inclination to overrate their capacity for moral guidance. Harris does a great job of making it look as if his arguments are based in factual knowledge and outstrip any other form of philosophy. His work provides a sobering counterweight to the wishful thinking of some American humanistic psychology, though it could chime in quite easily with a certain type of positive psychology. He reminds people that their brains are part of their bodies and that these lumps of flesh are essentially all we amount to.
Harris is very aware of the game he is playing. He says ‘the stakes are high’ and he is willing at all times to raise the game and the temperature. He enters into the fray by telling the story of a heinous crime: an attack during which the criminals injure and bind the father and end up raping and strangling the mother and burning her and her two young daughters after terrorizing and assaulting them in their home, having emptied their bank account. It is the stuff of nightmares. According to Harris, if he were to trade places with one of these criminals, atom for atom, he would become them and act exactly as they did. He says we cannot take credit for not having the soul or mind of a psychopath. I do not think he has proven or even argued that point in any way at all. He has not given us any evidence that these criminals acted as they did because of their brain function or dysfunction. Nor has he shown that they had no other options open to them in the moment they made their choices. He merely entices us into the belief that this is the case, by making it sound as if he knows this to be so. In truth the current state of neuroscience does not enable any body to demonstrate that these criminals behaved as they did because their brains were irreversibly and inexorably conditioned to do so. Indeed I doubt that neuroscience will ever be able to do so. But of course, since Harris wishes to argue that human beings do not have any free will, he starts with a story, which is so horrific that we find it easy to accept that such an event is predetermined by the malfunction of a brain rather than it being the act of a thinking human being. In a sense we want to believe him, for it takes the pressure of morality out of the equation. Courtrooms around the world have struggled with this problem for many decades and indeed centuries. When working as an expert witness it is however important to stick with factual information and weigh up the capacity of a person to take responsibility. And sometimes, but in my experience very rarely, a person commits a crime without the conscious capacity to prevent it. The plea of insanity is recognized worldwide, but it would not be an advantage for society if that plea became taken over by the plea of genetic or neurological disability in the face of crime. Forensic psychologists and psychiatrists have had to think very carefully about all this and rarely fail to argue that responsibility and free will come in degrees rather than as a black or white, either/or. One has to draw the line somewhere and ask people to account for their actions, something we would no longer do were we to accept Harris’ line of argument. If we went along with Harris, while we may, as he points out, find sympathy with the other’s determined brain, it will confuse our judgements about their character and their capacity for judgement and judicious choice making. The fact that some people lose their capacity for exercising responsibility does not extrapolate to the establishment for the lack of free will, but rather confirms it.
Problems with the thesis
As I was reading the book I kept wondering whether Harris entirely believed his own position or intended no more than a bold and provocative thought experiment, for which I could forgive him. From the start Harris’ examples appear to be used for impact rather than for accuracy purposes. He loosely speaks of forgiving criminal behaviour if we discover that people have brain tumours, when criminal behaviour in people with brain tumours is actually extremely rare, probably because brain tumours either incapacitate the person or leave enough neural network functional enough for the person to still correct their behaviour by moral standards even when they are out of touch and confused. The human spirit of free and responsible will and careful consideration tends to find a way regardless of handicap.
As mentioned Harris overrides such considerations by proceeding by assertion and he repeatedly acclaims his position with the purpose of making his case. So, he says things like: ‘given the unconscious origins of our conscious minds’, without having given a hint of evidence for such an enormous statement about one of the controversies in his field. When Freud argued the same, hundred twenty years ago, he was a lot more careful to make a case and most of us no longer believe him. On page 5 Harris asserts that: ‘Free will is an illusion’, with the emphasis on ‘is’, as if this is a fact that has already been shown to be true. It would have been wiser and more accurate to stick with something more modest and appropriate like: ‘I shall aim to demonstrate that free will is an illusion’. He makes beginners’ mistakes by not defining his terms and declares boldly that: ‘our wills are simply not of our own making’, without defining ‘will’ or explaining what exactly he means by ‘own’ or ‘making’. It is very dispiriting to read a book on a philosophical topic that fails to make the effort to do proper philosophy.
He goes on to argue that: ‘either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them’. This is not a sound argument as: a.) we may be responsible for our wills (whatever that means) in spite of being influenced or even determined by prior causes, b.) if our wills are the product of chance we may yet be able and willing to claim responsibility for what we do with these wills in the future, c.) there is no reason why both of these things could not apply at the same time. We may very well be determined to some extent by prior causes and also be the product of chance and at the same time exercise some amount of free will to make it all work out. We may be active agents of change and have a task to combine these various givens and create a project of our own whilst taking these limitations into account.
It is very difficult to follow an author who so blatantly disregards any evidence that goes against his own statements and who does not even check the logic of his own declarations. Again on page 6 he puts forward the thesis that: ‘the popular concept of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.’ Once again this statement leaves him wide open to contention. These two assumptions about ‘the popular concept of free will’ are not based in any factual evidence. If it is based in Harris’ own experience, he does not say, but I can say categorically from my own forty years of experience in working with people who have difficulties in exercising any kind of free will, that even they do not assume these things. They usually accept that they knew no better in the past and that their mistakes are forgivable and similarly they accept that there are limits to their exercise of choice and free will in the present. Their main preoccupation is the extent to which they can a.) know their own will, b.) exercise it in the face of akrasia or weakness, c. ) how to gradually become strong enough to feel they can take charge of their life rather than experience themselves like automatons, who are at the mercy of the determinations of the past, the environment, their genes, circumstances, other people or their own current lack of motivation. None of them ever seek to deny some level of determinism and are well aware that the laws of nature, of society and of survival require them to work within clear boundaries. The facts of life are not in question; it is the extent to which they can go beyond the givens of their existence that is at issue. I don’t think I have ever come across anyone who believed that they were the source of most of their thoughts and actions. But nor have I ever been able to help anyone make something of their life who did not first accept their responsibility for it. What I find in practice is that people make progress in making something of themselves and their lives to the extent that they become aware of their capacity to exercise their free will in a world that is full of obstacles and external causes. I wonder whether Harris takes his own authority so much for granted that it blinds him to the lack of free will and authority in others who need to work very hard to marshal it, but who come to value it as much as he appears to deny it.
The illusion of total freedom
There is no question of total freedom. It is a fantasy and illusion and most people know that. But the other extreme is equally true: the idea of a mechanically driven world, which has not evolved enough to allow for the necessary change and variation to drive evolution is also absurd and contradictory in terms. When Harris denies the existence of any free will he is denying the very core of our humanity and capacity for reflection. What he overlooks is the small margin of freedom that we establish as we evolve, not just as a human race, but also as individual human beings. As a neuroscientist he ought to know better that the human brain keeps developing after birth and requires much learning to complete its initial wiring. The maturation of our neural network only really happens at the end of adolescence and until then that margin of free will has not yet been established. Criminal activity for that reason is much higher in the young as for some people neural development is delayed and leaves room for a lack of exercise of caution, consideration, reflection and choice. In all of us the brain continues to evolve and develop and rewire itself according to our circumstances. Our capacity for free will becomes greater as we get better at evaluating, overseeing and understanding situations. Free will is generated out of the human capacity for learning, adaptation and evolution. It is not a given from the start but something we have to acquire and become better at as we practice and affirm it. The modicum of free will that we acquire in the process is based in our capacity for understanding and reflection, part of the higher functions that do not, like the lower functions Harris keeps talking about, operate by reflex action. It is not helpful for an expert to confuse people about themselves for the sake of argument. He does not even do a good job in explaining about the various networks and their disparate functions.
His illustrations of the way in which we do many things unconsciously and without reflection are pretty well accurate, but he fails to address any of the many times when we do the opposite and reflect carefully about dilemmas, conflicts or options we have before us as we make pondered decisions. If human beings were really wired the way Harris is alleging we would not have any use for the judiciary, for politics, for the United Nations, for Universities, for conflict resolution or mediation or psychotherapy. We also would not need any books, nor would I have decided to respond to his words for that matter. The neural networks would already have taken care of the synchronization of knowledge.
Is Harris in bad faith?
I am sure Harris is an intelligent person who really knows all these objections. He must realize that he uses conman tactics and that there is a constant assumptive sleight of hand at work in this little work. For instance on page 7 he says: ‘we are utterly unaware of the neurophysiological events that produce them’ (i.e. our experiences). The sentence slyly assumes that it has already been proven that the causality goes in this direction, i.e. that neurophysiological events cause experiences, rather than the other way around. This is simply not the case. Harris never proved it, nor did anyone else. We are still working out the models and they will change as we discover more. The only thing we know is that there is a correlation between the experiences we have and the consumption of oxygen in certain structures of the brain while we are having these experiences. Harris dispenses with the evidence and launches forward as if he has proven that neurones produce experience, rather than simply being the vehicle, or instrument of experience or indeed rather than being the product of such experience, all of which are possibilities. Generations of debate on these issues are wiped aside with one self-righteous gesture.
He asks why impulses arise one morning and not another and proceeds to conclude we cannot know, when actually many people can trace back the start of an impulse and get good at becoming aware before it takes them over. In fact the practice of psychotherapy is very much based on that slow effort of getting to know ourselves and our impulses and actions, before they ‘just happen’. We can educate our prefrontal lobes through meditation and self-observation and we get better as we learn. There are people who are expert at this type of educational research. Some of them use fMRI scans to show the effects. Harris is clearly unfamiliar with these practices.
He refers to Libet’s well known work (page 8), which showed that activity in the motor cortex can be detected 300 mil seconds before a person’s decision to move. He does not discuss the fact that many people describe the making of a decision in exactly that way: that there is a dawning, gradual leaning into a decision, before a decision to do something is actually made. The brain is being warmed up for the action required in the same way in which people are ‘making up their minds’ to move. When he says such findings are hard to reconcile with the sense that we are conscious authors of our actions he overstates his case: they are compatible with the notion that our decisions are like emerging properties of our deliberations. They show us that decision-making is not an on/off activity and that free will is not the way American humanism describes it, i.e. it is not a conscious or sudden willing, but rather a consideration of possibilities and a gradual leaning into one particular orientation. When working with addicts an understanding of such passive choice making, such sliding into action, is very important. Sartre described it rather well in his books on emotions and in his notebooks for an ethics (1938,1939). Harris refers briefly and dismissively to Sartre, but shows a profound lack of understanding of existentialism itself, claiming it to be about interpreting the meanings of our life, when it is actually very much about how we choose to live and act in the world. Harris would do well to read Sartre and learn about bad faith and the way in which it allows us to fool ourselves. He needs to consider that whole experience of slumping into self-indulgent believing that we know something when we have not yet investigated it or when we conveniently forget that we know something that does not fit our preferences. I think it would be very relevant as much of his writing seems to lean towards bad faith. Harris has clearly missed out on the debates around free will by people like Camus (1951), Kierkegaard (1844), Nietzsche (1969), Heidegger (1962, 1985), Jaspers (1971), de Beauvoir (2004) and even his countrymen like Fromm (2001) and May (2007), talking about how easy it is to hide your freedom of choice to yourself, including by blaming your body or brain for your situation. All these authors have struggled with the idea of free will in the face of determinism and scientific progress and could teach him a thing or to if he were interested to exercise his free will to find out. I suspect though that he is not that way inclined, because he already knows and his brain will not cause him to change his mind. Perhaps he might be persuaded to read at least the work of Hannah Arendt (1958), warning him of the kind of slippage societies can slide into when they deny the existence of freedom.
Denial of change and plasticity
Perhaps it is an exaggerated overrated notion of Free Will with capitals that Harris is fighting. If so, he may have struck a blow for freedom against such insanity as thinking that anyone can decide anything at any moment. Perhaps this needed stating, but it does not help to confuse the issue by ignoring the complexity of possible arguments.
There is no question that there are images of free will that are excessive. But Harris is forgetting that the freedom we acquire as we mature is based on slow understanding of our own abilities and shortcomings and the limits and opportunities that the world affords us. Mature ideas about freedom are that freedom is always relative and never total. As Sartre concluded at the end of his career, we only ever have a margin of freedom, being constrained by circumstances, politics, race, society and personal genetic make up included. But we always have to respond to the givens offered to us and define our actions in the situations we find ourselves in. We can respond like Harris’ automatic brain based zombie (although it is perhaps more like Dennett’ Zimbo) but we have the ability to respond in a way that creates greater openings for the future rather than to foreclose the situation with foregone automatic conclusions. Harris strongly denies such a need for the exercise of existential freedom and responsibility. It is down to our brains and they decide how we will act, that’s all there is to it. What he forgets is that a brain is nothing without an environment and that the experiences it has determine the ways in which its neural networks will adjust and operate. Part of that environment is created by the people who designed it and operate and change it. And as they change it their own brains change with them. It is called plasticity.
Harris sometimes reminds me of Skinner in his early days of behavioural conditioning and at other times of Freud in his most grandiose days of belief in the Unconscious and drives as the real motivators behind all our actions. What all these theories have in common is the desire to explain the complexity of human existence with a one size fits all explanation and to reduce all of our daily struggles to one simple causal point of origin. Such simplistic reductionist solutions inevitably fall short of the mark and cannot account for the complexity of reality and human experience in the long run.
Harris’ philosophical stance
Harris’ philosophical heritage is clearly not that of continental philosophy. He appears to have studied philosophy of science and philosophy of mind but to have rather stinted on the classics. These philosophies have very short roots and are in some ways the handmaidens of AI and neuroscience. They do not always encourage critical thinking about these matters. But the most worrying aspect of Harris’ tone and way of writing is that he appeals to authority and belief in truth. These are the usual ingredients of fundamentalist religious views, or those of superstition. The only difference is that Harris asks us to place our faith in the brain and in science and in his authority to preach the gospel of materialism. He forgets that science is nothing without careful argumentation and clarity of understanding.
He tells us how much he has learnt from following the path of determinism and we don’t doubt it as he quotes himself as being able to feel more empathy for the criminal, knowing that the criminal can’t help committing the crime.
The trouble with this is that what he is speaking of is not empathy, which requires us to engage with the point of view of the person we empathize with in order to be able to help them change it. It is rather sympathy or even human pity he speaks of and this takes us back to a more primitive way of dealing with other people, when we have spent centuries in the human and social sciences to struggle beyond such a primitive attitude.
Harris does not show any regard or understanding of the complexity of the human mind and seems to believe it is all down to simple wiring. In actual fact he should know as a neuroscientist that plasticity of the brain is one of the most important aspects of it. Wiring is never set in stone and is altered according to necessity. Clinical observations about this are astonishing and speak volumes. Similarly there are many different pathways in the brain and different levels of operating and the kind of impulsive criminal behaviour that he took as his example in the first chapter is fortunately both extremely rare and based in destructive chain reactions which society aims to avoid by education and training, by morality and ethics. Society is much more successful at doing so than Harris argumentation allows for. In the world of neuro-centrism that he seems to favour there is no room for thoughtfulness and deliberation, for options and choices, reflection and self-reflection, or anything remotely resembling a social conscience. As Harris himself would know only too well: if people really were programmed in the way he is suggesting, there would be no use for much of our brains. Our brains are very refined instruments and capable of much more complex operations than Harris allows for.
Turning to the actual evidence
I have worked with people who struggle with their base instincts, their negative impulses, their obsessions, their compulsions and past histories that make them prone to depression, anxiety, addiction or violence at the drop of a hat. But fortunately they and I put the work in to expand their human capacity for reflection and choice and self-determination. There is no way that positive psychology is on the right track when it claims that happiness is something you can achieve by simply deciding to be happy. That is a most naïve assumption that is immediately proven wrong as soon as you start working with psychiatric patients who have lost their appetite for pleasure. I am with Harris in his rejection of such a primitive faith in humanism and acts of free will.
Free will is a slow process that has been acquired by humanity over many long centuries and that is always competing with the forces of causality and determinism, but which often uses these, though it can never be taken for granted. Our small margins of freedom have to be earned by hard work and careful consideration every day by every single person. We are all inclined to let the automatisms of our programmed brains take over. And as Harris points out in many ways we do not have a choice in the matter. Our brainstem and hypothalamus together with our organs are constantly beavering away to make our systems function. Long may that ingenious brain continue with that job without our intervention. And it is also true that our background and education regulate our early settings in many higher ways and in relation to many of our daily habits. But these can be changed when we have to, though we tend to prefer going on automatic pilot until a crisis happens.
Harris as a world traveller must be aware that his diurnal cycles are slowly reset by his body as soon as he changes to a different time zone. Funnily enough we can work with our bodies and facilitate this process if we know how to. But it is not true that the body initiates the choice to do so. On the contrary it responds to what we impose on it and does so to the best of its ability. With our conscious capacity for understanding this we can learn to work with the process or oppose it. So it is with many things in the body, including the aging process. The biological processes are given and pre-loaded, but we have the capacity to interact with them rather than be passively reactive to them.
Where the higher functions are concerned they are almost entirely wired through use or lack of use. The skills we learn and the habits we create are laid down in the brain as we mature and are taught by our parents, other adults, peers and circumstances. All the evidence is that the more we learn and generalize this learning by repeating and remembering our learning, the more our capacity for choice making improves and increases. We make little pockets of free will for ourselves and our brains respond to this. Ironically this freedom can become a problem too and many people come for psychotherapy when they feel overwhelmed or paralysed in the face of dilemmas they cannot resolve or moral choices they are afraid of making. No quick brain decisions available. They have to really think it through to liberate themselves and release their brain’s capacity for stalling and obstructing them. There are others who have come to therapy because they become panicked in the face of having to make even the smallest of choices, such as deciding what to eat in a restaurant. All these people can restore their confidence in themselves and their ability to exercise their margin of freedom by considering things from different perspectives and by seeing both the limits and advantages of creating their lives and exercising their right and ability to give those lives direction.
Harris may have intended this book in a tongue-in-cheek way that is lost on me. I sincerely hope that it is my lack of understanding of a particular way of making a point that has defeated my imagination. But if he is serious about his contentions then we have a real problem. If people believe his kind of argument, they will be inclined to minimize the importance of creative and reflective thinking and living. If I believed his thesis I would not much want to take the trouble to be as responsible and careful in my actions as I currently am. If I truly thought that my life were determined by the great algorithms of my brain alone, I would give up on the effort of being moral and dutiful and trying so hard to contribute to society. Fortunately I don’t believe Harris for a moment and I do not even think that he does so himself, as his free flowing prose seems to experiment in a rather adolescent way with the liberation of letting himself smell the power of deciding to write one word rather than another. Perhaps he really could not help himself for writing this in the way he did, but I doubt it. And while none of us can be sure that his brain will let him, it would be nice to know that Harris, upon reflection, might decide that it is time to think and write a little bit more carefully next time and exercise his freedom and capacity for reflection.
His primitively mechanistic view of the world does not do justice to everything human beings have developed and evolved over the years. The facts of life are not just laid down in brain-cells, but are also embodied by the arts, the feelings, the human interactions, the aspirations and values that we live with. We cannot leave these out of the debate, for as Harris himself remarked at the start of his booklet: in summary: they are all that really matters to us.
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Camus, A. (1951) The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt trans. A. Bower 1954 New York: Vintage
Dennett, D. C. (2013) Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, New York: Norton.
Frankl, V E. (1946) Man’s Search for Meaning, London: Hodder and Stoughton 1964.
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Heidegger, M. (1927a) Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E. S. Robinson, London: Harper and Row 1962.
– (1971) Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom, transl. Stambaugh J., Athens Ohio: Ohio University Press 1985: 11/9.
Husserl, E. (1938) The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, trans. Carr D., Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970b
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Kierkegaard, S. (1844) The Concept of Anxiety, trans. R. Thomte, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press 1980.
May, R. —(1969) Love and Will, New York: Norton, 2007.
Nietzsche, F. (1887) On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. W Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, New York: Vintage Books 1969.
Ricoeur, P (1966) Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary, Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press.
Sartre, J. P (1960) Critique of Dialectical Reason, trans. A. Sheridan-Smith, London: Verso/NLB 1982.
(1983) Notebooks for an Ethics, trans. D. Pellaner, Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press 1992.
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Satel S. and Lilienfeld S.O. (2013) Brainwashed: The seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, New York: Basic Books.
Reading Daniel Dennett ‘s Intuition Pumps
By Dr. Emmy van Deurzen
Visiting Professor Middlesex University
Principal New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling, London.
I have followed Daniel Dennett’s work with considerable interest over the past decades, not just because he is one of the few contemporary Anglo-Saxon philosophers whose work is relevant to continental philosophy, but because his words are often provocative enough to trigger new insights into human existence. I studied philosophy in France in the early seventies, at Montpellier University with Michel Henry and did a doctorate on Heidegger’s theory of self-deception at City University, London with Alfons Grieder. I am a committed existential phenomenologist who retrained early on as a clinical psychologist and worked in psychiatry for many years, living and working in mental hospitals and therapeutic communities, especially with suicidal and schizophrenic people. Additionally trained in psychotherapy, with Lacanian, group analytic, psycho-dramatic and humanistic methods, I have worked with people’s life problems for over forty years and have developed my own school of existential psychotherapy, counselling psychology and coaching, founding several training colleges and being active in research with my doctoral students.
I was eager to get my copy of Dennett’s latest book ‘Intuition Pumps’, which is a kind of summary of his work as I was hoping it would make a good introductory book for my doctoral students in psychotherapy and counselling psychology. I committed to reading it carefully rather than casually, as I wanted to make up my mind about the importance of Dennett’s contribution once and for all. Reading it I made constant notes to keep track of what appeared to be sound and not so sound in his thought process. My touchstone at all times was whether what he said would make sense to my therapy clients and help my students become better therapists. So, the test in my mind was whether the book would help therapists and their clients in understanding human reality better. In other words, I kept asking the question: ‘does this way of computing existence improve our ability to live in the real world?’ My initial response, as per usual with Dennett, who is a formidable author and thinker by any standard, was to be impressed with his clear exposure of ideas and charmed by his many carefully crafted examples and anecdotes. I was immediately intrigued by his choices and felt some mild irritation at his use of the term ‘Intuition Pumps’, when what he is actually proposing are ‘Cognition Pumps’. His distortion of the term intuition to suit him is disturbing to someone who is more familiar with Brentano’s, Husserl’s and Jaspers’ views on the matter. The other thing that grated was to feel patronized by his professorial tone, which assumed a readership of undergraduate first year philosophy students, whose knowledge of the history of philosophy would be minimal enough to present it as a series of errors to them. We clearly have not been reading the same history of philosophy: the wisdom that I find in the pages of the classics to this day is summarily and flippantly dismissed by Dennett and is reduced to very little, all in the spirit of banter and humour but nevertheless with an eye on point scoring. His disdain of the history of philosophy is an example of his sharp and determined focus on his own, actually rather idiosyncratic, way of doing philosophy, in a manner so focused that the wider perspective and breadth of the discipline are lost from sight.
The book is certainly not a treatise on intuition, as one might wrongly expect from the title. It stubbornly avoids dealing with human topics such as individuality, subjectivity, purpose, aspiration, understanding, empathy, love, choice, freedom, death and suffering. While there is a lot of slow and patient thinking and an exhibition of useful and valuable information, the overall thesis of the book is more about the mechanics of the pumping mind than about the intuitions or insights that might result. There is an underlying assumption that human beings are quite a lot like very sophisticated computers and that it is most important to understand the practice of these thinking machines, pinning down the underlying technology of the process. This leaves out the human capacity for creativity, empathy, transformation and brilliance almost entirely. Consciousness has not improved very much in Dennett’s estimation since his earlier work and he is, as always, eager to stick to the facts and deal in tight argumentation, except when it suits him. You will find no messing with magic, transcendence, morphic resonance or metaphysics here, as he points out. If you follow his path you will not fail to get his message. Though the title may conjure up the promise of a plethora of intuitive insights, streaming freely from a freshly pumped flow of consciousness, my experience was one of being confronted with a great drought caused by his desert like clarity in sticking to the facts of prosaic cognitive patterns. The concept of intuition is effectively redefined as a process of stepwise, rational, logical, scientific or intelligent thinking. Nothing wrong with that and the book will definitely sharpen and tighten your thinking and can be recommended for that reason. It provides a number of thinking tools to help you avoid wishful or sloppy thinking. But don’t expect a full toolbox. Dennett’s display of thought instruments is always very narrowly defined and highly idiosyncratic, reserved for his own interpretations of well known and age-old strategies, which are sometimes renamed and given a twist. There is no explanation or exposition of basic principles of logic, dialectics, hermeneutics, phenomenological reductions, heuristic devices or other classic instruments of thinking. Any form of discursive, creative or poetic thought is discouraged. Anything remotely related to the meaning of life, spirituality or even human emotions has been carefully cleared out of sight and eliminated.
In spite of this the book is well worth reading, as Dennett will frustrate your tendency to think too freely and he will teach you discipline in questioning your assumptions. I would certainly recommend it to readers capable of critical assessment, as long as they are strong minded and able enough to remain critical of Dennett’s views. If you are too prone to being dazzled or brain washed and are green to logical thinking, I would recommend you read some more general books on thinking first before tackling this book, because Dennett can be very convincing and persistent with his opinions, which are often hard to trace as such, as they are well hidden beneath a veneer of objectivity. He is very persuasive about his two dimensional worldview and will sell you his own beliefs, packaged up as apparently self-evident certainties. You really have to keep your wits about you to remain unperturbed. Reading Dennett is far more like playing a game of chess with a chess master than it is like doing philosophy. A critical read of the book will help you think about what the discipline of philosophy is up against if it is to tackle and equal in strength this kind of Anglo-Saxon contemporary science-based discoursing that calls itself philosophy, but is as far removed from the love of wisdom as a discussion with your accountant is removed from talking about emotional well being. I would like to call such philosophy by its better-known subspecialist name of the science of knowledge, which is classically represented by the branch of epistemology and logic. I am not even sure that it is philosophy of mind, for as a psychologist I do not recognize a serious enough discourse about neuroscience or psychology in these pages either. In terms of philosophy of science it doesn’t quite do the trick as it does not grasp the nettle of critiquing scientific method, but takes this for granted as the standard. The book is a strong testimony to and example of the cultural tendency towards a mechanical discourse and it would be most useful to those who want to get better at philosophical argumentation along those lines. The strangely abstract atmosphere it creates in the mind of the reader is very much like the experience of being in a math class. It stretches the mind, but also creates a certain sense of personal alienation, which needs to be counteracted by reengagement with the real world, relationships, values and emotions. When science is the new divinity to which we turn for all insight, it soon begins to dictate our entire pattern of philosophical thinking so that our ideas become fused with it and our experience becomes straightjacketed by it. Dennett so accepts this premise of science’s monopoly on truth that his consequent fear of falling foul of this framework pervades his work and lends it a kind of cramped severity, where playfulness and freedom are sadly lacking in spite of his attempts at humour and joviality. These basic assumptions about the dangers of free roaming creative thinking are well hidden and perhaps not in his awareness. Strange for someone who called one of his books ‘Elbow room’, which is a term used to translate Heidegger’s concept of ‘Spielraum’, or play space, that imaginative place in our minds which is so easily squashed by technology. As a psychotherapist I wanted to invite him to step out of the mental straight jacket to take a look at the issues that ordinary folk are preoccupied with and to allow himself to study how folk psychology actually operates in people, rather than being so judgemental and dismissive about it.
Philosophy is best rooted in what is actually the case rather than in what we think ought to be the case. I would like to have a down to earth discussion with Dennett about some of the aspects of human reality he so carefully ignores and neglects. I remember my own sobering dismay when in 1971 I first entered into a psychiatric hospital where I had to translate my philosophical training into words that made sense to others and were helpful in promoting sanity and clarity of understanding in people who were confused in their minds. I think Dennett’s writing would be much improved by such experience, but I am sure he would not be interested, as he has claimed the high ground of cognitive prowess rather than immersing himself in the daily struggles of ordinary human thought. I worry about the plausibility and sensibility of his writing and the effects it might have on the teaching of philosophy, leading to a further loss of the freedom of thought. It is not hard to see how American culture will be grateful for this hard edged science based model of philosophy, that does away with any mention of morality, values or virtues and turns learning and understanding into a game of minds, where those who do not make the mark of clever bantering are disregarded. The tight mental framework would be easy to compute and could translate into a program to teach ‘right thinking’ without too much difficulty, exactly because it does not allow for the straying of minds necessary for creativity. What will be the societal impact of seeking to describe and summarize human beings as sophisticated thinking machines whose thoughts and actions can be so predictable that human existence can be captured in an algorithm? I will not be the only person having a horrible feeling of déjà vu, as pictures of Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 are conjured up. If you want your thoughts to be tidied up and weeded clear of the errors and illusions that lend them both confusion and creativity, this is indeed essential reading. If you want to think again and dare to say what you actually believe and you are not afraid to be dismissed as a folk psychologist or a naïve and deluded person, you will have to come to this book with a well enough trained mind that you can stand up to the astute and forced-choice arguments which are presented to you as puzzles to solve, as tests of your ability, when they are actually carefully placed stepping stones towards Dennett’s point of view and way of life. It is often enticing and compelling to follow his path and forget the roads not taken. Dennett is a clever opponent indeed in the game he invites you to play with him. He is a master at direction and misdirection, a real magician of the art of thinking and a true strategist. If you like your philosophy to be collaborative, dialogic and dialectic and you like the focus to be on life wisdom, you will feel strangely homeless, wrong footed and forlorn in these pages.
Tools or experience: start of the journey
At the start of the book Dennett invites you onto a difficult journey and he certainly inspires confidence as he says: ‘Thinking is hard’ (page 1). We can all agree with that. Thinking for yourself is hardest of all but even thinking along the lines suggested in this book can be taxing. Dennett promises to provide us with the tools to do the job. And it is true that we need thinking tools. So we immediately get drawn in and wish to learn to use our tools a bit better and open up to Dennett’s master class with enthusiasm. But we soon discover that Dennett’s toolkit is devoid of some of the most enlightening and fascinating thinking tools human kind has come up with. He has chosen for you which way to bend your mind. Much of his trickery will make you mistrust your own judgement and may lead you into following his example as you feel disorientated a result.
For anyone who seeks to learn the tools of the trade of philosophy, I would rather recommend the excellent Baggini and Fosl (2010) ‘The Philosopher’s Took Kit’ or for total beginners, Nigel Warburton’s (2007) little book ‘Thinking from A to Z’, each of which give greater access to the broad range of tools available for the job, providing a more comprehensive overview of how they are used by a range of philosophers. Even then I would plead caution, for tool kits are much too tempting and distracting for philosophers who want their profession to remain an art rather than a technology. There is much to be gained from systematic investigations of real world problems whilst employing critical dialogue and argumentation. Tools are not the objective of the exercise of philosophy if it is insight and truth and the love of wisdom you are after. Too often philosophers get mesmerized by their own tools and by their technical prowess, in a desire to seem clever and capable of competing with the pseudo-certainties of scientists.
And so it is with Dennett’s book: he can rival with the best. He lists many of his favourite thinking tools and explains them very carefully and colourfully, with his usual vivid examples and intellectual acumen. He mentions labels, examples, analogies, metaphors, staging, thought experiments and intuition pumps and many others and it is not difficult to walk along and find it all very fascinating. But already we have allowed ourselves to lose track of what we may have been after: tools have taken centre stage and dominate the scene. The search for knowledge, truth and wisdom has been obscured, if not entirely lost from sight.
Even as Dennett refers to ancient ways of doing wisdom, such as when he mentions Aesop’s fables, he conflates this with the idea of using intuition pumps, which is inaccurate. Fables, like myths and dramas, are illustrations of folk truth in action, they are moral tales and admonitions to stay on the right path. They are therefore not very much like Dennett’s intuition pumps at all, since these are typically designed to make you grasp some cognitive principle. Fables are explorations, thought experiments, intuitive leaps into new ways of life and invitations to empathy and imagination. They are therefore in a very different category to the intuition pumps favoured in this volume. Why claim kinship with a device so different to what intuition pumps set out to do? Plato’s allegory of the Cave and Descartes’ Evil Demon are also mentioned and similarly claimed as intuition pumps, but they too are moral tales that enable people to rethink the ethical and existential truths of their lives. They are allegories, similes or metaphors. They are exploratory devices inviting you into new areas of existence, new levels of awareness and experience. In philosophy it is important not just to define your terms carefully but also to respect the usual meanings accorded to them, even though it is tempting to reclaim old devices as examples of your own procedures in order to claim continuity and expand the significance of your personal contribution.
Dennett says that making mistakes is important and I could not agree more. We can only proceed by trial and error and making mistakes in that process is part of the creative exploration. But making mistakes by misattributing things or claiming meanings that belong somewhere else, is not part of the fruitful exploratory mistakes we make and learn from for the sake of progress. These seem more like deliberate and intentional distortions in order to claim territory that belongs elsewhere. Dennett (page 19) makes it sound as if we study the history of philosophy because it ‘is in large measure the history of very smart people making very tempting mistakes’. This is not only an erroneous and misleading statement that does not do anything for the reputation of philosophy, it is also a throw away remark that illustrates rather well how little Dennett is actually prepared to engage with philosophical traditions. This is a shame for there is much to learn from the history of philosophy, both in terms of what thinkers got wrong and in terms of what they got right. Sometimes we learn from their mistakes, sometimes we learn from what they intuited. Their ideas always help us exercise our minds and often enable us to understand something in a new way. Re-reading the classics after many years can be surprisingly revealing of thoughts we did not remember had been there when we first visited. The sheer variety of philosophies helps us claim a wider range for our thinking and imagination, in the same way in which the study of classic schools of painting help us explore the wide range of art that has been explored by humanity over the centuries. It is ludicrous to tell art students they only need to study the classic masters to spot their forebears’ mistakes. Anyone who is training to even approach the level of skill of old masters is going to have to concentrate and work very hard indeed. Only when we have come to a similar level of mastery can we aspire to begin to use our own imagination and create something original and new. It is the same with philosophy: you neglect the classics at your peril as you will deprive yourself of a myriad of amazing ideas. Different philosophers create different mind-sets and mentalities and with it lend a different flavour to the universe. Visiting these different representations of human existence is fascinating and enlightening and teaches us to be broadminded, giving us freedom to roam in our minds. It is like learning to be an explorer of the psyche. We follow the paths made by our predecessors to travel to regions each of us has to get to know before becoming sure footed enough to set out on our own philosophical explorations, trials and tribulations. But one way or another we always cross back over some philosopher’s lines and may follow the paths they have trodden before us for a bit here and there. Each path has its drawbacks, traps and obstacles for sure, but we learn to travel by treading down them, following in the footsteps of early trailblazers, learning about road-signs and highways versus low ways as well as learning about making choices and following directions when we get to forks in the road. It is the learning to roam that matters, learning to recognize each blockage and impasse, each kind of precipice and crossroads, admiring each new vista exposed. The errors are not all that important. It is the learning to way-fare that matters most of all. All of this Dennett is deliberately diminishing and dismissing as he proceeds to make a claim to a much more narrow interpretation of the discipline that does not do justice to its full potential at all.
The equipment with which we do our philosophical explorations has been much improved over the centuries and we do not fall into the most obvious traps after some initial training, but we have not really improved all that much on the difficulties we have to face underway, nor have we really added many interesting new destinations. The cognitive objective of sharpening our thinking tools is no different now than it ever was. The subjects we can think about are still pretty much limited by the range of human experiences we know about. Of course each time the data of science are different and more advanced and we need to take such facts into account. It is certainly helpful to have been trained in a specialism of science and have practised in that area yourself. I strongly recommend it. But that does not mean letting the facts overshadow our philosophizing: they are merely the material facts informing our thoughts. To put the human prowess of philosophers into perspective: our epistemology and logic have improved over the years but our ethics and aesthetics and general philosophy have not really gone much beyond what we had some centuries ago. I don’t think Dennett’s thinking outsmarts that of Socrates or Spinoza or Kierkegaard on moral or human issues, though of course Dennett’s knowledge of technology, physics and biology is far greater than that of any philosophers of the past. So the more is the pity that he sticks to the narrow confines of talking about only those issues rather than drawing conclusions for the philosophical areas that remain so deprived.
In terms of the wayfaring metaphor: to describe philosophers as mistake specialists is the equivalent of describing geographers as road menders. It is useful to improve our roads, for sure, but this is hardly the point of geography. Focusing so much on the technology distracts from the purpose of philosophy, which last time I checked my dictionary definition still meant the love of wisdom rather than the study of techniques, i.e. technology. Philosophers need to do the job of truth finding so as to enable us to understand human existence better so that we can become wiser at living our lives. Philosophy in Dennett’s book commits a category error: he is a particular kind of practitioner of cognitive science, but does not do much justice to being a philosopher at all.
This is not to say that such cognitive astuteness as he brings to bear cannot sharpen minds: it can enable thinking in all areas and Dennett’s contribution is invaluable in terms of general cognitive skill building, but not exclusively so for philosophers. I fear it might entice them into becoming too urbanized and far too used to easy transport systems of thought, not exercising their own legs, or their map and compass reading skills, losing their sense of perspective and capacity for meta thinking. They might certainly lose their desire to find value in creative and imaginative leaps of intuition that enable us to rise to new levels of insight and new possibilities.
Dennett’s invitation to intelligent undergraduates to grit their teeth and face mistakes and to learn the basics of computer programming to grasp binary thinking are all to the good as these are current and relevant tools for thinking. Ditto with the evolutionary science model, which he champions so consistently as his preferred blueprint: undoubtedly these frameworks are important models to master. But where is the novelty in that? This has been done for well over a century. The challenge is not so much to teach evolutionary models (though perhaps I underestimate how much this continues to be a challenge in the USA), but to integrate them with human intuitions about meaning and purpose, with the more recent developments in epigenetic research and with the knowledge we have gathered in psychology and interpersonal disciplines like sociology or psychotherapy.
Although Rapoport’s rules of critical commentary (p.33) are useful they bear all the stigma of trickery that must be avoided in doing good philosophy through dialogue. It is astonishing to me that philosophers like Dennett do not study the writings and research findings in the field of psychotherapy or communication studies where human interactions have been debated for many decades, providing us with better models than that. Any therapist will recognize something akin to the person-centred protocol in the rules provided and will see the holes in the argument. They will notice the glaring lack of attention that is being paid to the process of connecting with the other. What we see here instead is an interpersonal method that has been transmuted into a cynical and manipulative interactional scheme for winning an argument. Where is truth finding in all that? Where is the respect for human relational reality? Sound philosophical dialogue is not a contest, it is not a board game, it is a mutual exercise in bringing two minds and two perspectives together to work your way through a problem, dialectically, with the advantage of plural and multiple points of view, adding on to each other in good old dialogical effort and phenomenological investigating through team work. If you insist on doing philosophy in an I-It mode, you will never capture the problems that only come to light from an I-Thou perspective. This is crucial, since philosophies create realities as well as describing them. Following a purely adversarial perspective we exclude and thus may preclude the possibility of a more interwoven reality.
Sturgeon’s Law (p. 36) that ‘ninety per cent of everything is crap’ is a joke that does not do much to create confidence in these methods either. Why have such nonsense when psychology has a fairer statistical model to catch the same principle with the idea of the standard deviation? The Gaussian curve of a normal distribution, where there is a narrow band of below par elements at one end of the spectrum and a narrow band of above average elements at the other end with a huge bulge of mediocre, or rather middle of the road elements in the middle will allow us to discuss this notion much more sensibly. It helps us understand the idea that findings when classified tend to fall into categories, which can help us distinguish the chaff from the wheat. The statistical model needs to be taken with a pinch of salt as well, but at least it is based in reality rather than in a desire to dismiss ninety percent of data out of hand. As we know the concept of statistic normality raises all kinds of interesting value issues, which have to be tackled in considering the outcome of a piece of psychological research. But at least it does not afford us the sloppiness of the unchecked value judgment that 90% is crap. The problems with statistical models are a whole other issue, which Dennett does not tackle and if he had he might have had something of interest to say about the statistical focus on the middle band, the bulge of normality or the average. Dennett seems to suggest that the only thing that is of interest to him is the 10% that is above average. In fact experience tells me there is much to learn at all ends of the spectrum. One of the great strength of philosophy, as opposed to psychology, is that it can pick up the exceptions and learn from them, arguing for societal change. Philosophers are free to explore new models even if they are outrageous, if this can liberate us to get away from our mediocre pedestrian thinking in the confined middle. I fear that Dennett’s drift is towards the top of a particular tree. He seems to want to educate the averagely intelligent mind to follow a cognitive path that is acceptable to current assumptions about cognitive prowess. At all times his contention is that binary computer thinking is essential to understanding and that the evolutionary model of interpretation of life on earth is the only correct one. No wonder that Dennett is often so surprisingly kind to Dawkins, himself a non philosopher who has evolved from evolutionary cell biologist to would be metaphysician, extrapolating from one narrow specialism to morality and beyond to cosmology. Neither of them is too bothered with the study of the traditions of ethics and metaphysics or the psychology of religion. Both believe that science and good reasoning about scientific facts are enough. The trouble is that they are so convincing in their methodical narrowness that their condemnation of others who take a different approach can have devastating effects. Their lack of openness is clear when you watch them in the battle with differently thinking folk where they show their exasperation with to them inferior points of view. Good and productive thinking does not work this way. It has to be done with people who disagree and who have different views on the basis of mutual respect for different perspectives. Out of this conversation come new ideas and possibilities rather than confirmation of what one already knew and is holding on to. This is precisely why I am putting myself through the trouble of learning from reading Dennett’s work with as much respect as I can muster, allowing myself to consider his views and formulate my own objections. Ideally this would lead to some debate, though it is highly doubtful that this would happen.
Easy pickings and low blows.
Occam’s razor, on page 39, is well explained as the canon of parsimony. It is now more generally known as the principle of simplicity, encouraging us to find the lowest common denominator explanation for any phenomenon, as long as the explanation does justice to all the issues under consideration, all other things being equal (ceteris paribus). Somehow Dennett misses that latter all important point and uses his entry as an excuse for challenging creationist theories instead, which is very easy pickings.
While it seemed a bit pedestrian to hear him summarising established ideas, I found Dennett’s invention of an Occam’s broom interesting, as this is about whisking unpleasant or unwelcome facts out of the way, which is something all of us do at various points. It was unfortunate that he used the idea to deal a low and unfair blow to Thomas Nagel (page 40), accusing him of a public gaffe in supporting the wrong person. It would have been much more admirable had Dennett turned his new instrument on himself than to expose a respect worthy colleague and rival in contemporary philosophy. It would have been more impressive to see him scrutinizing his own thinking for the sweeping under the carpet of unpleasant realities that one does not want to have to deal with. As there are plenty of these in his work a little bit of self-reflection would improve Dennett’s credibility greatly. Indeed sweeping things under the carpet is something Dennett’s work does excellently. On this particular occasion, for instance, he neglects to mention various traditions in philosophy that aim to remedy the sad habit of sweeping evidence under the carpet (a habit incidentally as widespread in science as everywhere else). Dennett does not mention the notion of verification in phenomenology or the concept of falsifiability in Popper, both of which would be relevant. What about the view from infinity in Spinoza or even Kant’s categorical imperative? So many philosophers have tried to find ways of not sweeping things under the carpet by various means and it is important to acknowledge this when discussing the problem. What is so worrying in this book is that the tools we are shown are not given in the spirit of teaching the discipline of philosophy, but in the spirit of argumentation and the showing of superiority. While arguing is undoubtedly an important aspect of philosophical exchange its intention, to my mind, should always be to further understanding, regardless of who argues best. It is not like a game of chess that should be won. There are no winners and losers as it is not a game but an investigation or rather a joint research project to which all contributions are welcome. The outcome of a good philosophy debate should be some new learning for all participants. Philosophers who focus so much on philosophical cognitive prowess give philosophy a bad name as they make it look as if it is all about the clever fighting and the winning. Dennett’s idea of philosophy seems to be about taking as many scalps as possible: a hero’s warfare rather than the slavery and painstaking work of thinking slowly and surely. Good philosophy, to my mind, is typified by listening as well as argumentation. Following Dennett is a bit like going on a clinical ward round in psychiatry, hearing doctors getting caught up in arguing over diagnoses rather than trying to understand what ails a person or engage their intelligence in finding a cure in the interest of the patient.
I just don’t get this derivative kind of philosophizing that brandies about terminology as if it is the creation of neologies that matters. It creates the sense that philosophers are in the business of beating or outsmarting their opponents and it feels very much like blood sport at times. Perhaps by critiquing Dennett’s work in the way I am doing, I am falling into that very same trap, trying to beat him at his own game, rather than concentrating on the dialogue. I would much rather have a constructive debate and certainly value the clarity of his exposition, trying to learn from it. His definition of his terms and honest demonstration of his beliefs and methods is certainly conducive to clarifying my own position. I am aware though that it has drawn me further into the competitive mode of operating more than I am usually comfortable with. I much prefer a mutual engagement with the task of understanding human existence.
At any rate I do take the view that Occam’s broom, which Dennett claims is hard to find examples of is amply exemplified by his own work and that of others like him, for instance Dawkins and Harris, both of whom are equally inclined to narrow analyses of human phenomena they have not sufficiently studied. These authors conveniently abstract themselves from the deeply felt experiences of ordinary folk and ignore the wealth of information available on the issues they struggle with. At least Dennett is respectful of his undergraduates’ mistakes and flashes of insight, while of course always carefully showing his own superior grasp of the matter. In my own experience students often remind me of things I have started taking for granted (for instance that ordinary people find it mostly difficult to describe their experience without making judgements about it, or that feelings are rarely experienced with the refinement therapists have acquired and take for granted). The reality of these concrete facts of the life of ordinary consciousness has been taken out of the picture entirely. Instead we are led down the path of ‘right’ thinking as conceived by our mentor, Dennett. Jootsing, as described on page 45, as a term of Douglas Hofstadter’s, is a useful tool that could enlighten many a darkened reductionist argument. I would be inclined to refer to this phenomenon simply by the name of imagination or creativity, experimentation or playful exploration and would recommend it wholeheartedly. I wish Dennett allowed himself to play with it more often.
Why should such habits as thinking of consciousness as a special medium like ether be ‘broken’? It might be well worth trying out these imaginative models so powerfully present in folk psychology before disdainfully dismissing them. Many new ideas and insights have come from just such strange notions. Just because the evolutionary-cognitive and mathematical models of the mind are the most currently popular is no proof that we have got it right! There is ample room to reconsider, discover and experiment with new angles. The brain needs to warm up and allow emotions to bring our creativity to life, before new intuitions make an entrance. There are interesting traditions in the fields of management and leadership that have drawn on such playful realities.
Soon after this statement we finally approach something like a real philosophical question: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ To my great relief Dennett admits it is a deep question in need of an answer. But then he immediately brushes it away by stating: ‘I admit that my calling them pseudo problems not worth anybody’s attention is not very satisfying, but that doesn’t show that I’m wrong.’ (45)
It does not show he is wrong, because we have not even begun to consider the question, but not considering the question does not show you are right either. Judging by the number of people I have worked with who were preoccupied with that self same question it is a problem we need to wrestle with. We need to help people find temporary answers that are more satisfying than ‘it is a pseudo problem’ or worse ‘it is a problem that shows you are ‘introverted-depressive-schizophrenic’. None of us is currently in possession of the right answers, neither theologists, physicists or biologists have any final truths on offer. It is for philosophers to grasp that nettle and debate the issue sensibly and show the way forward rather than begging the question and leave people in despair.
The concept of ‘rathering’ on page 49 is somewhat interesting, though in my experience the term ‘rather’ can be used as a device to show both truth and untruth. It is by no means a sure fire way of finding some one out at cheating as Dennett claims. It is certainly possible to employ the phrase as a sleight of hand, but that does not mean it always indicates a sleight of hand, rather that it does so sometimes, as indeed is the case for many other semantic structures. I think there is a lot of generalizing and overstating going on that whilst charming, is not warranted!
Rhetoric is a complex art and Dennett is doing us a favour by debunking it and showing it up for its misleading qualities. The trouble is that he seems to teach the art as much as he exposes it. I have personally found it more useful to go beyond rhetoric by seeking to connect to the essence of what someone is trying to say, in good faith and in the hope they may be able to say it more plainly and thus often more accurately when I take a stab at summarizing it, prepared to get it wrong and be put right. All too often philosophers turn out to be more concerned to make an impact with the cleverness of their remarks than to want to establish the bottom line of a particular question. They are rarely interested in the genuine intentions or meanings behind the words employed, favouring the age-old game of semantic bantering and word-meanings warfare.
When I ask myself what are Dennett’s intentions in this book, I find multiple objectives. Some of these seem admirable, I.e. putting in ordinary language what others try to grab on to and mystify. That is good and informative for students of philosophy and lay people alike. There is also his attempt to develop further thinking tools and even though I stick with the view that the concept of intuition pumps is a misnomer, this objective too is sound and helpful to all who engage in theory building. But his underlying, implicit, project seems less likeable and less conducive to openness, learning and progress. There seems to me an underlying project of steering young minds towards a cognitive and evolutionary model of human consciousness and human experience, without any critical appraisal of this intention or acknowledgement of other views available or mention of the limited scope of the toolbox provided. I would again invite the interested reader to check out the Baggini and Fosl book to make up their own minds about which of these books is more fair and complete in its provision of methods for thinking.
On page 53, the interestingly named ‘surely operator’ could well come in handy here: surely Dennett does not expect everyone who thinks for a living to agree with him? And yes, in accordance with his hypothesis, I admit to a mental block here, as it seems to me reading the book that this is in fact what Dennett would expect. I get the exact same feeling when I read Dawkins or Harris. These authors have taken up positions so strongly held and so aggressively and well defended, that they are in danger of coming across as far too mighty and lofty for their own good. Their tone is authoritative and at risk of coming across as authoritarian. They are consistently dismissive of other views and impatient about misunderstandings. They already know they are in the right and others are in the wrong. When faced with such a defined position it becomes difficult to engage in debate and one is pushed into polemics instead. I find myself in fighting mode reading these books and it feels as if I have to muster all my arguments in order to make a small breach in the mighty fortress that has been presented to me. I rebel against such established might and feel like my objections will go unheard and unheeded. These guys are not doing philosophy: they are building new doctrines and strongholds. When I say: ‘surely that is not the right attitude to take in philosophy’, I don’t think it shows up a mental block in me, but rather a block that I am faced with in the opposition. It demonstrates me coming up against the denigration of a value I hold dear: that of fairness in the search for truth and that of remaining open to doubt and learning from those that disagree.
Of course it is hard to remain open in this way and it gets harder as one’s voice is louder and more audible to an increasingly wider public. Fortunately as a therapist and psychologist philosopher I have to keep learning to suspend my own belief. The ordinary people I work with constantly challenge me and point out that I do not know what they think and experience. I have learnt to take other people’s views not only seriously but deeply to heart until I can be on their side as well as on my own. This is an exercise of other based thinking and empathy that is ultimately very conducive to reflective challenge, forcing you to keep rethinking and to remember that you never own the truth. Truth is something beyond us all and we are merely trying to piece it together, each in our own modest manner. Some with more light than others, perhaps, but it can only rarely be said that anyone is entirely in the wrong or anyone entirely in the right at any time. When someone shines a blinding light into someone else’s eyes I become suspicious of their motives and their right to fight quite so hard or be so dominant.
To claim that we can ignore fundamental questions that ordinary people ask and get perturbed by is to me a sign that philosophy is not doing what it says on the tin it comes in: it is not furthering the science of wisdom, but the science of cognition and even on the latter score is proceeding along a particular line. When cartographers create a map, they are obliged to be careful not to mislead and not to expect some other cartographer to make an alternative map showing the rivers and mountains conveniently missed out on their map because they wanted to show up some tracks only. Reading Dennett I get the image of him creating a map of human thinking muscles: leaving out the flesh, the organs and the very possibility of inner life itself.
The book shows interesting pathways towards thinking, but it hasn’t even begun the task of sketching out what we know about human existence, nor has it made an effort to record the totality of existing roads on the map. It leaves out imagination and creativity, memory, emotion and the complexity of trauma, conflict, ambiguity and meaning and a lot more besides. While I relished being put through my paces as if I were once again a young undergraduate who could be indoctrinated to think in a particular way, there was too much elbowroom for misunderstanding and misdirection.
The book is well written and humorous, if you like that kind of dry and cynical humour that young people often relish when they feel somewhat overwhelmed by the seriousness of adult life. It is a helpful and clear resource for thinking about thinking. I would recommend it for that reason alone, but I was taken aback by the lack of depth of this philosophy. Here is a philosophy that cheerfully disregards the evidence of real human beings living their lives and that is prepared to work from the hypothesis that life can be reduced to binary and competitive principles and that the future lies in artificial intelligence rather than in greater human understanding. Or perhaps I am being too harsh and underestimate the faith Dennett has in the possibility of true human artificial intelligence coming together with deep understanding.
All of this is far too close to a Brave New World dystopia to satisfy my internal test of rightness or morality. A worldview that can ride rough shod over people’s feelings, intuitions, aspirations and spirituality and has no room for doubt or modesty runs the risk of getting out of hand and losing track of the values that have mattered to people for many centuries. There is danger lurking in the underbrush of such worldviews as history has shown us. Lets be careful not to put our faith too much in Dennett’s understanding of what really is the case in the world of women and men.
I think his limited grasp of depth of thought is illustrated quite well by his example of a ‘deepity’, which he defines as a proposition that seems profound but is actually ambiguous, which is what we would normally refer to as a pseudo-profundity. As an illustration he provides Dawkins’ quote of Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, as having stated his faith to be a ‘silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark’, which is by Christian standards a rather enlightened statement of openness to doubt, but is dismissed by Dennett as ‘I leave the analysis of this as an exercise for you’, implying condemnation and ridicule. I would call this an ad hominem attack, something not discussed by Dennett. It simply demonstrates a lack of serious consideration for a different way of thinking. We may disagree with Christian dogma, but Williams is not claiming some special wisdom or direct communication with God on this occasion. To my mind this is a fair enough statement by someone who is obviously struggling to come to formulate his position with some care to the terms he uses. I am no fan of the Church of England or any other church for that matter, but in my view the modesty and cautious patience expressed in Williams’ statement is highly commendable by comparison with the frequent bluster and semi-certainty of church statements. Though I have some trouble with the passivity of his position, I have sympathy with Williams’ attempt at sticking with truth and struggle with uncertainty. If this is an example of ‘deepity’ I would recommend that philosophers like Dennett return to experience more ‘deepity’ and learn to dig a little deeper.
I got hopeful and excited when I got to the summary on page 58 which stated that we would next be confronting ‘meaning, evolution, consciousness and especially free will’. I was right with Dennett when he stated that ‘people really care about whether they have free will or not, about how their minds can reside in their bodies and about how-and even whether- there can be meaning in a world composed of nothing but atoms and molecules, photons and Higgs bosons. People should care.’ Indeed, now we are talking about what ordinary people are concerned about and need clarity on from philosophers. But somehow the promise wasn’t fulfilled and we went right back to thinking tools again.
In what follows in part III of the book meaning is immediately defined as content and explored at the semantic level. Of course definitions and language are all important, but they are not what ordinary people care about. They care about the meaning of their life and the meaning of the universe, rather than the meaning of the words we use to discuss them, they care about the very deepities Dennett has such trouble with. He gives us linguistics 101 instead, which lacks the necessary depth or reality to engage the minds of even the least upset of our clients in therapy.
In spite of some interesting excursions into mentalese, which is, I think, a great and useful concept and in spite of nice descriptions of the different ways in which each brain stores its own information, it is clear very rapidly that this will not lead to understanding the deep meanings we share, but rather to how mentalese can be computed in an AI context. Interesting stuff if you are interested in human beings as hard and soft ware based robots. But it is not such good news for your searchers of deeper meanings.
As always there are good things along the way, in spite of the lack of depth. The ‘sorta’ ways in which we compute things hold importance, for they guide us towards understanding something about the messiness and complexity and also the diversity of human thought, which in this are actually very different to the minds of computers, which are exact and specific. When he talks about a child ‘sorta’ believing her dad is a doctor, but learning to put more and more meaning to this statement as she learns more about life, this is a promising introduction to an exploration of subjective and saturated meaning, but actually Dennett sticks with this only to the extent that he establishes that the little girl ‘sorta’ believes this, without getting into the complexity of what the full definition or understanding would be that the most aware person or the most truthful person would aspire to achieving on this score. The reality is of course that this would bring us up against multiple constructions of the same concept, which gets really far too messy for cognitive science. The thrust of the argument is to move us forward towards separating out impressionistic and scientific ways of considering things. And as you have guessed by now impressions are always bad and science is good.
Visits to continental philosophy so that reductionism may triumph
Again I felt briefly hopeful when the discussion moved to von Uexkull’s concept of Umwelt, for this is a concept that was helpful in grasping the contextual and interactional shape of intelligence in animals, who selectively address certain marks in their world, which can be shown to be different for each species, so that we can distinguish the different Merkwelt of each animal. It is an illustration of Husserl’s concept of intentionality and leads to the insight that intelligence and consciousness are not so much located in the brain as in between ourselves and the world, in connectivity. It led to the idea of Mitwelt, the social and cultural context for humans, in which we relate to others around us in specific and set ways in which we affect each other. It also leads to the idea of the Eigenwelt, the inner world we create to make sense of our world, which we own as our personal world and in which we move with an emotional resonance that affects our processing and perception of reality. I have argued that this extends into an Uberwelt, an ideological conceptual world in which we form ideas that connect us to the invisible realm of concepts, values, meanings and ideals, which is often inhabited or taken over by religion, but is also the realm for thoughts about morality and other forms of metaphysical or spiritual experience. In Dennett’s book the Uberwelt is wholly inhabited by scientific ideology and morality, which are a poor substitute for the dogma of religion, even when based on such intelligent heuristic devices as cognitive science, computer technology, evolutionary theory and artificial intelligence. These models of understanding provide cultural memes and conceptual icons that seem to have the capacity to erode alternative explanations and new investigations of human reality drastically. They overtake and obstruct other possible meanings and discourses and seek to supplant these. Dennett is so blind to alternative models that when he briefly introduces them he skips away without really applying his thoughts to them. The notion of Umwelt remains on the page in all its unexplored potential as so much else in this very rich volume.
It was interesting, at this point to be led through Dennett’s definition of folk psychology and the intentional stance once more. His summary made it so clear that far from seeking to learn from folk psychology and the intuitions that it sometimes holds, folk psychology continues to be something to remain aloof from. Similarly any illusions that the intentional stance might take on board some of Husserl’s insights into intentionality were crushed early on. I did enjoy his disagreement with Theory of Mind, as being too grand and abstract a concept for referring to a person’s ability to have beliefs, goals and desires, but Dennett completely fudged the important research that has been done in this area, in autism in particular, showing that an ability to form ideas similar to those of the people around you is an important part of socialization and that the inability to empathise with the other or to merge with a particular social habit could hamper your progress immensely. I do wonder whether this very ability is not lacking from the theories of Dennett and Dawkins and whether this makes both for their success, which comes from them sounding so detached and self confident, but will eventually show up their weaknesses as people realize that these theories fail to connect to their everyday experience and their deepest feelings about what matters and about what is true and false and right and wrong in reality.
I found it very interesting that Dennett can so easily dismiss our ‘agent detector’ capacities as inaccurate and misleading, rather than leaving open the possibility that indeed some people pick up agency in objects and organisms around them. Such conclusions are led from position taking rather than from careful elimination of possibilities and studying of the facts. For someone who is used to listening to people who have delusions and ideas that are out of touch with social reality, Dennett’s trivializing manoeuvre is way too quick and way too self-assured to satisfy me.
But unafraid to carry on regardless of my growing dissatisfaction, I put myself through the trouble of sticking with Dennett’s argument and I even made myself read the tedious chapters on IT 101 that followed for several chapters afterwards, teaching me nothing I had not known for quite a while now.
On page 148 Dennett says: ‘for hundreds of years we have had plenty of evidence that the brain is somehow the seat of the soul’, which shocked me back into paying proper attention. This is another sleight of hand, or perhaps just a demonstration of how he has decided to compact mind and soul. We may have agreed that the brain is the seat of the mind, mind and soul are quite different entities. Just because Dennett does not believe in the soul and is not interested in it does not afford him the right to conflate the two. It is certainly true that people have long suspected that the brain is the mechanical infrastructure of the operations of the mind but not even this is entirely correct anymore. We now know that memory for instance is place sensitive and could very well be embedded in the connection between our mind and the environment rather than just in our brain. Equally the sensitivity of the bowels as a further extension of the mind, has now been well established. So, while we have to take the equation of mind and brain with a pinch of salt, we can certainly not jump over the divide between brain and soul. At no point has Dennett discussed the soul and the long tradition of its debate in philosophy and religion. Not even Dennett can, at a stroke, decide there is no need to consider this concept. It is far more complex than that. The overlap between the concepts of soul/self/ego/mentality/embodied presence and many other expressions of the centre of human reality should be discussed for starters.
If all human existence is to be reduced to a mere biological operating mechanism or organism and we are to conclude that we will be able to summarize it in future as an algorithm, we need at least to deal with the established concepts that have previously been used to make sense of these things. To summarily dismiss them, leaves the argument hanging. Philosophy can do better than dictating this rule bound and narrow minded outlook. Fortunately the problem is a lot more complex than Dennett makes it seem.
Bring in the artists, the creators, the brilliant imaginations that will give us new ideas and new horizons. Widen the scope of our minds rather than reducing them to this crazed obsession with mechanical distortion of what folk psychology feels in its bones: that there is a lot more to mankind and to life itself than what the small minds of cognitive science envisage for us. These assumptions need debunking and checking, most carefully.
In the next section Dennett provides some interesting challenges, such as solving a puzzle that has several equally good solutions but he does not notice that looking at a problem from many sides and discovering that there are often various solutions possible, is exactly the idea that phenomenology introduced and why Husserl thought it was important to challenge the linear approach of mathematics with a new form of human thinking. I do think Dennett would do well to read some more Husserl.
The evolutionary path
In his summary on page 197 Dennett asks if the 12 intuition pumps he has presented have worked. If they have, he states, they will have blocked the tempting paths of error. If only life and thinking were that simple! As we know error tends to rear its head wherever we tread, no matter what our instruments. Neither does Dennett consider the possibility that his pumps may pump so hard that they flood and obstruct the fertile path of imagination. Even so he is fair and modest in his evaluation of what has been achieved, and to his credit establishes that ‘sorta’ thinking (what I would personally call loose, imaginative or creative thinking) is necessary for consciousness and that this is different to binary thinking. He accepts he has not provided a theory of meaning yet, but goes on with great bravado to the next section, promising much.
From section VI we are on a roll. Now we are going full steam ahead towards evolutionary thinking. He immediately boldly states that Darwin’s idea was the best anybody has ever had, referring back to his earlier work, but in my view overstating the case and proselytizing. But he has a good go at trying to win us over. His Babel allegory and his tree of life metaphor are helpful to those who didn’t really get their heads around evolutionary theory the first time around. For those who did it feels like perseveration. It is as if Dennett has to keep reminding himself of the truth of that single idea, even when he acknowledges that the issue about evolution versus intelligent design might not actually be an issue, if we accept that evolution is a process that is bursting with intelligence. He actually says: ‘the biosphere is utterly saturated with design, with purpose, with reasons’ and then goes on to show that this is somehow the result of a random process that has no bearing on intelligence. I find it always surprising that evolutionists fail to notice that the intelligence of the system they are commenting in is far superior to the human intelligence commenting on it. Why deny that system the same purposefulness accorded to a much less clever human intelligence? Is not the system itself the greater intelligence and are we not a tiny speck of intelligence by comparison? Why always place humans at the top end of the evolutionary cycle when the whole of evolution itself is so much greater than that? I think that the divide between religious people and evolutionary theory could be more easily bridged if we could state more clearly how intelligence is manifest in the operations and regularities of the universe. Though this intelligence is undoubtedly self-propelling and evolutionary rather than creationist in nature it clearly develops and evolves in ways we have not fathomed out yet.
Dennett sticks to the classic interpretation and quickly brings in the notion of there being design without an intelligent designer. Somehow he omits the possibility that the design process itself demonstrates intelligence in its self-designing mode of operating and that there is a possibility that there is a case of purposeful intelligence at work. This is certainly not something we can omit to consider and I welcomed Nagel’s brave attempt to tackle this issue in his recent book Mind and Cosmos (2012) even though fellow philosophers shamefully attacked him as a result. Dennett interestingly expresses his respect for the intelligence of the universe, but then sounds terribly worried lest he is accused of believing in an intelligent designer behind it. Why though should we have to fear that there is a puppeteer when life is so spectacularly self evolving and self propelling that it is clearly not engineered by some person-like entity but is an autonomous process in its own right in a different category, shining forth in all its amazing complexity? The problem as always is the lack of imagination in those who are scientifically minded and their fear of being confounded by religiosity and naïve beliefs. We can do intelligent thinking about this other kind of intelligence.
Dennetts gets similarly nervous around words like ‘magic’ or ‘morphic resonance’ as if the unexplained aspects of life must not be called with words indicating our surprise and lack of knowledge and as if we cannot try to coin new concepts in order to grasp and study the phenomena better. Darwin had a good idea, but that does not stop us from going beyond it. I think there is a strange phobia of religion and creationism in the United States, which has led to intelligent people fearing that there are only two options: you are either an atheist who believes in evolutionary theory, or you are a moron who believes in God. Wouldn’t it be liberating to allow for some more alternatives and come up with multiple models until we are a little surer about what it is we are trying to describe?
The idea that Absolute Ignorance is the driving force of evolution is nothing new: we can find such statements in many ancient texts including the ‘ex nihil ens creatum’ in the Kabbalah. But such incursions into spirituality are definitely not on Dennett’s agenda. He hastens to remind us that natural selection does not have a mind. Well may one ask what his definition of mind is in that case? The confusion is over the dualism: natural selection and nature in general almost certainly do not have a mind, but they certainly look a lot like mind in action. Is that enough for them to have their intelligence acknowledged, an intelligence so formidable that it overawes anyone who explores it?
I find the certainty with which Dennett asserts that termites have no idea about the purpose of what they are creating, or any purpose in the shapes they are making somewhat disturbing. His lack of respect for the animal kingdom and the hidden but different forms of intelligence operating in it, are astounding. How does he know that we are the first minds who can represent the reasons that account for the success of animal strategies and arrangements? The phrase ‘many more examples of evolution’s mathematical competence -without -comprehension could be cited’ is undoubtedly true, but is saturated with value judgement nevertheless.
Soon after getting to this part of the book I came across Steven Rose’s review of Dennett’s book in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/may/15/intuition-pumps-tools-dennett-review) and felt uplifted by his critical appraisal of Dennett’s excessive emphasis on evolutionary theory and his lack of awareness of epigenetic studies and other more complex models of human nature. I would add that Dennett’s apparent ignorance of ethology and the study of animal communication is staggering. It all feels very reductionist and one sided, even two-dimensional. Rose’s comment is that ‘Blind-sighted by his reductionism, he (Dennett) cannot see that consciousness demands not only an embodied brain but an embedded body, emerging through the interchanges of individual humans with each other and the worlds we inhabit and create.’ I felt very gratified in finding I was not the only one struggling with Dennett’s worldview and finding it wanting.
Evolution and beyond
It became increasingly hard to persist with my reading in the second half of the book, where I baulked at his persistent assumption that human experience can only be explained by reference to evolutionary thought, only to find that evolutionary theory is described in the most basic of biological ways, without any reference to the social-psychological-emotional and spiritual complexity of human living. Evolutionary psychologists have gone beyond Dennett’s model, so why does he not draw on their work? How can we take his philosophy seriously when it stops so short of providing a credible basis for our work with people in the helping professions? None of these speculations about our origins help us any further in making sense of human existence or of the obstacles on people’s paths or how they might enhance their consciousness. Dennett’s theory is firmly based in a discourse of the past and forgets to look around itself at the reality of human living in the present and in the future. Do we want to evolve in a way that draws us closer to the intelligence of computers, or do we want to involve in the direction of the intelligent universe around us? Human evolution as it is happening outstrips Dennett’s thinking and he fails to pay any attention to the need for future direction. Biology and biologically based extrapolations are not the only path available. There is a lot more to human experience than biology. Understanding meaning, purpose and the idea of intentionality as described in phenomenology, together with the notion of inter-subjectivity, are necessary if we want to progress in ways that are more attractive than the options a purely technological future can offer us.
Dennett comes back down to earth a bit when he starts talking about the cycles of nature, diurnal, yearly and Krebs. He makes the important point that repetition is the secret of manufacture, since this and most cycles work by the slow accumulation of imperceptible increments. Quite a useful observation as it is this repetition that creates the virtuous circle of progression. In socio-cultural terms this is usually referred to as learning, but Dennett does not really go there as he is far more preoccupied with computations and algorithms. He fails to tackle the unspoken issue of the infinite regress of algorithms, which lead to ever greater and more complex algorithms; perhaps even to some kind of overarching algorithm of life that generates the patterns. Even if this is a self-propelling, apparently random and mechanistic process it still deserves further thought. Dennett stays with the Darwinian principle that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities. So be it. But he neglects to note the difference in quality between replicating memes that are objects or organisms and those that are ideas. In the latter case it might be more enlightening to name them icons, as these are actually shaped, picked and chosen as especially important and representative concepts, rather than being generated randomly and automatically multiplied: even when Dawkins’ idea of the selfish gene goes viral, this is not a random process generated by nature: it is the result of a carefully honed strategy of drawing attention and signalling importance, sucking other minds into a path that has been carefully designed and chosen. Dennett sticks to the most reduced possible observations and is allergic to any models that may heighten our expectations of consciousness as something too magical, too metaphysical or even transformational or transmuting of the physical into the mental. There is no talk of meanings or values at all. Perhaps this would get us to close to the realization that meanings can be carefully manipulated by those in the know.
Instead Dennett invites us to think about zombies and zimboes at this point, which seems fitting, as people are being treated as if they are zombies or zimboes by Dennett. The latter particularly seem to be what Dennett appears to believe human beings are: zombies with the additional power to monitor their own activities. This seems a very extreme way of removing all ideas of pre-reflective and reflective consciousness. Now all we are left with is the power to self-monitor, which is hardly the same as reflecting on life or on one’s own role in it. A computer self monitors, but that is still only a mechanical quality and does not create insight and meaning, or sudden moments where pennies drop and the whole picture is altered. I am not sure that Dennett distinguishes between humans and zimboes or whether he is willing to accept that our consciousness and self consciousness vary in intensity but have a purpose, which is that of creating or grasping meanings and values in the world in order to guide our actions. He just seems so reluctant to talk about meaning and value, that it is worrying. What kind of universe does Dennett live in? What does he do with the pre-frontal lobes of the cortex? Of course this is the moment for Dennett to introduce his old enemy: the qualia, in other words: the way things seem to us, which is the closest to meanings we will ever get, and even these are anathema to Dennett. His dismissive recounting of Louis Armstrong’s reply to someone who asked him what jazz was sums it up nicely. Armstrong said: ‘If you have to ask, you ain’t never gonna get to know’ and that does seem a rather effective and pithy way of putting it. Dennett however calls this an ‘amusing tactic’ which expresses ‘the presumption that is his target’. This presumption, I presume, is that of Louis Armstrong’s reference to jazz as possessing a magical quality of vitality, which requires active engagement with experiencing and experimenting. What Armstrong refers to is the fact that those standing on the outside of that experience and who are trying to get inside of it by asking questions about it, will need to plunge in, if they want to find out. Now this is true for most experiences, as experience by definition is something you have to do rather than to talk about. And indeed to anyone who is into the arts or jazz such a presumption is pretty much self-evident. And it is equally self evident that there are people, sometimes called philistines, many of them scientists, who fail to appreciate such experiences and do not lend their bodies and brains, let alone their selves, to visiting these unknown lands to have these experiences. It is very telling that Dennett thinks that Armstrong uses a mere ‘tactic’, when it seems far more likely that Armstrong was speaking from the heart and with a sincere expression of the challenge he wanted to make to the alienation he could guess in his interlocutor: an alienation very much felt in this book, throughout. In the next chapter the example of qualia is that of the vim in the dollar bill. This is getting worrying for those who do not share the enthusiasm for dollar bills taken for granted by Dennett. He appears to describe some kind of objective quality instead of being aware of the complete subjectivity of his statements. He does not even mention the way in which dollar bills might be experienced by Europeans as monopoly money, or by unfriendly nations as a symbol of abuse of power and hegemony. Vim indeed. So, subjectivity slips in under the net nevertheless, but then, is obviously not captured fully nor described very carefully to make sense of its cultural bias and multiple perspectives.
Can we be deceived by our senses? Yes, of course, there are many studies showing this. It has been well established for over a century. Can we self deceive? Ditto. Can we be confused? Of course. Can we be deficient? Yes. But none of this proves that there is no such thing as qualia or essences of experience. It just means these experiences are unreliable and volatile and need to be studied most carefully. I would suggest that the very volatility and fluidity of meanings is what allows for our evolution of consciousness. But that is a different matter, not discussed by Dennett.
Dennett goes on a different tack or attack, introducing Chalmers’ distinction between easy and hard problems of consciousness. Of course he dismisses the idea there can be a hard problem out of hand. The hard problem as defined by Chalmers is the problem of the actual experience of consciousness, as opposed to the easy problems of consciousness, which are problems of hardware and wiring. Dennett refuses this distinction, which is probably quite evident to most of us as a sensible and useful line to draw. Dennett falters and fails at this point as he struggles to maintain his views in the face of such a gap in his mind set. He begins to use quasi-masterful language like: ‘that there is a hard problem is simply a mistake’. This is not argumentation, but statement. Nothing about this lack of distinction between easy and hard problems of consciousness is being demonstrated. In order to make his point he compares the idea of believing in the experience of consciousness to that of the experience of those taken in by stage magic, when people swear that something amazing just happened. The two events are only connected in Dennett’s mind, perhaps because he himself uses the tactics of persuasion, misdirection and sleight of hand often to such good effect. Questioning the reality of the human experience of consciousness will take a lot more argumentation than that! I would like Dennett to sit in on some therapy sessions and think about this again after observing the facts.
The problem is not that Dennett explains consciousness away or that he denies it exists, the problem is that he equates it with awareness. What he forgets, in his world of focused thought and diminished emotionality and in the midst of his refusal to allow for deepity and spirituality and creativity and meaning is that consciousness is actually so much more to many other people than it is to him. He has chosen to live in a world devoid of this capacity, which is sad to observe, but that does not give him the ability to claim it does not exist for other people either. He is now definitely overstating his case, keen to remain to the facts of the human brain that are computable within his own system. I would be curious to hear what Dennett has to say about Sartre’s distinction between reflective and non-reflective consciousness or what he makes of reading Proust. It seems to me that he does not even get close to considering the idea of self-reflection at any point. It is interesting in this context that he goes so deeply into the example of the tuned deck card trick. For attunement, in the Heideggerian sense, is what is sadly missing. The idea that we can resonate with a world and that consciousness brings to light what we resonate with as much as what is resonating inside is clearly alien to Dennett and nevertheless the card trick is built around such a capacity. When Dennett starts denying things he knows nothing about it is hard to stay with him. Like Leibniz once said, he is often right about what he asserts but wrong about what he denies and he denies more as the book progresses towards its conclusion.
Dennett now brings in Searles’ Chinese Room thought experiment, which argued that if a person is locked in a room with a computer that helps them send messages to the outside world in Chinese, this does not make them a Chinese speaker, since they still have not learnt the language. It has always seemed to me a very good point and interesting demonstration, since comprehension of language is not at all the same as seeming to be able to handle linguistic concepts. As a trilingual person myself I know this problem well. I speak mentalese much better than any language I have ever learnt. My comprehension of meanings has improved greatly by having to translate back and forth all my life, but my actual handling of any particular language always falls short of my much deeper inner comprehension, which draws on multiple perspectives and can never be fully expressed, ever. When Dennett shows how intelligent Turing machines are, he fails to see that though they are good at handling the appearance of intelligence (the concepts and words) they fail to have the mentalese, inner comprehension. Once again Dennett overestimates mechanical processing and underestimates the value of intuition, experience, and depth of comprehension and valuing of understanding.
Similarly I don’t think his dismissal as ‘gratuitous’ of the act of a human hand acknowledging a piece of paper does justice to the value attributed by such an act, it reveals his continuous undervaluing of the links created between people and the chains of meaning that create a different relationship between us and with ourselves.
Fortunately this was followed by his chapter on Narrative Gravity, which is one of his concepts I like best and have actually used in my own work to help other people understand the flexibility and fluidity of the self they create and can constantly rebalance. But even here Dennett steers clear of the idea that we create a sense of authenticity and authority when establishing such a dynamic narrative centre of gravity. He also disavows the importance of us needing a bodily sense of gravity as much as a social, a personal and an ideological one. At each of these levels people may lose their inner clarity and freedom and at each of these levels the balancing act is an important one. What a shame Dennett does not move into these areas.
Now we come to hetero-phenomenology and I am perturbed there is so little understanding or explanation of what phenomenology has been used to signify and produce over the centuries. Obviously Dennett’s famous idea of the intentional stance owes very little to Husserl’s intentionality. Intentionality is about the dynamic and active nature of consciousness and the genius of Brentano’s insight was that human consciousness is always directional and connective to something outside of itself. It is never caught in its internal world and never solipsistic. It makes constant links and is, like light, a process rather than a thing. To become reflective about that process (rather than to attend to subjectivity as Dennett wrongly states) is the goal of phenomenology, because it allows us to base our computations on how things actually take place in our minds, which are the (current) measure of all things on this earth. It is quite another matter to become deliberate about directionality and connectivity of our minds and we need to account for this further level of complexity.
Doing phenomenology is to deliberately use conscious experience in a systematic way and describe it so carefully that it is accurately considered and contemplated. It can be looked at from different angles, going round the houses to examine its reality and appearance, preferably coming to it from different perspectives as per descriptions from different observers. Thus we derive an essence of the phenomena we observe and describe, delivering some little bit of further understanding. The hetero bit is already part of phenomenology and does not have to be added on, as Dennett feels to be necessary. All of these important aspects of phenomenological practice are nicely swept under the carpet, not so much with Occam’s broom, which would suggest it had been done intentionally, but rather by omission and through lack of consideration of those aspects of reality or that particular method in philosophy, which is studiously ignored and omitted. I would term this: having blinds spots because of one’s intellectual predilections. It is a kind of disavowal rather than a tactic. We all pick and choose and we all have blind spots, but it is not good practice to make it sound that we are exempt and that we are above it and hold the truth when we have simply not bothered to find out what other views there are on the subject.
His claim that Husserlian phenomenology is auto-phenomenology is quite absurd and shows he is no expert on the many varied phenomenological reductions that Husserl has described. It would indeed seem that Dennett is ill informed of the Husserlian project to find a new basis for science by coming to each object of our intentionality through a process of clearing and widening of our own narrow perspective. He makes the classic beginners’ mistake of thinking that phenomenology is an introspective method, which it is definitely not, notwithstanding the subjective investigations of the transcendental reduction. Phenomenology is a descriptive method and a very careful one, which takes multiple perspectives into account.
He dismisses Levine’s sensible statement that it is our conscious experiences rather than our verbal statements about them that matter out of hand, as ‘this can’t be right’. Surely this way of proceeding can’t be right! I don’t think Dennett even shows that he has correctly understood what Levine means. After this we go into sensory illusions and this is so lacking in up to date psychology data, that I would not pass it in a post-graduate paper. If Dennett wishes to draw on psychology he will need to muster his facts a lot more and get better quality information to build on. Merleau Ponty fifty years ago did better than that and there have been thousands of relevant studies since then expanding our understanding of human perception.
By this time my attention was definitely flagging, but I got far more engaged again when a whole section on Free Will was promised. However this section goes wrong from the very first sentence as he posits an imaginary opposition between manifest image and scientific image. These are not necessarily opposites and there are many other images possible, such as a hidden of implicit image for instance. Indeed there are many different scientific disciplines that come up with different images of the same phenomenon. To want to get a hold of what something ‘really’ is, is the opposite of wanting to do magic. It is to want to grasp the nettle and get to the essence. This is not always best achieved by a scientific explanation that analyses and pulls apart the phenomena under observation. Nowhere is this more true than in psychology, where an objective analysis of a person’s experience will almost certainly miss some of the really important factors at work. To come to a true picture of the complexity of what is going on in a human being, we need to be prepared to look many times and in many different ways at what is happening. It is rather like doing cinema, where we approximate reality by taking many different shots of the same object and then weave these together to create an impression capable of rendering the essence of what we are trying to capture. Magic is of course precisely possible because we can have this capacity for shifting or collapsing our perspective and misrepresenting as well as presenting it to the best of our abilities. Truth is possible because we can stack up different perspectives until we really begin to see something in its global reality. Dennett deals with the magic by quickly moving on to the pleasant fallacy of the hard wiring of the brain, something neuroscience is increasingly and rapidly moving away from. It is so tempting to think of the brain as a machine and to assign certain functions to certain areas or clusters of neurones, but this does not match the reality of human experience or the plasticity we observe when people lose part of their brain function and manage to replace it with a different way of doing the job. People are more malleable and indeed more suggestive than Dennett’s account allows for. In fairness to Dennett he does at one point question the idea of right and wrong wiring of the brain, so often taken for granted (p.358).
Nevertheless he now moves onto the terrain of showing how programming goes on in the brain and how we may improve on this. He uses game theory and does introduce the observation that some actions that may seem irrational are actually pragmatically intelligent as they work (like stotting in gazelles keeps the predators at bay), they are in some way, I would say, creative and inventive. However Dennett has no truck with that idea, but carries on showing how we can gain competence without comprehension, even though highlighting this as an issue earlier on (p.372). He tells us that most philosophers have claimed that unpredictability is a necessary condition for free will and that he sees this differently. He fails to note that Spinoza’s account of freedom is very much interlinked with an understanding of necessity, as is indeed the account of freedom in Camus, the later Sartre and de Beauvoir. There are striking and shocking gaps in Dennett’s history of continental philosophy, allowing him to put his own ideas forward as new and ground breaking when they are not. Sometimes it sounds as if Dennett is fed up with his own straight jacket and is looking to escape, but wrongly assumes he is the only one astute enough to formulate such ideas. I would recommend he spends some time reading existential authors as well as psychology, as he will undoubtedly gain a lot from it and engage with it creatively for the benefit of all. It might make him rethink his assumption that life is very much like a lottery.
Dennett’s work as always is stimulating and thought provoking but it cannot be considered to be as ground breaking or revolutionary as one might expect from the reputation he has established. The paths he invites us to tread are not the paths that I would like to use for my own practice of psychotherapy or philosophy. There is very little in this book that will help me be a better therapist or help me show the way to other human beings with more insight or understanding of the human condition and its many pitfalls. What a shame that someone so eminent and accomplished and clearly so clever should stand in the way of his own brightness, throwing so many shadows and so little light.
Dennett, D. (2013) Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking, London: Penguin Books.
Baggini J and Fosl, P.S. (2010) The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods, 2nd edition, Chichester:Wiley.
Nagel, T. (2012) Mind and Cosmos, New York: Oxford University Press.
Warburton N. (2007) Thinking from A to Z, 3d edition, London:Routledge.
Finding hidden Treasures in Trauma
It seems we all agree that trauma is an essential, inevitable and necessary part of life. But we still have to examine what the purpose of this experience might be and whether it makes a difference if the trauma is minor or major. I do not think that all such experiences can be handled or understood in the same way. While I agree that relatively minor traumas can be integrated into our normal functioning, I think that major trauma can only be properly met by allowing for the sea change it produces and represents.
This is equally true in the biological sense. If we suffer an injury or a bacterial or viral attack on our physical integrity our bodies absorb the invading organisms by making antibodies against them and repairing the wounds. That is a form of integration of trauma. But when our body is hit severely enough to become completely incapacitated integration and healing are not the end of the matter. When working with people who have lost limbs or who are paralysed or in locked- in syndrome integration of the trauma is not sufficient and indeed impossible: a re-arrangement of their entire existence has to be engaged with. The original injury will continuously throw up new challenges and these cannot just be absorbed. They require a new attitude of readiness for the conflicts and contradictions that will continue to emerge ever after. For there will not be an end to it. The person will not come back home to the safety they had come to expect. Their only way forward is to learn to live with openness to this new state of affairs. They have to learn to live in the abyss, or as is more often the case, to learn to span the abyss whilst establishing some safety elsewhere. In some cases they will learn to go between this safety and the abyss on a regular basis and acquire the strength and the courage to live with this. But the people I have known to be most effective at transcending trauma are those who have managed to live by shooting down new roots into the abyss itself, or who have learnt to create what I have come to think of as ‘air-roots’. Being rooted in the abyss is to draw strength from the very trauma that nearly killed you. Drawing from air roots is to get purpose from an overriding goal that makes sense of the experience itself and employs it to good effect.
I have found this powerfully the case when working with people with war trauma, especially with refugees, who realize that there is no way to integrate the experience or to find an entirely safe home ever again. They have to be prepared to live with the insecurity and the knowledge of the possibility of the end of all safety. They can neither forget or accept or integrate this. People around them may find this tedious or upsetting but that is just how it is. If you cannot return to your home country because you would be killed if you did and if you have to live in a country where you never feel settled and you are revisited by memories of persecution and the slaughter of your entire family, the very basis of your life becomes tenuous. The visceral awareness of the human capacity for cruelty is one example of something you can never forget or integrate, ever. People with such experiences do not want to let go and forget. They want to hang on to what they have seen, learn to face up to it, get strong enough to effectively oppose it and go beyond it. This is not about therapeutic soothing. This is about learning from experience and in action. I aim to enable people in that situation to stand strong and face the abyss. I teach them to learn to live dialectically towards transcendence. This means understanding how human existence works in reality and make the most of it. It means to face down with them the conflicts, the pain and the horrors they have witnessed and help them to value their suffering. The only way beyond it is to not forget and work towards contributing to a better and safer world. Transcendence by action, I call that. Frankl’s contribution to such work was enormous. He understood that we have to find meaning in trauma and that human challenge born bravely leads to greater human capacity. This is how our consciousness evolves. In becoming thus called to the awareness of the abyss we can only ever find peace as long as we remain dedicated to understanding how to live with it. Peace is found in doing something about it and also in living in fellowship with others who have experienced the same kinds of hurt and who are equally prepared to remain aware of it. I believe people who have become familiar with the abyss and who have learnt to accept they will always live with the knowledge of that darkness, are stronger in body and mind than they were beforehand.
From an evolutionary perspective emotional trauma takes us to a different plane. It is not just about losing our safety or being injured or infected. It is, and here I agree with you both, about being broken apart, about losing our integrity of being and becoming homeless in the world. But remember that this is the beginning of truth: Unheimlichkeit, not being at home, being ill at ease, is a primary experience of human being. We are on the way to truth as we feel thrown into the abyss of being and become acutely aware of the possible end of all that we know and value, including our self, our love and life itself. Emotional trauma exposes us to nothingness and to negativity and introduces a dimension of existence that is normally hidden. It is as if the veil is lifted. To live with that is a huge challenge and the temptation is always to draw the veil back over the wounds. My only way of getting a grip of what is required of us as existential therapists is to use the Socratic, Hegelian and Sartrian models of dialectics. In evolutionary terms I think this is exactly the human challenge: to span the opposition between being and nothingness and to find a way to transcend it, which means to include both opposites without integrating them. It is in holding the opposites that we transcend. What we do is to build on their synthesis, spanning the tensions as much as we can, holding open the paradox instead of prematurely foreclosing it. As I said before, I do think that integration is part of the process of integration of small traumas, but in relation to life changing threats that make us homeless we need a lot more than that! When I speak of the dialectic of transcendence I do not speak of ‘getting over’ but of rising above the experience so as to be able to place it into a wider perspective so that we can re-collect it, explore it and see its context, history and future possibilities. It is to make good on the invitation fate has extended to us to visit such wider dimensions of reality.
In that process people learn to treasure their trauma. They do not want to let it go and waste it. They want to hold on to it and own it. They want to learn the lessons of it and pass these on to others. The dialectic of transcendence is about drawing truth from trauma, realizing that the deep truths of the abyss are well worth having and that we can build on those foundations more surely than on any surface. If you are interested in finding out how I do this in practice, you might enjoy reading my long case illustration in the second edition of my book Everyday Mysteries (Routledge 2010).
Science and morality
Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are overstating their case:
Science on its own is not a sufficient basis for morality.
Ethics is an art, not a science and needs to retain the flexibility to adjust to local and specific circumstances.
- People who use the term ‘science’ often still do so from the assumption that science can establish one single, immutable truth. This is misleading. It accords too much authority to what is in essence a form of investigation, which is methodical and disciplined and of great and good use to human beings.
- We know however that science is not infallible and not accurate. By its own definition it proceeds from ignorance to ever greater knowledge of the facts and it continuously reinvents and renews itself.
- This means that the facts are nowhere near as stable and predictable as we would like to imagine them to be. Positive sciences such as physics, maths or biology are constantly exploring new contradictions and coming up against unexpected problems that require theories to be altered and corrected. The universe is dynamic and complex and we do not, by any stretch of the imagination, oversee it in this full complexity and do not know how we are affecting the world when we change it according to ‘scientific principles’.
- In addition to this the bare facts that are discovered, then have to be interpreted by scientists formulating theories which aim to capture as much of the known complexity as possible, but which often leave some elements out of the equation.
- To have faith in science as an objective guide to human behaviour is a regressive move, as it suggests that we should base human action on the most basic of physical facts and the imperfect conclusions we draw from them. While it may be fairly safe to proceed like this at a purely physical level, it stops being safe when we move to the level of morality. It is an entirely different category.
- Even at the purely physical level there are drawbacks from drawing living guidelines from the known facts. For instance, while we have to take the rules of gravity into account when we make decisions about how to move about in the world, there are limits to this ground rule. If we had based a moral principle on the ground rule, based in the fact of gravity, we might have ended up with a moral rule that said: ‘since it is dangerous to defy the fundamental rule of gravity, human beings should not attempt flight’.
- It gets much more difficult when we turn to the applied sciences like medicine and psychology. In these professions there is a constant interaction between fact and decision on how to interpret the facts. We have to learn to adjust to the differences in response to scientific treatment in each individual. Different people respond differently to certain chemicals or ‘evidence based’ treatments. Though professionals do not always have the wisdom to take this fact into account, it works better if they do pay attention to the person’s preferences or particular constitution and responsiveness.
- Social sciences like economy or sociology are even more widely off the mark for predictability and probability. It is now well accepted that these disciplines are in many ways more like art than like science and that the models they propose impact on the world they are describing. Creating a capitalist or Marxist society has a huge and un-oversee able impact on everyone in that society. There is no scientific principle that can determine which method is best or most appropriate. It is a matter of personal preference and convincing power in the politicians. Ultimately the application of these sciences is filtered through rhetoric. Each society we establish is an experiment in living. Rather like our personal lives.
- Philosophy and in particular moral philosophy is a discipline that evolved to reflect on such matters and to find a way to use the human capacity to think critically and carefully in order to rise above rhetoric or partial judgments and to consider actions carefully. In this sense philosophy is an art, which requires much training and understanding. It aims for something currently not very in vogue, called wisdom, which comes from reflected experience and allows us to consider things forwards, backwards, left, right and centre, looking at the issue from every direction before drawing a conclusion. It is also to use human experience in well-considered and critical manner rather than to stick simply to the facts and extrapolate from these.
10. An example of this is the debate around abortion. A factual approach to abortion might argue: ‘human beings gestate for nine months and the fact is that during that period, in utero babies are not viable to live independently for the first 22 weeks after conception and thus their fate can be determined by medicine up to that point as they are just at the cellular level, and as biological tissue can be disposed of, if so desired. Abortion up to 22 weeks is therefore considered to be fine. A religious approach might argue that human life is sacred and therefore no foetus may be aborted at any time. A philosophical approach would be to establish first of all which kind of society we want to live in and what kind of safeties we want to establish for ourselves and future generations. It will consider the pain of women who have been raped or who have otherwise fallen pregnant without feeling able to give birth and look after a child. It will also consider how we want to define life, and choice and commitment and well being. But it would never conclude that only some basic facts determine the issue. To argue from religion and state that abortion is always wrong or to argue from pure science and to state it is always right, is to give up on our capacity for thinking about ourselves and stick to dogma rather than to thoughtfulness.
11. Human beings have evolved a capacity for consciousness, which intervenes in the basic facts, plays with them to good effect and even alters them. The whole idea of evolution is that we can adapt to the facts of life in different ways and that diversity, variety and experimentation are the best way to achieve progress. Creativity and imagination are very important aspects of human behaviour and they lead to new developments that require us to change our views of what is right and wrong. Human beings are adaptable and have to adapt in order to flourish, but they also have to think through the consequences of their actions and that is a complex task. When people like Harris and Dawkins require us to pay attention to the scientific facts, they are right in doing so. They are wrong when they ignore the facts of human consciousness and human living, the demands and responsibilities of human society and of individual morality.
12. To jump to the conclusion that well-being is the objective is also an extraordinary leap of assumptive argumentation. When Harris quotes Aristotle as his role model, he forgets there are many different philosophical views besides those of Aristotle. And even then, Aristotle did not foreground well being in this manner. His virtue ethics is far more about living right than about finding well being. Well-being is the typical objective of contemporary positive psychology, not of any of the Athenian philosophers that I know. They all had rather more subtle notions of how a person should live. Living well is something quite different to aiming for maximum well-being. Living well is a challenge that makes demands on each individual and requires moral education and spiritual (or ideological) commitment and assiduous thoughtful living.
13. While the facts of science have a contribution to make to our understanding of life, they are by no means sufficient unto themselves. Living by facts alone, is like making art based on the facts of the chemical constitution of the paint and the canvas, and if we are lucky also on the rules of perspective and proportion. A computerised image can be created that way or we can paint by numbers according to that plan. But that is not art. Art is the unexpected and often unorthodox variation of expression of something personal and emotionally charged, which catches and highlights something of the wider purpose and meaning of human living. Living well, similarly, is not just based in factual living or the artificially controlled purpose of wellbeing for the many. That would lead to the stifled universe of Brave New World. Living is an art which is infinitely varied and complex and takes many long years and hard experience to perfect. It comes from the immersion in life itself and from the careful contemplation of what this means to us. As we consider our moral ideas and the paradoxes and contradictions of being an individual in society we get better at determining how we should act in each situation. At the end of the day that remains an individual challenge for each of us.
I have written more about this in my book: ‘Psychotherapy and the Quest for Happiness’ (Sage, 2009) and in my article for the Oxford Handbook for Happiness.