David Bentley Hart

10 Mar 2023 05:25 - 03 May 2024 10:43
Open in Logseq
    • philosopher , theist.
    • The Anti-Dennett

      • Apparently he really really hates Daniel Dennett and has written a lot of diatribes against him and fellow New Atheists:
      • The Illusionist
        • The simple truth of the matter is that Dennett is a fanatic: He believes so fiercely in the unique authority and absolutely comprehensive competency of the third-person scientific perspective that he is willing to deny not only the analytic authority, but also the actual existence, of the first-person vantage. At the very least, though, he is an intellectually consistent fanatic, inasmuch as he correctly grasps (as many other physical reductionists do not) that consciousness really is irreconcilable with a coherent metaphysical naturalism. Since, however, the position he champions is inherently ridiculous, the only way that he can argue on its behalf is by relentlessly, and in as many ways as possible, changing the subject whenever the obvious objections are raised. For what it is worth, Dennett often exhibits considerable ingenuity in his evasions — so much ingenuity, in fact, that he sometimes seems to have succeeded in baffling even himself.
      • Could not find any responses from Dennett, who might not think Hart is worth notice. So:
      • A ChatGPT simulation of Dennett responds:

        • How would Daniel Dennett reply to David Bentley Hart's criticism of his naturalist theory of mind?
        • David Bentley Hart has criticized Daniel Dennett's naturalist theory of mind on various occasions, arguing that Dennett's approach is reductionist, materialistic, and fails to account for the subjective nature of consciousness. Dennett, on the other hand, has responded to these criticisms in several ways.
        • Firstly, Dennett has argued that his approach is not reductionist in the sense that he is not reducing subjective experience to something purely objective. Rather, he is trying to provide a naturalistic explanation for subjective experience that is consistent with scientific findings. According to Dennett, subjective experience is a complex phenomenon that arises from the interaction of various processes in the brain, and it is possible to understand these processes without invoking anything supernatural.
        • Secondly, Dennett has rejected the charge of materialism, stating that he is not claiming that everything is reducible to matter. Instead, he argues that the mind is a complex system that cannot be reduced to any single element, be it matter or something else. In this sense, Dennett's approach is more nuanced than the crude materialism that Hart is criticizing.
        • Thirdly, Dennett has argued that his approach does not ignore the subjective nature of consciousness. On the contrary, he believes that subjective experience is a crucial aspect of consciousness, and he has proposed several theories to explain it. One such theory is his multiple drafts model, which posits that there is no single "stream of consciousness" but rather multiple competing drafts of experience that are constantly being revised and integrated.
        • Overall, Dennett would likely respond to Hart's criticisms by arguing that his approach is not as reductionist, materialistic, or dismissive of subjective experience as Hart suggests. Rather, he would maintain that his naturalistic approach to the mind is grounded in empirical evidence and provides a more comprehensive understanding of consciousness than any supernatural explanation could.
    • Some positive takes

      • Hart may be a bit of a combative asshole, but to some extent, anybody serious about their beliefs also wants to fight for them, they aren't mere neutral tokens in some intellectual game. His angry passion is not incidental.
        And honestly I am that way myself, although I'm trying to be less so. I long to get into a good argument; I think it's an indispensible part of thinking, but it's hard to find the right context where you can actually have a good argument and not a shit-flinging contest
      • He's quite rigorous and clear. Underneath the bombast, there are strong, complex, deep arguments. I still think he's wrong, but he makes a good case.
      • He's inspiring me to write down some of my latent ideas, and I'm honestly grateful for that. In particular, We are Software.
    • A close-ish reading of some posts

      • Hugo (Hemagoblin) from the WS Discord kindly gifted me access to Hart's substack and pointed me to these essays. Some responses below. I should qualify them: these are just my off-the-cuff reactions, not an attempt at a serious counterargument. Hart is a pro at the philosophy game and I'm just a software geek with vague intellectual pretensions, so take them for what they are worth.
      • Science, Consciousness, Information - by David Bentley Hart

        • When, however, those same methods cease to be regarded as mere useful fictions, conveniently simplifying reality and authorizing only very limited conjectures, and are instead permitted to metastasize into a metaphysical claim about the nature of reality, they can yield nothing but preposterous category errors. At that point, the sheer wanton grandness of the ambitions they prompt renders them impotent.
        • The implication is that he has a full and complete understanding of the categories in question (matter and mind, presumably), and the scientists / naturalist philosophers are fools who can't grasp the very basic structure of reality.
        • It seems to me he is a mirror of the worst of the scientismists like Dawkins. Two rival ape gangs hooting at each other over who controls the cosmic water hole.
        • Subtract out the bombast, and he is saying that science is good at explaining isolated phenomena that can be simplified out from the complexity of the real world, but that doesn't give them license to do metaphysics, to claim they have the right way to explain the whole of reality. OK fair enough.
        • It may be very helpful, for instance, to investigate specific organic functions found in nature as though they were mere machine functions; but if one forgets the difference between organisms and machines, or ventures even further beyond the frontiers of the verifiable and concludes that nothing but machines really exist, then one has lost the ability properly to see the limits of one’s knowledge.
        • He's begging the question by assuming an essential difference between organisms and machines. Ho hum.
        • All of this (and I apologize for so elliptical an overture) is by way of observing that there is no such thing, in the terms acceptable to us today, as a “science of consciousness.” Nor, in fact, could there be....The reason for this is almost banal: Consciousness, uniquely, is not a third-person event reducible to purely objective description, but is first-person in its phenomenal structure all the way down.
        • I think I know hardcore materialists who would agree with this – consciousness is not a good subject for scientific investigation. Science views things from the outside and consciousness by definition is seen from the inside. Presumably Hart derives different conclusions from this than the scientists do.
        • There are, of course, cognitive sciences, and our knowledge of the neurological correlations between certain mental states and certain brain states is advancing at—if not an extraordinary—at least a persistent pace. But correlation is not causation; and a correlation between qualitatively irreconcilable phenomena does not even allow us to presume which side, if either, might enjoy causal priority in the relationship.
        • Ah hah. Here's the nub of it. He is saying that neural phenomenon and mental phenomenon are "correlated", whatever that means. One side or another might have "causal priority", or perhaps neither does. That part is actually perfectly reasonable. But he is also saying that these two realms are "qualitatively irreconcilable" and thus we aren't able to even think of how they might be connected. That's BS, question begging again basically. Computation, brains and every other technology of information processing does exactly this – connects the physical and the mental.
        • Consciousness, uniquely, is not a third-person event reducible to purely objective description, but is first-person in its phenomenal structure all the way down. And yet it is an indispensable prejudice of modern method that a verifiable scientific description must be an entirely third-person narrative of structural and causal connections and correspondences.
        • Yes scientific descriptions have to be in the form of third-person objective language, that is part of the rules of science. It's not a prejudice, just the way it works as an intellectual activity. Does it diminish or eliminate the first-person view? Not really.
        • It is precisely the first-person perspective that must be subdued, and even ideally banished from our final account of any phenomenon, in order for a properly “scientific” account to emerge from observation and experiment and theory. Any remainder of the pure subjective constitutes merely an area of unintelligibility. And this, needless to say, becomes something of an intractable problem when the phenomenon under investigation happens to be subjectivity as such.
        • There's a sort of linguistic trick going on here. The first-person perspective is getting "subdued", but by who? Science and materialists do not, in fact, "subdue" subjectivity. Well I suppose some do, the "eliminativists", but most are not really in the business of subduing your precious self-experience, of invalidating it or diminishing it.
        • This is leading into what is a very common framing, I think made most thoroughly in Technic and Magic, equating science and objectivity with capitalism and oppression; malevolent forces that are "subduing" the natives, the humans, the good guys, with their precious but threatened subjectivity.
          • I can't say this framing is wrong, or even that I don't feel the truth of it myself sometimes. But I'm a technologist so I don't like to think of myself as being on the side of the oppressors. This is no argument against Hart, of course. Let's just say I personally am more interested in developing the human-positive aspects of computation than using it to subdue subjectivity.
        • The conscious mind cannot be exhaustively accounted for solely in terms of the mechanics of sensory stimulus and neurological response, because neither stimulus nor response is, by itself, a mental phenomenon; neither, as a purely physical reality, possesses conceptual content, intentional meaning, or personal awareness.
        • This is more question begging and boring AF. The computational-cogsci perspective is that the same concrete events can be both physical and mental. Brains do this (we assume), computers also do this, albeit in quite different ways. That's kind of the whole point!
        • Hart, for whatever reason, wants to keep these realms rigidly separated, with an unbridgeable gulf between them. Maybe it's too depressing to think of the precious human mind as a mere machine. But I'm from the world where we don't devalue machinery; investigating the mechanical processes of the mind does not diminish them.
        • To be honest, the incommensurability between physical causation and mental events is so vast that one can confidently assume that no purely physical explanation of their relation will ever succeed
          • To be honest, this sounds like whistling past the graveyard to me.
        • There is so absolute a qualitative abyss between the objective facts of neurophysiology and the subjective experience of being a conscious self that no model of the former, be it ever so sophisticated, can produce an adequate causal narrative of the latter: the two sides of the correlation simply cannot be collapsed into a single observable datum, or connected to one another in a clear causal sequence, and so the precise relation between them cannot be defined, or even isolated as an object of scientific scrutiny.
          • I have to admire the rhetorical power on display here, even though I disagree with its underlying point. It amounts to what has been called the argument-from-failure-of-imagination — because I, DBH, cannot imagine connections between these two things, nobody else will be able to either. But he's very convincing!
        • There's a section critquing Integrated Information Theory, which he says is the most prestigious and ambitious of current cogsci theories. It may be, but honestly I never heard of it before – I may just be out of touch. Seems to be a kind of materialist panpsychism, which I agree sounds pretty sneerworthy.
        • More to the point, the very notion that consciousness can be conceived as a cumulative quantity, whose smaller units can combine into larger unified aggregates, is also self-evidently absurd.
          • More bluster and question-begging, the tell is phrases like "self-evidently absurd". I agree that the idea that consciousness is a "cumulative quantitiy" sounds pretty lame. But that consciousness can be built out of aggregates of unconscious parts I have no problem with – that does seem to be how it works, even if we don't know the details.
    • Mind, Nature, Emergence - by David Bentley Hart (part 2)

      • This is all argument-from-lack-of-imagination, explictly this time:
      • One neuronal event can cause another as a result of physical necessity, but certainly not as a result of logical necessity; and it is impossible to imagine how the connections among the brain’s neurons could generate the symbolic and conceptual connections that compose an act of consecutive logic, because the brain’s neurons are connected organically and interact physically, not conceptually. [emph added]
      • The hopelessness of the situation should not be all that difficult to appreciate.  For one thing, absolutely central to the mechanistic vision of reality is the principle that material forces are inherently mindless, intrinsically devoid of purpose, and therefore only adventitiously and accidentally directed towards any ends; they can become “purposive” only in a secondary sense, as the result of evolutionary attritions
      • OMG is that confused. I can't even start. At any rate, evolution and cybernetics are exactly theories of how purposiveness can emerge from mindless systems, so probably better to understand that.
    • Nature, Cause, Mind - by David Bentley Hart (part 3)

      • I may be a physical system in some sense, but I am also an intentional “system” whose mental acts take the forms of semeiotic (symbolic, interpretive) determinations. This means that much of what I do is the consequences of intentions that are teleological in form. As such, they are necessarily invisible to a reductive inventory of the discrete processes composing me as a physical event.
      • See above, the whole point of computation and cybernetics is YES WE DO HAVE WAYS TO CONNECT THESE WORLDS.
      • At least, such is the contention of Denis Noble, perhaps the subtlest champion of systems biology or (as he also calls it) “biological relativity.” Perhaps there was a time when one could innocently think in terms of a master ground or center of life, with the DNA molecule as the primordial genetic repository of information (whatever that means)...
        • Wow he really really really does not understand biology, or systems in general. I'm guessing he read about the "central dogma" of molecular biology and thoroughly misunderstood later developments. The "whatever that means" is a dumb sneer.
      • He understands, for one thing, that such teleology is an intrinsic rational determination within a complex system, not a factitious purpose extrinsically imposed by some detached designing intelligence. He also understands, however, that there clearly are levels of explanation at which purpose constitutes not just an illusory epiphenomenon of inherently purposeless material processes, but a real causal power. An organ, no matter how stochastic its phylogenic history, exists within an organism because of the purpose it serves
      • There are no biologists anywhere who disbelieve in function and purpose. I have no idea what point he thinks he's making here. Evolution is exactly the mechanism by which teleology emerges from mechanical processes, and surely everybody knows this by now? WTF is he on about?
      • Mind, Being, God - by David Bentley Hart (part 4)

        • But, unless we want to embrace the plainly magical concept of emergence that I touched on in my first installment in this series, we are still obliged to assume that the formal determinations of organic complexity—or, as we now call it, their “information”—are already present in those causes in at least latent or virtual form, awaiting explication in developed phenotypes and other organic totalities.
        • Either he doesn't understand emergence, or I don't understand what it means to have "formal determinations of organic complexity...present in latent or virtual form". He seems to be saying that complex forms can't really emerge, they must pre-exist, because that is implicit in the nature of forms, which are eternal and not subject to time and history. They are already there and are only "awaiting explication", which is his way of dismissing the process of natural selection.
        • Again, irreducible emergence is a logical nonsense; whatever properties appear in an effect, unless imposed adventitiously, are already implicit in its “lower” causes, even if only as a kind of virtual intentionality.
        • Say what? Man does that sound like nonsense itself to me.
        • I'm beginning to get something: DBH is an eternalist, a theist, and to him forms and purpose are prior to and higher than material reality. For matter to presume to intrude on his sacred realm is a kind of profanation, and for matter to produce mind is to him as absurd as an unmannered peasant pretending to be the king.
        • Perhaps mechanistic models never were anything more than artificial constraints, by which discrete processes might be prescinded from a whole that, in itself, has something like the structure of intentional thought.
        • That is, perhaps theism. Well OK, perhaps!
        • From my perspective, the cosmos does have some of the structure of thought, but hardly of intention. It's more like an actual mind, a churning broth of ceaseless generation of forms, but with no guiding goal, no central authority.
        • If, as I say, reason abhors a dualism, all phenomena should ideally be reducible to a single, simpler, more capacious model of reality. So, then, rather than banishing mind from our picture of nature, perhaps we should reconsider the ancient intuition that nature and mind are not alien to one another precisely because nature already possesses a rational structure analogous to thought
          • Sounds like Gregory Bateson, I'm down with that. (Nobody is "banishing mind", at least, nobody I care about).
        • The intentionality of mind then is neither a ghostly agency inexplicably haunting a machine, nor an illusion reducible to non-intentional and impersonal forces, but instead the most intense and luminous expression of those formal and teleological determinations that give actuality to all nature.
        • Alright, this is getting too spiritual for my tastes. And also it's an argument I don't care about. I'm sure there are people who disbelieve in mind and teleos as such, whatever that could mean, but I'm not one of them. No, the interesting question is how mind and matter are related? That they are is a simple observable fact, whether they are necessarily found together, as is the naturalist position, or whether mind has some kind of ontological precedence, as it does in theism or Platonism.
        • That last bit I think is my best effort to describe Hart's stance sympathetically. It makes sense – if you accept the division between mind and matter, and their awkward later coexistence, then clearly mind just is the dominant one in the relationship. Active where matter is passive, alive where matter is dead, luminous where matter is dark. Etc.
        • I don't have an argument against that so much as a distaste. I'm an anarchist by nature and I simply don't like traditional hierarchies, I want to tear them down (my political views have been tempered into something more conservative by reality, but my philosophical views are the same as ever). Also, rule-by-forms smacks of the eternalism that Buddhism warns us against.
        • Yeah, that is my diagnosis. Hart is presenting us with a stark choice, either the eternalism of god or the nihilism of materialistic science. The Buddha teaches that this is a false choice, and furthermore that metaphysical speculation is a waste of time.