Daniel Dennett’s Crude Ad Hominems — As Found in His Book, ‘Intuition Pumps’

Some academics (or professional) philosophers have a problem with the American philosopher Daniel Dennett (1942-) because he’s a successful writer of what’s called “popular philosophy”. (Note: The English philosopher Timothy Williamson makes a distinction between “popular philosophy” and “populist philosophy” — see here.) I don’t. After all, although Dennett has written many popular books on philosophical subjects, many of his arguments can also be found in his academic (i.e., technical) papers. Still, it’s true that as time has gone by, Dennett has written less and less academic stuff.

Is that automatically a bad thing?

Having said all that, in Dennett’s book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, some of his ad hominems against his detractors are terrible: i.e., really gross and crude. So, yes, I was a little surprised by the many snide comments Dennett uses against his philosophical opponents.

Ad-Hominem Passages From Daniel Dennett

Here are five examples:

(1) Dennett: “‘I just can’t conceive of a conscious robot!’ Nonsense, I replied. What you mean is that you won’t conceive of a conscious robot.”

Response: Even if there is an element of truth in what Dennett says above, he must still know that not all people are entirely — or even at all — driven by their emotional reaction to this issue. That said, some — perhaps many — people are indeed offended — or depressed - by the very notion of a “conscious robot”.

Of course it may well also be the case that Dennett himself has an emotional reaction to this issue. That is, perhaps Dennett “won’t conceive” of the possibility that a “conscious robot” is impossible… or at least highly unlikely.

And when did Dennett become a mind-reader?

For a verificationist and/or neo-behaviourist, he seems to be very good at reading those contents of other people’s minds — those contents which most certainly haven’t been expressed in verbal behaviour.

(2) Dennett: “We found his [John Searle’s] though experiment fascinating because it was, on the one hand, so clearly fallacious and misleading argument, yet, on the other hand, just as clearly a tremendous crowd-pleaser and persuader.”

Response: Dennett surely shouldn’t claim that the Chinese room argument is “clearly fallacious and misleading”. It may be false or badly argued. But why the hyperbolic words “clearly fallacious” and “misleading”? Fallacious and misleading to whom? To Dennett and to the other people who have exactly the same position on this as he does? It’s odd, then, that the tens of thousands of words which have been written on this subject were all written in response to an argument that is, apparently, clearly fallacious and misleading.

What’s worse, Dennett even hints (or perhaps explicitly states) that the Chinese Room argument is an argument specifically designed to please crowds! Of course Dennett may be arguing that crowd-pleasing has been an unintentional result of the argument. That said, judging from the rhetoric, hyperbole and amateur psychiatry Dennett indulges in (both here and elsewhere) -— I simply doubt that.

(3) Dennett: “You don’t want me to disable this device [this person’s “intuition pump”]; you like the conclusion so much — Strong AI is impossible, whew! — that your eyes glaze over at the prospect of being dragged through a meticulous critique of a vivid, entertaining argument that supports your fervent hope…. The details don’t really interest you, only the conclusion. What an anti-intellectual copout!”

Response: This is Dennett reading other people’s minds again!

What’s more, Dennett even appears to indulge in amateur psychiatry (or simply psychology) with his talk of “eyes glazing over, “fervent hope”, etc. He even accuses the people who hold different views on this of being (if not in these precise words) dunderheads, philistines and even plain dishonest.

Factually, I doubt that more than one in ten of the people who’re sceptical (or simply critical) of some of the claims of Strong A.I. would ever say that “Strong AI is impossible”. There’s no need for this modal hyperbole from Dennett. And, from what I’ve read, John Searle (1932-) himself has never made such an absolute claim about Strong AI.

(4) Dennett: “To many people consciousness is ‘real magic’. If you’re not talking about something that is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, then you’re not talking about consciousness, the Mystery Beyond All Understanding.”

Response: As with all the other quotes from Dennett, admittedly there’s an element of truth in the words above. But only an element! In other words, it depends on which philosopher of consciousness he’s talking about and what exactly that philosopher argues. In addition, depending on the quotes in this selection, that degree of truth depends on precisely what Dennett claims about other people and their specific arguments regarding Strong AI.

So sure - there are some philosophers and many laypeople who see consciousness as once they saw God, the soul, the paranormal, ley lines, astral travelling, the flat earth, etc. Yet there are also many philosophers and laypeople who don’t have this kind of mindset on the supposedly supercalifragilisticexpialidocious nature of consciousness. Alternatively, even if they do, they may still not be woo merchants. In addition, there are those who believe that consciousness is a “Mystery”. However, they don’t also believe that it’s “Beyond All Understanding”. That is, they may simply believe that consciousness is a mystery at this present moment in time. So such people don’t believe that this must remain so for evermore.

(5) Dennett: “I am suggesting, then, that David Chalmers has — unintentionally — perpetrated the same feat of conceptual sleight of hand in declaring that he has discovered ‘The Hard Problem’.”

Response: This last quote from Dennett may be a little unfair because he does, after all, use the word “unintentionally” about David Chalmers’ position. However, I’m struggling to see how Chalmers could carry out a “conceptual sleight of hand” and do so “unintentionally”.

The ironic thing is that Chalmers is very sympathetic to artificial intelligence — even if only to Weak AI. (See Chalmers’ discussion with Dennett here.) It’s just that alongside his embrace of (weak) A.I. Chalmers does still believe that there’s a Hard Problem of consciousness.

And then there’s the gross sarcasm (or do I mean irony?) from Dennett again.

It seems that Dennett simply can’t accept that Chalmers has “discovered” the Hard Problem as a result of thinking deeply about the subject over many years. Instead, Dennett believes that Chalmers has “perpetrated” a “slight of hand”.


Having quoted all the above, the very mentioning of someone else’s ad hominems (rather than his arguments) could itself be deemed to be an example of an ad hominem! Then again, one shouldn’t take a pure (or absolute) position on ad homs. Sometimes they may be perfectly acceptable in philosophical writing — though only if they’re backed up by argument, data, etc. In any case, I said that I was surprised by Dennett’s ad homs. I also said they were crude. I didn’t say that ad homs — in and of themselves — are automatically a bad thing.

I’ll put more meat on that claim with my very own ad hominem.

For a long time I’ve believed that Dennett thinks that many — or even all — the philosophers who don’t agree with his philosophical views on this subject are… well, religious. Or, at the very least, Dennett believes that they have (not Dennett’s own words!) “secret religious leanings” which motivate their positions. Now that’s simply false. It may be true about some of Dennett’s critics. However, it’s certainly not true of all of them. And even if some of Dennett’s critics are indeed religious, he (as a philosopher) shouldn’t simply assume that they are. What’s more, he must still concentrate on their arguments.

Talking about religion — here’s my second ad hominem.

I certainly suspect that Dennett is a little dogmatic and even theological when it — specifically — comes to his behaviourist and verificationist positions on philosophical matters. So it can certainly be said that materialists (or physicalists/reductionists/verificationists/scientists/etc.) can be dogmatic — as can those who uphold literally any position on any subject. (Anti-materialists, for example, can be very dogmatic too.) This is why it’s wise to make a distinction between materialism (or reductionism/verificationism/etc.) and those people who uphold this philosophical position.

This means that materialism (or reductionism/etc.) itself can’t really be dogmatic partly because there are so many varieties of such a theory (or position). And surely an abstract philosophical position (theory) can’t be dogmatic in itself — only its human adherents can be.

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