October 08, 2004

Wright, Dennett, and Occam's Razor

Dan Kaplan pointed me at Wright's response to Dennett's complaint about his piece in Beliefnet. I don't see that Wright gets himself off the hook. Leaving aside the validity of the argument, the ethics just stink. To reduce it to bare bones:

- Dennett said A and B
- Later on, Dennett said C
- After the interview, Wright concludes that C can be interpreted as if A then not B
- Wright therefore concludes, and announces to the world, that Dennett believes not B

Now before taking this last step, a reasonable person would have noted that this conclusion meant that Dennett had claimed B and not B. Moreover, all of Dennett's previous statements had been consistent with B. There seem to be three possibilities:

- Dennett believes both B and not B.
- Dennett has changed his mind and now believes not B.
- Dennett still believes B; there is an error somewhere in the chain of reasoning - an equivocation, or a misunderstanding, or a subtle ambiguity.

Common sense suggests that the last of these is the most likely: in spoken (as opposed to written) discussion, such miscommunication occurs quite often. It certainly is more likely than someone changing a deeply-held belief.

So what does Wright do? Does he contact Dennett to double-check what was said and the conclusion that he's drawn, or does he publish without checking? The first approach is most likely to lead to a true reporting of the exchange. The second has the better "Gotcha!" potential, even though it's likely to lead to an acrimonious follow-up. (Like this.)

Maybe Wright got carried away, and thought this was a political debate in which zingers were more important than getting at the truth. That would seem to be a lousy way to practice philosophy.

UPDATE:I think I understand why Wright might have behaved in this way. If you watch the whole interview between Dennett and Wright, from about 30:00 through 45:00, you can see Dennett absolutely destroying Wright's incoherent notion of epiphenomenalism. (I guess I should commend Wright for being honest enough to publish the interview even though he comes off so badly in it, trying to "defend indefensible positions" as he put it, but I can't imagine that he was happy.)

Posted by geoff2 at October 8, 2004 03:17 PM

you're letting logic get between you and a fundmentalist, Geoff. here in Texas, we'd say:

That dog won't hunt.

You just need to get in touch with your Spiritual side. May I recommend peyote? :)

Posted by: Gene Bob at October 9, 2004 01:05 AM

Actually Wright isn't a fundamentalist. He's a "mysterian". Watch the whole video - OK, it's an hour, but even so - and watch him get wrapped around the axle of epiphenomenal consciousness in lizards..... And for a bonus, watch Dennett destroy the "mystery" of "free will". Beautiful.

Posted by: Geoff Arnold at October 9, 2004 01:16 AM

More interesting thoughts on this at

Posted by: Geoff Arnold at October 17, 2004 01:27 AM

On Wright's notion of subjective awareness as a kind of extra epiphenomenal stuff, I've come to agree this is wrong. But I am also one of those who read Dennett's Consciousness Explained a number of years ago and came away thinking "no, not quite". First-person subjective experience, stripped of all the other cognitive apparatus, is a different beast than the other things we explain scientifically (i.e. from an "objective" stance). The fact that we have experience is prior to everything else we know -- there is no reality without it. So, I don't think we have the whole story solved yet.

Posted by: Steve Esser at October 18, 2004 11:09 AM