Heterophenomenology versus critical phenomenology: A dialogue with Dan Dennett (on-line debate)

Velmans, Max. 2001. Heterophenomenology versus critical phenomenology: A dialogue with Dan Dennett (on-line debate). [Digital]

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Abstract or Description

The following is an email interchange that took place between Dan Dennett and myself in the period 14th to 28th June, 2001. The discussion tries to clarify some essential features of the "heterophenomenology" developed in his book Consciousness Explained (1996), and how this differs from a form of "critical phenomenology" implicit in my own book Understanding Consciousness (2000), and developed in my edited Investigating Phenomenal Consciousness: new methodologies and maps (2000). The departure point for the discussion is a paper posted on Dan's website that summarises a related debate between Dan, David Chalmers and Alvin Goldman (Dennett, 2001). To make the discussion easier to follow, the multiple embeddings have been removed (restoring the sequence in which the comments were written). I have also corrected a few typos and grammatical errors. However, the text of the emails remains exactly the same. In Round 1, I suggest that scientific investigations of consciousness are better described as a form of "critical phenomenology" that accepts conscious experiences to be real rather than as a "heterophenomenology" which remains neutral about or denies their existence. Dan replies that I have misunderstood his position. He doesn't deny that conscious experiences exist. Conscious experiences just don't have the first-person phenomenal properties that they are commonly thought to have and, in his view, science remains neutral about the nature of such properties. In Round 2, I agree with Dan that science initially remains neutral about how to understand the nature of conscious experiences. Nevertheless, the phenomenology of consciousness provides the data that scientists are trying to understand. A better understanding of data does not, in general, make the data disappear. I also ask, "if you remove the phenomena from phenomenal consciousness, in what sense is whatever remains "consciousness"? And, if one removes all the phenomenal content from what one takes consciousness to be, doesn't this amount to a denial of the existence of "consciousness" in any ordinary sense of this term? Dan's reply likens beliefs in phenomenal properties to the belief in evil spirits causing disease. He has no doubts that diseases such as whooping cough and tuberculosis are real, but this doesn't require him to believe in evil spirits. And, what's left, once one removes phenomenal properties, is what a zombie and a so-called conscious person have in common: a given set of functional properties that enable them to carry out the tasks we normally think of as conscious. In Round 3, I summarise our similarities and differences. We agree that first-person reports are not incorrigible and that third-person information may throw light on how to interpret them. We also agree that first-person reports are reports of "something", although we disagree about the nature of that something. I suggest that Dan is sceptical about first-person reports rather than heterophenomenologically "neutral" (e.g. when he likens belief in phenomenal properties to belief in evil spirits). While we agree that science is likely to deepen our understanding of consciousness, I repeat that, unlike the replacement of old theories by better theories, a deeper understanding of phenomena does not in general replace the phenomena themselves. Rather than third-person data replacing first-person reports, the former are required to make sense of the latter, making their relationship complementary and mutually irreducible. In fact, there are many cases where science takes the reality of first-person phenomenology seriously, for example in the extensive literature on pain and its alleviation. If this can’t be squeezed into an exclusively third-person view of science, then we will just have to adjust our view of science - something that a “critical phenomenology” achieves at little cost. At the time of this editing, Dan has not replied.

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Dennett, Velmans, heterophenomenology, critical phenomenology, consciousness explained, understanding consciousness, phenomenal consciousness, investigating consciousness, phenomenal properties, qualia, first person reports, third person observations, psychological complementarity

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Date Deposited:

10 Apr 2019 13:47

Last Modified:

10 Apr 2019 13:47



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