The Fallacy of Unnatural Deceleration?

by John Holbo on December 9, 2017

As a reward for my sins, I read this review of Daniel Dennett’s latest, by David Bentley Hart. (My efficiently causal sin being: reading The Corner.)

Here’s the thing. I kind of liked it, even though I am far, far closer to being a Dennettian than anything like a Hartian. I couldn’t be the lover of G.K. Chesterton I am were I not guiltily susceptible to this sort of pious, dogmatic horseplay. It’s the breezy air of effortless superiority. “In every case, most of his argument consists in a small set of simple logical errors.” Lord knows I drew deep drafts of that air in my youth, and blew them out. I mean: I had a lot of fun writing long pieces in which I was apparently not so much concerned to demonstrate the wrongness of X as the obvious wrongness of X.

There’s a place for that, and not just in politics, and not even necessarily in Hell. But, since people who write this way – I should know! – are forever inventing and naming fallacies for their victims to have committed (Hart invents two in the review) it seems only fair to name the fallacy one is pretty much fore-doomed to commit by writing this way. It is not one of logic but of rhetorical velocity. Namely, it would be intolerable, since it would obviously cause the whole review to go out of tune, if the author were at any point to concede, not that Dennett was right, but that there was something he was wrong about, but not obviously wrong about.

“It is hard to know how to answer this argument without mockery.”

It is impossible to believe the author has ever been in a position to know such an exotic thing, since it is plain no mode but mockery is consistent with his rhetorical velocity – speed and direction. It is hard to believe he would be so heroic in the cause of truth as to explode his own vehicle simply to learn whether any argument by Dennett can be answered without mockery.

Now, as I said, the fallacy needs a name. And it needs to be as classical and lofty and pretentious as can decently be suited to it.

Thus do I reach back into the mists and miasmas of grad school days and recall – what was it? – someone-something commentaries on Aristotle and wossname on the impossibility of deceleration of heavenly bodies?

Ah, I have it, by the Dog!

Simplicius on Alexander on Aristotle! What could be simpler or more ready to hand? (see pp. 82-3).

I can’t quite keep the actors here straight, they all look the same, but the gist is that heavenly things – given their nature and station – cannot accelerate nor decelerate. A couple of arguments prove it if you doubt.

i) Non-uniform motion comes from deceleration and acceleration.
ii) deceleration always results from loss of power when the proper power of a thing is unable to be sufficient for similar and uniform activity forever.
iii) every loss of power is unnatural.

Couple that with this.

i) The divine body is not constituted in an unnatural way.
ii) what moves non-uniformly is constituted in an unnatural way.
iii) therefore the divine body does not move non-uniformly.

Now the present application. It is quite self-evident to any child of six summers that Hart sees his argument as moving, and rather divinely. If he were to admit that there was something in Dennett that called for non-obvious consideration, let alone reconsideration, that would require that he slow down. But intellectual deceleration, even just to prove Dennett wrong by more careful means, would already imply a loss of proper power. That would be unnatural, would imply incongruous congress between divine things, such as the obviousness of Dennett’s wrongness, and non-divine things, such as Daniel Dennett’s arguments.

Ah, I have committed the fallacy myself many times. It is a shameful thing, but glorious. That pathos of distance, as Nietzsche might have said. There’s nothing to compare.



John Holbo 12.09.17 at 1:32 pm

I just noticed that the translation is by my old teacher at the U of C, Ian Mueller. But the translation was only published 2 years ago. Can’t imagine why or how I was dabbling in Aristotle on the impossibility of deceleration back in the 90’s. I must have been trying to talk myself out of depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy and all.


Brad DeLong 12.09.17 at 1:51 pm

But it is right! When viewed properly, Heavenly Things simply follow necessary geodesics through space-time! They neither swerve nor stop! (Unless they smack into something.)


ph 12.09.17 at 1:52 pm

I think of this form of rhetoric along the lines of: obviously if you are still reading by the second paragraph you obviously have no interest in an argument based on evidence, or logic; so, as I was declaiming…

Clearly, many prefer just this, or perhaps much prefer this even to the exclusion of….


Jerry Vinokurov 12.09.17 at 4:54 pm

Mutatis mutandis, the very same “arguments” that Hart levels against Dennett would actually be far more applicable to his own review. I suppose it’s amusing on some level that a certain cabal of cranks (orbiting mostly around Notre Dame’s philosophy department) cannot seem to expel the Dennettian bee from its collective bonnet and therefore feels compelled to regurgitate their tired metaphysics once every few years; maybe this time they’ll get those physicalists! Meanwhile the world spins merrily (or not) on.


BruceJ 12.09.17 at 5:46 pm

but the gist is that heavenly things – given their nature and station – cannot accelerate nor decelerate.

Well, ironically true, in a way: photons are certainly heavenly things, fundamental to the very nature of our universe, and cannot accelerate or decelerate until something unnatural (a brick wall, my eyeglasses, Newton’s prism) acts upon them.

I believe this is some sort of corollary to Clarke’s third law: any sufficiently weird Philosophy is indistinguishable from Physics…?


dilbert dogbert 12.09.17 at 6:52 pm

MMMMMM??? All heavenly bodies, the divine ones, follow elliptical paths. Those paths accelerate and decelerate. Who was it? Kepler? who figured out the ellipses?


William Berry 12.09.17 at 9:11 pm

I wasted a sizable several of minutes on the Hart review (have read several Dennett works, but not the one in question), only to realize, in the end, that it boiled down to just a lot of tiresome god-bothering.

I did still manage to get in an hour on my elliptical. I must admit, however, that my not-so-heavenly body was unable to maintain a constant velocity, being forced, on occasion, to decelerate.


John Holbo 12.10.17 at 1:31 am

“Mutatis mutandis, the very same “arguments” that Hart levels against Dennett would actually be far more applicable to his own review.”

I know! That’s the sort of thing one would think the author would notice.


J-D 12.10.17 at 3:44 am

I could respect a review that said ‘We all know Goddidit, even Dennett knows that Goddidit, although he likes to pretend he doesn’t’. It’s not true, but it could be sincere. ‘Goddidit’ is a mistake, but it’s an honest mistake, and also one I used to make myself, so I can’t blame anybody for it. I don’t suppose, however, that a review like that could get published; whereas meretricious mountebankery can.


ph 12.10.17 at 5:45 am

Lest we forget, the best Dennett and company can offer is ‘I cannot imagine a deity smart enough to design a universe, therefore no such deity can possibly exist. My imagination and limitless intellect defines the what is and what is not the possible in the universe.

Materialism doesn’t explain first cause, time, or infinity; and is held together by fear of the unknown and the unknowable. Otherwise the theory is flawless.

Cue whatabout religious folks who say…


ph 12.10.17 at 5:47 am

Sorry, about failed edits. I blame the bouillabaisse at lunch.

You get the point.


Gabriel 12.10.17 at 6:38 am

Some people like pot, booze, cocaine – I cruised through graduate school on the giddy high this fallacy gave me. Unnatural Deceleration, you say? Thanks for naming it. I mainlined this shit.


J-D 12.10.17 at 7:12 am

You are grossly misrepresenting Dennett’s position.


bad Jim 12.10.17 at 7:47 am

I have discovered a perfect refutation to this argument, but it is too long for a comment box.


John Holbo 12.10.17 at 8:33 am

ph, I think you may be committing what I call the fallacy of unnatural deceleration.


ph 12.10.17 at 9:07 am

@13 All that’s missing from your complaint is evidence.

Dennett’s got nothing except a loyal following of the similarly timid.


Bill Benzon 12.10.17 at 10:30 am

Dennett may well have once had the capacity to be a major thinker – yeah, I know, he’s got a reputation as one, but that’s different from being one. But he fell victim to his own early success and vast cleverness and, obviously enough, he believes his own PR. Now he’s pushing “competence without comprehension”, which is very clever. & it’s the reverse of his own modus operandi, which is to be eminently & even pleasurably comprehendible without actually being competent.


J-D 12.10.17 at 10:53 am

The evidence is on every page Dennett has ever written, in every speech he’s ever made, and in every interview he’s ever given, in none of which will you find the statement ‘I cannot imagine a deity smart enough to design a universe, therefore no such deity can possibly exist’ or the statement ‘My imagination and limitless intellect defines the what is and what is not the possible in the universe’; nor any paraphrase or equivalent statement. I could search the Web for his name and post the first link I find, because whatever it is your alleged statements will be absent from it; but it’s not worth my while making the effort, because if you care a rap about evidence you can more easily do the same for yourself.


ph 12.10.17 at 12:36 pm

@18 My guess is that only one of us has actually read Dennett closely ( and only cause I had to) and had the opportunity to challenge Dennett on his claims. He builds a castle of air and invites others to (pay to) step inside. Many happily do, some gratefully. Perhaps, you.

As for your ‘objection,’ I’ll point out the obvious – that paraphrase succinctly isolates the emptiness of his fatuous posturing, just as shaving off that Santa beard he sports might. God can’t possibly exist is the only drum Dennett’s got, and when he beats it nothing ever happens.

The frightened cling to the possibility that it one day might. And that’s about it.


LFC 12.10.17 at 2:26 pm

A while ago I read a profile of Dennett in the New Yorker (for some reason, bought that issue in hard copy; I don’t subscribe to the magazine). In terms of substance, all I really remember from it is that there is a disagreement about consciousness among philosophers, with Dennett and his supporters on one side and Chalmers and his supporters on the other. And it’s all collegial enough for the different sides to go on cruises together to Alaska or wherever and argue with each other. And something about baboon or chimp (was it?) consciousness vs. human.

This may have relatively little to do with the review in Nat’l Review’s the Corner that is the butt of the OP, but I’ve never, as far as I can recall, visited the Corner and I’m not inclined to start now.


novakant 12.10.17 at 2:43 pm

I remember reading the humbly titled “Consciousness Explained” as a young student and finding out that there was really no there there – Dennett is Bill Bryson for academic types, though less entertaining.


J-D 12.10.17 at 9:07 pm

Maybe everybody reading this has some familiarity with Dennett’s views and can form their own judgements; but maybe not. Maybe there are people reading this exchange who are unfamiliar with Dennett and his work and who, on reading your original comment about what he says, imagine, solely on your say-so, that it is what Dennett says. Therefore I contradict you, so that any unfamiliar reader can pause and wonder whether your description is true. If they have some interest in finding out more, they can easily do so themselves; I don’t expect them to accept that your description is false purely on my say-so, so long as they don’t accept that it is true solely on your say-so. I ask them to reflect that you have made no attempt to quote any of Dennett’s own actual words as evidence for your characterisation of his views, even though his own words are so easy to find; also that you refer to Dennett’s physical appearance as if it’s relevant to this discussion. Perhaps if you knew something about my physical characteristics you’d start dragging them into this discussion as well? That’s a lucky escape for me.


Jerry Vinokurov 12.10.17 at 9:33 pm

Materialism doesn’t explain first cause, time, or infinity;

In this respect it is of course not in the slightest inferior to any other theory, none of which explains any of these things either.

and is held together by fear of the unknown and the unknowable.

Ah, not only are my opponents wrong, but they must be cowards too, else they would see the truth of my position! Wait, I can do this one too: “Anti-materialism is held together by the fear that there is no purpose in our universe and that we’re nothing but coincidental arrangements of matter.” Good game to play.

Otherwise the theory is flawless.

It doesn’t have to be flawless to be better than all of its competitors.


Z 12.10.17 at 10:39 pm

I found Hart’s review very odd, if only because I am having a hard time imagining who is the intended audience : a devotee of pre-modern philosophical approaches to cognitive questions with a strong theistic intuition who nevertheless read Chomsky? Does that person exist?

But then again, I agree with much of what Denett apparently argues and strenuously disagrees with an equal part of it, so any unambiguous review – whether positive or negative – will probably appear strange to me.


John Holbo 12.10.17 at 11:44 pm

One of my favorite Dennett papers. A bit old now, but a goodie.

It is fair to accuse Dennett of popularizing and oversimplifying and generally being an evangelist for his view – with all the ironies that entails. That’s one reason I kind of enjoyed the review. Fair is fair. But, in a more strictly fair sense, it’s not. If you want to ask whether Dennett’s views are serious, you have to engage with his serious attempts to grapple with some deep puzzles. You can’t just make fun of his popularizations.


John Holbo 12.10.17 at 11:44 pm

I’m not saying that old paper is the best thing he ever wrote, or the key to making all his views make sense, but it’s intellectual characteristic. And I got a lot out of grappling with it many years ago.


LFC 12.11.17 at 12:24 am

I click on the Dennett pdf, read the opening question “are there really beliefs?,” and am immediately turned off. Perhaps it’s just a transient mood, but I think I don’t care whether there are really beliefs or not. It seems to me that spending one’s life as an academic who worries about such questions would be unpleasant. To be sure, probably not as unpleasant as the lives that huge numbers of people are living, often because their choices are highly constricted by external circumstances, but still, not fun. Obviously, YMMV.


Bill Benzon 12.11.17 at 1:33 am

Yes, John, the patterns paper is a good one. Well worth reading.

And I still say the man is too clever by a half.


Lee A. Arnold 12.11.17 at 1:39 am

I believe that pattern is real, and not only that, but it can be generalized. I start here by observing a functional difference between information and matter-energy, and end showing that the intentional stance observes a dichotomy: from one to many, and from many to one.


ph 12.11.17 at 4:57 am

JH, There’s no denying Dennett’s intelligence, or his vituperative, and venal insults towards people who hold views that differ from his own.

@ Others. In the Dennett-centered universe, god does not exist. Fair enough. Where argument might better advance understanding, however, Dennett routinely employs gratuitous and needless denigration of his interlocutors, much to the delight and frisson of those in his self-selecting revenue stream, and sundry fans. Dennett is worth taking seriously when he treats his own arguments seriously – manifest in the respect he demonstrates toward those he would, theoretically, like to persuade.

Dennett’s default position is that those who do not subscribe to his own narrow views of the universe should be accorded no more respect than any adult who believes in the tooth-fairy. It’s ‘Build the wall’ for fan-boys, with the Santa beard and glasses as props. Get it?

Derek Parfit, for my money, is far more interesting, clear, and intellectually stimulating; and much more provocative.


J-D 12.11.17 at 8:37 am

Even if you produced evidence (which you have not) that Dennett insults and denigrates his interlocutors, that would still not be evidence that this is a fair representation of Dennett’s position:

I cannot imagine a deity smart enough to design a universe, therefore no such deity can possibly exist. My imagination and limitless intellect defines the what is and what is not the possible in the universe.

I became interested enough to search the Web and without difficulty found this clip of Dennett explaining his atheist position:

The words of yours which I quoted above are not what Dennett says and not close to a fair paraphrase of what he says. Even if all the other remarks you have made since about Dennett are accurate; even if your negative evaluation of him is justified; your original characterisation of his position is still a gross distortion.


SusanC 12.11.17 at 9:51 am

The Hart review does not seem, to me, to be God bothering”. It avoids the later parts of Descartes argument in which God gets introduced, and worries about the first part “I think therefore I am”.

The problem is not whether there is a God, but the obvious observation that, to me, my conciousness exists. This is true even in, for example, dreams, where the rest of what I am perceiving definitely doesn’t exist.

At this point, I’d like to voice the opinion that the Buddha was doing philosophy of conciousness before Descartes.

But there is somethink kind of “mystical” in the ibservation that, to me, I exist. Even if the rest of you are figments of my imagination.

“The mind, oh monks, is pure….”


ph 12.11.17 at 10:02 am

@31 Have you read a single book, paper, or article by Dennett?

Forgive me for asking, but a clear answer will help.


SusanC 12.11.17 at 11:30 am

I agree with John’s broader point that the literary style Hart is using here is not conducive to a careful logical argument, even if it is entertaining.

e.g. if we consider the supposed lack of intermediate organisms between language/lack of language (an argument rather reminiscent of William Paley’s idea that the existence of a watch implies a watchmaker): a) written language leaves plenty of archaeological evidence in the form of big stone monuments with inscriptions on them, but it’s hard to tell from bones or fossils how well the organism could talk; and (b) organisms with advanced language use such as ourselves have likely outcompeted the intermediate forms in our own ecological niche, leaving no extant survivors.

(Plus, we might consider genetically engineered mice with the human variant of the FOXP2 gene as a candidate artificially reconstructed intermediate form).


Layman 12.11.17 at 12:15 pm

ph: “Where argument might better advance understanding, however, Dennett routinely employs gratuitous and needless denigration of his interlocutors, much to the delight and frisson of those in his self-selecting revenue stream, and sundry fans.”

Routinely enough that you can easily provide examples?


george 12.11.17 at 2:34 pm


Something to consider: Dennett began publishing influential books and articles in the late 1960s. He did not publish a book or article–indeed, to the best of my recollection he did not publish a full paragraph–about God or religion until the mid-2000s.


george 12.11.17 at 2:40 pm

Sorry: ph.

And: *From Bacteria to Bach and Back* is–on Dennett’s own account–a recapitulation of a career of thinking about the evolution of mind. So of course “the path is the same one that Daniel Dennett has been treading for five decades”, as Hart mentions frequently with velocity. The word “God” does not appear in the appendix.


Chris Grant 12.11.17 at 3:44 pm


Darwin’s Dangerous Idea was published 10 years before the mid-2000s and has several full paragraphs on God and religion.


novakant 12.11.17 at 3:46 pm

Thomas Nagel might be more representative of where I’m coming from (I’m not too bothered about God pro or con, which seems to provide some subtext here).

I do think Dennett’s eliminative materialism, his reliance on slightly dusty behaviourism, scientism and reductionism and as his apparent ignorance of the philosophy of language is preventing him from contributing a whole lot to the understanding of consciousness – which is a shame since he’s bright and popular.


SusanC 12.11.17 at 4:58 pm

N Dennett(as summarized by Hart) there is a point in the evolutionary tree – possibly recent in geological time – when conciousness evolved.

But we’re not in a very good position to claim this as a scientific result. For all I know, Dennett is a philosophical zombie and has no conciousness. This would at least explain his position :-) But if I can’t even tell whether Dennett has conciousness, I’m not in a good position to tell if it is possessed by apes, dogs, drosophilla melanogaster etc. and make pronouncements about its evolutionary history.


J-D 12.11.17 at 5:23 pm

The answer to your question is ‘Yes’.

Now, why did you ask that question, and how does the answer help? ‘Forgive me for asking, but a clear answer will help.’

(Come to think of it, why did you ask me for forgiveness? What would make you feel that asking a question is offensive and requires an apology? That’s weird.)


rcriii 12.11.17 at 8:45 pm

I tried to read the Dennett article, but got distracted arguing with myself about the utility and proper definition of the “Dennett lost sock center”.


Rob Chametzky 12.11.17 at 9:52 pm

Trinity is my name.

There seem to be three topics at play in this thread
(1) The rhetoric of Hart’s review of Dennett
(2) Dennett’s views (in the work under review)
(3) Alternatives to Dennett’s views (in the work under review)

I’m going to be brazenly outlineish, and proceed in order in my comments.

(1) Part of rhetoric is the question of audience (see Z@24). If we consider where Hart’s review appeared, then the issues of rhetoric that are raised by JH disappear, I think. In this venue, with the readers it (mostly) will have, the kinds of arguments JH might prefer to see are simply not to the point. Presumably, (almost) everyone reading this review in this place ALREADY agrees/knows that the Dennetian position, whatever its details might be, is wrong. So, the rhetoric of Hart’s review is entirely appropriate given the venue, in a way that slowing down and pissing on Dennett from a lesser height would not be.

(2) What are Dennett’s views, and might he be right about (any of) them? Personally, I’m (very much) inclined to say that, as he is rather thoroughgoingly instrumentalist, therefore, no, he’s pretty much not right about anything (in which truth might matter). However, (I guess) no one should just take my word for this.

Better they should take the late, great Jerry Fodor’s word(s). Fodor lit into Dennett various times in various places. The third chapter of his book “A theory of content and other essays” (1992) has some bracingly technical arguments for those who like/need those sorts of things, and includes this gem of a Fodorian footnote:

“It is, in consequence, VERY, VERY misleading to say that since ‘ . . . in the case of an organism. . . [content] . . . is not independent of the intentions and purposes of Mother Nature, [it is] just as derived as . . . the meaning in [states of an artifact]’ (Dennett, p. 305). FN.24

FN. 24: Similarly, mutatis mutandis: Teddy bears are artificial, but REAL BEARS ARE ARTIFICIAL TOO. We stuff the one and Mother Nature stuffs the other. Philosophy is FULL of surprises.”

PDF of the chapter here:

Another excellent and detailed Fodor bashes Dennett is Fodor’s review of “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” in the journal “Mind & Language” (V. 11, #3, 1996).

PDF of a scan here:

Finally, Fodor reviewed Dennett’s “Freedom evolves” in the “London Review of Books”; unfortunately, not freely available in its entirety:

(3) As for alternatives to Dennett, JH writes “ . . . I am far, far closer to being a Dennettian than anything like a Hartian.” And I suppose that’s true of me, too, if those are the only choices on the menu. But, luckily, there’s more philosophy in heaven and earth, JH, than is dreamt of in your blog post (yes, yes, I know JH knows THAT, but let me have this one). For example, there’s Fodor’s position:

“Third, a point that should be obvious: it’s OK for somebody who is a reductionist / naturalist about intentionality to not believe that intentionality reduces to adaptation or natural teleology. Dennett, having appropriated ‘naturalistic’ for his own brand of reduction, seems unable to contemplate a view that says ‘yes, intentionality is reducible, but no, it’s not Reducible to Darwin. . . .’” (Review of “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, p. 261)

Fodor’s view is/was not the only alternative, obviously, and certainly had/has its own problems. But, hey:, se non e vero, e molto ben trovato.



Chris Stephens 12.11.17 at 11:01 pm

Dennett has been talking about issues related to the design argument for a long time, however – in his reply to commentators of his 1983 BBS paper defending the “Panglossian paradigm”, he talks about the difficulty of being able to distinguish natural design from artificial design (suppose, he imagines, we sent a Martian biologist a laying hen, a Pekingese dog, a barn swallow and a cheetah and ask them which designs bore the mark of artificial selection.) We need to know something about the intentions and abilities of the designer – something that we tend not to have empirical information about when it comes to creation by divine agent – in order for it to make predictions. He thinks that we can’t rule out “prehistoric fiddling by intergalactic visitors with the DNA of earthly species” but that nothing we have found hints that such a hypothesis is worth exploring – ditto for special creationism. See ch. 7 of the Intentional Stance.

God also comes up in 1995 Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.


ph 12.12.17 at 1:19 am

@32 Yes, Buddha, Hume, Parfit – Identity.
@35, 36 Thank you for the context. I encountered the great man in the 2000s, and came away with a clear impression of his incomplete understanding of Darwin, his bombastic speaking style, his over-sized ego (even for a celebrity academic), and his deep fear of the unknown and the unknowable. His decision put down tools and take up preaching the great faith of atheism far and wide seems kind of sad given the quality of his early work.


J-D 12.12.17 at 9:17 am

The intermediate stage (or stages) between having language and not having language is everywhere; we have all passed through it. Of course none of us remember it, but spend some time with people of the appropriate age and you’ll be reminded.


SusanC 12.12.17 at 10:24 am

Hart’s rhetoric style feels like he’s trying to be Kierkegaard, with Dennett cast in the role of Hegel.

As well as the argument Hart actually makes, I feel the rhetorically implied trace of something like Descartes run backwards, viz. Dennett’s programme of denying conscious intent to things started innocently enough by denying the existence of God, but has now gone on to deny the existence of what Buddhists woukd term the “mere I”. A moments introspection, in the manner of Descart “cogito ergo sum” should suffice to convince you he is wrong about this. Consider this a reductio ad absurdum of his entire analytic framework. Now that you’ve rejected his entire framework, about the God thing…. (Not that I buy this argument, you understand).


casmilus 12.12.17 at 10:27 am


I’ve read his important books (Content & Consciousness, Brainstorms, The Intentional Stance), plus Consciousness Explained, didn’t bother with the later stuff about religion.

Also read Dennett & His Critics, of which the most memorable details are: (1) it contains a supportive essay by Richard Dawkins called “Viruses Of The Mind” which was an early (this was 1995) prototype of what became “The God Delusion”, and (2) Dennett himself pointed out its weaknesses in his concluding Response To Critics.

Ruth Garrett Millikan is more thorough and more profound, and harder work.

I should think the greatest weakness of his position is in all the “stance” stuff, where he seems to sail pretty near to saying that we should treat evolution as designed by Mother Nature. At which point he’s offering a sort of Bergsonian “creative evolution” approach rather than actual mainstream science. But I haven’t read those passages in years and can’t defend this paragraph.

I think we need to decommission “scientism” as it’s now pretty much meaningless as a criticism.


casmilus 12.12.17 at 10:34 am

@42 Theory Of Content has many great things in it, including “Observation Reconsidered” and of course the “Guide To Mental Representation”, which is a bit dated now though. Fodor himself moved on from some of his positive views in that book.


george 12.12.17 at 4:08 pm

Ah, fair enough Chris and Chris. Misremembered when DDI came out, and “no full paragraph” was overblown given his longtime interest in questions of design. Still, the fixation on atheism is a relatively late-career development, and not a useful lens through which to view either his legacy or even the new book.


ph 12.13.17 at 2:05 am

@50 Fair? 1995 just past the mid-point in his career if he began publishing serious work in the 1960s, and there’s no sign he’s flagging, at least in publications. I think it entirely fair to view his work on balance, and would do so if Dennett extended a fragment of the same courtesy to those he opposes.

‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ was one of the texts we were required to purchase and study in an undergrad course on materialism. Rob@43 links to Fodor’s detailed critique of the text, but even a neophyte could discern the weaknesses in Dennett’s unfounded claims regarding teleology, and ‘natural’ design. I found them inexplicable and positively anti-Darwinian. The only text on that topic I read prior to the 2000s was Jacques Monot’s Chance and Necessity, which to my mind makes a great deal more sense.

On the question of his tiresome monotheism, he displays all the charity and good sense of Michael Wigglesworth.


Z 12.13.17 at 7:00 am

JD The intermediate stage (or stages) between having language and not having language is everywhere; we have all passed through it. Of course none of us remember it, but spend some time with people of the appropriate age and you’ll be reminded.

In the context of Hart’s review, that counter-argument is not applicable: human newborns are already sensitive to syntactic properties of language in ways you cannot teach an adult chimps to be, so in the very technical sense of the terms used by Hart in his review, newborns are already on the same side as adult speakers with respect to the divide between language and non-language.

But that is a perfect illustration of what I found very odd in Hart’s review, and a perfect illustration of John’s fallacy. Hart simply seems to presuppose that his readers know about the full range of technical arguments for minimalist syntax and that they are thoroughly convinced by them – indeed that they find them almost obvious. No need to pause there to explain anything or even acknowledge that the logical structure of the argument is “If minimalist syntax is right, then memes are an untruly inadequate tools to explain human language”. No, to quote him “Unfortunately, [an early stage of words, spreading and combining and developing into complex structures of reference] simply cannot be”. And that’s it! The oddity is compounded by the fact that if you are indeed in the minuscule minority that is aware of said arguments and are convinced by them (as I am), then you don’t really need Hart to gauchely remind you of them. It would be much more honest (and useful) on his part to note the existence of the implication “minimalist syntax implies memes are wrong” and then move on to his own critic.


Rob Chametzky 12.13.17 at 4:09 pm

Far away from the cold night air . . . .

Galen Strawson provides a loverly account-taking of how/why some philosophers have “denied the existence of . . . consciousness, conscious experience” in his 2017 Isaiah Berlin Lecture (a link to it is below the abstract; it’s the first item, called “A hundred years of consciousness”):

‘There occurred in the twentieth century the most remarkable episode in the whole history of ideas—the whole history of human thought. A number of thinkers denied the existence of something we know with certainty to exist: consciousness, conscious experience. Others held back from the Denial, but claimed that it might be true—a claim no less remarkable than the Denial. It is instructive to document some aspects of this episode, with particular reference to the rise of philosophical behaviourism, and the (connected) rise of a conception of naturalism that transformed the doctrine of materialism from a consciousness affirming-view into a consciousness-denying view. There is then a further task: to try to explain how it is possible that intelligent human beings should come to deny the existence of something that certainly exists.’

He went over some pieces of the same ground in the “New York Times” in a 2016 ‘The Stone’ essay:

For those hungry for Strawson’s professional views (I’m partial to them myself, even as far as his version of panpsychism . . .), his essays “Realistic Monism” and “Real Materialism” make tasty reading:—Why-Physicalism-Entails-Panpsychism-Galen-Strawson.pdf

These were reprinted with brief introductory Vorspeisen as chapters in his 2008 collection “Real Materialism and other essays” from Oxford:

There really is life-of-the-mind out there that didn’t evolve into Dennettian Quatsch.



SusanC 12.14.17 at 10:16 am

@Z: i agree that human infants aren’t a counterexample toHart in context: you’ld need an organism that has partial language and gains Darwinian reproductive advantage from it. Human beings, typically, gain pretty much full language use befire reproducing, so aren’t a counterexample.

On the other hand: its often argued that individual embryos go through the forms of their evolutionary ancestors while developing. The explanation for this – if true – is that evolution has operated by tacking additional stages on to the end of embryo development.

Is language like thus? Do the language developmental stages of human infants reiterate that of their evolutionary ancestors? My guess is that they don’t, though it’s hard to be sure — given that we can’t easily determine the language abilities of fossils/bones.


Z 12.14.17 at 11:17 am

Galen Strawson provides a lovely [?] account-taking of how/why some philosophers have “denied the existence of . . . consciousness, conscious experience”

Hum. “The trouble with this is well known” “So when people say that consciousness is a mystery they’re wrong, because we know what it is. In fact we know exactly what it is” “But here they make a very large mistake, a Very Large Mistake, in Winnie-The-Pooh’s capital-letter terminology” “At this point the philosophers had left the psychologists in the dust, in the race to folly” “But when it comes to silliness, I still think that the Denial of the existence of consciousness takes the biscuit”.

Sems to me Galen Strawson could have allowed himself to decelerate a bit.

But I know why you directed us to this paper. You wanted to pay a discreet but deep hommage to our hosts here, right? Because immediately after your quotation, one reads “The Denial also has a third, deeper, darker, and more distal root—something much larger and achingly familiar: the crookedness of the crooked timber of humanity. What the Denial shows, I fear, is that it’s crookeder than you might ever have imagined.

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