The Corner

Culture

David Bentley Hart on Daniel Dennett

Every ten years or so, Hart gives Dennett a good drubbing. This time it’s in The New Atlantis.

Here, as it happens, lurks the most incorrigibly problematic aspect of Dennett’s project. The very concept of memes — Richard Dawkins’s irredeemably vague notion of cultural units of meaning or practice that invade brains and then, rather like genetic materials, thrive or perish through natural selection — is at once so vapid and yet so fantastic that it is scarcely tolerable as a metaphor. But a depressingly substantial part of Dennett’s argument requires not only that memes be accorded the status of real objects, but that they also be regarded as concrete causal forces in the neurology of the brain, whose power of ceaseless combination creates most of the mind’s higher functions. And this is almost poignantly absurd. . . .

The entire notion of consciousness as an illusion is, of course, rather silly. Dennett has been making the argument for most of his career, and it is just abrasively counterintuitive enough to create the strong suspicion in many that it must be more philosophically cogent than it seems, because surely no one would say such a thing if there were not some subtle and penetrating truth hidden behind its apparent absurdity. But there is none. 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.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

Most Popular

World

NATO’s Challenge Is Germany, Not America

During the recent NATO summit meeting, a rumbustious Donald Trump tore off a thin scab of niceties to reveal a deep and old NATO wound — one that has predated Trump by nearly 30 years and goes back to the end of the Cold War. In an era when the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact are now ancient history, ... Read More
Culture

De Blasio’s Dystopia

One needs to walk only a block or two in any direction in America’s largest metropolis to witness the borderline dystopian cesspool that New York City has become. Litter. Garbage. Filth. Homeless people are camped on sidewalks, benches, and storefronts. Drug addicts casually light up and shoot up al fresco. ... Read More