Re: Nagel Review of Dennett's new book
I suspect that Dennett's poetic comments on reductionism may be of use here. It is probably a good idea scientifically to search for the complex matrix of physical, social and internal feedback that results from choices to violate social norms. It is probably not a good idea scientifically to posit external karma: some process by which the interacting QED wave functions sense moral transgressions and inflict negative outcomes on the perpetrators.
My issue is the question of whether scientific accounts of such processes are always the most important ones. We tend to assume that understanding the factual content of our ideas is the prime directive, and no idea which we cannot fully justify in rationalist terms can be held as admissible. I would question that assumption.
Reason has done pretty well by us so far, and we have managed to avoid ending life on earth with a nuclear war, so we conclude that it has to dominate the selection and propagation of ideas in the future. Me, I believe barbarians exist, are capable of bringing down the Empire of Reason, and need to be negotiated with.
Before we discard "skyhooks" and other conceptualizations which don't satisfy philosophers and scientists, it might be a good idea to ask why people believe in these ideas and why they pass them on. If we are pretty sure there is a good substitute available, then fine, throw out the skyhooks. But just because I, in my particular circumstances, can function effectively without external karma or judgment in an afterlife does not mean that enough potential barbarians can. A "good substitute" is not defined philosophically but socially, and assessing its quality is somewhere up there in complexity with assessing climate change.
I have been enjoying "The Undoing Project", a book by the estimable Michael Lewis, of "Moneyball" fame, about Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky. Kahnemann's "Thinking, Fast and Slow" spells out in wonderful detail the way our thinking is influenced by "subconscious" factors such as priming. Their work is an extension of the Gestalt psychology which gave us optical illusions and figure-ground diagrams. Essentially, it examines the mind's construction of holistic pictures of the world, and how the shortcuts used by the brain can be exploited to create demonstrable errors.
My point, in response to Robert's cogent observation, is that representations are not necessarily conscious thoughts. Often they blend a lot of work from the "hidden" 90 percent (or so) of our cognitive processing with some key decisions by the "conscious" 10 percent of our processing. Haidt has demonstrated in great detail that our moral judgments, for example, emerge more from our hidden mind than from our reflection process.