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From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel Dennett

We delve into the brain to look for the mind this issue as Peter Stone agrees with Daniel Dennett that we don’t know our own minds (or brains).

In 1997 the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera interviewed Tufts philosophy professor Daniel Dennett about his work. The paper published the interview under the title ‘ Si, abbiamo un anima. Ma é fatta di tanti piccoli robot!’: ‘Yes, we have a soul. But it’s made of lots of tiny robots!’ Dennett quotes this title in From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017), and with good reason, for it perfectly encapsulates both the argument of the book and the spirit in which it is offered. In From Bacteria to Bach and Back Dennett tells you a story about the human mind. It might not be the story you were expecting, and you may not like it, but Dennett hopes to convince you of it nonetheless. And it’s definitely a story worth hearing.

The book attempts to explain how our minds work, and how they came into existence. For Dennett, these two questions are intimately related. “Many,” he writes, “of the puzzles (or ‘mysteries’ or ‘paradoxes’) of human consciousness evaporate once you ask how they could possibly have arisen – and actually try to answer the question” (p.9). He says philosophers waste their time trying to answer questions like these without a deep understanding of what science has taught us about the human brain. He does not claim to be a scientist himself, just a ‘well-informed amateur’. Nor does he claim to have a fully worked-out theory of the human mind. What he offers instead in this book is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence, how our brains work all their wonders, and, especially, how to think about minds and brains without falling into alluring philosophical traps” (p.xiv). The last part turns out to be especially important, as we will see. Dennett is all-too-aware of the intellectual obstacles that can obstruct serious work on this topic.

Comprehension is Advantageous

Dennett’s starting point is that humans are the products of natural selection. Our earliest ancestors lacked consciousness, but they clearly possessed various forms of competence. If they couldn’t perform many survival-related tasks, they wouldn’t have survived long enough to evolve consciousness. People sometimes forget this, thinking that competence requires comprehension. But most organisms do just fine without anything like the human ability to understand what they are doing. This point applies to machines as well as organisms: “IN ORDER TO BE A PERFECT AND BEAUTIFUL COMPUTING MACHINE, IT IS NOT REQUISITE TO KNOW WHAT ARITHMETIC IS” (capitals in original; p.55). Dennett dubs this ‘Turing’s strange inversion’. But Turing’s strange inversion creates an interesting question: “If competence without comprehension is so wonderfully fecund… why do we need comprehension…? Why and how did human-style comprehension arrive on the scene?” (p.59).

“Comprehension,” Dennett contends, “is only made possible by the arrival on the scene quite recently of a new kind of evolutionary replicator – culturally transmitted informational entities: memes” (p.175). Memes – units of cultural information – like genes – units of genetic information – evolve by natural selection. Words are perhaps the best examples of memes. Language constitutes a form of software that got installed upon the hardware in our brains. The installation itself may have been a happy accident; but once installed, words proved incredibly empowering for their users, for language is “the launching pad of human cognition and thinking” (p.260). Without memes in general, and language in particular, our brains lack the tools necessary for our distinctive human achievements. Dennett quotes a line from Bo Dahlbom on this point: “You can’t do much carpentry with your bare hands, and you can’t do much thinking with your bare brain” (p.282).

Language may have helped launch human cognition, but the launch was not guaranteed. Just as software can be installed upon mindless computers, so can much culture-borne information be “installed in brains without being understood” (p.213); and as noted, our brains can do a lot without comprehension. But they can do more with it. Comprehension provides “the ability to treat whatever topic is under consideration as itself a thing to be examined, analysed, inventoried, thanks to our capacity to represent it explicitly via words, diagrams, and other tools of self-stimulation” (p.300). So unsurprisingly, Dennett thinks that evolutionary pressures played a critical role in the development of comprehension, as they do with all our abilities.

Comprehension also allows us to rehearse our thoughts before we express them. This is critically important to us. All of us think things we don’t want to make known to others; but only comprehension permits us to engage in self-monitoring, allowing us to decide what information we share and with whom. “Communication,” Dennett argues, “requires a central clearing house of sorts in order to buffer the organism from revealing too much about its current state to competitive organisms” (p.342). And once enabled, the capacity for self-monitoring lets us do much more with our ideas: we can critically scrutinize them, make deliberate efforts to improve them, and so on. All of this requires memes – especially words – without which we simply would not have complex ideas to examine. “That,” Dennett writes, “is the triumph of the memes invasion: it has turned our brains into minds – our minds – capable of accepting and rejecting the ideas we encounter, discarding or developing them” (p.315).

“Our thinking,” he concludes, “is enabled by the installation of a virtual machine made of virtual machines made by virtual machines” (p.341). That is to say, our intelligent minds are complex systems constructed out of less intelligent, less complex subsystems, each of which is constructed out of even less intelligent, less complex sub-subsystems, and so on; with the ultimate components being small simple automatons (neurons et al) – tiny robots. It is these tiny robots that together make up whatever souls we have. We can now see, Dennett concludes, that “ all the brilliance and comprehension in the world arises ultimately out of uncomprehending competences compounded over time into ever more competent – and hence comprehending – systems” (p.57).

The Mystery of Ourselves
The Mystery of Ourselves by Cameron Gray, 2018. Please visit parablevisions.com and facebook.com/camerongraytheartist

The Gravity of the Situation

Dennett has made this point about the origins of mind many times before, and people react to it in very different ways. Many resist his approach, but I find this resistance hard to understand. Suppose you want to explain how the human mind works. Dennett tries to do this by figuring out how a bunch of things without minds could work together to function as a mind. If you don’t like this strategy, what’s the alternative? There are only two that I can see. The first is to treat the mind as some kind of irreducible substance that does not depend upon any mindless thing – something like a spirit or a soul that enters what would otherwise be a mindless human body. But this doesn’t explain the mind so much as push the problem one step back. Where does this spirit come from? How does it work? And how does it interact with the body it inhabits? (These are classic problems for Cartesian dualism.) The second alternative is to throw up one’s hands and give up on explaining the mind at all. This isn’t so much a solution to the problem as an abandonment of the search for one.

Sadly, many people – including some philosophers – prefer to take the latter route, proclaiming mind an unfathomable mystery and stubbornly resisting any effort to explain it. As Dennett points out, “people care so deeply what the answers are [about consciousness] that they have a very hard time making themselves actually consider the candidate answers objectively” (p.11).

At the heart of this resistance is a distorting force which Dennett dubs ‘Cartesian gravity’ (p.17) – the pull of the first-person perspective. We can examine most things from the third-person perspective (“look at that pigeon chasing that sparrow”), but we naturally adopt the first-person perspective when thinking about ourselves (“I feel hungry right now”) – yet any scientific (that is, empirical) effort to explain how our minds work is bound by its third-person perspective, and therefore inevitably seems to leave something out. This is the line of thinking into which Cartesian gravity tries to drag us, and Dennett urges us to resist its pull. We do not have a privileged or infallible window into our own souls, he says; it is therefore hardly surprising that we do not see the robots at work: “Our access to our own thinking… is really no better than our access to our digestive processes” (p.346). The first-person perspective is simply the ‘user interface’ for a particular app in the brain; and like any good app, it “exists in order to make the competence accessible to users – people – who can’t know, and don’t need to know, the intricate details of how it works” (p.341). We shouldn’t be surprised that the mind’s workings are a little mysterious to us; the evolutionary process operates on a ‘need-to-know’ basis, and our first-person perspective, limited and fallible as it is, is all that we need in order to take advantage of the amazing capacities our brains make possible. Science can tell us more about how our brains work and why; but only if we resist the Cartesian gravity that tells us we already know all we can know about who we are.

Here, I think, Dennett is getting at something important. Philosophers rely heavily upon intuition to generate their arguments. As a result, they sometimes find it hard to accept the fallibility of those intuitions – especially the strongest ones. And what intuition could possibly be stronger than the one telling us that our first-person perspective – what it is like to be us – is unlike anything else? But philosophers would do well to remember all the other intuitions people have had that, however understandable at the time, proved to be faulty – for instance, that the Earth is flat. We have no choice but to make use of our intuition; but science can help us make proper use of it, recognizing its limitations and correcting it when it leads us astray. This is precisely the recommendation Dennett makes to us concerning consciousness, and it’s a useful corrective.

It’s difficult to do justice to Dennett’s book in so short a space, and if you’re skeptical, it’s difficult to make his argument sound convincing. What would it take to convince you that your mind is made of tiny robots? Skeptical or not, anyone interested in how our minds work would do well to grapple with this rich and complex book. This is contemporary philosophy at its best.

© Peter Stone 2018

Peter Stone is an associate professor of political science at Trinity College Dublin.

From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, by Daniel C. Dennett, Allen Lane, 2017, 476 pages, $10, 978-0-241-00356-5

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