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I’ve Been Thinking by Daniel Dennett

Jane O’Grady is in two minds about Daniel Dennett.

A photo in Daniel Dennett’s new memoir I’ve Been Thinking shows the four-year-old Dennett perched on a bench and bending forward, bottom in the air, to solemnly examine a toy. Now eighty-one and a world-famous philosopher, Dennett has always loved tools and tinkering: making a tree-house and model sailboats during his childhood in Massachusetts; designing ‘robust’ computer software for computerphobic professors; restoring Blue Hill Farm where he, his wife, and children lived for forty-three years; ‘tillosophising’ on a tractor; acquiring mastery of his (real-life) sailboat Xanthippe; and, above all, creating a uniformly physical account of reality. Although some reviewers have accused Dennett of arrogance, in some ways he is disarmingly modest. He presents himself as an ever-inquisitive, adventurous amateur, whose ‘hobby’ consists of “reverse engineering a complex artefact to figure out what it was designed to do.” That’s what he does with one artefact produced by evolution’s slow machinations – the human mind.

While studying for a DPhil at Oxford in the mid-Sixties, he applied his ‘bottom up’ approach to a key problem in philosophy of mind: intentionality. The term refers to the ‘aboutness’ of thought. We think about Israel, war strategies, suffering, Baroque architecture, how a poem works, dark matter, what we’re going to do tomorrow, whether we still love someone, the universe… How could this infinitely wide-ranging yet person-confined ‘aboutness’ of thought be identical with neural processes? Indeed, how can neurons in the brain refer to anything beyond themselves? Dennett’s answer in the DPhil thesis he finished in 1965 became his first book, Content and Consciousness (1969), and the foundation of his entire subsequent philosophy.

His strategy was to apply the ‘reverse motion’ technique of playing a film backwards to evolutionary history. Long before they had conscious awareness, he argues, living things must have had to adopt a purely behavioural version of aboutness. For, thanks to natural selection, the organisms that tended to survive and evolve were those that responded most appropriately to the challenges of their environments – insentiently, unconsciously, they were doing whatever was in effect the most rational thing to do in particular circumstances. Over generations, insentient responses (somehow) transmuted into sensibility – into subjective experiences of the world around them – and some organisms that had originally-unwitting reasons became properly reason-representing. In certain creatures’ brains, processes that were once mechanical, “knitted into a fabric of activity that actually discriminated meanings.”

Dennett isn’t just telling a standard evolutionary story here. Many evolutionists might agree with him in some ways, yet say we still face the question of how something as totally different as conscious awareness emerges from merely physical behaviours. Dennett’s response might be: with hindsight we might ask, “Where on the downward slope to insensate thinghood does ‘real’ believing and desiring stop and mere ‘as if’ believing and desiring take over?” The division between unconscious and conscious aboutness is arbitrary, he suggests, in fact specious: it’s not just that originally there was ‘unconscious competence without comprehension’ (his recent slogan in From Bach to Bacteria and Back, 2017); rather, the comprehension which has emerged from competence is virtually no different from it. Competence, he argues, is not just the origin, but pretty much the eventual outcome, of how our minds work.

How could he say this? Dennett holds that Humans are ‘intentional systems’ – systems evolutionarily designed to exhibit intentionality (that is, aboutness). This means we naturally adopt an ‘intentional stance’ towards other people – we automatically interpret their behaviour in terms of what goals such behaviour would be intended to achieve if they were rational. That is, we treat people as if they had beliefs, desires, and feelings; and we have to treat ourselves in the same way: “We learn about others from hearing or reading what they say to us, and that’s how we learn about ourselves as well.” Taking the intentional stance is generally useful, and is justified by its overall success in predicting others’ actions, and our own. That you seem to know your own beliefs more clearly than those of other people, and that it seems to you that there’s something it is like to be you, Dennett says, is only because you’re around yourself all the time, while your experience of other people is intermittent.

The inversion strategy Dennett applies to intentionality he also uses to dematerialise ‘qualia’, that other stumbling block to smooth materialism (and, he thinks, to a solution to the mind-body problem). ‘Qualia’ (plural of the Latin word quale) means ‘thusnesses’, and refers to what experience is like: the feel of silk, how a mango tastes, a searing flash of pain, the emotional pain of being bereaved, the tantalising sense of an incipient sneeze. Since Descartes, many philosophers have thought of these seemings as more incorrigibly immediate, vivid, and perhaps real to us than the really real things (in our bodies and the world around us) that cause them. But, objected Dennett in Consciousness Explained (1991), it is surely suspicious that in talking of them we are forced to resort to metaphors – to talk of ‘mental images’, for instance, as if we had an inner ‘Cartesian theatre’ to watch these images on. Moreover, we claim to see, say, the American flag ‘in our mind’s eye’; but can we easily decide whether the red of its stripes is darker, lighter, or less orange than the standard red of Santa Claus’s suit? And what visceral sensory experience do you have when reading ‘tigr strpe’ as ‘tiger stripe’? Or what are you doing when you try to remember a name? Aren’t you just performing an insensible function, in much the same way as specialised computers do? “Our access to our own thinking”, Dennett wrote in From Bach to Bacteria and Back, “is really no better than our access to our digestive processes”: there is no movie in our heads; no ‘Inner Witness’, or single, definitive ‘stream of consciousness’; no ‘Central Meaner’. We are just ‘the end-users of an operating system’ which throws up the sort of ‘user-illusions’ that appear on a computer screen. Churning around in our neural machinery are ‘multiple drafts’ of what we might be said to think or feel, which compete for precedence as we try to articulate (to ourselves as much as to anyone else) what our thoughts and feelings are. The eventual conscious upshot of all this activity does not correspond in number and definition to the internal brain processes they are associated with; and the conscious content produced is less precise and discriminable than a computer’s dustbin icon, or the symbol that it produces as an error warning.

Daniel Dennett
Dennett in 1984 in Tahiti by Hayford Peirce

For years Dennett feuded with John Searle, whose ‘Chinese Room’ thought experiment was designed to rebut the computer model of mind by debunking the assumption that symbols can mean anything (have conscious content) in themselves. But when challenging the non-materialism of David Chalmers, crediting him with ‘sleight of hand’ in his ‘philosophical zombie’ thought experiment, Dennett is rather more affectionate. Mostly he describes friendly arguments and collaborations with fellow geeks Marvin Minsky, Seymour Papert, Nicholas Humphrey, and with his one-time co-author Douglas Hofstadter, whose ‘I am a strange loop’ theory Dennett approvingly cites.

Dennett summarises his positions in I’ve Been Thinking very enjoyably. But mightn’t his manner of viewing himself and other people as ‘virtual computers’ be out of place in a memoir ? He gives pungent, amusing anecdotes of academics, friends, farmers, and his children; but the ‘intentional stance’ proves unproductive when applied to his wife. Although they’ve been married for sixty years, and despite the many page references to her in the index, the reader doesn’t get much sense of her as a person. Apart from hearing of her role in their cursorily-sketched courtship, we learn that Susan agreed to her husband’s plan, has helped look after their children, and is part of a ‘we’ that paints and digs drains. This could, of course, be reticence. In any case, because he writes so beautifully and energetically, Dennett doesn’t have the same depersonalisation problem when it comes to himself. He conveys a sense of having lived a rich life. His exuberance, energy, bottomless curiosity, and (mostly benign) pugnacity burst out of every page.

© Jane O’Grady 2024

Jane O’Grady writes philosophers’ obituaries for the Guardian, co-edited Blackwell’s Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations with A. J. Ayer, and has recently written Enlightenment Philosophy in Arcturus’s Knowledge in a Nutshell series.

I’ve Been Thinking Daniel Dennett, Allen Lane, 2024, £30 hb, 464pp, ISBN: 978024151927

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