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Dan Dennett and the Conscious Robot

Roger Caldwell discusses Descartes, Darwin, Dennett & dogs.

For Descartes there was an absolute distinction between men and animals. Animals were mere automata, having bodies only. Mankind alone possessed a mind as well as a body. Even to his contemporaries this doctrine of the bête-machine must have been a hard one to swallow – is not a dog wagging his tall, one of his critics asked, much the same as a man nodding his head? With Darwin what last vestige of plausibility the doctrine had was lost. If we are descended from animals, if we ourselves are animals, it seems impossible to deny all mental attributes to our closest relatives at least. Or, alternately, if animals are machines, then by what right should we ourselves be excepted? Thus La Mettrie responded to Descartes’ bête machine with his L’Homme Machine.

Quite where in the animal kingdom consciousness enters in remains a matter of dispute. We can be pretty sure that wasps or spiders are so many natural robots – when we look at them we feel there is, as Dennett puts it, no one at home. They go about their business of feeding and reproducing, but they have no inkling of what it is they are doing. Thomas Nagel famously asked “What is it like to be a bat?” The answer may well be that it is not like anything to be a bat – just as it is not like anything to be a thermostat or a washing-machine. To be a successful bat it is perfectly possible to do without consciousness; indeed, for a bat to have a mind might be a disadvantage. Consciousness? – who needs it? Well, dogs and chimpanzees do, even if they lack the peculiar form of consciousness – so much dependent on language – which humans have.

For Dan Dennett, homo sapiens is a race of conscious robots. If we are robots, however, it is in a rather peculiar sense. We not only respond knowingly to signals but initiate actions in their absence. We can also fail to respond to signals, not because, like mechanical robots, we have broken down, but simply because our attention is elsewhere. We are not so much programmed as inventors of our programmes as we go. We all of us have our own agendas. We as much create our environments as respond to them. In doing so we also – and continuously – create ourselves.

This said, we are also to a large degree unconscious. Much of what we do and most of what goes on inside our heads is inaccessible to consciousness. When we attend to the buzz going on inside our brains we can have little doubt that the stray thoughts or half-thoughts, words, images, sensations and noise are only so much fall-out into consciousness from the great confusion going on inside us. Our consciousness of the outside world is likewise patchy and intermittent. In such higherlevel activities as riding a bicycle or driving a car, much of what we do is performed on automatic pilot, our minds elsewhere. We are often less aware of travelling from A to B than of having done so. We become conscious, we wake up only when the unexpected happens – when a motorist swerves out in front of us, or a child suddenly dashes across the road. We are conscious when we need to be. For much of the time we have no such need.

Indeed, to be perennially conscious of our environment would incapacitate us for anything else. George Eliot in Middlemarch suggests that “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” “As it is,” she adds, “the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity” – for which read, in the present context, unconsciousness.

To be conscious is also to have a point of view on the world. The conscious robot is conscious of his own consciousness. But what makes it his or her own? For Kant every act of thought posits already an awareness of ‘I think’. There is a “transcendental unity of apperception” which binds all our thoughts together and makes them ours. But where is this ‘I’ or self to be found? There is a stream of consciousness, no doubt, or, rather, many streams, but, according to Dennett, there is no privileged observer. There is no mind’s ‘I’ that stands behind all experience as the condition of its possibility.

Our brains are a confused mass of largely superfluous circuitry. This is mainly due to evolution which uses the ready-made as the basis for new technology. Thus the human brain is a piece of bricolage: it is composed of a reptilian brain over which is imposed a mammalian brain, and over the both of which is superimposed a neomammalian brain. The whole is a piece of amateur gadgetry which, amazingly, works, though many of its links lead nowhere, and much of it appears to have no useful function.

In all this superabundant, often pointless, wiring it is impossible to locate a centre, a controller who is in charge of the whole. There is less a ghost in a machine than a vast, haunted house populated by innumerable ghosts. If, to speak in terms of the stream of consciousness, I feel myself to be a boat that drifts along the stream, in neurological terms there is no boat, let alone an occupant who steers it – there is only the stream. I do not have thoughts. Rather, I am thoughts. And to the obstinate proponents of Cartesian dualism the neuroscientist can say: if for every ‘mind’ event there is a corresponding brain event, what need is there to postulate a duality?

Indeed, it is now possible to scan the brain, producing images of blood-flow, showing precisely the areas of the brain that light up when a person is occupied in remembering a tune or doing a piece of mental arithmetic. But that’s all there is. Still we can find no little homunculus in charge of it all. As Owen Flanagan puts it (and no doubt Dennett would agree), the ‘I’ is first and foremost a grammatical construction. In biological terms our sense of self is thus no more than a useful fiction.

It is at this point, however, that the sceptic steps in and asks: if the sense of self is an illusion, how is it then possible to deceive ourselves? If we are ourselves fictions, then no one story we tell about ourselves has more or less truth than any other. This is not say that Dennett has no answers to such questions, but his answers are only found by sneaking in as a social construct the self that was denied as a biological construct. He argues that the sense of a self – however ill-defined – which we all possess, and without which we couldn’t live our lives, lacks any basis in biology but is rather a superimposition on our biology from our interreactions with our social environment. A single human being perhaps would have no self. But put two or more human beings together (and society is, after all, where we all live) and a sense of individuality will develop in the mutual dealings of each with each.

To discover a sense of self is to have moved out of the arena of neuroscience in which Dennett so much moves. Indeed, it is to have moved out of the arena of science at all. This is not to deny that Dennett is often convincing within that arena. Like his mentor, Gilbert Ryle, he is essentially a behaviourist. Ryle, without the benefit of Dennett’s up-to-the-minute science, attempted in The Concept of Mind to demolish the Cartesian ghost in the machine forever. In this, for all the book’s classic status, he signally failed. Dennett – infinitely more sophisticated, informative, and entertaining – is involved in much the same project, and comes much closer to succeeding. But the ghost in the machine won’t go away by virtue of being pluralised into ‘multiple drafts’. Nor will our inner lives, to whatever degree they may be confabulated.

If the sense of a single unified self disappears with Freud, if the individual personality is fractured in the modernist writings of James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, and becomes a sort of willed invention in the work of Sartre, then Dennett appears as the culmination of a tradition at least as old as the twentieth century. There is a certain paradox in this. Dennett is a highly individual writer – his books project a breezy, humorous, largely attractive persona so that we, his readers, can’t help feeling that Dennett has a self even if he is inclined to deny it. His work is useful in showing how far one can go within the limits of the scientific world-picture. The result, however, is one-sided in that the domains in which our sense of ourselves is constructed largely lie outside that picture. Here disciplines such as social psychology, history, or sociology are of more relevance – none of which are sciences proper.

Indeed, it might be felt that Dennett doesn’t fully explore the void that opens up if the consequences of his arguments are followed through. However elusive the sense of self may be, however lacking in a biological base, we nonetheless are judged as individuals before a court of law, whether legal proper, or that of family and friends, or that of our own consciences. If we are the products of our genes, we nonetheless are forced to take some responsibility for the products of those products. There is little doubt too that, on the Darwinian scheme, our systems of ethics developed to ensure our survival as a social species. But what happens when we become consciously aware of that truth? Is the result that we then cease to be bound by that code of ethics – that it becomes merely one option amongst many? To ask such questions is to cease to think of ourselves merely as biological organisms, which is the level at which Dennett primarily moves, but rather as creatures who move in the artificial world which they have constructed for themselves. In this sense, as Bo Dahlbom argues, the mind is not a natural but an artificial construct, and to look for it in terms of biology or brain science is to look where one is least likely to find it. The story Dennett tells of how we become conscious robots is ingenious, enthralling, and often convincing. But no one should mistake it for the whole story.

© Roger Caldwell 1997

Background Reading

Bo Dahlbom, ed. Dennett and His Critics (Blackwell 1993)
Daniel C. Dennett, Elbow Room – The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (Clarendon Press 1984)
Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Penguin 1993)
Daniel C. Dennett, Kinds of Minds – Towards an Understanding of Consciousness (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1996)
Owen Flanagan, Consciousness Reconsidered (M.I.T. Press 1992)
Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions (Cambridge University Press 1979)

Roger Caldwell has written consciously (but not robotically) for numerous literary magazines.

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