Julian Baggini

As language became more complex, we gained the capacity to mean things by what we said and to understand what others meant. Dennett’s most striking thesis is that it is precisely this ability to track other people’s “states of mind” through language that allowed us to track our own—and hence for our highly developed sense of self to emerge. He claims that every organism, even a single cell, has rudimentary selfhood. But when we start communicating richly, we need to be aware of the boundaries of our bodies and the boundaries of our minds—which thoughts are ours and which are other people’s. Words, he argues, “turned our brains into minds—our minds—capable of accepting and rejecting the ideas we encounter, discarding or developing them for reasons we can usually express.”

These minds, however, are not quite what we generally assume them to be. The unified, central-controller self is a “user-illusion.” We tend to think, as Descartes did, that we have privileged access to our own consciousness—“I think, therefore I am”—but in fact our self-awareness is limited, biased and partial. The self is not so much a thing as a “centre of narrative gravity,” a story we tell ourselves to make more coherent the jumbled reality of our minds. Asked why we do what we do, we are quick to find reasons, when “the most honest thing to say is often ‘I don’t know; it just came to me.’”

2 thoughts on “Julian Baggini

  1. shinichi Post author

    I am, therefore I think: Daniel Dennett’s hard problem

    Words turned our brains into minds, and got us hung up on the ghost in the machine. But a new book isn’t going to banish that spectre

    by Julian Baggini

    https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/i-am-therefore-i-think-daniel-dennetts-hard-problem

    In the story of western modernity, science plays the role of both hero and villain—saviour and nemesis. The tension is captured in Charlie Chaplin’s classic speech at the end of The Great Dictator (1940). In one moment, Chaplin, at this point playing the Jewish barber not the Fascist leader, advocates “a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness”; in another, he laments that the “machinery that gives abundance has left us in want” and that cold reason has turned us into “machine men with machine minds and machine hearts.” Scientific demystification of the world is a double-edged sword. It enables us to practically achieve more but also risks turning us, in Richard Dawkins’s phrase, into mere “biological robots.”

    Nowhere is the threat of science stealing our souls more feared than in the mental realm. No sensible person now doubts that the brain is the engine of consciousness. But if everything we think and do is the result of neurons firing, are we deluded to believe that our thoughts make any difference? In fact, a lot of research suggests that the conscious part of the brain is the last to know what we’re going to do. Could it be that conscious awareness is just an “epiphenomenon,” a kind of functionless noise produced by the whirring of the brain? If so, then as the philosopher Jerry Fodor puts it, “practically everything I believe about anything is false and it’s the end of the world.”

    To see off this threat we need a way of understanding consciousness that preserves our humanity, while being fully compatible with our best science. The philosopher Daniel Dennett—a prominent New Atheist whose best-known book is Breaking the Spell—has for decades been trying to deliver on both counts.

    But his critics claim he has failed. His major work Consciousness Explained (1991) was mockingly referred to as “Consciousness Ignored” or “Consciousness Explained Away.” Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Galen Strawson famously said that Dennett should be prosecuted under the Trades Description Act.

    Dennett’s latest book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, is unlikely to win over his critics. Their outrage is due to Dennett’s failure to address what is known as the “Hard Problem” of consciousness: “Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?” as David Chalmers puts it. Dennett says his “refusal to play ball with my colleagues is deliberate.” He realises that—as in politics—if you debate on your opponents’ terms, you have already lost. To win, you must set the agenda. His bet is that if you understand consciousness in the right way, the Hard Problem will be exposed as an artefact of an outmoded way of thinking—a pseudo-problem comparable to the fruitless quest in the early 20th century for the élan vital that animates matter.

    This approach, however, leaves Dennett almost completely silent on the very thing that characterises consciousness: subjective feeling. This is partly why Dennett is often accused of effectively denying that consciousness exists, of claiming that we are no more aware than zombies. Dennett has denied this. And in his writing, at least, he shows every sign of being very conscious indeed. Although you could mistake the works of some philosophers for the outputs of Turing machines, Dennett writes with sensuous verve—ideas and arguments are “ravishing,” “delightful,” “amusing” and “delicious.”

    In this book, Dennett argues that we must understand how consciousness emerged through the process of evolution. To do this we must understand how random, uncomprehending, Darwinian evolution could possibly have given rise to creatures such as us, who are capable of top-down, directed, comprehending action. In his deliberately dizzying summary, we need to see how “a process with no Intelligent Designer can create intelligent designers who can then design things that permit us to understand how a process with no Intelligent Designer can create intelligent designers who can then design things.”

    How do we manage that? Any adequate answer must account for how more can come from less, how effects can be greater than causes. More specifically, features we take to be essential to consciousness could have emerged prior to consciousness: Dennett argues that there can be reasons without reasoners, design without designers and competence without comprehension.

    That there are reasons without reasoners is evident from the animal kingdom. Dennett compares the ornate towers of Antoni Gaudí’s La Sagrada Família in Barcelona with the fantastical shapes found on termite castles. There are reasons for both existing, but only “Gaudí had reasons for the shapes he ordered and created; there are reasons for the shapes created by the termites, but the termites didn’t have those reasons.”

    There is something of a taboo in philosophical circles about spelling it out in these terms because the orthodox view is that science has no place for reasons or purposes. “Teleological” explanations that appeal to ends are supposed to be redolent of pre-scientific Aristotelianism. But Dennett argues that “Darwin didn’t extinguish teleology; he naturalised it.” Darwin showed that there certainly are reasons why organisms do things, but that it isn’t necessary to attribute intention or planning for those reasons to exist. Nature contains design without necessarily having a designer.

    Perhaps more significant is that there can be competence without comprehension. Nature displays this in abundance. The kingfisher doesn’t understand how to time its dive into the water to catch its prey, while allowing for the distorting refraction of light—but, boy, it’s brilliant at doing it. Humans are also familiar with competence without understanding. Turing showed how to build a computer that could do any algorithmic task without having any conscious idea what it was doing. We find riding a bike as easy as, well, riding a bike, but few of us know how we manage it.

    But how do we get from such unthinking processes to the highly-thought through decisions familiar from everyday life? According to Dennett, the key step was the evolution of language. Animals and plants exchange information all the time. Words, though, add new levels of flexibility and complexity. They can be combined in almost infinite permutations, placing few limits on the information we can convey. Crucially, language didn’t need to start out—indeed it could not have started out—as the rich human artefact it has now become. Early humans didn’t need to understand the primitive language they used any more than bees understand their honey dances.

    As language became more complex, we gained the capacity to mean things by what we said and to understand what others meant. Dennett’s most striking thesis is that it is precisely this ability to track other people’s “states of mind” through language that allowed us to track our own—and hence for our highly developed sense of self to emerge. He claims that every organism, even a single cell, has rudimentary selfhood. But when we start communicating richly, we need to be aware of the boundaries of our bodies and the boundaries of our minds—which thoughts are ours and which are other people’s. Words, he argues, “turned our brains into minds—our minds—capable of accepting and rejecting the ideas we encounter, discarding or developing them for reasons we can usually express.”

    These minds, however, are not quite what we generally assume them to be. The unified, central-controller self is a “user-illusion.” We tend to think, as Descartes did, that we have privileged access to our own consciousness—“I think, therefore I am”—but in fact our self-awareness is limited, biased and partial. The self is not so much a thing as a “centre of narrative gravity,” a story we tell ourselves to make more coherent the jumbled reality of our minds. Asked why we do what we do, we are quick to find reasons, when “the most honest thing to say is often ‘I don’t know; it just came to me.’”

    Whether you buy Dennett’s account or not, it illustrates just how much you can offer by way of a theory of consciousness without addressing the Hard Problem. This certainly isn’t the last word. Dennett modestly describes it as “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.”

    Perhaps Dennett should have left it at that. But he also includes the latest iteration of his long-standing argument against “qualia.” Qualia is a philosophical term of art for what we are directly aware of in consciousness. Qualia are not objects in the world but are internal to our own minds. They are thus private and in some sense ineffable, since it is impossible to convey in language what it is like to experience them. To use Thomas Nagel’s famous example, we have no idea what it is like to be a bat sensing its environment by echolocation. A less exotic example is that if you are colour blind, I can’t explain to you what it is like to see red.

    Dennett’s favourite argument against qualia takes as evidence what happens when we stare at an inverted blue, yellow and black version of the American flag, and it is replaced by a white screen. An after-image of the flag seems to appear in its red, white and blue version. But as Dennett says, “there are no red stripes on the page, on your retina, or in your brain. In fact, there is no red stripe anywhere.” There is no thing at all, which means there are no qualia.

    Does this mean that Dennett is denying, preposterously, that there is anything it is like to be as a human? It seems clear that Dennett is not saying this, as he insists that “it is like something to be you,” and that “not only are colours real but also consciousness, free will, and dollars.”

    And yet I’m not the only one left unsure what exactly Dennett does think about felt experience, largely because he says almost nothing about sensations or affective states. We know what they are not—things perceived by an inner observer—but not enough about what they are. That’s why for all its brilliance and inventiveness, From Bacteria to Bach and Back is not the book to put to rest our fears that scientific accounts of consciousness will rob us of what it means to be human.

    Dennett has admitted elsewhere that, “People are often baffled by my theory of consciousness, which seems to them to be summed up neatly in the paradoxical claim that consciousness is an illusion.” He acknowledged that not all of the perplexed are too stupid or lazy to “realise that I probably had something rather less daft in mind.” But although he has considered making his arguments with his critics clearer, he concluded that “life is short, and I have found that task simply too much hard work.”

    This is too quick. If Dennett finds it impossible to express an idea in such a way that he does not feel misunderstood, then something must be wrong with either his position or his explanation of it. If he is to win over his critics, Dennett’s own hard problem is his need to do more to show why others should give up theirs.

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  2. shinichi Post author

    Interview: Daniel Dennett—philosophy has a big role to play, “if only it will play it”

    Most academic philosophy today “is not worth my effort”

    by Alex Dean

    http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/philosophy/interview-daniel-dennett-philosophy-big-role-to-play-bacteria-to-bach-minds-descartes-cognitive-science

    “I am not engaging in a lot of the disputation that is currently fashionable in academic departments of philosophy… I don’t think it’s worth my effort.” In an exclusive interview with Prospect, Daniel Dennett, world-leading philosopher of mind and one of the “Four Horsemen of Atheism,” aimed fire at those who pull philosophy in the wrong direction.

    “I’ve got my priorities, and I think there’s more philosophical substance to be obtained from taking science very seriously and thinking about the traditional philosophical issues—free will, consciousness, mind, creativity, meaning—using scientific tools, rather than by adopting hyper-abstract semi-formalism, and thrashing away on that in terms that nobody else understands.”

    Dennett is a philosophical troublemaker. As Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University in Massachusetts, he stands well apart from his contemporaries—most of whom are concerned primarily with abstract logical puzzles. Having marched into the Prospect offices with a giant knobbled walking stick, huge beard, and a silver badge on the lapel of his jacket that read “Darwin,” he ran through the arguments in his latest book. From Bacteria to Bach and Back is, he hopes, a “culmination of a 50-year project to provide the main components of a unified, naturalistic view of the mind.”

    As you’d expect from a die-hard Darwinian, Dennett believes that “you can have an uncomprehending, unintending, lacking in foresight, blind process that can make intelligent things.” When I asked him whether there could ever be room for God in the Dennett worldview, he shot back: “Not at all.”

    Biological evolution has given rise to all manner of wonderful things, he believes, but to understand how humans came to have minds, we must look also to cultural evolution: the evolution of ideas, symbols and, particularly important here, practices.

    Dennett calls things which fall into this latter category “memes.” The term has come to refer to something that is shared around on social media, but it was coined by Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene to mean something which is culturally transmitted, like a virus, from person to person. A whistled tune, a way of building clay pots or, crucially for Dennett, words.

    It is words that enabled human minds to come into existence, says Dennett, as language gave us the thinking tools we needed to start reflecting on things. We already had reasons for performing certain acts—cavemen and women ate because they were hungry, ran because they were frightened. Indeed, Dennett told me “there have been reasons since the dawn of life.” But the key lies in, as he put it, “the representation of reasons.” Language helped us to become reasoners, reflecting on our reasons, and seeing those reasons in other people. Language “invaded our brains, turned them into minds.”

    When Dennett says “minds,” however, it’s worth noting that he doesn’t use the term in the same way that your average person does. Usually, when we think of the mind, we think of it in the same way that Rene Descartes did when he wrote “I think, therefore I am.” There is, Dennett writes in his book, a “Cartesian gravity”—a natural pull towards the view that a first-person perspective exists, and that through this, humans experience the world. In fact, Dennett says, this is a “user illusion” which helps “time-pressured organisms move adroitly through life.” This is bold from Dennett—but it’s not hard to see where he might have picked up the idea. At Oxford in the 1960s he studied under the legendary Gilbert Ryle, known for his brutal critique of Descartes in The Concept of Mind, published in 1949.

    Dennett explained: “The traditional view of minds as a sort of little god inside the head, an immaterial, special, brilliant thinking thing, that idea is a complete dead end. It’s a non-starter. Since it’s miraculous, it can do anything, so you can’t explain anything with it.”

    This denial of the individual vantage point on the world is highly counter-intuitive, and any philosopher who argues along these lines will inevitably butt up against the “Hard Problem” of consciousness: it really does seem that subjective experience exists: how on earth else are we meant to account for the sensations we feel?

    On this point Dennett was forceful, arguing that the “Hard Problem” simply disappears when the individual answers that science can provide are totted up. “The idea that there’s a hard problem, you might call it a failure of arithmetic: failing to add up all the easy problems, and failing to see that when you’ve done them all, you’ve finished, you got it. There’s no extra magic.”

    The idea is that science alone can tell us everything we need to know about the mind, and it will leave no room for this mysterious first-person perspective which we just happen to believe exists. If science can explain everything, though, and humans are just jumbles of neurons to be viewed in purely mechanistic terms, what room does this leave for free will?

    Well, none. Not if you mean free will as traditionally conceived: total, utter freedom to act, unconstrained by any limiting physical or societal factor whatever. This, Dennett says, simply does not exist.

    “That’s the idea of, as I sometimes put it, moral levitation. It’s as if a human being can be cut off from all the fabric of earlier causation and somehow choose independently. It’s almost a miraculous choice ability. In fact, some people have just bitten the bullet on that and said: ‘Yes, every time you commit a free act it’s a little miracle.’ Baloney! That is, as PF Strawson [Ryle’s successor as Wayneflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford] once said, ‘panicky metaphysics.’” In other words, it is a desperate attempt to cling to an untenable position.

    But despite free will of this kind being ruled out, we still “have the kind of free will worth wanting,” Dennett told me. “If you think of freedom as moral competence, as having a moral faculty, then you see that the notion of freedom that’s involved is actually not the philosophers’ indeterministic freedom… It’s ‘how many different ways can you think about things?’ and ‘what can provoke you to think about things?’ If you can follow an argument, if you can imagine the future, if you can think about what you’re doing, this requires many, many, many degrees of freedom.” While our choices are limited in some distant philosophical sense, the freedoms that we care about day-to-day are left intact. It is these that we really ought to care about.

    Unsurprisingly for a man with opinions on everything, Dennett has been outspoken on the subject of Donald Trump. He has frequently taken to Twitter to voice his criticism, writing on 26th January: “Regretful Trump voters: it’s not too late to apologise, join the lawful resistance and pass it on. Act now. Every day you wait adds guilt.”

    He told me: “I think, in ways that—let me confess—I hadn’t even imagined, that shared knowledge, factual knowledge, truth is more fragile than we ever thought… Those of us who appreciate the power of science have viewed science deniers as an important annoyance… but now it’s almost fashionable. That’s shocking.”

    With truth on the back foot, philosophy has more of a role to play than ever, “if only it will play it,” said Dennett.

    As our discussion drew to a close, Dennett took one parting shot at his critics. “I know that there are philosophers—who knows how many—who would say “Well Dennett used to be a philosopher, but he’s not really a philosopher anymore, he’s doing something else,” to which my response is “if you want to have it that way, suit yourself, I’m happy doing what I’m doing. But I think it’s philosophy.”

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