In particular, John Searle's infamous Chinese Room argument, here explained in his "Minds, Brains and Programs" essay, gets treated to a long, and opposed, Reflection.
2nd edition of the author's D.Phil. thesis. (1st edition published in 1969.)
Describing systems "as if" they have intentionality can be helpful.
'Multiple drafts' theory of consciousness
Dennett, a philosopher well known for his writings about consciousness and cognition, looks at evolution -- of genetic life, of memetic intelligence (including AI), of morality.
His thesis is that evolution is powerful enough to do all this, that complexity can evolve from simplicity, by slow adaptation and accumulation of existing designs. Such building might need to be 'lifted', using ground-based 'cranes' (and cranes upon cranes), but no magical or mystical 'skyhooks' (elan vital, strange essences, or as-yet-unknown quantum gravity effects) are needed at any stage.
He uses the metaphor of exploring a rugged landscape of 'design space' to show how evolution can indeed work, but why some design solutions might never be found: because they are not accessible from the current solution,
or simply because design space is so Vast, and explored solutions can be only a Vanishingly small subset of all possible solutions.
This use of the capital 'V's is a clever technique to keep reminding the reader just how vast 'Vast' really is and just how vanishingly small 'Vanishing' is, without belabouring the point every time. For example, in describing heuristic AI search algorithms:
Dennett finishes off with the point that Dawkins also made, at the end of his 'The Selfish Gene', we humans are the first species on this planet not to be at the mercy of our genes.
I enjoy all of Dennett's writing --- although I'm not sure I necessarily completely understand all his subtleties (I'm not a philosopher by training, and he himself admits this is a 'difficult book'). His aim is to convince people that evolution is sufficient: I'm not sure how successful he is, since with me he is 'preaching to the converted'. But it's a good read, with many new arguments (especially against the non-Darwinian arguments of Stephen Jay Gould, Roger Penrose, and John Searle) and may arguments expanded and improved from his previous books.
In this slim volume Dennett explores the different kinds of minds that animals might have, from simple programmed unconscious behaviour, through to full self-conscious thinking, building on ideas from his earlier works Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea. One of the reasons he is interested in whether animals can be considered to have minds is a moral one: can they suffer?
He takes the intentional stance, which describes certain entities as if they were rational agents making choices based on beliefs, desires and goals about the world. He emphasises that this needs to be done with care, but that it can provides a convenient shorthand for describing the behaviour of such entities. And if talking of beliefs and desires is just a convenient shorthand for describing some agents, can we be that sure that it is not also just a convenient shorthand for describing ourselves? He is also careful to point out that the intentional stance is different from anthropomorphism, unless we are careless:
He goes on to describe various levels of minds, including hard-wired, reactive, and anticipatory.
One fascinating point Dennett makes is that our current models of the body's role in mind are probably too simple. A machine has transducers (converters of sensory or other environmental data into a form that can be transferred within the system) at one end, connected, via some communication and processing system, to effectors at the other. The nature of the transducers and effectors are pretty well fixed, because of their interaction with the external world, but the nature of the communication medium is much more irrelevant: anything that moves the signals appropriately would do. However, Dennett points out that the way nerves work, using electrical signals along them but neurotransmitters between them, seems to include transducers everywhere; so maybe the communication medium is much more intimately linked with the transducers and effectors, and hence less substitutable, than we had previously been assuming.
As he works his way up his hierarchy of minds, Dennett notes that higher forms arrange their environment to enhance their minds and relieve the burden of detailed memory (dogs marking territorial borders, people writing shopping lists).
There are some interesting ideas here, but, since the book is quite slim (170 pages of quite large type), his topic is not explored in the same level of detail as in his earlier works. Which could make it a good starting point for new readers to get a feel for his style of argument before plunging into his deeper works. But, don't expect answers. Dennett, as a philosopher, is interested in finding good questions. It's great fun exploring these questions with him.
This is a collection of Dennett's papers on Philosophy of Mind, and Artificial Intelligence, previously not readily available, here annotated with brief introductions to provide context, and the occasional more substantial postscript. It shows both the evolution of his ideas over the decade or so covered, and also how some of those ideas were present right from the start. Also, his experimental mindset is made evident: it's not enough just to philosophise: the arguments need to be consistent with (or at least constrained by) reality.
One underlying theme that comes through clearly is the importance of taking the reality of evolution into consideration. The intelligent beings on this planet that we are seeking to artificially emulate were not arbitrarily plonked down here: we evolved here, and many of the features of our intelligence are constrained by the requirements of survival. We are not tabula rasa: capabilities we have work because they have to (or at least, had to) work, and so they have evolved to work.
Although all these papers were originally written for academic journals or conferences, each individual paper is, for the most part, eminently readable -- there is a minimum of jargon, and absolutely no pretension.
Probably not the best place to start your introduction to Dennett's ideas, but an excellent way to fill in some of the gaps.
I love Daniel Dennett's writings. I think Consciousness Explained is fascinating and illuminating (even if it doesn't do exactly what it says on the tin), and I think Darwin's Dangerous Idea is full of wonderful imagery and explanation. Yet several years ago when I read Elbow Room, about free will, I just didn't get it. Well, here is his new book about free will -- and I still don't get it.
Dennett starts off in the usual way, with the argument that determinism is incompatible with free will. He uses a big Game of Life to support his arguments and definition, such as those of necessary and sufficient cause, including the idea that some effects need not have a cause: things are complicated enough that no single cause is either necessary or sufficient to ensure the effect.
Dennett explains that deterministic does not mean inevitable -- because inevitable just means unavoidable, and even in the Game of Life (since it is computationally complete), patterns, or agents, can "evolve" to be good "avoiders". He also explains that, in order to avoid, the agent needs both sufficient information on which to base its action -- where being in a deterministic universe helps it determine (geddit?) the consequences of its planned actions -- and sufficient time in which to act.
But I feel this is merely a bit of verbal sleight of hand: are we talking about avoiding things in general, or avoiding this specific event? Evolution makes things good avoiders in general, but in the deterministic Game of Life rules, if this agent pattern is going to get eaten by that one this time, there is nothing it can "do" to avoid it.
Dennett shows that adding a dash of indeterminism, maybe in the form of some random quantum chance, whether external or internal to the brain, doesn't solve the problem. But this really is a "no-brainer": if I'm at a fork in the path, then tossing a coin, or consulting a quantum event, to "choose" the branch to take can't possibly be what anyone means by free will. Not only must it be that if the "tape was run again", a different outcome was possible; but I have to choose that outcome. Now, personally I have no idea how this can possibly be the case, how I, following either deterministic or random rules, can make that choice. I can't even formulate a coherent question. But that's what philosophers are for, and so I would have liked more discussion of this point. There is some discussion of what something being "up to me" might mean, but it is all mixed in with a quantum indeterminism red herring. However, there is a nice discussion of what what the process of "making a choice" might be like, in terms of two fairly evenly balanced dynamic networks "fighting it out": whichever you eventually choose, you wanted to do it, because you wanted to do both.
I do have a problem with the Game of Life automaton as a pump primer for intuition about determinism and so on. The real world is not a cellular automaton (although some physicists might disagree), but rather is open in some not very well understood sense. Also it is quantum: this has effects above and beyond mere indeterminism: do entanglement and decoherence change the intuitions? It might be that this model being used to prime our intuition is just too simple to capture reality. I stress that I don't mean this in any spooky "ghost in the machine" way -- heaven forfend! -- but maybe the properties of the richer model are qualitatively different?
Dennett talks about Game of Life patterns that appear at higher levels: things like gliders and glider guns, not individual cells: he is taking a stance above the level of the underlying cellular rules. It feels like he is about to claim that free will is an emergent property, a property that only holds at higher levels, and is not even a meaningful concept at lower ones. As I read it, I felt a faint inkling this might work, this might make sense, so I turned to the next chapter, eager to see how it would pan out. But I was caught in a sort of mental whiplash, because he immediately goes on to talk at this higher level, about kinds of free will worth wanting, as if the problem is settled, without that bridging chapter I so dearly needed. Maybe the link is there, clear for others to see, but I couldn't see it.
The final part of the book, on how free will evolves, and how people have more and richer kinds of free will worth having, by virtue of our consciousness, is fascinating. A lot of it relies on ideas from Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea, with the necessary concepts being ruthlessly summarised where required. It has a good discussion of why, even as we find out more about the brain and its mental conditions, we will never "empty the set" of people held responsible for their actions: people will accept those responsibilities in order to gain the benefit of the accompanying rights.
All in all, this is a fascinating book. The first half is a careful discussion of the meaning of determinism. The second is a naturalist's argument about free will in reasoning evolving agents. If only it had had that extra chapter in the middle, explicitly linking the two halves for me, so that I could finally "get it".
This is a collection of lectures, essays, and articles where Dennett responds to comments on, and criticisms of, his "Multiple Drafts" theory of consciousness as laid out in Consciousness Explained, and expands on and refines some of the ideas there. As he says in the preface [p.ix] I didn't get it all right the first time, but I didn't get it all wrong either. Since it is a collection of individual essays, there is some repetition. In fact, Dennett morphs this bug into a feature:
Most of this is written in his usual highly accessible style. For example, I laughed out loud (something that always gets me strange looks on the train) when I read:
Despite this accessible style, it is quite technical in places, particularly as some of the essays are ripostes (to ripostes to ripostes) to other articles I haven't read, or to other philosophical positions I'm not aware of. So I was particularly grateful for this description of (philosophical) zombies:
So, I will stop being generous. From this, it appears that the philosophical zombie is identical to a conscious being in every way except that it isn't conscious. So, this strikes me (taking my newly ungenerous stance) as like saying a that a "living dead" movie zombie is identical to a living being in every way except that it isn't alive. It doesn't have the vital spark, the elan vital, the quintessence, of a living being. How quaintly 19th Century! So, presumably, philosophical unconscious zombies should be used to prove, in exactly the same way, that there is nothing to consciousness beyond physical properties?
But, from reading this book, it appears not. Instead, it appears that many philosophers (Dennett excluded, naturally) engage in games as follows. First, imagine some hypothetical being with stated powers. [I'm imagining, I'm imagining very hard -- this hypothetical being would have to be more than superhuman to actually have the stated powers, though. Okay, so I'm now imagining the requested superhero. (Except in the case of zombies, where my imagination does actually fail.)] Next, say the philosophers, put that being in some scenario. [Okay, done. That was easy.] Then, hey presto, as you will have realised intuitively, they'll have such-and-such a reaction, which proves something spooky about consciousness. [Um, no, sorry. Because that intuition is based on what your unenhanced reaction would be, and you are not that superhero, you are an ordinary philosopher. The being with the superpowers you require is so enhanced, so unintuitive, that you cannot use your own intuition to, well, intuit anything about their capabilities. You have failed to follow through with your own imagined scenario.]
Dennett is very good at showing where this imagining breaks down. In other writings he has given intuition about how Vast the library of Babel is, and how enormous the actual Chinese Room would be (so enormous that the little man pottering around inside is essentially invisible). Here he pays the same game with "Mary the colour scientist" (a person who knows everything there is to know about colour, despite never having seen it: does she experience anything new when she does finally see it?) to dismiss intuitions about qualia. He does this by imagining RoboMary, a robot who knows everything there is to know about colour, despite never having seen it (a situation somewhat easier to set up). This particular argument doesn't need to discuss ideas of consciousness (the "RoboMary isn't conscious, therefore doesn't experience qualia, so it's a different case" counterargument). What it does is show just how much RoboMary (and hence, by analogy, person Mary) would have to know to know everything about colour without having seen it -- and it's a lot, a superhuman lot, including knowledge of detailed brain states. So why on Earth should we feel it reasonable to use our intuitions to reason about (Robo)Mary's experiences?
In fact, Dennett is quite scathing throughout about certain philosophers insistence on using their intuition to "reason" about properties of consciousness.
There's lots else that's fun and interesting here, too. In particular, the details of how The Tuned Deck card trick work are fascinating in the context of explaining an evolved, "kludged" system (as opposed to a designed system). Want to know why? Then read the book!
Dennett does not start out questioning the truth of religion, or of religious beliefs. And in fact, by the time he gets to that point, he has put enough in place to show that such a question is almost unstatable in any kind of coherent manner, and certainly unanswerable, in the current situation, and so gives it short shrift. Instead, his main thrust is questioning the validity of some of the other claims made of religion, such that it "gives meaning to life", makes people "good", makes the world "a better place", and so on. He points out that these are very important claims, and so they should be carefully investigated: if they are true, secularism is in danger of destroying something important; it they are not true, and religion does more harm than good, then this is also important to know. With the emphasis always on "know", on having evidence, not on being based on (blind) "faith".
Dennett takes, not surprisingly, a philosophical stance to these questions. In particular, he insists that there should be no questions ruled "out of bounds" to enquiry, and that any attempt to do so should be gently but firmly rebuffed. However, he notes that many religions have built a strong shell of protection from this very sort of enquiry:
If anybody ever raises questions or objections about our religion that you cannot answer, that person is almost certainly Satan. In fact, the more reasonable the person is, the more eager to engage you in open-minded and congenial discussion, the more sure you can be that you're talking to Satan in disguise! Turn away! Do not listen! It's a trap!What is particularly cute about this trick is that it is a perfect "wild card," so lacking in content that any sect or creed or conspiracy can use it effectively.
His olive branch to the religious for doing all this questioning is that, if we are to demonstrate that religion is "true" (whatever that means, and it appears to mean something different to everyone), we first have to discount possible natural explanations for religious behaviour and experience. To prove something is a miracle, first demonstrate that it couldn't have been caused by natural means. Unfortunately, even if one can demonstrate a possible natural explanation, this wouldn't, of course, constitute a proof that the supernatural claim was false, merely that is was unnecessary. No matter how many magicians demonstrate that they can bend spoons into pretzels perfectly readily, there's always the riposte "yes, but I'm doing it by mind power" (or, worse still, "they are using mind power too, but don't realise it!"). It takes a particular starting point to rule out this kind of thing as a valid argument. The fact that this is a rational starting point doesn't help when arguing with the irrational. Dennett admits that we cannot have a conversation with such people.
The discussion is in two main parts. The first is an historical account of how religion may have arisen, based on evolutionary and memetic ideas. Dennett is not claiming that this is how religion did arise, merely that it is a plausible account of how it could have, based on what we know of evolution, anthropology, and history, deserving of further investigation, either to refute it, or to firm up the details. The second is about belief in belief in God (analogous to belief in democracy, or belief in justice -- and the claim that it is a "good thing" in its own right to believe in such things, because such belief helps to maintain or establish a desirable situation).
One of Dennett's conclusions (if one can say a philosopher ever reaches such a state) is that the case for moderate religious belief is still open (it might do more good than harm, but that has yet to be demonstrated either way), but that the immoral actions of fundamentalists should be not be tolerated in the slightest, and that they should be roundly condemned for such actions (of harming other people, and in particular, of harming their own children by denying them the possibility of informed consent). He also insists that the onus of condemnation rests squarely on the shoulders of the moderates whose religion they are hijacking, but who appear not to be doing so because of the insidious memetic protection that all religion has gained, even these overtly toxic ones. Religion may be deserving of respect, but not merely because it is religion.
Dennett claims to be writing this book to help with some of the problems that (fundamentalist) religion, in a variety of flavours, is causing around the world today. Despite the underlying urgency, this is a calm, well-argued, thoughtful, and, in places, humorous account, and I found it an interesting and thought-provoking experience. However, I am most assuredly not a member of Dennett's target audience. I do rather doubt whether any members of his target audience, even if they managed to get past the title, would get past even the first page. He is simply starting from an impossibly different axiom base: that reasoned enquiry is the only reasonable way to advance and achieve understanding. (I would like to think that I fully subscribe to this axiom base myself, that nothing is "sacred", nothing is beyond question. However, I am awaiting the day when I have it brought home to me that I do in fact have some inviolable core of "truths" that I believe should not be questioned -- will I recant this axiom base, or joyously (or uncomfortably?) realise I must start a new level of questioning? Or has this event already happened, and I have some powerful mimetic coat of protection that has shrugged it off, without my even noticing? A sobering thought.)
This started life as Hurley’s dissertation, but fear not: it is not some dull stodgy academic treatise. Despite being peppered with jokes, however, it is also not a side-splitting read. It is instead a clearly written in-depth account of the authors’ evolutionary cognitive theory of humour. The overarching argument is excellently summarised in the back-cover blurb (above); in a little more detail, it runs:
This thesis is introduced in the context of an emotional and cognitive model of how we think. Emotion is clearly important in things like “fight or flight”, but also for many other aspects of our life. Certain forms of brain damage that inhibit emotions make it difficult or impossible for those people to make decisions: not because they can no longer reason, but because they have no urge to make a decision. Thinking itself is such hard work, we need emotions to encourage us to do so.
Although we think incessantly, at times we need to think quickly, and to make a decision before we have all the information. There is an evolutionary advantage to literally jumping to conclusions: those that pondered more deeply were eaten. But if we don’t have all the information, inevitably we will make mistakes, no matter how well evolution has honed our conclusion-jumping heuristics into rational emotional behaviours.
Mistakes can be dangerous, as they will include false information about the world, which later will pollute the very reasoning we need in order to survive. So we have evolved mechanisms to help us correct these mistakes.
However, this error correction is expensive, and is competing for the same resources that the original thought uses. Something expensive needs some reason to happen. This is the key to the authors’ model: the reason is the evolved reward mechanism of mirth. Sweet foods are not intrinsically “sweet”; we experience them as sweet (a pleasant emotional response) because we are evolved to find them so: sugar was a rare and valuable energy source. Similarly, jokes are not intrinsically “funny”; we experience them as funny (a pleasant emotional response) because we are evolved to find them so: error correction is a valuable cognitive function.
Having introduced their thesis, the authors then subject it to various challenges. It needs to account for the diverse range of things we find funny, and yet should also explain why closely related things are not funny. They do this in considerable detail, picking apart and analysing a wide range of humorous and related event. Of course, picking apart a joke destroys its humour; interestingly, the theory even explains why it destroys the humour.
This is a fascinating and well-argued account of a particular aspect of our evolutionary heritage. Recommended. (Some of the example jokes included are even funny.)
This is Daniel C. Dennett’s brilliant answer, extending perspectives from his earlier work in surprising directions, exploring the deep interactions of evolution, brains and human culture. Part philosophical whodunnit, part bold scientific conjecture, this landmark work enlarges themes that have sustained Dennett’s career at the forefront of philosophical thought.
In his inimitable style, laced with wit and thought experiments, Dennett shows how culture enables reflection by installing a profusion of thinking tools, or memes, in our brains, and how language turbocharges this process. The result: a mind that can comprehend the questions it poses, which has emerged from a process of cultural evolution.
An agenda-setting book for a new generation of philosophers and thinkers, From Bacteria to Bach and Back is essential for anyone who hopes to understand human creativity in all its applications.
Dennett's substantial 4000-word review of Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind is complimentary about the scientific themes covered in the book:
However, Penrose's main thesis, for which all this scientific exposition is mere supporting argument, is that algorithmic computers cannot ever be intelligent, because our mathematical insights are fundamentally non-algorithmic. Dennett is having none of it, and succinctly points out the underlying fallacy, that, even if there could not be an algorithm for a particular behaviour, there could still be an algorithm that was very very good (if not perfect) at that behaviour: