Daniel Dennett: The Magic of Consciousness…Without the Magic

January 17, 2017

Daniel C. Dennett is one of the most influential philosophers of our time, perhaps best known in cognitive science for his multiple drafts (or “fame in the brain”) model of human consciousness, and to the secular community for his 2006 book Breaking the Spell. Author and co-author of two-dozen books, he’s the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, where he taught our very own Point of Inquiry host Lindsay Beyerstein.

Beyerstein and Dennett catch up to discuss Dennett’s newest book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. It’s a fresh look at Dennett’s earlier work on the subject of consciousness, taken in new directions as he seeks a “bottom-up view of creation.” Join Dennett and Beyerstein as they discuss the how’s and why’s of consciousness, not just from an evolutionary and neurological standpoint, but also through the lenses of computer science and human culture.

Get new episode announcements and special updates by signing up for the Point of Inquiry email newsletter. It’s as easy as typing in your email.

This is point of inquiry. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production at the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And my guest today is Daniel Bennett, one of the world’s most celebrated living philosophers and one of the four horsemen of the new atheist. 

Dan was my professor at Tufts, where he’s the Austin B. Fletcher professor of philosophy and the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies. He’s here today to talk to us about his new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back the Evolution of Minds then. Welcome to the program. 

Delighted to be with you, Lindsay. 

The book is about how the magic of our minds is accomplished without any magic. Can you give us an overview? The central argument you. 

It’s some. Actually, quite a winding path. The idea that it’s magic without being magic is that. It is like stage magic. It’s a bunch of tricks. And it’s the sort of tricks that evolution’s very good at stumbling upon. If it’s given a few billion years to work at it. So the story is about how life began and bacteria, which already are very clever. 

They do very clever things, but they don’t understand them. They don’t have to understand. One of the themes that runs through the book is Competence Without Comprehension, which is a key to Darwin’s theory of evolution. And it’s a key to Turing’s invention of the computer. A remarkably competent machine which starts out with no comprehension at all, just the sort of minimal behavioral competent comprehension required to follow simple instructions like and subtract go to location L. in your memory and so forth. 

And what we’ve come to appreciate, thanks to Darwin, Turing and their various colleagues and successors who have built on them, is that it’s possible to put together a whole bottom up view of creation of all the way from life itself to the even the most wonderful artistic creations by Shakespeare and Picasso and the rest. 

We have to understand that none of it is miraculous. None of it requires what I call a skyhook, a sort of gift from God. It’s wonderful. No, don’t deny the wonderfulness of the designs. We’ve been able to create the wonderful inventions we’ve been able to make. But we have to understand how it was made possible by natural processes without the help of any miracles and without the help of any wonder stuff. 

Any any wonder tissue in our brains. And that’s hard for many people to swallow. They there’s a tremendous natural resistance sort of repugnance to the idea that our minds are wonderful, wonderful minds are really just the activities of our brains, all of them obeying the laws of physics and behaving in ways that biological entities behave. 

So part of the task of the book is to give people exercises of the imagination that will let them understand that this isn’t a bad thing, that this is good, and they can actually understand more about how they get to be so smart and so clever and so wonderful and so lovable. And the rest. 

The books of refinement and synthesis of 50 years of your philosophical work. But there’s also a lot of new stuff in here. What are some of the most important new arguments? 

Well, the ideas about information, about semantic information and how to understand it and how it differs from the information of mathematical information theory. 

Shannon, information theory? I think that’s a new idea. And the the there’s some new ideas about consciousness, too, about what I call Hume’s strange inversion and the way in which we tend to. 

Well, this is in a way, a new diagnosis of an issue that, as I’ve been writing about for years. And that’s this almost irresistible urge to posit internal an internal theater, the Cartesian theater, where the show happens with all these wonderful properties being instantiated in this in this fabulous inner theater. The trick is to see how there isn’t the Cartesian theater. There just seems to be and I have some new ways of getting at that. 

And when you say the Cartesian theory, that would be sort of the imaginary place in the brain where everything comes together and I’m Occulus View is consciousness. 

That’s right. And the trouble we actually most theories of consciousness is that they help themselves at some point to the assumption that there’s something like a privileged place in the brain, the Cartesian theater, where where the understanding happens, where the enjoyment happens, where the appreciation, where the where the experience happens. And then it looks from mysterious as all get out. And what you have to realize is that you can’t stop when you reached what you think of as the Cartesian theater, you guys. 

And then what happens? And you’ve got to look at how all the reacting, all the the remembering and noticing and discriminating in abhorring and loving and deciding. 

That has to be part of the picture, too. And once you start. Parceling out those tasks to parts of the brain, you realize that you’ve you’ve answered the what I call the hard question. And then what happens? And once you’ve answered that, the mystery sort of dissolves. 

You talk about the Cartesian wound. What is that? And what why did why should we be seeking to heal it? 

Well, the term is actually Terri Deakins and. When I read it in his book, I thought, OK, that’s a good idea, that they can’t separate mind from body, mind from matter and gave us Cartesian dualism. And although ever since Descartes, there have been plenty of theorists who have insisted this is a spurious division, that the dualism is false and it’s a hopeless doctrine. The the split just seems so natural that people keep reinventing it, rediscovering it. And then sometimes it’s called the explanatory gap. Sometimes it’s called the hard problem. And all the thinking along those lines is damaged by the failure of the thinkers to knit up the Cartesian wound before they start. It’s a it’s a Bifur vacation of perspectives, which is very natural. There’s the third person point of view and there’s the first person point of view. Yes, indeed. But now we have to see how to construct the first person point of view from the third person point of view and see how how they come to be first persons in this natural biological world. 

You argue that this reluctance to challenge Cartesian dualism is itself an evolved feature. Can you explain how that works? 

Well, I think it falls out of it’s not so much that it has a particular function to performance, a byproduct of the excellent design of our decision systems, which are informed by our senses and our memories and our goals. And the process of thinking and reflecting and deciding creates a sort of arena of action, of mental action, of reflection and consideration and decision. And that generates this sense that there’s this inner arena in our in our head somewhere that is not obeying the laws of physics, but what it is. 

And are there are there dangers in terms of people that people are anticipating when they say that we shouldn’t delve too much into these questions, things that they want to preempt, things that these kinds of naturalistic hypotheses threaten? 

Well, I think a lot of people, Gimli see they don’t see it accurately, but they dimly feel that, oh, my goodness, if my mind is just my brain and my brain is just a everyday physical object and doesn’t have any wonder tissue in it, then then how can I possibly be responsible, morally responsible? How can I take credit for my brilliant moves and from my heroic deeds? And am I a suitable subject or is anybody a suitable subject for blame or for for chastisement or punishment? 

And so the whole idea of freewill and moral responsibility and what we might call artistic responsibility, these all seem threatened by this naturalistic vision. 

And so many people, whenever they feel that threat emerging, they see it looming in the distance. They want to make a preemptive strike against it. And so they set their face against it and and get and clutch at positions which they think will protect them. They clutching at straws that won’t keep them afloat. And they should actually relax and look more closely at naturalism and see that it doesn’t have these dire implications after all. 

You’ve written that Darwin made it possible for the first time to be an intellectually respectable atheist. 

How does the Dawkins line that’s Dawkins line. And I think it’s he’s exactly right before Darwin. The argument from design was very impressive, that if you look around and you see that the natural world is full of things, exquisitely cleverly designed the the wing of the eagle, the the eye of the eagle, the the the shaggy coat of the bear, all the wondrous details of honeybees and people and the fact that there is all this amazingly clever design application. 

We try to reproduce it with automata and we’ve come to realize how breathtakingly complex and sophisticated it all is. 

And so the argument from design says, look at all this design. There must be an intelligent design, a responsible and an intelligent design, a much more intelligent than we are. And this leads to what we might call or what I often call the trickle down theory of of intelligence, that the only way with all this intelligence that we have can exist is if there’s an even more intelligent, more comprehending, infinitely wise and omniscient God to to be responsible for it all and hence God exists. And I think this is a compelling argument until Darwin comes along and shows the possibility of what Beverly called a strange inversion of reasoning and see that you could get all this wonderful, this bottom up without any comprehension at all. 

It’s that natural selection go about, would you say that natural selection actually creates design? Or would you say it creates the appearance of design? 

Well, I say it creates design. This is one point that Richard Dawkins and I have had a very minor disagreement. It’s really a strategic or terminological disagreement. 

He wants to distinguish between things that are designed by designers and, you know, by engineers and artists and musicians and the like and things that are apparently designed by by evolution, by natural selection. But I think that the products of natural selection are as wonderful or more wonderful and cleverer and more ingenious than many, if not all human. Products of design. I think we should call all of that design and the term that Dawkins introduces design Lloyd for merely appearing to be well designed. I’ve got a perfectly good use for that. It’s that it’s what we might call the cartoonist’s dodge. You’ve seen cartoons where the two mathematicians are standing at the blackboard firing their brows, and the blackboard is covered with a incredibly impressive forest of symbols. 

Well, they don’t mean that his thing is just it’s just a fake assemblage of parts. Graphic, aggressive. Yes. It’s it’s just cartoonist gobbledygook. 

And the same goes, of course, for something like the Millennial Falcon, which looks as if as brilliantly designed. But it is really just a whole lot of pieces of stuff glued together to look impressive and functional when in fact, it’s just a model that’s designed void. 

So what makes it real design? I mean, it’s there’s no it work isn’t business, OK? 

It’s real design. When it does something wonderful. 

And is it also fair to say that it’s real design? Because it does it for reasons that, you know, that something actually did? 

I evolved because it enabled the creature to see which enabled it to reproduce. 

Well, to say that it works, say the says. It says that it has a function that has a purpose that doesn’t have to be a purpose. It was ever represented by any intelligent designer, but nevertheless is the purpose. We see reasons and purposes everywhere in nature, but they don’t have to be appreciated by anybody until we come along and get clever and figure them out. But we’re not responsible for them. We’re just the appreciative observers. 

So there are reasons aplenty in them. In the natural world, there’s reasons why bacteria do what they do and there’s reasons why trees grow their leaves the way they do and the reason why their roots spread out the way they do. The trees don’t understand those reasons. They don’t have to. Nobody has to understand the reasons. Those are reasons that are uncovered, exposed. You might say, or exploited by blind, non comprehending natural selection, which in the process of sifting through billions and billions and billions of mindless attempts, discovers ones that work better than others. And when that’s true, there’s a reason why some of them are better. That’s the birth of the reason right there. But it doesn’t have to be appreciated by anybody. It’s just automatically selected by by the process of natural selection. 

And it’s that in theory, a verifiable fact. This reason, this isn’t just to supposition are just things that we repr actively read into them. I mean, once you go back to the differential replication, it ultimately ends up being objectively true. 

Yes, I think that there is a lot of confusion about that even in the world of biology. And for that reason, a lot of evolutionary biologists are reluctant to use the word reason. And in a situation like this, although I collect stunning examples of molecular biologists and other scientists using intentional language, purposive language, functional language, you can’t do biology without using functional language because biology is really just reverse engineering. 

Living things and the reasons, the hypotheses that we come up with about the reasons why things are the way they are are testable, irrefutable. We have very little doubt that hint that eagle’s wings or for flying, they’re they’re not just for showing off their feathers, whereas a peacock’s tail is really for showing love. 

Why do you doubt a patient ism gets a bad name within biology? 

Adaptation ism got a bad name in biology, naturally. 

Adaptation Rusholme got a bad name outside of biology because of a classic paper by Gould and Lewington on the spaniel’s of San Marco and the adaptation program, which was a rhetorically winning and tremendously influential paper that appeared more than 25 years ago, which many people interpreted as demonstrating the bankruptcy, the falsehood of adaptation as reasoning and biology. They did no such thing, but many people outside of biology who who were oppressed by the idea that biology could explain all of these wonderful designs, which would be an adaptation, is explanation. They they clustered to their bosoms and hoped it was true and took it on the authority of Google Lewington. And it’s taken a quarter century and more to sort of launder that mistaken idea out of the popular imagination. There’s two large quarters which think that adaptation is a myth, some sort of a known sin of evolutionary theory. It’s nothing of the sort. 

The Golden Lawrenson even argue that adaptation is the exhalations are always wrong or just that they’re somewhat overblown and people my tendency to posit them without testing them. 

Well, if you look closely at the lewington they only ever claim to demonstrate is that there are adaptation nyst accessors where people have put forward adaptations. Hypotheses are not bothered to do the proper checks and more or less implied by the article was that you couldn’t do the checks, you couldn’t prove or confirm the adaptation is hypotheses in any case, which is just false. 

And there are some examples of ways that you can disconfirm or confirm an adaptation is a hypothesis. 

Well, by doing standard science, by manipulating causes and the facts and holding other things constant. Let’s take a very, very simple case. Is there a reason why this particular species of bird lays to eggs rather than three or four or five or six? Well, as a easy enough way of testing that, and that is to see arrange for them to lay more eggs or or look at cases where some of them do lay more eggs and see how well they survive. 

And pretty soon you gather evidence that clutch size is variable in many bird species, but it tends to contract when times are rough and expand. When living is easy and the survival rates show that this is a well tuned mechanism. 

Talk a bit about Shannon’s information theory and the idea of information worth stealing or DesignWorks stealing. 

Claude Shannon’s information theory is a wonderful, brilliant idealization which permit us to measure bits, bytes, megabytes, gigabytes, and to measure the capacity of thumb drives and bandwidth and and keep track of how much information was in the human genome or any other genome. 

But one of its virtues is that it ignores the content of the information. 

There is more shared information in 20 minutes of a Bugs Bunny cartoon than there is in the Encyclopedia Britannica. 

And as you can fit the Encyclopedia Britannica underway into a smaller file, fewer megabytes, and then the Bugs Bunny cartoon. So obviously, there’s another notion of information that has to be captured. And many people have been reluctant to acknowledge this and thought, well, we have information, serious mathematical, so we can go ahead and talk about information, information processing in the brain and so forth. And we live in the information age. Well, yeah, but that’s deeply equivocal. And if we want to look at the aspect of information that Shannon’s theory leaves out, I suggest that in the end, and this is one of the more daring proposals of mine, is that we understand it as its design, worth stealing or worth copying. 

And evolution is the great plagiarist. When a design pops up that works, it gets copied and copied and copied and adjusted and revised slightly and copied some more. And this is the way that evolution extracts information, not in the Shannon sense, but in the sense of information about the environment that can be harnessed to do good work by living things in controlling their lives so that they can anticipate both the good and the bad and distinguish them and prosper thanks to their information processing capacity. 

Give me an example of how that might work. And for any given species, a primate or a bacterium or. 

Consider the sucking reflex in a newborn baby. Where did that baby learn that a good thing to do is to is to try to suck that something like a nipple and get some nourishment. This is a good trick that the mammalian order has refined in many different ways and many different species of mammals. And it was no doubt gleaned by the process of differential replication, by natural selection in the earliest days of the existence of mammals and the fact that you are going to have mammary glands and feeding by the mother of of milk to offspring. This new innovation in procreation and in raising didn’t come all in one magical swoop, but had to be refined over many, many thousands, maybe millions of generations. And so every baby that’s born has the benefit of all of that prospecting for valuable information. And it’s born knowing something without understanding that it knows it is born with a very good, well-designed disposition to go hunting for that nipple and get that milk. And that’s a process which is guided by information and was created by information and serves the baby very well. 

And the idea of it being worth stealing is the idea that it’s been passed on in many different kinds of mammals. 

Yes. It doesn’t belong to anybody. But it’s it’s copied and copied and copied and copied. It’s it’s interesting to look at the law of copyright and patent infringement and trade secrets. And I have a section in the book on that because many of the issues that are illuminated in evolutionary theory have there have clear counterparts in in the law. We have all these suits about what can you patent and when is their patent infringement. And they all in the end hinge on, well, is this is this an innovation? Is this a bit of design that was worth stealing or is this just inadvertent? I don’t care type feature which could not properly be stolen. You can’t you can’t copyright four musical notes and then claim that somebody’s stolen your tune every time they get used to come close. Who can trademark her witness? The NBC Times three names. But something has to have enough structure to do something that is recognized as having some value before you can patent it. If it’s if it’s an invention or if you copyright something that doesn’t in fact, it doesn’t have to be in the sort of sense. It shouldn’t be useful. 

It should be just artistic, have just arts district merit. And there are lots of quandaries to this day about software and when it can be when it can be a trade secret, when it can be stolen, when it can be licensed. So it can be copyrighted. And we’re we’re still working out how to handle the question of the value of design work and how to protect it. 

We’ve talked a lot about the Bottom-Up mechanisms that create minds, also about Top-Down mechanisms, the kind of thinking tool kit that we all have as humans that enables us to actually be intelligent designers in our own right. 

Yeah. I presented as a sort of major puzzle in the book the following sort of embarrassing idea. 

Once we understand how nature works bottom up and is competent without comprehension, we begin to wonder what the heck is comprehension, what’s it for and who needs it. If we can, if if evolution can can can design an albatross and the killer whale in a redwood tree without any comprehension, what do we need comprehension for? Where does it come from? And I claim that the answer to that is not from some miracle, but by a second process of evolution, cultural evolution, which is creative thinking tools by the thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, which then we acquire, they are very much worth having. 

And we furnish our brains with all these thinking tools. And that’s what makes us have the sorts of creative reflex. Mines that can do top down design, that can do intelligent design, that can plan ahead and figure out the solutions to problems in advance and devise new purposes, a new sub purposes, the whole wonderful world of human ingenuity and cleverness and design, human intelligent design, not godly intelligent design, but human intelligent design. 

And the pencils could be anything from language to instruments of measurement. Proverbs to theorems, it could be almost done. 

I think thinking tools and there are thinking tools that are that are, you know, concrete objects like like rulers or the compass you use in geometry to draw a circle or but binoculars or telescopes or microscopes. But most thinking tools are just made of information. They’re they’re just designed sets of ways of doing things, whether it’s long division or iambic pentameter or solving crossword puzzles. The human world is filled with artifacts made of information, poetry, art, algorithms, methods, proofs. All of human culture is dependent on a wonderful cornucopia of thinking tools that for the most part, nobody had to invent. They are the products of cultural evolution, the evolution of means, not genes. 

And some of them can be very humble. I mean, even as something as simple as maxims like, look, before you leave, oh, there are some bullies. 

Look, before you leap. And as humble as the word cat or tree or scram, words themselves are thinking tools. And each of us has tens of thousands of them at our disposal. And we become fairly adept in using them, whether we’re writers or just talkers and listeners. And they are the key to downloading information from the world that we don’t have to experience directly. We can learn by hearsay. We can learn by taking a course. We can learn by watching the news. We don’t have to be eyewitnesses. 

And so we’re essentially plugged in to the learning and knowledge of our entire species in principle, you know, in a way that no other species is. 

If you want to know what makes us so much smarter than chimpanzees. The answers we compare, notes we have read, can benefit from the learning of every other human being that’s ever existed. 

If they’ve left some artifacts behind, which may be very abstract, they may be oral poetry. No other species does that. No other species does that at all. And that in itself explains why we are. By any reasonable measure, orders of magnitude more intellectually competent and more comprehending than our nearest relatives. 

And how does that how does that seem to throw a spanner into the works for arguments about cognitive closure, on the idea that some things are just irreducible mysteries? Because after all, you know, Fisher never going to understand democracy. So it doesn’t it stand to reason that there must be things that humans are in principle and capable of understanding? 

You know, this this argument of cognitive closure’s is a nice example of a superficially plausible argument. It looks modest and naturalistic. Hey, we’re just biological creatures. Our brains must have limits to just like the brains of dogs and chimps and fish. 

But the difference is profound because the dogs and the fish don’t understand the questions, let alone the answers. We understand the questions. 

And the whole point of of human questioning is that if they’re supposed to be some area that is forever off limits to us, to our poor, finite minds, tell us what it is. And by just telling us what the problem is, you’ve got gotten representation of it. You’ve got an articulation of it. We may not understand it at first, but we will then set about exploring it in every way we can to see if we can understand it. So it’s very hard. Nobody’s ever given an example that they could show that this is a subject which is forever outside the limits of human comprehension forever. And that’s a fruit. It’s a bootless task. There might well be such such imponderable things, but we’ll never really know that there are. Let’s grant. Of course there are. But let’s work on the things where we at least understand the questions or think we understand the questions and we’ll make progress on them. And it’s worth. 

Very well so far, though, and that’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s been a pleasure. 

Well, thank you, Lindsay. I’ve enjoyed talking with you. And, you know, this is this is sort of my first interview I’ve done on the book. So I’m happy to to get some practice from you. And you ask very good questions. 

Point of inquiries of production at the Center for Inquiry. Become a member and support the advancement of science and reason by going to center for inquiry. Dot org slash membership. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.