Alright, this is going to be long.
Daniel Dennett talks in this work about the things that he has always talked about, namely, about the nature of consciousness. And for him the word nature has a strong meaning. It means natural, non-magical, following the laws of physics and chemistry. Looking at consciousness in that way, means that what we call our mind is not separated from the bundle of neurons that we call our brain. There is no mysterious, unobserved communication between brain and mind, because they are one thing. He tried to clarify his thoughts about this matter in his earlier book Consciousness Explained (1991) which had a rather optimistic title. Next, Dennett started thinking about why we experience something like consciousness as a special, indivisible phenomenon, and more importantly, how this came to be. And that lead him to the theory of evolution and the idea that our consciousness is a consequence of the process of natural selection, expounded in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1996).
In all this time, he noticed that many people found his ideas somewhat unpalatable and he became salty about that, but since science has advanced again rapidly in the last two decades, many of Dennett’s hunches now are supported by scientific research (at least so he says. Even for scientists this is a matter of argumentation and interpretation) and Dennett felt confident again to reiterate all of his ideas in one neat package. So, now in his new book From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Dennett tries his utmost to start slow, to pepper his introductory chapters with warnings about challenging ideas and to talk about every little twist and turn in his reasoning with long explanatory chapters. To pre-bolster his ideas against every possible attack.
For me that meant that I sometimes lost the thread of his reasoning because he kept diving into side issues of side issues of side issues, before circling back to his main points. He takes so many words and repeats so much, something that other popular science writers are guilty of as well (looking at you, Jared Diamond). A positive thing about this is that Dennett talks about many diverse topics, having written a very interesting book about everything under the sun. He sees metaphors in everything and enjoys using them, and he is a very eloquent writer, so it is still a joy to read about his thoughts. But to follow the threads is harder work and he shoots himself in the foot that way.
The danger is that if I were to give a summary of his arguments, that I would undo all his careful marshalling of intellectual pieces of the puzzle. All his care to keep people from bristling, and I sympathize that he wants to be understood. But I’m going to try it anyway. I have to, to follow what he is trying to say.
So, evolution harbors certain forces that have an impact, a historical baggage, on how our minds work and came to be. To explain this, Dennett looks at the history of life and stresses that nature is actually filled with reasons; filled with design. Shapes have functions. But Darwin’s dangerous idea was that a designer wasn’t necessary. Then came Alan Turing with his invention of the computer, and Dennett takes from him the idea that there can be competence (as in smart programs) without real comprehension by the computer in what it is doing. This also can be found in nature, such as ants who create complex and effective systems but individual ants have not planned it out beforehand. So, reasons without reasoners and competence without comprehension, as starting environmental variables in the evolution of the human mind.
And a large portion of that evolution-created mind is not exactly conscious. We humans have many impulses and motivations that rise from an unconscious mind, animalistic baggage sometimes, and we tend to rationalize our actions afterwards. It also takes us decades of living to gain a somewhat clear understanding of the deeper motivations of our own behavior. Clearly, comprehension comes in degrees. Dennett chips away at the idea of consciousness, making it smaller and smaller.
Alright, but then the book jumps to an entirely new topic: to how the human brain processes information. Dennett keeps promising in his narrative to show us how human minds evolved, but he skips the whole discussion of the actual evolutionary path that lead from primates to us. I expected this to be the logical next step, a necessary step, for his thesis, and its absence makes for a jarring, unexpected jump into a new topic. This is disappointing, because if the human mind is wrought by evolution, then you would expect simpler, rudimentary minds to be present in animals close to us in the evolutionary tree. People who claim that they can see in dogs and pigs and horses and chimps the presence of something like consciousness and recognizable emotions may well be on to something. Perhaps Homo erectus had minds like us, but ours have a few more incremental changes? Neurobiology, the study of how animal brains work and differ from ours, should offer a rich source of information here. Dennett as a philosopher is typically filling a whole book about arguing about terms without taking up an essential scientific part of the story.
So, while Dennett skips all that, he moves on to another important clue: our great capacity for learning. We have made our environment so complex that behavior by simple instinct is not enough. Only the foundations are laid by instincts, but the neurons in our neocortex form new networks while we grow up and learn, and no other species can do this to such a great extent. At what age would you say that we reach proper consciousness? It is a matter of degree, and tools such as language and social learning build that consciousness along the way.
I have doubts about this. All these arguments and philosophical exercises that I just outlined and Dennett talks about… are about the level of comprehension, but not about the existence of consciousness. Learning and social life would explain why we know a lot and can do a lot, but not why we develop consciousness. Would it be possible to be a very social species and to learn a lot, and not have any self-awareness? Like lemmings but handier? I think it would. Or did I just… misunderstand the topic of his book? It’s all right to say that mind and consciousness are one and then write a book about the evolution of minds, but then the point of consciousness still lies unaddressed. (It turns out I was being impatient. Stuff on consciousness was coming later.)
Anyway, Dennett draws a line from the brain as an information processor to the first appearances of ideas, memes, words and finally language and the formation of culture. This stepwise development is still badly understood but allowed us to communicate and think about abstract ideas. Yuval Noah Harari argued the same. Ideas and brains then evolved in symbiosis, with good ideas replicating themselves in the medium of brains, and so ideas and brains influencing each other’s development. Large sections of the book concern themselves with these topics, going into detail after detail, and much could have been cut to make a clearer argument.
Dennett talks a lot about the infamous topic of memes, taking it very seriously as an analogy to genes. He sees memes as something akin to ideas or concepts, but without us having to be consciously aware of them. And I can imagine that good ideas tend to spread, but find it hard to understand how memes “want to reproduce themselves” and “infect brains” in symbiosis. What increases the “fitness” of memes? What are their selection pressures? How do they compete and what makes one win over the other? Something in our brain I suppose, but the meme “environment” remains something only vaguely imagined.
At last Dennett arrives at the topic of consciousness. The gist of his theory boils down to this: the genetic evolution of brains, and later on the memetic evolution of language and culture, install many thinking tools into our brain. And these run as some kind of virtual machines, little homunculi, little feature daemons, being competent at information processing and dictating behavior without us having to be conscious about it. This is also known as the pandemonium model in which the virtual machines vie for attention and control inside the mind. It is actually the fact that we are a social species and have a need to communicate that evolved the benefits to reflect on our inner impulses and so control our own communication outwards to others. A “private workspace” before acting, if you will.
And yet, many social species communicate, but what may be different about humans is how we communicate in reasons, abstractions and explain ourselves to others. Dennett argues that these are traditionally seen as consequences of consciousness, but in an inversion of reasoning akin to Darwin’s ideas about accumulating genetic change, these mental competences arose gradually and became the causes of consciousness, not the consequences of it. Or at least the cause of some kind of user-illusion that we call consciousness. In the end that is what it comes down to for Dennett: an illusion. We believe we are conscious about things in the world, such as cause and effect, but all we see is sequences of events, while inner prediction machines in our brain are or aren’t receiving confirmations and so build up beliefs about our world.
I don’t know. It is not very satisfying, but as good a theory as any, I suppose. The final steps in the argument require a lot of philosophical navel-gazing that would not immediate change your view of yourself. And I feel there is still something missing in all of this. What about free will? What about our knowledge about our own mortality? How come these are user illusions? I’m not exactly sure what I am arguing for now, but it is hard to insert these “beliefs” into Dennett’s user illusion explanation.
In short, Dennett’s book gives us a great deal of food for thought and I think it is an enrichment on our way of thinking about minds. It sure made me think. I just can’t follow him all the way to the final steps.