Allow me to restate Dennett’s Law of Needy Readers (edge.org, 2004) in terms of the Festival of Ideas. We attend events with a rough idea of what we hope to be true about the topic. When a speaker’s words fall in line with that hope, we lap them up, irrespective of their legitimacy. When they fail to deliver what we think we should be hearing – we spit them back.
Daniel Dennett incites us to break his own law, and on 22 February 2017, At-Bristol, we will conspire with him in this heinous joint enterprise. It will be a major act of rebellion given that he is ‘one of those philosophers about whom virtually everyone in the field feels compelled to take a stance‘ (Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 2002).
He will be discussing his latest book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (Allen Lane, 2017), which, according to his publishers, ‘enlarges themes that have sustained Dennett’s legendary career at the forefront of philosophical thought‘. He is a big-shot who boldly breaks out, beyond the bounds of the academy, into public debates that matter to anyone who minds what minds might be.
As philosopher and Festival stalwart Julian Baggini puts it: ‘Big thinkers make for big targets and they don’t come much bigger […] than Dennett‘. For over fifty years he has mounted a vehement defence of Darwinism against familiar supernaturalist forces, whilst often coming under more or less friendly, usually respectful fire, from many in the science, technology and philosophy communities. Dennett has launched his own offensives against big beasts; taking a pop at Gould and Lewontin, Searle, Chomsky – to name-drop but four of these luminaries.
There are those who don’t take such a hard line as Dennett on the absolute dominance of natural selection to the evolutionary process. (I’m duty bound to point out to Creationists: the serious arguments are never about cutting Darwin and Wallace from the picture, only over how to trim their bushy beards.) Others object to Dennett shaving too much off the nature of mind, in order to highlight the roots of consciousness. Still others see bare faced cheek in him re-styling well-defined genetic models into more problematic accounts of our linguistic and other cultural inheritance.
What can we expect of Dennett and his forthcoming talk? I’ve been reflecting on its title.
At some time, along some twig, upon the evolutionary tree, our world became full of minds. We know this happened between when it was a sapling seeing the first flourish of bacterial life (3.5 or so billion years ago) and the year 1727 in our common era.
By 1727 an organism could compose the St Matthew Passion.
Looking far enough behind and far enough in front of the emergence of consciousness, we get a giddy sense of our own ability to comprehend and appreciate the world in ways we suspect other life forms cannot. But is this sense overblown? And does it too readily displace the detail of what underpins consciousness?
Don’t take from all this that it is an individual life form like Bach that is the focus here (presumably Dennett refers to J.S. though other Bachs are available). Bach is not sat alone on a pinnacle of human creativity. He himself, his fanbase and baroque milieu are composite products of culture. Dennett’s later work considers the interplay between biological and cultural processes of development. Drawing parallels between the functions of genes and, within language, that of their purported cultural analogues, memes (Dennett: ‘words are memes that can be pronounced’). For some – forty years after Richard Dawkins introduced the term – this non-classical theme won’t be easy listening.
Don’t take from all this that the humble bacterium – incapable of writing a sacred oratorio – should be scorned. It too is a sophisticated entity, though restricted to certain vital behaviours: self-replication, movement towards or away from stimuli, a little secretion here, some tentative clubbing together with others of its kind there.
Bacteria are highly competent at all this, though we doubt they can comprehend their achievements.
For Dennett this is an important and telling distinction. En masse, and from the bottom up, behaviours evolve within a complex system – but this doesn’t require individual elements of that system, nor the complex whole, to understand what it is doing and why. In nature, ourselves included, we find high degrees of competence without comprehension – and Dennett will expand on the implications of this, regards our own claims of access to a high form of consciousness. Though I have the impression I have one up on the bacteria, I may labour under some illusion of control over my behaviour; as Dennett asks in a chapter of his book Freedom Evolves (Allen Lane, 2003): ‘Are you out of the loop?‘
Whether or not I am displaying any particular competence in writing this preview, does it convince you that I hold certain beliefs and expectations about the event? If so, you’re adopting what Dennett calls an intentional stance towards me. (By the way, thanks very much if that is the case.)
Now one thing Dennett has been infamous for is the following contention: all it really means for me, Bach or a bacterium to hold beliefs, is that we are describable in terms of those beliefs.
If you’re sensing some philosophical sleight of hand here, you are in august company. Many thinkers (the bacteria have yet to pass comment) accuse Dennett – amongst much else – of demeaning belief. Others – recognising the power of his conceptual tools – see him drilling down, closer to the nub of what we’re really talking about when we talk about consciousness.
They’re excited, for example, by the prospect that thinking of an electric kettle as if it is ‘aware’ can really help us think better about our own sense of self-awareness. After all, the kettle ‘knows’ when to turn itself off, right? How should I reconcile my own states of self-awareness with those of a kitchen appliance? One of the first things to learn from Dennett is to embrace such comparisons and to take them seriously.
As Dennett told us on his last visit to the Festival, discussing his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (Allen Lane, 2013), he believes many of his adversaries are, in essence, insistent there must be some sort of ‘real magic‘ within consciousness. That ‘any theory which breaks it down into understandable and mundane parts has just got to be wrong‘.
Some point to his failure to resolve, even to recognise, The Hard Problem of consciousness. We don’t just detect bad smells as fire alarms sense smoke. I don’t know about you, but there is a subjective quality of experience associated with my particular smells and smelling; something other materialist researchers are still struggling to explain. They are exasperated that issues like this seem to be dismissed, side-stepped or mis-characterised.
Dennett might say that a characteristic smell is a ‘system concept‘ one that can’t be reduced or boiled-down for analysis at a more basic level. This leaves many in his audience wanting more. Following publication of his bestseller, Consciousness Explained (Little, Brown & Co., 1991), one eminent reviewer, the philosopher of mind Ned Block, suggested Consciousness Ignored may be a more descriptive title.
Just as Dennett makes a point of us choosing the right ‘thinking tools‘ for the job, I have a notion he is good at selecting particular problems seasoned and ripe for the carving. Whilst others are still sucking their teeth – fazed by an overly ambitious project – the master craftsman is whittling prolifically, finding ways to work with, rather than against, the wood.
We have much to listen forward to: hearing Dennett’s robust and always thought-provoking counters to intellectual flak; discovering which new thought-experiments he’s honed; how he’s wielding tried and tested intuition pumps in innovative ways; thinking forward, perhaps towards an age where we realise we are not the only systems in possession of what passes for consciousness.
The communal forum provided by the Festival of Ideas is highly conducive to Daniel C. Dennett’s approach – as he says ‘good thinking is always interpersonal‘ – and the event promises to be another of his celebrated Brainstorms (MIT Press, 1981).