Friday, September 12, 2008

Daniel Dennett's Darwinian Mind: An Interview with a 'Dangerous' Man

A cool interview with Daniel Dennett from Search Magazine.

Daniel Dennett's Darwinian Mind: An Interview with a 'Dangerous' Man

The outspoken philosopher of science distills his rigorous conceptions of consciousness, and aims withering fire at the dialogue between science and religion.

In matters of the mind—the exploration of consciousness, its correlation with the body, its evolutionary foundations, and the possibilities of its creation through computer technology—few voices today speak as boldly as that of philosopher Daniel Dennett. His best-selling works—among them Consciousness Explained and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea—have provoked fierce debates with their rigorous arguments, eloquent polemic and witty, no-holds-barred approach to intellectual combat. He is often ranked alongside Richard Dawkins as one of the most powerful—and, in some circles, feared—proponents of thorough-going Darwinism.

Dennett has famously called Darwinism a "universal acid," cutting through every aspect of science, culture, religion, art and human thought. "The question is," he writes in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, "what does it leave behind? I have tried to show that once it passes through everything, we are left with stronger, sounder versions of our most important ideas. Some of the traditional details perish, and some of these are losses to be regretted, but...what remains is more than enough to build on."

Consciousness has arisen from the unwilled, unordained algorithmic processes of natural selection, says Dennett, whose work delivers a strong, extensive attack on the "argument from design" or the "anthropic principle." But a world without a Creator or an "Ultimate Meaning" is not a world without creation or meaning, he insists. When viewed through the solvent of Darwinism, he writes, "the ‘miracles’ of life and consciousness turn out to be even better than we imagined back when we were sure they were inexplicable."

Dennett’s prominence does not rest solely on his high public profile in the scientific controversies of our day; it is also based on a large body of academic work dealing with various aspects of the mind, stretching back almost 40 years. Dennett has long been associated with Tufts University, where he is now Distinguished Arts and Sciences Professor and director of the Center for Cognitive Studies. Boston-born, Oxford-educated, he now divides his time between North Andover, Massachusetts, and his farm in Maine, where he grows hay and blueberries, and makes cider wine.

In this exclusive interview with Science & Spirit, Dennett talks about his ideas on consciousness, evolution, free will, and the "slowly eroding domain" of religion.

Science & Spirit: Can you give us an overview of your ideas on consciousness? What is it? Where does it come from? Where might it be going?

Dennett: The problem I have answering your question is that my views on consciousness are initially very counterintuitive, and hence all too easy to misinterpret, so any short summary is bound to be misleading. Those whose curiosity is piqued by what I say here are beseeched to consult the long version carefully. Aside from my books, there are dozens of articles available free on my website, at www.ase.tufts.edu/cogstud.

With that caveat behind us (and convinced that in spite of it, some people will leap on what I say here and confidently ride off with a caricature), I claim that consciousness is not some extra glow or aura or "quale" caused by the activities made possible by the functional organization of the mature cortex; consciousness is those various activities. One is conscious of those contents whose representations briefly monopolize certain cortical resources, in competition with many other representations. The losers—lacking "political clout" in this competition—quickly fade leaving few if any traces, and that’s the only difference between being a conscious content and being an unconscious content.

There is no separate medium in the brain, where a content can "appear" and thus be guaranteed a shot at consciousness. Consciousness is not like television—it is like fame. One’s "access" to these representations is not a matter of perceiving them with some further inner sensory apparatus; one’s access is simply a matter of their being influential when they are. So consciousness is fame in the brain, or cerebral celebrity. That entails, of course, that those who claim they can imagine a being that has all these competitive activities, all the functional benefits and incidental features of such activities, in the cortex but is not conscious are simply mistaken. They can no more imagine this coherently than they can imagine a being that has all the metabolic, reproductive, and self-regulatory powers of a living thing but is not alive.

There is no privileged center, no soul, no place where it all comes together—aside from the brain itself. Actually, Aristotle’s concept of a soul is not bad—the "vegetative soul" of a plant is not a thing somewhere in the plant; it is simply its homeostatic organization, the proper functioning of its various systems, maintaining the plant’s life. A conscious human soul is the same sort of phenomenon, not a thing, but a way of being organized and maintaining that organization. Parts of that organization are more persistent, and play more salient (and hence reportable) roles than others, but the boundaries between them—like the threshold of human fame—are far from sharp.

Go read the rest of the interview.


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