Sunday, May 12, 2013

Dennett and Intuition Pumps

At the bookstore today I spent some time looking at Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, Daniel Dennett's new book. I highly recommend his Darwin's Dangerous Idea, discussed earlier here. I'm not a big fan of Dennett's work on free will and determinism (for my views, see this old post and also here), but we seem to share the same opinion of John Searle's Chinese Room.

For more Dennett, see this Stanford Humanities Center lecture (iTunes video).
NYTimes: ... The new book, largely adapted from previous writings, is also a lively primer on the radical answers Mr. Dennett has elaborated to the big questions in his nearly five decades in philosophy, delivered to a popular audience in books like “Consciousness Explained” (1991), “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” (1995) and “Freedom Evolves.”

The mind? A collection of computerlike information processes, which happen to take place in carbon-based rather than silicon-based hardware.

The self? Simply a “center of narrative gravity,” a convenient fiction that allows us to integrate various neuronal data streams.

The elusive subjective conscious experience — the redness of red, the painfulness of pain — that philosophers call qualia? Sheer illusion.

Human beings, Mr. Dennett said, quoting a favorite pop philosopher, Dilbert, are “moist robots.”

“I’m a robot, and you’re a robot, but that doesn’t make us any less dignified or wonderful or lovable or responsible for our actions,” he said. “Why does our dignity depend on our being scientifically inexplicable?”

If he hadn’t grown up in an academic family, Mr. Dennett likes to say, he probably would’ve been an engineer. From his beginnings in the philosophical hothouses of early 1960s Harvard and Oxford, he had a feeling of being out of step joined by a precocious self-confidence.

As an undergraduate, he transferred from Wesleyan University to Harvard so he could study with the great logician W. V. O. Quine and explain to him why he was wrong. “Sheer sophomoric overconfidence,” Mr. Dennett recalled.

As a doctoral student at Oxford, then the center of the philosophical universe, he studied with the eminent natural-language philosopher Gilbert Ryle but increasingly found himself drawn to a more scientific view of the mind.

“I vividly recall sitting with my landlord’s son, a medical student, and asking him, ‘What is the brain made of?’ ” Mr. Dennett said. “He drew me a simple picture of a neuron, and pretty soon I was off to the races.”

In 1969, Mr. Dennett began keeping his “Philosophical Lexicon,” a dictionary of cheeky pseudo-terms playing on the names of mostly 20th-century philosophers, including himself. (“dennett: an artificial enzyme used to curdle the milk of human intentionality.”) Today, his impatience with the imaginary games philosophers play — “chmess” instead of chess, he calls it — and his preference for the company of scientists lead some to question if he’s still a philosopher at all.

“I’m still proud to call myself a philosopher, but I’m not their kind of philosopher, that’s for sure,” he said. The new book reflects Mr. Dennett’s unflagging love of the fight, including some harsh whacks at longtime nemeses like the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould — accused of practicing a genus of dirty intellectual tricks Mr. Dennett calls “goulding” — that some early reviewers have already called out as unsporting. (Mr. Gould died in 2002.)

Mr. Dennett also devotes a long section to a rebuttal of the famous Chinese Room thought experiment, developed by 30 years ago by the philosopher John Searle, another old antagonist, as a riposte to Mr. Dennett’s claim that computers could fully mimic consciousness.

Clinging to the idea that the mind is more than just the brain, Mr. Dennett said, is “profoundly naïve and anti-scientific.”


HughLygon said...

One wouldn't want to be "anti-scientific" would one? Why, it's like being anti-American. What a f---ing retard.

Didi Zhou said...

I think it is premature to dismiss the mind and the self as mundane. The mind is self-aware. This is very difficult from a computing point of view. We all know how tricky self-referential logic is. It is possible we may reach the limits of the electronic computer before we can program a consciousness capable of being self-aware.

Javier said...

Prof Hsu, I read Dennett's book "Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting" a few years ago and I think he would agree with much of what you wrote in the 2005 post. Would you care to discuss which of his arguments you find uncompelling? The wikipedia entry on the book has a much better summary of Dennett's views on the subject (link below). He argues for a very narrow definition of free will:

"How can we have free will if we do not have indeterministic choice? Dennett emphasizes control over libertarian choice. If our hypothetically mechanical brains are in control of our behavior and our brains produce good behaviors for us, then do we really need such choice? Is an illusion of behavioral choices just as good as actual choices? Is our sensation of having the freedom to execute more than one behavior at a given time really just an illusion? Dennett argues that choice exists in a general sense: that because we base our decisions on context, we limit our options as the situation becomes more specific. In the most specific circumstance (actual events), he suggests there is only one option left to us."

steve hsu said...

My opinion can be boiled down to the following (see comments on my 2005 post):

Steven Weinberg says (and I agree) that Charles Sanders Pierce said all that can be said about the problem of free will when he claimed that all that matters is that we have _the subjective experience of choice_.

I'm not sure what Dennett has added to this. I'd almost like to quip that in his work on this subject "what is right is not new, and some things do not even seem right" ;-) But of course he deserves a more careful reading from me before I reach that conclusion.

Mercher said...

I'm not sure the mind is self-referential in that sense - what I'm aware of when I introspect seems very unlike direct access to the workings of my brain. Maybe we should think of consciousness as just more behaviour, albeit behaviour which stays within the skull.

5371 said...

Danny Dennett never has actually explained anything. As they allegedly say in Texas, "big hat, no cattle" but in his case you have to say it about the beard.

Javier said...

Thank you for the response. I think you are right that Dennett's views on this subject are not new, they go back to the Ancient Greeks according to wikipedia.

The free will he talks about is not the metaphysical "humans are uncaused causers". Instead I think he is addressing the common assertion "if my behavior is pre-determined then I can't be held responsible for my actions" by pointing out that humans can vary their behavior (i.e. "make a different choice") in response to changes in the environment. Thus, it makes perfect sense to punish people for their actions (assuming the punishment is an effective deterrent) even if those actions are determined for a given environment. In certain cases, it makes sense to excuse such actions if the individual is either incapacitated or coerced by an external agent ("not free" to choose).

On a side note, thank you for the excellent blog. I definitely agree that there is a need for more bright minds sharing their thoughts on the internet.

Simon Waters said...

We can't help but punish transgressors if we have no free will. Oops sorry - any chance for recursion.

I'm with Steve on the key points. Searle is patently drawing the boundaries in the wrong place, and presenting an argument from ignorance regarding consciousness, the only thing that Searle establishes in my mind is an upper limit on the critical thinking capacity of large numbers of humans who think they are doing philosophy.

I think it interesting how philosophy is using ideas from physics, and how physicists shape the debate. But it is worrying how badly a lot of ideas in physics get misunderstood, I end up usually just wishing they'd learn more physics. Also in cosmology people bandy ideas around independent of how reliable we think that physics is, Inflation is a wonderful theory, but until we understand the gravitational behaviour of galaxies and the nature of the majority of matter in the Universe, probably best not to get too hung up on Einstein-DeSitter and related models. Sure by all means work out the consequences in detail, both physical and philosophical, but don't place any credence on those conclusions till we can place credence in the assumptions underlying it. Quantum mechanics has similar, but more esoteric issues, mostly concerning interpretation. Not least because the theory itself, when applied to real work problems, falls down pitifully on computing energy levels in Helium analytically because of our inability to do the maths, so a lot of approximation is done in computer models which is no doubt extremely useful but doesn't carry much in the way of philosophical implications.

Clearly I should read more from Dennett.

HughLygon said...

Clearly you should read the first half of Sein und Zeit. Anglo-American/analytic "philosophy" of the last 100 years is a joke at best better called a fraud by sub-mediocre minds. Philosophy died with Heidegger.

Mercher said...

My point was that self-awareness is not necessarily a matter of having direct access to one's own workings, as the original commenter seemed to assume. I don't see how I'm begging any questions here.

HughLygon said...

Aquinas was John the Baptist to Heidegger's Christ.

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