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COMMENT BOOKS & ARTS

COG NITIVE SCIENCE

Dennett rides again


Dan Jones relishes the philosophers latest exploration of minds and memes.

I
n Joel and Ethan Coens 2009 film A ask questions about our own minds.

BRYCE VICKMARK/NYT/EYEVINE
Serious Man, physics professor Larry Perhaps none are bigger than the problem
Gopnik is in the middle of an existen- of consciousness. Dennett reprises his long-
tial crisis. In a dream, he gives a lecture held counter-intuitive idea that conscious-
on Heisenbergs uncertainty principle; ness is a user illusion similar to the interface
Sy Ableman, the older man with whom of an app, through which people interact
Gopniks wife is having an affair, stays on with the program without understanding
after the students disperse. In a condescend- how it works. Memetic apps in our brains,
ing drawl, he addresses Gopnik and his Dennett argues, create a user interface that
equation-covered chalkboard: Ill concede renders the memes visible to the self ,
that its subtle, clever but at the end of the authoring both words and deeds.
day, is it convincing? Critics often quip that Dennett doesnt
Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel explain consciousness so much as explain it
Dennett has been hearing variants of this away, or duck the challenge entirely, and this
riposte for decades. If history is a guide, his chapter is unlikely to bring them around.
latest book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, When it comes to plugging the hole of sub-
will elicit similar responses. It is a supremely jective experience, sceptics are likely to see his
enjoyable, intoxicating work, tying together solution as barely touching the sides. Dennett
50 years of thinking about where minds might well reply that a lack of imagination
come from and how they work. Dennetts prevents them from seeing how his theory
path from the origins of life to symphonies supports a version of consciousness devoid
is long and winding, but you couldnt hope of over-inflation. For the philosophical back-
for a better guide. Walk with him and youll ground to these hard-to-swallow ideas, see
learn a lot. Cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett in 2013. Dennetts Consciousness Explained (Little,
The books backbone is Charles Darwins Brown, 1991).
theory of natural selection. That replaced our species. At first, he writes, words evolved Although From Bacteria to Bach and Back
the idea of top-down intelligent design with to better fit the brains they had to colonize. covers territory that Dennett has explored
a mindless, mechanical, bottom-up process Only later did brains start evolving geneti- before, it is no mere rehash. Over the past
that guides organisms along evolutionary tra- cally to better accommodate words, begin- couple of decades, many psychologists,
jectories into ever more complex regions of ning a co-evolutionary process that turned linguists and philosophers have developed
design space. Dennett also draws heavily on us into voluble creatures. ideas that extend and deepen Dennetts con-
the idea of competence without comprehen- More generally, Dennett sees memetic tributions, and he draws on these in consoli-
sion, best illustrated by mathematician Alan evolution as akin to how software has co- dating and refining his arguments.
Turings proof that a mechanical device could evolved with hardware. Memes are like Dennett has earned his reputation as
do anything computational. Natural selec- apps that add a talent, a bit of know-how, one of todays most readable, intellectually
tion has created, through genetic evolution, slowly building up the repertoire of human nimble and scientifically literate philoso-
a world rich in competence without compre- competences and ever-greater degrees of phers, as this subtle, clever book shows. But
hension the bacteria, trees and termites comprehension. This, he avers, kicked off at the end of the day, is it convincing? Its not
that make up so much of Earths biomass. an incremental process that led to self- an open-and-shut case, as he acknowledges.
Yet, as Dennett and others argue, genetic monitoring, reflection and the emergence Many may find the earlier chapters more
evolution is not enough to explain the skills, of new things to think about: words and persuasive than the later ones, in which
power and versatility of the human mind. other memes. memetics shoulders so much weight and
Over the past 10,000years, human behaviour Later, inventions from writing to clocks human consciousness looms large. Even
and our ability to manipulate the planet have gave us memorable scholars who embrace Dennetts account
changed too quickly for biological evolution things to do things of how Darwinian processes fashion cul-
to have been the driving force. In Dennetts with. Step by small tural design may stop short of hitching their
view, our brains turned into fully fledged step, he argues, we wagon to his claims. But a virtue of his broad
modern minds thanks to cultural memes: moved away from perspective is that it can tolerate disagree-
ways of behaving pronouncing a word bottom-up cultural ments over fine details while still hewing to
this way, dancing like so that can be copied, evolution towards the spirit of his vision.
remembered and passed on. consciously directed, Dennetts is not the only game in town, as
Some memes are better than others at top-down explora- he well knows, but it is immensely instruc-
getting passed on. This drives natural selec- tions, giving birth to tive and pleasurable to see this game played
tion, fashioning memetic design without a From Bacteria to genuinely intelligent with such skill, verve and wit.
Bach and Back:
designer. The first memes, Dennett argues, design. This has ena-
The Evolution of
were words, the lifeblood of cultural evolu- Minds bled us to wipe out Dan Jones is a freelance writer in Brighton,
tion, which act as virtual DNA for the richly DANIEL C. DENNETT smallpox, put people UK.
cumulative cultural evolution that marks out W. W. Norton: 2017. on the Moon and e-mail: dan.jones@multipledrafts.com

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