Review of Daniel Dennett’s, From Bacteria to Bach and Back

Dennett has ideas about what human beings are and what they are capable of that he wants desperately to maintain against all science and logic. He wants to believe—and wants to convince us—that we are capable of comprehension, intelligent design, and what he calls free will. Such preconceived ideas about what he wants us to be make it difficult to find out what we truly are.

The capabilities he wants us to have are part of the “manifest image,” while the “scientific image” describes what we are according to science, both of which terms he borrows from Wilfrid Sellars. Here’s the short version of what they mean:

Consider the world we live in, full of other people, plants, and animals, furniture and houses and cars … and colors and rainbows and sunsets . . . (Dennett, Daniel C. (2017-02-07). From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (Kindle Locations 1104-1105). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.)

Sellars contrasted this with the scientific image, which is populated with molecules, atoms, electrons, gravity, quarks, and who knows what else (dark energy, strings? branes?). (Kindle Locations 1111-1113).

These two versions of the world are quite distinct today, rather like two different species, but they were once merged or intertwined in a single ancestral world of “what everyone knows” . . .
(Kindle Locations 1118-1119).

Gradually our ancestors learned which “things” to oust from their ontologies and which new categories to introduce. Out went the witches, mermaids, and leprechauns, and in came the atoms, molecules, and germs. (Kindle Locations 1120-1122).

It seems unlikely that atoms, molecules, and germs had any direct bearing on the ouster of witches, mermaids, and leprechauns, but science has not only introduced new “things” to our understanding of the world, it has given us new standards of evidence with which to weigh items in the manifest image that have lingered too long from earlier times. When our ancestors realized there was no convincing evidence for witches’ casting spells, they stopped burning people at the stake.

The problem with updating the manifest image to match science is that people are loathe to give up ideas they grew up with, particularly ideas about themselves. As a result they cry, “Danger! There be dragons here!” when their cherished beliefs are threatened. Dennett has not invoked dragons, but he has stopped just short of that in discouraging changes he finds threatening. He has written two books trying to preserve some semblance of the idea of free will, always giving dire warnings against its dissolution, like this one in the present book:

. . . free will . . . is not an illusion we should want to dismantle or erase; it’s where we live, and we couldn’t live the way we do without it. (Kindle Locations 6097-6098).

Dennett is unfortunate in not being able to imagine a meaningful, rewarding life without free will, a better life than the one he’s holding on to, but if you visit Tom Clark’s web site, naturalism.org, you will find many people with less fear, more optimism, and more imagination.

Dennett doesn’t give free will much space in this book. His main concern is to make the case for humans as the only creatures in the known universe capable of comprehending what they are about. Other animals get along quite nicely without comprehension:

Evolution has endowed all living things with the wherewithal to respond appropriately to their particular affordances, detecting and shunning the bad, detecting and obtaining the good, using the locally useful and ignoring everything else. This yields competence without comprehension, at every level from the molecular on up. Since there can be competence without comprehension, and since comprehension (“real” comprehension) is expensive, Nature makes heavy use of the Need to Know principle, and designs highly successful, adept, even cunning creatures who have no idea what they are doing or why. (Kindle Locations 5550-5554).

He proposes “Bayesian anticipators” as the way animals, including humans, acquire various competences without also acquiring comprehension. Our visual systems, for example, competently provide useful information about the world without knowing that they are visual systems, or how they accomplish what they do. The same is true of our other sensory systems, but Dennett wants to make an exception for our comprehension system, the system that processes reasons and gives us the feeling that we understand things.

He offers no explanation of what “real” comprehension is except to give examples of people who have it:

Jane Austen’s comprehension of the interplay of personal and social forces in the emotional states of people and Einstein’s comprehension of relativity. (Kindle Locations 1655-1657).

What makes Jane, Albert, and the rest of us exceptional is that we have minds and use reasons:

. . . reasons are things for us. They are the very tools and objects of top-down intelligent design. Where do they come from? How do they get installed in our brains? They come, I am now at last ready to argue in some detail, via cultural evolution, a whole new process of R& D—less than a million years old—that designs, disseminates, and installs thinking tools by the thousands in our brains (and only our brains), turning them into minds—not “minds” or sorta minds but proper minds. (Kindle Locations 2828-2832).

He goes into memes and cultural evolution at some length—interesting enough—but if you think he is going to make it clear what reasons, comprehension, and “proper minds” are, you are in for disappointment. He points in their direction but doesn’t explain.

Despite his proclamation that humans alone have “proper minds,” Dennett’s mind wanders when he talks about how minds relate to brains.

Imagine asking for some advice and being advised, “Use your pancreas!” or “Use your liver!” You would have no idea what action to take. And when a teacher urges you to “use your brain” you’d be utterly stymied if you didn’t interpret this as the directive to “use your mind,” that thinking thing with which you are so intimately acquainted that it is hardly distinguishable from you, yourself. No wonder we are reluctant to see it as illusory; if it is illusory, so are we! (Kindle Locations 6054-6058).

You might spend some time puzzling over that last sentence: If “we” are an illusion, then this illusion is reluctant to see itself as an illusion. Can an illusion be reluctant about anything? Can an illusion have the illusion of being reluctant? Perhaps our brains have been mislead by manifest image ideas about what minds are, and if we can correct those ideas, this confusion about illusions will disappear.

Toward that end, notice Dennett’s acknowledgement that “we” don’t know how to use our brains. Secondly, notice that the mind is described as “that thinking thing . . . that is hardly distinguishable from you, yourself,” and yet, in another passage he writes:

. . . subpersonal, neural-level activity is where the actual causal interactions happen that provide your cognitive powers, but all “you” have access to is the results. (Kindle Locations 5755-5756).

This suggests that the brain is doing the thinking, beyond the access of “you,” and that identifying the mind as the “thinking thing” is a mistake—the mind only has access to the results of thinking. You may be “intimately acquainted” with your mind—although there could be some argument about that—but you are definitely not intimately acquainted with your brain. Its operations are subpersonal, and “you” have no control over them:

Our access to our own thinking, and especially to the causation and dynamics of its subpersonal parts, is really no better than our access to our digestive processes; we have to rely on the rather narrow and heavily edited channel that responds to our incessant curiosity with user-friendly deliverances, only one step closer to the real me than the access to the real me that is enjoyed by my family and friends. (Kindle Locations 5726-5729).

One of the problems with this statement is that curiosity itself arises from subpersonal processes, so that the brain is not just responding to our curiosity, it is generating our curiosity. The brains of many organisms generate curiosity, motivating them to explore the world, solve problems, and thereby improve their chances of survival, except, of course, in those instances where curiosity kills the cat.

In the above quote Dennett switches subjects from “we/our” to an apparent “me,” a me that is “only one step closer to the real me than the access to the real me that is enjoyed by my family and friends,” which suggests that perhaps the “real” me is the brain which is doing the thinking, and the limited-access me is the conscious mind that is composed of the results. This is further reinforced by his statement elsewhere that we are “guests in our own brains.” (Kindle Location 5651).

Another bit of confusion about our brains and us can hopefully be used to clarify their relationship:

Our brains have tricked us into having the conviction, making the judgment, that there seems to be an intrinsically wonderful but otherwise undescribable property in some edible things: sweetness. (Kindle Locations 5891-5892).

Who are our brains playing this trick on? Their own minds? Their selves? Their “center(s) of narrative gravity” (Kindle Location 5699)? Why would “our” brains want to trick “us”? This confusion about minds and brains is symptomatic of Dennett’s general confusion about the “manifest image”—in this case the mind—and the “scientific image,” the brain.

Ascribing sweetness to external objects is part of the “manifest image,” the way people in general look at the world—“This cake is too sweet.” According to science, the experience of sweetness results from the activation of certain neural subsystems, and is not the property of external objects like cake or candy. To regard it as a property of an edible thing is a mistake in the manifest image, not a “trick” the brain is playing on “us.” The brain is providing its organism with useful information about an object in the world—the fact that it contains sugar. That the experience of sweetness evolved as a way of recognizing sugar-laden objects is an accident of random mutations—animals in certain environments that were able to distinguish sugary foods had an evolutionary advantage over those that could not. Another way of recognizing sugar might have evolved, but sweetness is what we got.

Once science has shown us that sweetness is in the brain, not the edible object, all that’s required to correct the manifest image is to recognize that fact. Instead of saying, “This cake is sweet,” we can more properly, though awkwardly, say, “This cake activates my sugar-detecting subsystem,” or “My experience of sweetness indicates that this cake is high in sugar.” Then we no longer see our brains as tricking “us,” but as discriminating a property of external objects in an arbitrary way that is nonetheless useful to the organism.

An experience in the brain isn’t an illusion if it’s reliably useful, although it is a mistake in the manifest image to consider it a property of the object experienced. For example, electromagnetic radiation of 650 nm is, in fact, different from radiation of 510 nm. That our brains make a distinction between them by giving us the experience of red or green, respectively, is arbitrary—an accident of evolution—but the distinction is valid and valuable, not illusory. The colors we experience in our brains help us negotiate the world, even though they don’t exist in the objects to which we ascribe them, any more than sweetness resides in sugar.

Colors, tastes, and smells are fairly straightforward, reliable, and useful, and their places in the manifest image can easily be corrected without affecting their usefulness—we only have to recognize that they’re in the brain rather than in the object. Things get more complicated the more abstract our language becomes. The compatibility with the scientific image of manifest image concepts like free will, comprehension, and intelligent design are much more difficult to deal with, treading more heavily on people’s ideas of themselves. Changing these areas of the manifest image to make them compatible with the scientific image is more difficult, but not impossible.

Sam Harris’ book, Free Will, does a good job of showing both the scientific falsity and detrimental effects of belief in free will, plus the advantages of giving up that belief. Tom Clark’s website, naturalism.org, previously mentioned, offers a wealth of information on the subject as well.

The concepts of comprehension and intelligent design—ascribed to humans, not a mythical god—are also parts of the manifest image to which Dennett is deeply attached, like free will, and he goes to some lengths to justify them. Most people might well agree with him that they are crucial to the way we think of ourselves, to “where we live,” (Kindle Location 7063). but they are not scientifically justifiable, and giving them up allows us to have more realistic conceptions of ourselves that can be quite satisfying, even exhilarating.

If our minds are “us,” and if we are “guests in our own brains,” without access to the subpersonal processes that provide our “cognitive powers,” how can we be the authors “of both words and deeds” (Kindle Location 5699)? Could it be that the feeling of comprehension, that we understand something, is just the brain’s way of motivating the organism to act on the outcome of a thinking process that took place without its conscious participation? Perhaps comprehension and hunger are similar in being experiences that have evolved as necessary to the survival of the organisms that have them, or conversely, organisms that didn’t have such experiences didn’t solve problems, didn’t eat, and didn’t survive.

Dennett argues against the idea that understanding is a feeling, and yet he says, “I find comprehension to be one of life’s greatest thrills— . . . “ (Kindle Locations 6744-6745). At the same location he says, “I myself have been unable to concoct a persuasive argument for the alluring conclusion that comprehension is “intrinsically” valuable . . .” but perhaps it is valuable in the same way that orgasm is valuable, an argument made by Alison Gopnik:

Alison Gopnik . . . argues that the rush of pleasure we get from an “aha moment” is the equivalent of an orgasm for the thinking mind. 46 The pleasure of an orgasm, after all, is just a motivating bit of trickery that our bodies employ to make sure we procreate;* similarly, the pleasure of an “aha” may be built into our DNA to ensure that we learn more about the world. (Harris, Michael (2017-04-04). Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World (p. 55). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.)

Feelings and emotions play no part in Dennett’s explanatory scheme for how brains and minds relate, and their lack is crippling. Perhaps he shies away because they threaten the manifest image ideas of comprehension and intelligent design to which he is so attached, otherwise it is difficult to understand why, given his interest in Descartes, he fails to make use of the ideas Antonio Damasio puts forth in his book, Descartes’ Error; Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.

Damasio’s work with patients who had lost their emotions due to brain injury showed that while their reasoning ability was unimpaired, they couldn’t make decisions because they didn’t feel any sense of conviction about which decision might be best.

Dennett’s colleague, Ray Jackendoff, also makes an argument for the importance of feeling to rational thinking:

What we experience as rational thinking consists of thoughts linked to language. The thoughts themselves aren’t conscious. Rather, what’s conscious is the “handles” of pronunciation that are linked to the thoughts, plus some character tags that lend the pronunciation a sense of meaningfulness and conviction. And the conscious sense that one sentence logically follows from another—that your reasoning is rational—is itself an intuitive judgment. So rational thought isn’t an alternative to intuitive thought—rather, it rides on a foundation of intuitive thought. (Jackendoff, Ray (2012-02-23). A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning (p. 243). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.)

His contention that “character tags” provide a sense of meaningfulness and conviction suggests that they are feelings of the same sort that Damasio found lacking in his patients. Such feelings provide us with the conviction that we comprehend the outcome of our brains’ thinking processes, but they don’t guarantee the accuracy of those processes. We can have the feeling of comprehension about conclusions that are wrong, that do not mesh with reality.

Dennett recognizes that we have no access to the subpersonal neural activity that does our thinking, and although it is not his intention, he offers a clue as to how we might nonetheless be competent thinkers without comprehending how thinking happens:

Words are affordances that our brains are designed (by evolutionary processes) to pick up . . . and they afford all manner of uses. (Kindle Locations 3351-3352).

He has already described how Bayesian processes may recognize and take advantage of other kinds of affordances, but doesn’t consider that they might operate the same way in choosing words, or reasons. It seems likely that certain combinations of thoughts activate networks that have been active on prior occasions, including memories of feedback people have given us to verbal behavior linked to such thoughts, and new combinations are tested based on those memories. When new combinations of thoughts and their connected verbalizations result in positive Bayesian evaluations, that state feels like comprehension. It is a feeling, like sweetness, that guides future behavior. Our brains can be competent thinkers, and can give us the feeling of comprehension, without our knowing how the actual thinking is done.

So what is consciousness for? Why should we have all these conscious experiences if the actual work of producing them and making decisions about them is unconscious? Perhaps consciousness is not for anything. Perhaps asking that question is like asking what reflections on the surface of a pond are for—they aren’t “for” anything. They are simply the result of the physical characteristics of light, water, and air—you can’t have those materials with those physical characteristics without having reflections, and an organism can’t have all our capabilities without having consciousness.

The fact that it seems like “I,” the subjective self, am having experiences, is the result of all the subsystems that enable my organism to locate itself in the environment, that react to various aspects of the environment, and that allow communication with my peers. That those capabilities result in the organism having conscious experiences is the inevitable consequence of the combined reactions of all those subsystems.

Dennett has consciousness backwards. He says:

. . . I will then insist that consciousness does not develop its familiar suite of talents, the conscious agent’s ability to do things because it is conscious, until that agent gradually gets occupied by thousands of memes . . . (Kindle Locations 3177-3178).

Consciousness is not a thing that develops “talents.” Instead, the organism’s talents give it consciousness. Consciousness is the unavoidable result of brains having evolved certain capabilities.

So where does that leave us? “Minds,” “comprehension,” and “intelligent design” are real conscious experiences, but the perception that our conscious selves are in control of these phenomena is mistaken. How might the manifest image ideas about these experiences and our selves be modified to gain more consonance with science? It requires a radical re-thinking of what it means to be human, something that would profoundly disturb our conservative-minded Dennett.

Given that consciousness is unavoidable—at least when we’re awake—the feeling of being an intact human organism with a history, with likes and dislikes, would remain. That history and those preferences, communicated to our peers, allow their brains to anticipate our behavior in a way that smoothes social intercourse. We would still find ourselves thinking about things, solving problems, but we would realize that we are not consciously in charge of such processes—we are merely witnessing them.

Dennett’s metaphor of our being “guests in our own brains” is apt, and given his other references to our lack of conscious access to mental processes, he seems at times to be in agreement with the point of view I’m presenting, and yet, he is seduced by the manifest image of ourselves as conscious intelligent designers. His brain considers this conventional view essential to his wellbeing, and giving it up a devastating sacrifice.

It is a little scary. My brain has been reading, thinking, and writing about it for more than two decades, and it has been a difficult journey. My brain, like Dennett’s, was indoctrinated with a point of view that demanded action, in my case, to pursue the truth wherever it might lead, no matter how disturbing. Such a commitment to truth is necessary to so radically change a brain’s view of itself, but the rewards have more than repaid the effort. An example excerpted from my blog:

My brain came to regard the conscious experience it was generating with awe and wonder. It has no conscious access to the processes by which it produces the world and its experience of it, with all its urges, emotions, and preferences. Its functions are a mystery to itself. We have come to a general understanding of some of those functions, but they are inscrutable in real time: Why did I turn my head to look out the window? Why did I start thinking about my girlfriend from 30 years ago? My brain is constantly putting on a magic show for itself, with no idea how the tricks are done.

Amazing and wonderful as the brain is, it is only a tiny cog in the total evolution of the universe, and in whatever came before. Billions of years of evolutionary processes have brought us to where we are, and the brain—yours and mine—is both a product of those processes and totally enmeshed in them. I become so caught up in my separateness as one human being among many, as one organism among many, as a creature upon the earth, that I lose sight of my total enmeshment in the universe. I see my little purposes and projects as belonging to me, when they are, in fact, as much a part of the flow of the universe as is today’s weather, or the movement of this planet around its star, or the whirling of the galaxy.

I am an infinite process, immortal in my enmeshment in all that came before and will come afterwards, but I’m easily seduced by the tiny perspective of a limited conscious experience into thinking I am only that. I am that, true enough, but I am also everything else.

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Review of Daniel Dennett’s Elbow Room

(I wrote this review in 2010, but never got around to posting it here. He published a more recent edition in 2015 that I may review at some point; there were many issues I didn’t get to in this one.)

This book reminds me of the pre-Copernican astronomers who were saddled with a commitment to keep the Earth at the center of the universe no matter what. In order to explain the movement of the planets, they were forced to invent elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions to reconcile what they could see with what they were committed to believing.

Dennett seems embarked on a similar enterprise: he is committed to maintaining the idea of free will no matter what, and is willing to jump through any number of hoops to do it. Following his mental gymnastics can be quite a challenge.

Why is he compelled to sustain his belief in free will? “It has seemed very important to demonstrate that we are not just acting out our destinies but somehow choosing our own courses, making decisions–not just having `decisions’ occur in us.”(p. 1)

He says that if we are “hoodwinked” into believing that we don’t have free will, the “implications… are almost too grim to contemplate,” which he demonstrates with a number of grim metaphors: We would be like “a dog on a leash being pulled behind a wagon,” “a mere domino in a chain,” “disabled as a chooser.” “Small wonder then that we should be highly motivated to look on the bright side and find the case for free will compelling if we possibly can.”(p. 168)

Dennett’s contention that you have to believe in free will or be “disabled as a chooser,” should be empirically testable since the entry for “free will” in Wikipedia lists several major religions and scientific disciplines that consider the idea of free will untenable. There are at least several million people on this planet who don’t believe in free will and seem to be living happy lives; billions of choices must “occur in” them every day without causing any major distress. Dennett’s dread descriptions of life without free will seem patently false, and should at least require testing rather than being accepted as true by proclamation.

If we skip to the end for a peek at where Dennett is trying to lead us, we find this: “What we want when we want free will is the power to decide our courses of action, and to decide them wisely, in the light of our expectations and desires. We want to be in control of ourselves, and not under the control of others. We want to be agents, capable of initiating and taking responsibility for, projects and deeds.”(p. 169)

The curious thing about this statement is that if we take the words “free will” out of it, all the things he says we want are available to us, even if we are fully determined parts of the natural world. Even we “hard determinists” have brains that make plans and carry them out, etc., so why do we need the idea of free will? What would free will give us that we don’t already have in a determined world?

Dennett doesn’t answer these questions in Elbow Room, but in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea we find his concern clearly stated: “How could I be held accountable for my misdeeds, or honored for my triumphs, if I am not the captain of my vessel?” (Page 366) I’m confident that Dennett has been socialized well enough that his misdeeds are misdemeanors at worst, and that being held accountable for them is not his major concern. What seems most important to him is that he be honored for his triumphs. He is intent on finding a way to justify pride in his accomplishments, and without free will, pride is nonsensical.

If you read Elbow Room with Dennett’s end goal in mind, you might be more alert for the kinds of restrictions he wants us to put on our thinking in order to maintain the idea of free will.

He cautions us about looking “`too closely’ at our mental activities,” or we might find that we have no selves! Even if we don’t look too closely, science might, “…and the inner, detailed view of our brains that science provides is not likely to reveal to us any recognizable version of what Descartes call the res cogitans or thinking thing we know so well `by introspection.’ But if we lose our view of our selves as we gain in scientific objectivity, what will happen to love and gratitude (and hate and resentment)?”(p. 13)

Love and gratitude seem to be built into us as part of our evolutionary heritage as social animals; they are part of the cement that holds groups together and are products of determinism rather than possible casualties. Hate and resentment have evolutionary components as well, no doubt, but belief in free will reinforces them by ascribing arbitrariness to those “enemies” who elicit them: granted free will, they are seen as deliberately choosing those actions that arouse our passions.

In his quest for justifiable pride, the idea of “skill” is a crucial element: skill gives one the right to take credit for one’s accomplishments. But in order for skill to serve his purpose, it must be uncontaminated by luck: if one person is more skillful than another because of luck, then the more skillful one doesn’t deserve any special credit.

Dennett uses a rhetorical device to make his point, beginning with an enumeration of several lucky breaks that might account for one person’s developing a skill: born with talent; or if not with talent, then the gumption and drive to practice; or if lacking the temperament to practice, learning it from a wise teacher, etc. After naming a number of quite reasonable possibilities, he veers off into the whimsical: “…lucky not to have been born blind, and lucky not to have been struck by lightning on their way to school… lucky to have ever been born at all!”

This sets the stage for calling this a “petulant little dialogue,” turning a discussion that started out quite reasonably into an object of ridicule. Put in this light, he disparages the view that would give luck such weight. “On this view nothing in principle could count as skill or the result of skill. This is a mistake.”(p. 96) Perhaps it would be a mistake if this view did in fact lead to the conclusion that “nothing could count as skill or the result of skill,” but skill acquired by luck is still skill, and a skillful violinist sounds much different than one who has not been lucky enough to develop to the same level. We can express appreciation and gratitude for our good fortune in hearing a virtuoso performance without granting the performer free will.

Dennett’s dismissal of “luck” and his embrace of “skill” as something we can take credit for is brought in to anchor the idea of the “self-made self.” If I tried to unravel that whole discussion I’d be writing another book, but if you stay alert for “`heuristic’ decision procedures, in which a risky, limited amount of analysis is terminated in some arbitrary way”(p. 71) and similar devices, you will find much reason for concern. The entire section hangs on luck: “Is it `just luck’ that some of us were born with enough artistic talent, in effect, to have developed `good’ characters while some of us have turned out less well?” (p. 92)

We hard determinists would say, “Yes,” to which Dennett would respond with his “petulant little dialogue.”

Dennett takes a jab at determinists in this curious statement: “…those who have written books and articles denying the reality of free will… are left advising (pretending to advise? seeming to advise?) the reader that advising is pointless.”(p. 155) Advising about anything would only be pointless if brains were incapable of making use of advice, but that is far from the case. Brains are constantly looking for ways to improve their models of the world and themselves, because evolution selected for brains that were capable of such improvement. People who write books advising their fellows of possible ways to improve their models do so because social animals that aid their fellows have better survival rates. We have evolved to be helpful, and those who understand the disadvantages of belief in free will–and there are many–are acting in a rational, determined way.

Near the end, Dennett offers some advice to his colleagues: “You say you cannot imagine that p, and therefore declare that p is impossible? Mightn’t that be hubris? One of my tactics has been to respond to traditional philosophical claims about what is imaginable by urging: try harder.”(p. 170)

Dennett seems unable to imagine a happy life without free will, and though I doubt he is capable, I would hope he might take his own advice: try harder.

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