11/23/08

Old Material on Dennett and the Mind

In the interest of preserving an old entry of mine that contains my thoughts on Dennett's memetic theory of the mind (which directly relates to his latest thoughts on religion) I'm drudging up an old post criticizing his position on the origins of the mind and our mental content (beliefs, etc...).

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Ubiquitous Che got me thinking a bit about Dennett’s theory of the mind. The strange thing about this is that I actually wrote a draft a few weeks ago about memes, modularity and the unity of consciousness argument but gave up because a lack of direction/willpower. For those of you not in the know, Dennett has taken Jerry Fodor’s modularity theory of the mind to new heights after marrying it to Dawkins’ memetics. It’s probably to fair to note that Dennett does the heavy lifting for those gentlemen’s fine ideas.

Now, it probably isn’t a secret that I am fundamentally opposed to Dennett’s proposal. It is doubly fair to qualify the following to be in response to this question: Why in the world did nature suddenly produce and select consciousness? (Context here)

To begin with, what do we take to be an adequate explanation or answer to that question? Obviously we aren’t going to exhaustively answer the most probing of questions on an unpopular blog run by pretentious jerks, but it’s fair to say that we can probably just intuit a good explanation from a bad one. A good explanation for why your sister is sick in bed could look something like- “Because she ate a homeless guy’s sock”. A bad explanation for why your sister is sick in bed could look something like- “Because she hasn’t gotten out of bed except to vomit”. The latter gives evidence for the claim that she is sick, whereas we are looking for an explanation of why this vomiting/sickness might be happening. This may seem like a ridiculous thing for me to elaborate on, but this confusion of ground and consequent is quite common. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received an answer like “because evolution produced it!!1 lol” to the question “why did nature select consciousness for survival?”. Moving on…

Modularity theories of the mind generally posit at least some “modules” that process information internally and perform some functions without reference to other external systems (a global workspace or other modules). Before my dualist constituency jumps on this theory, I must confess that it is probably true in a limited sense. Perception is probably one of these modules. This appears to be a mandatory operation (key point) of the mind that is generally inaccessible to the conscious mind (whatever that is). In any case, Dennett is arguing for more than just a few modules in the brain that explain some functions of the mind. Rather, he would explain the entire illusion of the Cartesian Theater in terms of memes (read: his version of modules) which, of course, would explain the mind in terms of evolutionary mechanisms (which would answer my question with a punch to my realist face).

Or would it?

Admittedly, this sort of thinking is a step in the “right” direction for functionalists. But a step in the right direction does not necessarily mean that it is true or accounts for certain facts that I take to be basic to my belief structure. I have a few problems with Dennett’s modularity theory that capitalize on this realist sense that I have. For one, I don’t experience rough transitions in my consciousness. That is, if my mind is really a set of modules that is determined by the atomic-meme (a basic cultural unit) then I should think that my mind wouldn’t “flow”. However, something appears to tie all these different facets (modules) of my mind together, and what better candidate than a Cartesian Theater? To put it differently, there may very well be some modules, but continuity suggests something fluid and all-pervasive (a global workspace). Furthermore, memes themselves are not intrinsically meaningful. To quote Angus Menuge at length:

If memes are like atoms, then they can interpret neither themselves nor other memes, and must always behave in the same blind fashion. Yet, in the case of all proposed examples of memes, it is obvious that the interpretation of a meme makes a difference to how it behaves. Consider the candidate meme, “Just Do It.” While this phrase may have been successful in promoting mindless hedonism, we are all glad it has not influenced those in charge of nuclear missiles…The context defining a meme’s interpretation is crucial to whether it will influence action. But…this presupposes an interpreter with a point of view.


Angus Menuge, “Intelligent Design, Darwinism and Psychological Unity,” Philosophia Christi 10 (2008):126.

This brand of argumentation is commonly known as the “Unity of Consciousness Argument". While I don’t claim to have said anything novel about the argument here, I do think that Dennett has completely missed the point of introducing memetics into modularity. Whether or not memetics is a serious, scientifically plausible (or useful) tool when it comes to the mind is left just as mysterious as before. At best, all Dennett has done is push the question back one further into something less tangible. Further, what are we really accomplishing given Dennett’s rather speculative theory? Despite it’s novelties, I’d say not much. Dennett wants to say that his memes provide all the firepower for our illusory Theater. But even if it did, does it solve the problems of endurance through time? Neverminding unity for a second, does it provide a reasonable account of rational mental states? His position, when coupled with his outlook on the natural (memetic) emergence of religion equates to something like:

D) Our mental content can be explained in virtue of our memetic history.

Unfortunately for Dennett, he belongs to the group “our” designates and is therefore subject to (D) the same as we theists are. So, either his memes explain our mental content (including his) or it does not. If it does, then the only reason Dennett believes what he does is because of memetic history. If not, then he has not explained our mental content. Either way, I’m not impressed with the proposal.

I think I’ll stick my realism concerning mental states for now.

5 comments:

  1. Why in the world did nature suddenly produce and select consciousness?

    Its usually a bad idea to begin with a heavily begged question. It might make a more compelling argument if you were to demonstrate the reality and significance of this assertion before explaining it away.

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  2. Interesting. What part do you believe that I question-begged? Do you believe that consciousness is unreal? Do you believe that evolution is false, or that some other mechanism produced consciousness? What part did I assert?

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  3. I don't think it makes a lot of sense to suggest that consciousness was an evolutionary adaptation - brain size maybe, consciousness no. Aside from the problem that there is no unambiguous definition of consciousness, I think it's a bit like asking "why was the humanoid body form selected for?" Well it wasn't - it is just the result of a sequence of adaptations of parts, not of the whole. But if one associates consciousness with brain size, one can certainly ask the (more relevant) question why was a large brain selected for. I don't think there is a clear answer to this question, but there are clues that it may have been a pre-adaptation. From what I have read, it is in principle genetically simple to bake a larger brain by mutating a single DNA promoter. If this happened, it isn't clear that it would have produced immediate fitness benefits, and therefore it may not have been an evolutionarily driven adaptation initially. There is some evidence that brain size started swelling long before we begin to record the cultural effects of it, in terms of cultural artifacts.

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  4. The part about consciousness being sudden. Before I'd hazard a guess at an answer to the question I'd ask "Was it sudden?" first. And, "What has it's velocity of production to do with the modularity of it (consciousness)?" second.

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  5. Daddy Cool; way to raise the bar. Kudos.

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