My conversation with Daniel C. Dennett -- if one can call this awkward jumble of ill-formed questions hurled at the renowned philosopher a real conversation -- has reached an impasse.
Dennett, an erudite thinker who has used his expertise in cognitive science and evolutionary biology to revolutionize how we think about how humans think, is telling me I don’t exist.
Or so it seems to me, a person rather anxious about his existential status.
Dennett, 74, a prolific author whose books are devoured by academics and laypeople alike, will be at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Thursday to discuss his latest book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. Dennett will discuss his work with New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik, before opening the discussion to audience questions.
A hefty 496-page masterwork, From Bacteria to Bach and Back combines two strands of Dennett’s researches: his evolutionary theory of the rise of human consciousness, and his equally Darwinian take on how cultural ideas -- or "memes," as Dennett calls them -- evolve in society through a cultural form of natural selection.
Dennett has been writing about his theory of consciousness for several decades, most famously in 1991’s Consciousness Explained, a blockbuster hit -- at least in the worlds of philosophy and cognitive science. Here is a TED talk by Dennett on "The Illusion of Consciousness":
His theory of memes, a term coined by biologist Richard Dawkins, is more recent. And it is far more controversial, said Gopnik, whose books include Angels and Ages, a meditation on Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. “Dennett sees a continuum from the way bacteria developed eventually into people and the way great human inventions” also evolved, from the simplest cultural artifacts to complex masterpieces such as Bach’s music, he said.
“Most people coming from the humanities,” Gopnik said, "would question using an evolutionary model for culture the way Dennett does."
You are not you
So what’s this business about the self not being real?
A thoroughly naturalistic thinker whose work is deeply influenced by Darwin, Dennett doesn’t think there’s a me (or a you, for that matter) that stands apart from my actual thoughts.
Let me get this straight: Even though humans have self-consciousness, the ability to think about our own thinking, we have no real selves?
“Well, who is this you who thinks? Is it something independent of the brain or the body?” Dennett said in a recent phone chat from his office at Tufts University outside Boston, where he has taught since 1971. “It’s not independent. It is the brain and body. That’s what you are. You’re a living human being, and there’s no little pearl of magic stuff inside you which is the true you.”
Dennett defines the function of consciousness on an evolutionary continuum from the simplest to the most complex.
Most neural activity has little to do with comprehension or self-reflection. It’s automatic, preconscious, and concerned with the daily routine of living. “I call it 'competence without comprehension,' " Dennett said. "Say, the way that animals are able to ignore their own shadow so it doesn’t startle or scare them. In general, they come equipped or competent to subtract their own limbs and tails and paws from the ongoing scene of their activity.”
Dennett maintains that the sheer complexity of mental activity in humans and our growing acquisition of competencies, including language use, eventually led to the ability to comprehend, think, and reflect. Nothing has changed in the nature of neural activity.
Yet that’s when we begin imagining there’s someone there outside the flow who does the comprehending. “I like to put it this way,” said Gopnik, whose memoir At the Stranger’s Gate is due in the fall. “Dennett doesn’t believe consciousness is the ghost in the machine. He believes that consciousness is the hum of the machinery.”
That hum is an after-effect of neural activity, but it’s mistaken for its cause, said Dennett, who believes one of our most enduring illusions is the belief that we can see causation. “You can’t actually see causation. There’s nothing to see,” he said. Our notion of cause and effect is upside down, he said, a projection of our need to interpret the world according to our own desires.
“To put it in simple terms: We don’t like honey because it’s sweet,” said Dennett. “We call it sweet because we like it, because the glucose molecules -- which aren’t sweet or sour -- interact with our nervous system … and we get the message, 'I want that!' ”
Dennett’s conclusion: “The mind is the effect, not the cause.”
Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. In conversation with New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik. 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Central Library, Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. Tickets: $15; $7 students. Information: 215-567-4341, www.freelibrary.org/authorevents/.