From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel C. Dennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I read Consciousness Explained not too long after it was published way back when in 1991. Well, I read it a while after that, but time is so relative. I found the book very satisfying. This new one, not so much. There are too many discordances, which disturb my ear. Perhaps the two of us have grown distant.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t brilliant and important exposition here; there is. Indeed, I agree with almost all of what he has to say, even including the stuff about self-consciousness as illusion (I think he mistakenly leaves the self- part of self-consciousness off, though). We are of the same ilk.
Another ilk denizen, Benjamin Bratton, rehearses the rather obvious, but to me tired, trope that we will know intelligent life by what amounts to the artificiality of its structures. He’s more subtle than that, but in essence he means the unnatural stuff. Stuff derived from what Dennett calls the scientific image. The scientific image represents those affordances which are not part of the Darwinian game of life. Artificial engineering is top-down.
It may be that the thing I prize most about Dennett’s writing is that it begins to bridge the gap between the natural and the artificial. I believe that to be a chasm as dangerous as the gulf Descartes posited between mind and body. But, along with Bratton, Kim Stanley Robinson, and almost everyone else with half a brain, Dennett celebrates the artificial as the inevitable way onward.
As Mark Solms – and I’m sure others as well – has adequately demonstrated, the cognitive areas of the brain – serially or altogether – can be obliterated and yet consciousness remains for humans. It is only when the emotive areas more toward the stem are gone that consciousness goes as well. This evident fact makes it seem as though to associate consciousness with humans alone goes way too far “up” the tree of life. Surely reptiles are already conscious. I’m also sure that only humans are self-conscious. Memetically so, and in precisely the way that Dennett outlines.
Riccardo Manzotti agrees with me about the reptiles. Most decisions, and surely decisions related to survival and reproduction and therefore relevant to any discussion of Darwinian evolution, are made impulsively, which means emotively. Cognition is simply too slow. And yet neither Manzotti nor Dennett nor most other ‘consciousness’ researchers have much to say about emotion.
It would seem that this observation about how emotive impulse happens applies only to those creatures with a beating heart. Surely bacteria don’t have emotion. They play the game of survival on a much more elemental level. We shall see.
In any case, cognition is simply too slow for the important decisions. Well, that depends on what you mean by important. I mean life-or-death here, in the context of evolution. The real important decisions. The ones that grant purchase. Those are all cognitive, right?
I don’t mean that emotional response might not have access to settled cognitive understanding in mind when emotive centers take over decision-making, which they generally do, especially under duress. We can and will and do rationalize our success after the fact, as Dennett also urges us to understand, but we’d better have a pretty intuitive sense of how the world works if we hope to make it through life.
Manzotti – correctly, I believe – doesn’t locate consciousness in the brain. He locates it in what Dennett calls manifest reality, which is what we perceive all around us. Manzotti calls his theory ‘the spread mind.’ He calls manifest reality the real. That’s what we perceive, composed by what Dennett calls more broadly our human affordances. Our ontology. The things important to us.
It would be very hard to have an emotional response to what Dennett seems to believe is actually real. The stuff that is not manifest, but only available by means of the methodologies of science. He calls this the scientific image; it’s what’s required if we are to do top-down intelligent design. It’s what’s required for the really important decisions. The ones that take time.
Traces of manifest reality are not stored in the brain as memory (another term robbed of meaning by computer metaphors), but are rather, according to Manzotti, persistently present by way of the brain’s continual refreshing of actual perception. What we call memory is delayed perception, not its shadow. Dear Plato. We live in the light, in perpetual connection with the real. Present, past, and to a certain extent, future. We navigate.
What is present to the mind is always real. For me, this is demonstrated easily enough when I feel ‘memories’ flooding back as I revisit places and things which have been absent from me for a long time. Though my mind dims, I feel reasonably confident that I distinguish the real from the fantasy when I am in the presence of artifacts from my past. Details remain up for grabs, of course, especially in negotiation with members of my early cohort.
Interestingly, Dennett’s real real is largely a metaphorical real. We don’t see subatomic ‘particles’ and yet we know they are there. The word particle is just a metaphoric handle on something we will never experience directly by way of perception; we can experience such reality only by means of our mind and through our instruments, as mathematically reified.
And yet those particles are surely real. Scientific understanding composes the means that we have for what Dennett calls top-down ‘intelligent design.’ And it is surely on the basis of that top-down designing that humanity is now far and away the dominant life-form on the planet. By Dennett’s measure some 98% of non-marine vertebrate biomass now is ours; mostly cattle.
Sheep, I’d say. The human world is raveling, and I find Dennett to be refreshingly incisive about why, though he says nothing at all about this. Along with a few others, many of whom hold sway on the stages which form public opinion (surely it is not knowledge!), Dennett seems to celebrate this moment of tech ascendancy which gives the silliest of memes as much credence as the good stuff.
In really simple terms, the scientific image enables us to care for more than ourselves alone. Each increment in scientific understanding builds trust in a shared reality which can cross all the relativity of language and culture on manifest earth. The scientific image is not more real. It’s more universal. Is all.
Meanwhile, polling demonstrates that upwards of half our human population begs to differ.
Dennett calls out the idiots for believing in stuff that is manifestly not true. God. Creationism. Vitalism. Man as a special creature; this last even as he finds man just about that special by the end of his disquisition.
The ‘why’ (the ‘what for?’) is that much of what composes human comprehension is composed of memes, which are designed bottom-up the way that genes are. They have a life of their own, as it were, riding on our enthusiasms. Which is to say they are formed and informed emotively, though no self-respecting consciousness researcher would ever comment that way. Consciousness is serious. Emotion is not. And I’m the one who’s not celebrating tech. I guess that’s because I live by feel.
Not so very long ago, Albert Einstein made a shift among received physical knowledge which made all the difference for the twentieth century. His relativity equated mass with energy, and reality has been destabilized ever since.
There is a charming passage in Dennett’s book where he recalls being with students outdoors in the cold on a starry night, and learning to “see” the plane of the ecliptic across our solar system. The guide was an historian of science. The view apparently clicked once you did it right, in much the way that Einstein’s shift must have clicked for so many of us, as it surely did for me. I remember the very moment just as I remember Kennedy’s assassination in a younger moment.
It is time for the next important shift. Emotion is no epiphenomenon of humanity’s interactions. To suggest that emotion is limited that way is precisely how Descartes sneaks back in through the back door. He pulls Plato along by the hand. Mind is made special, even while Dennett correctly calls out consciousness as illusion. What he means, I think, is that comprehension is illusory when comprehension is by way of manifest affordances alone.
But consciousness is very real. Just ask a lizard. Unconscious you die in the face of challenges.
Our comprehension is based on a reality at the remove of metaphor. Our consciousness is based on manifest reality, plain and simple. It makes us care about ourselves as an individual. Any creature which reproduces sexually does that. And the bacteria . . .?
We would not survive – we shall not survive – without effective engagement with our ‘affordances,’ as Dennett calls them, borrowing from gamer theory, perhaps. Gamers having borrowed it from psychology, and so forth. These are the things that we touch. The interfaces. We cannot touch what Dennett refers to as the non-illusory real world of things as they really are, though we might be able to understand them.
For some reason, Dennett is fond of kayaks as examples of bottom-up mindless design. You don’t have to understand how a kayak works in theoretic scientific detail to participate in making it better. In just the way that the thousands of workers on the Manhattan project didn’t understand what they wrought. The brains – the bosses – presumably did. Dennett calls out General Leslie Groves. Not Oppenheimer?? Groves is a barker. He orders, and not by reason alone. A mover of men. (Dennett also explains away the invisibility of women on our historical stages).
Surely now we design kayaks in the same way that we design superyachts. Top down! And yet they look the same as the received kayaks. I suppose it’s the plastic, Benjamin, which makes them better now. I’m guessing that Dennett is something of a paddler.
I am something of a dabbler myself. In consciousness, but also in computers and wooden boats and canoes more than kayaks, and physics and classical Chinese poetry, and, you know, science fiction with a little gamer theory thrown in. I’ve even been a dabbler in grad school, several times, with nothing to show for it.
I am clearly no expert. I wear that as a badge of pride. I often see the forest for the trees. I made my shift way before 1991. This still leaves me alone and forlorn, and so my language often becomes reckless. Sorry.
So here’s the shift, plain and simple. Let’s say some genetic mutation hits it. Dennett underplays the shifting ground for evolution – the environmental field for accident – and overplays fitness as though there could be progression up the tree of life without the challenges of environmental shiftiness. Fit requires ground. Hitting it means fitting in to the new world. And the world is always new.
The embrace of mutation is an expression of love. I mean expression in the sense that dogs express urine. It spreads. Call it cosmic love. Why not? The cumulative accidents of evolution clearly result in ever more complicated life. And so, it is no longer proper to call out random as meaningless, even though there can be no elan vital to distinguish the quick from the dead, as Dennett clearly demonstrates. Ah, but computers can’t do random, remember.
Emotion is as real as are those subatomic ‘particles.’ The trouble is that we don’t feel it the same way. It’s not perceptual, directly. Emotional affordances are rather subtle.
Just now we remain in the embrace of dead-ender understanding. Call it hate. Call it what it is. The tech titans whom Dennett can’t seem to help admiring exploit a loophole in property law (I checked with Roberto Mangabeira Unger, who should know). Click to agree that you don’t own yourself. It would be illusion to think that you did.
There is conception in the cosmos before human mind thought itself up by its bootstraps. Conception is relation without the exchange of particles. No force. No impingement. Mind is present everywhere, as time shall reveal. Mind consists in conceptual apprehension. Understanding, if you will. Comprehension without a grip.
But we have stepped out from the life force. I agree with Dennett on nearly everything he has to say, and he has laid the table perfectly for a better argument. He just simply doesn’t have his terms quite right.
To me it does seem evident that an individual human is far more complex than a galaxy could be without us. Mostly we are the ground – the environment – for all the creatures which populate our bodies. Some share our DNA. Most don’t. Person to person communication by way of language is far more interesting and complex than whatever it is Elon Musk wants to do about Mars.
And yet we prefer to talk to our phones. Remember when we talked through them? Half of us seem to hate the other half. No surprise in that, if we’re talking bottoms up.
We carry around a massive proportion of all the genetic success stories from our extended being on earth. We are not severable from any of earth, far far into the distant past. And into our future, if we even have a future left. Once we bring all the other creatures under our dominion, as God meant us to do, we will have lost our mind. Perhaps we already have. Truth or illusion, Martha, truth or illusion? I should know, I’ve lost mine plenty of times.
As we troll the universe searching for intelligent life elsewhere, all we know to do is to look for the artificial regularities that we are so very proud of down here to earth. But what if these clever structures, these intelligent designs of ours, are the temporary structures. The ones that can’t last because they have always – universally now – presaged the demise of intelligent life. Hubris. Trumpism. Which side are you on, brother? Which side are you on?
Walk past an overdesigned building, especially in China, which hasn’t been maintained, and it will be indistinguishable from one in the process of being built. Except for the grass and the cracks which let the light come in.
As death crystallizes all around us, life will always look like life. Messy. Bloody. Shitty. Smelly. And rich and full and good. The bread also rises. Intelligent life has better things to do than to be lured in by nature’s gambit. Nature always wins.
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