The scientist’s philosopher


The relationship between science and philosophy is in trouble. If one man can deliver a rapprochement, it is Daniel Dennett, writes J.P. O’Malley.


Philosopher Daniel Dennett may be the man to bring philosophy and science together.

In his introduction to A History of Western Philosophy, first published in 1945, Bertrand Russell described philosophy as a “No Man’s Land”, wedged somewhere between theology and science.

Nowadays many scientists may agree. But it wasn’t always that way.

When modern science was born in the 17th century, prominent intellectuals saw science and philosophy as two sides of the same coin. René Descartes was one of the key figures in modern philosophy but also one of the leading voices in 17th century science. Similarly, the two giants of 18th century philosophy David Hume and Immanuel Kant were highly engaged in the scientific concepts of their day.

That was then.

Today, the historical relationship between science and philosophy is on the rocks.

The bad blood and insults flow both ways.

Take, for example, Lawrence Krauss, an American physicist and cosmologist who recently published A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. He writes that philosophers now feel inadequate around scientists because they are envious at how far science has progressed in recent years. Philosophy, meanwhile, has stayed motionless, Krauss argues.

Krauss’ assumption, that philosophy is of little use to scientists, follows the late Richard Feynman’s declaration that “philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”.

If science and philosophy are going to reconcile – appealing perhaps to each other’s respective commitment to logic, reason, and evidence – the one person who might be able to bring both communities together is American philosopher Daniel Dennett, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

The 71-year-old snowy-bearded, two-time Guggenheim Fellow set the stage for that reconciliation, when we met recently at a hotel just off Trafalgar Square in central London.

‘Darwin’s theory is the single greatest idea any human being has conceived’.

“In the recent past, the typical philosopher was the ivory tower intellectual who thought that everything could all be worked out from the armchair, without much attention to the details,” Dennett explains to me. On the other hand, “if you talk with physicists or mathematicians, they want everything to have equations, and even that kind of science still needs very careful tabulation, rigorous marshalling of evidence, the use of statistics and so forth. Those who are imbued with a scientific method, often look askance at philosophy. They think it’s just fluttering around the edges.”

Dennett, a forceful, outspoken atheist who relishes rhetorical combat, is not one to flutter. He is a scientist’s philosopher and scourge of the scholars of religion. He hails Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection as the single greatest idea that any human being has ever conceived. His own contributions to philosophy lie squarely on the shoulders of Darwin. One also can’t help noticing that Dennett bears a passing resemblance to the sage.

Intuition Pumps, Dennett's latest work, offers a "new way of thinking about thinking".

For Dennett, Darwin’s key contribution was to show that the living world with its ingenious design, was produced by the unconscious, algorithmic process represented by natural selection. This has led him to clash with some of his fellow philosophers, who look at mental phenomena like consciousness as a mysterious process somehow separate from the computational nature of the brain.

But Dennett has received a good deal of push-back. Respected American philosopher, John Searle, has called Dennett’s ideas about consciousness “a form of intellectual pathology”. After reading Consciousness Explained, Dennett’s magnum opus, an infuriated Searle said that Dennett saw no difference between humans and “complex zombies who lack any inner feelings”. This is where, in Dennett’s latest book, you get the feeling that he is deliberately goading his detractors, when he declares, quite seriously, that human beings are “moist robots” who can act responsibly.

Dennett’s view of consiousness draws from Darwin’s theory. If natural selection can create life through an algorithmic process, then why shouldn’t the brain be able to create consciousness. It’s a point he returns to many times in his latest book, Intuition Pumps And Other Tools For Thinking.

An “intuition pump”, is a term coined by Dennett to describe quite an old idea: a thought experiment. Scientists and philosophers have famously made use of them. Plato and Descartes performed thought experiments on the limits of human perception. Plato imagined people chained to the wall of a cave, only able to know the real world by the shadows that objects cast on the cave wall. Descartes imagined that an evil demon had made the world an entirely illusory place, like a dream. (The movie Matrix replayed a modern version of this idea). Einstein’s thought experiments imagined what might happen if one travelled at the speed of light.

One example of a Dennett intuition pump is the “Whimsical Jailer”. It is aimed at thinking about freedom. If a jailer opens cell doors every night after inmates fall asleep are the inmates free during that time? If not, what does this tell us about the concept of freedom?

If you’re not familiar with Dennett’s oeuvre, his latest book may be a good place to start. Written in a lucid style, which incorporates the philosopher’s idiosyncratic dry wit, Intuition Pumps aims at equipping the reader with new ways of “thinking about thinking”.

The book revisits the themes that he has expounded on previously in many of his earlier works, such as The Intentional Stance; Darwin’s Dangerous Idea; Freedom Evolves, and Consciousness Explained, first published in 1991. That tome was a shot across the bow in the philosophy world, and instantly made Dennett an insurgent in his own field with his underlying thesis: that we should give up the belief that there is a central place in the brain where consciousness resides.

Daniel Dennett accepts an award

Dennett is never one to pull his punches. He believes that any scientist or philosopher who wants to be treated with respect needs to stop viewing consciousness as if it were a quasi-religious concept. “Consciousness is by popular acclaim the last great mystery,” Dennett says sarcastically, as he nurses a red wine. “We have pretty much figured out how life got started, the big bang, black holes, gravity, and electricity. But not yet consciousness: that is supposedly the big fat Mount Everest of ignorance. Why? Because people feel threatened by the idea of science encroaching on their minds. And when you feel threatened you look askance at any theory that looks like it’s threatening to explain everything.”

‘Consciousness is by popular acclaim the last great mystery.’

There is nothing mysterious about consciousness, Dennett insists, but our brain has tricked us into thinking there is. He calls this popular illusion a “figment”, entirely imagined. “I’m comfortable seeing the world without figment.”

Despite viewing the world through a neo-Darwinian telescope, Dennett still likes to drift between the world of science and philosophy, never committing to either discipline indefinitely. And he is something of an intellectual brawler. Several decades ago, he had long running feuds with Searle (over how best to study the mind) and famed evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (over aspects of evolutionary theory), who died in 2002.

Currently Dennett is embroiled in a semantic debate with his good pal, British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, over how to best define the term “design” in evolution.

“Richard Dawkins and I are close friends, but this is something we disagree about, and we haven’t ironed this one out,” says Dennett. “I understand his point of view: like many other evolutionary biologists, he wants to say that what is often called the design of nature – the design of the eye for example – is apparent design. His argument follows the idea that nature wasn’t designed by an intelligent designer but it emerged from natural selection. Dawkins says if you must, use the word ‘desingnoid’. What he should actually say is that it’s design without a designer.

“Why? Because in case after case, it’s not only as good as the designs that human engineers can come up with, it’s often better. Engineers have learned so much from studying the design of nature. I want to call that design. You can take the things apart and ask why they work as well as they do. And since biology is a matter of reverse engineering, then call it design.”

Dennett, who is mild-mannered and unfailingly polite, is not one to relinquish ground. At one point in our conversation, I ask him how is he so certain that there is no place in the brain where human thought and awareness of being comes together?

“We just know that empirically there is no such place,” he says. “How do we know that? We look. And when we open up somebody’s skull, we don’t find a little man sitting down in a room in the middle of the brain pushing buttons. All that is going on in there are spike trains and nerve impulses that pass from neuron to neuron. But there are no sounds or colours, or anything like that in the brain. It’s hard for people to understand that this really must be true. But it is.”

Dennett’s hypothesis is not just a series of hubristic declarations, however. Remarkably for a philosopher, he actually conducts experiments to back up his claims. He says they provide solid evidence that consciousness is an illusion. For this he had to come up with a methodology, “heterophenomenology”, a tricky-to-define term coined by Dennett that aims to allow an observer to objectively study another person’s mental state. To Dennett, an individual’s account of their own consciousness – their mind – is unreliable and plagued with inconsistencies. So heterophenomenology attempts a scientific, objective study of experiences and thoughts that are essentially subjective.

But how does he react to those who accuse his methodology of being flimsy because he is conducting it all from the third person point of view?

“Well I dutifully gather data, and set up experiments, so I can train the person I am doing the tests on. I then gather lots of objective third person data about how the world seems to that person. This is a well-tried and tested methodology in cognitive psychology. And whether it’s memory, reasoning, taste, smell, hearing, or a host of other experimental work, this testing ultimately gets at the subjective properties of experience to human beings.”

Besides borrowing from the tools of cognitive psychology, Dennett also helps himself to the latest in neuroscience to conceptualise how consciousness works. The key, he says, is first to adapt a neuroscience-inspired view of how the brain functions. Its “computational architectures” help us understand why neurons are like biological robots, he says.

He says that each of our 100 billion neurons are essentially organic little robots which as individuals are “pretty clueless”. “Nevertheless, if you put the teams together, you get consciousness as a result.”

Dennett’s other guiding light is the pioneering British computer scientist, Alan Turing. “Turing put his finger on it when he realised that information processing didn’t require consciousness or intelligence,” says Dennett. “Before his invention of the Turing Machine, which simulated computer algorithms, the word computer in the late 1940s and early 1950s was used in the sense that it was a job: people were computers. But Turing’s computer revolution was already seriously under way by then.

“When that happened, it confirmed Turing’s vision: that any information processing can be accomplished by the precise organisation of a lot of stepwise mindless computation,” Dennett says.

Dennett shares a stage with Richard Dawkins, his friend and sometime sparring partner.

Turing features heavily in Dennett’s latest book. In one instance he recalls how the computer scientist devised what he claimed would be the acid test of intelligence in a machine: this became known as the Turing Test. This thought experiment involves a judge who has a probing conversation with two entities, one a human being, the other a computer. Both are hidden from view and communicating by Teletype. If the judge can’t tell the difference, the computer program has passed the Turing Test: it is indistinguishable from a human mind.

Turing’s revolutionary ideas changed how we conceptualise the human mind. For two millennia human beings studied mythical ideas about how the mind was compartmentalised. Much of this was based on Plato’s idea of distinguishing the soul into three parts: the rational, the spirited, and the appetitive. When Freud’s idea of the id, ego and super-ego came along in the 20th century, it was a slight improvement on Plato’s wild guesswork, says Dennett.

But it was only after World War II, when the concept of artificial intelligence emerged, that we could break down the human mind into sub-minds. Such a concept, Dennett maintains, has given us thinking tools that have totally changed our perception of how the mind works.

“Turing is one of my all time intellectual heroes,” says Dennett. “He saw that you could take arithmetic and build it into the things that computers can do today.”

To Dennett, the beauty of computers is that there are no magic hidden fields, no figments, with a direct correlation to a person’s brain. He believes there is nothing that a human being can do that a computer cannot. “Computers are a wonderful demystifier. But we also know that there is no apparent limit to how much comprehension we can build into them if we just keep working away. For the first time that actually allows us to see that the creative human mind is a natural possibility in the physical world. It doesn’t take a miracle.”

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