I’m an admirer of the philosopher Daniel Dennett. He can be overconfidently brusque and dismissive, and in particular I have parted company with him on the issue of activist atheism (more about that in a minute), but he has an enviably fertile and wide-ranging intellect. He’s also a terrific writer; in particular I highly recommend his books on Darwinism (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) and free will (Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves).
He’s just been featured in a video at Edge.org, talking about a variety of topics. (There’s also a transcript.)
Early on in his talk he returns to the topic that first brought him to a wider audience: how the activity of the brain gives rise to the human mind. His model is still very much a work in progress. Here’s a longish excerpt:
The vision of the brain as a computer, which I still champion, is changing so fast. The brain’s a computer, but it’s so different from any computer that you’re used to. It’s not like your desktop or your laptop at all, and it’s not like your iPhone except in some ways. It’s a much more interesting phenomenon. What Turing gave us for the first time (and without Turing you just couldn’t do any of this) is a way of thinking in a disciplined way about phenomena that have, as I like to say, trillions of moving parts. Until late 20th century, nobody knew how to take seriously a machine with a trillion moving parts. It’s just mind-boggling.
You couldn’t do it, but computer science gives us the ideas, the concepts of levels, virtual machines implemented in virtual machines implemented in virtual machines and so forth. We have these nice ideas of recursive reorganization of which your iPhone is just one example and a very structured and very rigid one at that.
We’re getting away from the rigidity of that model, which was worth trying for all it was worth. You go for the low-hanging fruit first. First, you try to make minds as simple as possible. You make them as much like digital computers, as much like von Neumann machines, as possible. It doesn’t work. Now, we know why it doesn’t work pretty well. So you’re going to have a parallel architecture because, after all, the brain is obviously massively parallel.
It’s going to be a connectionist network. Although we know many of the talents of connectionist networks, how do you knit them together into one big fabric that can do all the things minds do? Who’s in charge? What kind of control system? Control is the real key, and you begin to realize that control in brains is very different from control in computers. Control in your commercial computer is very much a carefully designed top-down thing.
You really don’t have to worry about one part of your laptop going rogue and trying out something on its own that the rest of the system doesn’t want to do. No, they’re all slaves. If they’re agents, they’re slaves. They are prisoners. They have very clear job descriptions. They get fed every day. They don’t have to worry about where the energy’s coming from, and they’re not ambitious. They just do what they’re asked to do and do it brilliantly with only the slightest tint of comprehension. You get all the power of computers out of these mindless little robotic slave prisoners, but that’s not the way your brain is organized.
Each neuron is imprisoned in your brain. I now think of these as cells within cells, as cells within prison cells. Realize that every neuron in your brain, every human cell in your body (leaving aside all the symbionts), is a direct descendent of eukaryotic cells that lived and fended for themselves for about a billion years as free-swimming, free-living little agents. They fended for themselves, and they survived.
They had to develop an awful lot of know-how, a lot of talent, a lot of self-protective talent to do that. When they joined forces into multi-cellular creatures, they gave up a lot of that. They became, in effect, domesticated. They became part of larger, more monolithic organizations. My hunch is that that’s true in general. We don’t have to worry about our muscle cells rebelling against us, or anything like that. When they do, we call it cancer, but in the brain I think that (and this is my wild idea) maybe only in one species, us, and maybe only in the obviously more volatile parts of the brain, the cortical areas, some little switch has been thrown in the genetics that, in effect, makes our neurons a little bit feral, a little bit like what happens when you let sheep or pigs go feral, and they recover their wild talents very fast.
Maybe a lot of the neurons in our brains are not just capable but, if you like, motivated to be more adventurous, more exploratory or risky in the way they comport themselves, in the way they live their lives. They’re struggling amongst themselves with each other for influence, just for staying alive, and there’s competition going on between individual neurons. As soon as that happens, you have room for cooperation to create alliances, and I suspect that a more free-wheeling, anarchic organization is the secret of our greater capacities of creativity, imagination, thinking outside the box and all that, and the price we pay for it is our susceptibility to obsessions, mental illnesses, delusions and smaller problems.
We got risky brains that are much riskier than the brains of other mammals even, even more risky than the brains of chimpanzees, and that this could be partly a matter of a few simple mutations in control genes that release some of the innate competitive talent that is still there in the genomes of the individual neurons. But I don’t think that genetics is the level to explain this. You need culture to explain it.
This, I speculate, is a response to our invention of culture; culture creates a whole new biosphere, in effect, a whole new cultural sphere of activity where there’s opportunities that don’t exist for any other brain tissues in any other creatures, and that this exploration of this space of cultural possibility is what we need to do to explain how the mind works.
Everything I just said is very speculative. I’d be thrilled if 20 percent of it was right. It’s an idea, a way of thinking about brains and minds and culture that is, to me, full of promise, but it may not pan out. I don’t worry about that, actually. I’m content to explore this, and if it turns out that I’m just wrong, I’ll say, “Oh, okay. I was wrong. It was fun thinking about it,” but I think I might be right.
Dennett goes on to talk about what he calls cultural “fleas”, then free will, and then another subject that he’s devoted a lot of attention to: the religious impulse, and its role in society. This last was of particular interest to me.
Hitherto Dennett’s position, at least as far as I can recall, has been that religion was an embarrassing and often destructive anachronism, an atavistic human weakness that it is high time we outgrew. I certainly can’t recall his ever saying that religion provided anything beneficial that we can’t achieve in other ways, and he has been an activist in the promotion of secularism (he is, for example, a prominent member of the atheistic organization that calls itself “The Brights“.
At the end of this Edge talk, however, he seems for the first time to be troubled by the notion that secularism might actually be maladaptive, at least in the sense that it reduces the competitive fitness of human groups (he doesn’t address the precipitous birthrate collapse that always accompanies advancing secularism in human societies). He closes on this worried note:
One of the most chilling passages in that great book by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is where he talks about soldiers in the military: “Far better is it for an army to be too savage, too cruel, too barbarous, than to possess too much sentimentality and human reasonableness.” This is a very sobering, to me, a very sobering reflection. Let’s talk about when we went into Iraq. There was Rumsfeld saying, “Oh, we don’t need a big force. We don’t need a big force. We can do this on the cheap,” and there were other people, retrospectively we can say they were wiser, who said, “Look, if you’re going to do this at all, you want to go in there with such overpowering, such overwhelming numbers and force that you can really intimidate the population, and you can really maintain the peace and just get the population to sort of roll over, and that way actually less people get killed, less people get hurt. You want to come in with an overwhelming show of force.”
We didn’t do that, and look at the result. Terrible. Maybe we couldn’t do it. Maybe Rumsfeld knew that the American people would never stand for it. Well, then, they shouldn’t go in, because look what happened. But the principle is actually one that’s pretty well understood. If you don’t want to have a riot, have four times more police there than you think you need. That’s the way not to have a riot and nobody gets hurt because people are not foolish enough to face those kinds of odds. But they don’t think about that with regard to religion, and it’s very sobering. I put it this way.
Suppose that we face some horrific, terrible enemy, another Hitler or something really, really bad, and here’s two different armies that we could use to defend ourselves. I’ll call them the Gold Army and the Silver Army; same numbers, same training, same weaponry. They’re all armored and armed as well as we can do. The difference is that the Gold Army has been convinced that God is on their side and this is the cause of righteousness, and it’s as simple as that. The Silver Army is entirely composed of economists. They’re all making side insurance bets and calculating the odds of everything.
Which army do you want on the front lines? It’s very hard to say you want the economists, but think of what that means. What you’re saying is we’ll just have to hoodwink all these young people into some false beliefs for their own protection and for ours. It’s extremely hypocritical. It is a message that I recoil from, the idea that we should indoctrinate our soldiers. In the same way that we inoculate them against diseases, we should inoculate them against the economists’—or philosophers’—sort of thinking, since it might lead to them to think: am I so sure this cause is just? Am I really prepared to risk my life to protect? Do I have enough faith in my commanders that they’re doing the right thing? What if I’m clever enough and thoughtful enough to figure out a better battle plan, and I realize that this is futile? Am I still going to throw myself into the trenches? It’s a dilemma that I don’t know what to do about, although I think we should confront it at least.
Is Daniel Dennett grasping the nettle at last? The problem goes deeper than soldiers in the army, of course; it extends to every corner of any society that loses confidence in the objective value, and virtues, of its culture and people. And there is no more effective foundation for such confidence than to believe that the value and virtues of one’s culture and people are grounded in the transcendent, and eternal, will of God.
You can see (and read) Dennett’s talk here.