Dennett’s Dangerous Ideas

Reading Dennett’s ‘Freedom Evolves’, I started losing track of the real ideas amidst the many metaphors that pepper his writings. Are these metaphors Americanisms or just Dennettisms? Concepts and metaphors in one Dennett book jump across to others. A list of ideas and metaphors would help:

  • Cartesian Theatre: remnant of Cartesian dualism within modern physicalist theories of mind [CE].
  • Cui Bono? Latin legal term: Who benefits? What’s good for the body is generally also good for the genes. But: it isn’t necessarily so. Sometimes a trait may be to the benefit of the genes but to the detriment of the body [DDI].
  • Greedy Reductionism: .Underestimating the complexities of a problem in eagerness to provide an explanation [DDI].
  • Heterophenomenology: scientific approach that allows the subject’s self-reports to be taken into account as well as external observations. Between the extremes of Descartes (radical scepticism about external world) and behaviourism (deny self-reports). [CE]
  • Homunculus: Ordinarily a fallacious account of mind in terms of a ‘little man’ in our heads, Dennett does not dismiss them – they are useful if they are more stupid than we are – therefore some progress is being made to provide an explanation of mind. Keep going until there is a completely dumb homunculus.
  • Intentional Stance: alternative to the physical stance and the design stance. Level of abstraction in which objects are seen/described from the point of view of them being intentional [IS].
  • Intuition pump: Pejorative term for thought experiments that intuitively seem correct but lead to incorrect conclusions [ER,CE].
  • Just So Story: Biological explanations analagous to Kipling’s tales; without foundation. Actually due to Gould and Lewontin [DDI].
  • Multiple Drafts: [CE]
  • Skyhooks: Explanation of design complexity that relies on a still more complex organism. Contrast this with ‘cranes’ that built complex objects from the ground up. Evolution is a crane; the creation myth is a skyhook [DDI].
  • ‘Smart Moves’
  • ‘Stop that crow!’: reference to the crow that might tell the truth about the ‘magic feather’ (that serves no real purpose but is only a psychological reassurance’ to Dumbo. [FE]
  • ‘Universal Acid’: If such a substance existed, what would you keep it in? Evolution corrodes most other accounts [DDI].

I’ll gradually expand on these. Bracketed terms refer to the book in which the idea/term originated – ‘Consciousness Explained’, ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’, ‘Elbow Room’, ‘Freedom Evolves’, ‘The Intentional Stance’.

Dennett’s ‘creatures’ hierarchy (each one is a subset of the former):

  • Darwinian creatures: created by random mutation and thenceforth are fixed. They are then subjected to the ‘survival of the fittest’ test as-is. They can’t ask themselves anything.
  • Skinnerian creatures: can learn by testing actions in the external environment. Favourable actions are reinforced. They ask themselves “What do I do next?” (These explanations are surely from the Intentional stance.)
  • Popperian creatures: preselecting action from a number of options. Considering the results of actions internally before engaging in the external environment, to weed out weak hypotheses so that actions have a better chance of success (they “permit our hypotheses to die in our stead”). They ask themselves “What should I think about next?” beforehand.
  • Gregorian creatures: import tools (physical or linguistic) from the outside world cultural environment to create an inner environment which improve both the generators and testers. Named after Richard Gregory. They ask themselves, “How can I think better?” beforehand.

A more primitive, but similar hierarchy from Darwin:

  • Natural selection: ‘mindless’; where does Sexual selection fit in?
  • Unconscious selection:
  • Dennett inserts at this point: Genetic Engineering [FE] (and presumably other algorithms like Simulated Annealing). Trial and Error methods.
  • Methodical selection: awareness of how evolution works and so the conscious exploitation of this for benefit.
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