By Steven Jackson
Moore Lounge in Pearsons Hall was packed to its broad-beamed rafters Wednesday night with a mix of students, faculty, and off-campus visitors. The standing-room only crowd was there for Daniel C. Dennett, one of the most important figures in philosophy and cognitive science today, and Beloit College’s 2011 Selzer Visiting Philosopher.
Beloit cognitive science professor Robin Zebrowski introduced Dennett, listing his honors and accomplishments–and there are many to choose from. He has published 13 books and over 300 scholarly articles dealing with many mind, brain, consciousness, free will and other topics. He originated the “intentional stance,” now a well-known concept in philosophy. He has a Fulbright Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science to his name, among other awards. Dennett is currently a co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.
Zebrowski cited Dennett as her “intellectual hero,” explaining that “it was one of Dennett’s papers that launched my own cognitive science journey.” Without any further ado, she introduced the man–and the mind–we’d all been waiting for.
Dennet’s lecture was titled “A Human Mind as an Upside-Down Brain,” and it addressed the relationship between the physical brain and the conscious mind. Dennett began the lecture with the straightforward question, “How is the human mind possible?”
He would spend the next two hours answering this question.
Appropriately, Dennett started his discussion with Descartes, the 17th century philosopher who suggested the brain was distinct and separate from the “immaterial soul.” Dennett proposes not a dualism of brain and mind, but a dualism of “hardware” and “software,” hardware being our neurological structures and software our conscious minds.
As for the hardware, we get that the same way the rest of the world does: through the process of evolution.
“Natural selection is a stupid, mindless, absolutely reasonless process,” said Dennett. Yet it is this mindless process that has led to behaviors and phenomena in nature that seem as utilitarian and reasonable as the most calculated, purposeful man-made artifacts or human behaviors. As examples Dennett offered the intricate architecture of a termite colony and the complex structure of a caddis fly food sieve.
Dennett then presented a clip of neurons spreading their dendritic branches throughout the brain. Our brain cells, Dennett pointed out, are just as unaware and reasonless as the termites and caddis flies. “That’s what you’ve got in there,” he said, tapping the side of his head. “Billions of little robots.”
And what about the “software” side of Dennett’s dualism? To answer this question, Dennett drew our attention to a major transition in the evolution of life on Earth: the “human culture revolution,” in which early humans were infused with culture and language.
The combination of human cognitive powers with culture and language led to the snowballing process of cultural evolution, with each new generation building off of the last one. Words were key in this process, allowing us to express concepts and ideas and build off of past innovations.
This elaboration of culture took on a life of its own, said Dennett, and led to consciousness and life as we know it today. In the end, it was language and culture–which were brought about by the mindless process of natural selection, mind you–that made our minds possible in the first place.