DANIEL DENNETT has spent the best part of a half century attempting to figure out questions that have disturbed philosophers for thousands of years.
Principally, there are three of them: how did minds evolve in the first place? When and why did language evolve within the mind? And what exactly is human consciousness?
In books like Breaking the Spell (2007) and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995) Dennett has tended to admit that he may not have a provable hypothesis that answers all three questions, just yet.
However, the philosopher has one golden rule that seems to consistently crop up in all of his work: better to study hard facts, evidence, and reason — and at least try to get to the heart of the truth — than give up and start believing in miracles.
Dennett has recently published From Bacteria to Bach and Back — it claims to sketch the backbone of the best scientific theory to date regarding how human minds came into existence.
The book also boasts to have found a satisfying account of how the so-called magic of our minds, in fact, is not so magic after all.
Dennett, who lives in North Andover, Massachusetts, first began his quest to understand the human mind in 1963, in Oxford, as a graduate philosophy student.
So what exactly has 50 years dedicated to this intellectual discipline taught him, if anything?
“That the traditional philosophy of the mind, where you sit in your armchair and compare institutions, isn’t really worth doing,” the 74-year-old says from a hotel lobby in Covent Garden, London: “Such an approach doesn’t help you learn about the mind. Instead, you just learn about preconceptions of the mind. Which is not very useful.”
Thus, Dennett found himself embracing a scientific view of philosophy instead.
Essentially, this approach to philosophy involves using hard scientific data in philosophical thought experiments.
It also means spending some time in the laboratory, accumulating hard evidence, and not just burying your head in ancient text books in the library.
In books like Consciousness Explained (1991) and Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (2013) Dennett has made the argument that consciousness — that is all the thoughts and experiences that we can reflect on and think about in our minds — can be explained without mystery.
He also argues that there is no single place in the brain where consciousness comes together. Instead, he believes that the brain consists of a bundle of semi-independent agencies.
And that any relevant questions needed to further our understanding on consciousness can be answered by strictly studying brain activities. Crucially though, without any recourse to subjective experience.
So why do fellow philosophers, academics, and many in the publishing world take such offence to his argument?
“Because they are afraid that this method of thinking about the mind will somehow show that their minds are not as wonderful as they thought they were”, Dennett says with a wry smile that has a sense of mischief.
“But on the contrary, my approach shows that minds are even more wonderful than what we thought they were. Because what they do is stupendous. It’s not miraculous. But the informed scientific picture of how the mind works is just ravishingly beautiful and interesting,” Dennett says.
Like the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins who Dennett quotes several times throughout many of his books, the philosopher believes that Charles Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural selection — first explained in the 1859 book On the Origin of Species — is the greatest idea that a scientist has come up with hitherto to further our understanding about the origin of life.
According to Dennett’s latest tome, the easiest way to define evolution by natural selection is as follows: “a change in a population due to three things; variation in the characteristics of members of the population; which causes different rates of production, and which is heritable.”
What Darwin showed, Dennett says, is that species are historically connected by a chain of variations that differed so gradually that there was simply no principled way of drawing a line and saying, for example, dinosaurs to the left, and birds to the right.
Moreover, if natural selection can create life itself through an algorithmic process, Dennett has continually asked in his work, why then shouldn’t the human brain, similarly, be able to create consciousness?
While Dennett has spent a considerable portion of his career writing about the role of genes in evolution — and how they in turn have developed and cultivated the human mind over a multitude of generations — culture within human societies has also been a recurring theme in his work too.
He says in his latest tome, for instance, that Homo sapiens are the only species, so far, with richly accumulative culture.
And, that human culture started out profoundly Darwinian, and then gradually de-Darwinised, feeding on the fruits of its own evolution.
In simple terms, this means that ideas and words began to matter more than genes did for the fate and future of the human species.
“Well one of the things that we have learned in the last 40 years is that evolution itself evolves,” says Dennett.
“And the processes of natural selection shift over time, because the products of evolution change the playing field. So they open up new possibilities.”
Dennett then cites the evolution of sex in nature, which replaced the period where it was just cell division, as an interesting example of evolution evolving.
“This opens up a vast space of possibility that was not there before: multi-cellularity being one. After all, there was nothing but unicellular organisms for a billion years,” says Dennett.
“That changes the game. And the origin of culture changes it again. The generation of candidates becomes much less a matter of random chance, and much more planned and full of foresight.
"We have in mind a destination that we want our creations to land in: this has never been true before. So when natural selection evolves features with foresight, it can then can begin to have projects,” says Dennett.
This then brings Dennett onto one of his favourite topics, memes.
A phrase first coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 best seller The Selfish Gene. It describes a cultural transmission that is analogous to genetic transmission.
Language, for example, as Dawkins said then, seems to evolve by non-genetic means, and at a rate which is far faster than genetic evolution.
While Dawkins first came up with the concept, Dennett has honed and crafted it in much more detail in his own books; especially in his quest to figure out how culture evolved in humans, and how that kickstarted the evolution of language.
An event that Dennett refers to as “the launching pad of human cognition and thinking.”
Given how powerful human culture has become: Is it now the case that our memes can override our genes?
“Well memes can certainly supplement genes,” Dennett says.
“And it can happen so much faster. There has been scant genetic change in human genomes in the last 20,000 years. But there has been tremendous change in the human environment and in human capabilities. That is not due to new genes. It’s to do with the uses we put culture to.”
Often these uses can be extremely negative, though, Dennett warns.
Thanks to our accumulating of human culture, he says, we have engulfed the planet, transforming the environment, and we are also triggering an extinction event that may soon rival the mass extinctions of earlier eons: if we don’t take some steps to reverse some of the trends.
“First let’s remind ourselves of the obvious: we can destroy the planet,” Dennett says.
“We could never do that before [the 20th century]. But now we can. We have the technological power and the powerful tools to basically plunder the planet and make life impossible for us: potentially giving the world back to the bacteria.
“This couldn’t have happened 100,000 years ago, for example. On the bright side, if an asteroid were heading towards the planet to wipe it out, we now have the technology where we could anticipate that.
"And probably launch some sort of rocket that would move the asteroid to save the planet. So we have tremendous powers that never existed before.
“And explaining how that came about is one of the main purposes of my latest book.”