Post-Discussion Commentary regarding Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: II. The Good

Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017. [All page numbers in this commentary come from the 2018 paperback edition]

[NOTE: In previous posts I have provided some pre-discussion tutorials about this book, and a post-discussion essay about what I found UGLY in the book. In the present essay I will concentrate on what I found GOOD. Future essays will deal with the BAD and SILLY].



Dennett provides us with a succinct summary of the main thesis of his book:

“We won’t have a complete science of consciousness until we can align our manifest-image identifications of mental states by their contents with scientific-image identifications of the subpersonal information structures and events that are causally responsible for generating the details of the user-illusion we take ourselves to operate in.” [page 367]

Until one has read carefully the 366 pages that proceed this quote, this sentence will not mean much to most readers. In this essay I am going to try to provide a brief explanation of what that assertion by Dennett means.

Dennett uses two technical terms that are probably not familiar to most readers, ‘manifest image’ and ‘scientific image’. These both have to do with the philosophical concept of ‘ontology’ defined by Dennett as “the set of ‘things’ a person believes to exist, or the set of things defined by, or assumed by, some theory.” [page 60] He goes on to explain that there is a common core of ontology that is shared by most humans, material things like trees and clouds and cups and doors, but also nonphysical things like emotions and ideas and promises. Dennett uses the term ‘manifest image’, coined by Wilfrid Sellars in 1962, to refer to this common core of shared ontology. This manifest image can be contrasted with the “scientific image, which is populated with [things like] molecules, atoms, electrons, gravity, quarks…” [page 61]

One of the items that exists in our manifest image is ‘a conscious self’, a self that we refer to with the term ‘I’ as in statements such as ‘I see the color red’. This conscious self has a peculiar property that makes it distinct from other items in the manifest image. It is subjective, i.e., it is a private first-person point of view. Others can hear my description of what I am seeing, and might be able to relate to my experience by thinking about their own personal experiences of the color red, but they cannot directly experience what I am experiencing when I state that I am having the experience of seeing the color red.

The tools of science are designed to deal with objective rather than subjective things. Thus, Dennett argues, attaining a scientific understanding of consciousness will require that we find some way of getting rid of the private first-person point of view that is anchored in the manifest image, and replacing it with a materialistic definition of consciousness that can “avail itself of the resources of the scientific image.” [page 350]

The way Dennett is going to try to accomplish this is to make an argument that the conscious self does not really exist. It is simply an illusion we carry around as part of our manifest image. As he puts it in his own words, he is trying to create a ‘vantage point’ from which we can ”see the manifest image, in Wilfred Sellars’s useful terminology, as a special kind of artifact, partly genetically designed and partly culturally designed, a particularly effective user-illusion.” [page 412]

But, as Dennett is well aware, that is going to be a hard sell. Most of us are deeply wedded to the conviction that our conscious self exists.  That is the reason his book has to spend 300+ pages dealing with what sometimes appear to be irrelevant topics before he reveals his solution to the problem of consciousness. The purpose of all this detail is to slowly bring us to a vantage point from which we will be able to accept that our belief that we have a conscious self is only a ‘user-illusion’.

The following synopsis list some of major steps Dennett leads us up to get to this vantage point.

In the course of evolution animals became equipped to pick up ‘affordances’, a term borrowed from the psychologist J. J. Gibson to refer to information in the environment that is important for survival. By doing so, animals acquired certain ‘competencies’ that do not require ‘comprehension’ of how or why their competencies work. Dennett provides extensive discussion of what he means by ‘competencies without comprehension’, invoking concepts attributed to both Darwin and Turing.

 “Darwin provided the first great instance of competence without comprehension in the process of natural selection itself. Then [Turing] … provided an example … of another variety of competence without comprehension: computers. [page 411]

“We can put it anachronistically by saying that Darwin discovered the fundamental algorithm of evolution, an abstract structure that can be implemented or ‘realized’ in different materials or media.” [page 138]

This leads Dennett to pose a new question:

 “There is so much that that can be accomplished by competence with scant comprehension … that we are faced with a new puzzle: What is comprehension for [and how could it arise?]” [page 411]

And proposes an answer:

“Words are affordances that our brains are designed (by evolutionary processes) to pick up, as Gibson said, and they afford all manner of uses.” [page 204]

“The arrival of language [in the course of human evolution] then set the stage for yet another great moment in evolutionary history: the origin of comprehension.” [page 281]

Dennett’s argument is that once humans had language they could use it to think about how competencies work and design better ways of accomplishing goals. Humans can use language to share information with others and also to reason about things by ‘talking to ourselves’. Dennett summarizes this argument:

“…comprehension comes in degrees and is in fact a product of competence, not an independent source of competence. Now we can see how this product is created. Basic affordances, genetically transmitted endowments of Nature … provide a wealth of competence for all locomotors from insects and worms to elephants and dolphins. … [Then language is added on to this for humans, and with language comes comprehension] … what does human comprehension add to it? … the ability to treat whatever topic is under consideration as a thing to be examined … meta-competences, in which we use our thinking tools to think about not just food …  but also about thinking about thinking about food…” [page 300]

Eventually use of language evolved into culturally transmitted ‘memes’, defined by Dennett as “a way of behaving or doing, internal or external, that can be transmitted from host to host by being copied. … it is like a software app.” [page 295]

And it is the operation of language along with cultural memes in our brains that, Dennett argues, creates our user-illusion of a conscious self:

“The evolution of memes provides the conditions for the evolution of a user interface that renders the memes ‘visible’ to the ‘self’ which (or who) communicates with others, the self as … the author of both words and deeds.” [page 344]

In short, Dennett claims that we can blame our user-illusion on the fact that language and culture force us to talk to others as well as to ourselves. As he puts it, “this is what makes our manifest image manifest to us. If we didn’t have to be able to talk to [ourselves and] each other … our brains wouldn’t waste the time and energy [to create this user-illusion].” [page 344]

In my assessment, Dennett’s theory ultimately fails for reasons that I will outline in future commentaries. However, I laud his effort as being a novel attempt to try to understand human consciousness. One of the topics Dennett discusses extensively in the book has to do with ‘design spaces’. When we humans use our brains/minds to do top-down reasoning it is useful to conceptualize what we are doing in terms of an exploration of a multidimensional space of ideas. If our goal is to design a useful theory, the ideas that will be used for that purpose are potentially available to be discovered in the ‘design space of ideas related to that theory’. In terms of a scientific theory of consciousness, that design space has been explored extensively by philosophers and scientists for centuries, so far without much success. Dennett explores some new, novel, and creative ideas within that design space in this book, and at the least this book maps out for future investigators some ideas that that might be made to work and others that can now be seen to be dead ends that future thinkers will not have to waste time exploring further.

In closing I want to note an association between Dennett’s book and another book our book club discussed recently, Robert Wright’s Buddhism is True. There is a common theme that runs parallel in both books having to do with whether we can trust thoughts or ideas generated by our minds, and specifically whether we can trust the idea generated by our minds that we have a ‘conscious self’. Both books argue that we cannot, although they offer different (but compatible, parallel) arguments. Dennett emphasizes the role of language and cultural memes in instilling a ‘user-illusion of a self’ into our minds. Wright emphasizes a more general argument that evolution only operates to generate structures and functions that promote survival of the species. Ideas implanted into our minds by evolution are not put there because they are ‘true’, but only because they aided (or at the least did not preclude) the ability of our species to survive to the present.

Ron Boothe,

About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2018 Selections, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Why Buddhism is True. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Post-Discussion Commentary regarding Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: II. The Good

  1. kersten says:

    Nicholas Humphrey in his book ‘ Soul Dust ‘ postulates that the self or the I that Mr Dennett wishes to deny was evolved by natural selection in order to give humans the advantage in the survival battle.
    Quote ‘ What was I before I came to self – consciousness . The answer is ; I did not exist , for I was not an I.

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