Who’s your favorite living philosopher? For physicist Sean Carroll, it’s Dan Dennett. And why not? Dennett is committed to a thoroughly scientific view of the world and is probably the best known living philosopher.
Here we present an transcript of their conversation published on 1/6/20, edited for readability and slightly shortened. In a later post, BQTA contributor Rick Lenon, M.D. and I will annotate the transcript with some background and references, and throw a few questions and comments of our own into the discussion. For now, just Dennett and Carroll. The original verbatim transcript as well as the podcast recording can be found on Carroll’s website, https://www.preposterousuniverse.com/podcast/2020/01/06/78-daniel-dennett-on-minds-patterns-and-the-scientific-image/, but we think the edited text of their conversation we have here is more understandable. This is the longest podcast in the excellent Mindscape series, and Carroll’s favorite.
Sean Carroll: Wilfrid Sellars described the task of philosophy as explaining how things, in the broadest sense of term, hang together, in the broadest sense of the term. (Substitute “exploring” for “explaining” and you’d have a good mission statement for the Mindscape podcast.) Few modern thinkers have pursued this goal more energetically, creatively, and entertainingly than Daniel Dennett. One of the most respected philosophers of our time, Dennett’s work has ranged over topics such as consciousness, artificial intelligence, metaphysics, free will, evolutionary biology, epistemology, and naturalism, always with an eye on our best scientific understanding of the phenomenon in question. His thinking in these areas is exceptionally lucid, and he has the rare ability to express his ideas in ways that non-specialists can find accessible and compelling. We talked about all of them, in a wide-ranging and wonderfully enjoyable conversation.
0:00:00 Sean Carroll: In 2020 we’re gonna start off with Daniel Dennett, who is a philosopher who is as well known as any philosopher is in the modern age among the general public, and also once again extraordinarily respected among his professional colleagues. I in particular have enormous respect for what Dan has done.
There’s a framework that ties our conversation together, which is this idea of taking what science teaches us about the world and connecting it to the world of our every day experience.
0:01:34 SC: For whatever science teaches us, it is very often going to be the case that even though it comes ultimately from our experience of the world, the ultimate theories that we end up building might seem very different very surprising even disconcerting. The big bang, cosmology, quantum mechanics, Darwinian evolution are things that you wouldn’t have just guessed just on the basis of your everyday experience without enormous amounts of observation and experimentation into realms that you don’t see in your everyday life.
And therefore the theoretical frameworks you develop don’t sound or feel much like our every day world. This is especially noticeable when it comes to things like consciousness, free will, the nature of human beings.
Dan Dennett has devoted his career to taking discoveries from science— whether it’s neuroscience or biology or what have you, computer science, artificial intelligence— and teasing out their philosophical implications. He is one of the world’s leading philosophical naturalists, not a naturalist in the sense of going out into the forest and poking around the trees and the animals, but a naturalist in the sense of not being a super naturalist. An ontology that says there is only the natural world. How do you then explain things like purposes and meanings? And other things that we human beings naturally associate with our lives here in the world?
That’s what Dan has been trying to figure out for the course of his whole career. He has thought very deeply about the nature of existence, the world we live in, the nature of thought, how we conceptualize what’s going on, and questions that are very important to me like emergence and intentionality, how it’s okay to talk about things like purposes and choices in a world that is ultimately governed by the laws of physics. This is probably my favorite podcast interview that I’ve ever done, and I think that you’re gonna enjoy it just as much.
0:04:31 SC: Dan Dennett, welcome to the Mindscape podcast.
0:04:33 Daniel Dennett: Delighted to be with you.
0:04:35 SC: Something that you said one time, that I’m sure you’ve said many many times, really struck a cord with me. Talking about Wilfrid Sellars and the manifest image and the scientific image and how you thought of your task as a philosopher to reconcile these. Why don’t we begin setting the stage by telling us what these are?
0:04:58 DD: I’m glad you asked. Wilfrid Sellars, great American philosopher, said the job of philosophy was to explain how things in the broadest sense of the term hang together, in the broadest sense of the term. Well, that sounds sort of trivial. What he had in mind is this: there’s all the things of the everyday world: colors and sounds and haircuts and pains and dollars and home runs. Then in the scientific world, there’s electrons and quarks and fields and molecules. How do we relate the things of our everyday, pre-scientific world to the things that science has discovered? And what 100 years and more have shown is that there’s no simple answer.
0:06:13 DD: When I say 100 years I mean, let’s say, since Einstein. That’s when the world really starts to look weird from a scientific point of view, and you have people saying, “Really it’s all just atoms and the void and there’s no such thing as solidity and there’s no such things as colors. And after all, atoms aren’t colored. And the world’s made of atoms. It’s just atoms and empty space.”
DD: At one extreme, you have people who have insisted that the scientific image is the gold standard. That’s what sets what’s real. Everything else is illusion. But as a cartoon I like puts it, “The world we live in may be an illusion, but it’s the only place you can get a good cup of coffee.” So it’s not very helpful to be told that not only do dollars and home runs not exist, but colors don’t exist and pain doesn’t exist. Solidity doesn’t exist. So we have to negotiate between the two worlds. Sellars says, that’s what philosophy is for. That’s about as good a definition of philosophy as I can think of.
0:07:54 SC: But you’re adding a little bit, right? One could buy into Sellars’ formulation while still denying that the manifest image is capturing something real.
0:08:05 DD: Oh yeah, Sellar’s image leaves all the options open. It leaves open both the hardcore scientific realist who says everything else is just illusion. Eliminativism, as philosophers say. Or you could go the other extreme and say the electrons and quarks and all that, that’s just a useful fiction. What’s really real is tables and chairs and people and ideas and love and so forth. So those are the two extremes. And then there’s all kinds of positions in the middle.
My view, which might seem to be giving up, especially to philosophers, is to think we have to learn how to get back and forth between these two images, the manifest image and the scientific image. But the way we do that is not by strict definitions that are counter-example proof. The way we do it is with diplomatic and pedagogical ways of easing the passage.
An old example: Voices. Are voices real? What’s it made of? Is it a bodily part? Is it biological material? But you can record a voice. You can recognize a voice. Voices, if you say what category of things they are, they seem to be almost in a category by themselves. We don’t need a voice-throat problem to go with a mind-body problem.
0:10:15 DD: We may not know how to answer the question of what voices are, but we’re not mystified, we’re not puzzled, we’re not baffled. It’s just a curious fact about the way language and our perception of the world— our pre-scientific perception of the world— carves things up. And the otolaryngologists, and the other biologists and the acoustic engineers can tell us all about voices, without ever settling that issue.
0:10:47 SC: I label this view, in my book The Big Picture, poetic naturalism. The motto being that there’s only one world, the natural world, but there are many ways of talking about it. And those ways all can capture some elements of reality and it’s silly to call them illusions just because they’re not the most fundamental thing.
0:11:05 DD: Gee, I haven’t read your book yet.
0:11:17 SC: The idea was not supposed to be anything original, it’s just a label to help people understand. Because there are people who are eliminativists, right? Who want to say that some of these higher level structures shouldn’t count as real.
0:11:27 DD: Yeah. I’ve been battling against that view for decades.
0:11:39 SC: So therefore you will think of things as consciousness and free will as real? For exactly this kind of reason?
0:11:52 DD: Real, but they’re not what you think they are. That’s my motto. X is real, but it’s not what you think it is.
0:12:01 SC: You wrote a paper a while ago called “Real Patterns”. [The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 88, No. 1. (Jan., 1991), pp. 27-51.] I don’t know if you are aware that this has become an important fun topic in quantum mechanics. David Wallace, who is one of the leading theorists of the Everett (or Many Worlds) interpretation, which I’m also a partisan of, leans on your paper and your notion of real patterns very heavily in his book, The Emergent Multiverse. Trying to explain how the classical world— forget about tables and chairs, but even electrons with positions, and atoms, and things like that— are somehow not there in the most fundamental formulation of quantum mechanics. But they describe the pattern and therefore they’re real.
0:12:48 SC: Can you give the sales pitch for what your view is there in that “Real Patterns” paper?
0:12:57 DD: The main idea of the paper is to think about information theory. To put it in sort of everyday terms, “How big a file do you need to capture this particular phenomenon?”
If you have a checker board which has got just 64 squares and some are black and some are white, it’s pretty easy to give a very limited description of that pattern, and write it on the back of an envelope. If you got a color picture of confetti, and you have to describe it in detail, you’ve got a much bigger file. That’s why some pictures on your phone are bigger, have used more megabytes than other pictures. It all depends on how much complexity there is in the picture. And if there’s no pattern in the picture at all, if it’s just random, oddly enough that’s the one that takes the most information to record because you have recorded every pixel. You can’t say, “Well there’s a region of deep-blue over here and there’s a region of red over here.” Those are nice concise ways of taking advantage of the pattern in the phenomenon. The idea of real patterns is, take any phenomenon and are there patterns in it? A pattern is a summary, something that permits you to generalize so that you’re better than a coin flip about what the next little bit of it is. If you’ve got any predictive edge at all on the data set that you’re looking at, you got a pattern.
0:15:00 SC: Right. We should be happily surprised when there are such patterns. What the patterns enable you to do is to ignore certain pieces of information.
0:15:14 DD: Absolutely. Evolution— natural selection— has designed organisms to be ruthless pattern finders, to ignore almost all the information that’s officially available at their surfaces and just focus on what matters to them. If they can latch onto those patterns, they can feed themselves and avoid getting eaten; live long happy lives and mate and all the rest. So, the idea of a pattern is I think a very useful and deep idea. It can be given a nice clear mathematical formulation. And it’s the key. What science does is find patterns, but it’s also what the manifest image does. We take for granted all the patterns that we see. In fact, we do more than that. We over-interpret them. That is, if we see two things that look the same shade of green to us, we think, “Well, deep-deep down, they are the same.” No. They might be green for entirely different reasons. They might be so-called metamers and they only look the same color to us because we’re green-green color blind.
0:17:55 I did a podcast with Melanie Mitchell, who is a computer scientist, about the struggle of artificial intelligence to capture common sense. Would it be off-base to think that some of this struggle has to do with the fact that even AI’s very advanced Deep Learning networks are not as good at finding the patterns as a human intelligence is?
0:18:25 DD: I think that’s true except for the fact that if you crank your deep learning system long enough, it’ll find patterns where there aren’t any patterns. Deep learning systems— algorithms— are very good at squeezing pattern out of apparently random data. That’s how the neuroscientists categorize on this FMRI data about what’s going on in people’s heads. They discover they can make a prediction about what a person is going to do 10 seconds later. Yeah, they can. And that shows that it’s a real pattern. But a lot of the patterns they find by these methods aren’t real. That is, they don’t predict the thing.
SC: What AI — the Deep Learning networks— are so good at is manipulating huge amounts of data. They don’t need to be as tricky as human beings are to find the patterns.
DD: We pay a price for that. It’s not a miracle. The price we pay is that we have a lot of false positives. We see a lot more pattern in the world than it is really there. We see similarities that are only similar in that they have the same effect on us, but they are otherwise as different as can be.
0:20:00 SC: Does the word real in the phrase “Real patterns” have the same meaning as the word “real” when we were just talking about baseballs being real?
DD: Well, that was the idea. I wanted to say, if we have the concept of a pattern, we do have some pretty good tests as to whether it’s real. That is, to put it bluntly, can you make money betting on it? If you can, it’s predictive, it’s real. And that’s a touchstone of reality that seems to hold up very well. Let’s say maybe patterns are the thing that’s most obviously where we can make a real vs non-real distinction. And every other distinction between real and unreal— real and fictional, real and bogus— is somehow dependent on that.
0:21:05 SC: So if there’s a room and there’s this huge number of atoms in the room, and if you were infinitely smart and I gave you the location of all the atoms and their velocities, then you could predict anything. You could be Laplace’s Demon. But the patterns— the other structures— are the idea that I could give you much less information than that. I could say there’s a baseball and it’s headed toward a window. And then you could infer an enormous amount from that. And therefore, baseballs are real in some sense.
0:21:37 DD: That’s right. Years ago I concocted an example to show the power of this. We have a visiting Martian, who’s a sort of Laplacian Demon. He’s in somebody’s house and the phone rings and the lady picks up the phone and says, “Yes dear, you’re bringing the boss home for dinner? Do get a bottle of wine on your way home. See you in half an hour.” Hangs up, okay. So now, both the woman and the Martian predict that within 30 minutes two people are gonna walk in the door, one of them holding a glass bottle filled with an alcoholic beverage. But the Laplacian Demon has had to trace out the whole trajectory— the stop signs, and the lights. and the paying of the wine… Every photon, and to the Laplacian, this is a miraculous prediction. How did she do this without all that information? Well, very simple. She understood what was being said.
0:22:45 SC: So let’s take this point of view— patterns at the higher level capture some influence, some predictability of the world— and apply it to the difficult cases where we have things like people and agents. Another phrase that you popularized way back in the day is “the intentional stance”. We might ask, are these real? Or do they have some special status? Things like intentions, reasons why, about-ness, why a certain painting is about something. So how do those boundary-contentious words fit into this picture?
0:23:30 DD: Oh they fit in beautifully. The intentional stance patterns are just one particular set of patterns. They’re the set of patterns that have to do with living agents and non living agents— that living agents have made. And what’s the simplest one? When I first started writing about the intentional stance, I chose a thermostat. Because you can consider the thermostat as a little agent that can be instructed to keep a certain temperature. It senses the temperature and when the temperature falls below the set line, it has a desire to raise the temperature. Treat a thermostat as an agent surrogate. You could have a person standing there and throwing logs on the fire, but you can replace it with this dead simple thing. You can explain it to a child without going into the mechanics. There are 100 different ways you can make a thermostat.
0:24:50 SC: In other words, you can explain it in terms of its purpose, rather than its atoms.
DD: Exactly. Considered as a little homunculus, a little agent, and it has one desire only. And that is to maintain the temperature, but it has a way of sensing the temperature and responding to changes by making an appropriate move.
SC: By the way, this is the way that one gets taught about transistors in physics class. As if there’s a little man in there, transistor man, who decides how much current to let through.
0:25:20 DD: Well, it turns out that this tactic— this strategy— of adopting the intentional stance works throughout biology. It works not just for brains and for higher organisms. It works for bacteria. It works for archaea. It works for single celled organisms. The question is, does it work for things smaller and simpler than that? Well I like to say, we’re robots made of robots made of robots made of robots made of robots… And once you get down to sub-cellular, you get down to the canasins, the motor proteins, and tubulin, and things like that. Think of ribosomes, fantastic little machines. You can treat them from the intentional stance.
0:26:20 SC: They have a job to do.
DD: They have a job to do and they know how to do it. One of the things that I particularly like about motor proteins is that — it now turns out — basically they’re sailing. They’re using the storm of the water molecules inside the sail, and they have sort of ratchets in their feet, so they’re actually selectively using the energy in the random bombardment of the water molecules as a source of power. It reminds me of Ricky Skaggs, great line, “I can’t control the wind, but I can trim the sails.” And that’s your basic agent, and it’s just a protein.
0:27:10 SC: Right, right. It’s a little Maxwell’s Demon. In the last just 15 or 20 years, this has become another hot topic in physics, understanding these non-equilibrium fluctuations and very very tiny things. It’s probably still under-appreciated in my personal world how much this transition from the world of individual particles— where it would make no sense to adopt the intentional stance— to the macroscopic world is driven by entropy and the arrow of time.
0:27:40 DD: I’m not a 100% sure of this, but I think the key element to being an agent is having a history. A history that makes a difference. That is, something can happen to it that changes it, and that changes it again, and it has a sort of memory.
0:28:15 DD: An interesting thing about electrons, they don’t pick up scars or dirt or anything. An electron over a billion years doesn’t change at all, and that’s a huge difference. We had a wonderful argument at the Santa Fe Institute with David Wolpert and his colleagues, and one of our big issues was whether tornadoes count as agents.
SC: I’m trying to predict which side you are on. I can’t do it.
0:28:50 DD: I was against it, because I didn’t think that the tornado could actually explain information.
SC: It’s a complex system but ascribing agency or intention to it doesn’t seem to help as much.
DD: But it was a very illuminating discussion. So, if you want to look at the boundaries, you want to look at things like tornados or motor proteins. In the living world, everything bigger than a motor protein is a designed thing and it has purposes. It’s got parts that have jobs to do.
SC: I think participating in the arrow of time is probably a necessary pre-condition for being an agent in this sense. The thing about an electron is, as you said, they don’t have scars. They don’t change over time. More complicated things have different access to the past versus the future. They have memories of the past and they can a little bit all they can do is predict the future. And that’s when it becomes, that’s when purposes and things like that might become necessary. So, I presume what you’re going to say is that ascribing intentionality or purposes to things… there’s a reason why we do that. It makes sense for ribosomes. It makes sense in exactly the same way for human beings, not in a different way.
0:30:20 DD: Absolutely. It’s interesting to think about the history of this. Before there was language, you didn’t have any agents that were comparing notes, that were arguing, that were explaining. Language brought into the world— onto our earth— something that Wilfrid Sellars called, “the Space of Reasons”, and this is where human persuasion and explanation and querying and challenging happens. The whys and the becauses. The arrival, the emergence, of the Space of Reasons has to have an evolutionary history too. And this only in one species. So, that’s why I’m interested so much in the evolution of language and in evolution of human minds which are profoundly different from even chimpanzee minds or dolphin minds or whale minds. Human minds are really different, and they’re different precisely because they are obliged to articulate reasons.
0:32:17 DD: They learn how to do this, and it’s an imperfect business, and some are better than others, but it’s the fundamental basis for morality. If you are responsible, it’s because you respond to reason. You can’t argue a bear out of what it’s doing, but a human being is supposed to be persuadable.
0:32:34 SC: So, you can train or teach a dolphin or a dog or whatever, but you don’t give it a reason why. It’s pure stimulus and response, right?
0:32:55 DD: Recently, in my work I’ve had lots of examples of what I call free-floating rationales. This is where the reasons are clear, but they’re not the reasons of the organisms involved. So, the stotting or pronking gazelles are throwing these great extravagant leaps while they’re running away from the lions. It’s a tremendous waste of energy and it makes it dangerous. What they’re doing is they’re showing off. They are signaling to the lions, “Don’t bother try to catch me. I can throw these big expensive dangerous leaps and still outrun you. Go after my cousin over there, he can’t do it.” The lions believe them and the evidence for this is pretty clear.
0:33:50 DD: This is a testable and tested hypotheses and sure enough, the lions discriminate and they don’t go for the ones that are stunting. Now, I’ve given you the rational explanation. The lions are, in effect, wise to take this information that’s being offered to them. It benefits both the speedy gazelle and the lion who doesn’t have to work as hard to get his supper. And there’s lots and lots of cases of this. But don’t think that the lion understands this or that the gazelle understands this. This is a rationale that has been uncovered by natural selection. The gazelle just doesn’t know why it wants to make those leaps if it can. The lion doesn’t know why it doesn’t care for those jumpy ones. They don’t have to know. So they are the beneficiaries of a rational system that they don’t have to understand.
0:35:00 SC: And that’s more or less exactly the same sense in which AlphaGo doesn’t know why it puts a certain token on the Go board in some way. It knows what to do. It couldn’t tell you why.
0:35:11 DD: So do the ribosomes in every one of your cells. There’s a rationale for every part of the job. If you look at the machinery, elegant, elegant, engineering. But the ribosome doesn’t know, and in fact, no agent figured that out in advance. The Nobel-winning molecular biologists, the chemists, they worked it out for the first time what the rationale is, but the rationale is secure as anything.
0:35:50 SC: And in some sense— because we’re among philosophers here— the fact that we human beings can attach reasons to this has to do with some sort of counter-factual thought experiment. If the gazelles were not leaping in that way, then we know that the lions would chase them, even if the gazelles don’t know that.
0:36:10 DD: The intentional stance is like an instinct. It’s a Baldwin effect. [In evolutionary biology, the Baldwin effect describes the effect of learned behavior on evolution. wikipedia] It first came on the scene in its articulate form with human beings discovering they could talk about the reasons why things were happening. We’re very, very good at it. And in fact, if you wanna see it as an instinct, you can go back and see the early animations of simple triangles and circles moving around on the screen. Everybody looks at it and says, “Oh, the big circle is trying to catch the little circle.” Everybody instantly sees intentionality and purpose in these cases. Infants, quite young infants, are puzzled by violations of the apparent agency in very, very simple displays.
GNS: Dennett is refering to movies made by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel. Heider, F. and M. Simmel, 1944, “An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior”, American Journal of Psychology, 57: 243–259.
0:37:30 SC: But in circles and triangles, isn’t that an edge case here, because we’re saying that the ascribing of intentions to human beings or to the behavior of the gazelles is real and true, whereas presumably it’s not real and true in the case of the circles and triangles?
DD: Whose experiments am I thinking of? A German psychologist. [Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel 1944] When he made the films to show to people, he deliberately set out to create these intentional patterns. the films to show to people, he deliberately set out to create these intentional patterns.
SC: I see. There was an intention working behind the scenes.
0:38:15 DD: In fact, he tested this by having randomly moving circles and triangles, and people did not attribute intentionality to those. That was just noise. In the same way, natural selection has enforced the patterns that we see in the jumping gazelles and the lions. That’s not just random. So we can see intention where there’s none. We’re very good at that. It’s called paranoia.
SC: Thomas Pynchon has some novels about this. And you can see it emerging, I guess. You don’t use the word emergence that much, but are you happy with the word?
0:39:15 DD: Emergence is a word that I don’t use much, because it has a sordid history in philosophy, where emergence comes to mean woo woo, inexplicable.
SC: Physicists use it all the time, but I’m warned by my philosophy colleagues I shouldn’t.
0:39:40 DD: In fact, when John Holland wrote his book Emergence, I said, “John, you’ve got to put a foreword in where you say what you don’t mean.” And I completely approve of John Holland’s work on emergence, because it does not mean that this is an inexplicable pattern, precisely not. In fact, I like to illustrate emergence with John Horton Conway’s Life World and the amazing patterns that emerge there, and say, look, that’s emergence, and that’s completely explainable and predictable. There’s no question mark anywhere in that system, but it creates stunning emergent effects.
0:40:40 SC: Yeah. And you can talk this higher-level vocabulary and capture some of the real.
DD: That’s what emergence gets you.
0:42:00 SC: So with that definition of emergence on the table, it seems to make sense that patterns are real, if we’re gonna ascribe reality to these higher-level things that give us some way of capturing what’s going on. Purposes and intentions are in that bucket. They serve a purpose. So now we get to consciousness. Maybe I’ll just let you fit it in.
0:42:26 DD: And it emerges in this innocent sense. The idea that it’s one thing, that everything in the universe is either conscious or not, that it’s the light is on or the light is off, that is, I think a fundamental error. But it’s very widespread. It’s just amazing how many really deep and clever thinkers can’t get out of their heads that consciousness is all or nothing. And I think, no, it’s emergent. What that means is that the search for the simplest form of consciousness, that’s a snipe hunt, it’s a wild goose chase. Because it emerges. And yes, starfish have some of the aspects of consciousness, so do trees and bacteria and as you do.
0:43:50 SC: But not electrons?
DD: But not electrons. And we can argue about motor proteins.
0:44:00 SC: But once you admit that, it’s nothing mystical. Something that builds up, then you can write it.
DD: And the question where do you draw the line is an ill motivated question. That’s like where do you draw the line between night and day?
0:44:10 SC: Do you have a simple definition of what consciousness is that you prefer?
SC: You did write a book called, Consciousness Explained, so this might be an okay question.
0:42:04 DD: I did, but I think that’s the way science proceeds too. Scientists don’t sit around wasting hours and hours and hours trying to define time or energy. They get on with the theory and once they’ve got a really good theory, it will be obvious what time or energy is. And I think that’s the same as consciousness.
0:45:00 SC: Okay. But still, you must have something in mind.
DD: Let’s talk about human consciousness. My view is an embattled one, but I’m pretty sure of it. Human consciousness is much different from the consciousness of any other species. There are many reasons why this is hard to see. One is that consciousness has a moral dimension. We want to be kind to animals, so when we say, “Well yes dogs are conscious but not the way we are”, people immediately get their backs up, “He’s about ready to talk about mistreating animals.” No, no, no. I think the properties of human consciousness that we share with dogs and mammals and birds, to some degree with reptiles and fish, have moral significance. So let’s see if we can take moral significance as itself a graded notion. Under British law, Octopus Vulgaris is protected. It’s an honorary vertebrate. It’s against the law to throw a live octopus on a hot grill. It’s not all cephalopods. It probably should be. Squid, you want to throw a squid on a live grill, you can.
0:47:15 SC: But the point is that you are allowed to boil a lobster. I think cut-offs are okay in general for these tricky questions. People say, “Well if you draw a line here, then they argue about either side.” But you gotta draw it somewhere, especially for legal purposes.
0:47:45 DD: What we should recognize is the law draws lines that are reasonable to the vast majority of people, and we can talk about exceptions. And this is an interesting case. The wonderfulness of octopus, the amount of convergent evolution between octopus and human beings is enough to push them over the line. And I think I approve. Before we put the moral issue behind us, we should know that almost nobody wants to hold any non-human species morally responsible for their behavior. That’s key. They may be moral patients, but they’re not moral agents. A bear that kills a tourist has not committed murder. Because they don’t have the mental wherewithal, they don’t have the kind of free will that we have.
0:49:00 SC: We couldn’t have offered them a reason not to do that.
DD: That’s right. We can’t expect them to appreciate the societal norms that we’ve set up and so forth. So don’t look in the bear’s brain and a human brain for the fact that one of them is indeterministic and the other one is deterministic. Determinism has nothing to do with the issue. It has to do with information. It has to do with self control and with degrees of freedom. And degrees of freedom is a term that I’ve been using more and more recently, and really seeing it come more out of engineering than out of physics, and thinking a degree of freedom is an opportunity for control. You can clamp a degree of freedom and then you don’t have to control it. You can just lock it down in one way or another.
0:50:10 DD: How many degrees of freedom do we have? Millions. Billions, because if we can think about so many things we have orders of magnitude more degrees of freedom than a bear does.
SC: With roughly the same number of cells and so forth, but the complexity is much higher.
0:50:30 DD: Yeah. It means that the options that the bear has are a vanishing subset of the options that we have. Learning to control our perusal of those options, that’s not a science, it’s an art. We try to train our kids so that when we launch them, and they are no longer in our control, they will be able to control themselves in ways that will lead them to have happy and productive lives. If they can’t, they are going to get in trouble.
0:51:30 SC: You’ve used the word agent a few times, and I use it all the time, but we haven’t yet described what that word means. So it’s clearly a relationship between agency, responsibility, consciousness. Is there a simple definition of “agent” if not of “consciousness”?
0:51:40 DD: Agents come in all sizes and shapes too. A few minutes ago we were talking about bacteria as agents, viruses as agents. So that’s not the sense of “agent”. We want a moral agent. We want to talk about a moral agent as not just a locus of self control with purposes and an ability to fend for itself, and prolong its existence and enhance its circumstances. That’s a pretty good definition of an agent: something that can fend off the second law of thermodynamics, fend off dissolution. Mountains aren’t agents because of erosion. They can’t protect themselves, or move or anything.
0:52:44 SC: But you can see why tornados are an interesting edge case.
0:52:47 DD: Exactly and that’s why tornadoes are an edge case. But at the most sophisticated, as we climb that ladder, a pretty good scale would be: how many degrees of freedom are available for control? When it gets up into the billions, as it does for even young children, now we’re talking about potential moral agents. A moral agent is simply a human being— at the moment we don’t have any other, we could but we don’t— a human being that is mature enough to control the degrees of freedom that matter when they matter, and to be able to foresee and understand the outcomes of possible actions, and act accordingly. I call it a member of the moral agents club.
0:54:18 SC: Good. I think that does make sense to me, but it deviated us from our task, which was explaining the salient features of human consciousness.
0:54:27 DD: One of the curious features of the way the science has proceeded here is that of the many theories of consciousness, only a tenth have a theory. This is the inbound path or the upward path, and we get from the photons striking the retina, and the sound waves and up and up through the nervous system, up through the various cortical areas, and then ta-da, consciousness happens. That’s the end of the theory. Wait a minute, I want to ask what I call the hard question: And then what happens? What makes whatever you say amount to consciousness? What does it enable? What does becoming conscious of this or that enable the agent whose consciousness it is to do? Or disable that agent from doing? What effects does it have on those multiple degrees of freedom? And the answer is, almost anything can happen, but we need to have the neuro-scientific theory of how that can be true, and how the various sequelae, the various outcomes, can spell themselves out.
0:56:15 DD: Some people’s theories of consciousness are a little bit like somebody who mounts a closed-circuit TV camera on the hood of his car and puts a receiver under the hood so the car can see where it’s going. No! What’s going to consume that information? Ruth Millikan talks about the consumers of representations. And in scientific theories of consciousness, there has been a systematic neglect of the consumers.
0:57:07 SC: Sorry, the consumers are? Didn’t understand that.
DD: The consumers are, ultimately, neural structures that respond to representations spread all over the brain in waves that give rise to the ability of people to report and reflect on and remember. There’s a tremendous difference between sensing something and noticing that you’re sensing something. And noticing that you’re noticing that you’re sensing something.
SC: The first time I ever was familiar with your work was the collection you did with Douglas Hofstadter called The Mind’s I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul (1982). I’m not sure that at that young age when I came across it, I absorbed it very much, but the one idea that kept coming through was this recursive self-awareness idea of looking at ourselves, and that has something to do with what it means to be conscious.
0:58:03 DD: Recursion, and Doug is the maestro there. His book I Am A Strange Loop is really a retelling of what he did in his earlier work in Gödel, Escher, Bach. And the amazing thing about Gödel, Escher, Bach is that it was a bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner, and a lot of people read it, but a lot of people didn’t understand it.
DD: So I Am A Strange Loop is, in a way, Doug’s attempt to do what Hume did. Hume wrote A Treatise of Human Nature, which he said fell dead-born from the press. Then he had to write the Inquiry so that people would understand what he was saying in the Treatise. And so Doug had to write I Am A Strange Loop. Recursion is this capacity for indefinite reflection, and reflection on reflection. Because whenever you can reflect in this way, in effect you create a new object to think about. Let’s take a frog. A frog has a fairly complicated life, and it’s faced at every moment with a number of opportunities, and it survives if it makes good decisions at those opportunities. Those are degrees of freedom, and it controls them as best it can.
0:59:50 SC: Frogs are agents, they fend for themselves.
DD: Yeah. But they don’t know they have opportunities. There’s no sign that they can think about their opportunities as opportunities. The reason this, I think, quite obvious fact is hidden from us is what I sometimes call the Beatrix Potter Syndrome. Whenever we see a clever animal— or animal doing something that is appropriate and reasonable, sly— we find it almost irresistible to attribute to the animal the understanding that we have of what it’s doing. The fact is that very often it’s clueless. It’s the beneficiary of a very good system that it doesn’t have to understand. And that’s even true of a lot of human behavior. One of my favorite examples is Grice’s theory of meaning. According to Paul Grice, the late great Paul Grice, when you and I converse, when an utterer gives you a speech act— when I utter a speech act— I intend you to form a belief based on my speech act, but I also intend you to recognize that I have that intention. So we get third-order, I intend you to believe that I intend…
1:01:40 SC: The intentionality on both sides is key.
DD: You’ve got reflexivity. Grice’s theory, there was something clearly wonderful about this theory. But as a theory of human everyday psychology, it’s nuts. Kids have deep and wonderful conversations with their parents and their peers long before they have the capacity to reflect in this way. What you have to understand is that Grice wasn’t lying. He was uncovering the free-floating rationales of human communication. He was doing the same thing that the ethologists are doing when they figure out what the stotting is all about. He’s finding the rationales. This is why communication has the forms it does. This is why it works, and these are the conditions. And various individuals can be more or less virtuosic in their sensitivity to this. You wouldn’t want to be constantly thinking about recognizing the intentions of this person you’re speaking to, because if you did, you couldn’t pay attention to what they were saying.
1:03:15 SC: This idea of the frog not worrying too much about its decision-making is fascinating. I did a podcast with Malcolm MacIver, who is a neuroscientist and mechanical engineer at Northwestern, and he is trying to explore the idea that one of the major transitions that led to consciousness was when fish climbed up on land, the idea being that a fish, swimming around at a few meters per second, is underwater and can only see a few meters in front of it. All of its evolutionary pressures are to make decisions very rapidly. Once you climb up on land and you can see for kilometers, there’s a new space of possibilities that opens up, namely imagine different possible things to do and contemplate which one would be best. And so he says that climbing up onto land enabled the evolution of imagination, which was a crucial step along the road to consciousness.
1:04:10 DD: Oh, that’s nice. I’m not sure I believe it, but it’s a nice variation on a theme that I’m very fond of, and that’s Andrew Parker’s idea about the Cambrian explosion. Parker hypothesizes that the shallow ocean became transparent in a way it hadn’t been before, and this suddenly permitted distal perception, permitted eyesight. And the book is called In the Blink of an Eye. He argues that the arms race of predator and prey locomotion, camouflage, armor— this all was generated by a growing transparency. It’s not the only theory out there, but it’s one that I think there’s got to be an element of truth in it. I’ve been arguing that what we’re facing right now is the second great transparency, and that’s the electronic transparency. Everybody’s now worried, and so they should be, about privacy. We can now see farther and we can see into things we could never see into before, but we can also be watched and we can be seen.
1:05:30 SC: Yeah, our sensory capacity’s for better or for worse…
DD: To invert the image, we’re all now living in a fish bowl.
1:05:41 SC: Okay, but wait a minute. You did not use the phrase “the hard problem,” but you did use the phrase “the hard question”. There’s at least a family resemblance between the distinction you’re drawing between the bottom-up theories of consciousness and top-down and Chalmers’s distinction between the easy problem and the Hard Problem.
1:06:00 DD: It’s not coincidental. I asked the Hard Question before David raised the Hard Problem, which I have been throwing pails of cold water on for decades now. I think that the Hard Problem, Chalmers’ problem, is precisely the fix you get yourself into if you stop and don’t try to answer the Hard Question. If you don’t ask the Hard Question “then what happens,” then you’re left with this gob-smacking, jaw-dropping, mind-deadening mystery.
1:06:40 SC: For the audience, just let’s very briefly let’s tell them what the Hard Question is that you have and the Hard Problem that Chalmers likes to emphasize.
1:06:50 DD: David introduces the Hard Problem by contrasting it with the easy problems. The easy problems are how does your brain discriminate things, how does it move your tongue in language, how does it do all the cognition that you engage in, how does it recognize things and have memory and all the rest. Those are the easy problems. So what’s the Hard Problem?
1:07:16 SC: He, by the way, recognizes they’re not actually easy.
DD: Yes, he does. The Hard Problem is the problem of why is it like anything at all to be me. And what’s red? What’s my experience of red or pain? And these are so-called qualia. It’s a philosopher’s term, comes from the Latin, it just means quality or property, really. But qualia are a term of art in philosophy and I think it’s a bad one. It’s an artifact of bad theorizing which has led to hundreds of careers of misguided thinking about mind and consciousness, and alas, a lot of scientists have been seduced by it. So that they think that philosophers have this idea of qualia, and qualia that’s where the going really gets tough. It’s explaining qualia, those subjective properties. That’s the Hard Problem. How do we explain qualia? And Chalmers has been arguing for this for decades and recently he’s written a paper on the meta-problem. And the meta-problem is, “Why do we have a Hard Problem?” And to which part of my response is, “What do you mean we?” Dogs don’t have a hard problem. That doesn’t mean they’re not conscious, it means they’re not reflexively, ruminatively, theoretically conscious of their consciousness. That’s only for us. The Hard Problem arises as an artifact of the fact that we’re reflective. And in our reflections we focus on what is otherwise a stunning embarrassment. When we look inside to see what’s going on, mainly we can’t tell.
1:09:49 DD: Well let’s think about seeing for a moment. I look out the window and I see a birdhouse on a stake between two trees. How do I know I see it? Well if I close my eyes, I can’t see it anymore. Alright, so I now know light has to bounce off, and the photons have to come into my eye, and blah blah blah, retina ganglion cells, lateral geniculate nucleus, and so on. But that’s nothing to which I have direct access. That’s something I had to learn from books. That’s third person knowledge of the process. My first person knowledge is very limited. I tell you there’s a birdhouse out there. “How do you know?” “I can see it.” “What do you mean?” “Well my eyes are open and there it is.” “Well how do you know that you’re seeing a birdhouse?” “Well ’cause it looks like I birdhouse.”
DD: “But how do you know it looks like a birdhouse? What’s going on inside?” “I don’t know, it just looks like a birdhouse. I can describe it in more detail if you want.” Now, nobody is freaked out apparently, by the fact that neuroscientists can come in and figure out all these amazing details about what happens between the eyeball and the lips, let’s say, mainly between the eyeball and your experience. Notice that that’s only half the story. The other half of the story is what happens between the experience and your ability to talk about it, and answer all these questions. It’s just as much neuroscience to go into that, as it is to go into the first part. If you stop with experience, then you simply like declaring victory half-way through the battle. No, you don’t have a theory of consciousness until you’ve explained what happens next. I like to point out that if you have a theory of consciousness that still has a witness in it, you’ve only got half a theory.
1:12:25 SC: So you wanna turn experience into something going on in the brain and the neurons, and that would be a necessary part of your theory.
DD: And all the reactions to the experience. A good theory of consciousness, when we finally have one, will be like Leibniz’s mill. It will be like a deserted factory. There’s nobody home, there’s no agents, it’s all just machinery. A theory of consciousness simply has to have that form. And people who resist that, like Chalmers, they’ve got a Hard Problem, in fact, they’ve got a systematically impossible problem. At least I can say, “I’ll show you how to get out of the Hard Problem.” Namely, by asking and then answering the Hard Question. And then what happens?
DD: I’ve hit on this with the philosopher Keith Frankish. If you have ever piloted a drone, you’ve had the remote unit in your hands, and you’re making the drone go where it’s going. You’re looking at the little screen and using the joysticks and all that. That remote controller for the drone, that’s the Cartesian Theater outside. It’s a control room for the drone.
1:13:53 DD: So now, suppose we were to emancipate a drone. In other words, all the control decisions that you were doing while you’re piloting the drone, we’re going to upload those, put them on-board the drone. It’s already got a lot of self-control on board, but we want to get every last bit of decision-making and discrimination and noticing and control all into the drone. To do that, we’ll be asking and answering the Hard Question. Notice, by the way, the first thing you do once you start doing that is you throw away the screen.
1:14:40 DD: You don’t need the screen. You’ve already got all the spatial information in just the form you want it for uploading. Namely, you’ve got it into bit strings that can be computed. You’ve got just the medium you need. Now, that may not be the brain’s medium, but at least you’ve got it into the medium that you’re gonna have to get it into for controlling the drone in various ways. In our thought experiment— very extended thought experiment, unpublished, we’re just working on it— we point out the importance of instead of just rewiring it when it comes back from each mission, or reprogramming it, we want to be able to inform it, suggest things to it, talk with it. We want it to be in the space of reasons.
1:15:30 DD: We want to install language. But we don’t want to install language the old-fashioned, good old-fashioned AI way by designing it and simply putting it in. We want it to learn in negotiation with us. We want it to be able to have its own way of making points. And as we think about the task of helping a drone create a language that it can use to communicate with us, we’d like it to be as close to English as we can get it. But we want the drone to learn English, not just be wired up for English at birth. This will give us models of answers to all the hard questions.
1:16:40 SC: It might not be the correct answer for our brains.
DD: It might not be. I think that’s the way AI has always been. It gives you an existence proof. This may not be the way we do it, but it’s a way of doing this job. The idea that it’s magic or beyond human ken? We know it’s not beyond human ken because we found a way of doing it. It’s very hard to even ask the hard questions. First of all, we have no personal private knowledge about how we do it. Suppose I asked you to imagine three cows standing in the field, and the one on the left is brown and the other two are mottled. You can do it.
SC: I do it, yep.
DD: Yeah. How?
1:18:00 SC: I don’t know.
DD: You don’t know? You heard my request and you were able to act on it. Now, an interesting thing about just a simple case like that. Another example. I want you to imagine putting a plastic bucket over your head and climbing hand over hand up a rope.
1:18:25 DD: Now, I deliberately chose items that would not be alien to, say, a chimpanzee in the zoo. Can the chimpanzee stimulate its own brain? We can’t ask it. Can it ask itself? Does it have the layer of control over its own cognitive processes so that, as it sat there not otherwise occupied, it could manipulate those familiar items of its experience? Good question. I don’t know the answer, but I suspect the answer is no, and I suspect the answer is no because you can’t do that wordlessly until you can do it interactively with language. Without language, I don’t think you have the systems in your cognitive system for self-stimulation, for self-probing, that we have. We are virtuoso self-probers of our own brain.
1:20:08 SC: It’s very interesting that you say exactly that, because I once asked Steven Pinker, what is the role that language plays in consciousness? And he says none whatsoever. He said it’s a completely different thing.
1:20:20 DD: Yes, I know Steve’s view well, and I think Steve is tremendously smart, much smarter than some of his critics take him to be, but I think he’s wrong about this.
SC: Got it, okay. I didn’t know whether all the experts had a point of view or there was contention.
DD: I’m pretty much out on a limb here in claiming, as I did in Consciousness Explained, that human language doesn’t just let us talk about what we’re conscious of. Human language allows us to be conscious of things that we otherwise wouldn’t be conscious of, things that bears and dogs and fish and birds are not conscious of the way we are.
1:21:20 SC: I think once you appreciate that recursion and self-representation are crucial, then obviously language is a hugely useful tool.
1:21:30 DD: This is a strange inversion of Chomsky’s view. Chomsky has the, I think, bizarre view that recursion is a shazam gift of natural selection— this giant leap so that once you have recursion, then everything else falls into place. It is the basis for language. There’s a sense in which I think he’s almost right, but I think it’s the other way around. I think language does not make any heavy use of recursion in its controls, yet gradually creates in us the capacity to create recursive levels in our own brains. And it goes back to some examples of a few minutes ago. I can ask you, now I want you to imagine a blue triangle, and you can do that. Not perfectly. Daniel Dor has a book called The Instruction of Imagination, which is a wonderfully un-Chomskian look at language, and I think he’s got a lot of this right.
DD: What language permits is the development of sort of a place to stand. You know, Archimedes and his “Give me a place to stand and I’ll move the world with a lever.” Language gives us places to stand in our own cognition, which permit us then to self-stimulate, to probe, to explore our own brains. That’s what creates recursion, and that’s what creates the creatures of recursion, which I think are like qualia. It creates a whole menagerie of properties that are not real properties. They are properties that are the effects. Well no it’s hard to say this. They are subjective in the sense that the appreciation of the property is what brings it into existence.
1:24:27 SC: I think I probably agree with you too much about all these issues, but let me, for purposes of podcast conversation, try to channel the skeptics. They place a huge amount of emphasis on the distinction between an external third-person view and the internal first-person perspective. Chalmers goes so far as to imagine the possibility of a p-zombie that could act exactly like you do, but have no inner conscious experience. It always seems like a bit of a conversation stopper to me, that idea that you need to speak the language of first-person subjective experience even to have this conversation, because we’re all different.
1:25:18 DD: I think the idea of a philosophical zombie is just an embarrassment. One philosopher once said to me, “Dan, if I understand you right, if I wanna talk about philosophical zombies I should probably put a paper bag over my head.” I said, “Yeah.”
1:25:40 SC: Well, I do think that they’re not possible, or not conceivable. I think they’re incoherent.
DD: Whatever it was trying to do, it doesn’t do a real job. And it creates just a distracting monster that should be ignored.
Let’s look at the job it was trying to do. You had a pretty good version of it just now when you said it looks as if we can’t just stay with the third-person point of view, we need the first-person point of view. So let’s agree that what’s really amazing is that you have your point of view and I have my point of view, and we know that. We can spend all day comparing our points of view, and that’s a phenomenon that we want to explain.
Let’s imagine some Martian scientists or utterly alien intelligences. They’ve got a lot of good science though, and they come to our planet. Let’s suppose that they— if we can imagine this and maybe we can’t— but let’s start with the idea that we can imagine they have no idea of consciousness or qualia at all.
1:27:27 SC: Martian zombies.
DD: They’re Martian zombies. Philosophical zombies that are earthlings know all about consciousness. They have to, to get by in the world. But these are aliens and they come in they study us. Are they going to discover the first-person point of view? Of course they are. How? By reading our novels and by hearing how we talk to each other. We have filled the world with public third person accessible representations of our own first-person subjectivity. Stream of consciousness novels. This is all available. This is data, hard data to the Martian zombies. They can go and hunt through our libraries or watch our television shows and just overhear conversations. If they learn the rules of baseball and how do the stock market works, they’re also going to learn that we all have a first-person point of view.
1:28:55 SC: I did try unsuccessfully to convince Chalmers that the philosophical zombie argument was a great argument for physicalism, because if you really believe that the zombie would act exactly as the same collection of atoms that had consciousness would, then you could ask it what it was experiencing. It would say, “Oh I’m experiencing pain” or red, or whatever. But by hypothesis, it’s not. So it’s lying. Therefore, you don’t know if you’re experiencing those things either, because that’s exactly what you would do. But he didn’t buy that.
1:29:28 DD: I don’t know I haven’t tried the same argument on him. I think in the end, for David, and for Galen Strawson, they’re just so sure that their intuition about their first-person point of view is right that they can’t they can’t even for the sake of argument abandon that intuition. I appreciate that reluctance. I feel the same way when physicists start asking me to set aside some of my intuitions about space and time. I say “I hear you”, but if I try to abandon that intuition, I don’t know what to trust.
1:30:40 SC: It calls up the reliability of the usefulness of introspection generally. Introspection is where we get a lot of these ideas of our experiences. Should we be generally skeptical of introspection? Certainly we learn something from it?
1:30:54 DD: We learn something from it but yes we should be skeptical. First of all, let’s start small and build up. I love to point out to my students and others all the ways in which their consciousness isn’t the way they think it is. For instance, it seems that our color vision goes right way out to the edge of our vision. It doesn’t. It seems that we have high resolution vision out to the side. We don’t. I love to point out that a lot of things are surprising, that I can demonstrate to them. Who knew that? Well you didn’t, did you? So forget about the so-called incorrigibility of first-person acquaintance. That’s just a mistake. That doesn’t mean that we’re not reliable informants to ourselves and others about many features. But forget about this Cartesian idea that on the inside we are the masters of what’s going on.
1:32:03 SC: So you’re saying that even when we experience the outside world there’s a lot of stitching and jiggery-pokery that comes together to give us this image we have, so why shouldn’t the same thing be true about our introspection.
1:32:14 DD: I think that we have very clear cases where people miss-introspect, if you like, and that raises the possibility— which every theorist is really sort of honor-bound to take seriously— that their deepest intuitions, their most cherished intuitions about what their first person experience is, might be mistaken. Well, now you may go “I can see where Dennet is going here. He’s going to the idea that we’re all zombies, but that we have these strong intuitions that we’re not.” And in a sense, I think that’s right.
1:33:10 SC: In a sense.
DD: In a sense. That is, when we have a proper theory of consciousness, we look around inside, we’re not gonna find any selves in there. We’re not gonna find any witnesses in there. So, as far as we can tell, when we have that theory, it will be a theory which does not distinguish zombies from conscious beings. Now, is that a failing or is that the way it should be? I think that’s the way it should be. So, in a sense, the distinction between a philosophical zombie and a conscious being— we can abandon that. But then, we have plenty of room to distinguish people’s being conscious of this or that, and being unconscious of this or that— being not in a coma, but not cognizant of various things that are going on around them, things happening beneath their notice, things that are subliminal, things that are unconsciously being done. We can have that wealth of cognitive science and psychology which has been building up for more than 100 years. That’s all untouched by this. The one thing you have to give up is this idea that you know that you’re not a philosophical zombie. No. That’s just an artifact of bad theorizing.
1:34:54 SC: So just to be super clear, to get the lingo right, you’re not claiming that consciousness is an illusion. It’s real in the same sense that the patterns that we talked about are real. These concepts of experiences play a useful role in how we explain what we go through.
1:35:12 DD: Well, I’m glad you asked that question. Because I like the term “illusion”. I think it’s a generational thing. The younger generation has no trouble with “illusion” as a positive term, as in the “user illusion”. Consciousness is a user illusion, in fact, the manifest image is a user illusion. It’s nature’s way of simplifying the world for us. In the same way that software engineers have brilliantly created these metaphorical icons and sound effects. Think of how badly you would misunderstand the computer if you tried to figure out how computers work by simply extrapolating from the user illusion.
1:36:13 SC: Yeah, taking literally the files on your desktop.
DD: That’s right. The user illusion of a laptop or a smartphone is brilliantly designed to exploit your perceptual, locomotory and hand dexterity powers, and your audition, to permit you to perform things you want to do, ignorant of the details of how it’s going on. The same thing is true in your brain. The one difference is that there’s no screen, because there’s no eyeball in there. So, you want to know who is the victim of the illusion? No. Who’s the beneficiary of the user illusion?
1:37:09 SC: But now I’m a little confused, because we agreed the elements of the manifest image are in oftentimes real.
1:37:15 DD: Well, yeah, they’re real illusions.
1:37:21 SC: Maybe the vocabulary is not up to the task. So consciousness is both real and an illusion?
1:37:27 DD: Yeah.
SC: Maybe trick is a better word than illusion?
1:37:35 DD: Well, yeah. For years, I’ve been saying consciousness is a bag of tricks. It’s a whole lot of different tricks. It’s not one metaphysical trick. It’s a whole lot of engineering tricks. And those engineering tricks create an agent that has an instant, reliable, dexterous, fluent use of a huge array of representations. The agent doesn’t need to know how those representations are created, or even where they are or whether they have the properties they seem to have.
DD: Here’s a way of thinking about it. Think of stage magic. There’s a sort of honor code among magicians. You’re supposed to show something. Show, not tell. You haven’t done a trick if you’ve simply bribed the audience. Or we can test our intuitions here. What would you think of a magician that used mass hypnosis, and simply could hypnotize the whole audience and then have flaming elephants dancing on their toes, and no display at all. Nothing on the stage, the magician is all alone, but everybody is just going, “Ooh and ah.” We’d say, well that’s a sort of a cheat. That doesn’t really count. Well, why not?
1:39:40 DD: So instead of hypnosis, let’s do it scientifically. Hypnosis is apparently a real phenomenon, but let’s say that you got a magician who says, “I now ask people to wear a special headset to my magic shows.” This is a headset which simply beams directly to the occipital cortex V1, the first major way station for all visual information. It can simply create hallucinations there, bypassing the eyeballs. Photons, eyeballs, no longer part of the perception. Maybe what he’s doing is simply capturing the optic nerve with his device. Everything from the optic nerve in is as it would be if there was a flaming elephant standing on its trunk. Would that be magic? But at least we now have people that were darn-tooting sure that they had seen an elephant standing on its trunk on the stage. Question. Would they have qualia? No. We’ve thrown away the screen. There’s no more room. They think they have qualia.
1:41:30 SC: They think they’ve seen the elephant, but they haven’t seen the elephant. They think they’ve had the experience of seeing the elephant.
DD: That’s right. Well, they have had the experience of seeing an elephant. It’s a bogus experience, because there was no elephant out there. If we take the whole phenomenon— from the light hitting whatever’s on the stage up through the eyes and through to the conviction center, to what people will swear on a Bible they saw—at every point, we could in principle intervene and lay out the food for the consumers at the next level. And it might be very, very late. And if it was very, very late, you might get some very anomalous things like— “This is weird. For a moment there, I could have sworn that there was an elephant on this stage. It just sort of hit me”— but no details or anything. We do have experiences like that.
1:42:52 SC: So there’s a sense in which consciousness is real. There’s also a sense in which it’s an illusion.
1:43:00 DD: In particular, there’s the theorists’ solution. The theorists’ solution is what the theorists may have and the dog doesn’t. The dog doesn’t think it has qualia. The theorist does. That’s just false. That’s an artifact of bad theory.
1:43:23 SC: So would we take the same angle on free will— that there’s an aspect of it that’s real, aspect which is an illusion?
DD: Yes and no, of course.
SC: That’s a philosopher’s favorite answer to everything.
1:43:36 DD: Yes, yes. The traditional idea of free will where somehow our bodies or our brains are shielded from causation, that’s crap. It’s just gotta be false.
SC: We’re not laws unto ourselves.
DD: There’s no miracles happening like that. So if that’s what you think free will has to be, if you think free will is incompatible with determinism, then there’s no free will. Then free will isn’t real. It’s an illusion. I would prefer to say free will is perfectly real, it just isn’t what you think it is.
1:44:23 SC: Yeah, which you did predict ahead of time that you were going to say. So the sense in which it’s real has something to do with the fact that it plays this explanatory role.
1:44:37 DD: Not just an explanatory role, it plays a huge role in people’s lives, as I was saying before. Since our society has the concept of free will, when I signed the mortgage papers for this house, I was asked if I was signing this of my own free will. I said yes, yes I am, yes.
SC: Did the agent have any idea who she was talking to?
1:45:06 DD: The notary was reading this off a piece of paper and I was only too happy to answer. But some people don’t have free will. Some people are incapacitated. Some people aren’t in control. So there’s a very real difference, and it makes a huge difference in life. I like to put it this way. Consider back to our drone. Suppose we throw away the controller and just let it be its own self-controlled autonomous thing. Pretty dangerous. Well, you think that’s dangerous, think how dangerous we are.
SC: Empirically, we’re pretty darn dangerous, yes.
1:45:56 DD: Empirically, we have millions of degrees of freedom, and we’re not in anybody’s control but our own. Or we can try to control people. I like the idea that parents eventually have to launch their children, and once they’ve launched them, they’re no longer guided missiles. They’re now autonomous. How do we dare let people do this? We dare let people do this, because we trust that people will have done their best to turn their offspring into self-controlled responsible agents.
DD: And that’s what free will is and there’s no metaphysical bright line. But there are lots of legal bright lines. They’re negotiable and evadable. There’s this sort of arms race going on where as we discover one loophole or another, we either exempt or not various people from responsibility or diminish their responsibility.
1:47:18 SC: It’s the legal, responsible, moral questions that make this very vivid. I want to take this opportunity to clarify as much as we can. You’ve hinted at the idea that even though we sophisticated scientists and philosophers know that there are laws of physics and we all obey them, we should let the people have their free will in some sense, because it makes them act more morally. That may or may not be true for me personally. That fact has nothing to do with why I think that it’s sensible to talk about free will. My reason for talking about free will is just the answer you just gave, which is that it does play this role in helping to explain what goes on.
1:48:00 DD: I don’t think that the idea that we have free will is a sort of holy myth that we should preserve for the good of the hoi polloi. No, we all need it. I think it’s extremely paternalistic, patronizing to say, “Well I don’t need the illusion of free will, but everyday folks they need it.” First of all, I think that’s just obnoxious.
DD: We all go through life, gauging our opportunities, making choices taking them as seriously as we do, which is sometimes not seriously enough and sometimes…
SC: In trying to persuade others.
DD: And sometimes too seriously, in trying to persuade others. It’s no secret that this pattern of activity— including mental activity, including hamlet-like thinking and mulling and musing and worrying— no secret why it exists. It’s what makes civilization possible. And I for one would rather live in a civilized world.
1:49:27 SC: That’s a very crucial distinction that has the danger of slipping by there. It’s not that we need to tell people they have free will to make them civilized. It’s that we have to appreciate that we have free will so that we create civilization.
DD: Yes, absolutely right, yes.
1:49:45 DD: But then that does mean that the free will skeptics, including some heavy hitting scientists…
SC: Some of our best friends. Yeah.
DD: They’re really engaging in a sort of an anti-social behavior. It’s a sort of cognitive vandalism. I try to shock them with that term. I have a little thought experiment about that. If you have an obsessive compulsive disorder, it’s possible to have a little device installed in your brain that will help control it. So that’s facts so far, and now we’re gonna add a little science fiction.
So this chap has obsessive-compulsive disorder. He goes to his local neurosurgeon and asks for the installation and she installs it. Then after he wakes up after the operation, she says, “Now you’re free to go. Oh, and by the way, we’re in radio control here, we monitor you 24/7. And if you ever are about to commit some terrible act we intervene of course. Have a nice life.”
1:51:21 SC: I think that’s a Black Mirror episode. Have you watched Black Mirror?
DD: No, no.
SC: I think if you have any inclination whatsoever, especially like the first few seasons of Black Mirror are made for you. You should watch all of them. ‘Cause they’re all thought experiments about how technology is controlling our brain and getting into our lives.
1:51:39 DD: I wonder if Black Mirror has the sequel that I have. So this fellow goes off, and reassured that he’s got this safety net, he becomes a little bit slovenly in his decision making, and he makes some bad decisions. Pretty soon he ends up in court. The judge confronts him and asks him, “What about this?” He says, “Well, no. I don’t have any free will. You know I’m controlled.“
1:52:09 SC: Just obeying the laws of physics.
DD: “I just obey the laws of physics. And the neurosurgeons, you know they are… I’m their puppet.” The judge calls in the neurosurgeon and asks, “Did you tell this man that when you put this device in that henceforth that he would be a sort of electronically controlled puppet.” And she says, “Yeah, we did.” The judge says, “It’s not true, is it?” She says, “No, of course not. We’re just messing with his brain.”
Now, she did something evil. If she in her scientist white coat is doing something evil for that guy, what about you folks out there in science land who are going around telling everybody that free will is an illusion, that they’re all really just puppets? Why isn’t that the same sort of anti-social behavior that this imaginary neurosurgeon is engaged in?
1:53:24 SC: To wrap up, let’s deviate a little bit. You’ve had a long career with many greatest hits. We’ve hit some of them here. There’s a world view that you’re sketching out that is very coherent and fits together in various ways: laws of physics, Darwinian evolution, intentional stances, real patterns. What are the implications of that for morality, for ethics, for how we should live our lives? Is there a meta-ethical conclusion that comes from this or even ethical conclusion?
1:54:06 DD: Yes, I think there is. Another aspect to my work we haven’t mentioned is that it means we don’t need religion. Religion was maybe a good scaffold on which to build civilization. Maybe the myths of religion kept people in line and cooperating because they were worried about big brother watching them. I’m quite content with a hypotheses, not provable, but might be true— that civilization depended on religion. I don’t think it does anymore. I think we can grow up and simply abandon the myths. But when we do that, we want to be sure that we don’t destroy or discard some of the valuable things that came along with that. The one that most concerns me is one that you can get at with the line of Robert Frost: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.” [The Death of the Hired Man 1914] Now, in that sense, there’s a lot of people that are homeless and don’t trust the state to take care of them. One of the things that religions have done over the millennia is taken in and provided a sense of meaning and love for people who otherwise would not have that.
1:56:00 DD: And those of us who were fortunate enough to live exciting lives should recognize that this is a social service. To call it that is to under-play its significance by orders of magnitude. This is a life healing, life protecting, life improving feature of the world that we don’t want to throw away. The question is how do you save it without also saving the sort of brute irrationality or a-rationality, the valorization of unreason and superstition? I think it’s possible to domesticate religions a little further. They’ve been domesticated a lot, but I think we can go a little farther, and keep ceremony, keep community, keep music and art and celebration intact, and leave out the myths. That’s a tall order, but I see progress all around. I do share the concern that a lot of people have that while the fastest growing group in the world is the nones— the N-O-N-E-S, those that have no religion at all— if they have no community, if they have no allegiance, if there’s nothing that they think of that’s bigger than and more important than they are to guide their lives, then we’re in trouble. It just shouldn’t be religion. So I think morality is itself a human, a social construct.
1:58:27 SC: Not moral realism. [hard to hear this line]
1:58:30 DD: Yeah, and again it’s really just isn’t what you think it is. It’s not given by God. It isn’t deducible from a set of axioms. It’s in a certain sense political and rational creation of— ideally— an informed community of people.
SC: Something that we exercise our free will to create.
1:59:06 DD: We can imagine a sort of grounding myth. Philosophers like to do this sort of thing. You all come, everybody come, you’re all welcome. You gotta obey some rules, some rules of discourse. And whatever your current beliefs are about what’s right and what’s wrong, share them with us. If there’s something that your group thinks is really, really wrong and the rest of us haven’t seen that yet— that might be eating meat or it might be any of the things that religions have taboos about— don’t just play the faith card and say, “Well, I’m an Xist and Xist think this is a sin.” No, your task is to convince the rest of us that you’re right.
2:00:14 SC: Give us reasons.
DD: Give us reasons. If you can persuade us that there’s a case to be made, we’ll listen. But if you play the faith card— if you say, “This is beyond reason, this is simply who I am. I can do no other”— basically what you’re doing is you’re saying, “I’m disqualified from this discussion. I’m disabled. My irrationality prevents me from playing the role that’s available to me here.” I think if we imagine morality as whatever emerges from that in the ideal circumstance, that’s the kind of human construction it is.
SC: Well, I think I’ve done a terrible job at playing the devil’s advocate here because I agree with you too much. But Dan Dennett, thanks very much for being on the podcast. It was very educational and fun.
DD: Well, thank you, Sean. You asked all the right questions.