If ever there is such a thing as a celebrity philosopher, Daniel Dennett can stake fair claim to the epithet. In a continuing career spanning over half a century, Dennett has strived hard to take philosophy outside the academic arena, infect the curious non-specialist with the latest zany philosophical thinking on the existence of consciousness; the structure and nature of the mind and if there is such a thing as free will.
This endeavour has seen him debate and collaborate with creationists, theologians, computer and cognitive scientists in fora as wide-ranging the BBC’s Hard Talk, public auditoriums and numerous YouTube videos. He has also penned books appealingly titled Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and Consciousness Explained. To this list he has now added Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. The latest tome comes across as a quaint addition.
It’s quaint because for those familiar with Dennett’s oeuvre there is no new argument or exciting hypothesis that he hasn’t discussed before. But if you only had the time and energy for just one Dennett book, then this is the one.
In Intuition Pumps, Dennett traverses familiar philosophical terrain such as whether there is anything special about the feeling of being conscious and how Darwinian evolution can account for the emergence of entities as complex as the human mind. However, he employs a novel technique for introducing the reader to these topics by using so-called intuition pumps—in essence elaborate thought experiments—to either support his arguments and frequently refute and pan fellow philosophers he disagrees with.
Dennet thus has us imagining ourselves trapped inside strange giant robots and unable to peer outside or communicate with the outside world except fiddling around with buttons, levers and light sensors inside the robot—his analogy of how the brain must feel trapped inside a skull and having to lug around a body. Soon, however, Dennett dismantles his own intuition pumps to argue that the brain is less of a controller trapped in the skull and more of a complex machine that is pre-wired to solve certain problems. That the brain is able to solve some problems, such as move a limb away from a hot iron or trigger a retch-reflex to something unpalatable coursing through your alimentary canal, doesn’t mean it “understands”. Such competence and abilities are the result of several smaller processes, each unconscious of any larger purpose and the result of a long, and ingenious but ultimately purposeless process of natural selection.
In fact to press this point about how meaning can “emerge” out of meaningless phenomena, Dennett devotes a considerable number of pages to explaining algorithms and basic programming. He argues that just as computers can add and multiply astronomical numbers by mindlessly following repetitive instructions of emptying and filling out registers (memory locations within a computer hardware), so even such a smart mind that can reflect on quantum theory and compose sonnets can come about purely as a consequence of trillions of networks of firing neurons. The details of how this comes about is frequently vague but will be a problem of neuroscience rather than any search for some mysterious property within the brain, according to Dennett.
Lively and conversational as Dennett’s prose is, one gets the feeling at the end of the book that he has wished away, rather than opened a fresh perspective on many interesting problems in philosophy. Dennett reasons that since qualia, the subjective experience of say seeing the colour red or the feeling of satiation after a great meal, cannot be accounted for in any independent way, these are then most likely non-existent problems. Even though other philosophers of the mind such as John Searle or Thomas Nagel strongly disagree with Dennett’s views on qualia and don’t propose any novel solutions to understand it, it’s still a bit of cheat on Dennett’s part to dismiss the problem as non-existent. Because, let’s face it, if consciousness and qualia were an illusion like say the setting of the sun, or the flatness of the earth, then these wouldn’t be active areas of research in philosophy. Whether this is a task for neuroscience or philosophy is of course an entirely different question.
Jacob P. Koshy was until recently a Mint staffer.