Friday, August 29, 2014

Blurred lines: A review of "Intuition Pumps" by Daniel Dennett

Just finished reading "Intuition Pumps" by Daniel Dennett. Although Dennett is perhaps best known as one of the so-called "New Atheists", along with Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins (the latter seems to be a chum of his), he has perhaps made the biggest contribution in the area of philosophy of mind. Besides being a philosopher of mind, Dennett takes a great interest in relevant disciplines such as biology and psychology. He is also a charming, avuncular storyteller, which probably does no harm to his relatively broad appeal, and he aims for a non-specialist audience with this latest offering.

Before grappling with some larger topics, the book opens with some general "thinking tools". I read through this section of the book in no time-it's a great little page-turning pamphlet in itself, even if a few of the ideas (or versions thereof) are probably already in many intelligent people's arsenals. A personal favourite is his point about the phrase surely, which he suggests is often used when someone kind of realises that their argument is just about obvious enough that they shouldn't have to justify/explain it too much (although maybe they should!)

His interest in biology is evident in his discussion of evolution, an engaging enough read (I say this as someone who knows very little about evolution). However, it is his discussion of consciousness (an area I've recently become interested in) that I was most interested in checking out. My first experience of Daniel Dennett was reading (a chunk of) his "Consciousness Explained". With the advent of fMRI allowing researchers to observe blood flow to specific regions of the brain in response to thinking tasks, one might be tempted to look into "pinning" consciousness on a particular part of the brain. Although fMRI has been used to assess whether people are conscious of certain things, in very interesting circumstances, in "Consciousness Explained" Dennett came out against the implication that there is some endpoint in the brain where consciousness occurs, suggesting instead that it is something which is sorta (a word he uses a lot in "Intuition Pumps") present at some level in one part of the brain before becoming more present at a "later" part. This approach to having conscious experience leaves a lot of people cold, as far as I can see, but I must say I'm biased towards Dennett's view on consciousness; when I hears thinkers talk about consciousness as an indivisible, all-or-nothing process it doesn't really appeal to me at an intuitive level-don't we all have experience of our level of awareness diminishing as sleep sets in?

Having been drawn in by the previous book, I was keen to take in the section in this book dealing with consciousness. Here Dennett takes on classic philosophical problems such as zombies (i.e. people who behave as if they are conscious, but are not) and Searle's infamous Chinese Room. Unfortunately, the book gets a little too quick to refer the reader on to other sources at times in this section, although the chapter "The Tuned Deck" may be one of the most entertaining parts of the book (I won't spoil it for you), if a little vague on detail. In some ways this book's section on artificial intelligence seems to say more about consciousness than the section entitled "Tools for thinking about consciousness". Here, Dennett dissects how bits of information, too simplistic by themselves to represent anything in the world, can be gradually combined with extremely simple operators to complete tasks such as addition and subtraction (he even sets a homework assignment to be done using a computer program which allows you to design these types of operations from the bottom up, which I'll admit I didn't do). Reading this section I got a gut feeling for how an incredibly simple process, such as a neuron firing or not, when combined with billions of other neurons in a vast interacting (and sometimes self-referential?...) networks could gradually build up to something complex enough to be capable of self-awareness. I would be curious what Dennett thinks/would say about recent developments in robotics, with robots being created that appear to have some degree of self-awareness.

Turning towards the topic of free will, Dennett takes a compatabilist viewpoint (i.e. that free will and determinism are compatible). Similar to his sorta approach to consciousness, he argues that the idea that determinism rules out free will is based on an idea of free will which is too absolutist. Again, I found this intuitively appealing-I feel that I have a greater amount of free will about things I think of doing tomorrow compared to what I do a few seconds from now. However, I still found this part of the book a little difficult to swallow-I may need to read it a second time, but he seems to put the burden of proof on those who think determinism rules out free will without being 100% clear as to why a sorta free will would allow for determinism-does determinism then become sorta determinism?

Dennett closes with some words on being a philosopher. He suggests that pursuing a more long-term problem in philosophy may be a more fruitful approach in the long run than grappling with a "hot" topic-he quips that these are the quickest to burn out. Probably true in psychology, although this is advice which is easier to give than follow when one is a junior thinker chasing funding/job opportunities...

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