The Quest for Conscience and the Birth of the Mind


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These questions are among the most hotly debated issues in science and philosophy today. Chalmers offers a cogent analysis of this debate as he lays out a major new theory of consciousness, one that rejects the prevailing reductionist trend of science, but is still compatible with a scientific view of the world. Writing in a rigorous, thought-provoking style, the author takes us on a far-reaching tour through the philosophical ramifications of consciousness.

Chalmers convincingly establishes that contemporary cognitive science and neuroscience do not begin to explain how subjective experience emerges from neural processes in the brain. He proposes that conscious experience must instead be understood in a new light -- as an irreducible entity like such physical properties as time, mass, and space that exists at a fundamental level and cannot be understood as the sum of simpler physical parts.

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In the second half of the book, he sets out on a quest for a "fundamental theory" - a theory of the basic laws governing the structure and character of conscious experience - and shows how this reconception of the mind could lead us to a new science of consciousness. Throughout the book, Chalmers provides fascinating thought experiments that vividly illustrate his ideas.

For example, in exploring the possibility that consciousness could be experienced by machines as well as humans, Chalmers asks us to imagine a thinking brain in which neurons are slowly replaced by silicon chips -- as the neurons are replaced, will consciousness gradually fade away? They developed language and used it to know themselves; they began to ask how they had been made. This, to a first approximation, is the secular story of our creation. If, however, it could be said to belong to any single person, that person might be Daniel Dennett, a seventy-four-year-old philosopher who teaches at Tufts.

In the course of forty years, and more than a dozen books, Dennett has endeavored to explain how a soulless world could have given rise to a soulful one. His special focus is the creation of the human mind. Into his own he has crammed nearly every related discipline: evolutionary biology, neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, artificial intelligence. Dennett has walked that path before. Many readers felt that he had shown how the brain creates the soul. To them, the book was like a treatise on music that focussed exclusively on the physics of musical instruments. It left untouched the question of how a three-pound lump of neurons could come to possess a point of view, interiority, selfhood, consciousness—qualities that the rest of the material world lacks.

The physicalists believe, with Dennett, that science can explain consciousness in purely material terms. Late last year, Dennett found himself among such skeptics at the Edgewater Hotel, in Seattle, where the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research had convened a meeting about animal consciousness. In a fourth-floor meeting room with views of Mt. Rainier, dozens of researchers shared speculative work on honeybee brains, mouse minds, octopus intelligence, avian cognition, and the mental faculties of monkeys and human children.

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How would you know whether an octopus is conscious? It interacts with you, responds to its environment, and evidently pursues goals, but a nonconscious robot could also do those things. Dennett sat at the seminar table like a king on his throne. Broad-shouldered and imposing, with a fluffy white beard and a round belly, he resembles a cross between Darwin and Santa Claus.

He has meaty hands and a sonorous voice. Many young philosophers of mind look like artists skinny jeans, T-shirts, asymmetrical hair , but Dennett carries a homemade wooden walking stick and dresses like a Maine fisherman, in beat-up boat shoes and a pocketed vest—a costume that gives him an air of unpretentious competence. He regards the zombie problem as a typically philosophical waste of time. But Dennett thinks these things are like evolution, essentially gradualist, without hard borders.

The obvious answer to the question of whether animals have selves is that they sort of have them. These layers build up, incrementally, to the real thing.


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Dennett waited until the group talked itself into a muddle, then broke in. He speaks slowly, melodiously, in the confident tones of a man with answers. When he uses philosophical lingo, his voice goes deeper, as if he were distancing himself from it.

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I think we should just get used to the fact that the human concepts we apply so comfortably in our everyday lives apply only sort of to animals. If philosophy were a sport, its ball would be human intuition. Philosophers compete to shift our intuitions from one end of the field to the other. Some intuitions, however, resist being shifted. Among these is our conviction that there are only two states of being: awake or asleep, conscious or unconscious, alive or dead, soulful or material.

Dennett believes that there is a spectrum, and that we can train ourselves to find the idea of that spectrum intuitive. They thought that living things possessed a mysterious life force. Only over time did they discover that life was the product of diverse physical systems that, together, created something that appeared magical. Dennett believes that the same story will be told about consciousness. He wants to tell it, but he sometimes wonders if others want to hear it.

If evolution built them, they can be reverse-engineered. He is from an old Maine family. By the turn of the eighteenth century, ancestors of his had settled near the border between Maine and New Hampshire, at a spot now marked by Dennett Road. But, in , they bought a two-hundred-acre farm in Blue Hill, about five hours north of Boston. The Dennetts are unusually easygoing and sociable, and they quickly became friends with the couple next door, Basil and Bertha Turner. From Basil, Dennett learned to frame a house, shingle a roof, glaze a window, build a fence, plow a field, fell a tree, butcher a hen, dig for clams, raise pigs, fish for trout, and call a square dance.

Dennett still cherishes the compliment. In the course of a few summers, he fixed up the Blue Hill farmhouse himself, installing plumbing and electricity. Then, for many years, he suspended his academic work during the summer in order to devote himself to farming. He tended the orchard, made cider, and used a Prohibition-era still to turn the cider into Calvados.

He built a blueberry press, made blueberry wine, and turned it into aquavit.

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A few years ago, the Dennetts sold the farm to buy a nearby waterfront home, on Little Deer Isle. On a sunny morning this past December, fresh snow surrounded the house; where the lawn met the water, a Hobie sailboat lay awaiting spring. Dennett entered the sunlit kitchen and, using a special, broad-tined fork, carefully split an English muffin. After eating it with jam, he entered his study, a circular room on the ground floor decorated with sailboat keels of different shapes.

A close friend and Little Deer Isle visitor, the philosopher and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, had e-mailed a draft of an article for Dennett to review. The two men are similar—Humphrey helped discover blindsight, studied apes with Dian Fossey, and was, for a year, the editor of Granta —but they differ on certain points in the philosophy of consciousness. Then I discovered that not only was he a better philosopher than me; he was a better singer, a better dancer, a better tennis player, a better pianist.

There is nothing he does not do. Dennett annotated the paper on his computer, and then called Humphrey on his cell phone to explain that the paper was so useful because it was so wrong. He then turned to a problem with the house. Something was wrong with the landline; it had no dial tone. The key question was whether the problem lay with the wiring inside the house or with the telephone lines outside. Picking up his walking stick and a small plastic telephone, he went out to explore. Dennett has suffered a heart attack and an aortic dissection; he is robust, but walks slowly and is sometimes short of breath.

Carefully, he made his way to a little gray service box, pried it open using a multitool, and plugged in the handset. There was no dial tone; the problem was in the outside phone lines. Harrumphing, he glanced upward to locate them: another new joint in the skeleton. During the course of his career, Dennett has developed a way of looking at the process by which raw matter becomes functional. We say that proteins fold the physicalist stance , but that eyes see the design stance. Real frigate birds swoop down to steal fish from other birds; in Frigatebird, you steal words made of Scrabble tiles from your opponents.

To Dennett, this blindness reflects the fact that we take the intentional stance toward ourselves. We experience ourselves at the level of thoughts, decisions, and intentions; the machinery that generates those higher-order properties is obscured. Consciousness is defined as much by what it hides as by what it reveals. A running joke among people who study consciousness is that Dennett himself might be a zombie.

Dennett seems wounded by this idea. He was born in Boston in His father, Daniel C. Dennett, Jr. In Beirut, he had a pet gazelle named Babar and learned to speak some Arabic. When he was five, his father was killed in an unexplained plane crash while on a mission in Ethiopia. The scars are still visible. He had his own workshop and, aged six, used scraps of lumber to build a small table and chair for his Winnie-the-Pooh. As a Harvard undergraduate, Dennett wanted to be an artist. He pursued painting, then switched to sculpture; when he met Susan, he told her that she had nice shoulders and asked if she would model for him.

She declined, but they were married two years later. A photograph taken in , when Dennett was a graduate student, shows him trim and shirtless in a courtyard in Athens, smoking a pipe as he works a block of marble.

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Still, he continued to sculpt, throw pots, build furniture, and whittle. His whittlings are finely detailed; most are meant to be handled. A life-size wooden apple comes apart, in cross-sections, to reveal a detailed stem and core; a fist-size nut and bolt turn smoothly on minute, perfectly made threads.

Dennett studied philosophy as an undergraduate with W. Quine, the Harvard logician. His scientific awakening came later, when he was a graduate student at Oxford. With a few classmates, he found himself debating what happens when your arm falls asleep. The other students were talking about the ghost; Dennett wanted to study the machine.

He began teaching himself neuroscience the next day.


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Later, with the help of various academic friends and neighbors, Dennett learned about psychology, computer programming, linguistics, and artificial intelligence—the disciplines that came to form cognitive science. But then he started deviating from the standard pathway. He became much more informed by science than many of his colleagues, and he grew very frustrated with the constant, prevalent belief among them in such things as zombies. These things started to annoy him, and he started writing piece after piece to try to destroy the myths that he considered these to be—the religious residues of dualism.

The Quest for Conscience and the Birth of the Mind The Quest for Conscience and the Birth of the Mind
The Quest for Conscience and the Birth of the Mind The Quest for Conscience and the Birth of the Mind
The Quest for Conscience and the Birth of the Mind The Quest for Conscience and the Birth of the Mind
The Quest for Conscience and the Birth of the Mind The Quest for Conscience and the Birth of the Mind
The Quest for Conscience and the Birth of the Mind The Quest for Conscience and the Birth of the Mind
The Quest for Conscience and the Birth of the Mind The Quest for Conscience and the Birth of the Mind
The Quest for Conscience and the Birth of the Mind The Quest for Conscience and the Birth of the Mind

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