On Thursday, Feb. 12, the Philosophy Department welcomed world-renowned philosopher Daniel Dennett to the Kerr Lecture Hall. Having left the University after his freshman year of college in 1960, Dennett returned to Wesleyan for the first time in 55 years to give his lecture titled “Strange Inversion: Darwin, Turing and Hume.”
Currently the co-director at Tufts University’s Center for Cognitive Studies, Dennett has published 16 books on topics including consciousness, evolutionary biology, and cognitive science. His TED Talks on consciousness and free will and his willingness to abandon philosophical jargon in order to better the public’s understanding of the philosophy of mind have made him one of the most vocal and esteemed philosophers in the world today. Defying the stereotypical image of the philosopher as stern and pensive, Dennett is an engaging and humorous lecturer. He brings to his audience a different perspective of Darwin, Turing, and Hume’s achievements, and the implications of their “strange inversions of reason” also explain the basis of Dennett’s own controversial ideas about consciousness and the mind.
Dennett began the lecture with a quote from Wilfrid Sellars: “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term.”
Dennett explained, further burrowing from Sellars, that these “things, in the broadest sense,” are essentially of two kinds: the manifest image, which is the world we live in, and the scientific image, which is the world explained through the sciences. For Dennett, it is the job of the philosopher—and only of the philosopher—to meditate on the gap between these two images and to attempt to understand how they hang together.
“Why are the things in [the manifest image] so different than the things in the scientific image?” Dennett asked. “Well, I have a short answer for that: nature took a brilliant shortcut, installing in us a practical perspective that works as the manifest image because it misrepresents the world.”
For many, this bad news of misrepresentation might seem controversial, and even unacceptable. For Dennett, however, it is precisely the ability to acknowledge such misrepresentations and see through the systems that connect the two images that mark the brilliance of Darwin, Turing, and Hume’s strange inversions.
Dennett began with Darwin. He described pre-Darwinian beliefs as the “trickle-down theory of creation,” the idea of a top-down creating process in which a more intelligent creature creates something less intelligent. He showed a comically passive-aggressive creationist pamphlet, which asked questions such as, “Do you know any painting that didn’t have a painter?—Mark ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’” While he had the whole lecture hall laughing, he also got his point across.
“This jocular piece of propaganda perfectly expresses the naive falsehood that Darwin overthrew,” Dennett said. “This is the manifest image, and it’s just wrong when it comes to nature…and a lot of people are still not comfortable with that idea, not just religious people. There are a lot of scientists even and other people who claim no religion who find the Darwinian idea, that strange inversion of reason, repugnant. They find it incredible. They have a hard time taking it on board.”
Darwin’s theory of evolution “inverted” the common-sense belief that an active creator is a requisite for creation. This common sense is a result of people’s experiences in their own lives in the manifest image. Darwin’s achievement lies in his overturning of that common-sense reasoning and proving that nature can work in ways not necessarily evident in the world as we perceive it.
In the words of author Robert Mackenzie describing Darwin’s theory, “In order to make a perfect and beautiful machine, it’s not requisite to know how to make it.”
Dennett regards Turing’s inversion as similar to Darwin’s; instead of the body, Turing’s machine implies that the mind can be created in a similar bottom-up approach.
“Darwin explains away the intelligent creator,” Dennett said. “Turing, arguably, explains the God-like mind, and some would say he explains it away.”
By realizing that one doesn’t need to understand the reasons behind arithmetic to do mathematical calculations, Turing created a machine that can compute without having to go through the training to understand math. Dennett argued that following this method, the human mind can be created out of layers and layers of similar constructions.
“Between [Darwin and Turing], they made a remarkable discovery, which is in itself a strange inversion,” Dennett said. “What they discovered is what I call ‘competence without comprehension’…. Think about what an inversion that is from what we tend to think. Why are you in a university? Because your parents think and you think, ‘I want to comprehend because comprehension is the wellspring of competence.’ We learn to comprehend so that we may be competent…and in the manifest image in general that’s true, or seems to be true.”
This principal of “competence without comprehension” gives rise to Dennett’s argument that reason is an afterthought of actions. He argues that consciousness exists independently of an actor and that reason exists independently of a reasoner.
“The import of these two inversions together is that mind, that is consciousness and understanding, is not the cause as it is in the pre-Darwinian world,” Dennett said. “It’s an effect, and rather reason is an effective comprehension of competence, not the cause of competence.”
To support his point, Dennett gave an example of the cuckoo chick who, right after birth, pushes other eggs out of her host family’s nest in order to maximize her chance of survival. Dennett argued that the chick doesn’t need to understand the rationale and her chances of survival to commit to her actions; she is simply genetically coded due to evolution to act out of her best interest.
“One of the things that we learn from the combination of Darwin and Turing is that we have to launder this illusion of comprehension and many of the things in the manifest image, which we routinely treat in this pre-inverted, pre-Darwinian, pre-Turingian way,” Dennett said.
Failure to accept these inversions, for Dennett, is a failure of imagination. He gave several examples of accomplished scientists and philosophers, who he argued were unable to imagine the extent of our biological and genetic capacities. One of these examples is Descartes’ refutation that a machine can go further than following pre-programmed instructions. Dennett accused this refutation of representing Descartes’ inability to imagine trillions of machine parts.
“My general rule is, if somebody says, ‘Well, I just can’t conceive it,’ and my answer to that person is, ‘Well, try harder,’” Dennett said.
Dennett’s strong beliefs that given enough biological components and genetic coding, one can create a human mind and that consciousness and reason are the effects of having a mind constitute the basis of his famous yet controversial philosophical views.
Dennett concluded the lecture with Hume’s inversion. Hume was the first to point out that we mistake our expectation of an event for a causal relationship. In a simple example, Dennett demonstrated that it isn’t because honey is sweet that we want it, but rather it is because we want it that it is sweet.
“The irresistible metaphor for describing this is that we project the feeling out and then attach it to the object,” Dennett said.
Hume’s inversion implies that an object’s characteristics are intrinsic to our minds, not the objects themselves. In order to study the idea of a quality, Dennett argues, one must study the brain and its evolution rather than the physical object.
As Dennett repeatedly pointed out in his lecture, these ideas have been met with numerous challenges and resistance among other philosophers and people outside philosophy, including his audience sitting in the lecture hall on Thursday. In fact, for Professor of Philosophy Steven Horst, who introduced Dennett at the beginning of the lecture, the best part of a lecture is its ability to challenge the audience.
“For me, both when I was a student and today, the most useful lectures to go to were often the ones that I found something to disagree with, and which consequently got me thinking about the topic for myself to try to do a better job than the speaker,” Horst said. “If people came away arguing with the speaker in their minds for the next hour, day, or week, that means it was a successful lecture.”