Dennett, Daniel C.
Dan is the author of Breaking the Spell, Darwin\'s Dangerous Idea, and Consciousness Explained, among other books. He is University Professor and Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, at Tufts University. He received his D.Phil in philosophy from Oxford, where his advisor was the celebrated ordinary language philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Dan grounds his philosophy of mind, and indeed his entire metaphysic, on empirical research, and he eschews any kind of supernaturalism. He rejects the notion of qualia (i.e., inner experience), which many philosophers use to distinguish mind from matter, as confused and self-contradictory so that it is unhelpful in assessing mind. Furthermore, he considers consciousness, as generally understood, to be an illusion, and he enjoys bursting the balloon of the “little person” in the inner “Cartesian Theater.” Simply put, he considers the illusion of consciousness to be merely “fame in the brain,” i.e., the instant and ever-changing winners among competing streams of thought, A proud atheist, he seeks a natural explanation of religion through scientific study. When he was hospitalized with a life-threatening tear in his aorta, and saved when surgeons implanted a new aorta in a nine-hour operation, he thanked “Goodness,” not “God,” and reported a complete lack of a “deathbed conversion.” In the following excerpt, Dan uses the question of robotic consciousness as a way of understanding human consciousness. “The best reason for believing that robots might some day become conscious is that we human beings are conscious, and we are a sort of robot ourselves. That is, we are extraordinarily complex self-controlling, self-sustaining physical mechanisms, designed over the eons by natural selection, and operating according to the same well-understood principles that govern all the other physical processes in living things: digestive and metabolic processes, self-repair and reproductive processes, for instance. It may be wildly over-ambitious to suppose that human artificers can repeat Nature\'s triumph, with variations in material, form, and design process, but this is not a deep objection. It is not as if a conscious machine contradicted any fundamental laws of nature, the way a perpetual motion machine does. Still, many skeptics believe -- or in any event want to believe -- that it will never be done. I wouldn\'t wager against them, but my reasons for skepticism are mundane, economic reasons, not theoretical reasons. Conscious robots probably will always simply cost too much to make. Nobody will ever synthesize a gall bladder out of atoms of the requisite elements, but I think it is uncontroversial that a gall bladder is nevertheless \"just\" a stupendous assembly of such atoms. Might a conscious robot be \"just\" a stupendous assembly of more elementary artifacts -- silicon chips, wires, tiny motors and cameras -- or would any such assembly, of whatever size and sophistication, have to leave out some special ingredient that is requisite for consciousness? Let us briefly survey a nested series of reasons someone might advance for the impossibility of a conscious robot: (1) Robots are purely material things, and consciousness requires immaterial mind-stuff. (Old-fashioned dualism) It continues to amaze me how attractive this position still is to many people. I would have thought a historical perspective alone would make this view seem ludicrous: over the centuries, every other phenomenon of initially ‘supernatural’ mysteriousness has succumbed to an uncontroversial explanation within the commodious folds of physical science…. (2) Robots are inorganic (by definition), and consciousness can exist only in an organic brain. Why might this be? Instead of just hooting this view off the stage as an embarrassing throwback to old-fashioned vitalism, we might pause to note that there is a respectable, if not very interesting, way of defending this claim. Vitalism is deservedly dead; as biochemistry has shown in matchless detail, the powers of organic compounds are themselves all mechanistically reducible and hence mechanistically reproducible at one scale or another in alternative physical media; but it is conceivable -- if unlikely -- that the sheer speed and compactness of biochemically engineered processes in the brain are in fact unreproducible in other physical media…. (3) Robots are artifacts, and consciousness abhors an artifact; only something natural, born not manufactured, could exhibit genuine consciousness. Once again, it is tempting to dismiss this claim with derision, and in some of its forms, derision is just what it deserves. Consider the general category of creed we might call origin essentialism: only wine made under the direction of the proprietors of Chateau Plonque counts as genuine Chateau Plonque; only a canvas every blotch on which was caused by the hand of Cezanne counts as a genuine Cezanne…There are perfectly respectable reasons, eminently defensible in a court of law, for maintaining such distinctions, so long as they are understood to be protections of rights growing out of historical processes. If they are interpreted, however, as indicators of ‘intrinsic properties’ that set their holders apart from their otherwise indistinguishable counterparts, they are pernicious nonsense. Let us dub origin chauvinism the category of view that holds out for some mystic difference (a difference of value, typically) due simply to such a fact about origin. Perfect imitation Chateau Plonque is exactly as good a wine as the real thing, counterfeit though it is, and the same holds for the fake Cezanne, if it is really indistinguishable by experts….If consciousness abhors an artifact, it cannot be because being born gives a complex of cells a property (aside from that historic property itself) that it could not otherwise have ‘in principle’. There might, however, be a question of practicality. We have just seen how, as a matter of exigent practicality, it could turn out after all that organic materials were needed to make a conscious robot. For similar reasons, it could turn out that any conscious robot had to be, if not born, at least the beneficiary of a longish period of infancy. Making a fully equipped conscious adult robot might just be too much work. It might be vastly easier to make an initially unconscious or nonconscious ‘infant’ robot and let it ‘grow up’ into consciousness, more or less the way we all do. This hunch is not the disreputable claim that a certain sort of historic process puts a mystic stamp of approval on its product, but the more interesting and plausible claim that a certain sort of process is the only practical way of designing all the things that need designing in a conscious being…. (4) Robots will always just be much too simple to be conscious. After all, a normal human being is composed of trillions of parts (if we descend to the level of the macromolecules), and many of these rival in complexity and design cunning the fanciest artifacts that have ever been created. We consist of billions of cells, and a single human cell contains within itself complex ‘machinery’ that is still well beyond the artifactual powers of engineers. We are composed of thousands of different kinds of cells, including thousands of different species of symbiont visitors, some of whom might be as important to our consciousness as others are to our ability to digest our food! If all that complexity were needed for consciousness to exist, then the task of making a single conscious robot would dwarf the entire scientific and engineering resources of the planet for millennia. And who would pay for it?...
- What is Free Will? (Daniel C. Dennett) (Part 2 of 2)
- What is Free Will? (Daniel C. Dennett) (Part 1 of 2)
- Why is Consciousness so Mysterious? (Daniel C. Dennett) (Part 2 of 2)
- Why is Consciousness so Mysterious? (Daniel C. Dennett) (Part 1 of 2)
- Do Science & Religion Conflict? (Daniel Dennett)
- How do Persons Maintain Their Identity? (Daniel Dennett)
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- How Does Philosophy Illuminate the Physical World? (Daniel Dennett)
- Can Brain Explain Mind? (Daniel Dennett)
- What is the Mind-Body Problem? (Daniel Dennett)
- Big Pictures of God? (Daniel Dennett)
- Arguments for Atheism? (Daniel Dennett)
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