Kinds of Minds: Towards an Understanding of Consciousness

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Combining ideas from philosophy, artificial intelligence, and neurobiology, Daniel Dennett leads the reader on a fascinating journey of inquiry, exploring such intriguing possibilities as: Can any of us really know what is going on in someone else’s mind? What distinguishes the human mind from the minds of animals, especially those capable of complex behavior? If such animals, for instance, were magically given the power of language, would their communities evolve an intelligence as subtly discriminating as ours? Will robots, once they have been endowed with sensory systems like those that provide us with experience, ever exhibit the particular traits long thought to distinguish the human mind, including the ability to think about thinking? Dennett addresses these questions from an evolutionary perspective. Beginning with the macromolecules of DNA and RNA, the author shows how, step-by-step, animal life moved from the simple ability to respond to frequently recurring environmental conditions to much more powerful ways of beating the odds, ways of using patterns of past experience to predict the future in never-before-encountered situations. Whether talking about robots whose video-camera ”eyes” give us the powerful illusion that ”there is somebody in there” or asking us to consider whether spiders are just tiny robots mindlessly spinning their webs of elegant design, Dennett is a master at finding and posing questions sure to stimulate and even disturb.
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Editorial Reviews

New Scientist
Thought-provoking, entertainingly written, and quite literally, mind-blowing.
Washington Post Book World
Dennett's graceful and witty exposition is unflinchingly rigorous.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Dennett (Darwin's Dangerous Idea), director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, avers that language is the "slingshot" that has "launched [humans] far beyond all other earthly species in the power to look ahead and reflect." In this brief study, some of which is drawn from notes for the author's various lectures, and which returns him to some of the themes of his controversial bestseller, Consciousness Explained (1991), he explores how the human mind came into existence. Along the way, he investigates such questions as, How does the mind work? Can we know another's mind? Can a woman know what it's like to be a man (and vice versa)? What are nonhuman minds like? Could a robot ever be "conscious"? Philosopher that he is, Dennett continually raises and refines his questions about these and other subjects, attempting to tease us closer to understanding. By the end of the book, he confesses, he has not so much presented answers as found better questions to ask. Though some readers may be put off by Dennett's cocksure tone, others will be rewarded by his witty, intelligible speculation. (July)
Kirkus Reviews
Dennett wears his philosophical hat in this short volume, based on lectures given at University College, Dublin and Canterbury University (New Zealand). As a result, there is more intellectual gameplay here than late news from the neuroscience front, making for a volume that is sometimes stimulating, but often frustrating.

Dennett (Center for Cognitive Studies/Tufts Univ.) is a clever writer and has written insightfully about mind matters in Consciousness Explained (1991) and evolution in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995). But in assuming the philosopher's stance here he admits to raising more questions than answers. At the same time he introduces into these lectures a welter of specialized languages and theories, including the vocabulary of ontology, epistemology, and a string of associated concepts, such as intentionality; the notion of an agent or doer or a "mind-haver"; physical and design stances; associationism, behaviorism, and connectionism (as in neural networks), referred to as ABC learning and so on. To what avail? Simply, it seems, to come to some conclusions about where in the Darwinian scheme of things thinking and consciousness (and self-consciousness) come into being. In the end, Dennett strongly supports the notion that only with language comes thought. Further, we only arrive in the abstract multidimensional world of ideas by means of written language and the ability to extend our intelligence through the artful inventions of culture and its representations in books, computers, and records (our external mental "prosthetic" devices). So nix on intelligent chimps and dolphins, but maybe a kind word for dogs as having been bred to respond to humans.

Not a book that will be embraced by animal champions. And not Dennett at his best.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465073511
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 5/28/1997
  • Series: Science Masters Series
  • Pages: 184
  • Sales rank: 693,079
  • Lexile: 1360L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel C. Dennett is director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University and the author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life and Consciousness Explained
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Read an Excerpt

What Kind of Minds are There?

Knowing Your Own Mind

Can we ever really know what is going on in someone else's mind? Can a woman ever know what it is like to be a man? What experiences does a baby have during childbirth? What experiences, if any, does a fetus have in its mother's womb? And what of nonhuman minds? What do horses think about? Why aren't vultures nauseated by the rotting carcasses they eat? When a fish has a hook sticking through its lip, does it hurt the fish as much as it would hurt you, if you had a hook sticking through your lip? Can spiders think, or are they just tiny robots, mindlessly making their elegant webs? For that matter, why couldn't a robot—if it was fancy enough—be conscious? There are robots that can move around and manipulate things almost as adeptly as spiders; could a more complicated robot feel pain, and worry about its future, the way a person can? Or is there some unbridgeable chasm separating the robots (and maybe the spiders and insects and other "clever" but mindless creatures) from those animals that have minds? Could it be that all animals except human beings are really mindless robots? Ren‚ Descartes notoriously maintained this in the seventeenth century. Might he have been dead wrong? Could it be that all animals, and even plants—and even bacteria—have minds?

Or, to swing to the other extreme, are we so sure that all human beings have minds? Maybe (to take the most extreme case of all) you're the only mind in the universe; maybe everything else, including the apparent author of this book, is a mere mindless machine. This strange idea first occurred to me when I was a young child, andperhaps it did to you as well. Roughly a third of my students claim that they, too, invented it on their own and mulled it over when they were children. They are often amused to learn that it's such a common philosophical hypothesis that it has a name—solipsism (from Latin for "myself alone"). Nobody ever takes solipsism seriously for long, as far as we know, but it does raise an important challenge: if we know that solipsism is silly—if we know that there are other minds—how do we know?

What kinds of minds are there? And how do we know? The first question is about what exists—about ontology, in philosophical parlance; the second question is about our knowledge—about epistemology. The goal of this book is not to answer these two questions once and for all, but rather to show why these questions have to be answered together. Philosophers often warn against confusing ontological questions with epistemological questions. What exists is one thing, they say, and what we can know about it is something else. There may be things that are completely unknowable to us, so we must be careful not to treat the limits of our knowledge as sure guides to the limits of what there is. I agree that this is good general advice, but I will argue that we already know enough about minds to know that one of the things that makes them different from everything else in the universe is the way we know about them. For instance, you know you have a mind and you know you have a brain, but these are different kinds of knowledge. You know you have a brain the way you know you have a spleen: by hearsay. You've never seen your spleen or your brain (I would bet), but since the textbooks tell you that all normal human beings have one of each, you conclude that you almost certainly have one of each as well. You are more intimately acquainted with your mind—so intimately that you might even say that you are your mind. (That's what Descartes said: he said he was a mind, a res cogitans, or thinking thing.) A book or a teacher might tell you what a mind is, but you wouldn't have to take anybody's word for the claim that you had one. If it occurred to you to wonder whether you were normal and had a mind as other people do, you would immediately realize, as Descartes pointed out, that your very wondering this wonder demonstrated beyond all doubt that you did indeed have a mind.

This suggests that each of us knows exactly one mind from the inside, and no two of us know the same mind from the inside. No other kind of thing is known about in that way. And yet this whole discussion so far has been conducted in terms of how we know—you and I. It presupposes that solipsism is false. The more we—we—reflect on this presupposition, the more unavoidable it appears. There couldn't be just one mind—or at least not just one mind like our minds.

We Mind-Havers, We Minders

If we want to consider the question of whether nonhuman animals have minds, we have to start by asking whether they have minds in some regards like ours, since these are the only minds we know anything about—at this point. (Try asking yourself whether nonhuman animals have flurbs. You can't even know what the question is, if you don't know what a flurb is supposed to be. Whatever else a mind is, it is supposed to be something like our minds; otherwise we wouldn't call it a mind.) So our minds, the only minds we know from the outset, are the standard with which we must begin. Without this agreement, we'll just be fooling ourselves, talking rubbish without knowing it.

When I address you, I include us both in the class of mind-havers. This unavoidable starting point creates, or acknowledges, an in-group, a class of privileged characters, set off against everything else in the universe. This is almost too obvious to notice, so deeply enshrined is it in our thinking and talking, but I must dwell on it. When there's a we, you are not alone; solipsism is false; there's company present. This comes out particularly clearly if we consider some curious variations:

"We left Houston at dawn, headin' down the road—just me and my truck."

Strange. If this fellow thinks his truck is such a worthy companion that it deserves shelter under the umbrella of "we," he must be very lonely. Either that, or his truck must have been customized in ways that would be the envy of roboticists everywhere. In contrast, "we—just me and my dog" doesn't startle us at all, but "we—just me and my oyster" is hard to take seriously. In other words, we're pretty sure that dogs have minds, and we're dubious that oysters do.

Membership in the class of things that have minds provides an all-important guarantee: the guarantee of a certain sort of moral standing. Only mind-havers can care; only mind-havers can mind what happens. If I do something to you that you don't want me to do, this has moral significance. It matters, because it matters to you. It may not matter much, or your interests may be overridden for all sorts of reasons, or (if I'm punishing you justly for a misdeed of yours) the fact that you care may actually count in favor of my deed. In any event, your caring automatically counts for something in the moral equation. If flowers have minds, then what we do to flowers can matter to them, and not just to those who care about what happens to flowers. If nobody cares, then it doesn't matter what happens to flowers.

There are some who would disagree; they would insist that the flowers had some moral standing even if nothing with a mind knew of or cared about their existence. Their beauty, for instance, no matter how unappreciated, is a good thing in itself, and hence should not be destroyed, other things being equal. This is not the view that the beauty of these flowers matters to God, for instance, or that it might matter to some being whose presence is undetectable by us. It is the view that the beauty matters, even though it matters to no one—not to the flowers themselves and not to God or anybody else. I remain unpersuaded, but rather than dismiss this view outright I will note that it is controversial and not widely shared. In contrast, it takes no special pleading at all to get most people to agree that something with a mind has interests that matter. That's why people are so concerned, morally, about the question of what has a mind: any proposed adjustment in the boundary of the class of mind-havers has major ethical significance.

We might make mistakes. We might endow mindless things with minds, or we might ignore a mindful thing in our midst. These mistakes would not be equal. To overattribute minds—to "make friends with" your houseplants or lie awake at night worrying about the welfare of the computer asleep on your desk—is, at worst, a silly error of credulity. To underattribute minds—to disregard or discount or deny the experience, the suffering and joy, the thwarted ambitions and frustrated desires of a mind-having person or animal—would be a terrible sin. After all, how would you feel if you were treated as an inanimate object? (Notice how this rhetorical question appeals to our shared status as mind-havers.)

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Table of Contents

1 What Kinds of Minds Are There? 1
2 Intentionality: The Intentional Systems Approach 19
3 The Body and Its Minds 57
4 How Intentionality Came into Focus 81
5 The Creation of Thinking 119
6 Our Minds and Other Minds 153
Further Reading 169
Bibliography 175
Index 180
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