The dean of consciousness-raising consciousness-explaining returns with another cleareyed exploration of the mind.
“How come there are minds?” asks Dennett (Philosophy and Cognitive Science/Tufts Univ.; Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, 2013, etc.), both beguilingly and with just a hint of a challenge. The human brain is both top-down and bottom-up, the latter reflecting automatic, animal impulses, the former the better angels of our nature. How did that top-down control system grow to dominate, producing what we think of as not just brain, but mind? Therein lies a tangled story with many threads, some of which lead into daunting territory: the thought, for instance, that consciousness is really a species of illusion on the part of the “user.” After a few hundred pages’ tour of an evolutionary theater populated by mirages, “feral neurons,” and words that struggle to reproduce and thrive just as living creatures do, such a possibility comes to seem not so strange after all. Dennett defends the human mind as the chief feature distinguishing our kind from other animals; after all, he notes, we are aware of bacteria, whereas other animals are not, and “even bacteria don’t know that there are bacteria.” Yet that knowledge comes at a formidable cost, and when the author enters into the territory of inversions of reasoning and of reasoning about reasoning, of “the evolution of the evolution of culture” and other seeming circularities, you know that you’re in for a bumpy ride: “There are reasons why trees spread their branches, but they are not in any strong sense the trees’ reasons.” The ride may be bumpy for casual readers, but it’s always interesting, as Dennett calls on the likes of Darwin, Descartes, and Gibson—the last the author of a fruitful theory of “affordances”—to explore how we represent and understand representations.
Anyone interested in modern theories of the mind and consciousness has to reckon with Dennett. This book, dense but accessible, is as good a place as any to start.