Brainchildren: Essays on Designing Minds. Daniel C. Dennett. 424 pp. Bradford Books, 1998. $20 (paper).
Daniel Dennett. Philosopher and artificial intelligence researcher. Elegant speaker and prolific, entertaining scientific author. Occasionally arrogant. Usually controversial. But conservative?
Most would not include that last item in a list about Dennett, but this is mostly due to the context in which his work is viewed, not to his philosophy. This context is, broadly, the philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence and consciousness. The emerging discipline of consciousness is really a hodge-podge of cognitive psychologists, philosophers, computer scientists and, oddly enough, physicists interested in broader questions than their research addresses. This conglomeration of different backgrounds and views mixed with the sheer difficulty of the question at hand ("What is consciousness?") has spawned some rather radical theories. Take, for example, philosopher David Chalmers calling for the most extreme of revolutions in modern physics to explain conscious awareness. In a similar vein is renowned physicist Roger Penrose's claim that quantum events in cellular microtubules will explain everything. Or philosopher John Searle's assertion that there is something oddly unique about organic tissue that facilitates consciousness, and therefore computers could never achieve it. In this environment it is no wonder that a conservative approach to these questions would be received as radical.
Dennett's view on consciousness is rather simple. It requires no scientific revolution or some as-yet-unimaginable technology to explain the qualitative feel of cognitive states—all the tools we need are at hand. The same science that explains electricity, computers, kidneys and microwave ovens can explain the illusion of free will, conscious awareness and everything else that falls under the heading of the "mind/body problem." This common-sense view of the problem permeates much of Dennett's work, but the most interesting aspect of this conservative approach is that Dennett actually has some ideas on how to make it work.
Which brings us to his newest book, Brainchildren: Essays on Designing Minds. It is actually a compilation of Dennett's essays, book reviews, introductions and similar works from the past 20 years. The essays are categorized into three primary sections: philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence and animal minds. This layout produces what is, perhaps, the best introduction to Dennett's work published thus far in a popular edition. Those well versed in the materialistic philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence will certainly find it worth reading, and those unfamiliar with the terrain could do a lot worse in choosing an introduction to the field. Although most of these essays were originally published in philosophy journals, Dennett's style is easily understood by any educated layperson, and his habit of using everyday, often humorous examples to illustrate his arguments makes his work not only enlightening but also entertaining.
This is not to say the collection is perfect. There are a few essays that deal with rather specific topics, and only those very familiar with the issue at hand will grasp what is being discussed. One such essay, "Do-It Yourself Understanding," is a rebuttal of Fred Dretske's views on meaning and is largely unintelligible without some background. The final essay in the collection, "Information, Technology, and the Virtues of Ignorance," seems completely out of place and actually seems to contradict the rest of the book. It is an essay on the ethics of technology, and the overly pessimistic view expressed has little to do with anything else in the book, including its subtitle.
It should be noted, however, that for every confusing or just-plain-bad entry in this book, there are a dozen brilliant ones. For example, "Can Machines Think?" is an incredible look at the implications of the Turing Test (the central point of the Turing Test being that if a machine can converse as well as a human, there is no reason to deny it "true" intelligence). In another essay there is a unique take on the idea of personal identity; Dennett and Nicholas Humphrey discuss the implications of dissociative identity disorder, also known as multiple personalities, on the philosophy of mind. "The Practical Considerations of Making a Conscious Robot" is a detailed outline of a project Dennett is involved in called COG, whose goal is to make a robot that can interact with humans and learn from its environment.
Although Brainchildren isn't for everyone, anyone interested in the boundaries of what it means to be human and what science and philosophy have to say about conscious thought in humans, animals and machines should take a look at the not-so-radical thoughts of Daniel Dennett.—Corey Lafferty, Cognitive Psychology, University of North Carolina at Greensboro