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Conversation with Dan Dennett. Part 2

Daniel Dennett, Austin Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University
At the very end it was not easy, but it was feasible to accept natural selection for body structures, but not for mind and consciousness. To which extent, Dan, can both mind and consciousness be considered a single brain function as other parts of our body have other functions? To which extent this is a biological function of our brain, when we talk on mind and consciousness? Well, I think that, it’s a mistake to think of consciousness as one phenomenon. You might say, “pain”, that’s a phenomenon; “hunger”, that’s a phenomenon; “hearing”, or “seeing”, those are phenomena that are quite distinct. Seeing isn’t hearing and it’s not touching, either.
When you think and then watch consciousness, it’s many different things put together; and we have a single word, which is nobody knows how to define, so people gesture with the word in the direction of something dark and private, and also bright and brilliant. But whatever it is, it’s not just the brain or at least that’s the way many people see it. And I want to show that in the same way that science can explain digestion, self-repair, metabolism, reproduction, they can explain consciousness. Consciousness is a biological phenomenon, it’s also a social phenomenon, but the social phenomenon interacts and depends on the biological phenomenon.
You get coevolution between the genetic evolution and cultural evolution, and that’s the high powered design machinery that really makes consciousness come alive. Maybe one of the points you talk a lot is that consciousness is not something that is there or not there. So (sometimes) within that… minds may exist in nature, but not consciousness that is unique human. I think you do not agree with this dualistic idea. No, I think that if people are prepared to grant that there are very very simple minds, the mind of a snail, or a clam, or an ant, or a bee; those are minds but no conscious and then they wonder, “what’s the simplest, lowest animal that has real consciousness”, that’s a mistake.
You are already creating a search for a red line that doesn’t exist. There is every grain of consciousness, or sensitivity, or reactivity, or appreciation, or look ahead; all of these phenomena which are very important and very important parts of our consciousness, they arrive phylogenetically through the tree of life at different times and different places. Some of it arises by convergent evolution, and some is quite specific to particular lineages, depending on the circumstances. It’s a patchwork and there aren’t any sharp lines dividing our consciousness.
Actually, I would say the sharpest line we can draw is between our consciousness and even a consciousness of our closest relatives, the bonobos and chimpanzees; and the main difference of course, is that we have language and they don’t. And language is a consciousness amplifier of stupendous power. A point that I have elaborated over the years in many ways. And people underestimate that, I think. It’s very easy for people to fill in their imagination, they fill their heads of smart cats and clever doggies and Machiavellian monkeys with also its human-like thoughts. There’s rarely any reason actually, to think that those thoughts are within the repertoire of the animals in question.
The assumption that they understand things the way we do is, I think is generous, but mistaken.

Daniel Dennett, Austin Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University

He supports a materialist theory of mind and aims to provide a materialist account of the evolutionary origins of the human mind and consciousness.

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