2012: Advent Philosophy: Hipster Philosophy: Daniel Dennett

by on December 7, 2012

For the next couple of days, I’m going to talk about a couple of philosophers who have done some fantastic work, but aren’t very well known outside of Philosophy. Forget Kant, Descartes, Plato and Nietzsche. You can pick up a Very Short Introduction to learn about those guys. These ones are a bit less famous and therefore, obviously, much cooler. The next time you are in the pub arguing about whether foreign powers should take action against the latest Country Being A Jerk, you can say “Yeah, well, this is a moot point anyway, because according to David Lewis there’s a nearby universe in which it’s already happened. Oh – sorry, you probably don’t know about him.” And then you can feel smug. (David Lewis is tomorrow, though.)

So! Hipster philosophy day one: Daniel Dennet.

Male philosophers get extra points for epic beards. Female philosophers get extra points for being successful in this goddamn subject dominated by men with huge beards. Much like female programmers.

If you like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett is the guy you actually need to be reading. He’s written a lot on the subjects we’ve been discussing: philosophy of mind, cognitive science, philosophy of science. Dennett is a renowned atheist and secularist who has a fantastic way of politely not taking any bullcrap from either side of the debate. He also has the advantage of actually having gotten his degrees in philosophy and being a very respected author in that academic field. (Unlike Dawkins, whose books would really benefit from some study of basic philosophy.)

Dennett has suggested a good objection to the Chinese Room. He invented a term for this particular type of thought experiment: “intuition pump”. It is a thought experiment which is designed to elicit a certain intuitive response. The problem is that in order to elicit that response, intuition pumps tend to ignore inconvenient details. It doesn’t contradict them, but it doesn’t bring them up, and it may depend on those details not occurring to you.

She totally would pick up this style. Also, click on the image to go to this awesome comic.

So, what has been ignored for the Chinese Room intuition pump to produce the correct intuition? Well, giving the same characters the same response every time wouldn’t allow my lovely girlfriend to pass the Turing test. Proving yourself to be a speaker of a language requires knowledge of slang, it requires sensitivity to context, knowledge of the culture. You will have a distinctive style when you speak or write. This style can also be influenced by who you listen to or read – have you ever finished a book in a distinctive style, and found yourself speaking that way for a day or two? If she actually functioned like the computer which the thought experiment is trying to compare her to, you could hand my girlfriend thousands of notes in the style of Charlotte Bronte and the way she expressed herself wouldn’t change at all. She wouldn’t have a distinctive voice – and believe me, my girlfriend has a very distinctive writing style. If she always responded in the same way, she might sound like ELIZA. In other words, she wouldn’t actually be able to process Chinese well enough to convince people she was a native speaker (or a speaker of Chinese at all) like the intuition pump suggests.

The argument about the qualia inherent to the experience of sipping fine alcohol is also an intuition pump. Let’s put it into the context it was lacking and see if it stands up.

Ahhhhh. Cozy.

Imagine that we did have the nice sociable AI I mentioned in the last post. Maybe it’s been plugged into a robot body, with the machinery to take very accurate readings of the chemicals in alcohol and thus detect all the subtleties of its taste. On a dark winter evening, we retire to the very cozy little room pictured above. It’s late at night, snow is silently piling up against the window, and the only sound is the crackling fire. I open a bottle that’s older than I am and pour us each a glass. We each “inhale” deeply, comment on how lovely it smells, perhaps add a bit of water to taste. Then we prop our respective walking appendages up in front of the fire, silently savour the flavours for a minute or two, make appreciative comments, and eventually meander onto politics or philosophy. At some point I nod off in my chair, cozy, slightly drunk and utterly content. The AI probably goes off to re-examine its collection of Higgs-Boson particles at that point, or something.

If you had a synthetic being which could experience all of that with me, just what are they missing about the experience of having a really excellent drink? Nothing that I can see. They would process it in a different way, perhaps. But the end result seems to be the same, when you put it into the same context I would be in if I myself were really, truly enjoying a good drink. (Yes, I am clearly meant to be an old man.)

The author’s spirit animal.

So, that’s a pretty decent example of Dennett’s work, I think. A couple of other quick points… Dennett goes out of his way to avoid labelling himself with a particular type of philosophical view. He avoids all the -isms, so that the other philosophers he speaks with have to actually engage with his views on particular issues, rather than arguing against the entire group he’s aligned himself with. He is a famed atheist. According to Wikipedia (hey I can learn new things too) he has actually made a bit of a project of searching out clerics who have lost faith but felt unable to “come out” about this, as it were, as it would destroy their careers. He has been grievously ill, but never found any cause to thank God for his recovery. Apparently when people told him they had prayed for him, he needed to resist the urge to ask “Did you also sacrifice a goat?” So if you like that kind of thing with Dawkins, look up Dennett. He does it better and more constructively, in my opinion.

Tomorrow: David Lewis, time travel, and infinite universes.

One Response to “Hipster Philosophy: Daniel Dennett”

  • Jason says:

    I like the phrase intuition pump, I hadn’t come across it before.

    My favourite example of it being misused is politicians couching economic decisions in household finance metaphors – talk about the “nation’s credit card” and it seems obvious that government borrowing is a really bad idea.

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