Artificial Intelligence - Who Is Daniel Dennett?


At Tufts University, Daniel Dennett(1942–) is the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies.

Philosophy of mind, free will, evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, and artificial intelligence are his main areas of study and publishing.

He has written over a dozen books and hundreds of articles.

Much of this research has focused on the origins and nature of consciousness, as well as how naturalistically it may be described.

Dennett is also an ardent atheist, and one of the New Atheism's "Four Horsemen." Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are the others.

Dennett's worldview is naturalistic and materialistic throughout.

He opposes Cartesian dualism, which holds that the mind and body are two distinct things that merge.

Instead, he contends that the brain is a form of computer that has developed through time due to natural selection.

Dennett also opposes the homunculus theory of the mind, which holds that the brain has a central controller or "little man" who performs all of the thinking and emotion.

Dennett, on the other hand, argues for a viewpoint he refers to as the numerous drafts model.

According to his theory, which he lays out in his 1991 book Consciousness Explained, the brain is constantly sifting through, interpreting, and editing sensations and inputs, forming overlapping drafts of experience.

Dennett later used the metaphor of "fame in the brain" to describe how various aspects of ongoing neural processes are periodically emphasized at different times and under different circumstances.

Consciousness is a story made up of these varied interpretations of human events.

Dennett dismisses the assumption that these ideas coalesce or are structured in a central portion of the brain, which he mockingly refers to as "Cartesian theater." The brain's story is made up of a never-ending, un-centralized flow of bottom-up awareness that spans time and place.

Dennett denies the existence of qualia, which are subjective individual experiences such as how colors seem to the human eye or how food feels.

He does not deny that colors and tastes exist; rather, he claims that the sensation of color and taste does not exist as a separate thing in the human mind.

He claims that there is no difference between human and computer "sensation experiences." According to Dennett, just as some robots can discern between colors without people deciding that they have qualia, so can the human brain.

For Dennett, the color red is just the quality that brains sense and which is referred to as red in the English language.

It has no extra, indescribable quality.

This is a crucial consideration for artificial intelligence because the ability to experience qualia is frequently seen as a barrier to the development of Strong AI (AI that is functionally equivalent to that of a human) and as something that will invariably distinguish human and machine intelligence.

However, if qualia do not exist, as Dennett contends, it cannot constitute a stumbling block to the creation of machine intelligence comparable to that of humans.

Dennett compares our brains to termite colonies in another metaphor.

Termites do not join together and plot to form a mound, but their individual activities cause it to happen.

The mound is the consequence of natural selection producing uncomprehending expertise in cooperative mound-building rather than intellectual design by the termites.

To create a mound, termites don't need to comprehend what they're doing.

Likewise, comprehension is an emergent attribute of such abilities.

Brains, according to Dennett, are control centers that have evolved to respond swiftly and effectively to threats and opportunities in the environment.

As the demands of responding to the environment grow more complicated, understanding emerges as a tool for dealing with them.

On a sliding scale, comprehension is a question of degree.

Dennett, for example, considers bacteria's quasi-comprehension in response to diverse stimuli and computers' quasi-comprehension in response to coded instructions to be on the low end of the range.

On the other end of the spectrum, he placed Jane Austen's comprehension of human social processes and Albert Einstein's understanding of relativity.

However, they are just changes in degree, not in type.

Natural selection has shaped both extremes of the spectrum.

Comprehension is not a separate mental process arising from the brain's varied abilities.

Rather, understanding is a collection of these skills.

Consciousness is an illusion to the extent that we recognize it as an additional element of the mind in the shape of either qualia or cognition.

In general, Dennett advises mankind to avoid positing understanding when basic competence would suffice.

Humans, on the other hand, often adopt what Dennett refers to as a "intentional position" toward other humans and, in some cases, animals.

When individuals perceive acts as the outcome of mind-directed thoughts, emotions, wants, or other mental states, they adopt the intentional viewpoint.

This is in contrast to the "physical posture" and the "design stance," according to him.

The physical stance is when anything is seen as the outcome of simply physical forces or natural principles.

Gravity causes a stone to fall when it is dropped, not any conscious purpose to return to the ground.

An action is seen as the mindless outcome of a preprogrammed, or predetermined, purpose in the design stance.

An alarm clock, for example, beeps at a certain time because it was built to do so, not because it chose to do so on its own.

In contrast to both the physical and design stances, the intentional stance considers behaviors and acts as though they are the consequence of the agent's deliberate decision.

It might be difficult to decide whether to apply the purposeful or design perspective to computers.

A chess-playing computer has been created with the goal of winning.

However, its movements are often indistinguishable from those of a human chess player who wants or intends to win.

In fact, having a purposeful posture toward the computer's behavior, rather than a design stance, improves human interpretation of its behavior and capacity to respond to it.

Dennett claims that the purposeful perspective is the greatest strategy to adopt toward both humans and computers since it works best in describing both human and computer behavior.

Furthermore, there is no need to differentiate them in any way.

Though the intentional attitude considers behavior as agent-driven, it is not required to take a position on what is truly going on inside the human or machine's internal workings.

This posture provides a neutral starting point from which to investigate cognitive competency without presuming a certain explanation of what's going on behind the scenes.

Dennett sees no reason why AI should be impossible in theory since human mental abilities have developed organically.

Furthermore, by abandoning the concept of qualia and adopting an intentional posture that relieves people of the responsibility of speculating about what is going on in the background of cognition, two major impediments to solving the hard issue of consciousness have been eliminated.

Dennett argues that since the human brain and computers are both machines, there is no good theoretical reason why humans should be capable of acquiring competence-driven understanding while AI should be intrinsically unable.

Consciousness in the traditional sense is illusory, hence it is not a need for Strong AI.

Dennett does not believe that Strong AI is theoretically impossible.

He feels that society's technical sophistication is still at least fifty years away from producing it.

Strong AI development, according to Dennett, is not desirable.

Humans should strive to build AI tools, but Dennett believes that attempting to make computer pals or colleagues would be a mistake.

Such robots, he claims, would lack human moral intuitions and understanding, and hence would not be able to integrate into human society.

Humans do not need robots to provide friendship since they have each other.

Robots, even AI-enhanced machines, should be seen as tools to be utilized by humans alone.


~ Jai Krishna Ponnappan

You may also want to read more about Artificial Intelligence here.

See also: 

Cognitive Computing; General and Narrow AI.

Further Reading:

Dennett, Daniel C. 1987. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dennett, Daniel C. 1993. Consciousness Explained. London: Penguin.

Dennett, Daniel C. 1998. Brainchildren: Essays on Designing Minds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dennett, Daniel C. 2008. Kinds of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness. New York: Basic Books.

Dennett, Daniel C. 2017. From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. New York: W. W. Norton.

Dennett, Daniel C. 2019. “What Can We Do?” In Possible Minds: Twenty-Five Ways of Looking at AI, edited by John Brockman, 41–53. London: Penguin Press.

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