Daniel Dennett’s book on the different types of minds, generally comparing other animals to humans, has some interesting remarks on how a study of animal brains informs the study of human brains. Here are my note, assume it is a direct quote unless noted with brackets:
- Membership in the class of things that have minds provides an all-important guarantee: the guarantee of a certain sort of moral standing. Only mind-havers can care; only mind-havers can mind what happens.
- We are the direct descendants of [the] self-replicating robots. We are mammals, and all mammals have descended from reptilian ancestors whose ancestors were fish whose ancestors were marine creatures rather like worms, who descended in turn from simpler multicelled creatures several hundred million years ago, who descended from single-celled creatures who descended from self-replicating macromolecules, about three billion years ago.
- All living things–not only plants and animals but also unicellular organisms–have bodies that require a self-regulative and self-protective organization that can be differentially activated by different conditions. These organizations are brilliantly designed, by natural selection, and they are composed, at bottom, of lots of tiny passive switches that can be turned ON or OFF by equally passive conditions that the organisms encounter in their wanderings.
- [The] bold leap of supposing that the agent will make only the smart moves (given its limited perspective) is what gives us the leverage to make predictions.
- [”Free floating rationales” are] nowhere represented in the fledgling, or anywhere else, even though it is operative–over evolutionary time–in shaping and refining the behavior in question. [To me, the idea of a free floating rationale is by far the most interesting point in the book.]
- We are descended from robots, and composed of robots, and all the intentionality we enjoy is derived from the more fundamental intentionality of these billions of crude intentional systems.
- A mind is fundamentally an anticipator, an expectation-generator. It mines the present for clues, which it refines with the help of the materials it has saved from the past, turning them into anticipations of the future. And then it acts, rationally, on the basis of those hard-won assumptions. [However, recent research does not favor Dennett’s description here.]
- The patterns of evolutionary change emerge so slowly that they are invisible at our normal rate of information uptake, so it’s easy to overlook their intentional interpretation, or to dismiss it as mere whimsy or metaphor. This bias in favor of our normal pace might be called timescale chauvinism.
- In theory, every information-processing system is tied at both ends, you might say, to transducers and effectors whose physical composition is dictated by the jobs they have to do; in between, everything can be accomplished by media-neutral processes.
- In a heat transplant operation, you want to be the recipient, not the donor, but in a brain transplant operation, you want to be the donor–you go with the brain, not the body.
- We ignore an important alternative: viewing the brain (and hence the mind) as one organ among many, a relatively recent usurper of control, whose functions cannot properly be understood until we see it not as the boss but as just one more somewhat fractious servant, working to further the interests of the body that shelters and fuels it and gives its activities meaning.
- Since we expect congitive complexity to coevolve with environmental complexity, we should look for cognitive complexity first in those species that have a long history of dealing with the relevant sort of environmental complexity.
- The many different methods we have developed for thinking about time by actually thinking about space… We have all sorts of conventional ways of mapping past, present, and future, before and after, sooner and later–differences that are virtually invisble in unrefined nature–onto left and right, up and down, clockwise and counterclockwise.
- [Some animals exhibit intelligent but unthinking beheavior.]
- “It may not talk, but surely it thinks!”–one of the main aims of this book has been to shake your confidence in this familiary reaction.
This book is a good exercise in how to think evolutionarily and how to question your initial premises. He avoids the natural tendency to discuss how intelligent animals are and instead focuses on the ways that they are stupid, and why that is interesting.