Competitive brains and centrally planned computers

I’ve enjoyed reading (late) Daniel Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, although I’m very far from being an expert reader. His materialism seems perfectly inuitive to me. I have no problem thinking that consciousness is the outcome of an accumulation of brain functions and that the life on earth we observe is the outcome of evolution by natural selection rather than an intelligent Designer. I’m not sure the book will change any minds, though, or reason people out of different beliefs. (Reason can only be deployed against people already open to it.)

However, Dennett thinks the brain is something like a computer, and starting with a detailed description about computing, routines and subroutines, and how software works is certainly a useful approach – the key difference being that a computer is a bureaucracy, a planned economy in which routines form orderly queues, while the brain is anarchic, super-competitive. As Dennett put it in The Edge interview about the book:

“They’re [ie your neurons] struggling amongst themselves with each other for influence, just for staying alive, and there’s competition going on between individual neurons.”

Another lens on Biological Market Theory.

Dennett’s metaphor of the ‘self’ as a ‘centre of narrative gravity’ is nice too – there is no physical location in your body for your centre of gravity, and different shoes or gaining weight will shift it a bit, but it’s still a meaningful thing. There is no ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, Dennett argues (maybe this was why The Hard Problem was one of Tom Stoppard’s less thrilling plays).

The book is a mixture of ‘tools for thinking’, or in other words techniques for critical thought and reasoning, and applications of the tools to consciousness, evolution and free will , and discussion of the philosophical debates about these thorny subjects. It’s very clear although some parts require immense concentration, at least from me. This is why I had to give up philosophy, but this book was worth the effort. If only all philosophers could write so clearly. I’ve always suspected that – like economics – the less intelligible the philosopher, the harder they find it to explain what they’re trying to say, the less they understand it themselves.

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