In Darwin's Wake, Where Am I?
Dennett (Daniel)
Source: Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 75, no. 2 (November 2001): 13-30
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. If my body is composed of nothing but a team of a few trillion robotic cells, mindlessly interacting to produce all the large-scale patterns that tradition would attribute to the non-mechanical workings of my mind, there seems to be nothing left over to be me. Lurking in Darwin's shadow there is a bugbear: the ·incredible Disappearing Self1. One of Darwin's earliest critics2 saw what was coming and could scarcely contain his outrage:
      In the theory with which we have to deal, Absolute Ignorance is the artificer; so that we may enunciate as the fundamental principle of the whole system, that, IN ORDER TO MAKE A PERFECT AND BEAUTIFUL MACHINE, IT IS NOT REQUISITE TO KNOW HOW TO MAKE IT. This proposition will be found, on careful examination, to express, in condensed form, the essential purport of the Theory, and to express in a few words all Mr, Darwin's meaning; who, by a strange inversion of reasoning, seems to think Absolute Ignorance fully qualified to take the place of Absolute Wisdom in all the achievements of creative skill.
  2. This "strange inversion of reasoning" promises – or threatens – to dissolve the Cartesian res cogitans as the wellspring of creativity, and then where will we be? Nowhere, it seems. It seems that if creativity gets "reduced" to "mere mechanism" we will be shown not to exist at all. Or, we will exist, but we won't be thinkers, we won't manifest genuine "Wisdom in all the achievements of creative skill". The individual as Author of works and deeds will be demoted: a person, it seems, is a barely salient nexus, a mere slub in the fabric of causation3.
  3. Whenever we zoom in on the act of creation, it seems we lose sight of it. The genius we thought we could see from a distance gets replaced at the last instant by stupid machinery, an echo of Darwin's shocking substitution of Absolute Ignorance for Absolute Wisdom in the creation of the biosphere. Many people dislike Darwinism in their guts, and of all the ill-lit, murky reasons for antipathy to Darwinism, this one has always struck me as the deepest, but only in the sense of being the most entrenched, the least accessible to rational criticism. There are thoughtful people who scoff at Creationism, dismiss dualism out of hand, pledge allegiance to academic humanism – and then get quite squirrelly when somebody proposes a Darwinian theory of creative intelligence. The very idea that all the works of human genius can be understood in the end to be mechanistically generated products of a cascade of generate-and test algorithms arouses deep revulsion in many otherwise quite insightful, open-minded people.
  4. Absolute Ignorance? Fie on anybody who would thus put "A" and "I" together! Serendipity is the wellspring of evolution, so it is fitting that an evolutionist such as I should adapt MacKenzie's happy capitalization for a purpose he could hardly have imagined. His outraged scoffing at the powers of Absolute Ignorance has an uncannily similar echo more than a century later in the equally outraged scoffing at those who believe in what John Searle4 has called "strong AI," the thesis that real intelligence can be made by artifice, that the difference between a mindless mechanism and a mindful one is a difference of design (or program5 – since whatever you .can design in hardware you can implement in a virtual machine that has the same competence).


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In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: We’re referred to "Dennett (Daniel) - Elbow Room - The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting", p. 13.

Footnote 2: Robert Beverley MacKenzie, 1868, The Darwinian Theory of the Transmutation of Species Examined.

Footnote 4: See "Searle (John) - Minds, Brains, and Programs".

Footnote 5:

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
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