Daniel Dennett: How Does the Brain Store Beliefs?
Philosopher Daniel Dennett investigates the theories related to how the brain represents ideas and beliefs while pondering an Inception-like situation in which beliefs are surgically inserted into a patient's brain.
Daniel C. Dennett is the author of Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Breaking the Spell, Freedom Evolves, and Darwin's Dangerous Idea and is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He lives with his wife in North Andover, Massachusetts, and has a daughter, a son, and a grandson. He was born in Boston in 1942, the son of a historian by the same name, and received his B.A. in philosophy from Harvard in 1963. He then went to Oxford to work with Gilbert Ryle, under whose supervision he completed the D.Phil. in philosophy in 1965. He taught at U.C. Irvine from 1965 to 1971, when he moved to Tufts, where he has taught ever since, aside from periods visiting at Harvard, Pittsburgh, Oxford, and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.
His first book, Content and Consciousness, appeared in 1969, followed by Brainstorms (1978), Elbow Room (1984), The Intentional Stance (1987), Consciousness Explained (1991), Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), Kinds of Minds (1996), and Brainchildren: A Collection of Essays 1984-1996. Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, was published in 2005. He co-edited The Mind's I with Douglas Hofstadter in 1981 and he is the author of over three hundred scholarly articles on various aspects on the mind, published in journals ranging from Artificial Intelligence and Behavioral and Brain Sciences to Poetics Today and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.
Dennett gave the John Locke Lectures at Oxford in 1983, the Gavin David Young Lectures at Adelaide, Australia, in 1985, and the Tanner Lecture at Michigan in 1986, among many others. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987.
He was the Co-founder (in 1985) and Co-director of the Curricular Software Studio at Tufts, and has helped to design museum exhibits on computers for the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Computer Museum in Boston.
Daniel Dennett: One of the problems that's beset philosophers and cognitive scientists for the last 30, 40 years is how on earth the brain represents information. An eternally appealing idea is something like a language of thought that there's brain writing or mentalese and we write -- the brain writes sentences in mentalese that store the beliefs so that when you learn that giraffes are mammals, there's someplace in your brain where the word -- the mental word giraffe and the word mammal are tied together with a "is a" or something like that. So we have a big library of sentences. Those are our beliefs.
We have a belief box with lots of beliefs. That's an attractive idea of nice -- it has a certain simplicity that -- and we think we understand how sentences work to store information. Well now, if that were so, could a clever enough neurosurgeon wire in a false belief just out of the blue. So, let's imagine that our neurosurgeon decides to wire into our brain the belief that you have an older brother living in Cleveland. So he figures out how to write that in brainish and does all the microsurgery and there it is written in brainish in your brain.
Okay, you wake up from the anesthetic and so he says, "Yeah, do you have any siblings?" Well, if he's done his work well I guess the first thing you do is you say, "Yes, I have an older brother living in Cleveland." "Oh, what's his name?" And now what? Ah, ah, ah -- one of several things has to happen. Maybe you'll start confabulating and you'll say, umm, his name is Alfonso, and, um um he's a taxi driver, and he lives with his wife and two kids in the suburbs. That's one possibility. In other words, you couldn't just wire in one belief. You'd have to wire in something which generated a whole slew of beliefs. Alternatively, maybe you would say, "Oh my gosh. What did I just say? I said I had an older brother. I don't have an older brother. I have a sister or I'm an only child. What made me say that?" In that case, what we would see is that whatever the surgeon did, it wasn't wiring in a belief because as soon as you reflected on it, boom, it just vanished, it disappeared.
Well, if it's a belief then it's gotta be secured to a lot of other beliefs. That's just in the nature of belief. You can't have an isolated belief like I have an older brother living in Cleveland. If that state was one that you seem to be in, we'd want to explore it to see what came along with it. And either we would decide that you had some weird sort of growth in your brain that made you fixate on a sentence, sort of parrot like. And you'd say, "I'm an only child and I have an older brother living in Cleveland." Which, of course, would be contradicting yourself. What we wouldn't decide is that you believed you had an older brother living in Cleveland.
What this little thought experiment shows is that beliefs don't parcel themselves out the way sentences do. You could take any sentence on any topic and write it on any medium you like and put it in a drawer and there it would be. Beliefs aren't like that. They come in systems. They cohere in large clumps. This is sometimes called holism and there's still some theorists who think that holism is a bad idea. I think it's got to be the case. Holism is a good idea. That a particulate non-holistic theory of believe is a non-starter.
Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton
What if beliefs could be surgically inserted into a patient's brain? This is the basis of one of philosopher Daniel Dennett's thought experiments in exploration of how the brain represents beliefs. Dennett argues that individual beliefs are part of broader idea systems and that they couldn't possibly be stored like a library of belief sentences.
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