On the Origins of Genius: How Human Consciousness Evolved

The human mind is like a Turing machine, says Daniel Dennett. It's made up of unthinking cogs – but when combined in the right order, their motion gives rise to consciousness.

Daniel C. Dennett: In an entirely natural world without any supernatural mysteries you can explain the mind, the human mind, consciousness. It's been my project for 50 years and what I've come to realize is that the only way to do it right is you have to take evolution a lot more seriously and really look hard at the question of how evolution could have gotten these wonderful projects up and running that have now lead to people like you and me and all the great artistic geniuses and scientific geniuses, the real intelligent designers that now inhabit the planet instead of the imaginary intelligent designer who never existed.

For millennia people had it in mind that all the wonderful things they saw in the world, all the beautiful design of the animals and plants and living things must be due to a fabulously intelligent designer, a creator. And so it was until Darwin came along and turned that upside down and realized that in principle there could be a process with no intelligence, no comprehension, no foresight, no purpose that would just inexorably grind out algorithmically better and better and better designs of all sorts and create the living world were there had been just lifeless matter before. And this was a shocking idea to many people, even to Darwin in some regards it was shocking. But he was right. He had the essentials right and now 150 years later there's just no question about it he was right and we're filling in the details at a breathtaking pace. So that was the first great inversion, the strange inversion of reason. And it's much about it in recent years by what I call Alan Turing's strange inversion of reasoning.
When Turing came along computers were people; that was a job. What do you do for a living? "I'm a computer." And these are human beings, typically they were math majors and they were hired to compute various functions, tables, logarithms, celestial navigation tables and so forth and what Turing realized was you didn't have to be intelligent. You didn't have to comprehend. You could make a device, which did all the things that the human computers were doing with all the intelligence and all the understanding laundered out of it except for the most minimal sort of mechanical quasi understanding. All it had to do was to be able to tell a zero from a one or a hole in a punch tape or from no hole in a punch tape, a very simple discriminator, put it together with the right logic and you have a Universal Turing Machine, which can compute anything computable. And that was the birth of the computer. And the two strange inversions fit together beautifully. What they show, and this is still strange to people, is what I call competence without comprehension.

We tend to think the reason we send our children to university is so that they can acquire comprehension, which we view as the source of competence. It's out of that well of comprehension that they acquire the competences they do. And we look down our noses at wrote learning and drill and practice because that's just competence, we want comprehension. And what Turing and Darwin in a very similar way showed is no that's just backwards. Comprehension is any effect of multiple competences not itself a source, an independent source of competence. So that's the second strain of inversion.

If we want to look at human minds we have to add another source of evolutionary power and that's cultural evolution. We don't get all our intelligence from our genes, in fact relatively little all things considered. And here's where Turing's ideas really come in handy because if you take Richard Dawkins's idea of the meme as a unit of cultural evolution and you take Turing's idea about a programmable computer and you put them together you get the idea of a meme as a thing made of information, it's like an app which you download to your neck top. And it's a brain filled with apps is a mind, is a human mind. And if you don't download all the apps you're not going to be able to think very well. That's why no creature on the planet, however intelligent they are in some regards, they can't hold a candle to us because they can't download the apps of culture because they don't have, basically they don't have a language. And it's language, which is itself composed of memes, words or memes, it's language that is the backbone of cultural evolution. And what it permits is for cultural evolution to become ever less Darwinian ever more intelligent.

And now we're living in the age of intelligent design. We have scientists and engineers and artists and musicians and composers all these wonderful designers of wonderful things, poems, bridges, airplanes, theories, and they are intelligent designers, but if you want to know how they manage to have that intelligence you have to go back and look at their brains as ultimately like Turing machines. They're composed of actually trillions of moving parts that are all just as stupid as posts. They don't understand a thing; they don't have to understand a thing; you put them together in the right way and you get comprehension and eventually consciousness.

Daniel Dennett has been mulling consciousness over for the last 50 years, and he’s ended up where we began: evolution. When this theory was proposed by Darwin, it inverted everything people at the time held to be true – it revealed that we were not created by intelligent design, but rather we evolved into intelligent designers ourselves. The process of evolution worked mindlessly, producing better and better human prototypes, crafting ever-more complex brains until that rhythmic, algorithmic, repetition birthed consciousness. This is what Dennett refers to as ‘competence without comprehension’. Daniel Dennett's most recent book is From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds.


Daniel Dennett's most recent book is From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds.

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
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