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.

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