Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Darren & Dennett

Summary: I had the privilege of meeting my intellectual idol, Daniel C. Dennett, on Monday, February 9th, 2008. I listened to two in-person lectures, asked several questions, got five books signed and took several pictures. Dennett is a nice man and it was a fantastic day. The story below is mainly for me to record the event and will likely only be of interest for those seeking much greater details (or insight into my quirky inner workings).

Brief Background: Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University that has explored the topics of consciousness, intentionality, evolution, and free will for decades (and more recently religion and morality). His work has had a huge impact upon my thinking. It began in my late teens when I picked up his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and I have been a fan ever since. I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand most of it when I read it the first time, nor did I make it through Consciousness Explained on the first attempt. His work is challenging, especially because I don’t have a formal background in philosophy of mind, but it is at the level where I am usually rewarded for my efforts instead of just frustrated.
It is as if Dennett has my general worldview (i.e., materialism or naturalism), is more insightful and has spent much more time supporting, defending and exploring such a world view, and its implications. One of his primary projects is to reconcile our common sense of self with that of the findings of science. I sometimes see him as an intellectual linebacker that is clearing the field so I can stroll down at my own pace and make headway towards the goal. His writings and arguments are brilliant, creative, strikingly broad and highly reasoned.
It is accurate to say that he is my intellectual idol and that many of the ideas I have can be attributed to his writings. Upon greater exploration, I think I would learn that while many of my ideas came from Dennett’s writings, he got many of those ideas from thinkers in his formal education (Wittgenstein, Quine, Ryle) as well as many contemporaries (too many to list). Consequently, it is likely true that if I read more of Dennett’s influences, I might be less impressed by him (but still impressed nonetheless). I don’t think he would have a problem with that, as he realizes the nature of knowledge-building and how one takes ideas available, reformulate and extends or chips away like a sculptor to offer a new perspective. Still, to write intelligently, not just competently, on one complicated subject is impressive; to be able to do it with several subjects is all the more remarkable.
My good friend Xander, who I met in the interview process to teach English in Japan and who invited me to join The Reality Check - a podcast about critical thinking put on by the Ottawa Skeptics Society - told me in late summer 2008 that Dennett was likely coming to Carleton in February. On some level one could say I have been preparing for this talk the past several years, but I purposely started to align my efforts in the fall: I re-read his book Consciousness Explained with friends in the summer and then re-read his excellent book about free will, Elbow Room, in October and November; I listened to little podcasts about Wittgenstein and other philosophers and learned about some of his influences; I read his brief bio (part one online, the second while in Chapters); I read a book about Dennett, analyzing his various philosophies and arguments and how they might come together; I finished Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and other books on evolution to greater understand that aspect of his work (and for other good reasons); I re-read parts of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and the book Kinds of Minds; and I thought of what I might want to say to him or ask him.

D-Day (yes, I’ll make that a pun)
Organized books to be signed, camera, food, and pills and left the apt soon after 11:00am after calling Xander to say I was on my way and that we’ll meet at the bus stop near him at around 11:15. (My health issues were not a constant problem but they were a frequent concern throughout the day, so I’ll just mention that now instead of repeatedly in this post.) It was a beautiful day with the sun shining and the temperature a very enjoyable 1 or 2 degrees Celsius. I was in a great mood as I had been looking forward to this event for months; I would get excited and then remind myself that he is human and think about what I was really expecting or seeking (to attempt mitigation of potential disappointment). I was hoping to catch the 85 bus but I wasn’t sure if it would come so I decided to walk it to make sure I got there on time. I kept looking over my shoulder, but nary did a bus appear.
About two minutes after I arrived at the bus stop where I was to meet Xander, the 85 arrived at that stop. Of course, this was annoying as I could have just taken the bus then, but given my state of knowledge 15 minutes before that it was still most reasonable to walk (but it is still annoying :P). Now, since Xander hadn’t arrived yet, there wasn’t a problem. But, if the bus was the number 4, the one we need to get to Carleton to see Dennett, it would have been irritating because I was tired from walking quickly to get there on time. Soon after the 85 departed, I saw Xander running towards me from a distance, I indicated he needn’t rush… but then the 4 was on its way so I then indicated he should speed up. The timing worked out almost perfectly, and we got a ride to Carleton (which I didn’t think we would) and there was no fare; so far so good. Xander and I talked about Dennett, and I joked about abducting him or that while I planned to ask several questions, perhaps a hug would be a bit much.
Xander and I conversed while we went to the building and room where an in-house Dennett talk was to be held for philosophy and cog-sci students and faculty. It was on the 22nd floor and the elevators weren’t moving so quickly, so just getting there took awhile. We organized chairs and tables and I wrote a Dennettism on the whiteboard: Of course we have a soul; it’s just made of many tiny robots. I lay on a table while others arrived and a brief discussion about proto-consciousness/pan-psychism occurred (what a silly idea). More and more started filling in, I had left to go to the bathroom and when I came back, just before 1:00pm, Dennett was there and people were setting up his laptop. (Amusingly, I’m smiling while I write this.) It was just so cool to have him so physically close. I have seen him in videos and pictures, but there he was, sitting there like, well, himself!
Andy Brook, a long-time friend of Dennett’s, did a brief introduction and then Dennett took the podium. He presented a preliminary, explorative talk about resistance to the idea of mind as computer; examining hardware and software analogies to mental activity, as well as pushing the concept of a competitive mind. By ‘competitive mind’ he meant that various parts and sub-routines compete in the brain to produce what it does (i.e., you, your thoughts, beliefs, actions…etc) and how this could explain many of the disconnects and conflicts people feel. Dennett looked like I thought he would (he’s a big man) and it was fascinating to see him speak in the manner and cadence which I expected and to use mannerisms that I’ve seen before… but 10 feet away.
The talk was interesting because it was Dennett speaking in-person, but the content really did seem like a natural extension of his views of many distributed systems competing with each other for actualization (not his word, but I lack a better one at the moment). Dennett discussed a recent paper by Fitch called “Nano-intentionality” in which Dennett said Fitch stated that neurons were really agents. Further, Fitch stated that Dennett had previously indicated that this wasn’t the case. This part was amusing because Dennett said he loved and hated the paper; loved it because the paper was important work that he agreed with, but hated it because now he has to go and do the boring work of pointing exactly where he feels he was misinterpreted.
Other aspects of the lecture were a little history of computational modelling, some comments about the mind as software, contrast of typos and thinkos (semantic errors), analogy of capitalism and socialism, and “mundify the epygastricts” - where he had us repeat the phrase and illustrated how comparatively easy that task was to repeating a string of nonsense sounds – it was very funny (“You don’t even know if you got it right”). Additionally, Dennett defended memes by talking about words – “well, what is a word made out of?” (his answer being information) and argued that we are meme-infested beings that have linguistic virtual machines which allow us to acquire new words and ideas (he used the analogy of a Java Virtual Machine and Java applets). As I was in the second row, there were times where he looked right at me and I couldn’t help but think “It’s like Dennett is talking to me.” I also took a photo or two and some brief video.
After he concluded his talk, there was the opportunity for questions where those who would like to ask one are put on a list and then a moderator indicates when it is your turn. I knew I wanted to ask a question, but I wasn’t sure which one, so I hesitated, but once 3-4 questioners were listed in a short period I put up my hand and decided to think of one while the Q&A occurred. My friend Xander asked the first question about the parallel Dennett drew between capitalism and socialism and competitive process versus cooperative processes in the brain, it was something about whether non-competitive structures would limit the types of brains/minds that could occur (as perhaps socialism limits the types of government you can have).
I cannot recall the next questions as I was probably thinking of how I would ask mine. As opposed to the many questions I had planned ahead of time, I thought I should ask something germane to the talk, so I took the opportunity to clarify a position I believe Dennett held. I said something like, “My question is about neurons as agents. In your talk you mentioned that the author of the nano-intentionality paper said that neurons were really agents. If your work has taught me anything it is to be cautious when encountering the word real or really [I deliberated on this and almost (and probably should have) said, “Your work indicates one should be cautious…”]. I believe you see agenthood as best ascribed (I didn’t use this phrase) when greater predictability can be gained, so if some aspects of neuronal function can only be described as agents to yield useful results, then so be it, and if it turns out the same is true of sub-neuronal components you would think it is fine to call them agents also, and so on and so on… ?
Dennett replied basically saying that is exactly right. Fitch chose the eukaryotic cell as the smallest level of worthy of agenthood, but if the stance is useful in even smaller levels, then that would be appropriate. Alternatively, some things are definitely not agents like water molecules.
During his reply to me, he mentioned that someone had written his motto on the whiteboard and I said, somewhat quietly, “that was me” so that the 6 people around me laughed but I don’t know who else heard. His reply was what I thought it would be, as were many of his other replies. I do not believe that is due to great insight on my part, but to the strong influence of his writings which have given me an idea of how he thinks.
I can’t remember any of the other questions, so, moving the plot along, the lecture session ended with a second round of applause and then people were invited to partake in refreshments. I had my books ready to be signed, so I decided not to wait and just went up to him. There were a couple of people gathering but his computer was still out, so he requested to let himself get packed up. I thought he could handle an easy question while doing that, so I asked him, “Could one say ‘No one’s in charge’ as a general characterization of things or is that a misstep?” He said that is fine at the sub-personal level, but beyond that, you are in charge. To further go into the reasoning behind this reply requires far more detail (and competence) than I have the time to go into (or gain).
Tragedy struck! I realized I only had 3 of the 5 books that I wanted him to sign because I had split them up in my bag and only took the plastic bag containing the three. I felt the impulse to run and get the two other books but then I would lose my spot as first in line. What to do! I chose to have the three signed then and try to get the other two signed later. Of course this will matter to no one but me, but the two that were left unsigned at that time were two of his more important works to me (Consciousness Explained and Elbow Room), while the three I had were less so, with the exception of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (the final two being The Intentional Stance and Sweet Dreams). I had put a sticky note with my name on the front so he wouldn’t have to ask how to spell (something I got from the organizers when I saw Hitchens speak). I said something like “I’ll just gush for a minute and say that you are my intellectual idol and your work has had a huge influence of me.” He said thank you of course but I can’t quite remember his response in detail (he was looking down and signing one of my books). I have these visual and auditory snippets of him signing books, his body posture, my position in space, and his words, which are all interesting, but would be better if they were in greater detail.
I asked him if there was anything left he really wanted to explore or was he just trying to present the same ideas from different angles. He said that he was fortunate to have some good ideas when he was young and has been explaining them ever since (this is what I would have predicted). Dennett mentioned that he had a lot of difficulty when he wrote Freedom Evolves because he didn’t want to just keep quoting himself. Then he said something like, “and the problem was that I put one of the most important lines in a footnote: "If you make yourself really small, you can externalize virtually everything." As Dennett was saying this I was able to complete the sentence (because he had said the same line in Freedom Evolves and I remembered it… and when I read the line in Elbow Room afterwards I thought of that too). I believe the point has to do with the boundary of self-hood and that by considering certain things as either inside or outside of you, you can manipulate the size of your self.
Additionally, I requested that he and Douglas Hofstadter get together and just film a conversation between them talking about the self and consciousness, like the Four Horsemen, and put it online. He said he’d have to talk to Doug about that and also that Doug is usually more reluctant to do such things. I also had the chance to ask him if he had a favourite book of his or would the answer be too complicated to be meaningful? He replied with affirmation regarding complexity but after a short period said, “Maybe Elbow Room…” My perception of event order is not so strong after this moment, so either right after or soon after I asked if I could get a photo (which Xander took)…actually, I just remembered… I think other people were getting stuff signed and Xander took a photo of me pointing at Dennett like “My good friend Steven Pinker” and then after others were done getting things signed I asked Dennett for a photo. I sort of naturally ended up putting my arm on his shoulder (even though I did think about it before I did it), and Xander took the photo. Then Dennett said something like, “Well, just a second” and put his arm around me. He then said, “Take another.” In short, happy Darren! :D
After that I just tried to enjoy the experience and afterglow, let others talk to him, took a quick photo for Xander, ate what was leftover from the food and refreshments table far too rapidly (because we had to get going) and felt delight and relief. Boxes to be ticked on the checklist: Met Dennett, got photo, three books signed, asked questions and shared importance of his influence. Boxes empty: two books to be signed, several questions to be asked.
It was a little after 3:00 pm at this time and the next while includes walking through the tunnels and hallways of Carleton to pick up ad banners for the evening event, and then trying to find a spot where I could stretch out. We eventually managed to find some ugly long and padded benches (green and red/white polka dots, really?) where we got some rest. Then back through the tunnels and corridors to try to meet someone and then to a buffet dinner which was pretty good, but mainly because I didn’t have to pay for it. Nice to talk to some people with similar ideas, but I was tired and didn’t want to sit too long. Near the end of my time there, Dennett and the group with him entered and it was amusing to see him with a plate of food. Yes, I know he eats food… but still!.
As I know you are curious, the questions that remained for me to ask him were: (1) Are we going to build a conscious robot anytime soon? (2) Can you keep all your ideas in your working space memory? (3) What did you think of Matthew Elton’s book? (4) Is your reasonable and balanced style a result of your personality or is it a tactic which requires much effort? I also wanted to mention that some preliminary work indicates playing Tetris might help reduce PTSD symptoms because the activity interferes with the encoding of certain types of memories, as well as that his Thank Goodness piece was the tipping point for a friend to really start challenging her supernaturalism. So, I somehow had to fit all that in after the evening talk. Now, I was in charge of getting Dennett from the presentation hall to the reception area so I knew I would be able to ask 2-3 at that time, assuming he wasn’t tired or needed some recovery time.
The period from 7:00-8:00pm was a crazy time of running here and there to ensure that things were going smoothly regarding registration, ushering, reception set-up and other such things; There were many volunteers and Xander was doing far more running around than I, who was starting to wear down. I had to get those two books to be signed, but there were in my bag in a locked room and we couldn’t find the Peter to open it (his office is within the room and he had the key). It all worked out at nearly the last moment (14 minutes to go to Dennett scheduled to begin at 8:05) and I was able to take my spot in the auditorium near the wall at the front as I thought I might have to stand part of the time. Oh, I should also mention there was a gorgeous full moon which I had glimpses of while walking in-between the place where Dennett would speak and the location of the reception; I love moons and some clouds.
I came in through the back so I heard him being introduced (while I did some quick stretches) and then took my seat for the main event. I do not have final numbers, but upwards of 500 people came to see Dennett (they had several overflow rooms which presented the content on video). Dennett was on the other side of the stage from where I was, so it wasn’t so great for pictures, but the angle of the projected presentation made for an interesting, stretchy perspective. The talk was about the evolution of reasons and it was videotaped by Carleton to perhaps be played on CBC radio and other places. I hope there is video as well as the audio available.
I won’t go into a detailed description of the talk, but will mention a few points. Dennett opened with a cute joke – a comparison of photos of Darwin and himself and how some might think Dan is trying to be Charles. Dennett talked about how mindless processes over long periods can create things with large amounts of design (including us), ignorant and mischievous cuckoos, how eukaryotes might have developed, words and memes, and that while there a reasons in the world they are usually only represented by us (to us, to ourselves) – the usual Dennettian suspects.
Dennett was well-spoken, amusing and intelligent. There were some new things in the presentation which I appreciated, unfortunately I cannot quite remember a main one, and the other was just a good reminder of something to which I was previously exposed: The “Jesus fish” is so named because it is a symbol of Christianity and the letters in the Greek word for fish, I-C-T-H-U-S, are used to spell the out Greek words saying, loosely, Jesus Christ God’s Son and Saviour. Dennett was talking about this with a friend and his friend challenged him, “What does Darwin stand for?” So Dennett went off for half an hour and dusted off his old Latin and came up with DARUUIN (as there is no ‘W’ in Latin) which stands for Delere Auctorem Rerum Ut Universum Infinitum Noscas. This phrase translates to “Destroy the author of things in order to understand the infinite universe.” I think that is a really great line and you can see a screen shot here from a different talk here (the links do not work though).
After the talk, I made a beeline for the microphone to ensure I would be able to ask a question. I was the first one at one of the two microphones and was second to ask a question (which I had Jonathan Abrams use my camera to record video of Dennett listening to and replying). It was neat to be in a room of over 400 people and ask my idol a question. The question was about conscious robots and again I tried to structure it in a way that would make the most sense and say what I wanted to say, so it was something like: My question is about conscious robots. I don’t mean how we are conscious and made up of little robots, or that, in some sense, we are conscious robots, but in the sense of artificial intelligence, man-made robots becoming conscious. Ray Kurzweil thinks there is a technological revolution, the singularity, coming and this will happen in the near future and I wanted to hear your thoughts about that. (That last sentence is likely the least accurate) I believe you think this is possible in principle and I wanted to clarify that, and also whether you thought it was plausible in practice, and if so, what would the timeline be on that. Now, from what I’ve read previously, Dennett does think it is possible in theory, but there won’t be conscious robots mainly because there wouldn’t be resources for it to happen.
Dennett replied first by saying, “There are conscious robots – us!” which amused me because I thought he would say such a thing so I tried to pre-empt that comment to not waste time, but it is probably too irresistible a line as it got a big laugh. He then said it was possible but he didn’t think it was going to happen. He is of course aware of Kurzweil stuff and thought it was overreaching. Basically, it would be possible to build a mechanical bird to fly around and land on a twig in a lab, but why would you? The resources would be so great for a conscious robot (more than the moon shot) that he thought it would be unlikely to receive such funding, and therefore unlikely to happen. So, giving my expectations, the answer wasn’t anything really new, but I was happy to have him clarify and speak directly to the issue.
After a few more questions (about pain and conflict, and the possible flaws with the adaptationist paradigm…) it was wrapped up and we applauded again. I soon went on the stage to help usher him to the reception. I helped unplug his laptop and tried to get him to go in a certain direction, but his friend Andy had other plans. Before we descended the stairs off the stage one girl snuck up and asked if she could ask one question (In such situations I always want to say, ‘you mean two questions?’) and he complied. She asked that if we aren’t living for our genes then what are we living for? It reminded me just how easy it is to make missteps when learning new things. Dennett replied like I thought he would: Whatever you like, your hopes and dreams and such. Of course things are more complicated, but he can make a good case if he had more time.
Hopefully the talk will be available both so you will be able to experience it if you are interested and so I will be able to compare the experience and memories of being there with what will be an accurate depiction of the content. This is especially true for the question I posed, but I would also just like to hear/see it again.
We went down the stage stairs and out the back; I mentioned it was must be a long day for him (as a test to see if he needed a moment or if I could pester him with more questions) and he said, “Well, you get used to it” in an upbeat voice. Green light. I asked him, “You’ve been thinking and writing about your ideas for years, so/but are you able to keep them all in your working space memory?” He quickly said, “No” which sounded like a truncated version of “Oh, no!” with the style of “That would be far too difficult.” I really wanted to explore more about how he sees the world, but there wasn’t time so I just mentioned that there is a Facebook group called “When I forget what I think, I check Daniel Dennett’s writings” and he was amused. Through the doors and down the stairs during which time I mentioned the book I read about him by Matthew Elton and I asked what he thought about it. He said, “That’s a good book… but I think there is a better one.” As soon as he started to not easily pronounce/generate the name of the author of this better book, I knew which one he was talking about and then we both stumbled our way through it to agreement (for those who care, that author is Tadeusz Zawidzki). I lead him to the table which had been set up to sign books, and since there was no one yet in any sort of line, I took the chance to have him sign my other two books (Elbow Room and Consciousness Explained). And with that, I was pretty much done (check, check). Once more gathered, I started to organize people into a line and then we used sticky notes to have people write their names on the front of the stuff they wanted signed. The line was usually 10-15 deep and when it was smaller and almost done invariably there would be one or two more people that would line up. During that period I realized there were two more things I wanted to say to him, which I was able to do when he was finishing up signing books. The first was that I thought he would like to know that his Thank Goodness was the tipping point for a friend to question supernaturalism. He brightened (no pun intended for those in the know), smiled and said, “Oh that’s great, I do love hearing that.” Finally, I was able to mention the Tetris thing and he thought that was interesting. There was a final impromptu picture with a group of about 10 people and Dennett, so that was nice. At that period, I was truly done and said so to Jon, who then asked if there was more I wanted, joking asking if I would go follow him out the building. I said something like, “I know enough about diminishing returns to be happy with everything that has happened and I’ll probably think of something later, but right now I wouldn’t have anything specific to ask him.” So once again a happy and now contented Darren existed. Dennett departed and I chatted with a few others with similar worldviews and interests and then Jon kindly drove Xander and me home (where we postponed a debate about Chomsky to avoid tainting my Dennett day).

The day was a truly significant and enjoyable experience; it was not life-altering, but I did not think it would be. I was energized most of the day and happy to just finally meet and hear (in person) the man who has influenced me so greatly. Upon reflection I am increasing pleased at how things turned out because there could have been far less harmony with my expectations/plans and reality – he could have been less kind or less reasonable, perhaps he would have denied a photo or I couldn’t have had all my books signed, or that I wouldn’t have been able to ask him 7 or 8 questions (although I did realize the one question I forgot after we left Carleton). Once home I giddily looked at my signed books, thought about how fortunate I was and how good life is, and talked with my friend Owen about my happy day.
In conclusion,
Daniel Dennett didn’t disappoint. Darren’s day? Delightful!


Anonymous Tanya Bilsbury said...

Well it certainly sounds like love :p

I know how important those intellectual idols can be in terms of broadening one's horizons and challenging one's mental frameworks. I have one myself, though he is only a mere dal prof.

Glad to hear you had such a fulfilling evening.

10:41 PM  

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