Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Kinds of Minds by Daniel C. Dennett

A useful introduction to the work of Dennett as it covers the notion of looking at phenomena from different perspectives and how we could go from simple stimulus-response organisms up to astoundingly complicated things like us who have their stimuli and responses highly(!) interrelated with competing processes and feedback mechanisms. More simply, it is about the modelling of minds using evolution.
The book might be unsatisfying to some because it does not provide easy answers, but Dennett usually tries to achieve the more modest goal of challenging you think of what you really mean when you ask a certain question or draw a certain conclusion. Kinds of Minds is no different in this way or his use of analogies and thought experiments to pump your intuitions in different directions.
I did like his idea of the Tower of Generate and Test which describes ascending levels of abilities of different types of organisms. I found a detailed description in a book review by T. E. Dickins and K. Frankish that I’ll past below:
The Tower consists of four floors, each of which represents a more efficient way of solving day-to-day survival problems. Each progressive solution is a ‘better move’ than the one before. Thus, the ground floor is inhabited by Darwinian creatures that are blindly generated by natural selection and possess different hardwired phenotypes. Their responses to survival problems are determined by their genetic inheritance and are quite inflexible.
The second floor is inhabited by Skinnerian creatures. These can vary their
phenotypic response to the environmental contingencies they encounter. Skinnerian creatures also possess hardwired reinforcement mechanisms that bias them to make what Dennett terms ‘Smart Moves’. A Skinnerian creature will vary its response to stimuli until something good comes of it, whereupon it will become conditioned to produce the same response again should similar stimuli be encountered. Such conditioning is possible, of course, only if the initial response is not fatal.
Popperian creatures, who inhabit the third floor, run less risk of making fatal first moves. These creatures have an inner environment – a mental representation of the external world – and can run internal simulations of various courses of action. In this way, they can calculate the likely effects of candidate actions and eliminate the ones likely to have undesirable consequences – thus ‘permitting their hypotheses to die in their stead’ as Karl Popper puts it.
Popperian creatures are much smarter than their Skinnerian cousins. However, their ability to form and test hypotheses is still limited by their genetic endowment. Their representational abilities, in particular, may remain relatively encapsulated, so that information from one domain is not routinely made available for the solution of problems occurring in others. Gregorian creatures, who live on the next floor, are smarter yet. They supplement their innate problem-solving abilities with mind tools acquired from their peers. They have learned Richard Gregory’s lesson that tools not only display intelligence, but create it too. A well-designed tool meshes with our native abilities and extends them in new and far-reaching ways. (Think, for example, of how a pair of scissors extends our ability to manipulate and shape artefacts.) The mind tools which Gregorian creatures possess are culturally transmitted tricks, shortcuts, and strategies which enable them to arrive more swiftly at Smart Moves for solving problems. The most powerful of these mind tools, Dennett suggests, are words.


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