Brainchildren: Essays on Designing Minds

Daniel C. Dennett

Penguin 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 1998
Brainchildren is a selection of works published in the twenty years since Brainstorms, Dennett's first collection of essays. The twenty six pieces included cover Dennett's core interests: philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, animal behaviour, and ethics. (There are no essays specifically on evolution, but it is a significant presence in many.) They have been supplemented with brief introductions written for this volume.

The ten works in part one deal with topics in the philosophy of mind, consciousness and intentionality. One attempts to unravel some of the common confusions and misunderstandings surrounding the Turing Test. One elucidates the contrast between "craft" and "ideology" in folk psychology, and that between beliefs and opinions. Another argues for what Dennett calls "moderate realism" about the status of beliefs, using patterns as an analogy. Somewhat more technical and less accessible is an article on understanding and meaning, written as response to Dretske in an ongoing debate. Other works include an essay co-authored with psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, which presents a novel view of Multiple Personality Disorder, and the text of Dennett's contribution to a panel discussion on Julian Jayne's The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

Three of the essays are responses to critics of Consciousness Explained: a general defence of the Multiple Drafts model for consciousness, a response to Owen Flanagan on the subject of qualia, and a challenge to opponents to produce a non-question-begging defence of zombies (entities behaviourally indistinguishable from people but lacking consciousness). A related essay describes the MIT Cog project and considers the practical problems that arise in creating a conscious robot.

In part two the focus shifts to artificial intelligence and artificial life. There are two essays on the frame problem in AI, which Dennett considers a general problem of broad philosophical interest. A piece on "the logical geography of computational approaches" uses a geographical metaphor to place different schools of philosophy. The ideas of some specific thinkers are discussed in a forward to Robert French's The Subtlety of Sameness and reviews of Hofstadter's Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies and Allen Newell's Unified Theories of Cognition. In an argument for the importance of evolution to cognitive science, Dennett presents cognitive science as a form of reverse engineering, falling between in between top-down and bottom-up approaches. Also included are a brief note on "artificial life as philosophy" and a longer piece on how philosophers should approach artificial intelligence, written in response to Putnam.

Part three contains essays on animal behaviour and animal minds. In "Out of the Armchair and into the Field", Dennett describes his experiences in Kenya, accompanying Cheney and Seyfarth in their studies of vervet monkeys in the wild. A more general essay on cognitive ethology evaluates what the study of animal behaviour has to offer artificial intelligence. Two essays ask the questions "do animals have beliefs?" and "do animals have consciousness?", with Dennett using these as starting points for elaborating general ideas about intentionality and consciousness. Also included is a brief look at the near-paradox which crops up in the search for creative animal intelligence — behaviour must be unusual and original to be creative, but such behaviour is by its very nature hard to detect experimentally.

There are two miscellaneous essays. The first is an autobiographical retrospective, a look back over Dennett's career. The second, "Information, Technology and the Virtues of Ignorance", considers the consequences of the information glut and advances in artificial intelligence for medical practitioners and for ethics more generally.

The essays in Brainchildren display Dennett's incisive analysis and his talent for finding effective analogies, thought experiments, and stories; they confirm his status as one of the world's foremost philosophers of mind. The collection is not the most suitable introduction to Dennett for the newcomer, since some of the essays assume an acquaintance with his other writings (or at least a general background in the relevant fields) and there is some repetition between them. But for Dennett fans it will be compulsive reading, while it will be an essential volume for anyone following philosophical debates about intentionality, consciousness, or the significance of artificial intelligence.

April 1998

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%T Brainchildren
%S Essays on Designing Minds
%A Dennett, Daniel C.
%I Penguin
%D 1998
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0140265635
%P ix,418pp