DANIEL CLEMENT DENNETT is hailed as one of America’s most important present day philosophers whose research centers on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of cognitive science, and philosophy of evolutionary biology. He is currently the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. An exhibition of his work titled Haptic Whittles, was curated by Nicholas Cueva, Co-Founder of Underdonk gallery in Bushwick. Dennett's latest book From Bacteria to Bach and Back is a major account of the origins of the conscious mind.
JC Your current exhibition Haptic Whittles at Underdonk gallery in Brooklyn, features mechanistic sculptures carved from solid logs of wood that you made throughout the eighties and nineties. These whittled down blocks of wood are like little puzzles for the viewer to unravel. How do you look at these now in retrospect?
DCD I made these for family and friends over many years, and gave away many of them, saving a few favorites, some of which are in the show. The process of making them was as interesting to me as the finished product, if not more interesting. The challenge of making them was sometimes severe. I thought several times of making a jig (with a ‘chuck’ screwed on the bottom of the piece-in-progress) that would allow me to do a few strokes of whittling, and then place the piece for a few seconds in the jig, where a single frame (or two or three) of video would be shot, then removing the piece, letting the chuck-holder advance a little bit (turning the piece when it is placed back in the jig) so that the result would be a time-lapse video of the actual whittling process. I never got around to it, but it’s still an idea I like. The temporal aspects of artistic creation have always fascinated me. To a first approximation, I think, good art is made at great speed! Alphonse Mucha’s impromptu sketches, for example, have simply stunningly beautiful lines, and were clearly dashed off in a few seconds. Salvador Dali’s draftsmanship shows similar signs of having been executed with the speed of a sleight-of-hand magician. I wonder if there is film of Dali sketching. I’d love to see it.
JC How do concepts become salient enough for you to make them tangible in such ways?
DCD In all different ways. I sometimes have a specific object in mind, and sometimes I discover what I want as I work.
JC In Chapter 15 of your new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, you reaffirm your view that "strong AI" is "possible in principle," but make note of its negligibility. You take the view of Douglas Hofstadter who raises his concerns in an open letter to Google that he wants his machines to be "reliably mechanical," to remain codependent and in our control. Is "the singularity" or "mind uploading" as described by the likes of Ray Kurzweil and David Chalmers a futile thought-endeavor distracting us from real issues at present such as climate change and warfare?
DCD Yes. But there are real dangers in the current developments in AI, as I discuss in the last chapter.
JC On the other hand, could a singularity or Bostrom's "superintelligence" be of benefit in that it could, for example, help us to better comprehend our own consciousness?
DCD We can learn all about minds from simpler models of minds and their parts. We know a lot about how birds fly, and we didn’t have to build a robotic bird---a waste of scientific time and energy.
JC Is “superintelligence” even possible on the basis of competence without comprehension?
DCD The idea that intelligence can be measured (like IQ--a very shallow measure) is already dubious, so super-intelligence is not really definable. Compare it to super-gracefulness or super-beauty. How would you measure it and declare that you had made something that was, say, twice or a hundred times more beautiful than any beautiful thing heretofore seen?
JC We have seen that technology is predictive but not inherently progressive in the way it has amplified racist, sexist, and classist biases. Clearly Trump's campaign success was to a large part due to the programming of collective intelligence, the manipulation of polls and aggressive dominance in the meme-sphere. If the populist posturing of Trump can be construed as a kind of technological "singularity," that gathers intelligence from machine-learned algorithms to outwit humans, what in your view could be an antidote?
DCD We need to re-establish basic trust in basic truths--local truths, you might say--and help people learn how to move beyond these, carefully. You can’t fool people about whether the pharmacy is open or there is milk in the refrigerator, obviously. Once people recover their respect for the truth, they will--one hopes and expects--be able to recognize not to trust anybody who proves unreliable about such basic truths.
JC Do you view "meme warfare" as a necessary tactic to promote cultural and political change?
DCD Yes, but there are clear moral limits. For instance, fighting fake news with contrary fake news is vandalism, plain and simple. But being careful not to frame your memes in counterproductive terms is essential.
JC I wanted to run quotes from Benjamin Bratton and Eliezer Yudkowsky that tap into your ideas of "hypermodesty" and AI:
'We must let go of the demand that any Artificial Intelligence arriving at sentience or sapience must care deeply about humanity—us specifically—as the subject and object of its knowing and its desire. The real nightmare, worse than the one in which the big machine wants to kill you, is the one in which it sees you as irrelevant, or as not even a discrete thing to know. Worse than being seen as an enemy is not being seen at all. As Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it, “The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.” '
It's a passage that has stuck with me a while and I wonder if this resonates with you as well?
DCD We have already become so dependent on the new technology that we devote large portions of our time and energy to supplying it with the energy and maintenance it needs. But we can take steps to limit our dependence, and should do so.
JC What excites you most about present day research in the philosophy of mind at this point in time?
DCD There are philosophers of mind who have joined me--and surpassed me by a wide margin--in taking cognitive science seriously, and they are beginning to make valuable contributions to theory-building and theory-revision, and designing experiments and even, in some cases, conducting their own experiments. And cognitive scientists have begun appreciating these contributions.