June 27, 1996
There are few authors better at asking those questions that confound human reflection than philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett. In Kinds of Minds, Dennett asks the ultimate metaphysical questions: What is a mind and who else (besides the questioner) has one?
Combining ideas from philosophy, artificial intelligence, and neurobiology, Dennett leads the reader on a fascinating journey of inquiry, exploring such intriguing possibilities as: Can any of us really know what is going on in someone else’s mind? What distinguishes the human mind from the minds of animals, especially those capable of complex behavior? If such animals, for instance, were magically given the power of language, would their communities evolve an intelligence as subtly discriminating is ours? Would they be capable of developing the uniquely human ability to theorize about the world they inhabit? Will robots, once they have been endowed with sensory systems like those that provide us with experience, ever exhibit the particular traits long thought to distinguish the human mind, including the ability to think about thinking?
Dennett addresses these questions from an evolutionary perspective. Beginning with the macromolecules of DNA and RNA, whose evolution was determined by Darwinian natural selection, Dennett shows how, step-by-step, animal life moved from a simple ability to respond to frequently recurring environmental conditions to much more powerful ways of beating the odds, ways of using patterns of past experience to predict the future in never-before-encountered situations. He argues that a series of small but revolutionary steps moved us from there to the unique human capability to frame and execute specific long-range intentions. These changes included first the emergence of speech, then, because of situations in which the ability to keep secrets conferred an evolutionary advantage, a skill in conversing with ourselves, and finally, the creation of artifacts that permit us to expand our minds into the surrounding environment.
Whether talking about robots whose video-camera “eyes” give us the powerful illusion that “there is somebody in there” or asking us to consider whether spiders are just tiny robots mindlessly spinning their webs of elegant design, Dennett is a master at finding and posing questions sure to stimulate and even disturb.
Daniel C. Dennett is Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University and the author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life and Consciousness Explained.