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It is the “cumulative cultural wildfire” which these tools make possible that most clearly distinguishes us from other animals: indeed, in Dennett’s view they make our minds “in some respects as different from other minds as living things are from non-living things”. Herein lies the “little something extra” I promised earlier, a something Dennett describes using the concept of “memes”. Memes are to our cultural behaviour as genes are to our heredity. They are “ways of behaving”, transmitted by cultural learning. The “meme” meme has been controversial since the term was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976, but it seeks to capture some important truths about our human nature, including these: we are “cultural creatures”, shaped by the language, habits and ideas we imbibe from others; much of this happens without our deliberate choice; “ways of behaving” themselves evolve, often without much role for conscious thought; some memes, like language, have obvious utility; others, like some of the many viruses lying dormant amongst our genes, just seem to have hitched a ride. One strength of this line of thought is that, by pointing to forms of cultural transmission that do not rely too heavily on what they are seeking to explain, it begins to make sense of how we can have moved from one “order” of creation to another: for Dennett agrees with Scruton that, whatever path has brought us here, we self-reflective, reason-giving, morally and legally accountable beings are, on earth, one of a kind. (Among the many ways of describing our specialness, I especially like Douglas Hofstadter’s wonderful maxim, quoted by Dennett: “Anything you can do, I can do meta.”)

Dennett has one final crest to conquer, and no mean one — consciousness. His exposition of his theory is particularly clear here. This does not, unfortunately, mean that the problem has been solved. Here is the theory. Your consciousness of the world and of your own being is akin to the “user-illusion” that you enjoy when you switch on your laptop. Rather than seeing the teeming activity in the innards of your machine, you are treated to an accessible iconic summary which tells you what you need to know and offers convenient “affordances”, like the “sleep” function. This is an appealing idea: after all, we know that we are sensitive to only a very small fraction of the energies that surround us — the face the world shows to us seems to be just one of many that we might experience. But why do you have a user-illusion? Because, in Dennett’s view — and here is another “strange inversion” — you have been enabled, by language, to describe what things are like, and your nervous system makes this possible: the qualities of experience, in other words, are not prior to the actions you take on the basis of the discriminations you are making — they are their outcome. Nor are those qualities real in the way you may take them to be, for there is “no real seeming”. Moreover, this user-illusion is an unusual one, as there is no screen and — once we have moved into the sub-personal world — no user. If you feel, to borrow a Dennettian turn of phrase, that “your pocket’s just been picked”, well, I know the feeling too.

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Al de Baran
February 25th, 2017
12:02 AM
"the study of the brain is beginning to provide intriguing hints about the structure of the mind". Far more likely that the reverse is true: The conceptual structure of a particular type of mind (the Western, analytic, scientific materialist mind) dictates the way the brain is being studied.

Tom Hewitt
February 24th, 2017
10:02 AM
A good article. I'm ploughing through Dennett's tome at the moment. Pace Scruton, he is entitled to use the adjective sacred as he wishes. If it were being applied to a metaphorical transcendental, well and good, but, alas, Scruton intends that we should take the transcendent literally. In his writings on music and art, he emphasises the ineffable. But the ineffable is only the immanent which have not yet found the words to describe.

Klaus Rohde
February 23rd, 2017
11:02 PM
Is consciousness equivalent to intelligence and can it be digitalized? No. See here:

Eric MacDonald
February 23rd, 2017
5:02 PM
When you say that "the study of the brain is beginning to provide intriguing hints about the structure of the mind," would it not be more accurate to say that this study is providing hints about the structure of neural correlates of the mind? Unless you presuppose a one to one relationship between the structure of brain events and the structure of mind events – and it is not clear that you have a right to that presupposition – then the structure of the the neural correlates of thought is all that can be hinted at by the study of the brain.

Robert Landbeck
February 23rd, 2017
2:02 PM
" to transcend our tribalism." is what history demonstrates our species is incapable of doing! And for what appears as 'our' exceptionalism' from within the tinted glasses of any particular cultural construct, The Dooms Day clock is closer to midnight, an environmental crisis looks set to overwhelm us in the near future. However one might wish to describe our species, Evolution has fixed and limited our moral and spiritual potential. And secular or religious, there is no understanding that exists with the authority to to take man off the slippery slope to his own self made hell.

ted schrey montreal
February 23rd, 2017
2:02 PM
I prefer to understand that "mind" stands for the aggregate of all our "ideas". No ifs, ands, buts, hows or whys.

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