Daniel Dennett

You are currently browsing articles tagged Daniel Dennett.

A secondary problem of pathological liars is that occasionally they are telling the truth, but who would know? Believing them will usually get you into trouble, and every now and then so will not believing them. If the President, the person entrusted with our security, is that incessant fabricator, the confusion and peril can become lethal.

The current Administration’s brazen dishonesty and fumbling attempts at cover-ups would not be an existential threat to our democracy were it healthy, but the vital signs have been worrying for over two decades. Trump’s ascension feels more like the other shoe dropping than the first swift kick.

Our populace and politicians are sharply divided along partisan lines, the GOP so deeply dysfunctional, that the Republican-led legislature is now endeavoring to obfuscate in his favor despite seemingly traitorous behaviors, perhaps even treasonous ones, while a good percentage of Americans wouldn’t care if it was proven his campaign conspired with the Kremlin to steal the White House. And the truth only matters if it’s valued.

In a Huffington Post essay about transparency, that quaint, hoary thing, philosopher Daniel Dennett is confident that Trump will eventually choke on his lies. Robert Redford, who has, of course, a strong link to Nixon’s waterloo, isn’t so sure our system today is quite that fail-safe, as he writes in an op-ed in the Washington Post. Deep Throats can talk all day but it won’t matter if too many people aren’t listening.

Two excerpts follow.

From Dennett:

Leaders, democratic just as much as autocratic, need to keep secrets if they are going to be effective. There is an obvious reason why the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps its new employment rate statistics and other economic indicators secret until a precise moment when everybody gets to learn them at the same time.  

But leaders also need to be trusted when they make statements, promises and denials. They can’t divulge too much and they can’t lie too much. Very often saying nothing is the best policy, for obvious reasons, but they must also communicate often with both their people and their opponents. So as far as I know, nobody has ever devised a formula or recipe for how much to communicate and when. We want leaders we can trust, but we also want to trust them to keep secrets when it is in our interest to do so. The problem is, not all leaders understand the nuance.

U.S. President Donald Trump is one of them. The leader of the free world apparently has no concern for his credibility. He is constantly caught in demonstrable falsehoods, which he never acknowledges and for which he never apologizes. And his supporters seem all too willing to say they believe his whoppers, or just forgive him, or even applaud his disruption of ambient trust. But what will happen when he gets caught telling them whoppers about what he is doing for them? He will be tempted, of course, to pile on more lies in order to get out of his tight spot, but a rich vein of wisdom running through all the lore and literature of the world is that such lying cannot be shored up indefinitely with more lying.

Eventually, the truth overpowers the lies and the result is ruin. Trump seems to be unaware of this. He seems to be like the gambler who thinks that by just doubling his bets he’s bound to regain his losses eventually. We know that this is a fallacy; sooner or later he will run out of allies, time or money. We just don’t want to be victims along with Trump when his house of cards collapses, as it will.•

From Robert Redford in the Washington Post:

When President Trump speaks of being in a “running war” with the media, calls them “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth” and tweets that they’re the “enemy of the American people,” his language takes the Nixon administration’s false accusations of shoddy” and “shabby” journalism to new and dangerous heights.

Sound and accurate journalism defends our democracy. It’s one of the most effective weapons we have to restrain the power-hungry. I always said that All the President’s Men was a violent movie. No shots were fired, but words were used as weapons.

In fact, I had a hard time getting producers interested in All the President’s Men. “Newspapers, typing, journalism — there’s no drama here” — so the critique went. I didn’t see it that way. To me it was a story about two journalists hell-bent on getting to the truth. That’s the movie, but the real-life Watergate scandal didn’t have just two people searching for the truth. It had an entire cast of characters in minor and major roles who followed their consciences: President Richard Nixon’s counsel John Dean, whose testimony blew open the congressional hearings; Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who both resigned rather than follow Nixon’s demand to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox; and, most of all, congressional Democrats and Republicans.

Nixon resigned from office because the Senate Watergate Committee — its Democratic and Republican members — did its job. It’s easy now to think of Watergate as a single event. It wasn’t; it was a story that unfolded over 26 months and demanded many acts of bravery and honesty by Americans across the political spectrum.

The system worked. The checks and balances the Constitution was designed to create functioned when put to their biggest test. Would they still? Which brings me to the other half of the question: What’s different now?


Tags: ,

In the Financial Times interview with Daniel Dennett I recently blogged about, a passage covers a compelling idea hatched by the philosopher and MIT’s Deb Roy in “Our Transparent Future,” a 2015 Scientific American article. The academics argue that the radical transparency now taking hold because of new technological tools, which will only grow more profound as we are lowered even further into a machine with no OFF switch, is akin to the circumstances that may have catalyzed the Cambrian explosion.

In that epoch, it might have been an abundance of light that shined through in a newly transparent atmosphere which forced organisms to adapt and led to tremendous growth–and also death. Dennett and Roy believe that society’s traditional institutions (government, marriage, education, etc.) are facing the same challenge to reinvent themselves or else, due to the tremendous flow of information we have today at our fingertips. Now that privacy is all but impossible, what is the best way to arrange ourselves? 

The opening:

MORE THAN HALF A BILLION YEARS AGO A SPECTACULARLY CREATIVE burst of biological innovation called the Cambrian explosion occurred. In a geologic “instant” of several million years, organisms developed strikingly new body shapes, new organs, and new predation strategies and defenses against them. Evolutionary biologists disagree about what triggered this prodigious wave of novelty, but a particularly compelling hypothesis, advanced by University of Oxford zoologist Andrew Parker, is that light was the trigger. Parker proposes that around 543 million years ago, the chemistry of the shallow oceans and the atmosphere suddenly changed to become much more transparent. At the time, all animal life was confined to the oceans, and as soon as the daylight flooded in, eyesight became the best trick in the sea. As eyes rapidly evolved, so did the behaviors and equipment that responded to them. 

Whereas before all perception was proximal—by contact or by sensed differences in chemical concentration or pressure waves—now animals could identify and track things at a distance. Predators could home in on their prey; prey could see the predators coming and take evasive action. Locomotion is a slow and stupid business until you have eyes to guide you, and eyes are useless if you cannot engage in locomotion, so perception and action evolved together in an arms race. This arms race drove much of the basic diversification of the tree of life we have today.

Parker’s hypothesis about the Cambrian explosion provides an excellent parallel for understanding a new, seemingly unrelated phenomenon: the spread of digital technology. Although advances in communications technology have transformed our world many times in the past—the invention of writing signaled the end of prehistory; the printing press sent waves of change through all the major institutions of society—digital technology could have a greater impact than anything that has come before. It will enhance the powers of some individuals and organizations while subverting the powers of others, creating both opportunities and risks that could scarcely have been imagined a generation ago. 

Through social media, the Internet has put global-scale communications tools in the hands of individuals. A wild new frontier has burst open. Services such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, WhatsApp and SnapChat generate new media on a par with the telephone or television—and the speed with which these media are emerging is truly disruptive. It took decades for engineers to develop and deploy telephone and television networks, so organizations had some time to adapt. Today a social-media service can be developed in weeks, and hundreds of millions of people can be using it within months. This intense pace of innovation gives organizations no time to adapt to one medium before the arrival of the next.

The tremendous change in our world triggered by this media inundation can be summed up in a word: transparency. We can now see further, faster, and more cheaply and easily than ever before—and we can be seen. And you and I can see that everyone can see what we see, in a recursive hall of mirrors of mutual knowledge that both enables and hobbles. The age old game of hide-and-seek that has shaped all life on the planet has suddenly shifted its playing field, its equipment and its rules. The players who cannot adjust will not last long.

The impact on our organizations and institutions will be profound. Governments, armies, churches, universities, banks and companies all evolved to thrive in a relatively murky epistemological environment, in which most knowledge was local, secrets were easily kept, and individuals were, if not blind, myopic. When these organizations suddenly find themselves exposed to daylight, they quickly discover that they can no longer rely on old methods; they must respond to the new transparency or go extinct.•

Tags: ,

In his NYRB review of Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, Thomas Nagel is largely laudatory even though he believes his fellow philosopher ultimately guilty of “maintaining a thesis at all costs,” writing that:

Dennett believes that our conception of conscious creatures with subjective inner lives—which are not describable merely in physical terms—is a useful fiction that allows us to predict how those creatures will behave and to interact with them.

Nagel draws an analogy between Dennett’s ideas and the Behaviorism of B.F. Skinner and other mid-century psychologists, a theory that never was truly satisfactory in explaining the human mind. Dennett’s belief that we’re more machine-like than we want to believe is probably accurate, though his assertion that all consciousness is illusory–if that’s what he’s arguing–seems off.

Dennett’s life work about consciousness and evolution has certainly crested at right moment, as we’re beginning to wonder in earnest about AI and non-human-consciousness, which seems possible at some point if not on the immediate horizon. In a Financial Times interview conducted by John Thornhill, Dennett speaks to the nature and future of robotics.

An excerpt:

AI experts tend to draw a sharp distinction between machine intelligence and human consciousness. Dennett is not so sure. Where many worry that robots are becoming too human, he argues humans have always been largely robotic. Our consciousness is the product of the interactions of billions of neurons that are all, as he puts it, “sorta robots”.

“I’ve been arguing for years that, yes, in principle it’s possible for human consciousness to be realised in a machine. After all, that’s what we are,” he says. “We’re robots made of robots made of robots. We’re incredibly complex, trillions of moving parts. But they’re all non-miraculous robotic parts.” …

Dennett has long been a follower of the latest research in AI. The final chapter of his book focuses on the subject. There has been much talk recently about the dangers posed by the emergence of a superintelligence, when a computer might one day outstrip human intelligence and assume agency. Although Dennett accepts that such a superintelligence is logically possible, he argues that it is a “pernicious fantasy” that is distracting us from far more pressing technological problems. In particular, he worries about our “deeply embedded and generous” tendency to attribute far more understanding to intelligent systems than they possess. Giving digital assistants names and cutesy personas worsens the confusion.

“All we’re going to see in our own lifetimes are intelligent tools, not colleagues. Don’t think of them as colleagues, don’t try to make them colleagues and, above all, don’t kid yourself that they’re colleagues,” he says.

Dennett adds that if he could lay down the law he would insist that the users of such AI systems were licensed and bonded, forcing them to assume liability for their actions. Insurance companies would then ensure that manufacturers divulged all of their products’ known weaknesses, just as pharmaceutical companies reel off all their drugs’ suspected side-effects. “We want to ensure that anything we build is going to be a systemological wonderbox, not an agency. It’s not responsible. You can unplug it any time you want. And we should keep it that way,” he says.•

Tags: , ,