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Are Our Minds Just an Extension of the Minds of Our Cells?

A prominent philosopher and a well-known biologist make the case, offering an illustration

Naturalism, the idea that physical nature is all there is, can lead us down some strange paths. In the words of prominent philosopher Daniel Dennett and prominent biologist Michael Levin, both of Tufts University, the road to “biology’s next great horizon” is the attempt to “understand cells, tissues and organisms as agents with agendas (even if unthinking ones).” They think that the principle of natural selection acting on random mutations can create everything, including minds:

Thanks to Charles Darwin, biology doesn’t ever have to invoke an ‘intelligent designer’ who created all those mechanisms. Evolution by natural selection has done – and is still doing – all that refining and focusing and differentiating work. We’re all just physical mechanisms made of physical mechanisms obeying the laws of physics and chemistry. But there is a profound difference between the ingenious mechanisms designed by human intelligent designers – clocks and motors and computers, for instance – and the mechanisms designed and assembled by natural selection. A simple fantasy will allow us to pinpoint it.

Daniel C. Dennett and Michael Levin, “Cognition all the way down” at Aeon

We’ll get to the fantasy they offer in a moment. First, Dennett and Levin’s view sounds a bit like panpsychism. but there is an important distinction. The panpsychism thinks that an intelligence underlies the universe and is present in varying degrees in its constitutents but most present in humans. In Dennett and Levin’s view, the idea of uniquely human intelligence is an illusion:

We reject a simplistic essentialism where humans have ‘real’ goals, and everything else has only metaphorical ‘as if’ goals. Recent advances in basal cognition and related sciences are showing us how to move past this kind of all-or-nothing thinking about the human animal – naturalising human capacities and swapping a naive binary distinction for a continuum of how much agency any system has.

Daniel C. Dennett and Michael Levin, “Cognition all the way down” at Aeon

In their scheme, humans have the same basic sort of cognition as individual cells; it is just more complex:

It’s all about goals: single cells’ homeostatic goals are roughly the size of one cell, and have limited memory and anticipation capacity. Tissues, organs, brains, animals and swarms (like anthills) form various kinds of minds that can represent, remember and reach for bigger goals. This conceptual scheme enables us to look past irrelevant details of the materials or backstory of their construction, and to focus on what’s important for being a cognitive agent with some degree of sophistication: the scale of its goals. Agents can combine into networks, scaling their tiny, local goals into more grandiose ones belonging to a larger, unified self. And of course, any cognitive agent can be made up of smaller agents, each with their own limits on the size and complexity of what they’re working towards.

Daniel C. Dennett and Michael Levin, “Cognition all the way down” at Aeon

It grows into a grand vision:

By distributing the intelligence over time – aeons of evolution, and years of learning and development, and milliseconds of computation – and space – not just smart brains and smart neurons but smart tissues and cells and proofreading enzymes and ribosomes – the mysteries of life can be unified in a single breathtaking vision.

Daniel C. Dennett and Michael Levin, “Cognition all the way down” at Aeon

Well now, here is the fantasy they ask us to consider:

Imagine ordering a remote-controlled model car, and it arrives in a big box that says ‘Some assembly required’ on the back. When you open the box, you find hundreds of different parts, none labelled, and no instruction booklet to help you put the pieces together. A daunting task confronts you, not mainly a problem of the nimbleness or strength of your fingers. Its difficulty lies in not knowing what goes where. A carefully written instruction manual, with diagrams and labels on all the parts would be of great value, of course, but only because you could see the diagrams and read the instructions and labels. If you were sent the Russian instruction manual, it would be almost useless if you didn’t know how to read Russian. (You’d also have to know how to attach Tab A to slot B, and thread nut 17 onto bolt 95.)

But then you spot a slip of paper that instructs you to put all the parts into a large kettle of water on the stove, heat the water to a low boil, and stir. You do this, and to your amazement the parts begin to join together into small and then larger assemblies, with tabs finding their slots, bolts finding their holes, and nuts spinning onto those bolts, all propelled by the random roiling of the boiling water. In a few hours, your model car is assembled and, when you dry it off, it runs smoothly. A preposterous fantasy, of course, but it echoes the ‘miracle’ of life that takes a DNA parts list and instruction book and, without any intelligent assembler’s help, composes a new organism with millions of moving parts, all correctly attached to each other.

Daniel C. Dennett and Michael Levin, “Cognition all the way down” at Aeon

That certainly is a preposterous fantasy. With respect to the car, think of all the people at the back end who made it happen! And if even cars don’t get started by chance, why should we believe that life does?

Dennett is a well-known naturalist philosopher. It’s not the evidence about life or human intelligence that causes him to believe that it all came about by chance; it is his commitment to naturalism.

He has also said that Darwinism, as set out above, is the single best idea anyone ever had. Let’s hope not because it appears to be indistinguishable from magic.


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Do we really have free will? Four things to know


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Are Our Minds Just an Extension of the Minds of Our Cells?