In this video Daniel Dennett compares a termite mound with Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona to illustrate the distinction between the reason why a creature does something and a creature having a reason for doing something.
There is a good reason why termite colonies build mounds: the mound gives the colony an edge in the struggle for survival. However, the termites don’t necessarily understand the reasons for their mound-building activities. Says Dennett:
“Natural selection is an automatic reason-finder which ‘discovers,’ ‘endorses,’ and ‘focuses’ reasons over many generations… Natural selection tracks reasons, creating things that have purposes but don’t need to know them. Natural selection itself doesn’t need to know what it’s doing.”
Dennett says that termite behavior exemplifies “competence without comprehension.” Humans make the mistake of attributing more competence to agents, more awareness of the reasons why they do things, than is justified by the nature of the behavior or of the agent. That’s because so much of human competence derives from and is produced by comprehension. Gaudí spent a long time planning his cathedral, thinking about theological symbolism, drawing diagrams, raising money, etc. before anybody actually started digging the foundation. People are competent to solve specific math problems because they have acquired a general mathematical comprehension. In contrast, says Dennett, a computer has competency without comprehension — an intelligence that’s more like that of a termite mound than that of a human.
So what about chimpanzees: are they more like termites or humans? Dennett thinks that they’re somewhere in between: apes “sorta” understand what they’re doing, “sorta” have reasons for what they do. In short, apes have “semi-understood, quasi-representations” of their own behaviors. What’s important to remember, says Dennett, is that humans’ ability to have reasons for what they do evolved from creatures who didn’t. In Dennett’s words, “comprehension is constructed out of competence.” There is a good reason for having comprehension: it gives humans greater and more flexible competence to do adaptive behaviors, thereby enhancing the survival possibilities of the individual, the “colony,” and the species. Comprehension is a product of an evolutionary process that discovers, endorses, and focuses competence.
What distinguishes humans from ape comprehension from human comprehension? Language, says Dennett. But then he runs out of time before elaborating on the language distinction.
[Grâce à Enemy Industry for posting the Dennett video.]