Ktismatics

24 March 2011

Reasons Why v. Reasons For

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:59 am

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.]

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9 Comments »

  1. Dennett is often caricatured as an “eliminative materialist,” purportedly arguing that mind and intention are constructs of “folk psychology” — traditional or even instinctive ways in which humans understand themselves that, upon more careful philosophical and empirical investigation, prove illusory. In this video Bennett clearly accepts that humans do have intentions, do plan, do understand the reasons why they do things. What he regards as “folk psychology” is the tendency for humans to attribute intentionality and so on to the termites, or perhaps to the forces by which termites came into existence. And while Dennett is prepared to blur the black-white distinction between humans and apes, he clearly thinks that there is a distinction, and that it has to do with competencies usually associated with sapience.

    Toward the end of his talk Dennett puts up a slide that says “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Is this “a rueful expression of stupidity”? Au contraire, says Dennett: it’s the mark of a superior intelligence. To make such a statement requires episodic memory of one’s prior mental state, complete with an evaluation of that mental state vis-a-vis subsequent events: these, says Dennett, are the prerequisites for “systematic credit assignment and debugging,” enabling the agent intentionally to modify his/her ideas or behaviors or evaluation criteria.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 25 March 2011 @ 9:11 am

  2. Language, says Dennett. But then he runs out of time before elaborating on the language distinction.

    I don’t think he ”ran out of time”, I think he reached the limits of his (materialist) cognitivism.

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    Comment by parody center — 1 April 2011 @ 6:43 pm

  3. Well thanks for the comment anyway, pc. Up till now I’d been using language only in dialogue with myself on this one.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 1 April 2011 @ 7:22 pm

  4. “Gonna build me a log cabin
    on a mountian so high
    So I can see Willie
    as he goes on by

    Um hmm hmm…

    Oh the coo-coo is a pretty bird
    She wobbles when she flies
    She never hollers coo-coo
    ‘Til the fourth day of July

    I’ve played cards in England
    I’ve played cards in Spain
    I’ll bet you ten dollars
    I’ll beat you next game

    Jack of diamonds, Jack of diamonds
    I’ve known you from old
    Now you’ve robbed my poor pockets
    Of my silver and my gold

    Um hmm hmm…

    I’ve played cards in England
    I’ve played cards in Spain
    I’ll bet you ten dollars
    I beat you this game

    Oh the coo-coo is a pretty bird
    She wobbles when she flies
    She never hollers coo-coo
    ‘Til the fourth day of July”

    Hi John,

    He’s an amusing lecturer, despite my personal abhorrence of PowerPoint. I laughed at the computers before Turing bit. And I agree that “it seemed like a good idea at the time” is evidence of comprehensional (is that a word?!) intelligence. In fact, I would suggest that that phrase may be indicative of free will. All the evidence suggests that we are free to reflect on our actions, even if we cannot change the past. This allows us to affect the future.

    “Skinner attempted to do away with meaning, and in a new era Daniel Dennett makes a similar move; i.e., meaning is something humans invoke after fact to explain their behaviors.”

    I can’t say I disagreed with anything in the above lecture, though, as PC remarks, it ends just as it’s getting interesting. My only disagreement would be if, as you said in the Artifical Tears comment above above, Dennett believes that meaning is only invoked after the fact to explain their behaviours. Perhaps Dennett doesn’t think this, but this is evidently not the case. I go to buy a pint of milk. The meaning of my walk is to buy a pint of milk. Even if I get sidetracked and go into a brothel and forget to buy milk at all. (We’ve got all the essentials on our high street.)

    As far as the imputation of meanings in nature goes, I’m with Dennett all the way here. But we are already meaning making beings – have evolved to be so – in the same way as termites have evolved to be hive-building beings. Which means that sometimes we can feel like an ant at work.

    Whether Dennett’s argument here – meaning generally comes after fact – has consequences for those who wish to impute an originary meaning on the world, such as intelligent design, is difficult to say. One could, I think, from his argument, suggest that God created the universe for reasons that are not necessary for him to have and may remain completely unknown to him.

    As far as “sorta” meanings for apes and other such animals go, well, that appears to be somewhat the case. Sorta. The problem is, our human and ape societies really are different. Even when we see chimps on a violent group hunting trip, and we can make all sorts of analogies in behaviour, the difference is fundamental. Is this fundamental difference language? Probably. Because language doesn’t just allow us to have a sense of time – a dog may wait patiently for its master – but it allows us to catalogue and catagorise experience very systematically: I will buy milk tomorrow. This includes the experience of free will and me, myself and I. It may also describe the unconscious: milk and brothels. However, I don’t agree that language structures the unconscious or that it is like a language. It can only be a language through conscious application of meaning, even if language use affects the unconscious:

    “Someone who, dreaming, says “I am dreaming”, even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream “it is raining”, while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain.”

    That was the last thing Wittgenstein wrote before he eventually drifted into unconsciousness and died. Afterwards, he did not say: “I am dead.”

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    Comment by NB — 5 April 2011 @ 10:32 am

  5. Thanks for the cuckoo poem, nb.

    “I go to buy a pint of milk. The meaning of my walk is to buy a pint of milk. Even if I get sidetracked and go into a brothel and forget to buy milk at all.”

    This of course invokes the debatable point about conscious versus unconscious intentions. Some of the blogging philosophers are touting Robert Brandom, and since I’ve read none of the original sources I’m highly vulnerable to misconstruing his views. However, I think he’s contending that humans are implicitly norm-oriented, and that by observing behaviors it’s possible to make explicit the norm and to evaluate the extent to which the norm was achieved behaviorally. So, e.g., if I observe you leaving the house and coming back half an hour later, could I infer that you intended to get some milk and that you failed? I suppose I shouldn’t critique Brandom’s inferential praxis until I’ve actually read his work — which I don’t intend to do so as not to fail in achieving my intent.

    “Afterwards, he did not say: “I am dead.””

    Well, not in so many words…

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    Comment by ktismatics — 5 April 2011 @ 1:08 pm

  6. “This of course invokes the debatable point about conscious versus unconscious intentions.”

    That’s right. My point is that there is no reason why the unconscious intention should invalidate the conscious one, particularly as the former has to formulated consciously.

    “I suppose I shouldn’t critique Brandom’s inferential praxis until I’ve actually read his work — which I don’t intend to do so as not to fail in achieving my intent.”

    Heh, heh. I haven’t read anything by him either. Or really anything about him.

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    Comment by NB — 5 April 2011 @ 2:18 pm

  7. “there is no reason why the unconscious intention should invalidate the conscious one”

    I agree. A hermeneutic of suspicion can always identify a false (un)consciousness of which I might not even be aware, but this doesn’t mean that my science or art is irredeemably tainted by neoliberalism or an unquenchable thirst for milk.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 5 April 2011 @ 2:32 pm

  8. Levi Bryant just put up a post about his getting his first pair of glasses when he was a lad. He contends that what he sees while wearing glasses isn’t better than what he sees without them; rather, it’s different. I think we could anticipate Dennett’s contrary position, even if we hadn’t read what he’s already written on the subject. There are good reasons why humans or bees or squids have good visual acuity; namely, it gives them a more accurate awareness of the environment in which they live, and this awareness enhances their chances of survival. My glasses don’t just give me a different scene to look at; they correct my vision of the scene that’s out there in the world. I’m pretty sure that if I lived in prehistoric times I’d either have had to become some kind of shaman who accepted food and protection in exchange for my wisdom, or I’d have died long ago from terminal myopia, the symptoms of which are starvation and being eaten by lions.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 6 April 2011 @ 10:49 am

  9. […] The termite nest picture is from Ktismatics. […]

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    Pingback by Things that Science Knows, but Scientists Don’t | Much Bigger Outside — 7 June 2015 @ 2:16 am


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