Little Man In The Head?

daniel_dennett_1I just read a book review in The Economist of  Daniel Dennett’s recent book, “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking” (

I haven’t read the book, but I know Dennett’s philosophy of mind from reading several other of his books. I confess I am not a fan. His ideas seem so patently wrong that for a while I thought he was a charlatan. Now I believe he is sincere, though still wrong, and I am mystified how he manages to attract a following.

Based on the review, his latest book tackles the hoary mind-body problem. Historically, the explanatory metaphor was that there is a “little man in the head,” a homunculus, who sits in the brain, interpreting sensory input, directing behavior, and formulating evaluations and thoughts. Of course that idea never worked, because the homunculus would require an even-smaller homunculus to make his own mind work, and so on, in an infinite regress of homunculi.

Dennett’s solution is to propose a functional substitute.  An individual neuron operates with no intelligence and no homunculus, but it can’t do much. Networks of neurons can accomplish more, such as respond differentially to inputs, just by being networked. If the brain is hierarchically organized, then with increasing levels of networked complexity, high level functions might be performed, such as making judgments, forming intentions, and thinking, all without any need for a homunculus.

According to this “homuncular functionalism,” there is a certain point of complexity that just magically causes mental activity. The analogy is to the architecture of the computer, where individual transistors at the lowest level are stupid, but through complex and hierarchical organization, at some point, high-level functions such as discrimination of inputs and control of outputs become possible, all without a homunculus.

But the computer was designed for the purpose of executing its designer’s intentionality, values, priorities, and expectations. In other words, it does exactly what it was programmed to do and nothing else. My word processor insists on correcting my grammar. Some designer long ago and far away thought that would be a good thing to do and stored the methods for doing it. The computer itself does not decide what’s good and bad grammar.

There is no intelligent designer of the brain, as far as we know, and if there is, we have no idea what his/her intentionality might have been. If Dennett wants to insist that the human brain (and its body) are the products of intelligent design, as the computer’s brain and body are, then his explanation of the human mind becomes, “God makes it go.”

He doesn’t say that. He is a prominent and vocal atheist. He says instead that the machinery of a hierarchically organized brain somehow, magically, creates mental phenomena, even though that is inconceivable and not even allowed by the laws of physics (it violates the conservation of energy, for just one reason). Dennett is too sophisticated to offer an explanation that is disallowed by science. So what is he saying?

I believe he is fooled, as so many are, by the phenomenon of deferred intentionality, where a designer’s intentions are stored and deferred for future execution. A wind-up toy may have an on-off switch so it doesn’t move until long after it is wound. The switch is thrown, and magically (it seems to the naïve), the toy starts jumping about. Who is fooled by that? Very many people, apparently, for that is exactly the analogy to the computer, with its stored programs and deferred and contingent execution.

(There are “network computers” which do not have explicitly stored programs, but that’s a red herring. In those systems the intentions and values of the programmers are stored in the node weights where they are hidden from inspection. It makes no difference to the principle.)

The analogy between the computer and the mind is wrong. A pile of nuts and bolts, no matter how tall, is still a pile of nuts and bolts.  If you organize it in some way to make it perform a function you desire, then you have added your own mental intelligence to create a system. It should be no surprise when later, you, or other humans, “discover” that the system has mental intelligence. Of course it does. You put it there!

So what am I missing?  How can Dennett, who is not stupid and not naïve, miss this fundamental point? He believes that a pile of nuts and bolts can “spontaneously” (with no designer) organize into mentality. Maybe he believes evolution is the intelligent designer.

Nice try, but that doesn’t work either. Evolution is not intelligent and expresses no intentionality. A hierarchical organization of brain neurons can be adaptive, but never have any purpose. We are left with no explanation of how a pile of neurons magically becomes capable of thought.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.