Dennet considers robots

Thoughts from Steven: Finding a Meaning for Life, Part 2

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At this point, Dennett’s argument has run into a minor internal contradiction and admit a major assumption.  However, neither of these problems are his biggest problem.  It has already been hinted at but it comes into stark focus late in his book.

To illustrate how human life can have meaning to it, Dennett considers the creation of robots that would contain and protect humans frozen in cryogenic chambers for hundreds of years.[i]  As bizarre as this illustration sounds, it actually makes sense in context.  He created a situation where a person creates an autonomous robot that interacts and responds to its environment with the purpose of protecting its own designer.  The purpose of the robot is given by its designer for his own self-preservation yet the robot must be able to act independently of its designer since he will not be around to control or maintain it.

Here is what Dennett says about such a robot:

 

This robot we have imagined will be richly engaged in its world and its projects always driven ultimately by whatever remains of the goals states that you set up for it at the time you entered the capsule.  All the preferences it will ever have will be the offspring of the preferences you initially endowed it with, in hopes that they would carry you into the twenty-fifth century, but that is no guarantee that actions taken in light of the robot’s descendant preferences will continue to be responsive, directly, to your best interests.  From your selfish point of view, that is what you hope, but this robot’s projects are out of your direct control until you are awakened.  It will have some internal representation of its currently highest goals, its summum bonum, bit if it has fallen among persuasive companions [other robots] of the sort we have imagined the iron grip of the engineering that initially designed it will be jeopardized.  It will still be an artifact, still acting only as its engineering permits it to act, but following a set of desiderata partly of its own devising.[ii]

 

These robots are analogous to humans.  The cryogenic human, which provides the motive for the robot, represents our genes which were molded to create humans.  Our bodies are represented by the robots, which are vessels used to transport and care for the genes.

 

There are a couple of key phrases in the preceding quote: “persuasive companions” and “of its own devising.”  These phrases denote voluntary action on the part of the robot, and by analogy, in humans.  Where do these voluntary actions come from?  Dennett says,

 

[Y]our selfish genes can be seen to be the original source of your intentionality—and hence of every meaning you can ever contemplate of conjure up—even though you can then transcend your genes, using your experience, and in particular the culture you imbibe, to build an almost entirely independent (or “transcendent”) locus or meaning on the base your genes provided.[iii]

 

Dennett acknowledges that there is an alternate explanation, which is that all human behavior is simply automatic.  There is no real meaning to life because every action of humans is merely the result of interactions of genes which themselves are the result of interactions of chemicals.  However, he rejects that idea in favor of the “transcendent” explanation.

 

The problem with the transcendent explanation is that it is no explanation at all.  Dennett claims that the necessary changes are brought about using experience and culture, but that is it.  No explanation of a mechanism, they just simply “transcend” their original purpose.  The problem is that Dennett had previously characterized natural processes this way:

 

An impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all the agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe.[iv]

 

If this statement is to be taken at face value, then one should conclude that there is no meaning to life and that all human action is the result of mindless chemical reactions.  Instead, Dennett rejects that conclusion in favor of one that produces meaning.  His hand waves the necessary, extraordinary jump from mechanical reaction to intelligence as a mere act of “transcendence,” a strangely religious concept to be used for a “scientific” idea.  In the end, Dennett’s argument falls apart because his conclusion is inconsistent with his starting assumptions.

 

The irony is that, while decrying skyhooks as unnecessary, Dennett pulled his own miracle out of his hat and inserted it at a crucial step on his path to the meaning of life.  This contradiction, all with his assumption of natural selection and other internal contradictions, render his conclusion illogical, leaving a gaping hole in what was supposed to be the meaning of life.


[i]     Dennett, Daniel C. (1995) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life, Simon & Schuster, New York, New York pg. 422 – 427

 

[ii]    Ibid. pg. 424 – 425

 

[iii]   Ibid. pg. 426

 

[iv]   Ibid. pg. 203

 

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