The Mind is What the Brain Does, and Very Strange

Having now clearly established memes as properties of objects and events in the external world, properties that provide crucial data for the operation of mental “machines,” I want to step aside from thinking about memes and cultural evolution as such and think a bit about the mind. I want to set this conversation up by, once again, quoting from Dennett’s recent interview, The Well-Tempered Mind, at The Edge:

The question is, what happens to your ideas about computational architecture when you think of individual neurons not as dutiful slaves or as simple machines but as agents that have to be kept in line and that have to be properly rewarded and that can form coalitions and cabals and organizations and alliances? This vision of the brain as a sort of social arena of politically warring forces seems like sort of an amusing fantasy at first, but is now becoming something that I take more and more seriously, and it’s fed by a lot of different currents.

A bit later:

It’s going to be a connectionist network. Although we know many of the talents of connectionist networks, how do you knit them together into one big fabric that can do all the things minds do? Who’s in charge? What kind of control system? Control is the real key, and you begin to realize that control in brains is very different from control in computers. Control in your commercial computer is very much a carefully designed top-down thing.

That’s the problem David Hays and I set ourselves in Principles and Development of Natural Intelligence (Journal of Social and Biological Systems 11, 293 – 322, 1988). While we had something to say about control in our discussion of the modal principle, we addressed the broader question of how to construct a mind from neurons that aren’t simple logical switches.

It is by no means clear to me how Dennett, and others of his mind-set, think about the mind. Yes, it’s computational. I can deal with that. But not, as I’ve said, if it’s taken to mean that the primitive operations of the nervous system are like the operations in digital computers, not if it’s taken to imply that the mind is constituted by ‘programs’ written in the ‘mentalese’ version of Fortran, Lisp, or C++. THAT was never a very plausible idea and the more we’ve come to know about the nervous system, the less plausible it becomes.

The upshot is that we need a much more fluid, a much more dynamic, conception of the mind. In Beethoven’s Anvil I talked of neural weather. Here’s how I set-up that metaphor (pp. 71-72): Continue reading “The Mind is What the Brain Does, and Very Strange”

The Memetic Mind, Not: Where Dennett Goes Wrong

On the face of it, Dennett and I have very different views about cultural evolution. To be sure, we both believe that Dawkins’s initial insight is valid: that culture is an evolutionary regime unto itself in which the benefits of cultural success accrue to cultural entities, not human individuals or populations. Where Dennett talks only of memes, I make an explicit distinction between memes and a cultural correlate of the phenotype (for which I have yet to adopt a term of art).

While Dennett allows memes to exist both in the external world and in the mind, most of his discussion is about memes in the mind moving from one mind to another. Indeed, I’d be curious to know what Dennett thinks exists in the mind apart from memes; of what, for example, does the neonate’s mind consist of? By contrast, I insist that memes exist in the external world, as observable (and memorable) properties of objects, events, and processes. The cultural correlates of the biological phenotype emerge as mental processes in brains as those brains engage with memes.

We thus have rather, if not utterly, different views about cultural evolution. As I have been thinking these things through, however, I have begun to suspect that our difference is more in how we assign roles in the process of cultural evolution to the mechanisms of human thought and action than in our conception of those mechanisms (though we no doubt have our differences there as well). And that’s the line I wish to investigate in this post. I will concentrate that investigation on a single essay:

From Typo to Thinko: When Evolution Graduated to Semantic Norms [PDF], in Evolution and Culture. Stephen C. Levinson and Pierre Jaisson, eds. The MIT Press: 2006.

All quotations are from that paper. Continue reading “The Memetic Mind, Not: Where Dennett Goes Wrong”