Daniel C. Dennett - Kinds of Minds

This is a difficult book to review/summarize. If I ever go back and re-read it, I may come away with a totally different view of what Dennett's thoughts are on the subject. This is both good and bad. Good, because it means the book contained enough depth to make one want to read it again. Bad, because it means that his points weren't made quite as clearly and concisely as some readers may like to see them.

The questions he raises (and sometimes attempts to answer) by themselves make the book very thought provoking. Most of these questions arise near the beginning and near the end of the book. I found these portions of the book to be the most engaging. The middle section was interesting--but not as stimulating as the rest. Dennett's thoughts may be easier understood if arranged in a more organized fashion. I've heard this comment made regarding Darwin's Dangerous Idea too. A couple of the sections in Kinds of Minds are drawn from Darwin's Dangerous Idea--but contain revisions from the original.

Dennett breaks down action into three general areas or 'kinds': robotic, intelligent, and thinking. The first 'kind' can be exemplified by how DNA, RNA, viruses and other such processes work. On page 48, for instance, he explains

"The original self-replicating macromolecules had reasons for what they did, but had no inkling of them. We, in contrast, not only know--or think we know--our reasons; we articulate them, discuss them, criticize them, share them. They are not just the reasons we act; they are reasons for us. In between the macromolecules and us there is quite a story to be told."
Intelligence is required for such things as tying your shoes, a bird building a nest, or other things non-humans do. These actions are done almost automatically or instinctively without, what Dennett considers to be, real thought. Thinking he reserves for humans. It may be what a person does while they are tying their shoe. Although he appears to draw a line between humans and other species, he also qualifies this line of thought by honestly stating that no human really knows the answer to the question of whether some other species are capable of thought.

The key thing Dennett seems to think separates us from other animals is language. For instance, on page 159 he states, "no languageless mammal can have the concept of snow in the way we can, because a languageless mammal has no way of considering snow 'in general' or 'in itself'." This is in contrast to Fouts, Gardner, and others who seem to think that chimps are capable of language, they just aren't capable of speaking an audible language. Dennett's biggest flaw may be that he tends to use dogs as his animal example rather than a species much closer to us (at least as far as DNA goes) like chimpanzees.

Language is an interesting field and study in and of itself. The old 'what came first the chicken or the egg?' question appears. Are humans 'thinkers' because we invented language along our evolutionary path or did the creation of language fuel human thought? Certainly written human language has played a large role in 'developments' made in the past few hundred years--especially when it comes to science and technology.

Language does give humans an easier method of thinking, reasoning, and wondering about things, but if language is the only key, several interesting questions are raised. Is a person born deaf, dumb, and blind not capable of having a 'thinking mind'? What about a hypothetical person like Mogli from the Jungle Book who is raised by non-humans? The person would not have a human-type language. What kind of mind would the person have? Dennett doesn't ask these questions when on page 146 he explains, "There is no step more uplifting, more explosive, more momentous in the history of mind design than the invention of language. When Homo sapiens became the beneficiary of this invention, the species stepped into a slingshot that has launched it far beyond all other earthly species in the power to look ahead and reflect. What is true of the species is just as true of the individual."

The cause of human language ability, in Dennett's view, is our ability to 'off-load' memory. We use symbols and cues to think and recall things so we don't have to be able to actually store everything we know in our body. On page 139 he states, "We Gregorian creatures are the beneficiaries of literally thousands of ... useful technologies, invented by others in the dim recesses of history or prehistory but transmitted via cultural highways, not via the genetic pathways of inheritance. We learn, thanks to this cultural heritage, how to spread our minds out in the world, where we can put our beautifully designed innate tracking and pattern-recognizing talents to optimal use."

If you are looking for a thought-provoking book that may be as interesting and enlightening on the second and third reads as it is on the first, then this may be a book for you.

"A thousand philosophical thought experiments (including my own story, 'Where am I?' [found in The Mind's I]) have exploited the intuition that I am not my body but my body's owner. In a heart transplant operation, you want to be the recipient, not the donor, but in a brain transplant operation, you want to be the donor--you go with the brain, not the body." page 77

I think, therefore I am, Descartes maintained. But might he have been dead wrong? That's the kind of provocative question Daniel Dennett loves to ask in Kinds of Minds, an up-to-the-minute exploration of what we know about how the mind works and what makes us human.

Dennett provides an evolutionary perspective as he explores how human minds came to be. He identifies the moment of arrival of new thought processes like "sentience," the lowest grade of consciousness. He suggests how our minds are similar to animals' minds in some respects (a nesting bird will, at the approach of a predator, move away from the nest and feign a broken wing to draw the danger away from her eggs). And he shows how some of the elements in our minds are as old as life itself and others are as new as today's technology ("To put it vividly, your great-great-...grandmother was a robot!")

Dennett a philosopher, a cognitive scientist and as admirers of Darwin's Dangerous Idea and the best-selling Consciousness Explained already know. In Kinds of Minds he does what all the writers in the Science Masters series do so well: he offers an up-to-the-minute and very readable look at a field where exciting discoveries are being made every day.