Doing and Knowing

A Commentary on “Physical Time within Human Time”

In: Timing & Time Perception
Daniel Dennett Department of Philosophy, Tufts University, 419 Boston Ave., Medford, MA 02155, USA

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A naturalistic view of consciousness depends on a naturalistic view of agency, which draws a distinction between things just happening and things doing things. Agents depend on control, which depends on information used by agents to anticipate outcomes, so agents must situate themselves in time, with a distinction between past, present and future.

In Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), a character proclaims:

But you had taken on a greater and more harmful illusion. The illusion of control. That A could do B. But that was false. Completely. No one can do. Things only happen. (p. 34)

This vividly expresses a phantom assumption that is finally being exposed as a major source of confusion. The world contains agents that do things because they know things that guide or control their actions. They are, in my terms, intentional systems (Dennett, 1971), and in Hartle’s terms, IGUS, information-gathering and utilizing systems (2005). My concept of an intentional system is deliberately neutral with regard to how its innards work, but unless there is magic, it achieves its prowess by being an IGUS. The existence of things that do things is explained by evolution by natural selection, and that process itself, while composed of kazillions of mere happenings (like everything else), can also be seen to be a magnificent doer, a discoverer of brilliant designs, and these designs eventually have led to better knowers, better doers, composed of, and descended from things that are only sorta doers and knowers. We have to treat both terms with the sorta operator (Dennett, 2013), because evolution generates things that have progeny that gradually accumulate differences that make differences. No nonarbitrary bright lines mark the transitions between sorta deciders and ‘real’ deciders, sorta understanders and ‘real’ understanders. Competence without comprehension (Dennett, 2017) eventually generates competence with comprehension thanks to the brilliant discoveries of the mindless processes of evolution, of species, of brain states, of culturally evolved thinking tools — or ‘gadgets’.

As the authors point out, one of the phenomena generated by natural selection is a perspective on time that inescapably includes an open future. This idea, like many other marvels, has a host of ancestor ideas — too many to list, but I will mention of few that deserve more attention. Turing’s 1937 proof about the Halting Problem is duly celebrated, but its implications are still not sinking in everywhere. MacKay (1960) is the first, to my knowledge, to see — at least dimly — that an open future is guaranteed by the fact that agents are parts of the physical world and their knowledge is not independent of the physical mechanisms that compose them. (See Dennett, 1984, for a discussion.) See Ismael, forthcoming, for a very intelligently designed exposition of the key points.

Is this perspective illusory? It is not a mistake. It is an obligatory user illusion that makes possible all the doing and making that distinguish our world today. ‘Temporal anomalies’ such as color phi and the cutaneous rabbit (Dennett, 1991; Dennett and Kinsbourne, 1992) are readily explainable as expected interferences in user-friendly mechanisms that distinguish — and need to distinguish — between the timing of representations and the representations of time. If you hear “Tom arrived at the party after Bill did” you learn of Tom’s arrival before you learn of Bill’s, but you learn that Bill arrived before Tom (Dennett, 1991) There is nothing metaphysically problematic about this once we reverse-engineer the mechanisms responsible. A naturalistic view of consciousness depends on a naturalistic view of agency, and the pieces of the puzzle — not a Hard Problem (Chalmers 1995) but a difficult puzzle — are now falling into place.


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