EVERY now and then a book comes along that is nothing short of a thrilling intellectual experience.

The last book I read of such magnitude was Prof Raymond Tallis’s epic Of Time and Lamentation, even though I disagreed with his conclusion about the nature of consciousness.

The American philosopher Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back is another thrilling ride for anyone interested in the nature of the mind and consciousness. In my book, Tales of the Self (see review on this website), I take on Prof Tallis on his own ground and attempt to show that intentionality, or aboutness, can be accommodated within the brute matter of the brain and doesn’t require a miraculous irruption outside of the evolutionary process. Dennett, however, takes what he calls the ‘intentional stance’ as a given, simply indicating that it provides ‘the specs’ for the mind’. This is close to my view of the matter – I think those who argue that intentionality cannot be produced by brain matter on its own simply misunderstand the nature of brain matter. Nor do they say how intentionality got there if it didn’t evolve – without a miraculous intervention – or, indeed, how it was then accommodated by brute brain matter.

Dennett begins his inquiry, as all of us must, with Descartes and the dualist wound that he opened up. The first step in countering this dualism, writes Dennett, is to investigate Darwin’s ‘strange inversion of reasoning’, the idea that all living things must be the result of ‘uncomprehending, purposeless processes of natural selection’. Darwin, according to Dennett, ‘provided the first great instance of competence without comprehension’. The second great ‘strange inversion of reasoning’ emerged from Alan Turing’s work on computers, which are ‘another variety of competence without comprehension’.

It was the work of Turing and those that followed him that made us realise how much can be achieved by competent ‘bottom-up design – Dawkins’s blind watchmaker – and how it differs from the ‘top-down’ intelligent design. Yes, there really are intelligent designers, but they are humans, not God! But the question remains – how did intelligent top-down designers evolve?

Dennett’s answer is cultural invasion. In particular, he argues that memes like words were analogous to biological evolution, struggling to reproduce they ‘would provoke adaptations, such as revisions in brain structure’. This process led to the human brain’s comprehension and what Dennett calls the ‘manifest image’ or creative representation of the world, which is tension with the scientific world, to which we ‘must revert to in order to explain the emergence of the manifest image’. Human consciousness is a kind of ‘user-illusion’ created by the ‘representational activities of the brain coupled with the appropriate reactions to those activities’.

This is close to the idea of the narrative Self that I write about in my book, although I was concerned about where the narrative Self comes from without collapsing into infinite regress. A neuroscientific approach that I explored led to the idea of the ‘non-reflective self’ that evolved into the reflective self and consciousness without circularity or infinite regress.¬† But the idea lacked content and Maybe Dennett’s cultural invasion provides some of that content.

From Bacteria to Bach and Back is published by Penguin Random House.

Dickie Bellringer