Brain Pickings

Philosopher Daniel Dennett on Memes, Luck, Consciousness, and the Meaning of Life

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“Every living thing is, from the cosmic perspective, incredibly lucky simply to be alive.”

Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett is one of our era’s most important and influential thinkers on philosophy of mind. His insights on purpose and consciousness get to the heart of what it means to be human. To celebrate, here a few quotes from his writings that have stayed with me over the years:

A reminder of how fortunate we are, you and I, from Freedom Evolves:

Every living thing is, from the cosmic perspective, incredibly lucky simply to be alive. Most, 90 percent and more, of all the organisms that have ever lived have died without viable offspring, but not a single one of your ancestors, going back to the dawn of life on Earth, suffered that normal misfortune. You spring from an unbroken line of winners going back millions of generations, and those winners were, in every generation, the luckiest of the lucky, one out of a thousand or even a million. So however unlucky you may be on some occasion today, your presence on the planet testifies to the role luck has played in your past.

A meditation on memes from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life:

[I]f it is true that human minds are themselves to a very great degree the creations of memes, then we cannot sustain the polarity of vision we considered earlier; it cannot be “memes versus us,” because earlier infestations of memes have already played a major role in determining who or what we are. The “independent” mind struggling to protect itself from alien and dangerous memes is a myth. There is a persisting tension between the biological imperative of our genes on the one hand and the cultural imperatives of our memes on the other, but we would be foolish to “side with” our genes; that would be to commit the most egregious error of pop sociobiology. Besides, as we have already noted, what makes us special is that we, alone among species, can rise above the imperatives of our genes— thanks to the lifting cranes of our memes.

The ultimate testament to the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, from Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness:

Not a single one of the cells that compose you knows who you are, or cares.

On the significance of chance, which we’ve just explored earlier today, also from Freedom Evolves:

Isn’t it true that whatever isn’t determined by our genes must be determined by our environment? What else is there? There’s Nature and there’s Nurture. Is there also some X, some further contributor to what we are? There’s Chance. Luck. This extra ingredient is important but doesn’t have to come from the quantum bowels of our atoms or from some distant star. It is all around us in the causeless coin-flipping of our noisy world, automatically filling in the gaps of specification left unfixed by our genes, and unfixed by salient causes in our environment.

Lastly, some proper philosopher’s self-deprecation from Consciousness Explained:

Philosophers’ Syndrome: mistaking a failure of the imagination for an insight into necessity.

For more of Dennett’s singular brand of insight, be sure to watch his mind-bending TED talk on consciousness.

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