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Mind or Matter?

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [04.03.03] While scientists have yet to discover exactly how the human brain works, Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett says computers offer some interesting clues about the source of our thoughts. The series of computations used by machines to complete tasks, he says, isn't much different from the way the human mind works.

"An algorithm is a procedure that requires no intelligence -- it's just a procedure," Dennett said in an interview with TechTV's "Big Thinkers" television series. "And that's what our minds are made of -- lots of little bits, doing very rigid, ungraceful, inflexible things."

The individual computations -- each one "thoughtless" -- work in combination with each other to yield our thoughts.

"When you put them together in enough numbers, in enough ways, the result you get is that wonderful lifelike mental world that we exhibit to ourselves and others," he said.

The theory has wide-ranging implications.

"Not surprisingly, Dennett has many fans in the artificial intelligence community," reported TechTV -- one of the fastest growing cable networks with close to 30 million viewers in 70 countries. "Taken to its logical conclusion, Dennett's philosophy implies that once the computational power of computers matches that of the human brain, computers will experience human-like consciousness."

The concept can be difficult to contemplate.

Many people, according to Dennett, find comfort in the idea that some "intelligent agent" resides in the brain and is responsible for running the mind and body like a puppeteer.

"What I saw was that you have to take the work that the [intelligent agent] does and distribute it around to the rest of the brain and the body," Dennett told Tech TV's "Big Thinkers.""You have to get rid of that showplace between the ears where that little man sits. That's a hard job, but that's the job I've been working on all these years."

With the removal of the "intelligent agent," the mind becomes nothing more than a collection of cells performing a series of computations. In essence, the brain functions like a complex machine.

"There is no 'big boss' in there at all," Dennett said. "It's an unsettling thought, but you can get used to it."

As one Italian newspaper reported after interviewing Dennett, "Yes we have a soul -- but it's made of lots of tiny robots."

Often hard to accept, Dennett's theories enter sensitive territory.

"I'm sullying a sort of sacred precinct by even talking about how science could explain creativity or the mind or ethics or any of these wonderful things," he said, explaining the difficulty of talking about the power of the human mind in such stark terms.

But the director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts says he's trying to answer some of life's biggest questions: What am I? What am I here for? What is the meaning of life?

"We are making a lot more progress on the first question -- What am I? -- than on the second," he told TechTV. "But I think you can see that the good answers to 'What is the meaning of life?' depend on getting clear about what we are and how we got here."

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