The idea of how and why humans think and operate the way we do has long been discussed by philosophers and scientists alike. Dr. Daniel C. Dennett came to shed some light on this subject Thursday, Feb. 7, at the Millennium Center.   

Dennett is known for his work in philosophy, writing and cognitive science. Through a thought-provoking lecture, he presented the audience with ideas such as competence without comprehension, intelligent design and the evolution of the mind.  

To begin, Dennett compared the construction of a termite colony to that of a large church in Barcelona, Spain. 

La Sagrada Familia, designed by Antoni Gaudí, is full of complex architecture. Yet, Dennett explains, so is the colony built by the termite.   

“They’re extremely similar in design,” Dennett said. “They’re two artifacts made by animals. But, however similar they are, they are products of very different processes of design.” 

Dennett wants to answer the question of how the billions of random firing neurons in our brain can work to produce such things as La Sagrada Familia by looking at the evolution of minds. 

“How do you get a Gaudí type mind out of a termite colony type brain?” Dennett said. “These brains are really not that different from giant termite colonies. How do you get 86 billion clueless neurons to work together to make a human mind that can design a building like La Sagrada Familia?”  

Dennett went on to explain his idea of intelligent design. He implements the idea of thinking tools and how they have affected the way our minds have evolved over time. He says that human’s thinking tools are like software running in the hardware that is the brain.

“The hardware evolves from genetic natural selection,” Dennett said. “The software evolves by cultural natural selection. The paths are mindless, but the result is a mind.” 

The idea of competence without comprehension was also something Dennett touched on. This idea is explained through his example of how a computer works. Competence, Dennett explains, is the foundation for this machine.     

“You build ever larger structures of competence,” he said. “Pretty soon you’ve got structures of competence that will handle your bank account and all the wonderful things that computers do. It all starts with competence without comprehension.” 

Pre-Darwinian theories were also discussed. Dennett explains what Darwin thought about the idea of intelligent design and how he aimed to change people’s perception of this.  

“You can get that Gaudí mind by processes which themselves don’t understand a thing,” Dennett said. “Only the end products are capable of understanding. Understanding is not in the beginning. It is a very recent development.” 

Going off the ideas he talks about in his lecture, Dennett would like for the students at ETSU to keep in mind what he finds to be the best definition of intelligence.

 “Intelligence is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do,” Dennett said.