VIDEO: Dan Dennett: Cute, sexy, sweet, funny. 2009 07:48
In this video, Dennett, (like his doppleganger James Randi), mixes some good science with showmanship with sleight of hand to make his not-quite-so-honest points.
In his illustration of supernormal stimuli, he presents three images at 05:28 representing supernormal sweet, sexy, and cute but really only the chocolate cake can be unambiguously quantified as being sweeter than something 'normal' like a piece of fruit. A Vargas girl is not necessarily sexier than a Vargas model, and a doll is not necessarily cuter than a baby. For being hyperstimulating, these two examples are more straw man misdirection than convincing argument.
The thing that bothers me with Dennet's 'inversion of reasoning' here is that it takes the qualia of sweet, sexy, cute, and funny for granted. He says 'honey is sweet because we like it, not we like it because it's sweet'...'sweetness was born with the wiring, which evolved'.
He's partially right. Sweetness is not an objective characteristic of glucose molecules. I would say that our preference
for sweetness is evolved, however the sweetness itself is a different thing. If you eat three pounds of fudge at once, you would find that afterward, the idea of eating more sweet food makes you nauseous. Eating a bag of M&Ms would still taste sweet but you may not like it. This directly contradicts Dennett's argument.
He is saying that sweet is merely a mechanism to point us in the direction of high glucose foods - I say partially, yes, but that doesn't explain what sweet is and how it might have came to be. He says 'if you looked at glucose molecules til you were blind, you wouldn't see why they tasted sweet. You have to look in our brains to understand why they're sweet'.
He's wrong. You can look at the brain 'until you are blind' and you won't see why they taste sweet either. It makes no difference whether you look at the exterior appearances of molecules or neurons, there's not going to be any sweetness there - nor any sexy, cute, or funny. These things have no process of natural selection to evolve through. They are interpretations of pattern, not physical phenomena. It's not like an eye which evolved from simpler neural light-sensor bubbles, there is no subjective proto-sweetness, no configuration of molecular geometry and cellular interface which equals sweetness, unless those cells are part of you - your brain, your tongue. Only then is there an experience of any kind.
As for the attempt to explain how humor works in similar terms at the end, I think that it's worthwhile to understand our behaviors from a mechanical evolutionary perspective, but again it obfuscates the real questions - the hard questions of consciousness. It's not whether or not funny can be tied to some utilitarian cognitive drive - that's missing the whole point. It's why should there be funny at all? All of these drives could be accomplished without consciousness at all - and they are, everywhere in our bodies outside our conscious attentions.
Our T cells seem to debug the body pretty well without us having to reverse engineer a way for them to LOL. Our brains don't need to laugh, or experience sweet, or cute, or sexy to accomplish survival and reproduction. They are fine on their own, just as a complex computer wouldn't need to experience anything 'personally' to be able to process any number of complex realities. Cockroaches survive. It's not that hard. We don't need humor to do it.
It's more accurate to say that cute, sexy, sweet, and funny are a collaborative phenomena of both subjective qualities and objective behaviors. To attribute subjective qualities exclusively to evolutionary consequence short changes out worldview and disqualifies the source of the worldview itself. Understanding evolution is a great and important step in our own evolution, but without being integrated with subjective realities, it can lead to a kind of intellectual crutch which reduces all phenomena to automatic mechanisms except the intellect itself, which is seen as too fuzzy and irrelevant to be trusted to any task but empirical instrumentalism.