1. Meta-thinking allows us to consider the relative merits of our beliefs and desires, and to ponder whether each is correct and worthwhile. In order for meta-thinking to occur, we must be able to, as Locke says, “suspend the execution and satisfaction of any of [our] desires.” In the act of delaying the satisfaction of a desire, analyzing that desire, and deciding whether we ought to pursue it, we exercise free will.
Humans do not always engage in sufficient meta-thinking. For example, people carry out acts while extremely angry that they would never consider after cool-headed, rational thought. Dennett and Locke’s definition of free will implies that people who act without meta-thinking do not act out of free will. Interestingly, we still tend to consider such people responsible for their actions. “I was angry when I committed the crime,” is not a convincing excuse to most people.1 Perhaps the free will in this case is the decision to submit to anger in the first place.2 Even if everything that followed was not a matter of free will, the original decision is enough to maintain our sense that the person in question is morally responsible for their actions.
2. Meta-thinking is valuable to members of a social species in two ways. First, meta-thinking allows individuals to assess the legitimacy of their beliefs. Within a population of social organisms, it is often in each individual’s best interest to deceive other individuals, but it is hardly ever in an individual’s best interests to be deceived.3 Because meta-thinking is a tool that individuals can use to detect false information, it makes them less susceptible to deception.
Meta-thinking is also valuable to members of social species because it allows them to evaluate and decide between competing desires. If a species is social, its members’ survival most likely depends on reciprocal relationships. Reciprocal relationships generally demand that an individual put itself at a temporary disadvantage in the interests of future gain. Without meta-thinking, individuals would more often refuse to be put at this temporary disadvantage, and they would frequently defect from their reciprocal exchanges. Overall, this would have a negative impact on each non-meta-thinking individual’s survival. It would also lead to a decrease in social behavior within the species as a whole. (Although even without meta-thinking, strong emotional ties to reciprocity--for example empathy--could still operate, so some amount of social behavior would persist.)4
3. The process of human thought is one of constant internal dialogue. Usually, this dialogue is silent, but under times of stress, it is more likely to be spoken aloud. Dialogue of any sort would be unnecessary if the brain was uniform, so that all parts of it could communicate perfectly with all other parts. However, this is not the case. As Dennett explains, “one component can need the output of another component but be unable to address that component directly.” Internal dialogue provides a way to transport information between brain components. Most likely, the first type of intra-self communication to evolve was spoken out loud, and silent intra-self communication was a later refinement. In an evolutionary sense, silent self-communication is an advantage because it allows individuals to keep their thoughts private. On an individual level, humans today also usually prefer to talk to themselves silently, so that everyone around does not hear what they are thinking. However, spoken self-communication is simpler and its effectiveness is less likely to be reduced by stress, so people who are mentally taxed often talk to themselves aloud.
4. Dennett’s Just-So-Story explanation of consciousness meshes well with my own experience of what it is like to have a human brain. His idea of consciousness emerging as many brain components communicate with each other is a convincing solution to the problem of how unconscious, merely-behavior-producing components could create the complexity of consciousness.4
1. Our sense of who should be punished and for what may depend less upon reasonable blame and more upon a fear that if we let some individuals “get away” without punishment, then others will feel more free to commit similar acts.
2. I’m not sure any angry person actually decides to get angry.
3. I can think of a number of false beliefs that would be encouraged by evolution, i.e. those that facilitate egocentrism and the rationalization of unearned benefits.
4. Has Dennett explained consciousness? Well, it depends on how one defines the term. If it is defined largely as one’s internal monologue, then this is probably a good explanation. However, one could define a major component of consciousness as the experience of qualia and this would likely require significantly different explanation.
4. Is metathinking necessary for reciprocal altruism? Couldn’t I program a computer to simply follow an algorithm (like tit-for-tat in Axelrod’s famous tournament”?