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Virtual Machines in the Brain

The basic operating system software is a virtual machine implemented in the brain. A virtual machine is software that can run other software. Your computer’s operating system is a virtual machine for installing and running applications, such as your word processor or web browser. Dennett uses the term “virtual machine” in this way but also as being synonymous with software in general. In this latter sense of a virtual machine, he thinks of a virtual machine as virtual because it is made of software rather than hardware. So, for example, the software clock in your operating system is a virtual machine as opposed to an old-fashioned clock.

As life continues, many virtual machines are installed. The newborn is genetically predisposed toward downloading and installing “cultural” virtual machines and toward designing and installing self-made ones through training and learning of new skills. Think of this as a bootstrapping process with increasingly sophisticated software, successively downloaded and installed in the brain until we become fully conscious. The prelinguistic child might install virtual machines of playing peek-a- boo (a cultural download) or of hitting a dangling mobile repeatedly (a self-designed motoric virtual machine). However, the most important virtual machine for our kind of mind—the only conscious mind in nature—is language.

With language installed, we have thoughts about our experiences and engage in abstract thinking. We also talk to ourselves—something Dennett thinks is crucial for understanding the stream of consciousness. Talking to yourself is, for Dennett, an autostimulating activity. It has a recursive nature, where a sequence of thoughts can be generated in the manner of feeding on themselves—one thought leads to another, which leads to another, and so on. Once we have “language parsers” and the other machinery of language installed, we can finally get the Cartesian theater with the self and a stream of consciousness online.

The Cartesian theater and the self depend on language for their implementations in the neurocomputer as higher-level virtual machines. Language is a complex virtual machine running on top of our basic operating system. With language, we engage in thinking about thinking and our experiences—higher-order thinking and sophisticated forms of autostimulation to sustain a stream of thoughts. Dennett’s account of the conscious mind involves a layering of virtual machines.

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