Book Review: Daniel Dennett and Consciousness


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Paddy's Pint
The Scranton library had this book on the New Shelf and I thought to myself that it probably as left of rational thought as one could get, BUT…I am trying to enlarge my consciousness and learn more. Sometimes after embarking on this excursion, I soon realize that it is a mistake.  Other times, the party lasts a while and I discover that the books aren’t bad just not top notch.  This book fell into the former category.
The problem is that Mr. Dennett is a Marxist.  He never says it, and no where I looked, albeit not intently, did anyone mention it.  Most reviewers gave it great reviews like the one below from the New York Review of Books, and felt it was one of his best. Well I would hate to think of what his other works are, if this is the case.
Here’s the problem.  Dennett believes that the World was not created according to Genesis for the benefit of Man.  He believes, and rather stridently at that, it was created for all of Creation.  That we are just a cog in the greater Cosmos, nothing more nothing less.  So what makes us different?  That’s the rub.  According to Dennett that we can write, speak and expound in our world that we are better, faster, smarter than the rest.  He argues that in the Narwhale world, they argue the same, we just do not know it.  I could buy that bit, except the Whale, the tadpole, the lemur aren’t watching us on Television and reveling in our frolics unless Attenborough has seriously screwed up.  Now that’s possible too, he is pretentious and sonorously boring, but I think despite his pan-Gaea exuberance, Attenborough realizes that we are the watchers — we are actively going out and finding them.  I haven’t seen a Whale show up in my neck of the woods, watching me, yet.

The incredible narwhale

Dennett though has an answer to that and that is that why we may be watching said Nar that does not  mean we  understand what we are watching.  I am not sure I get that one either.  The problem here that after a while, once we have learnt what we are watching, we are either doing it because it is necessary  to our survival or we enjoy it or worse it is “habit”.  Dennett OTOH believes that we and our fellow organisms (yes he uses that term) do to stay alive, are things we do not comprehend.  Well that’s true if you talk about the autonomic system like breathing and a heart beating but Dennett, haven’t we evolved beyond that?
He feels, and I strongly disagree, that it goes beyond that autonomic level and into walking, grasping a knob or listening to music aka  sound waves.  I do not think that is true as I said above.  Once we master those facets of our life we no longer need to understand them — they become automatic.  If we want to open the door we know we can to turn a knob and so on.
Things get worse with the whole idea of computers and Alan Turning, the genius who built computers.  Dennett has no conception of programming and to what level AT had to program a computer to make it do anything, and that back then was typically advanced calculator work  — the TI 94+ if someone even remembers one.
Because Dennett does not understand what Turning did, he trivializes it and calls it a “mindless machine” that could arithmetic perfectly without knowing it was doing arithmetic.  As a computer scientist, this folly was too much to bear and I threw the book back and stopped reading.  The reason for my outburst is simple:  Turning knew everything that the machine was doing and told it hold to do it just a like father tells a child how to tie a shoe.  He knows, the child just follows, and isn’t this something like the third time that Dennett keeps making the same mistake?  So Turning knew what the machine was doing and he taught the machine to do it because the machine could do it faster than he could.  Not better.  Faster.

The liberal UK Guardian did an interview with Dennett.  Read it here.

Paddy's Pint

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