Yes, the title is audacious. Yes, it's not a perfect book. Yes, the subject is extremely complex and really smart people fight about it in prestigious...moreYes, the title is audacious. Yes, it's not a perfect book. Yes, the subject is extremely complex and really smart people fight about it in prestigious journals, etc.
But Dennett has some fine ideas nonetheless. I go through periods of swinging in one direction and back again when it comes to what I'll just call the "consciousness wars." But lately Dennett's ideas are striking me as more and more correct (and I've always leaned in his and the Churchland's direction since I first began looking into these issues, maybe about two years ago).
For some extremely brief, but exciting (probably more so to people already immersed in the field and the debate) overviews of his position(s) check these short videos out:
"If you can approach the world's complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deep...more"If you can approach the world's complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things." — Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell
"Is this Tree of Life* a God one could worship? Pray to? Fear? Probably not. But it did make the ivy twine and the sky so blue, so perhaps the song I love tells a truth after all. The Tree of Life is neither perfect nor infinite in space or time, but it is actual, and if it is not Anselm's "Being greater than which nothing can be conceived," it is surely a being that is greater than anything any of us will ever conceive of in detail worthy of its detail. Is something sacred? Yes, say I with Nietzsche. I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. This world is sacred." — Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea
I think this a great way of addressing a widespread misunderstanding about genetics, biological evolution and human thought & behavior.
Slight back...moreI think this a great way of addressing a widespread misunderstanding about genetics, biological evolution and human thought & behavior.
Slight background story: I was having a discussion with a guy on goodreads.com within his comments on his review of Why I Am Not A Muslim and eventually it came to this:
Myself: "It’s a categorical mistake to think this about biological evolution. To put it bluntly: our genes are selfish, but we are not (not necessarily, unconditionally so at least)."
Him: "One last question, so how are we different than our genes?"
And my reply and the whole point of this post:
This may sound mean, but it’s simple. You are not a gene, nor am I. We’re animals, unique and beautiful and ugly and all qualities in between, both as a species and as individuals.
Here’s an explanation though:
"But almost everyone misunderstands this theory. Contrary to popular belief, the gene-centered theory of evolution does not imply that the point of all human striving is to spread our genes. With the exception of the fertility doctor who artificially inseminated patients with his own semen, the donor to the sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners, and other kooks, no human being (or animal) strives to spread his or her genes. Dawkins explained the theory in a book called The Selfish Gene, and the metaphor was chosen carefully. People don’t selfishly spread their genes, genes selfishly spread themselves. They do it by the way they build our brains. By making us enjoy life, health, sex, friends, and children, the gene buys a lottery ticket for representation in the next generation, with odds that were favorable in the environment in which we evolved. Our goals are subgoals of the ultimate goal of the genes, replicating themselves. But the two are different. As far as we are concerned, our goals, conscious or unconscious, are not about genes at all, but about health and lovers and children and friends."
That seems to be enough to get the point across, but I think this is such a good point that I’ll type the next paragraph up as well:
"The confusion between our goals and genes’ goals has spawned one muddle after another. A reviewer of a book about the evolution of sexuality protests that human adultery, unlike the animal equivalent, cannot be a strategy to spread genes because adulteres take steps to prevent pregancy. But whose strategy are we talking about? Sexual desire is not people’s strategy to progagate their genes. It’s people’s strategy to attain the pleasures of sex, and the pleasures of sex are the genes strategy to propagate themselves. If the genes don’t get propagated, it’s because we are smarter than they are. A book on the emotional life of animals complains that if altruism according to biologists is just helping kin or exchanging favors, both of which serve the interests of one’s genes, it would not really be altruism after all, but some kind of hypocrisy. This too is a mix up. Just as blueprints don’t necessarily specify blue buildings, selfish genes don’t necessarily specify selfish organisms. As we shall see, sometimes the most selfish thing a gene can do is build a selfless brain. Genes are a play with in a play, not the interior monologue of the players."
-Steven Pinker, How The Mind Works, pp. 43-44
Also, for anyone interested in listening to the audiobook version:
"Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever yo...more"Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, "You please me, happiness! Abide moment!" then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored--oh then you loved the world. Eternal ones, love it eternally and evermore; and to woe too, you say: go, but return! For all joy wants--eternity."
— Friedrich Nietzsche (Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None)
This is the best overall take on Nietzsche I've seen yet. It focuses on the aspect of his work that I was most drawn to when first really getting into it and would continue to exalt above all else to this day: a deep affirmation of existence.
This book is very carefully laid out, well-argued, insightful, evenhanded and corrects many extremely common mischaracterizations of Nietzsche's central themes.
I wouldn't recommend this to newcomers, unless they have a penchant for reading serious scholarly analysis generally and have at least some primer on Nietzsche under their belt already. This isn't to say this book is dry or overly technical, rather it's just extremely thorough in its argumentative rigor and references nearly all of the work which comprises Nietzsche's corpus, including rarely published notes and correspondence.
So the execution is skillful and thorough beyond a doubt, but the really satisfying element of this book for me is the overarching programme of its focus on Nietzsche's emotionally resonant struggle with and promotion of a clear-eyed, intrepid affirmation ("Yes-saying") of the mere fact that one is permitted to exist--finding a way to embrace the humdrum miracle (a phrase of my own that I like) of life as much as possible, in the face of pain and under the ubiquitous threat of its loss. (less)