Consciousness as we understand it – From Bacteria to Bach and Back

I mentioned Dan Dennett’s latest book a couple of posts back, expressing some slight reticence that, having read and appreciated pretty much everything else he’d written, I might not find much satisfyingly new in his latest. I shouldn’t have worried.

If his last work Intuition Pumps was a greatest hits collection of the many individual Thinking Tools he’s developed and worked with, his latest is a consolidated restatement and evolved update of the overall message of his life’s work to date.

Having first skim read, to get a feel for the contents, index and references, I’m now around one third through a careful read of the whole. So, whilst indeed little is entirely new, the careful organisation of what we’ve learned in clear and witty language, stripped of errors and distractions is immensely valuable and readable. And it is equally clear that this was his explicit objective.

He makes no apology for the “strange loopy” nature of his story, with no simple linear narrative, and the need to suspend disbelief and rehearsed objections, as we start somewhere in the middle of his story and cycle several times, on multiple levels, through the topics that make up the biological and cultural evolution of mind. Like Darwinian evolution itself, our understanding of of what consciousness is, must cycle through the process of understanding how understanding works. Living is how life works.

Reclaiming “intelligent design” from the supernaturalists, and reclaiming “teleology” for what purpose intelligent designs evolve naturally, have long been central to Dennett’s agenda. The attack-being-the-best-defensive nature of so much science vs faith debate means it has become taboo to even countenance such thoughts. But think them we must, it’s only natural. Science’s own position on such topics have themselves become politicised dogma. Suspending knee-jerk objections is essential to making progress and Dennett pulls no punches in demanding the space needed to develop his story free from all dogma.

I can safely say From Bacteria to Bach and Back is the book for anyone yet to get to grips with Dennett’s explanation of how mind has evolved to understand what it is to be conscious. There can scarcely be a higher agenda. Highly recommended.

[More later.]

[Many good reviews, critical and otherwise, of B2B&B in every credible publishing outlet since its US release late last year. This in the New Yorker is particularly fine for its angle on the quest of Dennett’s life.]

[Prospect Interview and Julian Baggini review, which I may use as a sounding board for my own review.]


Also published on Medium.

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