What is human consciousness, and how is it possible? This question fascinates thinking people from poets and painters to physicists, psychologists, and philosophers. From Bacteria to Bach and Back is Daniel C. Dennett's brilliant answer, extending perspectives from his earlier work in surprising directions, exploring the deep interactions of evolution, brains, and human culture.
Part philosophical whodunit, part bold scientific conjecture, this landmark work enlarges themes that have sustained Dennett's legendary career at the forefront of philosophical thought. In his inimitable style - laced with wit and arresting thought experiments - Dennett shows how culture enables reflection by installing a bounty of thinking tools, or memes, in our brains. Language, itself composed of memes, turbocharged this interplay. The result, a mind that can comprehend the questions it poses, emerges from a process of cultural evolution.
An agenda-setting book for a new generation of philosophers and other researchers, From Bacteria to Bach and Back will delight and entertain anyone who hopes to understand human creativity in all its wondrous applications.
©2017 Daniel C. Dennett (P)2017 HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books
Anyone who has read any other work by Dennett knows what to expect. You're in for 15 hours of lucid, thought provoking prose guiding you through some of the deepest questions out there. There is no need to give any credence to the only other review so far which seems to be motivated solely by jealousy.
I love listening to books when cycling, paddleboarding, etc but I press pause when I need to concentrate. Its safer & I don't lose the plot!
Consciousness has always been the greatest mystery to me. I fully believe in the idea that human beings are mammals evolved in accordance with the principles of Darwinian natural selection. I’m an atheist and I love the writing of people like Dawkins, Pinker and Hume, who are referred to often in this book.
It seems clear to me that there are also other animals who experience consciousness. By that I don’t mean that they are intelligent, although the ones I’m thinking of do have above average intelligence in the animal kingdom (dogs, cats, seals, dolphins, etc) but that they are aware of their experiences. They see and feel what is happening to them. They feel pain, hunger, fear – there’s more to it than just behaviouristic responses to environmental stimuli. I just don’t understand where this consciousness in humans and other animals came from.
I understand how the presence of the nervous system and painful stimuli will serve the Darwinian purpose of preventing you from doing damage to yourself, but I’ve never understood where the ‘me’ comes from who really feels the pain when I stub my toe. How do you get a ‘me’ from the movement of electricity through the central nervous system? If you built a computer as complicated as the human brain would it develop a ‘me’ and be ‘aware’? – I don’t think so (but I really don’t know that for sure).
This book addresses this question. Does it provide the answer? Sadly, no, not for me. It provides lots of interesting and helpful insights into the evolution of intelligence, but, unless I just didn’t get it, it doesn’t explain for me the emergent property of consciousness.
I’d still highly recommend it. I enjoyed every bit of it. I think I might listen to it again. But it didn’t answer the question for me. Maybe the question is unanswerable. Maybe it is beyond our understanding. Maybe we just have to accept that consciousness is just another of the many emergent properties that we see all around us in the natural and cultural world. I still don’t know.
l'enfer c'est les autres
There is intelligent design. It's just not what the creationist think it is. Nature gives us competencies without comprehension. Comprehension means full understanding. Dennett gives the example of how the computer can do arithmetic without understanding as explained by Turing. His holy trinity within this book are Turing, Hume and Darwin. Each thinker provides an inversion to our 'manifest' knowledge by allowing an opening to the window to scientific knowledge. He'll explain in detail how each thinker allowed us to see the world differently but in an 'inverted way'. They all gave us an 'ontology' (his word) of the world for which we live in. Ontologies can be thought of as the furniture that makes up the world, the pieces of the things that we use to explain the world under consideration, the structure, the foundation, the ground, or the first principles.
Dennett is never afraid to talk down to his reader. Pernicious teleology is how we think naturally as humans. We always impute a reason for the way things are. We accidentally assume a 'why' for the way things are, because that's how we think because we always assume meaning. "Teleology is never free" as he says in the book. We use science to redirect us back to the 'how' things are. There is no over all meaning for the way things became the way they are (at least I don't know the reason). Dennett is really big on emphasizing that 'free will' is an illusion in as much as that cause will always precede effect within the human realm (yes, there is an exception at the quantum level, but we don't control that, and it is not at our mercy), and if there was a great Judge in the sky or any where else, he would not be able to judge us knowing that we are the way we are because we were made that way and time and chance determined who we are. And as Dennett goes on to explain in this book, we still must be held accountable for our actions on earth, but, again, a great Judge in the sky can't hold us responsible for our actions because we don't happen in a vacuum we are a result of the world we are thrown into. Dennett doesn't say it but St. Augustine created the concept of free will as to be the analogous power that God had when he freely created the universe and that similarly resides in us in order that God can judge us. Yes, I know Aristotle uses the word 'free will' but he meant something different and closer to Dennett's compatibilitist definition.
There's a template to the story that he's telling within this book that could be found in another book that I've read, "Master Algorithm". My mind kept referring back to that book as I was listening to this book and in the last chapter or so he tells you about that book in detail. I really loved that book but only rated it three stars because of two reasons 1) I didn't like its conclusions and 2) it was concise but overly complex in its presentation. I don't mind complexity in my books but I would not really recommend it to others because it could be very hard to follow. But, all the themes that were in that book are in this book. He called them tribes in the book "Master Algorithm".
One of the tribes was Bayesian statistics. Our expectations based on prior experiences shape how we accept the present. That's what Bayesian statistics do for us. There is a really formal definition but it would involve probability functions, but at the heart that is what it is. Dennett relies on the heuristic to explain this. So I will too. The "Master Algorithm" shows how we are currently taking 'the inverse of the program and using machine learning' to solve complex problems through the aid of the computer. Dennett talks about Google and its language translation program which has done that brilliantly. It's a bottom up approach instead of a top down approach. Our mind and evolution both seem to work from the bottom up also. Cool stuff. But, Dennett only saved this stuff for the last chapter.
Dennett definitely has a mind set that I tended to disagree with in this book. His very long section on the meme and culture over looked the reality of epigenetics and just briefly noted it and that was only to tacitly ignore it. Epigenetics are real. Just read Science News or check up on the Belgium babies born at the very end of WW II (June 1944 to May 1945) under the needlessly cruel Nazi occupation and see the analysis which is explained by epigenetics. Dennett takes TOM (theory of mind) and mirror neurons more seriously than I think should be warranted. He's trying to explain that our consciousness comes about through by the shaping of our environment by our behaviors. It's one way of looking at the problem, but maybe not the best. Popper (logical positivist) and Skinner (behaviorism) are probably not the right way to frame the extremes (imo) as he seems to do within the text. There just seems to be a another story that could be told.
I really love Dennett. I've read four of his other books, and three of them are in my favorites list. I was little bit disappointed in this book because most of it was review for me, and I don't really agree with his behaviorism point of view in the development of consciousness, and I didn't really agree with his development of language as he presented it. Also, one can argue there is no proper ontology to the world (see Wittgenstein for details, e.g.), and embracing Hume (who is my favorite philosopher) leads to 'facon de parler' (Dennets phrase, means 'convenient fiction'), which doesn't bother me, but needs to be reckoned with in the context of the philosophy of science. I don't mind reading some one who I disagree with but I do mind not learning much more than what I've read in other books on the same topic.
Dennett has very little interesting to say on a huge wide range of topics that he addresses, but he has lots of vitrole for the positions of people with whom he apparently disagrees, but cannot bother to summarize their opinions. As other reviews note, there is no cogent thesis or clear point to which he is getting. He spends lots and lots of time disparaging creationists and other people he considers not living up to the scientific ideal. But his actual discussion of life and consciousness is mostly just a hodgepodge selection of various academic authors he thinks are sort of interesting with nothing to tie it together and no hard conclusions. He also uses plenty of space in the book to settle academic scores, advertise the work of his buddies, and apologize for times he had previously quoted people out of context. Reading this book is like just sitting down to lunch with him and asking him to pontificate. It must be nice to be so famous that you don't have to try to convince anyone of a thesis, you can just talk about whatever you feel like and turn it into a book.
Daniel Dennett has an amazing brain and is a wordsmith of the 1st rank. It is astounding how much of Consciousness Explained's foresight is brought to fruition. Anyone thinking of artificial intelligence and what it might mean for society would do well to read this book. And anybody not thinking of it should.
1001 words is worth more than a picture. Great line, though his best remains, I think, "he's fighting a strawman and the strawman is winning."
Dennett is well versed in many branches of science.
The world does not need this book - he did nothing with it here.
Dennett is the exemplary model for modern philosophers - he is one who has long recognized the value of having the best grasp of reality as possible as a foundation for any applied (or higher) philosophy, and one who recognizes that such a grasp comes from science.
He is still clueless as to why one should be such a philosopher, for he continues to miss the point, and it is because his mental paradigm has been constrained by professionalism and academia, restricting his imagination, which is critical when in a speculative stage, as he is here. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, "Academia is often out of touch with the most vital thinking of its time." Here is a classic case.
Dennett gives us a good dose of many branches of science, refreshing us with many of the catchwords.
He still plays the ancient 'IS' game - thinking that the purpose of speculating is to divine reality through pure thought (ala Plato and Aristotle) when that pursuit was wisely handed-off to science over three hundred years ago.
So rather than realizing that the real value of his speculations are in the potentially-useful perspectives offered, and their potential worth in being further investigated (by science), he is still in the old mind-mode that speculations are meant to reveal whole definitive aspects of reality, rather than just partial ones, as any classification or perspective does (or platitude or maxim or adage, which masquerade as philosophy, not asking or answering the big questions).
The book made me think. As soon as I heard the first words of his book, "Why are there minds?" it spurred me to attempt another summary of my speculations before I listened any further, just to compare my findings with his.
Waiting for his philosophical explanations, the audiobook turned into fifteen hours of meaningless noise - because not only are the mental images difficult to formulate, but the type of 'is' statements being made - those erroneously drawn from speculation - are the very type that you immediately dismiss and tune-out. You will wait for something of import to be said, then tune back in, and those moments were few, and they usually involved anecdotes (some personal, which were also good) from the science world.
He did not spend half the book arguing against religions.
He still spent too much time. He could have just noted that they are all make-believe, and moved on.
He began with the question, "Why are there minds?"
He did not spend much time pursuing the philosophical answer, which would have been the harder thing to do, since they do not adequately exist yet. He spent more time on scientific findings, for two reasons: 1.) to refute preposterous religious claims, as if that still needed to be done at length (it doesn't, they're exposed); and 2.) to forward his own speculations, though unfortunately as 'truths' rather than as 'possibilities' or as 'potentially useful perspectives' which we can put in our perspective toolboxes, to pull out when peering into the unknown.
He makes the philosophy that I've developed look good, innovative, and still needed.
We expect more from a such a distinguished philosopher.
We can compare ourselves to a distinguished philosopher and say, "Wow, my thinking (and resulting restructuring of philosophy, and resulting new philosophy) is way ahead of his", and you can post the claim in a book review for all to see.
The Upside and the Downside
He is published (which is good for him), but if you one of those 'vital thinkers of your time' are you have not played the game and are not a distinguished academic philosopher, you will not be published, no matter what the merit of your philosophy is. Blind eyes will turn away.
You can vent your frustration here, on a book that doesn't deliver on the level of philosophy that a clueless world still needs.
"An excellent Dennett exploration"
This brilliant exploration through many fields of investigation is another triumph for one of the deepest thinking philosophers of our times. His style, as always, is accessible, clear, jovial, and entertaining, while his conclusions and food for thought are fascinating and convincing. An excellent new book, which invaluably updates, reexplains, and delves deeper into ideas with which listeners may already be familiar through his "Darwin's Dangerous Idea", "Consciousness Explained", "Freedom Evolves", and "Breaking the Spell".
The performance in this version is very strong; Perkins' voice and tone suit Dennett's style well, and he is to be praised for dealing well with Dennett's occasionally idiosyncratic sentence structure and use of grammatical syntax. There are several pronunciation mistakes, but nothing to distract from the text.
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