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Book review: Sweet Dreams, by Daniel C.Dennett

The nature of consciousness, a.k.a the mind-body problem, is probably one of the two or three most important unresolved issues in science today, although not everyone agrees that it is a real problem. Dennett is one of those who say that it is on a par with earlier puzzles about the "life force". In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many people still believed that living creatures had something in them additional to, and higher than, mere physics and chemistry, but no serious scientist would say that today. Dennett thinks that the notion of mind as more than the processes taking place in the brain is destined to go the same way as ideas of the life force.

Other philosophers, notably David Chalmers, dispute this and talk of the "hard problem". Although contemporary science has gone a long way towards resolving such "easy" problems as how vision works, they say, it has not come to terms, even in principle, with how brain processes can give rise to subjective experience.

For a long time I would have sided with Chalmers on this, but I find now that in certain moods I think that Dennett is right. Perhaps there is no real problem to be solved at all. But I find I oscillate between the two positions, which is why I continue to read books about the subject, especially when they are written as well and as clearly as Dennett's always are.

For my review of this book follow this link.


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John Floyd on :

The "mind body problem" you speak of is unresolved to many, but not all certainly. Do you think that those who cannot accept thought to be the result of physical events in the CNS might be like Leibinz who was drawn to Spinoza's philosophy, but then flees from the realization that it obliterates his personal god as well as all religions (The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World ). Is it perhaps that to accept thought as simply biochemistry rejects any god (other than "Spinoza's god")? The late Carl Sagan (The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God) would be representative of those who seem to accept the universal laws of physics as "God" and ultimately the basis of consicousness.
I admit that this is a simplistic, reductionist concept of "thought", and I am no match for the likes of Dennett, but it seems plausible that thought is in fact just biochemistry, and I can live with that.

Anthony Campbell on :

Thanks for the pointer to the Leibniz and Spinoza book, which I wasn't aware of. Looks interesting and I've ordered it.

John Floyd on :

Hope you enjoy the book. It talks more about Leibniz than Spinoza, mainly because he lived longer and committed so much to paper. However, the Mind-Body "problem" is discussed at length.

John Floyd on :

I know you have reviewed at least one book by Susan Blackmore, but I don't see one on her "Consciousness: A very short introduction." In this short (133 pages) summary of the subject, she argues against a mind separate from the physical body. I don't believe she feels that the "mind body problem" is much of a problem. This book is a nice complement to "Seeing Red" as it approaches consciousness from a slightly different tangent, and it can be read about as quickly.

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