Dennett at TED

by F.

TED is, according to The Oserver, a bit like “a G8 of the mind, a high-powered ideas fest that crosses disciplines and ideas.” Now you can watch some of the TED speakers on-line. The site is beautifully designed, as it should be, since TED stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design.”

Dan Dannett spoke at TED this summer. He may be one of two philosophers in the world that matter (the other being Richard Rorty). His philosophical approach is refreshingly down to earth:

“Some of the most beautiful and deep ideas of the 20th century come from engineering. Certainly in America, engineering is very declassé. It has never had the cachet of physics, or even chemistry. And yet the deep insights of computer science, and a lot of the insights of molecular biology, are fundamentally engineering insights. Thermodynamics, too – a lot of it came from work with steam engines. So I think that thinking about machines, and how to get purpose out of material, has been a wonderful source of insight. I don’t think it’s an accident that some of the greatest artists of all time have been engineers.”

His talk can be found here and is worth listening to: it may reassure you that there is at least one sane person in the world. Running time is around 27:00. Put the phone on mute during that next conference call and listen to something interesting.

Personally, I think Dennett is fighting a losing battle. Is it likely that religious thinking will wane in the future? Doesn’t seem so to me. Seems about as likely as that human beings will gradually get better at multiplying seven-digit numbers in their heads. In other words, religious thinking is the most natural thing in the world. It’s soothing. Do you really want to face the fact that your life is (a) an accident, (b) has absolutely no purpose or meaning other than that which you give it, (c) that in 500 or 1,000 years, no one is going to remember who you are or that you even existed, and (d) that, in the grand scheme of things, you’re life is worth no more or less than a barnacle? I don’t think so. So why does Dennett persist? Because it gives his life a purpose.

The other question is, Would his non-religious world be any better? I’m not sure. Maybe, but maybe not. How could we decide that question? Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of non-religious human societies to study, as far as I know. I would tend to think it would be better, but that’s no more than a guess.

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