Dennett and Wilson

by F.

Seed has a transcript of a conversation they had back in 2004 on various topics. Very entertaining. A taste:

Edward Wilson: It is when consideration of the great questions of the human existence are limited, as they typically are, to the last 10,000 years, then you really are only considering a thin slice of time for human history. To many scholars, that might seem like all you need, but if you believe that the brain is not a blank slate, that there are deeply embedded programs of prepared learning that guide people in their mental development, then it makes sense to try to understand the deep history of humanity.

Dan Dennett: Absolutely. I think that the great think about Darwin’s idea is that it’s a unifying idea. IT is the one theoretical perspective that has the resources, not yet fully exercised to unite the worlds of meaning and beauty and truth and human aspirations with the world of matter and motion. As you say, the last 10,000 years are a twinkling of an eye. And if you don’t understand how this is a very recent twinkling—a series of magnificent effects which had to be the result of things laid down eons before—then you’re going to misconstrue your own treasures.

But beyond that it requires recognizing that such a thing as human creativity is itself a fundamentally mechanical and algorithmic process that’s fed by many streams. Every single stream, every source of meaning in the world, ultimately has to be a fruit of the tree of life, and that means you have to ground it ultimately in evolution. But the idea that evolution can tie these two great aspects of the universe together is very unsettling to many people.

EW: We’ve agreed in our writings, both of us, that the key question to answer is exactly how the creative process came to be and why it’s so extremely rare. In face it is singular in three-and a-half-billion years of evolution.

One of the themes of their discussion is the “gap” between the humanities and the sciences. Like Wilson, I don’t think there is a gap. I think the humanities will be subsumed under the sciences and that this will be a good thing—it won’t hurt the humanities at all.

Think of an old movie that is psychologically unrealistic, such as Hitchcock’s Spellbound. The picture of the human mind assumed in the movie is ridiculous: today’s audience would—and should—laugh at it. Why would they laugh? Because that picture of the mind has been eroded by scientific progress. Does this phenomenon destroy the movies generally? Not at all. They just get more and more realistic. I would expand Wilson’s statement that “the history of philosophy consists of a series of failed models of the brain” to include “the history of the humanities,” too.

More here.

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