Dennett Runs out of Steam

by F.

Dennett’s time has come and gone. Once, his idea that the brain was a machine was provocative and useful. He helped us understand that there’s nothing ignominious about being a machine. Machines are cool! But, a little like Marvin Minsky, his 30-odd year ride on one thoroughbred metaphor has left it frothing and sweating, eyes rolled back, begging to be shot and turned into glue.

Here he is in the latest Technology Review writing about computer chess:

Why isn’t it just as nice–or nicer–to think that we human beings might succeed in designing and building brain children that are even more wonderful than our biologically begotten children? The match between Kasparov and Deep Blue didn’t settle any great metaphysical issue, but it certainly exposed the weakness in some widespread opinions. Many people still cling, white- knuckled, to a brittle vision of our minds as mysterious immaterial souls, or–just as romantic–as the products of brains composed of ­wonder tissue engaged in irreducible non computational (perhaps alchemical?) processes. They often seem to think that if our brains were in fact just protein machines, we couldn’t be responsible, lovable, valuable persons.

Finding that conclusion attractive doesn’t show a deep understanding of responsibility, love, and value; it shows a shallow appreciation of the powers of machines with trillions of moving parts.

Of course I agree with him. (Let’s face it—Searle, the target of the dig about alchemical processes—is nuts.) But Uncle Dan seems never to have mastered understatement (especially when it comes to religion.) There’s no need to always italicize important words and shout at the reader. Leave that stuff to blogs like this one.

[composed and posted with