This Is Your Brain, On
Two books seek to explain how our minds work their way through the maze of consciousness
Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking
by Daniel C. Dennett
W. W. Norton & Company
$27.95 List Price
YOU DON’T HAVE TO CONDUCT A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT to see why some philosophers or scientists want to write for an audience cheerfully indifferent to the ways of the seminar room and the strictures of the refereed journal. Beyond the fame and fortune, perhaps more important is the sense that if one’s work is worth doing at all, it ought to reach the widest possible audience, particularly when it bears on issues (religion, free will) with decisive implications for how readers choose to live. Some, I imagine, also relish the bonus frisson of mixing it up in the rowdy rough-and-tumble of the public arena. If you’re like Daniel C. Dennett—one of whose many mantras is Gore Vidal’s “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail”—what’s the point of felling a philosophical tree if there’s no one to hear it? Since the publication in 1991 of his book Consciousness Explained, Dennett has gladly risen to the challenge, merrily taking on all comers left and right, in works that play to a packed house most philosophers couldn’t dream of.
For Dennett, moreover, the experience of communicating to a broad readership his brawny materialist agenda, which aims at nothing less than squaring philosophy with a host of other fields—cognitive psychology, brain science, evolutionary biology—has an ancillary and less obvious boon. Specialists, he writes, tend to underexplain to one another the very terms of their discussions. These experts benefit from translating their respective positions down, as it were, so that they might be presented to “curious nonexperts,” as Dennett puts it in his newest book,