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DENNETT'S DEAL
Daniel C. Dennett

Nick Humphrey observed in 1987: "In Two Cultures, C. P. Snow extolled the great discoveries of science as "scientific Shakespeare," but in one way he was fundamentally mistaken. Shakespeare's plays were Shakespeare's plays and no one else's; Scientific discoveries, by contrast, belong — ultimately — to no one in particular."

This may be an exaggeration, but there's something to it. On the one hand, there is an individuality to the contributions of great artists that seems to be not just rare in science, but positively beside the point. The famous priority disputes in science, and the races for one Nobel Prize clincher or another, are ferocious precisely because somebody else could make exactly the contribution you were striving to make — and you won't get points for style if you come in second. These contests have no parallel in the arts, where a different set of goals reigns. The contrast is nicely illustrated by my own home field of philosophy, which uncomfortably straddles the two cultures.

For several years, I have been posing the following choice for my fellow philosophers: if Mephistopheles offered you the following two options, which would you choose?

(A) solve a major philosophical problem so conclusively that there is nothing left to say (thanks to you, part of the field closes down forever, and you get a footnote in history) or

(B) write a book of such tantalizing perplexity and controversy that it stays on the required reading list for centuries to come.

Many philosophers reluctantly admit that they would have to go for option (B). If they had to choose, they would rather be read than right. Like composers, poets, novelists, and other creators in the arts, they tend to want their work to be experienced, over and over, by millions (billions, if possible!). But they are also tugged in the direction of the scientists' quest. After all, philosophers are supposed to be trying to get at the truth.


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