Jaron Lanier responds to Dan Dannett

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From: Jaron Lanier
Date: 11.21.01

Daniel Dennett has invented a role for himself as a sort of analytical angel who sits on the shoulders of scientists interested in minds, brains, and behavior, and makes observations that can, at their best, be startling and useful.

He might also be the most ambitious reductionist in all history outside of the clergy.

I'm going to focus here on his handling of questions that do not really matter to the conduct of science, but do influence the public at large.

I am not at ease with Dennett in his role as a philosopher of consciousness. The fundamentally odd thing about the human condition is that subjectivity is not objectivity; that we cannot empirically measure our own experience. Should we then decide that subjectivity does not exist? It's hard to pretend to not experience, but Dennett seems to be doing it, and I can't tell if he's sincere or just trying to be annoying for pleasure's sake.

Whether he's pretending or not, his position could have negative consequences if it catches on even more than it has. Science and rationality must compete for the hearts and minds of non-scientists who are also being wooed by superstitions of every stripe. If the mainstream of scientific opinion denies the very existence of subjectivity, instead of simply declaring the subject out of bounds for empirical study, the effect will be to send multitudes of reasonable people over to investigate whatever weird belief might seem more congruent with their experience of experience. When we overclaim, it's harder to criticize others who are overclaiming.

There's another instance of Dennett's reductionism going so far that it could dull the public's interest in science, and it concerns Darwin and evolution. There's almost a mania in his determination to convince us that we already understand more than we probably do. A sense of ennui sets in as Dennett stretches Darwin to explain everything complex. If Darwin really explained everything creative or complicated, and all that's left is a moping up operation, why should anyone be interested? Dennett is at his best interacting with scientists. Since he's also an influential figure to the wider society, I hope he'll think more about to alienate fewer people from science and rationality.

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
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