Who's in Charge?

[ Mon. Jun. 30. 2003 ]

Science has always had things to say about human nature, and now more than ever. The shelves of bookshops groan with offerings that show how everything we think about ourselves is being transformed by "revolutionary developments in molecular biology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, linguistics, superstrings, biodiversity, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, virtual reality, cyberspace, and teraflop machines. Among others." The list comes from an article [*] by literary agent John Brockman on the upmarket scientific Web site Edge (www.edge.org). Out go fuddy-duddy Shakespeare and Proust, Aristotle and Mill, and in comes a chorus of scientific cheerleaders who believe they have all the answers to life, human nature and everything. But curiously absent are the voices of historians, anthropologists and most psychologists, whose empirical disciplines surely have some claim to tell us more than a bit about human nature.

The public may like the triumphal note of these books, but it has fewer critical weapons at its disposal than some of us might wish. Thank heavens, then, for Daniel Dennett, a distinguished philosopher with an insatiable appetite for science and especially for the places where science needs interpretation. Scientists and philosophers need one another, he observes: Philosophers need to know the relevant scientific facts, and scientists need to know the history of philosophy. As Dennett says in commenting on Brockman's article, "Scientists who think their up-to-date scientific knowledge renders them immune to the illusions that lured Aristotle and Hume and Kant and the others into . . . difficulties are in for a rude awakening." Among the topics that show the need for interpretation are consciousness (with its curious habit of eluding science) and free will.......[continued]