Friday, January 18, 2013

Dennett can't admit he's wrong, I guess — even with good thoughts

Dan Dennett/Edge magazine photo
Philosopher Dan Dennett has a very interesting interview in Edge.

Key takeaway? He junks a fair amount of what he's said in the past about the details of how the mind/brain is like a computer, 


Still holds fast to the analogy that it's ... like a computer!

Let's look at some comments:
We're beginning to come to grips with the idea that your brain is not this well-organized hierarchical control system where everything is in order, a very dramatic vision of bureaucracy. In fact, it's much more like anarchy with some elements of democracy.  ...

The vision of the brain as a computer, which I still champion, is changing so fast. The brain's a computer, but it's so different from any computer that you're used to. It's not like your desktop or your laptop at all, and it's not like your iPhone except in some ways. ...

Control is the real key, and you begin to realize that control in brains is very different from control in computers. Control in your commercial computer is very much a carefully designed top-down thing.  I mean, with all that, there's no need to hang on to his analogy.  
I guess he simply can't admit it's a crappy analogy that just doesn't work, and walk away from it.

Because it was a crappy analogy a decade ago,. and it's in tatters now. (Ditto for his claim that evolution is algorithmic.) 

That said, it's not all hubris in the interview. Dennett admits his new ideas (and it's nice to hear him have some) are speculative enough he'd "be thrilled if they're 20 percent right." And, his comments about brain plasticity, findings that maternal and paternal  inheritance genes in our cells may "war" much more than previously thought, are refreshing. 

At the same time, there IS hubris in other ways. His admissions of plasticity in the brain, combined with the "20 percent correct," should lead him to say that cognitive science, and related things such as artificial intelligence, may have advanced from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age in the last decade, but that's where they are and no further.'

Also unfortunately, his new ideas don't appear to extend to free will.

At the same time, though, the last section, about hypocrites in the pulpit, is great.

He's not talking about moral hypcrites, but unbelieving hypocrites in conservative Christian denominations. This is a follow-up to surveys and other work he and others have recently done.

Here's a sample:
How do they thread the needle so that they don't offend the sophisticates in their congregation by insisting on the literal truth of the book of Genesis, let's say, while still not scaring, betraying, pulling the rug out from under the more naïve and literal-minded of their parishioners? There's no good solution to that problem as far as we can see, since they have this unspoken rule that they should not upset, undo, subvert the faith of anybody in the church.
This means that there's a sort of enforced hypocrisy where the pastors speak from the pulpit quite literally, and if you weren't listening very carefully, you’d think: oh my gosh, this person really believes all this stuff. But they're putting in just enough hints for the sophisticates in the congregation so that the sophisticates are supposed to understand: Oh, no. This is all just symbolic. This is all just metaphorical. And that's the way they want it, but of course, they could never admit it. You couldn't put a little neon sign up over the pulpit that says, "Just metaphor, folks, just metaphor." It would destroy the whole thing. 
From personal experience with my own "coming out," I know how true this is.

Good stuff to end on. Go read it. 

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