Dennett’s Dangerous Idea

I am a little more than half way through Daniel Dennett’s book about how evolutionary biology provides you with the only meaning your life needs (or at least the only meaning it can have, regardless of what you may think otherwise). Thoughts are, after all (after Dennett waves his material wand), just the side effects of your history, which can be reduced without greed to the result of adaptation due to natural selection. That is, the molecular development of the stuff of which you are made has arisen in such a way that absolutely no intentional autonomy on the part of any one was ever required. There are no “thoughts,” no “I’d like it to be sos.” Unless by thought you mean the purely mechanical reaction of one atom colliding with another.

There are only atoms. Or in the case of your body, only macros (Dennett’s word for the molecular algorithms responsible for building you). Macros are what atoms become in spacetime. But that’s the rub.

“Spacetime.”

What could we mean by the “environment” when we say it selects the fittest organisms? What could we mean by the “space and time” in which atoms collide? What is an atom but an act of mental significance upon the stage of life?

Hold on now, I’m going to take off from a discussion of atoms (the figure) and soar up into a discussion about spacetime (the ground). The motion and distance of the empirical world are ephemeral manifestations reflecting off the invisible intensity of time, the spiritual world.

Aristotle saw the world as made up of things. Darwin discovered that it was made of doings. Dennett wants to shift our attention from nouns to verbs. He wants to say that the mind is an emergent property of the brain, the process instead of the product. We are our history.

I want to say that this is not enough. We must go not only from nouns to verbs, but from grammar to nature, to our actual embodiment.

We are process and product, as well as producer, all rolled into one. That is, we are body, mind, and spirit.

Reality is not composed of words, whether they are nouns or verbs. Reality is without space and without time. Words are the world of consciousness, communication, and fabrication. Words are for the actors on the stage, the separate interactions of particles in space. The functions of their waves can be computed and arranged. But in reality, the whole production is but a show. When it’s over, the curtain is drawn as the darkness envelopes the participants. They become as one, as though uncreated. With no conflict, there’s no story to tell.

History does not eliminate essence. It merely swallow it, assume it. Order is derived from the mindless interaction between many “seeds” called atoms. But within what fruit do the seeds grow? Dennett hasn’t eliminated mind from his metaphysics, he’s just turned it into a unit of information (a measure of work done). An algorithm. He wants everything to admit it has a mother except atoms, which are virgin births of transcendental import.

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