Dennett: reconciling science and our self-conception

A book I wrote about the contemporary American philosophy Daniel Dennett. One of the hardest things I’ve ever did. By the standards of philosophy books, it is very accessible. But it is philosophy; it’s supposed to stretch your mind.

From the preface:

We understand ourselves as agents who are conscious, who can exercise free will, and who can be moved not merely by causes but by reasons. It is barely imaginable, perhaps barely coherent, to think that we could give up such a self-conception. Yet this very self-conception appears to be in conflict with the claims of science. On the one hand science seems to undermine our self-conception, for example, by denying that we are genuinely free. On the other, the explanatory adequacy of science seems to be undermined by phenomena such as consciousness, meaning, and the sheer diversity and complexity of biological organisms.

Throughout his career, Daniel Dennett’s mission has been to show how science and our self-conception can be reconciled, and, indeed, how both can be made stronger by reaching rapprochement. To this end he, firstly, talks up the power of scientific explanation, showing how rich such explanation can be. And, secondly, he talks down some aspects of our self-conception. So he tells us that some varieties of free will, some varieties of consciousness–those that fiercely resist accommodation with science–just aren’t worth having. When placed under a philosophical microscope, they turn out either to be incoherent or to fail to give us what we really want.

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