(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Daniel Dennett is a leading contributor and researcher in the new approach to the philosophy of mind, which includes cognitive science, technology, artificial intelligence, consciousness, epistemology, and other areas of investigation. This controversial thinker is almost a cult figure in the new philosophy and the most interesting writer in this eclectic field.

Brainchildren, Dennett’s representative, retrospective work, contains a selection of twenty-six essays published since Brainstorms (1980), his first essay collection. The essays in Brainchildren, originally published in specialized and relatively obscure journals and conference proceedings, deal mainly with Dennett’s familiar areas of interest: artificial intelligence, philosophy of mind, animal behavior and cognition, and ethics. His approach is philosophical but with a scientific bent. In “Self- portrait,” he characterizes himself as a philosopher with a long-standing interest in the nature of consciousness, personhood, and the self. A few selections, such as one dealing with the debate between Dennett and Fred Dretsky, are not easy to read. But with repeated reading, some attention, and a willingness to be occasionally baffled, the reader is rewarded with insight rarely attainable by the layperson. In general, however, Dennett guides the uninitiated reader by meticulous attention to definition, word choice, and use of metaphors.

Brainchildren is, in one sense, Dennett’s way of defending his arguments in two earlier works—Consciousness Explained (1991) and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995)—which put him at the center of debate about the origin and nature of consciousness. Many pieces are critical responses to the published contributions of other philosophers, such as John Searle, Ray Jackson, Richard Rorty, Jerry Fodor, Richard Nagle, Roger Penrose, and Antonio Damasio.

The first ten essays in Brainchildren are about different facets of Dennett’s views on philosophy of mind, consciousness, and intentionality. He attributes the mind’s complexity to the fact that it is both biological and sociological. Hence the interdisciplinary nature of his study. In a broad sense Dennett conceives of philosophy of mind as a field of study that attempts to connect thoughts on diverse but related topics such as the existence of “qualia,” multiple personality, artificial intelligence, and animal cognition.

Dennett argues that mind and consciousness are complex artifacts, deserving of multidisciplinary investigation. Mind, for example, is partly biological, partly social, and partly metaphysical. To get an accurate picture of the mind—to understand how it arose and how it works—requires a clear- headed metaphysical analysis within the context of scientific research from several fields. With this kind of approach, Dennett firmly established his place at center stage among the philosophers and scientists of the same camp after publication of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and Consciousness Explained.

In Brainchildren, Dennett deals with one of the most provocative notions in the philosophy of mind: qualia. Qualia are like sense data, such as a tomato’s redness, which is a mental quality that appears to consciousness and is quite different from its scientific definition (e.g., as motions of molecules in the air). In two essays Dennett considers qualia as decorations of perceptions by invoking a new and improved version of his famous zombie examples. For Dennett’s purposes, zombies are entities who lack consciousness but behave just like humans. His zombie metaphors are quite ingenious and useful in his analysis of consciousness.

In “Speaking for Our Selves,” coauthored with English psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, Dennett presents a novel view of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), as a response to Julian Jayne’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), which once made quite a stir in the psychological community. For Dennett, multiple personality is a useful way of exploring aspects of consciousness. Dennett and Humphrey evaluate the idea of selfhood and question mainstream notions of MPD. Is there a core or an actual personality in every person with MPD? Are all other “personalities” or “alters” added as “nonpersons” or “subhumans”? Or are they legitimate, viable personalities, worthy of even legal consideration? Dennett claims that “alters” in some sense are real selves but devoid of some basic elements needed to give them the status of “people.” However, the question remains: If alters cannot be people, then what can they be? What ontological status do we ascribe to them?

In “Information, Technology, and the Virtues of Ignorance,” Dennett argues that the mind is able to “frame” problems in order to deal with a universe of stimuli pouring in from all directions. When we are engaged in anything, as a matter of survival, we isolate the problem at hand, limit the context of...

(The entire section is 2082 words.)