Finished! Let me show you what I learned from this book. Take the sentence, “I finished it.” In this sentence, finished is defined as “I visually examined each page, including preface, introduction, and appendix but excluding sources, bibliography, and the majority of the index.” Note that there is nothing in this definition about comprehension, or understanding. That is because for one definition of “finished” (the definition I have chosen to use in this book review), the focus is on completion without concerns about understanding, knowledge, or the ability to disseminate the information received to others of similar (or any) level of knowledge. With me so far? Yes? I’m impressed. No? That’s about how I felt for this entire book.
Originally I purchased this book on a whim because I loved the phrase “intuition pumps” and thought it would have helpful tools for more articulate discussions in debates. And it does, but only if you’re a philosopher. Dennett writes about philosophical debates on the nature of consciousness, free will, and meaning but with examples so abstract and metaphysical they’d be almost impossible to use in a conversation with laymen. That’s not a bad thing, but judging from this book there’s a huge gap between an interested layman and the entry level philosophy student this book is aimed at. I thought I was a reasonably well educated layman. I thought I would be able to make the stretch to entry level student. I could not.
There were still a great many things I enjoyed. The concept of intuition pumps (61), the discussion of Occam’s Razor(38) and Occam’s Broom(40), Boom Crutches(48), learning about register machines(109). Although I still don’t understand how a register machine could be useful as a thinking tool, unless maybe it’s to internalize the process of reducing a particular activity down to its most basic operations to see if you could get a simple machine (or a cascade of simple machines) to perform the same job, without understanding it or even knowing what they are doing? Dennet holds that often what we assume is irreducible complexity could actually be performed (albeit more slowly) by sufficient layers of the most basic computers (loosely paraphrased from p 139). That’s an interesting, terrifying idea. Terrifying because now I can’t argue that we aren’t all zombies, or robots.
This book left me with more questions than answers, and more confusion than when I started reading it. I guess that’s a good thing? I don’t regret reading it, but only now that it’s over.