Review of "Sweet Dreams"

Sweet Dreams: philosophical obstacles to a science of consciousness, by Daniel Dennett. ISBN 0-262-54191-2.

Some people believe that consciousness is so mysterious, so essentially first-person-ish, that it will never be -- can never be -- explained scientifically. Dennett thinks otherwise, and indeed he has offered what he considers to be a sketch of an explanation in his modestly-titled book "Consciousness Explained". (The other guys generally reckon that what he's offered is a debunking, or a denial, of consciousness, not an explanation.)

This book is a partial response to the criticism of the Mysterians. Unfortunately, what the Mysterians offer is from Dennett's perspective mostly bluster, and there's not much one can do in response to bluster that doesn't amount to blustering oneself. So, Dennett blusters. At least he blusters entertainingly.

I don't see any prospect of an end to this battle any time soon; it's basically a clash of strong intuitions and prejudices. It will, perhaps, end if someone provides evidence strong enough to overcome those (an argument for mysterianism that actually has some logical force and isn't just a reinforcement of existing intuitions, or an artificial intelligence so convincing that those who interact with it find it impossible to deny that it has real intelligence and real consciousness); until one of those things happens -- and I'm not holding my breath for either -- I think we're stuck with books like this one.

For my part, I rather enjoyed it; but my sympathies have always been firmly with Dennett in this particular war of the intuitions. Those with Mysterian sympathies are likely to find it annoying, glib and question-begging.

This book consists mostly of lightly edited lectures, plus one essay written for another context. Unfortunately, it shows. There is some repetition, even some verbatim repetition, and there's a bit of a lack of high-level structure.