Who Am I Anyway?

Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology

by Daniel C. Dennett
Bradford Books, 352 pp., $8.95 (paper)

This is a time of many facile answers and pseudo answers to the question of consciousness. Many writers are making money from the so-called “consciousness market.” Some of them are sincere but muddled, others are out for the quick buck. Most people, it should be clear, do not want hard answers to deep questions—they want catchwords and slogans. It is too bad that the crowds of people looking for Big Answers About Brains will probably pass by the book Brainstorms by the Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett. It is too bad, because people who probably could read Dennett’s book will instead turn elsewhere and find small pithy slogans instead of big answers.

Before I get into the meaty part of this review, I should say that, in my opinion, Brainstorms is one of the most important contributions to thinking about thinking yet written. This is the case partly because Dennett is a penetrating thinker with an obsession for clarity in his analyses, and partly because he is lucky enough to be alive in an age when science can finally begin to approach the mysteries of brains, minds, consciousnesses, and souls. One of the virtues of Dennett’s book is its skillful mixing of philosophy and science. There are plentiful citations of rather esoteric scientific articles on artificial intelligence, mathematical logic, mental imagery, behaviorism, neurology, linguistics—even anesthesia. Dennett is well read, and his knowledge serves him well. I must say, I am glad I did not know of this book while writing my own book (Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid), for I might have become discouraged that someone had already said it all.

What are the issues he is most concerned with? One of them is what I like to call “the soul-searching question”: where is the “I” that each one of us has, and what in the world is it? I am not sure that any answer will ever satisfy us, and yet it is in some sense the most important question of human existence. It is the ultimate attempt to “find oneself.” I believe finding an answer to this question is the underlying motivation for Brainstorms. Everything in the book turns on this issue, coming at it from angle after angle, as a mountain climber might try to size up a forbidding mountain peak by circling around it several times and going partway up on several sides before eventually attempting to scale it. These reconnoiterings form an integral part of Dennett’s “answer” to the soul-searching question. I doubt that Dennett would claim to have presented the final answer; he probably feels, as I do, that a definitive answer is impossible. Nonetheless, he comes about as close as I have seen anyone do to giving a well-worked-out theory of the meaning of the terms “consciousness,” “mind,” and “I.”

What is Dennett’s approach to mind and brain? Its cornerstone is the notion of an “intentional system.” By this Dennett means some mechanism or organism whose activities we can best understand…

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