November 22nd 2007
That used to be my opinion, I thought philosophers had nothing to say on the subject, until I read an essay by Daniel Dennett called Where Am I? . Dennett’s thought experiment shows that the sense of self we have arises in a large part from viewing the world out of the middle of your head. He is a superb thinker on evolution, conciousness, free will and joined in on the recent flood of books on religion. To get an idea of his thoughts, see him at TED in 2002, 2003 and 2006. I agree with most of what Dennett says (his attack on the Cartesian dualism that most of us subscribe to, often unknowingly) but not his central thesis (that the mind simulates a Von Neumann machine). This idea seems in line with the habit of humans to draw analogies between the latest in technology and the brain, John Searle gives examples of folk likening the brain to a telephone exchange, a clock mechanism and even a catapult. I think the idea will seem less likely when computers soon stop being Von Neumann machines as we move towards multi-core, massively parallel, computers.
That said, neuroscientists can say more than most people realise about how our brains work and how surprisingly specialised parts of it are. A really superb neuroscientist is Vilayanur Ramachandran. I read “Phantoms in the Brain” a few years ago and he gave the BBC’s Reith Lectures in 2003 and gave a great talk at TED this year