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"The electronic age has triggered epistemological chaos": Daniel Dennett on the information free-for-all, atheism and the point of philosophy

"The electronic age is threatening the trust and credibility on which civilisation depends"
July 19, 2017
What is the first news/historical event you can recall?

VJ Day, the end of the Second World War. I remember the parade in Beirut that went right by our house.

What is the most overrated book of all time? 

I think it’s pretty obvious that there are two tied for first place, and probably most people would agree with me about one of them—in each case—but there is a widespread diplomatic consensus that we should leave it at that. I am one of the few people—certainly one of the few atheists—who have tried, earnestly, to make it through both of them, but gave up in dismay each time.

One bit of advice you’d give to your younger self? 

Master more mathematics, so I could actually use it to make and test models.

Who was your first hero?

Real: my father. Fictional: Robinson Crusoe.

Do you worry about the lack of an afterlife? 

No, I worry about entering the second infancy that afflicts so many these days, thanks to modern medicine.

If you were given £1m to spend on other people, what would you spend it on and why? 

I’d support schools for Muslim girls where they could learn about all the kinds of lives that can be led in the 21st century.

Would you rather have composed a great symphony, penned an important book or invented something useful? 

Judging from my apportioning of effort over the last half century, I’d say an important book, though I’ve often dreamt of the others.

What are the best and worst presents you’ve ever received? 

The best was my Erector Set (Meccano, in England), when I was about six. It was used, re-used and enlarged for more than a decade. The worst is a bronze sculpture by an “important” Italian sculptor that is so ugly that I keep it in a bag in the basement. I hope I never have to bring it back into the light.

What have you changed your mind about?

Most recently, about the bright idea of divorcing information from energy, the idealisation that enables most cognitive science. It’s great for computer science and information theory, but it leads us to look at the wrong models of minds, as Terry Deacon argues in his book Incomplete Nature (2011).

What is the biggest problem of all?

The new transparency. Some see the information free-for-all as exciting, but the epistemological chaos that has been triggered by the electronic age is threatening the trust and credibility on which civilisation depends.

Are things getting better or worse? 

Mostly much better, but at the cost of enabling us to do ever more destructive things with our new-found powers.

If there’s no heaven or hell, why should people behave themselves?  

To deserve the love and respect of their friends and neighbours.

What do you say to those who reckon philosophy doesn’t go anywhere?   

It goes many places, sending scouting parties out into realms most people never even try to imagine, and every now and then it comes back with something wonderful, which thereafter comes to be considered “common knowledge,” not philosophy.