Dennett on Politics, Philosophy, and Post-Modernism

Daniel Dennett (Tufts) is visiting the UK to promote his new book, but most of this interview with The Guardian is about US politics.

Some excerpts, including a bit about how some philosophy might be responsible for our current political predicament:

We’re entering a period of epistemological murk and uncertainty that we’ve not experienced since the middle ages…

Maybe people will now begin to realise that philosophers aren’t quite so innocuous after all. Sometimes, views can have terrifying consequences that might actually come true. I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.”…

What I’d really like to work on is some very exciting new developments in theories of consciousness, which has almost nothing to do with politics. I begrudge every hour that I have to spend worrying about political issues instead…

Why do advertisements cost so much at the Super Bowl? Answer: it’s not just that millions of people are watching but that millions of people, hundreds of millions of people, know that hundreds of millions of people are watching. And that gives it additional credibility. And the web isn’t like that. But when you’ve got Trump tweeting to millions of people at a time, they know that he’s tweeting to millions at a time. He’s getting one of the advantages of this credibility effect without the disadvantages…

I’m skeptical that post-modernism had much to do with Trump’s victory. It is not even on the radar of most Trump voters, and is certainly not the part of the current ideologies in play among “Trump elites,” it seems to me. Nor does post-modernism appear to have compromised the opposition to Trump. Thoughts on this?

I also don’t think that it is “respectable” to be cynical about truth. People are cynical about it, and people get away with all sorts of bullshit, but more of a contributor to this than post-modernism would just be the fact that we are easily distracted beings who carry with them at all times highly effective distraction machines. And so the bullshitters have the reasonable hope that we won’t pay attention long enough to discover or care about their bullshit.

Dennett also shares his thoughts on our reliance on technology that we’re unwilling to try to understand:

One of the big themes in my book is how up until recently, the world and nature were governed by competence without comprehension. Serious comprehension of anything is very recent, only millennia old, not even a million years old. But we’re now on the verge of moving into the age of post-intelligent design and we don’t bother comprehending any more. That’s one of the most threatening thoughts to me. Because for better or for worse, I put comprehension as one of my highest ideals. I want to understand everything. I want people to understand things. I love understanding things. I love explaining things to myself and to others. We’ve always had plenty of people who, for good reason, said, “Oh, don’t bother explaining to me how the car engine works, I don’t care. I just push the ignition and off I go.” What happens when we take that attitude towards everything?

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