Dennett is a singular figure in American culture: a white-haired, white-bearded 74-year-old philosopher whose work has mined the questions that erupt at the places where science, technology and consciousness meet. His subject is the brain and how it creates meaning and what our brains will make of a future that includes AI and robots.
It’s clear that his latest was conceived and written in a different time. Dennett, a close ally of Richard Dawkins (and a similarly quasi-militant atheist), had decided to look at culture from an evolutionary perspective. His latest book – From Bacteria to Bach and Back. His last chapter, where he contemplates our technological future, was intended to be thought-provoking. Instead, it’s quietly terrifying: we’re only just starting to wake up to the potential outcomes of the technology that we’re inventing but increasingly don’t understand. Human co-operation and trust aren’t givens. They’re the byproducts of a cultural process that can be reversed. And civilization is far, far more fragile than any of us want to realize.
The real danger that’s facing us is we’ve lost respect for truth and facts. People have discovered that it’s much easier to destroy reputations for credibility than it is to maintain them. It doesn’t matter how good your facts are, somebody else can spread the rumor that you’re fake news. 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.”
But in your latest book, you ask if civilisation can fail and conclude that it can. You say there’s a huge and present danger because the modern world has become too complex to fix. Does that have a different resonance now than when you wrote it?
I suppose it does. When I wrote it, I thought it would be a hard sell for a lot of people. Whereas now, well, we’re all facing it, aren’t we? My optimism is well surrounded by very pessimistic thoughts, which are in some way probably more realistic.
My friend Danny Hillis gave a TED talk where he pointed out that the vital services of the nation are much more dependent on the internet than they should be. If the internet went down, and a lot of people say it’s just a matter of time, it will probably take the power grid down, cellphones, radio, television – we’ll be plunged into electronic darkness. We’re not used to that. If you thought 9/11 was scary, this is going to be a tremendous panic-inducer. We should be planning what to do about that.
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?
Serious comprehension of anything (for the current moment) is impossible, but probably we do need it. We should understand everything, but can understand only something we are specialized in. But we do need to comprehend the whole system, our existence and values. If we will not manage our existence on a big scale, we are doomed. I.V.