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Pocketmags Digital Magazines
Pocketmags Digital Magazines

I am, therefore I think

Words turned our brains into minds, and got us hung up on the ghost in the machine. But a new book isn’t going to banish that spectre, says Julian Baggini

From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel C Dennett (Allen Lane, £25)

In the story of western modernity, science plays the role of both hero and villain—saviour and nemesis. The tension is captured in Charlie Chaplin’s classic speech at the end of The Great Dictator (1940). In one moment, Chaplin, at this point playing the Jewish barber not the Fascist leader, advocates “a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness”; in another, he laments that the “machinery that gives abundance has left us in want” and that cold reason has turned us into “machine men with machine minds and machine hearts.” Scientific demystification of the world is a double-edged sword. It enables us to practically achieve more but also risks turning us, in Richard Dawkins’s phrase, into mere “biological robots.”

Nowhere is the threat of science stealing our souls more feared than in the mental realm. No sensible person now doubts that the brain is the engine of consciousness. But if everything we think and do is the result of neurons firing, are we deluded to believe that our thoughts make any difference? In fact, a lot of research suggests that the conscious part of the brain is the last to know what we’re going to do. Could it be that conscious awareness is just an “epiphenomenon,” a kind of functionless noise produced by the whirring of the brain? If so, then as the philosopher Jerry Fodor puts it, “practically everything I believe about anything is false and it’s the end of the world.”

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In Prospect’s April issue: Ross McKibbin, John Curtice and Lisa Nandy examine the state of the Labour Party and question its survival at the next general election. McKibbin takes a long view and suggests that the party’s problems started long before Jeremy Corbyn, Curtice argues that breaking the party is unlikely to go as well as some may think and Nandy argues that tackling unaccountable power could help restore faith in the party. Nicholas Timmins says the NHS has always experienced financial crises so is this time any different? Lucy Wadham charts the rise of France’s Front National. Also in this issue: Owen Hatherley explores Edinburgh’s architectural conundrum, Freya Johnston on Jane Austen and Avi Shlaim on the tragedy of Yitzhak Rabin—the last best hope for peace.