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The Riddle of Consciousness

For most of human history, people have assumed that some kind of vitalistic essence had to be added to matter to produce life. The belief in an immaterial soul was pervasive. At one point, a scientist even tried to weigh the soul by weighing a body right before and after death, expecting to find a decrease when the soul departed (see Benjamin Radford’s column in the Skeptical Inquirer “Measuring Near-Death Experience,” May/June 2007). For most people, it is almost inconceivable that a purely material brain could produce consciousness. It is all too easy and appealing to imagine that consciousness is an immaterial essence that can survive death or to resort to the cop-out that “God did it.” And we are appalled by the idea that a materialistic account of consciousness might abolish free will and moral responsibility for human actions.

From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. By Daniel C. Dennett. W.W. Norton, New York, 2017. ISBN: 978-0-393-24207-2. 496 pp. Hardcover, $28.95; softcover, $18.95.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett’s new book From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds goes a long way toward illuminating these conundrums with facts and arguments from evolution and neuroscience.

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The War on Science, Anti-Intellectualism, and ‘Alternative Ways of Knowing’ in 21st-Century America