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Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness (Jean Nicod Lectures) Paperback – September 8, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Scientific American

Consciousness puzzles scientists and philosophers as much as it baffles the rest of us. Elusive, enigmatic, and difficult to define and probe, consciousness has a peculiar quality that rouses people to insist that somehow it differs from the rest of the physical world and that there is something unique about each person's subjective experience. Enter Daniel Dennett, a philosopher who directs the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. In his provocative book, he explores several hot debates over whether consciousness can ever be explained--such as our inability to objectively study subjective experiences or qualia, the impenetrable properties of sensations. Despite our stubborn feelings that consciousness involves something extra--a spirit, soul, miracle or magic--Dennett contends that consciousness is no more than an intriguing but inadequately explained aspect of neural activity. Consciousness is often celebrated as a mystery, he writes. I think this tradition is not just a mistake, but a serious obstacle to ongoing scientific research that can explain consciousness, just as deeply and completely as it can explain other natural phenomena: metabolism, reproduction, continental drift, light, gravity and so on. Like a persuasive magic show, consciousness fools us into believing that the brain's seamless illusion is real, even though consciousness is a purely biological phenomenon. To make his point, Dennett works through various thought experiments. One involves imagining a perfect zombie that exactly replicates a person's perceptual and neural processes. Should there be any real difference between the zombie and the conscious person, he wonders? He also attacks the claim that a mechanistic theory of consciousness could not explain such a difference, if it existed. Another thought experiment involves imagining Martian scientists studying human consciousness. In principle, he says, Martians should be able to observe and inspect the mechanisms underlying earthly conscious experiences and, in some sense, grasp what it is like to be human. In time, Dennett believes people will realize that third-person methods of the natural sciences suffice to investigate consciousness as completely as any phenomenon in nature can be investigated. Like vitalism--the 18thcentury belief that some inexplicable force animates living creatures-- consciousness will ultimately yield to scientific explanation.

Richard Lipkin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Into this fray ridesonce again the tireless figure of Daniel Dennett...whose new book, Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness is a collection of essays devoted mainly to identifying and pummeling those diehard intuitions that he believes, rightly, still obstruct the progress of cognitive neuroscience.

(The New Scientist)

In characteristically playful mode, Darwinian fundamentalist Daniel Dennett turns his opposition's arguments against them in a masterful display of philosophical judo...He is on his way to becoming the Herbert Spencer of our age, the man of ideas who can bridge radition and science, giving us a sense of how it is that the robot in the mirror is really us.

(One of the 100 Most Influential Books of 2005 The Globe and Mail)

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Product Details

  • Series: Jean Nicod Lectures
  • Paperback: 216 pages
  • Publisher: A Bradford Book (September 8, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262541912
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262541916
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #413,459 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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47 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Kenneth W. Wolfe on August 21, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book is essentially a follow-up to the author's previous work Consciousness Explained. Dennett revises and builds upon the ideas he put forward in that book, and addresses some of the criticism that has been leveled against his theory of consciousness in the intervening years. He also reviews some of the development (or lack thereof!) in the study of and debate over the question of consciousness over the past few years.

As always, Daniel Dennett presents his ideas with great precision and eloquence. No other writer I have read does a better job of shedding light on the question of consciousness. As the author repeatedly cautions, much work remains to be done before we have a full understanding of how human consciousness works. But Dennett rejects the "Mysterian" view that consciousness is something special which by its very nature we can never obtain an understanding of using the scientific method. He puts forward a methodology for the systematic study of consciousness, and shows persuasively that it is a phenomenon just as open to scientific inquiry as any other biological function. One of the major themes in both Consciousness Explained and in this postscript to it is idea of "zombies", the subject of an old philosophical thought-experiment. The zombie is a creature indistinguishable from normal people but which has no internal mental life, no consciousness. As Dennett says he addresses the question of zombies reluctantly since it has been the source of so much confusion. He shows very clearly how the concept has little use in clarifying the question of consciousness. He also addresses the inevitable question of artificial intelligence and whether it is possible for "mere machines" to be consciousness. The answer turns out to be yes, since those conscious machines are us!

It would be best to read the author's previous book Consciousness Explained before reading this one.
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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on March 29, 2006
Format: Hardcover
As the concept of the modular structure of the brain emerged, objections to the idea took the form of "Well, if my brain's made up of computers, somebody in there has to be in charge. It had better be me!" This comment, paraphrased from philosopher Jerry Fodor, typifies what Daniel Dennett has been contending with for many years. Although the "Cartesian theatre" notion, that the body was one aspect of our being and the mind another - "dualism" - has supposedly been supplanted, it has not lost its hold on our view of consciousness. We continue to insist, in some form or other, that "somebody, and it better be me" is inside our minds looking out at the world. Although we can't find that "self" in there, we have a hunch it's there.

When Dennett wrote "Consciousness Explained" in 1991, it seemed the "homunculus" representing our "self" had been laid to rest. This excellent collection of essays and lectures, is an update on that earlier work. As lectures, they have a conversational tone, yet impart many deep insights. Addressing consciousness through four major themes, Dennett shows us the project of eradicating "dualism" remains incomplete. Until that view of "self" is discarded, our understanding of consciousness will remain misleading.

The first theme he addresses is the "zombie". Philosophers have posed the idea that a duplicate person, identical to you in every way but one, is logically possible. The person would act as you act, talk as you do, have the same preferences and distastes. But it would not be conscious. This proposal presumes that something in you could be identified that is lacking in the zombie. For most of us, who still feel our "self" remains somehow separate within us, the logic seems reasonable.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Gijs Leegwater on January 16, 2008
Format: Paperback
I read this book after reading Consciousness Explained and The Mind's I. I'm giving the book 4 stars because it's still a good book, but compared to Consciousness Explained it's just a little small and has way less information in it. You can see they had problems filling this book, there is much line spacing and some passages appear twice. The advantage of this is that it's easier to read.
If you want to spend months reading a book and learning very very much, read Consciousness Explained. If you want to spend weeks reading a book and get a general (and more actual) impression of Dennett's viewpoints, read Sweet Dreams. And of course, if you're a Dennett fan like me, read both :).

(Although i don't agree with him on some points... e.g. i don't like he says consciousness is no mystery, he seems to think that he has almost solved the problem, i still see many problems)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Carlos Camara on June 8, 2013
Format: Paperback
In this book, a brilliant follow-up to his seminal work, Consciousness Explained, Dennett takes on some of his critics and reassesses his ideas on consciousness. The result is a well-argued, clearly written theory of consciousness.

First Dennett discusses his old friends, Zombies (Chapter 1). Those physically and functionally identical creatures to us that nevertheless lack consciousness completely. The idea itself is what he calls an "intuition pump", a thought experiment that aims to show a metaphysical truth about the world, but ends up only showing the intuitions behind some phislosopher's thinking. Dennett points out that the idea of zombies is question begging, and is evidence only of faulty reasoning. Similar points apply to the explanatory gap. Theories of consciousness need to be true (or close to it), they do not need to satisfy all intuitions and hunches. Mysterianism is too quick and dirty. Although it might be true, as Dennett imagines, that in hundreds of years philosophers will say "how could they have thought zombies were possible?", this does not mean that the Zombie hunch was an obstacle, a waste of time. Modern science says the same about the now defunct concept of elan vital, or the life force, supposed to explain what we now know are molecular biological phenomena, but it is another thing to say the discussions they engendered were fruitless.

I agree with Dennett in that there is something inherently wrong in thinking about zombies and deriving whole philosophical theories out of them, but I also believe thought experiments help in clarifying some issues. Dennett continuously complains of those who accept the conceivability of zombies do so without independent argument, relying in their intuitions and preconceptions on the matter.
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