Daniel Dennett: ‘I begrudge every hour I have to spend worrying about politics’

Carole Cadwalladr in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_2592 Feb. 15 10.08I meet Daniel Dennett, the great American rationalist, on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, as good a day as any to contemplate the fragility of civilisation in face of overwhelming technological change, a topic he examines in his latest book.

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. He’s in London with his wife, Susan, to mark the publication of his latest book – From Bacteria to Bach and Back – and I find him in a rented flat in Notting Hill, scowling at his laptop. “I was about to send a tweet,” he says. “Something like, ‘Republican senators are in an enviable position. How often does anybody get a real opportunity to become a national hero? Who’s going to step up and enter the pages of history?’”

Dennett has the intellectual heft for his pronouncements to have impact: a star speaker on the TED circuit and friend to many of the Silicon Valley elite, he’s also that rare breed, the mythical creature of publishers’ dreams – a writer of meaty, serious books that also sell.

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 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, he writes. Human co-operation and trust aren’t givens. They’re the byproducts of a cultural process that can be reversed. And civilisation is far, far more fragile than any of us want to realise.

More here.