Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Why God Can't Not Exist: Andrew Brown Assesses How an Understanding of Consciousness Has Implications for Atheism

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Why God Can't Not Exist: Andrew Brown Assesses How an Understanding of Consciousness Has Implications for Atheism

Article excerpt

Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion is one of many books this year suggesting that the only reason for religions to exist is human frailty. Perhaps the best and most thought-provoking of these is the philosopher Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell. Dennett is interesting because he wants to work out how meaning, purpose, and so forth appeared in a universe that originally had none. Part of his answer is Darwinian processes, which generate complexity, consciousness, and eventually creatures capable of reflecting on their own consciousness. But another part of his answer involves the redefinition of consciousness. He believes, as a materialist, that consciousness is not the kind of thing that most people take it to be. It is just an interpretation of behaviour; the behaviour is all there is.

He believes, as a result, that computers can become conscious; if they can get sufficiently complex to behave exactly as a conscious being, then conscious is what they would be.

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In this view, purpose, wanting and consciousness are ways to predict the behaviour of parts of the world around us. For Dennett, anything that acts as if it had a belief about the world, has a belief. This is not an exclusively human trait. Animals do it all the time with other animals. The kind of beliefs that humans have, and animals don't, he calls opinions, meaning that they are not just dispositions to behave in certain ways (a Dennett-style belief) but a disposition to use language in certain ways about our beliefs. …

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