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Friday, July 01, 2005

Sweet Dreams....

If I was to tell you that I am now reading a book about zombies, robots, magic and qualia that goes under the title "Sweet Dreams", you might guess that I have stumbled onto some unpublished Stephen King novel. But you would be mistaken; what I am reading is a short and well argued book by Daniel Dennett that carries forward his defense and elaboration of the now (in)famous Consciousness Explained volume published in 1991.

Controversial as he might be, Dennett is nothing short of brilliant, and perhaps the most readable philosopher of the mind (or is it 'philosophy of the brain'?) dealing with a topic for which there is no shortage of contentious books by pretty decent authors. In fact, this little book is the result of a shelved project he undertook to respond to those who have critiqued or challenged his earlier work. The relevant literature was so vast that Dennett instead chose to write these essays, and in the process he once again breathes life into discusisons of heterophenomoneology, qualia, zombie hunches, and the supposed "Hard Problem" of consciousness studies.

The style of writing is so engaging that I would label this an "easy read that is sometimes difficult to follow" unless you sit back and defer to Dennett's argumentation. In the process oyu not only get a greater apprecation of Dennett's work, but learn a great deal about things that are themselves the stuff of Stephen King novels (how about prosopagnosia and Capgras delusion... fascinating stuff).

Why am I reading Dennett? Well, for several reasons actually -- beyond the fact that it is just interesting stuff.

First, I am intrigued by the issues raised in his critical approach to consciounsess studies, and especially his hard line on methodology and insistence on testing the "folk wisdom" out there. He is a "popperian" of the first order and, for my money, a model for us gadflies to follow. His challenge to the concept of qualia (which I am reading about right now) can be extrapolated to any number of constructs we rely on in the study of politics and administration.

Which brings me to a second rationale for reading Dennett: I believe his 'multiple drafts model" (MDM) view of consciousness is ultimately relevant to our understandng of public adminsitration and decision making in general. I almost put this to the test in one version of a recent paper (that will be published in PAR next year), but I botched the effort (my co-authors pointed out, quite kindly, of course) and instead the article gets around the point I was trying to make by relying on Karl Weick's notion of 'sensemaking' which is appropriate but a step or two removed from the Dennett thesis.

Nevertheless, the MDM promises to provide a more interesting (and challenging) view of what Herbert Simon meant by "bounded rationality". Dennett's "cover" figure for "Sweet Dreams" (designated Figure 1.1 at points in the book) seems to illustrate MDM well -- it is a Saul Steinberg (he of 'a New Yorker's view of the world' fame) cartoon reflecting what a museum patron might be 'thinking' as he stands before a painting by Braque. How does any public administrator -- any individual, for that matter -- 'make sense' of the "war on terror" -- or any other altered situation for that matter. My own preoccupation with how multiple, diverse and conflicting expectations are handled by public sector actors leads me to believe Dennett's perspective will utlimately impact on our approach to PA....

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