Emily Dickinson and Daniel Dennett

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"The Brain—Is wider than the Sky—

For—put them side by side—

The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—"

So goes the first stanza of poem #632 by Emily Dickinson (1). For the moment, let us infer, as Paul Grobstein does, that Dickinson is saying that each of us is in our brain (2). Our conscious self is situated inside that physical wet stuff of neurons, chemicals, electrical impulses, and the like. Some people feel uncomfortable "that 'self,' rather than being safely housed in some form resistant to physical disturbance, might actually, itself, be a material thing" (2). Reading Dickinson, I do not. Not until Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (3) did I begin to squirm. But Dickinson's "theory" is every bit as radical and not dissimilar to Dennett's. Does the human brain take a different (intentional, physical, design) stance when assessing scientific versus non-scientific information?

Neither Grobstein nor I complain about Dickinson's lack of rigorous logic or scientific underpinnings in this poem. Instead, we accept it as a welcome springboard for our own imaginings about her concept. By contrast, many have criticized and resisted the sometimes-slippery logic and swift-handed science that Dennett uses to explain his neo-Darwinian theory, or explain away whatever challenges it. In the end, both writers/thinkers rely on historical narrative to persuade their readers: "Many scientific patterns are also historical patterns, and hence are revealed and explained in narratives—of sorts. Cosmology, geology, and biology are all historical sciences. The great biologist D'Arcy Thompson once said: 'Everything is the way it is because it got that way.' If he is right--if everything is the way it...

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...rk. Simon & Schuster.

4. Dennett, Daniel C. (1999) "The Evolution of Culture." The Charles Simonyi Lecture, Oxford. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/dennett/dennett_p2.html

5. Dennett, Daniel C. (1992) Consciousness Explained. Boston. Little, Brown, & Co.

6. Dickinson, Emily. Johnson, Thomas and Ward, Theodora, ed. (1958) The letters of Emily Dickinson Cambridge, MA. Belknap Press of Harvard.

7. Gould, Stephen Jay. (1997) "Darwinian Fundamentalism." The New York Review of Books. Volume 44, Number 10. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1151

8. Dalke, Anne. Grobstein, Paul. (2003) "Story-Telling in (At Least) Three Dimensions: An Exploration of Teaching, Reading, Writing, and Beyond." (draft submitted for publication) http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_cult/bridges/3dstory.html

9. Howe, Susan. (1989) My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley, CA. North Atlantic Books.

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