Daniel C. Dennett
Dennett, Daniel Clement (28 March 1942— )
A philosopher, author, and professor at Tufts University, Dennett in 1995 wrote Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. He has written about artificial intelligence, supporting the view that mind stuff is explained by brain stuff, that we are in no need of explanations involving spiritual nonsense. He defends the idea that simple organisms are well described as automata and that, as Darwin’s theory states, we all are descended from such simple mechanisms. Our bodies, our actions, and all the ethical and intellectual issues which we face can be accounted for by evolution. In fact, he explicitly identifies this view with that of the secular humanists.
As for the supernatural, he has written,
- The kindly God who lovingly fashioned each and every one of us and sprinkled the sky with shining stars for our delight - that God is, like Santa Claus, a myth of childhood, not anything a sane, undeluded adult could literally believe in. That God must either be turned into a symbol for something less concrete or abandoned altogether.
- Certainly the idea of a God that can answer prayers and whom you can talk to, and who intervenes in the world - that's a hopeless idea. There is no such thing.
As for soul,
- Ugh. I certainly don't believe in the soul as an enduring entity. Our brains are made of neurons, and nothing else. Nerve cells are very complicated mechanical systems. You take enough of those, and you put them together, and get a soul.
As for churches,
- Churches make a great show about the creed, but they don't really care. A lot of the evangelicals don't really care what you believe as long as you say the right thing and do the right thing and put a lot of money in the collection box. . . . Sometimes I go to chuch for the music. . . . Churches have given us great treasures. Whether that pays for the harm they have done is another matter.
In an interview (Free Inquiry, Fall 1995), Dennett discussed in more detail his vision of the future of artificial intelligence. A director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, he once helped develop a humanoid robot named Cog. John R. Searle, in a profound discussion of Dennett’s views, concludes that consciousness remains a mystery. But he feels that Dennett, along with Francis Crick, Gerald Edman, and Roger Penrose, “in their quite different ways, are at least on the right track. They are all trying to explain how the physical matter in our head could cause subjective states of sentience or awareness.”
John Maynard Smith, professor of biology at the University of Sussex, highly approves Dennett’s understanding of Darwinism. If we comprehend Darwin’s dangerous idea, however, we are forced “to reject or modify much of our current intellectual baggage—for example, the ideas of Stephen Jay Gould, Noam Chomsky, Jerry Fodor, John Searle, E. O. Wilson, and Roger Penrose.” Smith continues, quoting Darwin, “He who understands baboons would do more toward metaphysics than Locke.”
Central to Dennett’s thesis is “that evolution by natural selection is an algorithmic process.” Before Darwin, philosophers and biologists held that the complex adaptations of living things implied some intelligent designer. Darwin’s dangerous idea, however, is “that adaptations can arise by natural selection, without need of intelligence: that is, they can be the products of an algorithmic process.”
Dennett repeatedly uses the analogy of “cranes” and “skyhooks,” devices for lifting things. A crane, explains Smith, “is a structure or process which is itself the product of the natural selection of replicating entities, but which, once it has arisen, makes it possible for still more complex structures to evolve.” Before sex, there was no way in which different replicators could unite to form a new individual. “Once sex did arise,” however, “it greatly accelerated the evolutionary process. Sex is, in Dennett’s terminology, a crane. Sex did not arise because it would accelerate evolution in the future: natural selection does not have foresight. Indeed, there is still controversy among evolutionary biologists about how and why sex did originate, although,” Smith adds, “I think that a plausible account is now possible.” Dennett’s view of evolution, Smith continues, “is one of cranes building cranes building cranes, each new crane arising by an essentially mindless process of selection. I fully agree with this view.” Skyhooks, however, “are a stark contrast. They are mysterious lifting devices, whose origin cannot be explained. It is Dennett’s thesis that we must eschew skyhooks and make do with cranes.”
Smith’s The Major Transitions in Evolution (1995) is an account of this succession of cranes, starting with the origin of the first replicators and the genetic code, and ending (so far) with the origin of human language. The problem is to explain how each new crane arose by a process of selection, without miracles, or “skyhooks.” Dennett and Smith agree that the world is free of skyhooks but that we can live happily in such a world. In Smith’s words, “No matter how mindless the processes of evolution may be, they have, in fact, produced a world of astonishing beauty, which we can enjoy, and ought to protect.
In 2004, Dennett was named the American Humanist Association's Humanist of the Year.
In 1996, Dennett’s Kinds of Minds, Toward an Understanding of Consciousness continues developing his view that the brain evolved like all other organs and explaining that consciousness has a material basis, like any other mental ability. He is a contributing editor on Philo, a signer of Humanist Manifesto 2000, the American Humanist Association's 2004 Humanist of the Year, and a member of the International Academy of Humanism.
In 1998, he wrote Brainchildren: Essays in Designing Minds (MIT Press), in which he stated,
- The first stable conclusion I reached . . . was that the only thing brains could do was to approximate the responsivity to meanings that we presuppose in our everyday mentalistic discourse. When mechanical push comes to shove, a brain was always going to do what it was caused to do by current, local, mechanical circumstances, whatever it ought to do, whatever a God's-eye view might reveal about the actual meaning of its current states. But over the long haul, brains could be designed - by evolutionary processes - to do the right thing (from the point of view of meaning) with high reliability. . . . [B]rains are syntactic engines that can mimic the competence of semantic engines. . . . The appreciation of meanings - their discrimination and delectation - is central to our vision of consciousness, but this conviction that I, on the inside, deal directly with meanings turns out to be something rather like a benign "user-illusion."
In 2006, he wrote Breaking the Spell:Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, in which he develops the view that belief can be explained in much the way that cancer can:
- I think the time has come to shed our taboo that says, "Oh, let's just tiptoe by this, we don't have to study this." People think they know a lot about religion. But they don't know. (Interview, The New York Times Magazine, 22 January 2006)
The New Atheists
A cover story in Wired (November 2006), "The Church of the Non-Believers," named what Gary Wolf described as "the new atheists": Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Greg Graffin, Penn and Teller, and Warren Allen Smith.
Wolf described Dennett as follows:
- He is a renowned philosopher, an atheist, and the possessor of a full white beard. I suspect he must have designed this Father Christmas look intentionally, but in fact it just evolved. "In the '60s, I looked like Rasputin," he says. Children have come up to him in airports, checking to see if he is on vacation from the North Pole. When it happens, he does not torment them with knowledge that the person they mistake him for is not real. Instead, the philosopher puts his fingers to his lips and says conspiratorially: "Shhhh."
- . . . . Among the New Atheists, Dennett holds an exalted but ambiguous place. Like Dawkins and Harris, he is an evangelizing nonbeliever. He has campaigned in writing on behalf of the Brights and has written a book called Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. In it, the blasting rhetoric of Dawkins and Harris is absent, replaced by provocative, often humorous examples and thought experiments. But like the other New Atheists, Dennett gives no quarter to believers who resist subjecting their faith to scientific evaluation. In fact, he argues that neutral, scientifically informed education about every religion in the world should be mandatory in school. After all, he argues, "if you have to hoodwink – or blindfold – your children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct."
- When I arrive at the farm, I find him in the midst of a difficult task. He has been asked by the President's Council on Bioethics to write an essay reflecting on human dignity. In grappling with these issues, Dennett knows that he can't rely on faith or scripture. He will not say that life begins when an embryo is ensouled by God. He will not say that hospitals must not invite the indigent to sell their bodies for medical experiments because humans are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights. Ethical problems must be solved by reason, not arbitrary rules. And yet, on the other hand, Dennett knows that reason alone will fail.
- We sit in his study, in some creaky chairs, with the deep silence of an August morning around us, and Dennett tells me that he takes very seriously the risk of overreliance on thought. He doesn't want people to lose confidence in what he calls their "default settings," by which he means the conviction that their ethical intuitions are trustworthy. These default settings give us a feeling of security, a belief that our own sacrifices will be reciprocated. "If you shatter this confidence," he says, "then you get into a deep hole. Without trust, everything goes wrong."
- It interests me that, though Dennett is an atheist, he does not see faith merely as a useless vestige of our primitive nature, something we can, with effort, intellectualize away. No rational creature, he says, would be able to do without unexamined, sacred things.
- "Would intelligent robots be religious?" it occurs to me to ask.
- "Perhaps they would," he answers thoughtfully. "Although, if they were intelligent enough to evaluate their own programming, they would eventually question their belief in God."
- Dennett is an advocate of admitting that we simply don't have good reasons for some of the things we believe. Although we must guard our defaults, we still have to admit that they may be somewhat arbitrary. "How else do we protect ourselves?" he asks. "With absolutisms? This means telling lies, and when the lies are exposed, the crash is worse. It's not that science can discover when the body is ensouled. That's nonsense. We are not going to tolerate infanticide. But we're not going to put people in jail for onanism. Instead of protecting stability with a brittle set of myths, we can defend a deep resistance to mucking with the boundaries."
- This sounds to me a little like the religion of reason that Harris foresees.
- "Yes, there could be a rational religion," Dennett says. "We could have a rational policy not even to think about certain things." He understands that this would create constant tension between prohibition and curiosity. But the borders of our sacred beliefs could be well guarded simply by acknowledging that it is pragmatic to refuse to change them.
- I ask Dennett if there might not be a contradiction in his scheme. On the one hand, he aggressively confronts the faithful, attacking their sacred beliefs. On the other hand, he proposes that our inherited defaults be put outside the limits of dispute. But this would make our defaults into a religion, unimpeachable and implacable gods. And besides, are we not atheists? Sacred prohibitions are anathema to us.
- Dennett replies that exceptions can be made. "Philosophers are the ones who refuse to accept the sacred values," he says. For instance, Socrates.
- I find this answer supremely odd. The image of an atheist religion whose sacred objects, called defaults, are taboo for all except philosophers – this is the material of the cruelest parody. But that's not what Dennett means. In his scenario, the philosophers are not revered authorities but mental risk-takers and scouts. Their adventures invite ridicule, or worse. "Philosophers should expect to be hooted at and reviled," Dennett says. "Socrates drank the hemlock. He knew what he was doing."
- With this, I begin to understand what kind of atheist I want to be. Dennett's invocation of Socrates is a reminder that there are certain actors in history who change the world by staging their own defeat. Having been raised under Christianity, we are well schooled in this tactic of belated victory. The world has reversed its judgment on Socrates, as on Jesus and the fanatical John Brown. All critics of fundamental values, even those who have no magical beliefs, will find themselves tempted to retrace this path. Dawkins' tense rhetoric of moral choice, Harris' vision of apocalypse, their contempt for liberals, the invocation of slavery – this is not the language of intellectual debate but of prophecy.
- In Breaking the Spell, Dennett writes about the personal risk inherent in attacking faith. Harris veils his academic affiliation and hometown because he fears for his physical safety. But in truth, the cultural neighborhoods where they live and work bear little resemblance to Italy under Pope Urban VIII, or New England in the 17th century, or Saudi Arabia today. Dennett spends the academic year at Tufts University and summers with family and students in Maine. Dawkins occupies an endowed Oxford chair and walks his dog on the wide streets, alone. Harris sails forward this fall with his second well-publicized book. There have been no fatwas, no prison cells, no gallows or crosses.