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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Dennet, Daniel (1942- )
"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 [that] a sane, undeluded adult could literally believe in. That God must either be turned into a symbol for something less concrete or abandoned altogether."

-- Daniel Dennet


Daniel Dennett is a prominent American philosopher. Dennett's research centers on philosophy of mind and philosophy of science, particularly as those fields relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science.

Daniel Dennett received his B.A. in philosophy from Harvard University (Cambridge, MA) in 1963. In 1965, he received his D.Phil. in philosophy from University of Oxford (Oxford, England), where he studied under the famed philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Dennett is currently (August 2005) employed as Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, University Professor, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies (with Ray Jackendoff) at Tufts University (Medford, MA). He gave the John Locke Lectures at the University of Oxford in 1983, the Gavin David Young Lectures at Adelaide, Australia, in 1985, and the Tanner Lecture at Michigan in 1986, among many others.

In 2001 he was awarded the Jean Nicod Prize and gave the Jean Nicod Lectures in Paris. Tufts is the only university in the United States to have two former Jean Nicod Prize Winners on its faculty (the other being Ray Jackendoff). He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987. He was the co-founder (1985) and co-director of the Curricular Software Studio at Tufts University, and has helped to design museum exhibits on computers for the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Computer Museum in Boston. He is also an avid sailor.

Dennett is the author of several major books on evolution and consciousness. He is a leading proponent of the theory known by some as Neural Darwinism (see also greedy reductionism). Dennett is also well known for his argument against qualia, which claims that the concept is so confused that it cannot be put to any use or understood in any non-contradictory way, and therefore does not constitute a valid refutation of physicalism. This argument was presented most comprehensively in his book Consciousness Explained.

Dennett has remarked in several places (such as "Self-portrait", in Brainchildren) that his overall philosophical project has remained largely the same since his time at Oxford. He is primarily concerned with providing a philosophy of mind which is grounded in and fruitful to empirical research. In his original dissertation, Content and Consciousness, he broke up the problem of explaining the mind into the need for a theory of content and for a theory of consciousness. His approach to this project has also stayed true to this distinction.

Just as Content and Consciousness has a bipartite structure, he similarly divided Brainstorms into two sections. He would later collect several essays on content in The Intentional Stance and synthesize his views on consciousness into a unified theory in Consciousness Explained. These volumes respectively form the most extensive development of his views, and he frequently refers back to them in subsequent writings.

While it is abundantly clear that Dennett does not subscribe to a number of categories (such as Cartesian materialism and Dualism), it is less clear which ones he fits into. As Dennett discussed:

"[Others] note that my 'avoidance of the standard philosophical terminology for discussing such matters' often creates problems for me; philosophers have a hard time figuring out what I am saying and what I am denying. My refusal to play ball with my colleagues is deliberate, of course, since I view the standard philosophical terminology as worse than useless--a major obstacle to progress since it consists of so many errors"

— Daniel Dennett, The Message is: There is no Medium

Dennett will self-identify with a few terms. In Consciousness Explained, he admits "I am a sort of 'teleofunctionalist', of course, perhaps the original teleofunctionalist'". He goes on to say,"I am ready to come out of the closet as a sort of verificationalist".

In Consciousness Explained, Dennett's interest in the ability of evolution to explain some of the content-producing features of consciousness is already apparent, and this has since become an integral part of his program. Much of his work in the 1990s has been concerned with fleshing out his previous ideas by addressing the same topics from an evolutionary standpoint, from what distinguishes human minds from animal minds (Kinds of Minds), to how free will is compatible with a naturalist view of the world (Freedom Evolves). His most recent book is an attempt to subject religious belief to the same treatment, explaining possible evolutionary reasons for the phenomenon of religious groups.

Dennett's views on evolution are identified as being strongly adaptationist, in line with the views of zoologist Richard Dawkins. In Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Dennett showed himself even more willing than Dawkins to defend adaptationism in print, devoting an entire chapter to a criticism of the views of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. This has led to some backlash from Gould and his supporters, who allege that Dennett overstated his claims and misrepresented Gould's

Quotations

"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.'"

"Has it ever occurred to you how lucky you are to be alive? More than 99 percent of all the creatures that have ever lived have died without progeny, but not a single one of your ancestors falls into that group! ... Not a single one of your ancestors, all the way back to the bacteria, succumbed to predation before reproducing, or lost out in the competition for a mate."

"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 [that] a sane, undeluded adult could literally believe in. That God must either be turned into a symbol for something less concrete or abandoned altogether."

"I recently took part in a conference in Seattle that brought together leading scientists, artists and authors to talk candidly and informally about their lives to a group of very smart high school students. Toward the end of my allotted 15 minutes, I tried a little experiment. I came out as a bright [a person with a world-view that is naturalistic rather than supernaturalistic].
Now, my identity would come as no surprise to anybody with the slightest knowledge of my work. Nevertheless, the result was electrifying. Many students came up to me afterwards to thank me, with considerable passion, for "liberating" them. I hadn't realized how lonely and insecure these thoughtful teenagers felt. They'd never heard a respected adult say, in an entirely matter of fact way, that he didn't believe in God. I had calmly broken a taboo and shown how easy it was.
In addition, many of the later speakers, including several Nobel laureates, were inspired to say that they, too, were brights. In each case the remark drew applause. Even more gratifying were the comments of adults and students alike who sought me out afterward to tell me that, while they themselves were not brights, they supported bright rights. And that is what we want most of all: to be treated with the same respect accorded to Baptists and Hindus and Catholics, no more and no less."

"The evidence of evolution pours in, not only from geology, paleontology, biogeography, and anatomy (Darwin's chief sources), but from molecular biology and every other branch of the life sciences. To put it bluntly but fairly, anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant -- inexcusably ignorant, in a world where three out of four people have learned to read and write. Doubts about the power of Darwin's idea of natural selection to explain this evolutionary process are still intellectually respectable, however, although the burden of proof for such skepticism has become immense."

"Highly technical philosophical arguments of the sort many philosophers favor are absent here. That is because I have a prior problem to deal with. I have learned that arguments, no matter how watertight, often fall on deaf ears. I am myself the author of arguments that I consider rigorous and unanswerable but that are often not such much rebutted or even dismissed as simply ignored. I am not complaining about injustice -- we all must ignore arguments, and no doubt we all ignore arguments that history will tell us we should have taken seriously. Rather, I want to play a more direct role in changing what is ignorable by whom. I want to get thinkers in other disciplines to take evolutionary thinking seriously, to show them how they have been underestimating it, and to show them why they have been listening to the wrong sirens.
For this, I have to use more artful methods. I have to tell a story. You don't want to be swayed by a story? Well, I know you won't be swayed by a formal argument; you won't even listen to a formal argument for my conclusion, so I start where I have to start."

"More than a century after Darwin, there are still serious debates among biologists (and even more so among philosophers of biology) about how to define species. Shouldn't scientists define their terms? Yes, of course, but only up to a point. It turns out that there are different species concepts with different uses in biology -- what works for paleontologists is not much use to ecologists, for instance -- and no clean way of uniting them or putting them in an order of importance that would crown one of them (the most important one) as the concept of species. So I am inclined to interpret the persisting debates as more a matter of vestigial Aristotelian tidiness than a useful disciplinary trait."

"The fundamental core of contemporary Darwinism, the theory of DNA-based reproduction and evolution, is now beyond dispute among scientists. It demonstrates its power every day, contributing crucially to the explanation of planet-sized facts of geology and meteorology, through middle-sized facts of ecology and agronomy, down to the latest microscopic facts of genetic engineering. It unifies all of biology and the history of our planet into a single grand story. Like Gulliver tied down in Lilliput, it is unbudgeable, not because of some one or two huge chains of argument that might -- hope against hope -- have weak links in them, but because it is securely tied by thousands of threads of evidence anchoring it to virtually every other area of human knowledge."

"Political correctness, in the extreme versions worthy of the name, is antithetical to almost all surprising advances in thought. We might call it eumemics, since it is, like the extreme eugenics of the Social Darwinists, an attempt to impose myopically derived standards of safety and goodness on the bounty of nature. Few today -- but there are a few -- would brand all genetic counseling, all genetic policies, with the condemnatory title of eugenics. We should reserve that term of criticism for the greedy and peremptory policies, the extremist policies.... We will consider how we might wisely patrol the memosphere, and what we might do to protect ourselves from the truly dangerous ideas, but we should keep the bad example of eugenics firmly in mind when we do so."

"A mind is fundamentally an anticipator, an expectation-generator. It mines the present for clues, which it refines with the help of materials it has saved from the past, turning them into anticipations of the future. And then it acts, rationally, on the basis of those hard-won anticipations."

 
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