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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
Daniel Dennett, The Message is: There is no Medium
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".
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.
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
"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.'"
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."
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
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."
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."
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
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."
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."
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."
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