Daniel Dennett is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. His works have included Brainstorms (1978), Consciousness Explained (1991), and From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017). He is the author of over four hundred scholarly articles on various aspects on the mind, published in journals ranging from Artificial Intelligence and Behavioral and Brain Sciences to Poetics Today and The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 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.
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views shared here do not reflect nor do they suggest the views of the Virginia Review of Politics.
Eric Xu (Virginia Review of Politics): Professor Dennett, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s a pleasure to have you here.
Daniel Dennett: Delighted.
EX: Can you first start by telling me a bit about your background, and what made you pursue a career in philosophy?
DD: Well, I guess I was a reflective little boy. I might have been an engineer if I had been in an engineering family, but I wasn’t. I was in a humanities family. My father was an historian, my mother was an english teacher. When I was about 10 or 12, during a discussion I was in at summer camp, my counselor said, “Danny, I think maybe you’re a philosopher.” I didn’t even know what a philosopher was, but I found out and decided, “Oh, imagine being paid for doing that!” When I was a freshman, I read Descartes’ “Meditations” and thought, “This is fascinating but wrong. I think I’ll take an afternoon and see if I can figure out how to say what’s wrong about it.” More than 50 years later, I’m still looking at it, and I still think it’s wrong.
EX: Could you elaborate a little more about the specific area of philosophy that you focus on, for those that may not know?
DD: It started with Descartes and consciousness, and the nature of the mind. I’ve been engaged in the mind-body problem in various guises all my career. But I took a rather different path than most. I decided that the only way to do philosophy of the mind responsibly was to learn the science that went along with it – namely neuroscience, psychology, artificial intelligence, biology. I wasn’t really a scientist – I really wasn’t a scientist, but I was an amateur scientist, and I got very good tutorials from people who were the real thing. The result was a rather eccentric dissertation for its day, because it was about half about the brain. I wouldn’t particularly want people to read it now because it’s pretty naive, but I did put forward a theory of learning as an evolutionary process in the nervous system, which it is. I wasn’t the first to think of that, but I think it’s an idea that’s been reinvented many times, and when people see it, they sort of flap that around and say, “Oh, of course, it has to be. What else could it be?” They’re right, but working out how exactly the brain, an individual brain, can learn by quasi-Darwinian processes of generating tests, trial and error – we’re now getting really close. And of course now we have things like deep learning algorithms, which are getting us even closer.
EX: Philosophy is often derided as a useless major in the job market. How do you personally respond to that criticism of it?
DD: Well of course in one sense that’s true, as far as I know General Electric and General Motors do not have consulting metaphysicians on their faculty and in their operations. But, a philosophy major can be a wonderful background for almost any other highly reasonable, rational, inquiry – for science, for law, for medicine, for politics – because if you’ve done well in a philosophy major, you are apt to be fairly self conscious about what arguments you accept and don’t, and why. I don’t particularly encourage my students to go on to be philosophers. There are probably enough philosophers in the world. The only reason you should go on to be a philosopher is if you can’t think of any other thing you’d rather do with your life. There are such people, and they’re right to go on.
EX: What do you think about our country’s perception of the liberal arts more generally, based on what you’ve said? Do you think it’s correct or do you think it’s mistaken and flawed?
DD: It’s been tough for me. In the last 50 years, I think, it was a much more honorable part of the academic world – when I was a student. A whole lot of different pressures have conspired, innocently enough, to make the liberal arts seem like more of a luxury. I think that’s deeply misguided. I think we may begin to appreciate that a bit more as we see how many of the other things we do with our minds can be done better by machines. Then, being really good at the humanities may be seen as a very important talent to have in the world that’s coming.
EX: Tying that answer to what you were talking about before, what do you think about philosophy at the intersection of psychology, or how philosophy can inform other subjects in general?
DD: Well that’s really been what my work has mostly been about. It’s about building a two-way bridge: first of all, showing my fellow philosophers that there’s a lot of philosophical gold in the sciences, and that if they do their philosophy in a science-free environment, they’re just going to screw up – it’s just not going to work well at all. Really I make no exceptions for that. I don’t care whether you’re doing metaphysics, or ethics, or aesthetics: if you don’t know the relevant science – and there’s relevant science in every case – you’re going to be hampered. You’re not going to be well equipped.
But also, scientists make philosophical mistakes just the way everybody else does. They’re not immune to the confusions that lay people get themselves into, and sometimes they’re more susceptible to them. One of the reasons for that is that I think that since many scientists have undisguised contempt for philosophy and philosophers, they are arrogant and they blunder in and make a hash. I have to say, somewhat ignobly, that few things are more enjoyable to be than watching an arrogant scientist make a fool of himself – it’s almost always a “him” – tripping himself up on philosophical questions that are relevant to his particular line of research.
EX: You were a part of the Four Horsemen when New Atheism took off in the mid-2000s. Did your book, Breaking the Spell, immediately propel you into that world? What was that period of time like?
DD: Well, it’s already more than a decade old. It was quite immediate. I hadn’t thought about writing anything about religion. I was one of those standard, quiet atheists, who just wasn’t important enough to worry about. But the growing murmurs of theocracy, and the rise of the religious right in the country was very worrisome. My friend Richard Dawkins told me he was writing a book about atheism – actually what happened is that first we each wrote an editorial about the brights. Neither one of us coined the term, but we both chose the inauguration of the Brights Movement to write an editorial, him for the Guardian and me for the New York Times. It was the most distributed piece that summer in the New York Times. I was inundated with letters and emails that now that the spotlight was a bit turned on, would I say something more about this? Well the last thing I wanted to do was to write a book refuting theism or anything like that. But I was very much working then on cultural evolution and evolutionary approaches to the social sciences. So I thought, I would take religion as my test case for seeing how far you could get.
What kinds of insights would arise out of a naturalistic but also imaginative survey and analysis of this amazing natural phenomenon, namely religion? That meant leaving arguments for and against the existence of God just out of it, because when I talk to religious people, most of them said, “that’s not what it’s all about,” and I tend to agree with them. Some reviewer or some critic said I devoted less than four pages of the long book to whether or not God exists, and I thought “well, good, I wish I had gotten it down to two.” It’s not worth my time writing or your time reading.
Religion is a phenomenon whether or not God exists, and we can study it whether or not God exists. In fact, when we do that, the evidence mounts and mounts and mounts – of course God doesn’t exist. I mean Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist, and God doesn’t exist. I recently thought – I haven’t done this in a public meeting yet, but I’m looking forward to the occasion – to suggest to people that, imagine there was a time machine so that they could take their cell phone and a few of their gadgets and go back to ancient Jerusalem and Bethlehem and show off a few of their toys. Quite obviously the people there would be dumbfounded and would no doubt think they were being visited by gods of some sort, performing miracles left, right, and center. They’d be wrong. But now, what makes you think their judgements about Jesus are any more reliable? Those were Iron Age people – well, they were fairly primitive.
EX: Going back to New Atheism, do you think the thinkers in the movement achieved their goals more broadly?
DD: Well, I think they have. I think we have. I don’t know how much credit we should take for it. Maybe we were just riding a wave that was going to happen anyway, but the fastest growing group in the world now is “no religion at all.” It is now socially acceptable – you can come out as an atheist. Not everywhere. There are large parts of this country, unfortunately, where many people write me fan mail, and they say “well I’m a dentist, and if I admitted to my patients that I was an atheist, they’d find another dentist.” Or “I have a dry cleaning establishment, and I’d go out of business if I revealed my true views.” But that will change.
EX: One of the chief criticisms of New Atheism is that its members are either condescending or harsh towards religious people. Do you agree with that assessment? How have you chosen to conduct yourself when writing about religious doctrine, and the ways it may lead religious people to act?
DD: Well when I set out to write the book, I anticipated that there was no way of writing this book that won’t offend some people and hurt some people, because I’m going to be very candid. But I don’t want to offend them gratuitously. Inasmuch as it’s possible, I would like to avoid doing things that will outrage or irritate them beyond what just comes with having to face the prospect that maybe you’ve been devoting your life to a mistake. It’s hard to take. Sometimes you have to tell people – don’t tell them, ask them – “Have you considered the possibility that you’ve been devoting your life to an illusion?” There’s no polite way of asking that. You might say there’s no “non-arrogant” way of asking that. But sometimes you have to ask it.
Of the Four Horsemen, I am the mildest. For once in my life, I’m “good cop.” That doesn’t mean I’m right and they’re wrong. I think it takes all varieties. I think Hitch did a wonderful, wonderful job, and I have tremendous admiration of really everything that he did. The big difference between Hitch and me is that he had seen firsthand, he had been jeopardized firsthand, endangered by religious crazies, of a variety. That loomed very large in his thought about religion.
I had never, thank goodness, had any of those experiences – I read about them of course – but I had experienced firsthand how religions at their best can give meaning to lives which otherwise would not have have much meaning. How they’ve supported and comforted people who don’t have friends, who do not have exciting lives otherwise, and although there’s problems with the kind of support that religion can provide to people like that, there is no doubt that it does, and I worry about what we’re going to put in its place if we actually succeed in encouraging religions to go extinct. I don’t want to encourage them to go extinct. I want to encourage them to evolve into more benign institutions. What I want to do is remove the irrationality and xenophobia from them. Keep all the ceremony, keep all the allegiance, keep all the community, keep all the reverence, but drop the creed and drop some of the silly prohibitions.
EX: Like you mentioned before, you’re a member of the Brights Movement, which argues for a reliance on science for public policy. Neil Degrasse Tyson has stated that he thinks our government would be better if we had more scientists in Congress or executive cabinet positions. Do you agree (in a theoretical sense) with that? If so, how do you think our society would be better if that were the case? Do you think that’s actually a realistic goal to achieve?
DD: Oh, I think it’s absolutely right. And I think it is realistic. The current administration is simply appalling in this regard. Here we have Pruitt, preventing scientists from revealing their work. There is a very powerful anti-science policy being put in place by Trump and his cronies, and it’s (1) stupid, (2) ignorant, and (3) dangerous. It just makes my jaw drop to think of how dangerous, ignorant, and stupid it is. Now that doesn’t mean that scientists are always right, but it means that we’re supposed to be living in an informed democracy, and if the electorate isn’t informed, if the senators and representatives are not informed, then democracy has lost 90% of its point. Decisions made in ignorance, no matter how well intentioned, do not sit well with history. I like to remind people that most of the people who put apartheid into positions in South Africa, they had good intentions, they thought this was the right thing to do. Well they were wrong. They should have known better. Well you can know better only if you do the science.
EX: One of the criticisms of the Brights Movement from your fellow Four Horseman Christopher Hitchens was that it was a "cringe-making proposal that atheists should conceitedly nominate themselves to be called 'brights.'” This seems to dovetail with the criticism of atheists being condescending towards religious people. What do you think about this criticism?
DD: I sort of accept it at face value, but I have a response. The term “bright” was inspired by the term “gay.” “Gay” is a perfectly everyday word. It’s was a positive word, and it was a political decision, “let’s call ourselves ‘gay.’” The opposite of “gay” is not “glum” or “sad,” it’s “straight.” Two nice words, “gay,” “straight.” As in, the opposite of “bright” isn’t “dim” or “dull.” In fact I proposed, “why don’t you call yourselves ‘supers?’ Because you believe in the supernatural and we don’t.” So you have the “brights” and the “supers,” two nice terms. I thought myself that it was – and I still think – a very good stroke of strategy because it sure got people’s attention. If the term had been more politik, more bland and non-offensive, if it didn’t have any upsetting connotations, “uh, yeah, so what?” So the sort of in-your-face quality of the term struck me as part of what we needed at the time, and I think we did. The brights are still going, and they’re still going pretty strong. I haven’t kept track, but I get emails pretty regularly from the movement, and they’ve got chapters all over the world, and they probably outnumber in members most of the other atheist/humanist/freethinker organizations. So, it wasn’t a bad idea.
EX: You’ve debated against fellow Four Horseman Sam Harris on the nature of free will. What are your views on free will and what exactly was your disagreement with Sam, in layman's terms?
DD: Oh yeah, Sam and I had a disagreement on this. He wrote the book, which you just mentioned, "Free Will," and when he published it I read it and I said “Oh Sam, that’s a big mistake, I wish you had shown it to me first.” He said “Dan, I asked you to read it and you said you were too busy.” So if it hadn’t been for that… I said, “all right, I owe you a response, but it’s gonna have to be public.” So I wrote my critique, which he did not take very well, in spite of the fact that I thought I did a fair and good job of saying what the differences were. That led to a fairly angry response from him, and a further response from me (although I don’t think mine was all that angry). In any case, I think Sam made two kinds of mistakes, and I do not hesitate to call them mistakes.
First, he just took it as obvious that what the proverbial man in the street thinks free will is, is what free will is, as if it were by definition incompatible with determinism. Well, there’s a long and respectable, and ingenious tradition that says “that’s a mistake.” There are other varieties of free will – free will worth wanting, as I have put it – which are not by definition incompatible with determinism. They’re the ones that are doing all the heavy lifting when it comes to issues of moral responsibility, punishment & blame, reward, and so forth. You don’t have to live in an indeterministic world to be capable of making a promise and signing a contract. But you do have to have free will. There’s a sense of free will which we all routinely accept. I was very amused recently when I had to sign a mortgage document, and the notary public said “are you signing this of your own free will?” I said, “yes I am.” I knew what I meant, she knew what I meant, and it was true – that’s the variety of free will worth wanting. And not everybody has free will in that sense: some people are disabled. Free will is moral competence. Now some people think moral competence is inconsistent with determinism. They’re wrong. But it’s a hard argument. You need a book to do that.
The other mistake that Sam made, and he was hurt by the fact that I pointed it out rather bluntly, is he mentioned the view that I have just defended – compatibilism, the idea that there’s a variety of free will that is valuable that is compatible – and he said that compatibilism struck him as sort of like religion. He had some very negative things to say about it. He was very dismissive of it. As I pointed out, any time you find yourself tempted to dismiss the carefully thought out over many years work of a whole lot of people as just crazy trash, take a deep breath and consider maybe you misunderstood what they were doing. His overconfident dismissal, he continues that to this day, he has no time for – well that’s not quite true. He and I had two follow-up discussions since the one that was online. One of them at a TED summit in Alberta, another of them at a TED meeting in Vancouver where we pursued this further. I think he’s very smart, he’s very brave, and he sometimes oversimplifies things.
EX: Your most recent book, “From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds,” focuses on how the introduction of memes allowed the human mind to evolve past its baser instincts. How do you think the internet has affected this phenomenon?
DD: Well one thing that it has done, is that it has led to the viral replication of the word “meme,” as in internet memes, which a lot of people say “that’s hilarious,” because that’s not what Dawkins meant. I in fact have a talk that I give when going around called “Saving Memes from Extinction,” where I point out that Dawkins memes are still with us, and in fact internet memes are a good example. They’re just a very specialized variety of memes, which unlike the original memes, are the product of more or less intelligent design.
The original memes were Darwinian, with no intelligent design required. There’s a whole wave of wonderful research being done these days on the extent to which cultural treasures – ways of making things, doing things, growing things, cooking things, organizing things – are themselves products of differential replication. Nobody invented them. Nobody invented words, but they’re wonderful. They’re very well designed. Nowadays we have intelligent designers – both wordsmiths, and scientists, and builders of computers, and all sorts of things – and the memes that they design are of course intelligently designed. Some of them go viral and most of them don’t. But those are still memes, it’s just that now they are to some degree intelligently designed, unlike their ancestors: the memes that weren’t intelligently designed at all, like the words that we’re speaking right now.
EX: You belong to a camp of cognitive scientists who promote “physicalism,” which believes that consciousness can and should be explained only in terms of its material components. What are the implications of this for artificial intelligence?
DD: Well I don’t think there’s any other camp in cognitive science. I think we’re all physicalists or materialists of one stamp or another. Although there are a few sort of crypto-dualists out there. I think that the relationship with AI is complex and interesting. The original AI, sometimes called good old fashioned AI, or "GOFAI," was very much a top down, rationalistic, highly efficient bureaucratic sort of machinery. [It was] intelligently designed, and I think we learned a tremendous amount from it. Mainly we learned how hard the problems were, because the low hanging fruit just didn’t work. Many promising avenues turned out to be dead ends. If it hadn't have been there, we wouldn’t have known that. So we learned a lot from good old fashioned AI and many of its products. Not conscious agents, but simpler things we completely take for granted today. In almost every appliance you own, there’s AI of that sort.
But now we have the new AI. We’ve had several waves of it: we had connectionism, neural nets, and now we have deep learning and Bayesian nets, and other fancy new, and very powerful tools. They’re quite different. They are playing a big role in cognitive science, and they’re going to play a bigger role. But there’s a tremendous amount of confusion and hype, as always, about what their powers and weaknesses are. Watson is a good example, Google translate is a a good example. That is to say that they were paradigm examples of the the technology, but how good they are is another matter.
EX: You’ve done a few TED talks. How do you feel about the format of TED in general? One criticism is that the format doesn’t give speakers enough time and that the producers make speakers dumb down their talks to more reductive bullet points of complex issues. What do you think of that criticism of TED?
DD: Yeah, I’ve been involved in the advisory group of TED since Chris Anderson took it over. Basically, I think the TED format is wonderful, although I think that it has become somewhat the victim of its own success. The idea of an 18 minute talk is great. I’ve been interested to see that very, very professional-strength academic conferences have sometimes very successfully changed their formats and gone with the 18-minute talk. And it works. The thing is, in 18 minutes, you can make one or maybe two points, and make them well. That’s all that even geniuses have room for in their head, practically. Longer talks, you give them, but people only remember 18-minutes worth. So I think that the idea of compression is good.
I also think – and I’ve argued this in print and publicly for years – that one of the besetting foibles of academia is when experts talk to experts, because the biggest sin when experts talk to experts is under explaining. And there’s a very simple reason for that: over explaining is rude. Nobody wants to be rude to one’s colleagues, so you err, always, on the side of under explaining. So you talk past each other. The cure for that is to have experts listen while other experts explain their views to non-experts. Very often, I’ve seen it. Not only have I advocated that this will happen, but I’ve seen it happen. You get two experts who have been disagreeing for years, each of them explains what the issue is to a group of bright undergraduates while the other one listens. Afterwards it’s like, “oh! That’s what you meant!”
So I think that the TED level, after all, it’s video. You could raise it some, and of course sometimes you should There have been some dreadfully, embarrassingly superficial TED talks that have happened of course. But at its best, I think it’s wonderful. At its best it stretches people pretty darn hard: they may not want to admit that they had to watch it a second time before they really got what was going on. But I will support the TED format. But you always have to remember Sturgeon's Law.
EX: Well, thank you so much for joining us Mr. Dennett. We really appreciate it.
DD: You’re very welcome.