Daniel Clement Dennett III (born March 28, 1942) is an American philosopher, writer, and cognitive scientist whose research centers on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and philosophy of biology, particularly as those fields relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science.
As of 2017, he is the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. Dennett is an atheist and secularist, a member of the Secular Coalition for America advisory board, and a member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, as well as an outspoken supporter of the Brights movement. Dennett is referred to as one of the "Four Horsemen of New Atheism", along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
Dennett in 2012
Daniel Clement Dennett III
March 28, 1942
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Education||Harvard University (A.B.)|
Hertford College, Oxford (D.Phil.)
|Awards||Jean Nicod Prize (2001)|
Mind & Brain Prize (2011)
|Philosophy of mind|
Philosophy of religion
Multiple drafts model
Belief in belief
Top-down vs bottom-up design
Cassette theory of dreams
Dennett was born on March 28, 1942 in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Ruth Marjorie (née Leck) and Daniel Clement Dennett, Jr. Dennett spent part of his childhood in Lebanon, where, during World War II, his father was a covert counter-intelligence agent with the Office of Strategic Services posing as a cultural attaché to the American Embassy in Beirut. When he was five, his mother took him back to Massachusetts after his father died in an unexplained plane crash. Dennett's sister is the investigative journalist Charlotte Dennett. Dennett says that he was first introduced to the notion of philosophy while attending summer camp at age 11, when a camp counselor said to him, "You know what you are, Daniel? You're a philosopher."
Dennett graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1959, and spent one year at Wesleyan University before receiving his Bachelor of Arts in philosophy at Harvard University in 1963. At Harvard University he was a student of W. V. Quine. In 1965, he received his Doctor of Philosophy in philosophy at the University of Oxford, where he studied under Gilbert Ryle and was a member of Hertford College. His dissertation was entitled "The Mind and the Brain: Introspective Description in the Light of Neurological Findings; Intentionality".
Dennett describes himself as "an autodidact—or, more properly, the beneficiary of hundreds of hours of informal tutorials on all the fields that interest me, from some of the world's leading scientists".
He is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism. He was named 2004 Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association.
In 2012, he was awarded the Erasmus Prize, an annual award for a person who has made an exceptional contribution to European culture, society or social science, "for his ability to translate the cultural significance of science and technology to a broad audience."
While he is a confirmed compatibilist on free will, in "On Giving Libertarians What They Say They Want"—Chapter 15 of his 1978 book Brainstorms, Dennett articulated the case for a two-stage model of decision making in contrast to libertarian views.
The model of decision making I am proposing has the following feature: when we are faced with an important decision, a consideration-generator whose output is to some degree undetermined, produces a series of considerations, some of which may of course be immediately rejected as irrelevant by the agent (consciously or unconsciously). Those considerations that are selected by the agent as having a more than negligible bearing on the decision then figure in a reasoning process, and if the agent is in the main reasonable, those considerations ultimately serve as predictors and explicators of the agent's final decision.
- First ... The intelligent selection, rejection, and weighing of the considerations that do occur to the subject is a matter of intelligence making the difference.
- Second, I think it installs indeterminism in the right place for the libertarian, if there is a right place at all.
- Third ... from the point of view of biological engineering, it is just more efficient and in the end more rational that decision making should occur in this way.
- A fourth observation in favor of the model is that it permits moral education to make a difference, without making all of the difference.
- Fifth—and I think this is perhaps the most important thing to be said in favor of this model—it provides some account of our important intuition that we are the authors of our moral decisions.
- Finally, the model I propose points to the multiplicity of decisions that encircle our moral decisions and suggests that in many cases our ultimate decision as to which way to act is less important phenomenologically as a contributor to our sense of free will than the prior decisions affecting our deliberation process itself: the decision, for instance, not to consider any further, to terminate deliberation; or the decision to ignore certain lines of inquiry.
These prior and subsidiary decisions contribute, I think, to our sense of ourselves as responsible free agents, roughly in the following way: I am faced with an important decision to make, and after a certain amount of deliberation, I say to myself: "That's enough. I've considered this matter enough and now I'm going to act," in the full knowledge that I could have considered further, in the full knowledge that the eventualities may prove that I decided in error, but with the acceptance of responsibility in any case.
Leading libertarian philosophers such as Robert Kane have rejected Dennett's model, specifically that random chance is directly involved in a decision, on the basis that they believe this eliminates the agent's motives and reasons, character and values, and feelings and desires. They claim that, if chance is the primary cause of decisions, then agents cannot be liable for resultant actions. Kane says:
[As Dennett admits,] a causal indeterminist view of this deliberative kind does not give us everything libertarians have wanted from free will. For [the agent] does not have complete control over what chance images and other thoughts enter his mind or influence his deliberation. They simply come as they please. [The agent] does have some control after the chance considerations have occurred.
But then there is no more chance involved. What happens from then on, how he reacts, is determined by desires and beliefs he already has. So it appears that he does not have control in the libertarian sense of what happens after the chance considerations occur as well. Libertarians require more than this for full responsibility and free will.
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 that is grounded in 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.
In chapter 5 of Consciousness Explained Dennett describes his multiple drafts model of consciousness. He states that, "all varieties of perception—indeed all varieties of thought or mental activity—are accomplished in the brain by parallel, multitrack processes of interpretation and elaboration of sensory inputs. Information entering the nervous system is under continuous 'editorial revision.'" (p. 111). Later he asserts, "These yield, over the course of time, something rather like a narrative stream or sequence, which can be thought of as subject to continual editing by many processes distributed around the brain, ..." (p. 135, emphasis in the original).
In this work, 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. He defends a theory known by some as Neural Darwinism. He also presents an argument against qualia; he argues 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. His strategy mirrors his teacher Ryle's approach of redefining first person phenomena in third person terms, and denying the coherence of the concepts which this approach struggles with.
Dennett self-identifies with a few terms: "[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."
In Consciousness Explained, he affirms "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 some sort of verificationist".
Much of Dennett's work since 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).
Dennett sees evolution by natural selection as an algorithmic process (though he spells out that algorithms as simple as long division often incorporate a significant degree of randomness). This idea is in conflict with the evolutionary philosophy of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who preferred to stress the "pluralism" of evolution (i.e., its dependence on many crucial factors, of which natural selection is only one).
Dennett's views on evolution are identified as being strongly adaptationist, in line with his theory of the intentional stance, and the evolutionary views of biologist 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 ideas of Gould. This stems from Gould's long-running public debate with E. O. Wilson and other evolutionary biologists over human sociobiology and its descendant evolutionary psychology, which Gould and Richard Lewontin opposed, but which Dennett advocated, together with Dawkins and Steven Pinker. Strong disagreements have been launched against Dennett from Gould and his supporters, who allege that Dennett overstated his claims and misrepresented Gould's to reinforce what Gould describes as Dennett's "Darwinian fundamentalism".
Dennett's theories have had a significant influence on the work of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller.
In Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Dennett writes that evolution can account for the origin of morality. He rejects the idea of the naturalistic fallacy as the idea that ethics is in some free-floating realm, writing that the fallacy is to rush from facts to values.
In his 2006 book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Dennett attempts to account for religious belief naturalistically, explaining possible evolutionary reasons for the phenomenon of religious adherence. In this book he declares himself to be "a bright", and defends the term.
He has been doing research into clerics who are secretly atheists and how they rationalize their works. He found what he called a "Don't ask, don't tell" conspiracy because believers did not want to hear of loss of faith. That made unbelieving preachers feel isolated but they did not want to lose their jobs and sometimes their church-supplied lodgings and generally consoled themselves that they were doing good in their pastoral roles by providing comfort and required ritual. The research, with Linda LaScola, was further extended to include other denominations and non-Christian clerics. The research and stories Dennett and LaScola accumulated during this project were published in their 2013 co-authored book, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind.
He has also written about and advocated the notion of memetics as a philosophically useful tool, most recently in his "Brains, Computers, and Minds", a three-part presentation through Harvard's MBB 2009 Distinguished Lecture Series.
Dennett has been critical of postmodernism, having said:
Postmodernism, the school of "thought" that proclaimed "There are no truths, only interpretations" has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for "conversations" in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.
Dennett adopted and somewhat redefined the term "deepity", originally coined by Miriam Weizenbaum (daughter of computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum). Dennett used "deepity" for a statement that is apparently profound, but is actually trivial on one level and meaningless on another. Generally, a deepity has two (or more) meanings: one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound and would be important if true, but is actually false or meaningless. Examples are "Que sera sera!", "Beauty is only skin deep!", "The power of intention can transform your life." The term has been cited many times.
While approving of the increase in efficiency that humans reap by using resources such as expert systems in medicine or GPS in navigation, Dennett sees a danger in machines performing an ever-increasing proportion of basic tasks in perception, memory, and algorithmic computation because people may tend to anthropomorphize such systems and attribute intellectual powers to them that they do not possess. He believes the relevant danger from AI is that people will misunderstand the nature of basically "parasitic" AI systems, rather than employing them constructively to challenge and develop the human user's powers of comprehension.
As given in his most recent book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Dennett's views stand in contradistinction to those of Nick Bostrom. Although acknowledging that it is "possible in principle" to create AI with human-like comprehension and agency, Dennett maintains that the difficulties of any such "strong AI" project would be orders of magnitude greater than those raising concerns have realized. According to Dennett, the prospect of superintelligence (AI massively exceeding the cognitive performance of humans in all domains) is at least 50 years away, and of far less pressing significance than other problems the world faces.
In the philosophy of mind, the Brainstorm machine is a thought experiment described by Daniel Dennett, to show that it is not possible to intersubjectively compare any two individuals' personal experiences, or qualia, even with perfect technology. It is based on a device described in the film Brainstorm, in which the visual experience of one individual is fed into the brain of another. According to Dennett in Quining Qualia:
Suppose [that] there were some neuroscientific apparatus that fits on your head and feeds your visual experience into my brain. With eyes closed I accurately report everything you are looking at, except that I marvel at how the sky is yellow, the grass red, and so forth. Would this not confirm, empirically, that our qualia were different? But suppose the technician then pulls the plug on the connecting cable, inverts it 180 degrees and reinserts it in the socket. Now I report the sky is blue, the grass green, and so forth. Which is the "right" orientation of the plug? Designing and building such a device would require that its "fidelity" be tuned or calibrated by the normalization of the two subjects' reports--so we would be right back at our evidential starting point. The moral of this intuition pump is that no intersubjective comparison of qualia is possible, even with perfect technology.Brainstorms
Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology is a 1981 book by the American philosopher Daniel Dennett. In these 17 essays, he reflects on the early achievements of artificial intelligence to develop his ideas on consciousness, theory of mind, and free will.Cartesian theater
"Cartesian theater" is a derisive term coined by philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett to refer pointedly to a defining aspect of what he calls Cartesian materialism, which he considers to be the often unacknowledged remnants of Cartesian dualism in modern materialist theories of the mind.China brain
In the philosophy of mind, the China brain thought experiment (also known as the Chinese Nation or Chinese Gym) considers what would happen if each member of the Chinese nation were asked to simulate the action of one neuron in the brain, using telephones or walkie-talkies to simulate the axons and dendrites that connect neurons. Would this arrangement have a mind or consciousness in the same way that brains do?
Early versions of this scenario were put forward in 1961 by Anatoly Dneprov, in 1974 by Lawrence Davis, and again in 1978 by Ned Block. Block argues that the China brain would not have a mind, whereas Daniel Dennett argues that it would. The China brain problem is a special case of the more general problem whether minds could exist within other, larger minds.It is not to be confused with the Chinese room argument proposed by John Searle, which is also a thought experiment in philosophy of mind but relating to artificial intelligence.Consciousness Explained
Consciousness Explained is a 1991 book by the American philosopher Daniel Dennett, in which the author offers an account of how consciousness arises from interaction of physical and cognitive processes in the brain.Darwin's Dangerous Idea
Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life is a 1995 book by Daniel Dennett, in which the author looks at some of the repercussions of Darwinian theory. The crux of the argument is that, whether or not Darwin's theories are overturned, there is no going back from the dangerous idea that design (purpose or what something is for) might not need a designer. Dennett makes this case on the basis that natural selection is a blind process, which is nevertheless sufficiently powerful to explain the evolution of life. Darwin's discovery was that the generation of life worked algorithmically, that processes behind it work in such a way that given these processes the results that they tend toward must be so.
Dennett says, for example, that by claiming that minds cannot be reduced to purely algorithmic processes, many of his eminent contemporaries are claiming that miracles can occur. These assertions have generated a great deal of debate and discussion in the general public. The book was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award in non-fiction and the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.Elbow Room (book)
Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting is a 1984 book by the American philosopher Daniel Dennett, in which Dennett discusses the philosophical issues of free will and determinism.
In 1983, Dennett delivered the John Locke Lectures at Oxford on the topic of free will. In 1984, these ideas were published in the book Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. In this book Daniel Dennett explored what it means for people to have free will. The title, Elbow Room, is a reference to the question: "Are we deterministic machines with no real freedom of action or do we in fact have some elbow room, some real choice in our behavior?".Freedom Evolves
Freedom Evolves is a 2003 popular science and philosophy book by Daniel C. Dennett. Dennett describes the book as an installment of a lifelong philosophical project, earlier parts of which were The Intentional Stance, Consciousness Explained and Elbow Room. It attempts to give an account of free will and moral responsibility which is complementary to Dennett's other views on consciousness and personhood.From Bacteria to Bach and Back
From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds is a 2017 book about the origin of human consciousness by philosopher Daniel Dennett, in which the author makes a case for a materialist theory of mind, arguing that consciousness is no more mysterious than gravity.
Drawing on ideas from René Descartes and Charles Darwin, Dennett writes that:
'... natural systems can create "competence without comprehension"—that is, situations in which sophisticated actions occur without the individual or machine involved understanding the reasons for the actions taken.'and that:
'a comprehending mind could in fact have arisen from a mindless process of natural selection. ...'Greedy reductionism
Greedy reductionism, identified by Daniel Dennett, in his 1995 book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, is a kind of erroneous reductionism. Whereas "good" reductionism means explaining a thing in terms of what it reduces to (for example, its parts and their interactions), greedy reductionism occurs when "in their eagerness for a bargain, in their zeal to explain too much too fast, scientists and philosophers ... underestimate the complexities, trying to skip whole layers or levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything securely and neatly to the foundation". Using the terminology of "cranes" (legitimate, mechanistic explanations) and "skyhooks" (essentially, fake—e.g. supernaturalistic—explanations) built up earlier in the chapter, Dennett recapitulates his initial definition of the term in the chapter summary on p. 83: "Good reductionists suppose that all Design can be explained without skyhooks; greedy reductionists suppose it can all be explained without cranes."Heterophenomenology
Heterophenomenology ("phenomenology of another, not oneself") is a term coined by Daniel Dennett to describe an explicitly third-person, scientific approach to the study of consciousness and other mental phenomena. It consists of applying the scientific method with an anthropological bent, combining the subject's self-reports with all other available evidence to determine their mental state. The goal is to discover how the subject sees the world him- or herself, without taking the accuracy of the subject's view for granted.New Atheism
New Atheism is a term coined in 2006 by the agnostic journalist Gary Wolf to describe the positions promoted by some atheists of the twenty-first century. This modern-day atheism is advanced by a group of thinkers and writers who advocate the view that superstition, religion and irrationalism should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever their influence arises in government, education, and politics. According to Richard Ostling, Bertrand Russell, in his 1927 essay Why I Am Not a Christian, put forward similar positions as those espoused by the New Atheists, suggesting that there are no substantive differences between traditional atheism and New Atheism.New Atheism lends itself to and often overlaps with secular humanism and antitheism, particularly in its criticism of what many New Atheists regard as the indoctrination of children and the perpetuation of ideologies founded on belief in the supernatural. Some critics of the movement characterise it pejoratively as "militant atheism" or "fundamentalist atheism".Qualia
In philosophy and certain models of psychology, qualia ( or ; singular form: quale) are defined to be individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. The term qualia derives from the Latin neuter plural form (qualia) of the Latin adjective quālis (Latin pronunciation: [ˈkʷaːlɪs]) meaning "of what sort" or "of what kind" in a specific instance like "what it is like to taste a specific apple, this particular apple now".
Examples of qualia include the perceived sensation of pain of a headache, the taste of wine, as well as the redness of an evening sky. As qualitative characters of sensation, qualia stand in contrast to "propositional attitudes", where the focus is on beliefs about experience rather than what it is directly like to be experiencing.
Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett once suggested that qualia was "an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us".Much of the debate over their importance hinges on the definition of the term, and various philosophers emphasize or deny the existence of certain features of qualia. Consequently, the nature and existence of various definitions of qualia remains controversial due to qualia not being a pragmatically verifiable matter.Sweet Dreams (book)
Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness is a 2005 book by the American philosopher Daniel Dennett, based on the text of the Jean Nicod lectures he gave in 2001.The Atheism Tapes
The Atheism Tapes is a 2004 BBC television documentary series presented by Jonathan Miller. The material that makes up the series was originally filmed in 2003 for another, more general series, Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief, but was too lengthy for inclusion. Instead, the BBC agreed to create The Atheism Tapes as a supplementary series of six programmes, each consisting of an extended interview with one contributor.The Mind's I
The Mind's I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul is a 1981 collection of essays and other texts about the nature of the mind and the self, edited with commentary by philosophers Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett. The texts range from early philosophical and fictional musings on a subject that could seemingly only be examined in the realm of thought, to works from the twentieth century where the nature of the self became a viable topic for scientific study.
Jeremy Burman, while calling this "a wonderful book", described it as popularizing a non-metaphorical reading of Richard Dawkins' proposals regarding memes, leading to widespread misunderstanding (in the form of memetics) and the reification of the original idea-as-replicator metaphor.The Philosophical Lexicon
The Philosophical Lexicon is a humorous dictionary founded by philosopher Daniel Dennett and now edited by Asbjørn Steglich-Petersen. It lists neologisms that have been humorously coined from the names of (mostly) contemporary philosophers. For example, the following definition refers to the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine:quine, v. (1) To deny resolutely the existence or importance of something real or significant. "Some philosophers have quined classes, and some have even quined physical objects." Occasionally used intr., e.g., "You think I quine, sir. I assure you I do not!" (2) n. The total aggregate sensory surface of the world; hence quinitis, irritation of the quine.True believer
True believer(s) or The True Believer may refer to:
One who strictly adheres to the tenets of a particular religious doctrine
By extension, one who is strongly attached to a particular belief
True-believer syndrome, a term for the irrational persistence of some untenable belief
In the philosophy of Daniel Dennett, a system whose behavior is predictable via the intentional stance
|Concepts in religion|
|Conceptions of God|
|Existence of God|
|Problem of evil|
(by date active)