Interview: Daniel Dennett—philosophy has a big role to play, "if only it will play it"

Most academic philosophy today "is not worth my effort"

March 06, 2017
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From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel Dennett, £25

"I am not engaging in a lot of the disputation that is currently fashionable in academic departments of philosophy... I don't think it's worth my effort." In an exclusive interview with Prospect, Daniel Dennett, world-leading philosopher of mind and one of the "Four Horsemen of Atheism," aimed fire at those who pull philosophy in the wrong direction.

"I've got my priorities, and I think there's more philosophical substance to be obtained from taking science very seriously and thinking about the traditional philosophical issues—free will, consciousness, mind, creativity, meaning—using scientific tools, rather than by adopting hyper-abstract semi-formalism, and thrashing away on that in terms that nobody else understands."

Dennett is a philosophical troublemaker. As Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University in Massachusetts, he stands well apart from his contemporaries—most of whom are concerned primarily with abstract logical puzzles. Having marched into the Prospect offices with a giant knobbled walking stick, huge beard, and a silver badge on the lapel of his jacket that read "Darwin," he ran through the arguments in his latest book. From Bacteria to Bach and Back is, he hopes, a "culmination of a 50-year project to provide the main components of a unified, naturalistic view of the mind."

As you’d expect from a die-hard Darwinian, Dennett believes that "you can have an uncomprehending, unintending, lacking in foresight, blind process that can make intelligent things." When I asked him whether there could ever be room for God in the Dennett worldview, he shot back: "Not at all."

Biological evolution has given rise to all manner of wonderful things, he believes, but to understand how humans came to have minds, we must look also to cultural evolution: the evolution of ideas, symbols and, particularly important here, practices.

Dennett calls things which fall into this latter category "memes." The term has come to refer to something that is shared around on social media, but it was coined by Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene to mean something which is culturally transmitted, like a virus, from person to person. A whistled tune, a way of building clay pots or, crucially for Dennett, words.

It is words that enabled human minds to come into existence, says Dennett, as language gave us the thinking tools we needed to start reflecting on things. We already had reasons for performing certain acts—cavemen and women ate because they were hungry, ran because they were frightened. Indeed, Dennett told me “there have been reasons since the dawn of life.” But the key lies in, as he put it, “the representation of reasons.” Language helped us to become reasoners, reflecting on our reasons, and seeing those reasons in other peopleLanguage "invaded our brains, turned them into minds."

When Dennett says "minds," however, it's worth noting that he doesn't use the term in the same way that your average person does. Usually, when we think of the mind, we think of it in the same way that Rene Descartes did when he wrote "I think, therefore I am." There is, Dennett writes in his book, a "Cartesian gravity"—a natural pull towards the view that a first-person perspective exists, and that through this, humans experience the world. In fact, Dennett says, this is a "user illusion” which helps “time-pressured organisms move adroitly through life.” This is bold from Dennett—but it’s not hard to see where he might have picked up the idea. At Oxford in the 1960s he studied under the legendary Gilbert Ryle, known for his brutal critique of Descartes in The Concept of Mind, published in 1949.

Dennett explained: "The traditional view of minds as a sort of little god inside the head, an immaterial, special, brilliant thinking thing, that idea is a complete dead end. It's a non-starter. Since it's miraculous, it can do anything, so you can't explain anything with it.”

This denial of the individual vantage point on the world is highly counter-intuitive, and any philosopher who argues along these lines will inevitably butt up against the "Hard Problem" of consciousness: it really does seem that subjective experience exists: how on earth else are we meant to account for the sensations we feel?

On this point Dennett was forceful, arguing that the "Hard Problem" simply disappears when the individual answers that science can provide are totted up. "The idea that there's a hard problem, you might call it a failure of arithmetic: failing to add up all the easy problems, and failing to see that when you've done them all, you've finished, you got it. There's no extra magic."

The idea is that science alone can tell us everything we need to know about the mind, and it will leave no room for this mysterious first-person perspective which we just happen to believe exists. If science can explain everything, though, and humans are just jumbles of neurons to be viewed in purely mechanistic terms, what room does this leave for free will?

Well, none. Not if you mean free will as traditionally conceived: total, utter freedom to act, unconstrained by any limiting physical or societal factor whatever. This, Dennett says, simply does not exist.

"That's the idea of, as I sometimes put it, moral levitation. It's as if a human being can be cut off from all the fabric of earlier causation and somehow choose independently. It's almost a miraculous choice ability. In fact, some people have just bitten the bullet on that and said: 'Yes, every time you commit a free act it's a little miracle.' Baloney! That is, as PF Strawson [Ryle's successor as Wayneflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford] once said, 'panicky metaphysics.'" In other words, it is a desperate attempt to cling to an untenable position.

But despite free will of this kind being ruled out, we still "have the kind of free will worth wanting," Dennett told me. "If you think of freedom as moral competence, as having a moral faculty, then you see that the notion of freedom that's involved is actually not the philosophers' indeterministic freedom... It's 'how many different ways can you think about things?' and 'what can provoke you to think about things?' If you can follow an argument, if you can imagine the future, if you can think about what you're doing, this requires many, many, many degrees of freedom." While our choices are limited in some distant philosophical sense, the freedoms that we care about day-to-day are left intact. It is these that we really ought to care about.

Unsurprisingly for a man with opinions on everything, Dennett has been outspoken on the subject of Donald Trump. He has frequently taken to Twitter to voice his criticism, writing on 26th January: “Regretful Trump voters: it’s not too late to apologise, join the lawful resistance and pass it on. Act now. Every day you wait adds guilt.”

He told me: "I think, in ways that—let me confess—I hadn't even imagined, that shared knowledge, factual knowledge, truth is more fragile than we ever thought... Those of us who appreciate the power of science have viewed science deniers as an important annoyance... but now it's almost fashionable. That's shocking."

With truth on the back foot, philosophy has more of a role to play than ever, "if only it will play it," said Dennett.

As our discussion drew to a close, Dennett took one parting shot at his critics. "I know that there are philosophers—who knows how many—who would say "Well Dennett used to be a philosopher, but he's not really a philosopher anymore, he's doing something else," to which my response is "if you want to have it that way, suit yourself, I'm happy doing what I'm doing. But I think it's philosophy."