Most academic philosophy today "is not worth my effort"by Alex Dean / March 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
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…