Article about Daniel Dennett

Students in my classes are regularly subjected to Daniel Dennett’s views of consciousness and evolution. Here is a very recent and interesting article in The New Yorker about him. It sort of glows like a hagiography, but the man is undeniably interesting. An excerpt:

On a sunny morning this past December, fresh snow surrounded the house; where the lawn met the water, a Hobie sailboat lay awaiting spring. Dennett entered the sunlit kitchen and, using a special, broad-tined fork, carefully split an English muffin. After eating it with jam, he entered his study, a circular room on the ground floor decorated with sailboat keels of different shapes. A close friend and Little Deer Isle visitor, the philosopher and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, had e-mailed a draft of an article for Dennett to review. The two men are similar—Humphrey helped discover blindsight, studied apes with Dian Fossey, and was, for a year, the editor of Granta—but they differ on certain points in the philosophy of consciousness. “Until I met Dan,” Humphrey told me, “I never had a philosophical hero. Then I discovered that not only was he a better philosopher than me; he was a better singer, a better dancer, a better tennis player, a better pianist. There is nothing he does not do.”

Author: Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.

5 thoughts on “Article about Daniel Dennett”

  1. Daniel Dennett’s answer to consciousness is “There is no consciousness. ‘Is’ is just ‘is’. There is no why. There is no how. Nothing there so move on.”

    To Daniel Dennett, the consciousness, self-consciousness, or other-consciousness are not real categories. Humans are just complicated rocks and nothing more. Thus, Heidegger’s project of ‘being’ is sophistry, because we are just complicated rocks.

    To Daniel Dennett, even when one calls out the category of life and non-life, Dennett just says, ‘false categories’ there is no difference between life and non-life. Life is just a thing complicated rocks do.

    Claiming that the above categories (life, consciousness) are not real, I suggest, is a sophistry. The Aristotelean can be radically materialistic (non-dualist) and still have use for these categories as real empirically defined categories. They are empirically experienced. I experience consciousness, self-consciousness, death-consciousness, other-consciousness … just as I can experience the weight of a rock, the chill of the air, etc. The categories of life and consciousness are emergent properties to be empirically explored as useful categories. Dennett merely waves them away and says ‘nothing there’.

    There is a continued discussion of the philosophical and scientific value of the words ’emergent properties’, but the words ‘there is nothing there’ is not very useful to philosophy or science.


  2. Vince, would you say the same about astrological powers or ESP? Sometimes what we think evidently exists is in fact a sort of illusion generated from other stuff that actually exists. I don’t think it’s fair to say DD merely waves them away – he takes hundreds of pages to do so!


    1. The difference being that this very conversation depends on the reality or assumption that we are conscious, whereas my horoscope seems pretty irrelevant :)


  3. Yes, he does strive to address consciousness as a category with exquisite detail, with the eventual goal of radical reductionism. He is committed to empiricism as am I, thus, astrological powers and ESP can be addressed as having essentially no evidence.

    I think I read some where that he still holds to a teleos concept within his fundamental materialism. That may be his acknowledgement of the embedded trend of physical evolution of the universe towards life and consciousness (without mysticism or dualism). If this is true then too much has been made of his position as radical reductionism by his opponents. He might be closer to my preference … non-dualistic empiricist. I prefer the language of the aristotelean in acknowledging the emergent behavior as real categories of the material universe ‘above’ the 4 fundamental laws of physics. They arise from these laws, but the emergent behaviors have equally valuable ‘laws’ (thermodynamic laws for example) contained in the spectacularly ratio-ed relationships of the 4 fundamental laws. The emergent physics has an equal physical reality in rough terms of being and non-being. Many emergent behaviors and things (like stars etc) do not arise from a differently ratio-ed universe. The universe, as is, contains and has always contained these categories of life and consciousness as possible emergent behaviors. I do not decouple my being from the continuity of our physical milieu, but acknowledging the reality of these categories gives me reason to think about my being via Heidegger, Levinas, and Watsuji.

    The only difference between the radical reductionist and my position is that I remain in wonder at being brought about by the spectacularly ratio-ed physics, which permits consciousness which is a category that I experience. The one who says ‘there is nothing there’ is quick to conclude that the spectacular ratio-ed universe will eventually become unspectacular to reach the conclusion that the discussion about being itself and my experience of being is nothing real. This seems a choice to view the world without wonder. I am not so sure that, even if the ratios become unspectacularly in our understanding, I must conclude that life and consciousness in the universe is unspectacular. The categories are still empirically real and still seem wondrous.

    Liked by 1 person

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