An interview with Dan Dennett on his work and life

March 19, 2021 • 9:00 am

From the philosophy section of Institute of Art and Ideas, we have a new 30-minute interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett. It’s basically about “the arc of his life”, and has some interesting revelations. I’ll just touch on a few points, but you should listen to it yourself.

  • Dan’s father was a spy who worked for the OSS, but Dan didn’t learn that until his dad died.
  • Dan says that most of his good ideas came from his Ph.D. thesis and postdoc, and since then he’s been largely “turning the crank” on (i.e., working out the consequences of) his early ideas.
  • Those good ideas involved “the intentional stance”, how learning takes place, and views about consciousness and the evolution of the brain. He doesn’t talk much about consciousness, though, and doesn’t mention free will once during the interview, much to my relief.
  • In new work, Dan says he and a colleague are extending the intentional-stance view down to the level of the cell, visualizing development as the consequences of “what the cell wants.” This isn’t like panpsychism, for Dan isn’t dumb enough to think that cells really have desires, but he’s looking at it as Dawkins looked at the metaphor of the “selfish gene”, gaining insight by imagining how genes would behave if they were selfish even though he realizes (and has repeatedly emphasized in the light of misinterpreters) that genes don’t have desires.
  • In my hearing of this interview, Dan doesn’t admit that he ever had a wrong idea. But he does say he’s worked to prevent misuses of his ideas.
  • Dan decries the truth-denial aspect of postmodernism as “intellectual vandalism,” but also ponders the question of whether some ideas or truths are too dangerous to impart to the world. I’ll leave you listen to that bit yourselves.
  • There’s a lot about religion at the end, with Dan arguing that it’s time for the world to “grow up and leave religion behind”. And he thinks many faiths are in fact doing this, stripping out the false claims and injurious morality and leaving the ceremonial bits—bits that he has no quarrel with.

Click on the screenshot to go to the interview.

13 thoughts on “An interview with Dan Dennett on his work and life

  1. If I had a choice between the portrait frame of the late Pope John Paul II and Daniel’s portrait in the back to hang on my wall of adoration, I’d go for the latter.

  2. Interesting stuff – glad he’s doing well because he had a robot travel through his gastrointestinal system (is that right?) a while back.

    Why is Dan so compelling? I think because somehow, it feels like he’d be great to discuss anything with, no matter if any discussant is wrong, correct, or otherwise.

  3. I think the idea that cells are sort of agents, with a “mind of their own”, with beliefs, desires, goals etc… is a very useful idea. Cells have indeed jobs to do, but they also need to have the know-how needed to do these jobs. In a sense, they have a mind.

    I think the problem is that many people equate mind with consciousness, and so whenever one says that a cell has a mind they start to think that cells have consciousness. But that’s a fallacy. Mind does not equate consciousness: actually even most of the human mind is unconscious. Most of our mind is pure unconscious information processing. And all this unconscius information processing is realized by the mechanical workings of brain parts.

    The idea that cells can have a totally unconscious mind – like a computer can – strikes me as obvious because it’s clear to me that there is a lot of (completely unconscious) information processing that’s happening in every cells, from DNA-reading and translation to self-regulatory processes during cell division and differentiation. One need not suppose that having this kind of mind implies having consciousness, which is just a recent development present only in some peculiar and very complex organisms (with minds that are billions of times more complex that the minds of single cells).

    I always like to remember what Barbara McClintok said in her Nobel Prize acceptance lecture in 1983: “A goal for the future would be to determine the extent of knowledge the cell has of itself and how it utilizes this knowledge in a “thoughtful” manner when challenged”. Exactly, but one need not suppose that having this kind of “knowledge” and “thoughtfulness” implies any kind of consciousness or qualia and the like.

    1. I get you, but the term ‘mind’ is too burdened with assumptions about consciousness and free will that it becomes distracting to be used for cells. Anyway, at the genetic and other molecular levels, the activities in a cell fall into the range of laws of physics. Thermodynamics, mainly. So when a protein binds to DNA and causes a nearby gene to be used to make RNA, it is because of thermodynamics. Charges on the protein match opposite charges on a particular exposed stretch of DNA and associated proteins bound next to it. Binding of the protein to that site causes the charges to be neutralized, thus reducing potential energy. Thermodynamics forces sophisticated-looking things like that to happen, but its “just” physics.

  4. On Darwin Day, Feb. 12, 2009, the 200th anniversary of C Darwin’s birthday Daniel Dennett was speaking at Harvard Univ. That day I got three of his books signed and a photo of me standing next to him in Maine where our sailboats were tied up together at a fuel dock a few years before.

    At about the same time I read with great admiration the “thank goodness” letter he wrote to his friends after his major heart surgery, where he identified the long list of people and professionals at the Lahey Clinic north of Boston who saved his life. He asked his supporters and readers that in leu of prayer, that they send a check to an appropriate charity rather than pray for his health and recovery, and to “thank goodness” for their marvelous work and commitment. Prayer, he knew, was not going to help his situation.

    On Sept. 30 of last year, I had open heart surgery… a valve replacement and double bypass…. at that same Lahey clinic. I had never spent a night in a hospital in my life, but I spent the next 5 days under the care of some of the same people Dennett named in his “thank goodness” letter. The Covid surge of the late spring and summer had passed in Massachusetts at that time in September of 2020, but all I had been hearing and seeing on the news was how crapped out and stressed the health care pros were after spending months battling Covid19. So I was somewhat concerned that I would be going into surgery and not everyone being on top of their game. Well I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact when I spoke with the doctors and nurses and technicians and staff about their spirits during my time at Lahey, they were all 100% relieved to be back doing their regular jobs, as the day of my surgery, there was not a single covid patient in that hospital. In my first day out of the ICU, I got my tablet and looked up Dennett’s letter to his friends and found and found the video below on YouTube.

    1. I’ve really like his notion of “thank goodness,” because, as he said, goodness definitely exists, and it makes sense to be grateful for it. Thank you for the personal story.

  5. “In my hearing of this interview, Dan doesn’t admit that he ever had a wrong idea.”

    Here’s one wrong idea he wouldn’t admit to, I don’t think:

    In his new book Just Deserts, co-authored with Gregg Caruso, Dennett claims that determinism doesn’t matter much to our moral discourse: if we don’t have libertarian free will, so what? (14, 180). Likewise, he says in the preface to the new edition of Elbow Room, “It simply does not matter whether or not in precisely the same circumstances you would always do the same thing, and those who continue to suppose that it matters greatly… owe the rest of us an explanation.”

    The reason determinism matters, of course, is that most folks have a libertarian conception of human agency, so if you disabuse them of that conception it can have significant effects on attitudes and policy. That Dennett, a compatibilist, consistently downplays determinism is really too bad. Fortunately, Jerry consistently *plays up* determinism, as does Caruso in the book, reviewed at

    1. The reason determinism matters, of course, is that most folks have a libertarian conception of human agency, so if you disabuse them of that conception it can have significant effects on attitudes and policy.

      The point is that the “libertarian conception” is a commentary about humans, one that can be changed while the underlying attitudes remain largely unchanged. Thus accepting determinism really doesn’t change things nearly as much as might be supposed.

    2. I think it would be very interesting to see what kind of effects such disabuse would have on policy and attitudes. If you have a hedge fund manager and he is doing something unethical, how would policy hold him accountable? If the legal stance is that he is not acting of his own free will, will there be a lesser punishment? Then once he is aware of this new policy he can modify his unethical behavior in the stock market. Perhaps something that once would have landed him in prison for 2 years now only puts him there for 1. People will adjust the decisions they make, but many of those adjustments wont necessarily be good. Professor Coyne has criticized our justice system and I think he is right in arguing that a lot can be improved. With that aside, so much of our society is based upon contracts. Once you argue they are not acting of their own free will, how do you hold them accountable.
      Concerning the student debt crisis, I really don’t know how this should be resolved. Some psychologists have argued that young people do not understand financial debt at the age most people go to college. I don’t know if this is rubbish or not. I do remember when I was 20, I certainly had some conception of what financial debt meant. Maybe for most people though, average human development does not prepare them for the decision to take out the loan. If it is so then I don’t really think you can hold them accountable. I guess that would make me lean determinist. But back to the hedge fund manager. At some point that guy needs to be treated as though he is the one making his decisions. Maybe the bastard can’t help himself, but policy concerning that behavior really would not be much different.

    3. Dennett’s right. If you cannot do otherwise, you can’t do otherwise. End of story.

      Now, I know: the urge to argue that cause and effect still play out, and making arguments on the internet is part of that very process. Yes, so what?

      My argument here for the last 4 or 5 posts (or more) on free will keep repeating the same point. You, and everyone else is secretly switching models around. When arguing for determinism, it’s an “outside” perspective with a fixed timeline, and the exact next moment, it’s switching to an “inside“ view which casually, and intuitively assumes anyone could do otherwise, hence why you fee. the need to argue about. You are not truly thinking “I am just a cog in a machine typing out what I must, so that the next gear turns, as it will” — nobody truly does.

  6. IAI is like a broken clock. This is one of the times it’s “right”. Other times it hosts Bernardo Kastrup’s abrasiveness and dark matter denial, or Philip Goff’s panpsychism, or puts out articles by weakman physicalists. (Weakman as in strawman, but sincerely held by some proponents.)

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