Dan Dennett: a new book and an interview in the NYT

August 27, 2023 • 12:00 pm

I recently finished Dan Dennett‘s new autobiography, I’ve Been Thinking (cover below; click to get an Amazon link), and I was deeply impressed by what a full life the man has had (he’s 81).  I thought he spent most of his time philosophizing, writing, and teaching philosophy at Tufts; but it turns out that he had a whole other life that I knew little about: owning a farm in Maine, sailing all over the place in his boat, making tons of apple cider, hanging out with his pals (many of them famous), and traveling the world to lecture or study. Truly, I’d also be happy if I had a life that full. And, as Dan says in his interview with the NYT today, he’s left out hundreds of pages of anecdotes and other stuff.

Although I’ve taken issue with Dan’s ideas at times (I disagree with him on free will and on the importance of memes, for example), you can’t help but like the guy. He’s sometimes passionate in his arguments, but he’s never mean, and of course he looks like Santa Claus. Once at a meeting in Mexico, I was accosted by Robert Wright, who was incensed that I’d given his book on the history of religion a bad review in The New Republic.  Wright plopped himself down beside me at lunch, so I was a captive audience, and proceeded to berate and harangue me throughout the meal. It was one of the worst lunch experiences I’ve ever had.

Because of Wright’s tirade, I was so upset that, after the meal was done, I went over to Dan, jumped in his lap, and hugged him (telling him why). I was greatly relieved, for it was like sitting on Santa’s lap. Now Santa, who’s getting on, has decided to sum up his career. The book is well worth reading, especially if you want to see how a philosopher has enacted a life well lived.

In today’s paper there’s a short interview with Dan by David Marchese, who has been touted as an expert interviewer. I didn’t think that Marchese’s questions were that great, but read for yourself (click below):

I’ll give a few quotes, mostly about atheism and “other ways of knowing,” First, the OWOK. Marchese’s questions are in bold; Dennett’s responses in plain text. And there are those annoying sidenotes that the NYT has started using, which I’ve omitted.

Right now it seems as if truth is in shambles, politics has become religion and the planet is screwed. What’s the most valuable contribution philosophers could be making given the state of the world? 

Well, let’s look at epistemology, the theory of knowledge. Eric Horvitz, the chief scientist at Microsoft, has talked about a “post-epistemic” world.


By highlighting the conditions under which knowledge is possible. This will look off track for a moment, but we’ll come around: Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s last theorem. 1990s, the British mathematician Andrew Wiles proved a theorem that had stumped mathematicians since it was proposed by Pierre de Fermat in 1637.

It was one of the great triumphs of mathematics in my lifetime. Why do we know that he did it? Don’t ask me to explain complex mathematics. It’s beyond me. What convinces me that he proved it is that the community of mathematicians of which he’s a part put it under scrutiny and said, “Yep, he’s got it.” That model of constructive and competitive interaction is the key to knowledge. I think we know that the most reliable path to truth is through communication of like-minded and disparate thinkers who devote serious time to trying to get the truth — and there’s no algorithm for that.

Note this bit: “the most reliable path to truth is through communication of like-minded and disparate thinkers who devote serious time to trying to get the truth.” This means that all knowledge, including the “other ways of knowing” of indigenous people, has to be vetted by like-minded and disparate thinkers. If it hasn’t been, it’s not another way of knowing, but only a way of claiming to know.

But wait! There’s more!

There’s a section in your book “Breaking the Spell” where you lament the postmodern idea that truth is relative. How do we decide which truths we should treat as objective and which we treat as subjective? I’m thinking of an area like personal identity, for example, where we hear phrases like, “This is my truth.” 

The idea of “my truth” is second-rate. The people who think that because this is their opinion, somehow it’s aggressive for others to criticize or reject them — that’s a self-defeating and pernicious attitude. The recommended response is: “We’d like to bring you into the conversation, but if you’re unable to consider arguments for and against your position, then we’ll consider you on the sidelines. You’re a spectator, not a participant.” You don’t get to play the faith card. That’s not how rational inquiry goes.

Marchese asks too many questions about AI and ChatGPT, topics which, while they may be important, bore me to tears. He also gets a bit too personal. He should have stopped inquiring after the first answer below.

There was something in your memoir that was conspicuous to me: You wrote about the late 1960s, when your pregnant wife had a bowel obstruction. 

Yeah, we lost the baby.

You describe it as “the saddest, loneliest, most terrifying” time of your life. 


That occupies one paragraph of your memoir. 


What is it indicative of about you — or your book — that a situation you described that way takes up such a small space in the recounting of your life? 

Look at the title of the book: “I’ve Been Thinking.” There are hundreds of pages of stories that I cut at various points from drafts because they were about my emotional life, my trials and so forth. This isn’t a tell-all book. I don’t talk about unrequited love, failed teenage crushes. There are mistakes I made or almost made that I don’t tell about. That’s just not what the book’s about.

Finally, the good stuff about atheism and religion. Although regarded as one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism” along with Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris, Dan has been the least demonized of them, probably because he’s not a vociferous anti-theist and regards religion as a phenomenon deserving more philosophical study than opprobrium. Nevertheless, he makes no bones about his unbelief:

We have a soul, but it’s made of tiny robots. There is no God. These are ideas of yours that I think a lot of people can rationally understand, but the gap between that rational understanding and their feelings involves too much ambivalence or ambiguity for them to accept. What is it about you that you can arrive at those conclusions and not feel adrift, while other people find those ideas too destabilizing to seriously entertain? 

Some people don’t want magic tricks explained to them. I’m not that person. When I see a magic trick, I want to see how it’s done. People want free will or consciousness, life itself, to be real magic. What I want to show people is, look, the magic of life as evolved, the magic of brains as evolving in between our own ears, that’s thrilling! It’s affirming. You don’t need miracles. You just need to understand the world the way it really is, and it’s unbelievably wonderful. We’re so lucky to be alive! The anxiety that people feel about giving up the traditional magical options, I take that very seriously. I can feel that anxiety. But the more I understood about the things I didn’t understand, the more the anxiety ebbed. The more the joy, the wondrousness came back. At the end of “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” I have my little hymn to life and the universe.  That’s my God — more wonderful than anything I could imagine in detail, but not magical.

So how do you understand religious belief? 

No problem at all. More people believe in belief in God than believe in God. [Marchese takes issue with this in a sidenote.] We should recognize it and recognize that people who believe in belief in God are sometimes very reluctant to consider that they might be wrong. What if I’m wrong? That’s a question I ask myself a lot. These people do not want to ask that question, and I understand why. They’re afraid of what they might discover. I want to give them an example of somebody who asks the question and is not struck down by lightning. I’m often quoted as saying, “There’s no polite way of telling people they’ve devoted their life to an illusion.” Actually, what I said was, “There’s no polite way of asking people to consider whether they’ve devoted their life to an illusion, but sometimes you have to ask it.”

There are better questions that could have been asked. For example, I would have asked Dan, “What do you think has been your greatest contribution to philosophy?” and “What has been your biggest error in your work on philosophy?”  Readers might suggest other questions below, though I’m not going to convey them to Dan!

A photo of Dan en famille, with caption, from the interview. I knew him only after his beard turned white, so I wouldn’t have recognized him:

Two of my photos of Dan. The first is in Cambridge, MA, on the way to the “Moving Naturalism Forward” meeting in 2016. We drove the three hours from Boston to Stockbridge, and Richard had to fly back early because of a hurricane warning. Ergo Dan argued with me about free will for three hours’ return drive on the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston (it was not covered with snow). That was something to remember, but I gave no ground:

And Dan at a symposium on religion at the University of Chicago in 2019.  It was tedious at times, and I think Dan is showing some impatience here with the annoying lucubrations of Reza Aslan.

22 thoughts on “Dan Dennett: a new book and an interview in the NYT

  1. I have read many of Daniel Dennett ‘s books and found them fascinating. I attended one of his lectures a while ago at Tufts University. I just pre-ordered the new book

    1. Yes. Please note that there will be at least a one-month delayed gratification. Publication date planned as 3October. Thanks for the heads up, Jerry.

  2. Thank you for this! I suspect you (as someone who hobnobs with famous people) may not realize what a gift it is for your readers to hear these insights and perspectives. To think that we live in a time with such great minds, and to be able to get a sense of where these minds exist in the intellectual firmament, is something I really appreciate.

    And the little James Taylor aside, too.

    1. You speak for me too. I have read most of Dan Dennett’s books, and I have been continually excited and stimulated, even where I have been dubious about his conclusions. That lovely snap of three of the best scientific authors (and authorities) of recent times is worth its weight in gold.

  3. Thanks for alerting me to Dan’s new book!

    *Would love to have eavesdropped on that 3 hour car ride re Free Will!

  4. I’ve long thought of Dennett as one of the best intellectuals of our time. I enjoy reading him and listening to him. This new book sounds fascinating and I will surely read it.

  5. Thanks for highlighting Dennett’s new book. I usually don’t read autobiographies (no reason) but I’ll certainly pick this up based on your review and recommendation.

  6. Earlier year I wrote to him with a correction to and a quibble about something he said about linguistics in one of his books. I didn’t expect a response but was pleasantly surprised when he answered, very graciously.

  7. Once at a meeting in Mexico, I was accosted by Robert Wright, who was incensed that I’d given his book on the history of religion a bad review in The New Republic. Wright plopped himself down beside me at lunch, so I was a captive audience, and proceeded to berate and harangue me throughout the meal. It was one of the worst lunch experiences I’ve ever had.

    I used to read some of Wright’s stuff around the time dead-tree tech gave way to the internet. Around the same time, I’d also occasionally catch his Bloggingheads.tv podcasts. Wright came across as someone with a chip on his shoulder because he wasn’t a full-fledged member of the cool-guys’ club. His writing, and his thinking, always struck me as mushy.

    1. I had exactly the same impression of Wright. Mostly from seeing him speak on videos especially in dialogue with the New Atheists.

    2. Wright in conversation or on video/podcast pales in comparison to Wright via the written word. I still think “The Moral Animal” is an excellent book and recommend it to everyone I can. I almost never watch or listen to him anymore.

      1. Agreed. The Moral Animal was among the first books I recall reading when I first started to think about evolution and social behavior. I remember it being good. I haven’t read it in some years, so might have a more critical view now, IDK, but the book is still on my bookshelf. You’re right, too, I think, that he was better there than his podcast/You Tube stuff.

  8. I’m not a big fan of Dennett’s writings myself. He goes on a bit, and seems more like a populariser of philosophy than a philosopher. I’d like to have known what Quine thought of his abilities. But, I do find it odd that some one would think it reasonable to argue in favour of determinism, while believing that every word coming out of their mouth was pre-determined. To quote Prof Anscombe – “My actions are mostly physical movements; if these physical movements are physically predetermined by processes which I do not control, then my freedom is perfectly illusory.” Why would anyone try to convince anyone of anything if the sound waves emitted from your mouth, and the movements of your fingers on the keyboard, are pre-determined? But, of course, we all have no choice?

    1. Andrew,

      I’m not sure what you could mean. What are you actually questioning?

      The fact that we are physical entities in a physically deterministic system (to the extent it is) doesn’t undercut our reasoning or interactions.

      One may as well say “I don’t see how walnut trees can flourish in a deterministic universe.” But of course, the trees require a reliable level of deterministic physics to actually do what they do – drop seeds, which flower in to new trees, perpetuating the species. You don’t find this behaviour looking in the ‘pre-determined past’ but only understand it by looking at how walnut trees actually behave once they exist.

      Likewise, to understand how human beings can flourish, navigate the world via perception/memory/reason/logic, you have to examine how human cognition works. That’s not there before human beings arise in the causal chain. You have to look in the causal time-line for where we arrive, and examine directly at how we think.

      Turns out we have a cognitive system that can model the world, reason using evidence and logic about which actions are most likely to reach our goals, and communicate those reasons to others, which can be tested by others as well.

      What’s the problem?

      1. Well, I was very drunk when I wrote that. But I guess my thought is, that if determinism is true, and you’re basing that belief on the laws of physics, then there is no need for explanation in terms of human cognition. Every movement of every elementary particle, on the deterministic view, is entirely predictable, and this includes the movement of my fingers as I type this. There needs to be a fair element of predictability for walnut trees to do their stuff, but that’s a far cry from universal determinism. Peter Geach, who probably wasn’t drunk, put it like this: “If Nature is bound fast in fate, then the human will is a chimera buzzing in a vacuum and feeding upon second intentions. How can I have any freedom of speech if the sound-waves impinging on your ears as I speak are determined in material causes going back to the origins of the solar system and having nothing to do with my thoughts and intentions?”

  9. The NY Times Magazine editors must not have liked the interview. “Talk” is a weekly feature of the magazine; last Sunday’s magazine, for example, featured the interview with Matthieu Ricard, the Buddhist (which Jerry commented on). But they did not see fit to put Dennett’s interview in the magazine; there was no “Talk” column at all this week.

    It’s possible, I suppose, that the “Talk” column was left out for reasons unrelated to the specific piece, and the Dennett interview will be published at a later date.


  10. I’ve never liked Robert Wright very much but I never really knew why, beyond the fact that he never seems to smile, and that I find his book title Why Buddhism Is True more than a little over-confident (the same does not apply to Jerry’s similarly titled book, btw). Reading about Jerry’s dinner time experience makes me feel that my opinion is confirmed.

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