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.