March 28, 1942 |
|Era||20th / 21st-century philosophy|
|Main interests||Philosophy of mind
Philosophy of biology
Philosophy of science
Multiple Drafts Model
Daniel Clement Dennett (born March 28, 1942) is an American philosopher, writer and cognitive scientist whose research centers on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of science and philosophy of biology, particularly as those fields relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science. He is currently the Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and a University Professor at Tufts University. Dennett is a firm atheist and secularist, a member of the Secular Coalition for America advisory board, as well as an outspoken supporter of the Brights movement. Dennett is referred to as one of the "Four Horsemen of New Atheism," along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Dennett spent part of his childhood in Lebanon, where, during World War II, his father was a covert counter-intelligence agent with the Office of Strategic Services posing as a cultural attaché to the American Embassy in Beirut. When he was five, his mother took him back to Massachusetts after his father died in an unexplained plane crash. Dennett says that he was first introduced to the notion of philosophy while attending summer camp at age 11, when a camp counselor said to him, "You know what you are, Daniel? You're a philosopher."
Dennett attended Phillips Exeter Academy and spent one year at Wesleyan University before receiving his Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from Harvard University in 1963, where he was a student of W. V. Quine. In 1965, he received his Doctor of Philosophy in philosophy from the University of Oxford, where he studied under Gilbert Ryle and was a member of Hertford College. Dennett's sister is the investigative journalist Charlotte Dennett.
Dennett describes himself as "an autodidact — or, more properly, the beneficiary of hundreds of hours of informal tutorials on all the fields that interest me, from some of the world's leading scientists."
He is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. He is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism. He was named 2004 Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association.
In 2012 he was awarded the Erasmus Prize, an annual award for a person who has made an exceptional contribution to European culture, society or social science, "for his ability to translate the cultural significance of science and technology to a broad audience."
While he is a confirmed compatibilist on free will, in "On Giving Libertarians What They Say They Want" — Chapter 15 of his 1978 book Brainstorms, Dennett articulated the case for a two-stage model of decision making in contrast to libertarian views.
The model of decision making I am proposing has the following feature: when we are faced with an important decision, a consideration-generator whose output is to some degree undetermined produces a series of considerations, some of which may of course be immediately rejected as irrelevant by the agent (consciously or unconsciously). Those considerations that are selected by the agent as having a more than negligible bearing on the decision then figure in a reasoning process, and if the agent is in the main reasonable, those considerations ultimately serve as predictors and explicators of the agent's final decision.
- First...The intelligent selection, rejection, and weighing of the considerations that do occur to the subject is a matter of intelligence making the difference.
- Second, I think it installs indeterminism in the right place for the libertarian, if there is a right place at all.
- Third...from the point of view of biological engineering, it is just more efficient and in the end more rational that decision making should occur in this way.
- A fourth observation in favor of the model is that it permits moral education to make a difference, without making all of the difference.
- Fifth — and I think this is perhaps the most important thing to be said in favor of this model — it provides some account of our important intuition that we are the authors of our moral decisions.
- Finally, the model I propose points to the multiplicity of decisions that encircle our moral decisions and suggests that in many cases our ultimate decision as to which way to act is less important phenomenologically as a contributor to our sense of free will than the prior decisions affecting our deliberation process itself: the decision, for instance, not to consider any further, to terminate deliberation; or the decision to ignore certain lines of inquiry.
These prior and subsidiary decisions contribute, I think, to our sense of ourselves as responsible free agents, roughly in the following way: I am faced with an important decision to make, and after a certain amount of deliberation, I say to myself: "That's enough. I've considered this matter enough and now I'm going to act," in the full knowledge that I could have considered further, in the full knowledge that the eventualities may prove that I decided in error, but with the acceptance of responsibility in any case.
Leading libertarian philosophers such as Robert Kane have rejected Dennett's model, specifically that random chance is directly involved in a decision, on the basis that they believe this eliminates the agent's motives and reasons, character and values, and feelings and desires. They claim that, if chance is the primary cause of decisions, then agents cannot be liable for resultant actions. Kane says:
[As Dennett admits,] a causal indeterminist view of this deliberative kind does not give us everything libertarians have wanted from free will. For [the agent] does not have complete control over what chance images and other thoughts enter his mind or influence his deliberation. They simply come as they please. [The agent] does have some control after the chance considerations have occurred.
But then there is no more chance involved. What happens from then on, how he reacts, is determined by desires and beliefs he already has. So it appears that he does not have control in the libertarian sense of what happens after the chance considerations occur as well. Libertarians require more than this for full responsibility and free will.
Dennett has remarked in several places (such as "Self-portrait", in Brainchildren) that his overall philosophical project has remained largely the same since his time at Oxford. He is primarily concerned with providing a philosophy of mind that is grounded in empirical research. In his original dissertation, Content and Consciousness, he broke up the problem of explaining the mind into the need for a theory of content and for a theory of consciousness. His approach to this project has also stayed true to this distinction. Just as Content and Consciousness has a bipartite structure, he similarly divided Brainstorms into two sections. He would later collect several essays on content in The Intentional stance and synthesize his views on consciousness into a unified theory in Consciousness Explained. These volumes respectively form the most extensive development of his views.
In Consciousness Explained, Dennett's interest in the ability of evolution to explain some of the content-producing features of consciousness is already apparent, and this has since become an integral part of his program. He defends a theory known by some as Neural Darwinism. He also presents an argument against qualia; he argues that the concept is so confused that it cannot be put to any use or understood in any non-contradictory way, and therefore does not constitute a valid refutation of physicalism. His strategy mirrors his teacher Ryle's approach of redefining first person phenomena in third person terms, and denying the coherence of the concepts which this approach struggles with. Much of Dennett's work since the 1990s has been concerned with fleshing out his previous ideas by addressing the same topics from an evolutionary standpoint, from what distinguishes human minds from animal minds (Kinds of Minds), to how free will is compatible with a naturalist view of the world (Freedom Evolves). In his 2006 book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Dennett attempts to subject religious belief to the same treatment, explaining possible evolutionary reasons for the phenomenon of religious adherence.
Dennett self-identifies with a few terms:
[Others] note that my 'avoidance of the standard philosophical terminology for discussing such matters' often creates problems for me; philosophers have a hard time figuring out what I am saying and what I am denying. My refusal to play ball with my colleagues is deliberate, of course, since I view the standard philosophical terminology as worse than useless — a major obstacle to progress since it consists of so many errors.
— Daniel Dennett, The Message is: There is no Medium
Yet, in Consciousness Explained, he admits "I am a sort of 'teleofunctionalist', of course, perhaps the original teleofunctionalist'". He goes on to say, "I am ready to come out of the closet as some sort of verificationist". In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon he admits to being "a bright", and defends the term.
In Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Dennett writes that evolution can account for the origin of morality. He rejects the idea of the naturalistic fallacy as the idea that ethics is in some free-floating realm, writing that the fallacy is to rush from facts to values.
Dennett sees evolution by natural selection as an algorithmic process (though he spells out that algorithms as simple as long division often incorporate a significant degree of randomness). This idea is in conflict with the evolutionary philosophy of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who preferred to stress the "pluralism" of evolution (i.e. its dependence on many crucial factors, of which natural selection is only one).
Dennett's views on evolution are identified as being strongly adaptationist, in line with his theory of the intentional stance, and the evolutionary views of biologist Richard Dawkins. In Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Dennett showed himself even more willing than Dawkins to defend adaptationism in print, devoting an entire chapter to a criticism of the ideas of Gould. This stems from Gould's long-running public debate with E. O. Wilson and other evolutionary biologists over human sociobiology and its descendant evolutionary psychology, which Gould and Richard Lewontin opposed, but which Dennett advocated, together with Dawkins and Steven Pinker. Strong disagreements have been launched against Dennett from Gould and his supporters, who allege that Dennett overstated his claims and misrepresented Gould's to reinforce what Gould describes as Dennett's "Darwinian fundamentalism".
Dennett's theories have had a significant influence on the work of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller. He has also written about and advocated the notion of memetics as a philosophically useful tool, most recently in his "Brains, Computers, and Minds," a three part presentation through Harvard's MBB 2009 Distinguished Lecture Series.
He has recently been doing research into clerics who are secretly atheists and how they rationalize their works. He found what he called a "Don't ask, don't tell" conspiracy because believers did not want to hear of loss of faith. That made unbelieving preachers feel isolated but they did not want to lose their jobs and sometimes their church-supplied lodgings and generally consoled themselves that they were doing good in their pastoral roles by providing comfort and required ritual. The research, with Linda LaScola, was further extended to include other denominations and non-Christian clerics.
In October 2006, Dennett was hospitalized due to an aortic dissection. After a nine-hour surgery, he was given a new aorta. In an essay posted on the Edge website, Dennett gives his firsthand account of his health problems, his consequent feelings of gratitude towards the scientists, cardiologist, surgeons, EMT's, phlebotomists, orderlies, housekeepers, physician assistants, X-ray technicians, meal-bringers, launderers, physical therapists, perfusionist, neurologist, and nurses whose hard work made his recovery possible, and his complete lack of a "deathbed conversion".
To whom, then, do I owe a debt of gratitude? To the cardiologist who has kept me alive and ticking for years, and who swiftly and confidently rejected the original diagnosis of nothing worse than pneumonia. To the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and the perfusionist, who kept my systems going for many hours under daunting circumstances. To the dozen or so physician assistants, and to nurses and physical therapists and x-ray technicians and a small army of phlebotomists so deft that you hardly know they are drawing your blood, and the people who brought the meals, kept my room clean, did the mountains of laundry generated by such a messy case, wheel-chaired me to x-ray, and so forth. These people came from Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Haiti, the Philippines, Croatia, Russia, China, Korea, India—and the United States, of course—and I have never seen more impressive mutual respect, as they helped each other out and checked each other's work. But for all their teamwork, this local gang could not have done their jobs without the huge background of contributions from others. I remember with gratitude my late friend and Tufts colleague, physicist Allan Cormack, who shared the Nobel Prize for his invention of the c-t scanner. Allan—you have posthumously saved yet another life, but who's counting? The world is better for the work you did. Thank goodness. Then there is the whole system of medicine, both the science and the technology, without which the best-intentioned efforts of individuals would be roughly useless. So I am grateful to the editorial boards and referees, past and present, of Science, Nature, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, and all the other institutions of science and medicine that keep churning out improvements, detecting and correcting flaws.
— Daniel C. Dennett, Thank Goodness!
a. ^ "True Believers: The Intentional Strategy and Why it Works" is a reprint of a paper first published in 1981 in Scientific Explanation, edited by A.F. Heath (Oxford: Oxford University Press). The paper was originally presented as a Herbert Spencer lecture at Oxford in November 1979. It was also published as chapter 2 in Dennett's book The Intentional Stance (see further reading above).
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