Daniel Dennett was a rare specialist on the big questions

Daniel Dennett was a rare specialist on the big questions

The American Daniel Dennett, who died on April 19 at the age of 82, was also one of the most famous philosophers of his time outside his field. In the Netherlands he was honored with the Erasmus Prize (2012) and became known for the television program ‘A beautiful accident’ by Wim Kayzer, in which he discussed major questions about life and science with, among others, Oliver Sacks and Stephen Jay Gould. Unlike many of his colleagues, he did not shy away from such questions.

His fame is remarkable because Dennett’s starting point is, in his words, a ‘lonely and implausible’ position within the philosophy of mind. Mental states, according to him, do not exist as we think they do, but are interpretations of human behavior; consciousness is not a light that turns on within us, but a question and answer game in our struggle for survival.

Thought experiments

His rich oeuvre of more than twenty books testifies to incredible creativity. Not only did the topics he wrote about range from philosophy of mind, freedom of the will, artificial intelligence, theory of evolution, philosophical methodology, and religion, but his books and articles are full of ingenious thought experiments. He managed to connect science and philosophy in an infectious way. He increasingly drifted away from hard philosophy and became more inspired by developments in science.

Dennett was born in Boston in 1942. He spent several years of his youth in Beirut, where his father was a secret agent under the guise of cultural attaché to the American embassy. Back in America, he studied mathematics for a year at Wesleyan College, but after reading a book by the logician and philosopher Quine he was captivated by his philosophy, precisely because he was also extremely interested in natural sciences and technology. Quine defended the position that philosophical questions should be answered by science. The question of what the human mind is is also a matter for psychology and that was behaviorism in the 1960s. Dennett left for Harvard to graduate from Quine.

Dennett managed to connect science and philosophy in an infectious way

The center of the philosophical world at that time was Oxford, where philosophy of language dominated, and Dennett decided to pursue a PhD there. He was taken under the wing of Gilbert Ryle, who had published ‘The Concept of Mind’ in 1949. That book also defends a form of behaviorism, which was based on the philosophy of language. According to Ryle, words for mental states do not represent mysterious processes in a mind, but rather publicly observable behavior.

Dennett published his dissertation in 1969 under the title ‘Content and Consciousness’. According to Dennett you first need a theory of thoughts (mental content), and only then one about consciousness. That’s exactly what he did in the years that followed. Like his teachers Quine and Ryle, he adopts a third-person point of view. So do not, like Descartes, turn your mind’s eye inward to see what is going on inside you, but outward, observing the behavior of other people.

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Intentional attitude

You can study what kind of matter people are made of. You can also look at how the human body functions mechanically and chemically, but if you want to explain and predict people’s behavior, the best way to do that is to attribute beliefs and desires to them. You then adopt what Dennett calls the intentional attitude. According to him, a psychologist only interprets. This has the strange consequence that if a toddler is screaming in bed because he or she is afraid of a ghost under the bed, that fear cannot be the cause of the screaming. His philosophical opponents plagued Dennett with this question.

In response, Dennett wrote the beautiful article ‘Real Patterns’, in which he compares the human mind to the grid of planes that switch on or off according to certain rules in Conway’s ‘The Game of Life’. We project into that grid bacteriophages that eat viruses or a mechanical bird that dives from top left to bottom right; in reality there are only surfaces, just like pixels on a television screen. The bacteriophage is an interpretation. So it is with the human mind. There are only neurons that fire. We project mental states in the behavior that those neurons cause.

Dennett also has a minimalist theory about consciousness. In his dazzlingly written book ‘Consciousness Explained’ he criticizes the idea that there is a ‘Cartesian theater’ in the mind, where our senses stage a play of representations. There is no such theater; there is no end point of information processing. The mind, on the other hand, is a narcissist that constantly asks itself: what is wrong with me? Face to face with a tiger, the itch between your shoulder blades from a mosquito bite is less relevant. That itch does not penetrate your consciousness, although that information is available. You are aware of the information that is most important for your survival at this moment.

Declared atheist

This ‘multiple drafts model’ of consciousness raised many questions. Dennett threw himself into this polemic with a certain eagerness, which he also did in other areas, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution and the belief in a God. He was a declared atheist in Christian America.

Dennett was extremely engaging and generous with his time for colleagues and students. A student who sent an email to him often received a response the same day and a thick envelope with copies of relevant articles in the mail. It is not without reason that the expressions of mourning on the Internet are unusually massive and genuinely sad.