Dennett’s “I’ve Been Thinking”

A reader has alerted me to the new memoir of Daniel Dennett, one of the world’s most prominent living philosophers. I have read quite a bit of Dennett over the years and have written about a few of his ideas. But a disclaimer. I have only read brief excerpts of the memoir so far as I await a library copy. Nonetheless, the prologue resonated deeply with me.

It recounts how he barely survived a “dissection of the aorta.” Reflecting on the experience helped him see with great clarity the many individuals who together saved his life—surgeons, anesthesiologists, neurologists, physical therapists, nurses, phlebotomists, x-ray technicians, as well as all the important persons who cooked and delivered the meals, cleaned the rooms, did the laundry, pushed his wheelchair, and on and on.

Still, Dennett doesn’t worship modern medicine, it deserves continual scrutiny, but he knows his life was saved by reasoning and empirical science and its technological applications. Every action is checked and rechecked systematically; appeals to faith are never tolerated. This contrasts sharply with the religious approach emphasizing heartfelt intentions which are utterly useless in such situations.  Dennett owes his life to reason and open inquiry.

As for those who say they prayed for him Dennett tries to translate their concerns into “they are wishing me the best.” Still, he has to resist replying “did you also sacrifice a goat?” And while this may seem to be a harsh reply, there are a number of reasons to think it appropriate. For one thing,  his well wishes could have actually done something useful either for him or for someone else. For another, overwhelming evidence shows that intercessory prayer doesn’t work. Moreover, you would be dissatisfied when a drug company whose drug harmed you told you that, while they had no evidence of the drug’s efficacy, they had prayed hard that it would work? I don’t think so and neither does Dennett. He is thankful for the high standards of rational inquiry to which the medical world holds itself.

Note that this is just the subject matter of the first pages of the prologue; I don’t know what is to come. But be prepared to encounter Dennett’s fearless intellect if you read the book. I’ll try to write more later when I have the chance to read it in full.

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4 thoughts on “Dennett’s “I’ve Been Thinking”

  1. Autobiographies of remarkable people is probably my favourite type of reading, especially by philosophers. The subject of Dennet’s prologue reminds me of something written by a musician that I had read (don’t remember by whom) : he was dying of cancer and made it. But when he thought he was going to die, some ‘well wishers’ were writing to him stuff such as : ‘You’ll soon be with God’. This made him angry and he felt greatly offended, not just because he believed he was going to die, but because he didn’t believe in ‘God’ and didn’t want anyone to try to shove that belief down his throat by writing to him as he too had the same belief.

    Best wishes,

  2. thanks Luigi. In the meantime you can read the sample pages of his new book on Amazon if you’d like. That’s all I’ve doe so far.

  3. I just got my pre-ordered copy of “I’ve Been Thinking” and I can’t wait to get through it. I have ordered very few memoirs for my library but this one made the cut as soon as I heard about it.

    In the meantime, these two links from his current publicity tour are fantastic:

    His podcast with Michael Shermer is easy to digest:

    And this “Five Books” interview with Nigel Warburton is super insightful as well as full of great ideas and further reading suggestions:

    I hope you get to share your further thoughts later!

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