Daniel Dennett Has Died

Daniel Dennett (1942-2024) died a few weeks ago. The first book of his I remember reading was The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul, a collection of essays he edited with Douglas Hofstadter. But his works that most influenced me were:

Freedom Evolves;

Breaking The Spell:Religion as a Natural Phenomenonand

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life.

In Freedom Evolves Dennett defends a view of compatibilism that depends upon an evolutionary perspective. Because of abilities that have evolved we are free to make decisions without duress—assuming a very specific definition of free will. What I liked about this book was Dennett’s committment to an evolutionary view which, as regular readers are aware, is something that I too am committed too.

In Breaking The Spell Dennett argues that religion should be the subject of scientific inquiry. Briefly he argues that religion has evolutionary roots and survives through the transmission of memes. Almost anyone like myself who had previously read E. O. Wilson’s On Human Nature was receptive to religion as a biological and social phenomenon.

But it was his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea that most effected me.

In it Dennett describes evolution as a universal acid that eats through everything it touches; everything from the cell to consciousness to the cosmos is best explained from an evolutionary perspective, as are metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, religion, and the meaning of life. To better explain his ideas, Dennett considers the “great cosmic pyramid.” Traditionally this pyramid explains design from the top down—from god down through mind, design, order, chaos, and nothingness. In this interpretation, god acts as the ultimate “skyhook,” a miraculous source of design that does not build on lower, simpler layers. By contrast, evolution reverses the direction of the pyramid explaining design from the bottom up, by what Dennett calls “cranes.” Here physical matter and the algorithmic process of evolution explain the evolution of more complex structures from simpler ones, and they do so without miraculous intervention.

Now applied to meaning, evolution implies that no godlike skyhook is needed to derive meaning; instead, meaning must be created from the ground up, as subjectivists like Sartre argue. So if we abandon the idea that god or mind comes first, we see that meaning can evolve from the bottom up as order, design and mind are created. At one time there was no life, mind, or meaning, but slowly, imperceptibly each emerged. Meaning does not descend from on high; it percolates up from below as mind develops. The meaning that mind now experiences is not full-fledged meaning, but it is moving in that direction as mind develops. From a mind that was built by cranes—composed of molecules, atoms, and neurons in ever more complex arrangements—meaning evolves.

The mental states that give rise to meaning are themselves ultimately grounded in biology. Darwin showed us that everything of importance, including our minds, evolved slowly from below, and all are connected in a tree of life. The tree of life created by evolution is no god to be prayed to, but it inspires awe nonetheless. It is something sacred. Life is not now completely meaningful, but it is becoming progressively meaningful as mind evolves.

So the compatibility of my mind with Dennett’s arose from our understanding philosophical issues from an evolutionary view. If we have some freedom, its because it emerged as we evolved. If religion is to be understood and explained, we must understand its biological underpinnings. If life is to be meaningful ,we must make it so.

Evolution is a universal solvent which helps explain everything in the universe. That’s how to best understand our bodies, our minds, and our behaviors.

___________________________________________________________________________Below is a tribute from Doug Hofstadter written with just friends and family as the intended audience but which he has graciously agreed to share.

Dear friends and relatives,

I just received the very sad news about the passing of Dan Dennett, a lodestar in my life and in many thoughtful people’s lives.

Dan was a deep thinker about what it is to be human.  Quite early on, he arrived at what many would see as shocking conclusions about consciousness (essentially that it is just an emergent effect of physical interactions of tiny inanimate components), and from then on, he was a dead-set opponent of dualism (the idea that there is an ethereal nonphysical elixir called “consciousness”, over and above the physical events taking place in the enormously complex substrate of a human or animal brain, and perhaps that of a silicon network as well).  Dan thus totally rejected the notion of “qualia” (pure sensations of such things as colors, tastes, and so forth), and his arguments against the mystique of qualia were subtle but very cogent.

Dan had many adversaries in the world of philosophers, but also quite a few who shared his views, and as for myself, I was almost always aligned with him.  Our only notable divergence was on the question of free will, which Dan maintained exists, in some sense of “free”, whereas I just agreed that “will” exists, but maintained that there is no freedom in it.  (Scott Kim joked that I believed in “free won’t”, which was very clever, but really the negation should apply to “free” rather than to “will”.)

Dan was also a diligent and lifelong “student” (in the sense of “studier”) of evolution, religion, artificial intelligence, computers in general, and even science in general.  He wrote extremely important and influential books on all these topics, and his insights will endure as long as we humans endure.  I’m thinking of his booksBrainstormsThe Intentional StanceElbow RoomConsciousness ExplainedDarwin’s Dangerous IdeaKinds of MindsInside JokesBreaking the SpellFrom Bacteria to Bach and Back; and of course his last book, I’ve Been Thinking, which was (and is) a very colorful self-portrait, a lovely autobiography vividly telling so many stories of his intercontinental life.  I’m so happy that Dan not only completed it but was able to savor its warm reception all around the world.

Among other things, that book tells about Dan’s extremely rich life not just as a thinker but also as a doer.  Dan was a true bon vivant, and he developed many amazing skills, such as that of house-builder, folk-dancer and folk-dance caller, jazz pianist, cider-maker, sailor and racer of yachts (not the big ones owned by Russian oligarchs, but beautifully crafted sailboats), joke-teller par excellence, enthusiast for and expert in word games, savorer of many cuisines and wines, wood-carver and sculptor, speaker of French and some German and Italian as well, and ardent and eloquent supporter of thinkers whom he admired and felt were not treated with sufficient respect by the academic world.

Dan was also a most devoted husband to his wife Susan — they were married for nigh-on sixty years — and a great dad to their two children, Peter and Andrea.  He entertained the kids by building all sorts of things for them, and he supported them through thick and thin.  I saw that from up close, and really admired his ardent family spirit.

Both Dan and Susan had near misses with death over the past decade or two, and on one of those occasions — his own close call when his aorta ruptured — he wrote a memorable essay called (if I recall correctly) “Thank Goodness”, which was all about how the human inventors and practitioners of modern medicine had saved his life (and the lives of countless others), and that it was deeply wrong to “thank God” for saving anyone’s life, and that what should be thanked was human goodness incarnated in the form of all those people who so deeply cared about helping their fellow humans (nurses, doctors, medical researchers, etc.).  Although Dan understood why his religious friends prayed for him, he thought that such actions were profoundly misguided and that belief in divine intervention was not a healthy approach to life.

Like his friends Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins (the quartet was nicknamed “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”), Dan was a committed atheist — and unlike me, he didn’t shy away from applying that word to himself, with all its flavors of an aggressive anti-religion stance — and he tried to explain, with great patience and subtlety, what is so compelling about religion to the human mind, but what is at the same time, so wrong about it.

Probably Dan’s two greatest heroes were Charles Darwin and the philosopher Gilbert Ryle (who was his doctoral advisor at Oxford), although he had quite a few others (including, for example, Cole Porter and J. S. Bach).  Dan had many friends of many sorts in many lands all around the world, and I was proud to be one of them.  He and Susan loved hosting their friends at their farm in Maine, which they owned and operated for about 40 years, and Dan himself did much of (probably most of) the physical maintenance of the home and the fields and trees, learning a great deal from his Maine neighbors.  Dan loved Maine and he loved calling it “Down East” (as the Maine folks do), and he loved the jargon he picked up from farming and from sailing, and he employed it often in his writings (and I was often a bit thrown by some of the terms he dropped with such ease and naturalness, as if everybody were as familiar with farm life and the sailing life as he was).  I once offhandedly called Dan a “tillosopher”, and he loved the epithet and even embraced it with delight in his recent autobiography.

Dan was a bon vivant, a very zesty fellow, who loved travel and hobnobbing with brilliance wherever he could find it.  In his later years, as he grew a little teetery, he proudly carried a wooden cane with him all around the world, and into it he chiseled words and images that represented the many places he visited and gave lectures at.

Dan was a truly faithful friend to me over the four-plus decades that we knew each other.  He always supported my ideas, and I am proud that he often sought feeback from me on drafts of manuscripts that he was writing, and I often provided detailed suggestions.  Seldom did I disagree with the thrust of his ideas; I usually just provided suggestions for how to phrase a sentence a tad bit more clearly, or perhaps some examples that would support his point.  I’m proud that over the years, I moved him close to my position on the importance of using nonsexist language in one’s speech and writing.

Some of Dan’s insightful essays, such as “Real Patterns”, which talked about what “exists” in the abstract two-dimensional world of John Conway’s amazing Game of Life (and by analogy, about what “exists” in our 3-D physical world), were deep mind-openers, as was of course his brilliant short story “Where Am I?” (one chapter inBrainstorms), which led to our friendship and our intimate collaboration on the anthologyThe Mind’s I, way back in 1980 and 1981.

Dan appreciated me in ways that I will never forget, and he counseled me wisely and empathetically concerning romantic dilemmas during the year I was on sabbatical in the Boston area.  He was deeply considerate and compassionate, and as I say, filled to the brim with zest and enthusiasm.  He was a great dad and a great husband and a great friend, as well as a great intellectual and a great writer.  He was “bigger than life”, as my friend David Policansky described him, one time when we together were guests at Susan and Dan’s farm in the early 1980s.

I personally will deeply miss Dan, and so will so many other thoughtful people — even people with whom Dan seriously disagreed, such as my old doctoral student Dave Chalmers, whose ideas on consciousness are diametrically opposed to Dan’s, but their friendship was warm because they both valued honest human contact and respect, and clear communication, far above such goals as fame or power or status.

Dan Dennett was a mensch, and his ideas on so many subjects will leave a lasting impact on the world, and his human presence has had a profound impact on those of us who were lucky enough to know him well and to count him as a friend.

Requiescat in pace, Dan.



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4 thoughts on “Daniel Dennett Has Died

  1. I have read all of the books you mention, except Freedom Evolves. The last work read was Intuition Pumps… Always enjoyed his wit and insights. My friend in Ecuador met him once and himself wrote a book on consciousness.He seemed to lead an untroubled life, though things are rarely what they seem. I think his strong personality—thumbing his nose at detractors—was part of his charm and style. His contributions, in my view, were considerable.

  2. Thank you Doctor John, There is a lot of ideas worthy of ponder and perhaps a reply, in this, deserved Hagiography, of your well respected, and influential friend.

    Paul van Pelt says something I would like to comment on;

    “He seemed to lead an untroubled life, though things are rarely what they seem. I think his strong personality—thumbing his nose at detractors—was part of his charm and style. His contributions, in my view, were considerable.”

    Worthy detractors should be given the courtesy of careful consideration, to see if their detract-ions are valid, not with the goal of aligning your ideas with theirs, for surely you are not a true Philosopher if you only seek to join the consensus, but because there is something to be learned from many points of view!

    Daniel Dennett’s Philosophy contained the idea that evolution is a universal solvent, ( Dissolving the past and creating the present ?), I think that this thought is profound, for surely as circumstances change new philosophies will be needed to explain them.

    Philosophies, like Religions, don’t create realities, they seek to explain them.

  3. Will try to combine this essay on Prof. Dennett and your previous post on philosophy and its relation to personal happiness.

    I have not read any of Prof. Dennett’s writings. I only know what snippets I have read of others describing him and his philosophy.
    He (obviously) spent a lifetime immersed in philosophical thought, debate and teaching.
    The picture portrayed of him is of a man happy. Content with who he was and his place in the world. Philosophy did not seem to detract from that.

    Perhaps because it does not seem that philosophy unmoored him from a cherished belief system? (it sounds as though he was never a believer in a super-natural god, so becoming an atheist did not cast him adrift with only cynicism for succor)

    Mostly though, it seems he lived “outside himself”, or “outside his ego”.
    Getting outside our own narrow shell prevents our obsessing on any personal hell.
    The sun is then shining on our wider view.
    Anecdotally, it seems Dr. Dennett enjoyed life in the sunshine.

    Thank you Dr. Messerly, Mr. Russell, and Mr. Van Pelt for both of these last two essays and associated comments.

  4. Doc,

    I remember being first introduced to him on a sheet of paper you handed out in class—too many years ago to mention. Soon thereafter, I found more of his work; his most interesting, to me, were his thoughts on memes. I recall this being a time when the internet community coopted the term for itself—to the best of my memory. This solidified some ideas I had started to formulate about the religious community. At that time, if one sought to find more Dennett, his compadres, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens came in tow—the Four Horsemen. I feel fortunate to have lived in a time when their ideas were introduced and offered so much profundity to the philosophy community. I can see future generations envious of us, knowing we experienced the unfolding of Dr. Dennett’s philosophy in real time.

    Doc, I know you lost a great friend. My condolences to you and yours. I’ll end with something Dr. Dennett would hope we should all strive for….

    The meaning of life, according to Dan: “Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” -DD

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