Long Profile of Daniel Dennett


The New Yorker has published a lengthy article about Daniel Dennett (Tufts), by Joshua Rathman. “Daniel Dennett’s Science of the Soul” delves into the Dennett’s biography and describes some of the philosophical disputes in which his views have been central.

Did you know that Dennett makes his own Calvados and aquavit? That he knows how to install electrical wiring and plumbing? And that he sings Christmas carols without irony? There are more to philosophers than their philosophy.

The article was interesting throughout. Here’s a small taste:

A few years ago, a Russian venture capitalist named Dmitry Volkov organized a showdown between Dennett and Chalmers near Disko Island, off the west coast of Greenland. Before making a fortune investing in Shazam and in the Russian version of PayPal, Volkov was a graduate student in philosophy at Moscow State University, where he wrote a dissertation on Dennett’s work. Now he chartered a hundred-and-sixty-eight-foot schooner, the S/V Rembrandt van Rijn, and invited Dennett, Chalmers, and eighteen other philosophers on a weeklong cruise, along with ten graduate students. Most of the professional philosophers were materialists, like Dennett, but the graduate students were uncommitted. Dennett and Chalmers would compete for their allegiance…

The whole article is here.

 

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Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

There are many philosophers who know how to install wiring and plumbing, cut mortise joints, clear jammed aluminium moulds of excess tare, mix concrete, dig post holes, season timber, program computers, grind lathe bits, and prime plastics moulds. It’s just that the vast majority of us are not also academicians… and probably never will be.

Of the infamous ‘four horsemen’, Dennett is really the only one I have any serious respect for, anymore. Mostly, because instead of getting into public slap-fights with random malcontents on the internet, he’s busy still doing actual work in philosophy. When he goes, there will be a huge hole left to fill.Report

San.
San.
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

What work of his in philosophy of religion do you respect? I have not been impressed by his phil of religion, and I don’t think most philosophers have been either. (I assume you were referring to his phil of religion work, since you mention the four horsemen.)Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  San.
4 years ago

I’m not interested in his philosophy of religion. I’m interested in his writings on consciousness and libertarianism / determinism. Though, Breaking the Spell was admittedly a good read, and an interesting thesis.Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
4 years ago

This is a wonderful and fitting tribute to one of our most important philosophers. Rothman clearly did his homework and spent an enviable amount of time with Dennett. Given that, I was struck by this: “I still can’t quite picture how neurons create consciousness. But, perhaps because I can take a stance toward my mother that I can’t take toward myself, my belief in the “hard problem” has dissolved.” The tension between these two sentences, and the fact that it goes overlooked by someone so engaged with Dennett, is striking to me. It says something, I think, about how hard it can be to do public philosophy.

Rothman demonstrates that he thinks the hard problem is this: there’s something called “consciousness” (that both Dennett and Chalmers think exists) and the issue is whether neurons create it. He thinks the hard problem is dissolved for him because, though he can’t picture how, he’s come around to the view that neurons do indeed create consciousness. And he thinks this amounts to taking Dennett’s position. But this amounts to taking Chalmers’s position, not Dennett’s. Chalmers thinks there’s something called consciousness–something Dennett dismisses as the “Cartesian Theatre”–and he thinks that brain activity creates it. The hard problem, for him, isn’t whether neurons create consciousness, but how they do. This is the issue that Rothman himself mentions as an open one for him as well. For Dennett, there is no hard problem, because there isn’t consciousness in this sense. So in a statement meant to express agreement with Dennett about the hard problem, he gets the problem wrong and, thereby, agrees with Dennett’s main critic in this area.

We can ask whether, when considering public philosophy, it matters that a mistake like this is made. Maybe it doesn’t really, since what matters is getting philosophy in places like the New Yorker. But if what also matters is getting the philosophy right, then this mistake matters.Report

John Schwenkler
Reply to  Matt McAdam
4 years ago

All will be well if you can get this clarification printed as a letter to the editor. Send it in! http://www.newyorker.com/about/contactReport

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
Reply to  John Schwenkler
4 years ago

I’ll be sure to mention you in the letter’s acknowledgements!Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
4 years ago

Rothman’s account seems fine to me.

Dennett does think there’s such a thing about consciousness – he has said so many times, including in the New Yorker article. And he thinks it’s a serious scientific/philosophical question just *how* it arises from the physical workings of the body – his “multiple drafts” proposed solution is the main theme of “Consciousness explained”.

Chalmers thinks what Dennett’s talking about isn’t true consciousness, and conversely, Dennett doesn’t think there’s a dualistic component to consciousness, so if consciousness-in-Chalmers’-sense definitionally includes dualism then Dennett doesn’t think we’re conscious-in-Chalmers’-sense. But the Dennett/Chalmers dispute is precisely whether or not our concept of consciousness has to be consciousness-in-Chalmers’-sense or whether consciousness-in-Dennett’s-sense is sufficient to make sense of consciousness. It prejudges that dispute to assume Rothman means conscious-in-Chalmers’-sense when he uses the term.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

Just as an addendum: Dennett’s talk of the “Cartesian theater” isn’t a dismissal *of* consciousness; it’s a rejection of various intuitive theories and ideas *about* consciousness. (Again, Chalmers et al regard Dennett as rejecting consciousness by rejecting those theories/ideas, because they think they’re constitutive of consciousness; again, that’s exactly the point of contention between them.)Report

Jason Clevenger
Jason Clevenger
4 years ago

I agree with McAdam that for all the great reporting by Rothman, it seems curious that the situation with his mother moved him closer to Dennett’s position. It seems to me that he missed some critical components of Chalmers’ position. In particular he seems to put weight on a “light switch” on-off versus a “sort of” graduated conception of consciousness. But there is nothing I’ve ever seen in Dave’s position that that treats consciousness as an all or nothing proposition. His pan-psychism approach very much allows for a gradation of consciousness throughout the phylogenetic tangle. And in past versions at least it allowed for the possibility of rudimentary consciousness in non-biological systems.
And while Rothman noted that Chalmers allows that consciousness “might be a fundamental property of the universe upon which the brain somehow draws,” he treats the devastating damage to the brain and the corresponding loss of consciousness capacity as a point in favor of Dennett. As the quoted sentence indicates Dave grants that brains are obviously the locus of consciousness in creatures like us. But it is not in virtue of the kinds of properties that contemporary neuroscience is focused on. You will not find the causal mechanism in a Van Essen subway map of brain wiring or in functional MRI scans.
This last point gets at the third issue I have with Rothman’s characterization — that Chalmers position is anti-materialist and that by implication it is some kind of substance dualism (Rothman does not quite say this but he never lays out the different flavors of dualism). My impression is that Dave’s position is more nuanced and not necessarily anti-materialist. Consciousness may well be a property of matter, but not one that we have yet stumbled across. I tend to think of this as anti-phyisicalism — a rejection of the idea that contemporary physics has the concepts/categories/etc. near at hand to provide a complete explanation of the universe. Stated strongly, consciousness is a phenomena of the universe in need of explanation and the tools of physics as currently construed provide no explanatory power.Report

Jason Clevenger
Jason Clevenger
Reply to  Jason Clevenger
4 years ago

As an addendum I think my last point on physicalism aligns with some of David Wallace’s post above. One aspect of the Dennett v Chalmers debate is on the capacity of physics to provide an explanation of the phenomena. And as Wallace points out this may hinge in some way on what our intuitions about consciousness are. However I don’t think Chalmers would agree that his conception “definitionally includes dualism”. Rather consciousness is a phenomena that we are each intimately familiar with and that the zombie arguments show that physics (currently construed) is incapable of explaining it. I think he wants to claim that this is not an argument about the phenomena of consciousness – we should be pretty much in agreement on that. But as his exchanges with Dennett as reported by Rothman show this is not a given.Report