Naturalism Radio Podcast

Nirmukta Exclusive: Interview with Daniel Dennett.

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Professor Daniel C. Dennett hardly needs an introduction. He is heralded as one of the leading figures in the coming-out-into-the-mainstream of atheists and non-religious folk in recent years. Along with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, Dennett’s books have become hugely popular in the secularism movement around the world.

Dr. Dennett is a philosopher first although his ideas are strongly influenced by and develop on scientific ideas. His books have a way of cutting through the philosophical jargon, to present clear ways of thinking about fascinating subjects. He offers examples and analogies that help to make these areas of thought, ranging from consciousness to religion, accessible to all. I recently had the chance to ask him some questions for Nirmukta. Here is that interview:

Me: I’m pleased to introduce prominent philosopher and atheist Dr. Daniel Dennett to our readers and listeners in India. Dr. Dennett is the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and the Director of Cognitive Studies at Tufts university. He is the author of best selling books such as Consciousness Explained, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and more recently Breaking the Spell- Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dr. Dennett, Its a pleasure to talk to you.

Dennett: Delighted to talk to you.

Me: I wanted to start with talking about consciousness. We often hear the word consciousness being thrown around these days. How do philosophers such as yourself think about consciousness?

Dennett: Well, there’s no consensus at all, I’m afraid. There’s a phrase made famous by Tom Nagel in his paper ‘What is it like to be a Bat?’ , that consciousness is when its like something to be something. So its not like anything to be a chair or a brick, but its like something to be you, its like something to be me, and probably something to be a bat. And I think this is a spuriously attractive way of thinking. I think it confuses more than it helps.

Consciousness is, by my way of thinking, the power that some organisms have to not only respond to the world but to respond to their responses; to be able to treat their own responsivity to the world as an object of their attention. And that’s what consciousness is, I think. Now, some people would disagree strongly with that. The reason I think that’s the best way to think about it is that our best reason for believing that each other is conscious is that we can talk about it; we can trade notes. I can say “Are you conscious of that?” and you can say “Yes I am” or “No, I have no access to that at all”. That’s pretty good grounds that you’re not conscious of it.

Me: Many philosophical traditions have tried to understand the mind. What is the best way, in your opinion, to think of the mind- to begin to think about what the mind is?

Dennett: Well, in the 21st century I think we should break with old traditions and recognize that the mind should be studied using the tools of contemporary science, and that means that the way to think of the mind is to understand how the brain IS the mind and how the brain makes all mental properties and phenomena possible. And once you think of it that way, you have to put into registration the two ways we can learn about minds- the third person scientific way and the first person way, the way in which we each know our own minds. And so, the task is to understand what’s going on when a person is consulting his or her own mind- what’s going on when a person is reflecting, is daydreaming, is dreaming, is wondering and so forth.

Me: I’m going to switch topics slightly here and talk about the new age movements- people like Deepak Chopra- who use the word consciousness in a very different sense. For instance, they use it to talk about the inanimate universe, ascribing a form of consciousness to it. What are your thoughts on these kinds of ideas?

Dennett: I think that new age ideas of this sort are insubstantial fluff and its too bad that some people take them seriously. Nobody that I respect in the sciences or in philosophy takes them seriously. They’re sort of like astrology.

Me: In India such ideas are very common, in part probably because this kind of thinking is built into Eastern religious traditions. How does one address these claims of a universal consciousness, if someone was to, you know, bring this up in conversation?

Dennett: Well, now I think you’re asking me a question of diplomacy. I tend to bite my lip and let people mumble on about these things rather than upbraid them or criticize them because I find that people are usually not very receptive to rigorous analysis of their views. But when somebody is receptive, I think its not very difficult to show them that they’re either asserting something so ambiguous and fuzzy that there’s no telling what it means or whether its true or false, or that they’re asserting a falsehood.

Me: Do you think that free-will exists?

Dennett: I think that free-will, in the sense that matters, exists. There are lots of senses of free-will and philosophers have identified some senses of free-will that I think don’t exist, but so what?! We’re not free in the sense of (being) completely cut off from the causal fabric of the universe. In essence, we can’t escape the rough determinism of the physical universe. But we don’t have to. What’s important is that we can avoid disasters; we can anticipate both good and evil and then tailor our behavior to fit, so that we’re not stuck in a fatalistic trap. We have the kinds of freedom that are worth wanting.

Me: So would it be fair then to say that you have a compatibilist view of free-will?

Dennett: Yes, that’s right. I am a compatibilist. And what makes my brand of compatibilism different from earlier versions, such as Hume’s for instance, is that I see the key in biology- in evolutionary biology. Its not physics that explains why we have free-will or don’t, its biology. We have freedom in a way that no other organism does, and the physics is just the same for me and a starfish, but because of the mind I have and because of the mind you have, we are capable of figuring things out and anticipating things and reflecting on our own thoughts. That’s what gives us the freedom that no other organism has.

Me: Philosophers such as Tom Clark and Susan Blackmore have come out strongly against free-will. They argue that free-will is not a necessary illusion as some would contend, but rather unnecessary. Do you think that humans can live without the idea of free-will?

Dennett: Well, I agree with them that there’s no such thing as contra-causal free-will, but I just don’t think that that’s what we ought to understand free-will to mean. Now we’re getting into what is perhaps a semantic debate over whats the misleading use of the word. Both Tom Clark and Sue Blackmore believe that we are responsible creatures in some important sense of whats morally responsible, and that’s the key for me. I would rather treat free-will as that which makes us responsible, because that’s what matters. There isn’t really much disagreement between Clark, Blackmore and me. We just disagree on how to use the terms.

Me: Can morality be defined in purely natural terms?

Dennett: Well, I think that morality can be defined in purely natural terms, but I think that the defense of, the justification of any particular tenets of morality, or of you might say ‘a morality’, is not just a matter of scientific justification. Its a matter, ultimately, of political justification. The science shows you how we got where we are, and what the influences were and what the process was that produced the sort of consensus that we’ve achieved about what’s right and what’s wrong, and that’s an ongoing thing. But what we have to add to that is a consideration of whether we think that’s a good consensus, whether we accept it, whether we endorse it, whether we think its not only the way we are living and the way most of our fellows think we ought to live, but it is the way we ought to live. This final endorsement is itself not an issue for science. But it is an issue for rational discussion. Its the outcome of a process of mutual persuasion which everybody can engage in. And if we achieve success in that- we haven’t yet, but to the extent that we have- we have achieved consensus about what’s right and what’s wrong. And what could be a better foundation for morality than a worldwide consensus about what’s right and what’s wrong?

Me: Dr. Dennett, I’d like to talk about the naturalistic fallacy. What I understand from it is that the naturalistic fallacy is this idea that good and bad are value statements that lie beyond objective reason. Do you think this is true?

Dennett: I think that the idea that good and evil lie beyond all objective fact is true in one very minimal sense and false in the important sense. This is what I was just trying to explain. Let me try again.

If we want to know what the answer to a question in, lets say, multiplication is, we can all sit down and calculate, but we may not all agree because some people may get it wrong. But we have got a very good way of determining, now, this is objectively the right answer. But it really does depend on people converging on the same answer. If they didn’t, mathematics would be a very different sort of endeavor. But we can achieve that sort of convergence, that sort of consensus. And we can do that too on empirical, factual matters, like, what water is; yes, its H2O. That’s a fact, no question about it. But there are other questions- not just ethical questions- where agreement has a different sort of status. Is chess a better game than checkers, or will the game of chess be better if the king can move two spaces rather than one? Now, there is evidence that can be amassed on both sides of the issue. And it the end we might find that no consensus could be achieved, no matter how much people learned about the variant ways of playing chess. The preferability of one game over the other would be a matter of opinion and that would be a subjective matter. But notice that its not subjective in the sort of wild sense. It could be perfectly objective that chess would not be improved by a rule that said that the pawns could be moved up to five spaces at a time. Everybody agrees that that’s a much worse game. It just does not warrant playing.

Now ethical disagreements are like these. They’re just, of course, more important. There may be no settling some issues. Or at least, no settling them now- whether its better to live your life this way rather than that way- but there’s a tremendous amount of agreement. So objective truth and ethics is available on many topics and, to the extent that it is, its not just subjective. Does that show that the naturalistic fallacy is not a fallacy, well, it shows that its ill-posed.

Me: If we can reach agreement on certain moral questions, then the naturalistic fallacy doesn’t apply there…is that..?

Dennett: That’s right. It shouldn’t really bother us.

Me: Would you still say that morality at its fundamental level is still subjective? Because, agreement, isn’t agreement a subjective thing?

Dennett: Well, agreement is subjective only in the trivial sense. That is it is defined as the concordance of opinion between different subjects. There is a sense in which the fact that there is a universal agreement that salt water is not good to drink- that’s just subjective. Well, why? That’s just what everybody thinks. That’s not an important sense of subjective.

Me: Right. You know, sometimes scientists and philosophers tend to say that just because something is good for humanity, you know, because something is evolutionarily advantageous that it is objectively true. You don’t agree with that, do you?

Dennett: No I think any simple minded view that attempts to establish morality on the foundation of evolution is doomed. Evolution is certainly not a process that tends to produce the morally best outcome. Evolution is an extremely cruel process which sacrifices 90% and more of the life forms that it creates just simply to be the food for others. So that something has evolved doesn’t mean its morally good. The aids virus isn’t good. Murder isn’t good. But there’s lots of murder that is driven by genetic factors.

Me: Dr. Dennett, does science have a place in developing our concepts of morality?

Dennett: Oh certainly, science has a place. For one thing, science is telling us more and more about how we make decisions, how we think, what the limitations are on our moral capabilities… and I think that as we learn more about the machinery in our brains that we use to reach our moral decisions, we will be able to formulate a more sound, more realistic, less brittle, less fragile set of principles by which to live.

Me: Lets talk about religion. For the sake of this interview, we are only interested in supernatural religions that require belief in a higher, intelligent god. In Breaking the Spell, you proposed, what was in my mind, a revolutionary way of looking at religion. Can you summarize that view briefly?

Dennett: Well, actually, I’m not sure which part of that view you had in mind…

Me: OK, let me be more specific. I was referring to the parasitic model of religion that you…

Dennett: OK. If we notice that religions of some sort seem to be everywhere in human culture; every human society of every age seems to have had some kind of religion. This inspires many people to conclude that it must be really good for something, because its everywhere. But I want to point out that, no, just because its ubiquitous doesn’t mean its good for us. It may mean that its an infectious bad habit that we cant easily get rid of. The common cold is everywhere too, but it isn’t good for us. Its just good for itself. And the perspective that I take in Breaking the Spell looks at religions, at religious ideas, at religious rituals, religious themes, language, symbols and so forth, as items of culture that have been extremely successful at getting themselves replicated by human beings. That makes them, sort of, cultural viruses. Some of them may be wonderful. After all, most of the viruses that inhabit our body do us no harm, and some of them may actually help us. Taking this perspective, using Richard Dawkins’ concept of the meme as a cultural replicator, we can now recast our analysis of religions in useful terms. We can get a different perspective. We can look at religions and see that although there have been plenty of times when human beings, the priests and the other religious leaders, have attempted to revise their religions to improve them in one way or another, they don’t always succeed and sometimes their best efforts at improvement actually lead to the extinction or harming of their religion. An evolutionary perspective on this gives many insights.

Me: Your view considers religion as primarily being a byproduct of other evolutionarily advantageous traits.

Dennett: That’s right.

Me: But there are other models, such as Dr. Wilson’s idea that a belief in God may be itself adaptive. Where does the evidence point to currently?

Dennett: I don’t think the evidence is strong for any hypothesis that religious belief is currently adaptive. It may have been adaptive at many times in the past. It may well be that before modern science could emerge, before the sort of level of factual knowledge could be established, that religious beliefs were a sort of important glue for holding societies together. They enabled common cause. They enabled co-operation in a way that would not otherwise have been possible. But at this point I think they have become anachronistic. They no longer serve this function well. And they’re so dangerous in other regards that it is time to wean ourselves from these ideas.

Me: Dr. Dennett, atheists like yourself and I, we look at religion and we see it responsible for a lot of the inter-group violence. If I’m not mistaken, I think you would agree with that. But a lot of people look at religion and see the benefits alone. Do you think that the benefits outweigh the negative consequences of religion?

Dennett: That’s a very good question and I don’t know the answer. I’m actually agnostic about that. But I think that the way to address it is instead of just gathering more and more data, which is important to see how it comes out cause its not obvious, is to take steps now that tend to foster the flourishing of those aspects of religion that are clearly benign, rendering more likely to be extinct those aspects of religion that are malignant. I think that we can encourage the evolution of truly benign, non-malignant forms of religion. If we do that we don’t need to worry because we will make it the case that religion does more good than harm.

Me: So would you say that these non-malignant forms of religion are more naturalistic in terms of understanding reality?

Dennett: Well, I think that the benign forms of religion are those that have put off in the distance and made metaphorical any supernaturalistic claims and treated those as just ritualistic, and that adopt a sane and healthy attitude towards reason and evidence, and don’t trust to supernatural powers to solve problems.

Me: You have come out strongly in favor of teaching religion in schools. Can you say why this is a good idea?

Dennett: I think that the malignant forms of religion all depend on enforcing the ignorance on the young. If children in every tradition are simply taught about how many different religious traditions there are and what their histories are; if they’re simply given basic factual knowledge about the history of other religions, and of their own religion – very important to learn about your own religion from an outside point of view- that knowledge base, even a quite slender base of knowledge of that sort, will render those children relatively immune to brainwashing. And that brainwashing is the great source of fanaticism and closed-mindedness among the religious.

Me: Have you faced criticism for this view of yours?

Dennett: Well, a lot of people say that it is unrealistic or that it would be very difficult to implement, and of course that’s true, but I find many people who are very unhappy with it and they can’t figure out why. What they perhaps realize is that they have been thinking that parents, for instance, have the right to misinform their children or to keep their children ignorant about these matters. And they can’t say that out loud, so they’re left more or less stymied.

Me: Dr. Dennett, what is the future of non-religion? In other words, do you believe that we atheists and non-believers will someday live in a truly secular culture?

Dennett: I have high hopes that that is true. Secular/ non-religious people, that category is growing faster than any other category in the world- faster than Mormonism, faster than Islam. So, if present trends continue, we will soon live in that secular world.

Me: Dr. Dennett, its been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much.

Dennett: OK. Good luck with this.

You can listen to and download the interview here.

About the author

Ajita Kamal


  • Excellent interview, Ajita. You asked him all the questions I have wanted to ask him— especially regarding free will compatibilism and the naturalistic fallacy. Well done.

    • Thanks Mike! It was such a great experience that I have decided to do more of this kind of thing.

  • This was very good. I’m less schooled on the philosophical aspects of the interview. However, the questions as well as answers were clear enough for me to better understand Dennet’s position on many issues. Nice job!

  • I’m a newcomer to Nirmukta. I seem to have missed such a great deal of the
    really good stuff, but I’m making efforts to catch up! The interview was excellent. Professor Dennett has spelt out his position on several complex issues with characteristic and persuasive clarity. Along with the books mentioned at the
    beginning of the interview, I’d add an old favourite of mine, ‘The Mind’s Eye’,
    compiled by Drs. Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter. Its fascinating collection of
    27 articles (including those by the anthologists themselves) is as instructive and
    thought-provoking as it is superb,

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