The Dan Schneider Interview 2: Daniel Dennett  (first posted 7/1/07)


DS: This month the Dan Schneider Interviews series interviews one of the intelligentsia’s ‘rock stars,’ philosopher Daniel Dennett. I use the term ‘rock star’ because, despite the dumbed down and deliterate culture we live in, there are still a few public people whose sole claim to fame is their work on ideas, or ideas themselves. You are perhaps one of the few living persons whose resume includes being a philosopher, yet people know of you. More importantly, they argue over you. Some love and others loathe you. I know a bit of that feeling, as my own website full of opinions, Cosmoetica, has made me a target for the lunatic fringe. But before we sink our teeth into some issues- and touch upon things that few others would, let’s presume a Martian has stumbled upon our website, and is clueless as to who Daniel Dennett is, and what he thinks and believes. Can you please give a précis of who you are, what you do, your aims and career to this point, and why we would want to interview you in the first place? And, I have read that you grew up in Beirut, Lebanon- what was it like pre-Israel?


DD: I’m a philosopher, and I’ve written books on the Big Questions: consciousness, evolution, free will, moral responsibility, and even the meaning of life, and most recently, religion as a natural phenomenon. But my approach is unlike that of most philosophers. I’ve always thought that philosophers who attempted to address these issues without first finding out what the relevant sciences could offer in the way of illumination were being intellectually irresponsible. And in the process of mining the sciences for help with the philosophy, I’ve found that scientists could often use my philosophical help with conceptual problems in their fields. It’s been a two-way exchange, and I could only guess how the balance of payments stands. Happily, both philosophers and scientists take me seriously enough to disagree vigorously with me about some of my attempted contributions.  As you say, there are also those who loathe me, and a few who make it a point of honor not to admit to learning anything from me, but I view that as sign that I’m unsettling them—which is what Socrates told us was the main point of philosophy.

I’m often described as a cognitive scientist, and since I spend more time and energy working with cognitive scientists than with academic philosophers, and often teach courses in cognitive science, this is not inaccurate, but my academic training, such as it is, is in philosophy. For decades, however, I’ve been lucky to have mentors and informants in the cognitive and biological sciences who have informally educated me in their fields, and thanks to their tutelage, and lots of reading and questioning,  I can hold my own pretty well in the fields I cover. 

I was born in Boston—not Beirut, a mistake that has somehow crept into some biographical notes. I moved with my family to Beirut when I was about 2 or 3 and lived there only till I was five. My father, with the same name (I’m actually DCD III, but I’ve never used it), was in the OSS and had a diplomatic cover as cultural attaché at the American Legation there. He was a historian of Islam, and very knowledgeable about the history and language of the Arabs. I have lots of “memories” of Beirut in my childhood—by now an unsortable scramble of genuine memories, memories-of-memories-of-memories, and things people later told me.  Since I spent much of my waking life interacting with children who spoke Arabic or French or both, I must have been fairly comfortable, as kids are, with those languages, but most of it evaporated when we left Beirut. My mother never learned more than shopping Arabic, and her French was comically bad.


DS: My first foray into the arts world was in poetry, and despite the online proliferation of poetry websites, the fact is that poetry is more irrelevant to modern society than ever before. There are, almost literally, more people writing poetry than reading it, which manifestly causes problems in terms of saleability. Yet, if poetry is obscure, philosophy seems to be almost dead in the public arena. Aside from a college course, if one were to toss out the names of a handful of dead Greeks, up to Schopenhauer or Wittgenstein, most people would not even be moved to shrug. Perhaps only Nietzsche would get a rise, and that only for the presumed Nazi connections. Why is philosophy (i.e.- ideas) so dead in these days? Is it because, as I define things, philosophy is ideas, but art is ideas in motion, and our society is increasingly frenetic?


DD: Yes, times have changed. It’s hard for me to believe that Kant’s CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON was a controversial best-seller when it appeared, but philosophy isn’t dead today. In fact I think philosophy is making a comeback in something still recognizable as its traditional role as clarifier, provoker, persuader on the issues of utmost importance. Over roughly a century, philosophy became very self-conscious about its methods, hyper-cautious and technical and inbred, while it worked its way out of the excesses of its 19th century heroes. I think John Rawls’ magnificently ambitious book, A THEORY OF JUSTICE (1972), showed the way back to public attention, capturing the imagination of academics in other fields—economics, political science, and jurisprudence, mainly—as well as politicians and pundits.  When philosophers speak only to philosophers, the result is usually pretty picayune.


DS: Thus, you seem to be assenting, that like other professions, a sort of incestuousness or hermeticism is the worst enemy of ideas in public. So, if ideas are not dead, how about their communion and exchange? Why is discourse and dialectic dead? Yes, there are blog wars and the like, but that’s at pre-teen levels, and usually about the most ephemeral and unimportant things- politics, pop culture, etc. Really deep and profound things are not broached. Or, if they are, they are touched upon in such a dumbed down way as to be worthless. Recently, the ABC television (which in recent years has become a shill for all things pro-Christian) aired, on Nightline, a ‘debate’ on God between a former sitcom star, Kirk Cameron, and his vapid guru, and two almost equally dumb atheists who offer a ‘Blasphemy Challenge’ online. These nitwits are associated with a bad video called The God Who Wasn’t There, made by- what else?- a recovering religion addict. I reviewed the film, and these folks are as dogmatic as the religiots. When I’ve seen videos of you or other intellectuals debating on a topic, you are usually pitted against the Lowest Common Denominator representative of dissenting opinion, rather than a serious theologian. It’s akin to having a Black Panther and Klansman debate race. Where have the old Firing Line Debates gone?


DD: Firing Line is not my idea of really good intellectual debate in public. Too many cheap debating tricks and interruptions. There is a widespread belief among media types that “talking heads” won’t hold people’s attention unless it is tricked out with lots of fancy graphics (sex and car chases, up a notch, you might say) or very short, hyped-up attention-spans (think The McLaughlin Group). But there are some striking disproofs of that. The Dutch series hosted by Wim Keyser, called “A Glorious Accident” was hours upon hours of high-level uninterrupted, gracefully edited discussion among some very serious people (plus Rupert Sheldrake, who didn’t really belong there), and it was hugely successful all over the world.  Bill Moyers has done some programs with fairly challenging content.  Maybe the networks will risk some riveting thinking in real time as a way of combating the cables and the re-runs. I think it might work.


DS: Generally, I’ve found Moyers to be a pedantic faux intellectual, but things intellectual are not even touched upon in most dialectics. It all devolves to feelings on something, not ideas. I’ve found many atheists, like theists, or believers in any other belief system, believe something out of a gut feeling, then stick to it and justify it no matter what contradicts their belief. What is this current obsession with emotion over reason? Children in school, who are flunking, are not left back anymore, lest their self-esteem be crushed. I say, let the morons know they’re dumb and they may be shamed into trying harder. In the arts- and especially criticism, this is a killer. It galls me how so many critics merely speak of liking or disliking a book or film. Putting aside the game-playing and lack of real criticism to not offend potential contacts for their own future publication, the like-dislike axis of thought is ridiculous, for it is based upon a whole different set of criteria. As example, I can state that I feel a disconnect to the poetic corpus of Robert Frost, yet Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening is one of the most perfect works of art created, and I could write pages intellectually defending that claim. I absolutely love the movies Tokyo Story, by Yasujiro Ozu, and Godzilla’s Revenge. Yet, I can intellectually differentiate Ozu’s masterpiece from the cute, but childish, film I loved when young. Most people cannot. In fact- be it ideas, art, politics, most people simply play to their emotional predispositions on a thing, then justify it intellectually. And the more their position is denuded or shown as absurd the more they dig in. What is behind this, in general, and what, in recent decades, has accelerated this trend?


DD: Well, not everyone can see what is wrong with a specious argument, or come up with an original interpretation of something complex, but everyone can have feelings.  As long as we stick to feelings, nobody can be exposed as making a mistake.  But people know better; on the topics that matter to them, they don’t settle for feelings. If you make me a car or a computer or, for that matter, a gourmet meal, you better be an expert, and if you make any mistakes, I’ll let you know.


DS: In the arts, I would say that Postmodernism has been the main culprit. Number two would be Political Correctness. In art, there blooms, instead of criticism of the idea or thing, a criticism of intent. This places greater weight on what the person attempted (or what the critic merely claims was attempted) than what was actually accomplished. Obviously, this plays into claims of subjectivity and objectivity. While there’s little doubt that various –isms have suppressed the works of women and minorities through the eons, the attempt to totally scrap notions of excellence seems self-defeating. Manifestly it has unleashed reams of bad art in the last few decades- far more and far worse than the reams of bad art produced in the eons before, and most of it suckled at the tit of the NEA. My wife worked in science, and she has said that that field, as well, has seen bureaucratization kill all exploration and inquiry. Has your work been affected by these trends? In what ways? Are PoMo and PC showing any signs of loosening their death grip on Academia?


DD:  I think both PoMo and PC are on the edge of extinction, and good riddance to them. It is disconcerting to find some undergraduates still mouthing the threadbare slogans of subjectivity and lazy relativism, so I guess there are still professors out there selling these wares, but they are not in fashion any more. Quaint, like Freudians and Communists.

    As for science, I think it’s interesting that women have played a disproportionate role in pioneering new ideas. A few years ago I hosted a series at Tufts University, where I teach, entitled “Iconoclasts on the Frontiers of Science” and all four of the speakers were women:  Lynn Margulis, Elizabeth Bates, Sue Blackmore and Elaine Morgan. What explains this?  I think part of the answer is simple, and Janis Joplin said it (Kris Kristofferson wrote it): Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. Not being part of the ‘old boy network’ of grants and positions, women have had less to lose in taking huge chances with their scientific careers.


DS: I actually interviewed Margulis and her son, Dorion Sagan, a few years ago. It was quite an interesting interview, ranging from Emily Dickinson to the origins of life. A few years ago I saw this documentary on the Weather Underground and the thing that stood out the most in my mind, after it was done, was that only in Academia, could people who were terrorists not be shunned but rewarded with tenure. And the arts world is just as bad: about a decade or so ago, I recall that when a former SLA member, Kathleen Soliah, was captured, there were many in the Twin Cities arts community (where I then lived) who cheered her on, even as they damned the anti-abortion and Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph. I recall even being onstage, one evening, after the host of a local cabaret declared Soliah a heroine, and stating that the only differences between her and Rudolph were political extremes and his greater competency at bomb-making. Similarly, one will find Leftists defending killers like Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier, while the Right alibis for a David Koresh. Yet, such stupidity is not limited to politics. A few years later, at a museum exhibit of ‘The Works Of Yoko One,’ my wife and I saw that same cabaret host looking at a blank sheet of paper with a dot on it, and being dumbfounded, declaring that Ono was ‘so profound.’ In short, what the hell is wrong with such people these days? How the hell can a university president justify hiring such people?


DD: Terrorists aren’t rewarded with tenure in academia.  Somebody with tenure might, surely, become a terrorist—or an embezzler, or a serial killer, or what have you. But I don’t know of anybody known to be a terrorist or terrorist sympathizer being given tenure. Universities and colleges typically bend over backwards to avoid using political views as a qualification for tenure, but the chances of a university giving tenure to a public supporter of terrorism are about as slim as the chances for a proselytizer for NAMBLA (the North American Man Boy Love Association). 


DS: I’d refer you to the linked film, which was actually featured on PBS’s American Experience show. Former Weathermen were indeed basking in Academic sinecures. On to some positives, though. I think that science writing is in an absolute Golden Age. Not only are great ideas bubbling forth, but the actual writing, on the page, is good, lucid, compelling, and makes good use of metaphor to appeal to both intellectuals and the laity. I think this trend started in the mid-1970s, with the rise of folk like Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and later, Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, you, and many others. Yes, there were exceptions, years ago- Loren Eiseley stands out, but by and large the science books of the first half of the 20th Century were snoozers, as if scientists did not realize part of their job was to engender public support for the exploration of the cosmos. Why do you think that the reviews of most books on science, history (think Daniel J. Boorstin or David McCullough), or politics always devolve down to whether or not the author is seen as correct in some assertions, and not whether their wordsmithing abilities are up to snuff? More PoMo? Is not the way an idea is presented or argued as important as its intellectual merits, lest the great idea won’t disseminate? And, if science really is in a Golden Age, why are Americans so goddamned ignorant of science?


DD:  I agree that this is something of a Golden Age for science writing for the educated public, and could triple your short list of good writers among scientists.  Then there are the novelists who are deeply interested in scientific topics and write wonderfully about them:  Richard Powers and Ian MacEwan and David Lodge come to mind, but older writers like John Updike and John Barth and Thomas Pynchon have also been touched by the muse of science.

     Why are Americans so ignorant?  Probably because they were taught cookbook science in school and driven away from it.  I was lucky to have a few inspiring science teachers (in addition to the bored old football coach who led us mindlessly through the biology textbook that censored itself about evolution). One physics teacher said “Science taught right IS one of the humanities” and so it is. Just the best sort of mind-candy, with lots of delights and surprises. 


DS: Yes, I still recall a great science teacher from my Junior High years- Ronald Wallenfels. To this day I still recall three incidents: 1) his excitement over the discovery of Pluto’s moon, Charon, 2) his passing around of a pickled human fetus in class, and frankly discussing abortion, and 3) his inviting of a Vietnam vet friend of his to class, and the story that solder told of having to kill a Vietnamese child who might have given away his company’s position. Too many teachers, these days, lack any of the vision and concern for students that he had. Instead, they are dull, and craven, and will not stand up to the bullies on school boards, nor dumb ass parents. Back to the main thread, though: what of the movement toward art as therapy? Does this abnegate the art and craft of art? Also, since real artists are naturally more empathetic and sensitive toward the world, this allows those mentally ill or unbalanced, whose problems may include heightened sensitivity, to delude themselves they are artists- and when they cannot match their sensitivity with talent, this claim that ‘everyone is creative,’ or that ‘everyone is an artist,’ does far more damage in the long run than the fallacious claims that the mentally unbalanced are ‘artists’ does to their egos in the short term. Some argue that ‘everyone is creative,’ yet my wife says that such a claim is akin to claiming ‘everyone is athletic,’ simply by virtue of exercising one’s lungs during respiration. This also leads into the noxious, ‘everything is subjective’ fallacy because, if that were true, the claim by the claimants would not even be worth making, since it would be unnecessary to state, for nothing would be worth asserting.


DD: I don’t think this is a problem. Art as therapy is fine—we just don’t have to buy the art!  Experiencing second-rate art is one of the best ways to come to appreciate first-rate art.  I think art historians miss a trick when they fill their lectures with slides of only the best paintings in any genre.  I never appreciated how great some artists were until I went to quite a few second-rank museums in Europe and saw the works of their contemporaries.  How do you tell truly great impressionism from shlock impressionism if you never see any of the latter?  Similarly, I think it is wonderful that many not very talented people who love music sing in choruses and play in community orchestras, garage bands, and the like. (Count me among them.)  I think in fact that amateur efforts in the arts are the best cure for what you call the “everything is subjective” fallacy. One reflects: if everything is subjective, why can’t I draw [sing, play, write] like these high-paid folks?


DS: I’ve often said that great art is hermetic, and tell young poets not to only study the greatest poems, but more those near great poems, because there you see the arc toward perfection, but the few flaws give you an ‘in’ to the mechanism. A great poem- or any other art, does not. Let me now gently segue into one of the areas you are most well known for- your atheism. Many artists seem to deny their own creativity, pawning it off on God, or some other force or demiurge. I call this the Divine Inspiration Fallacy. There is no Muse. For better or worse, it’s all me, or you, or any artist. Comments on its existence, origins, verity?


DD:  There are competing themes here: “ME, I’m the Artist, the Creator, the God-like Author of this work of art” vs. “I’m just the messenger, the slave to Art (or God, or the Muses, or . . .)”  As Mozart once famously “said” of his musical ideas: “Whence and how do they come?  I do not know and I have nothing to do with it.”  (He probably never said it, but it’s a great line.)  But then Picasso says Je ne cherche pas; je trouve as if he could leap like an angel from artistic peak to artistic peak. To which I reply: merde.  All art is an inseparable mix of trial and error, some stupid and some clever, copying ideas from others, putting oneself in a position to see connections that others would see just as readily if you hadn’t got there first.  Nobody is completely original—or should want to be; we all build our little contributions on the efforts of others.


DS: Yes, originality is overrated. Greatness can be original, Classical, or somewhere in the midst of the two extremes. That said, are you a strong (Capital A) Atheist or a weak (lower case) atheist? The former is an extremist and dogmatist, every bit as unhinged as religious psychotics, for one simply cannot disprove the existence of something that is immaterial by design. It denies not only deities, but their possibility. I argued with a couple of unhinged Atheists and finally got both to admit the obvious- that the only logical position to take on gods (or things like alien abduction claims) is agnosticism- or a lack of knowledge. As finite beings we have to state that we simply cannot know, due to our limitations. The latter is a logical person, and someone synonymous with an agnostic. Their brand of atheism simply rejects theism as an explanation. Atheists I find to have far more in common with Theists, in their obduracy and dishonesty, yet such stances are the norm in civil discourse- be it on religion or anything else.


DD: Gee, I guess I wouldn’t want to be a capital A Atheist! It sounds so, well, extremist and dogmatic. But I find agnosticism about God to be not worth the trouble of articulating. Which God, by the way?—there are so many, and so different—as different as prime ministers and prime numbers and prime ribs. I like Katherine Hepburn’s nice dismissal of the question (in an interview with Barbara Walters, if memory serves)—she simply dismissed the whole issue of whether “God” existed as not worth any discussion.


DS: Yet, despite my anti-religious views, I recently had a job as a telephone salesman, trying to sell alumni books to fraternal organizations and schools, and this led me to speak to many religious folk- especially in the clergy and missionaries. And I have to admit that the really religious- despite whatever blinders they wear, were FAR happier and focused in their lives than the anomic suburbanites or career-oriented MBAs. Does this speak more to religion’s offer, materialism’s lack (materialism in the financial sense), or the fact that religion is, as Karl Marx suggested, ‘the opium of the people.’ Speaking of Marx, why is it that religiots always equate atheists with Communism? First, the lack of a belief in a supernatural deity was a minor part of that philosophy. Second, that lack was always just lip service, as former Communist states are amongst the most religious around. And, third, Communism- like Fascism, was really a secular religion, with the cult of personality for the leader- Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, as mortal God, therefore it’s wholly inaccurate for Communism to be equated with atheism, since it clearly had godheads, and texts- Mao’s Little Red Book, anyone?


DD: There is no doubt that many religions make many people happier than they otherwise would be. The same is true, as you say, of opium. Probably—I wonder if this research has been done—being an impassioned major league baseball team fan has similarly bracing effects.  I find that scientists and philosophers seem to be happier than bankers and stockbrokers, by and large, but that’s just anecdotal. I haven’t done any careful studies.  Several studies show that paraplegics are, in general, more satisfied and happy with their lives than people not confined to wheel chairs!  This fascinating—and heartening—fact shows that some of our ‘obvious’ convictions about quality of life are just wrong. But I’m not going to start toasting to the future of my friends’ children by wishing that they become paraplegics.


DS: Indeed. Here is a definition of psychosis: a derangement of the mind characterized by defective or lost contact with reality; evidenced by delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized thought or behavior. I claim that, by that definition, all organized religion is fundamentally psychotic. Do you agree?


DD: There is definitely a similarity, but more interesting are the differences: most deeply religious people can be entirely effective and clearheaded agents on behalf of their curious beliefs. Nothing disorganized about their behavior.


DS: Why is belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing deity seen as normal? After all, if God (the Christian Yahweh) is all powerful, the existence of evil means he is not all good. And if all good, evil means he is not all powerful. Despite many attempts at subversion, no theist has EVER been able to move this Rock (of Ages). They do not even bother anymore, for they know they cannot. Similarly, if God is all knowing, that means he knows all things at all times, including the future, therefore free will is an illusion, and all we think we choose to do is illusive. Again, this is immutable logic, and no theist has even come close to giving a well-argued answer. Are there any answers? Can there be?


DD:  Well, there are some very clever practitioners of ‘philosophical theology’ who spend their energy coming up with responses to this, the age-old Problem of Evil, but I call it intellectual tennis without a net. You get to make up the rules as you go along.


DS: You have also stated that every religiot is an atheist, save for their own god. Christians are Norse and animist atheists. Let me ask you about newer religions, specifically one I think few realize even has millions of adherents. And I do not mean New Age, but Alien Abductees. You must know of the work of the late John Mack, and his work with claimed alien abductees. He grew to believe in the mythos. I am a writer, and highly interested in folklore, thus my interest in such beliefs (or things like ghosts, lake monsters, hairy bipeds) is that they are great indicators of where a culture is at. Perhaps the best indicator of this cultural folklore is the magazine Fate. In the case of alien abduction, UFOs and their occupants were initially seen as benevolent Nordic deities, rescuers of mankind from nuclear Armageddon- ala in the classic Robert Wise film The Day The Earth Stood Still. People like that were called contactees, and had manifest parallels to religious prophets. Then came the Betty and Barney Hill case, in the mid-1960s, although it did not get out till a decade later, and UFO occupants went from Nordics or reptilians to the classic Gray aliens obsessed with human sexuality, as detailed in the noted Whitley Strieber book Communion. Yet, they clearly serve the same role as angels do in the Western religions, and have many of the same powers. Few see this as a religion. Perhaps only Carl Jung, fifty years ago, was prescient enough to see a potentially great (in the powerful sense) religion aborning. Yet, recent studies on brain structure and altered consciousness, show that the same areas of the brain are stimulated during alcohol consumption and drug use as during people amidst ‘visions.’ Those visions can be talking to God, schizophrenic voices from the ether or animals- ala the Son Of Sam murder case, out of body experiences (OBEs), Near Death Experiences (NDEs), seeing the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVMs), claimed past life memories, or alien abduction claims. Given that, however slim the chances are that current UFO claims are real, they are far more likely than an all-pervasive deity, is not a study of this phenomenon worthy of more scientific scrutiny- both for its own possible scientific worth, psychological worth, or religious import. Thus, why are people who claim to be alien abductees looked upon askance while those who see the Virgin Mary not?


DD: There are good reasons to believe that many who claim to be alien abductees have actually had a traumatic sexual experience at the hands of some abusing member of the family, or other sexual abuser. For them this is just the socially easiest way of “explaining” their traumatic memories, and their PTSD symptoms, and they may be entirely sincere in their hallucinated memories. (So John Mack was probably half right: these people had indeed had a terrible experience; it just wasn’t with aliens.)  The phenomenon should be studied with a suitably rigorous methodology (not the way Whitley Strieber “investigated” it).  But that’s tough, since ethical and legal problems arise immediately. That’s no accident. It’s an instance of Nicholas Humphrey’s Argument from Unwarranted Design (in his excellent book LEAPS OF FAITH). Now why should it be that the juiciest and most contagious tales of horror and wonder always seem to involve circumstances that are systematically difficult to investigate?  These myths spread because they can spread, just like the virus for the common cold.


DS: Yes, you have often stated that religiots conveniently make their gods always just beyond scientific purview. The same can be said with more terrestrial (or extraterrestrial) claims of supernature. When I was six, I drowned in a lake, and recall seeing my body floating above ‘me,’ yet I did not have the classic tunnel of light experience. In fact, most research shows that the popular idea of going toward the light and seeing some religious figure (Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, etc.) is less common than portrayed. Yet, I did have what might be called a mystic experience. Yet, as I have aged, I realize this was my mind under stress, and perhaps an early expression of my creative and abstract thought processes- ones which led me to poetry; although I always had a way with words. Why was I able to make such a distinction while others cannot- be they of aliens, gods, or the like?


DD:  I have no idea.


DS: Before we move on, I have to say that I detest the sort of PC term that you have embraced for your atheism and agnosticism, and I do so as a lover of words- not because of philosophic disagreement. The term ‘Bright’ is a very weak neologism. Brights sounds like a bunch of smarty-pants kids wearing beanies with propellers on top, and out of touch with reality. I don’t dislike it because of its smugly ‘holier than thou (intellectually)’ appeal, which you tackled in an argument, but because it is far too contrived and puerile a term. The best terms for people come not from naming themselves- were that true the names most people give themselves would be far more original than ‘the people,’ which is what 90% of tribal names devolve down to, but from the evolution of the term over time. As example, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins claimed that Gay is succinct, uplifting, positive: an ‘up’ word, where homosexual is a down word, and queer, faggot and pooftah are insults. Those of us who subscribe to no religion; those of us whose view of the universe is natural rather than supernatural; those of us who rejoice in the real and scorn the false comfort of the unreal, we need a word of our own, a word like ‘gay’…Like gay, it should be a noun hijacked from an adjective, with its original meaning changed but not too much. Like gay, it should be catchy: a potentially prolific meme. Like gay, it should be positive, warm, cheerful, bright.

Right here, the problem of contrivance and micro-management emerges. There is no natural nor organic synthesis and evolution of the term, which might be apropos for what is described. Bright fails on all scores, and has proven to be a very unsuccessful meme. Agnostic, on the otherhand, is a big catch-all that can include secular humanists, atheists, and irreligiots of all stripes. Furthermore, gay emerged as a term for homosexual over decades- it was not a neologism, but a subtle hijacking. Gay is also a term that equalizes that group with the majority, whereas bright puts its group above the majority. And Dawkins betrays some of his own lack of knowledge over the way words- particularly gay, evolve, when he suggests that ‘queer’ is an insult. In fact, I know many gays who prefer the term queer, for it suggests militancy and strength, where as gay plays into the fey and effeminate stereotypes of homosexuals. Like gay, queer can be used as an insult, but so can any term, with connotation. In and of itself, it is not pejorative.

In short, neologisms like bright tend to succeed only when there is a void to fill, not when they are given Madison Avenue-like deliberation. Sans the void, and with plenty of better and more specific options, neologisms die. Bright is a bad term, ill-defined, inappropriate, and superfluous. Even Political Correctness, at least, has some worth in its reality as Left Wing Fascism, rather than what it purports to be. Also, it’s part of the American movement of dishonestly labeling things- be it pro-abortionists and anti-abortionists who call themselves pro-choice and pro-life, or creationists who call themselves Intelligent Designers. It just seems a pathetic way to go. Thoughts on the merits of the word?


DD: You’re wrong about Dawkins. The term ‘queer,’ began as an insult, and has been defiantly adopted by some homosexuals, and I’m sure he knows that. “Bright” isn’t a neologism, but a hijacking of an existing word. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t.  The jury is still out on ‘bright:”—just as it was on “gay” for several decades. Many homosexuals hated the term, but they’ve largely come around to appreciating how valuable it has been, politically. “Agnostic” is a recent neologism, as words go, and it is, as Dawkins notes, pretty bland. I am no more agnostic about the existence of Jehovah or the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth than I am about the existence of the tooth fairy. But others may like the term; they are then one of the subvarieties of brights, along with what you call capital A Atheists and many other flavors of disbelief and naturalism


DS: On to another form of evolution. Let’s move on to some of your works. I have read many articles you’ve written, plus a few books. I own Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution And The Meanings Of Life, as well as Consciousness Explained. The former book I thought was good, but the latter is the book I feel will be considered your seminal work, and read centuries hence, even if its posits are disproved. It lays out a coherent vision, which is what all important written works do- fictive or scientific. It does not get too deep, in the textbooky sense. In DDI, you recapitulate what many evolutionists claim- that evolution is random and basically blind. This seems rather innocuous a claim, and something that, even as a child, seemed wholly proper to me. Yet, it raises such ire from the religiots. Why? As Carl Sagan might have intoned, is not creation- the fact that things exist rather than not, all the more fascinating if there is no creator? It seems to me that emergent complexity is a fascinating thing, if not outright synergistic. Beyond religious dogma, is there any other explanation to this resistance that you can posit?


DD:  I am happy that Carl Sagan, whom I never met, pronounced Darwin’s Dangerous Idea a “breath of fresh air” and although, as you say, it does not put forward as radical or systematic a theory as Consciousness Explained does, it exposes many if not all of the reasons why people who aren’t the least bit religious are still uncomfortable with this great, dangerous idea. Darwin’s brilliant stroke unites the realm of meaning and purpose on the one hand with the scientific realm of matter and causation, but it does this by overturning a cherished idea: it takes a big smart fancy thing to create a lesser thing.  This is indeed a ‘strange inversion of reasoning” as an early critic, MacKenzie, said, and some people just can’t get their heads around it.  I’ve been fascinated to watch some philosophers and even some evolutionary biologists squirm when they try to come to terms with the inexorable version of Darwin’s idea I present there.


DS: Aside from Darwinian theory, it seems that such claims are just more anthropocentrism, along the lines of that used to justify a cosmos with life. Yet, to me it’s simply a tautology. I.e.- when someone claims that the gravity (or some other aspect) of the cosmos is just so perfect for life, I say, well, obviously, or we’d not be here. But that does not in any way imply such a fact was just mere fortuity (from our perspective) and happenstance. I state that it could just as easily not be, and some increasing computer models of dark energy, dark matter, and the effects of gravity, seem to suggest that the omniverse, or the supercosmos, could be littered with a billion barren universes for every populated one. Therefore it’s negating a whole spectrum for a black and white proposition. Given enough cosmoses, or planets, life is bound to be found there, even if only a fraction of a percent of all possible universes or worlds have such. And, if the number of cosmoses and worlds is infinite, so too are the chances for life. This means life is not an example of exceptionalism, but of inevitability.


DD: Well, there’s something to what you say, but I’d put it differently. Like you, I don’t find the curious life-friendliness of our universe (the part we can see) as a sign of anything momentous. After all, much more than 99 percent of all the animals that have ever been born have died childless, but not a single one of your ancestors did! Isn’t that spooky!


DS: Good point. It’s as absurd as declaiming that the very reason for the whole of creation, however many billions or trillions of years ago, was simply so that I could ask you this series of questions. To me, that’s incredible hubris. Before I move on to Consciousness Explained, let me sidestep a moment to your views on the late Stephen Jay Gould? You spent a good portion of DDI ‘tattooing his intellectual ass.’ What did you think of him as a thinker, scientist, and man? I ask because there was a famed brouhaha between the two of you. My opinion of Gould is generally favorable. In an essay and review of his final book I wrote:

While his prose was not as polished as Loren Eiseley’s (by comparison his has a dearth of true poetry and a surfeit of such terms as maximal, contingent, magisterial, and canonical), the man from whom he picked up the torch of science essayry from, he was, along with astronomer Carl Sagan (who died six years earlier than Gould), perhaps America’s greatest popularizer of science and learning. Yes, he had faults. His almost comical misinterpretation of the fossils found in the Burgess Shale, in his 1989 book Wonderful Life (one of his few published books that was not a collection of previously published essays), was totally devastated by Simon Conway Morris’s 1998 book The Crucible Of Creation. He also denied that there were any trends in evolution when arguing against linearity or determinism, an addendum which kyboshed an otherwise valid point. And, despite his defense and hagiography of Charles Darwin’s life, all the while undermining Darwinism’s mechanism with his own ideas of the theory of Punctuated Equilibrium (developed with Niles Eldredge), Gould was correctly seen by rivals such as Richard Dawkins as often overstating his ideas about evolution, and not taking seriously enough the threat to science and rationalism posed by the troglodytic mindset of Creationists and their ilk. To his credit, in this book’s preface, Gould admits his occasional faux pas: ‘Although I have frequently advanced wrong, or even stupid, arguments, at least I have never been lazy.’

Would you generally agree with that assessment? You too seem to feel Gould totally flubbed the Burgess Shale fossils. In effect, he claimed that the Cambrian Explosion could have led to wholly different bodily forms than the symmetrical sort we see now. He mistook body parts for whole bodies, looked at front ends of bodies as rears, ups as downs, etc., and generally tried to impose his presuppositions for reality. Yet, despite that, he was a tireless defender of rationalism, even if his conclusions differed from others. If you agree with that view of Gould, why the hell are not real debates and disagreements in science, such as you vs. Gould, put out for debate amongst the masses? Despite what one might have thought of the political opinions of a Phil Donahue or William F. Buckley, their old tv shows encouraged high debate, rather than Oprah Winfreyan (or Jerry Springerian) nonsense.


DD:  I see Gould quite differently. He was an academic bully, who exploited his scientific credentials to push his political views—or maybe they were closer to religious views. (Remember: I started out as a friend of his; I often attended his seminars at Harvard but eventually I got so annoyed with the way he would misrepresent his critics and bully the students that I had to leave.) When I wrote DDI, I knew I was going to have to expose Gould’s history of misrepresentation—since he was going to hate my book, and would pillory it with his usual tricks if I didn’t attempt to preempt that vilification effort with an analysis of his own work. Gould had been selling America a watered-down and distorted version of basic evolutionary theory for decades, and when I pointed this out, he reacted--not unreasonably!-- with a venomous attack on what he called my “Darwinian fundamentalism,” but, you know, the evolutionary biology community knew I was right, and said so. (I am not alone in incurring Gould’s wrath: I’m proud to stand with Richard Dawkins, the late, great John Maynard Smith and Steve Pinker, as sane and forthright a team of “fundamentalists” as one could ask for.)  Gould could never accept that natural selection is fundamentally a sorting algorithm, and kept hunting for some softening of that fact—limiting the role of natural selection itself, or elevating ‘constraints’ that would subdue it. He never found any worth keeping, but he tried hard. Punctuated equilibrium, the Cambrian explosion, and exaptation all turn out to be interesting wrinkles in orthodox (“ultra”) neo-Darwinian theory, not challenges to it. And today we still have to face creationists (such as Senator Brownback) who think that Gould’s punctuated equilibrium shows that the theory of evolution is not established.  That’s part of Gould’s legacy, sad to say. He didn’t actively discourage the idea that he’d found a major flaw in the theory of evolution by natural selection.

            I don’t know whether a protracted debate between me and Gould on television would have worked in any case. He was not above pulling rank, and was a master of insinuation. Certainly in our infrequent public confrontations after my book came out, he did not behave in a principled manner.


DS: So, do you feel that Gould, and those with his views, are actually ‘useful idiots’ [to co-opt Stalin] for the intellectual revanchism of the anti-scientific Christian Right? That’s a pretty harsh claim, given his frequent attacks on Creationist nonsense, even if your views came into conflict. Do you think they viewed him as an ally?


DD:  Phillip Johnson, the Berkeley law professor and author of Darwin on Trial, one of the leading ideologues and strategists of the Intelligent Design movement, has an essay about Gould entitled The Gorbachev Of Darwinism in which he makes pretty much that claim. A bit unfair, of course, but with more than a little truth in it.


DS: Hmm….interesting link, although Johnson reminds me of the kid at a party who whispers the gossip of others into children’s ears, just to see them tussle. Do you think this because the mass media sees these disagreements between scientists as minor examples of infighting, rather than the Apocalyptic showdown between Big Religion and Big Science? And why are you (or Pinker, Dawkins, et al.) constantly pitted against, let’s face it, troglodytes and absurdists, rather than each other, when there are legitimate disagreements between folk like you and Gould, who- whatever your intellectual differences, was far more an ally against benightedness than foe? These sorts of arguments seem infinitely more interesting than those same old well-debunked ones with theists.


DD: I agree that arguments with theists are seldom as interesting as almost any good scientific disagreement.


DS: And, just what are your views on Gould’s ideas of Punctuated Equilibrium? Here is how Gould replied to your criticisms:

Dennett first attacks my view that punctuated equilibrium is the dominant pattern of evolutionary change in the history of living organisms. This theory, formulated by Niles Eldredge and me in 1972, proposes that the two most general observations made by paleontologists form a genuine and primary pattern of evolution, and do not arise as artifacts of an imperfect fossil record. The first observation notes that most new species originate in a geological ‘moment.’ The second holds that species generally do not change in any substantial or directional way during their geological lifetimes- usually a long period averaging five to ten million years for fossil invertebrate species. Punctuated equilibrium does not challenge accepted genetic ideas about the rates at which species emerge (for the geological ‘moment’ of a single rock layer may represent many thousand years of accumulation). But the theory does contravene conventional Darwinian expectations for gradual change over geological periods, and does suggest a substantial revision of standard views about the causes of long-term evolutionary trends. For such trends must now be explained by the higher rates at which some species branch off from others, and the greater durations of some stable species as distinguished from others, and not as the slow and continuous transformation of single populations.

It seems to me a pretty good assessment of how most things evolve: stasis, then a period where rapid change (even if measured in centuries or eons, it’s rapid by geologic standards) occurs, and then stasis again. Your take?


DD: First, he misrepresents my criticisms of his position. Second, his claim that species generally do not change in any substantial or directional way during their geological lifetimes is either true by geological definition (that’s how you identify a species, geologically) or else hard to judge. My objection to Gould on punc eq was mainly that he often claimed it was a revolutionary challenge to orthodox neo-Darwinism, when it wasn’t. (As you say, the basic idea of relatively swift change followed by long periods of stasis makes sense, and is what we observe. Nothing revolutionary about it.) Gould’s view was either a version of something Darwin himself (not just more recent neo-Darwinians) had already asserted, or it was just false.  If we read it, as he suggests here, as a claim about “the causes of long-term evolutionary trends” I think my verdict would be that he hasn’t given us a clear enough version of the thesis itself to know if there is any reason to believe this. The whole punc eq bandwagon was kept going by Gould’s trumpetings and now its wheels are falling off. 


DS: So, Gould’s claims of punctuated equilibrium, in your view, is like looking through a microscope, stating that the little things look bigger, and then claiming that the fact that things are different than what they seem to the naked eye is some grand revelation?


DD: That’s more or less it.  In the passage you quote from his last book, he says “Punctuated equilibrium does not challenge accepted genetic ideas about the rates at which species emerge (for the geological ‘moment’ of a single rock layer may represent many thousand years of accumulation).” In other words, it doesn’t challenge neo-Darwinian gradualism at all. What he goes on to say is just bluster.


DS: Finally, re: Gould, what is your take on his posit that religion and science form Non-Overlapping Magisteria? Richard Dawkins states that the claim of a Deity has to be subject to science. I’m on the fence. As a materialist, Dawkins is right. But, if there is such a thing as an immaterial God, or any immaterial ‘thing’- if such can logically exist, then Gould is right; but the onus is on Gould, as it is religiots. Of course, where would things like emotions fall?


DD: NOMA, if taken literally, cuts religion off at the knees: no factual domain of any sort falls within its magisterium. So by definition, the existence of God is not anything that religion has any authority about. Few religious folk will accept that. And on the other hand, very few philosophers would accept that religion has any particular authority over ethics and morality.  Religions may provide some of the best raw material for ethical theory and argument—in the form of candidate precepts, prohibitions, famous cases, etc.—but so do dramas, novels, and many other secular traditions. Shakespeare has as much to teach us about morality as the Bible, for instance.


DS: Returning to aliens and things preternatural, as well as the God Hypothesis, I think people get confused over concepts of the unexplained vs. the unexplainable. I believe that there is nothing unexplainable. Yes, I, as a finite being, can NOT explain everything, but my ignorance and/or limits are just that. You may know more on subjects A, B, and C, but my lack of knowledge on them does not abnegate their reality, nor your knowledge of them. Similarly, I may be expert at X, Y, and Z, and you may be in the dark. But, with infinite time and effort, all is explainable, I believe. This is why some folks are obsessed with origins of things, be it the universe’s or homosexuality’s. If, as example, there are lake monsters, surely one will be caught eventually. Surely, there will be some hard evidence of flying saucers, if they are real. Even a super-advanced technology would not be whoops-proof! Foresight or ghosts can similarly be studied. However, while I certainly believe in the unexplained, the unexplainable simply seems illogical. I would posit that, BY FAR, the greatest invention in human history was the scientific method. From this endeavor- or tool, all knowledge springs. Any takes?


DD Yes, the methods of science are far and away the best methods for getting at the factual truth on any topic. It may be that some things will always defy our efforts to explain them, but I’ve never seen a remotely plausible argument for any particular case. Some people like to say that consciousness will always be a mystery, but that’s just a defeatist guess with nothing to back it up. I daresay the people who assert this will never understand consciousness, but that’s because they’re not even trying. 


DS: Let me now turn to Consciousness Explained. In skimming back over it, I was taken by the fact that, despite its literal heft, and intellectual scope, it is not a hermetic book. It is, if not an ‘easy read,’ certainly an enjoyable one. Without bogging down into the minutia of details, and despite the passage of sixteen years, your basic posits seem to hold up. To the Dennett newby, let me try to give a Reader’s Digest version of the book’s main claim; that human consciousness arises from the Multiple Drafts Model of information organization. In a nutshell, the limited human brain is so bombarded by input from the five senses that consciousness (or the mind) is an emergent epiphenomenon caused by the physical processes of the brain’s attempt to not be overwhelmed by the world. There is no central place for ‘me’ or ‘you’ in the brain, the way our speech or motor reflexes can be pinpointed. Is this a decent boiling down?


DD: Well, it captures some of the main points.


DS: But, that’s sort of like stating that some ingredients are loaded into a factory through which a conveyor belt runs. Put in the ingredients, run the belt, and you get the thing- in the Multiple Drafts Model, consciousness, out of the other end of the factory. Can we ever get inside the actual factory’s workings, or is it just another sort of magic, or skyhook- to use your term, that has replaced an earlier one?


DD:  In fact, I offered quite a few more details about how the Multiple Drafts influence each other and later events, and I’ve got more details to describe now (but I’m working on them—not trotting them out here—since they are not quite as crisp and clean as I want them). The big difference between my model and the earlier ideas is that there is no finish line in the brain where an event burst into consciousness by crossing it. Since the influences on later events—and on memories and dispositions and attitudes and abilities, etc—start accumulating early in the processing streams and continue for some period of time after the initial perceptual stimuli, there is no principled way of distinguishing between pre-conscious content-revisions and post-conscious content-revisions. In the extreme case, there is no difference between being conscious of some content for a millisecond and then utterly forgetting it, and never being conscious of it at all. That would be like being famous for fifteen minutes. Impossible.


DS: Your model is, of course, different from the Cartesian Theater. To the lay reader, can you lay out the difference between the little homunculus of Descartes, and your claim? Speaking of the ‘I’; if one asks me who I am I say a poet/writer/artist, then a man- human, then man-sex, then perhaps American, agnostic, white man, of Norwegian, German, Russian descent, etc- yet most people would choose their race or sex as their first defining thing. Why is that? Is it because I am an artist, a creator, that that is what I value more? And what does that say of the non-creative?


DD: I haven’t a clue.


DS: What other models of brain function, other than Descartes’, pre-existed the Multiple Drafts Model? Why did you feel each of them failed? What have been the major criticisms of the Multiple Drafts Model? To me, the easiest one is that it is wholly material. I disagree with that, but I’ve found most of the criticisms of it boil down to that. My only objection to the Multiple Drafts Model is a gut one, but I recognize that as dialectically worthless. Most do not. What have been your responses to those critics and their claims?


DD: Controversy in science doesn’t work that way. My responses to my critics are long, detailed, complex, and not worth trying to summarize here, especially since I’d have to articulate the criticisms first.  You are right that one theme of skepticism about my position is little more than the gut reaction of disbelief. My theory is counterintuitive to many people. I tell them to relax their white-knuckled grip and let go of those intuitions. Some of them are just false.


DS: Have you any thoughts on Julian Jaynes, or his work in The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind? I found his writing, like yours, to be quite lucid and provocative, but found many flaws with his theory. What was his main posit, how did it differ with yours, and I think time has obviated most of his claims? Has the Multiple Drafts Model held up better? Do you have an emotional stake in its holding up? Or, if someone with a better idea comes along, will you embrace it? After all, even your mind is not immune to the willfulness of emotional attachments. And, in that vein, what are your thoughts on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions?


DD:  I think Jaynes’ book is a wonderful mixture of brilliant and preposterous ideas. I’m sure he’s right that human consciousness is HUGELY different from animal consciousness and a very recent arrival on the evolutionary scene, though not quite as recent as he thinks. I think he may be off by a factor of ten—with our kind of consciousness only 40,000 years old, say.  His line on schizophrenia, and intra-cerebral communication strikes me as mostly daft, but along the way he makes lots of telling observations and suggestions. 

     I certainly aspire to the objectivity that would let me drop my Multiple Drafts Model as soon as something clearly better came along, but I also think that it is a proper service to others in the field to defend one’s position as tenaciously as one can and make them prove it wrong. 

            Kuhn’s book has been misread and misused in many quarters; Kuhn’s excellent points are not as radical as many like to believe.


DS: Given that there is a long history of successful books spawning ripoff titles, and given your interest in religion an anthropological phenomenon, have you ever read Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained? An atheist pal of mine recommended the book to me, but it was not well written and its ideas dubious. Basically, Boyer’s explanation boils down to the fear and the bush analogy. If there are two people, and there is a mysterious rustling behind the bush, the person who is fearful and immediately runs away is likely to pass on more of his genes to the next generation because while the brave person may be braver, if there was a saber-toothed tiger behind the bush, the brave person is dead, and bravery is weeded out. Similarly, religious people and beliefs dominate because fear is good for spreading one’s genes, and beliefs in the supernatural are fear-based. While fear is no doubt a part of religion- i.e.- the fear of death, Boyer’s is too simplistic an approach. On the Charlie Rose show you compared a belief in God to a Sweet Tooth. Can you make that analogy a bit clearer?


DD: I give Boyer’s book a lot of respectful attention in my most recent book, and was actually pleased by the title. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that. I don’t recognize his ideas in your retelling, though. His view is not as simplistic as you make it out to be.

    It is hard for some people to turn their heads around and appreciate that it isn’t that we like sugar because it is sweet—it’s sweet because we like sugar! That is, evolution has wired us up to discriminate, and seek out, sugar. Sweetness is just our term for this arrangement, not some ‘intrinsic’ property in the world that sugar happens to have. Similarly, evolution has wired us up to have other useful proclivities and desires. Religions have ‘learned’ (by evolving) to exploit those “weaknesses” much the way confectioners have learned to exploit our craving for sweets. 


DS: Even if consciousness is wholly material in origin, does that negate the possibility that it could be a synergy? I.e.- that consciousness could be a form of energy that is beyond the reach of the material world? After all, biologists, and especially exobiologists, have posited that there could be life forms made up wholly of energy, rather than matter. Could not something akin to the 21 grams of the human soul/mind exist, as a byproduct, or excreta of life? I realize that some may be offended, but could the mind, the self, consciousness, simply be a byproduct, rather than a strict epiphenomenon, of life, the way nails, sweat, urine, or feces are?


DD: I don’t know what you mean by a ‘strict epiphenomenon,’ and the examples don’t help.


DS: Well, that consciousness is not such a grand leap in the scheme of things. It’s often stated that there is less than a 2% genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees, yet- to us, there seems to be a yawning chasm. But, to some higher being, could not our conscious chasm be merely a baby step in some foggy endpoint that’s yet to come into view? What seems complicated, or God-like, to primitives, is mere basic science to more advanced societies. The anecdotes of tribesmen in Indonesia, or Africa, who marveled at the cigaret lighters and airplanes of the white man, and thought they were Gods who possessed the supernatural secrets of fire and flight come to mind. In a similar way, consciousness might not be an endpoint, but merely the first step to a higher form of existence; one we’ve no real clue as to its scope nor power.


DD: Well, I certainly agree with the implication that as we learn more and more about how human consciousness comes into existence as effects of patterns of brain activity, we’ll be less gob-smacked by the ‘mystery’ of it all.  But part of that process of coming to understand is also a recognition that consciousness is not quite as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious as we thought it was.  Magicians often marvel at how the audience often remembers having seen MUCH more amazing effects than they actually were shown. There is a sort of natural inflation of mysterious phenomena that makes them seem all the more mysterious. When people are shown how the tricks are done they often say something like “Now show me how you did the much grander effect we saw in the show!” 


DS: And what of emotions? Or even philosophical concepts like evil? Let me toss this to you, and tell me any thoughts. Let’s presume that the Multiple Drafts Model is correct. But, let’s presume that consciousness (the mind) is also a synergy- whether or not I can outlive its progenitive biological matter is another question. Now, as a synergy, the mind exists in another realm, another plane. I’m sure you are familiar with Edwin Abbott’s great classic Flatland: A Romance Of Many Dimensions, wherein the third dimension is revealed to A Square by a four dimensional being, a Sphere. Let’s posit that the mind resides above the Flatland of the material world, similar to the way some cosmologists posit that alternate universes can coexist. Now, things from Flatland can certainly have an effect on the mind, and the mind may also affect Flatland. However, could there be forces in the realm the mind exists, that are not detectable in Flatland? I’m thinking of evil. Philosophers generally dismiss the concept of evil as a force detached from the mind or free will, or that only actions can be evil, not people. Or, evil is seen by Postmodernists merely as a primitive term for things that are socially deleterious. But, could evil be, in that realm above material things, something akin to gravity, or electromagnetism? I.e.- could there not be some force that tropes the mind to do things that, on a material plane, result in harm, but in the ether above Flatland, are merely reactions as natural as a leaf falling to the ground, or light being reflected off of glass? Is this an effective analogy? And if so, do you see any possibility for it? Similarly to evil, of course, other such concepts might be rote things.


DD: The thing about Flatland is that it opens up a possibility—dimensions that we can’t understand, roughly—and then makes the claim, not really supported by the story or by any argument, that we couldn’t comprehend these possibilities if they were actual. I suppose that’s possible. If so, we’ll just have to muddle along like dummies, never comprehending what’s going on.


DS: Since we’ve spoken of your religious views, let’s talk of your latest book, Breaking The Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon. I’ve not read it, but I’ve read much about it. Yet, aside from the misrepresentation of your views- which is de rigueur in the blogosphere, I was appalled- although not surprised, at how many of your critics not only cannot grasp some of the ideas you espouse, but cannot even read well, nor understand basic grammar. In a review by the New York Times, a critic named Leon Wieseltier wrote:

Like many biological reductionists, Dennett is sure that he is not a biological reductionist. But the charge is proved as early as the fourth page of his book. Watch closely. "Like other animals," the confused passage begins, "we have built-in desires to reproduce and to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve this goal." No confusion there, and no offense. It is incontrovertible that we are animals. The sentence continues: "But we also have creeds, and the ability to transcend our genetic imperatives." A sterling observation, and the beginning of humanism. And then more, in the same fine antideterministic vein: "This fact does make us different."

Then suddenly there is this: "But it is itself a biological fact, visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science." As the ancient rabbis used to say, have your ears heard what your mouth has spoken? Dennett does not see that he has taken his humanism back. Why is our independence from biology a fact of biology? And if it is a fact of biology, then we are not independent of biology. If our creeds are an expression of our animality, if they require an explanation from natural science, then we have not transcended our genetic imperatives. The human difference, in Dennett's telling, is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind — a doctrine that may quite plausibly be called biological reductionism.

Again, I’ve not read your latest book, but let’s parse Wieseltier’s parsing of your sentence. In the first part he finds no disagreement. The second quoted part he sees as the emergence of humanism. Where? You are not endorsing creeds- which can be humanistic or not, merely observing their existence. Same with the human ability to transcend biological dictates. So, we see the critic either incapable of reading, or knowingly distorting. The third quoted part he tries to make a point, but it is unclear what, since the latter half of the second quotes sentence makes clear your acceptance of anti-determinism. The next quotation accuses you of Welshing on humanism merely because you state that material facts require a scientific explanation. First, how does use of the scientific method do anything BUT equate with humanism? Secondly, he claims you claimed a human independence from biology. I did not read that. Where was it- in an elided portion of the quote? Or has he just made the whole thing up? He then proceeds to further bollocks things up philosophically, as well as biologically, and calls you a biological reductionist. Whether true or not, one cannot even tell from his misreading and/or misrepresentation.

What angers me is that hacks like this are even allowed to review books. He clearly lacks basic reading comprehension, much less a knowledge of basic science, and he cannot even express his misunderstandings well enough to a reader. A good editor would never have allowed this sort of bias to go into print. I’m all for ripping bad books, and if your book was bad, I would have ripped it ideologically, stylistically, or logically, but this review is a poorly wrought mess. Period.

Even more comical was your exchange with this fool. You stated:

‘….he claims in a single sentence that I misrepresent David Hume, William James and Thomas Nagel. I do not. The claim of my purported sinning against (my longtime friend) Nagel is particularly instructive: I quote a trenchant line of his as an epigraph: "It isn't just that I don't believe in God and naturally hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that." Then I offer a single sympathetic sentence about how one might interpret this bold statement. How on earth can that be a misrepresentation?

Wieseltier replied:

Here is how a quotation can be a misrepresentation. On Page 264 of his book, Dennett cites the "trenchant" words by Thomas Nagel that he gives in his letter. They appear on Page 130 of Nagel's book "The Last Word." Dennett likes them because they leave the impression that Nagel shares his naturalistic notion of reason and his hostility to religion. But the impression is false. On Page 131, Nagel promptly denies the trenchancy of the prejudice to which he has just admitted, warning his readers that "it is just as irrational to be influenced in one's beliefs by the hope that God does not exist as by the hope that God does exist." Those inconvenient words do not appear in Dennett's book. And Nagel's meticulous discussion occurs in a chapter called "Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion," whose aim is to disabuse rationalists of the aversion to religion and to denounce "Darwinist imperialism" in the analysis of mind.’

Here is what I find AMAZING about this passage by Wieseltier. He does not even seem to realize what the purpose of an epigraph is- to be summative of something it is attached to, or to stand in ironic contrast. Clearly, you seem to use Nagel’s quote for the former option. If so, Wieseltier then claims that further portions of Nagel’s book deny his epigraph. Not so. Even by Wieseltier’s own words, all Nagel is doing is stating that he wishes he did not have the epigraphic belief because it is silly or irrational. But that in no way denies the wish, which seems why it was quoted by you. Wieseltier’s whole argument, then, is a strawman designed to show you as a hypocrite for something your epigraph never posits. This is a blog-level dialectic tactic, and such dishonesty is always a cession of the argument, because the deceiver is basically admitting they cannot win a fair fight. My question is- are Wieseltier and others really that dumb, or are they disingenuous? Is he, specifically an old enemy or colleague? And, why would the New York Times even run such tripe? This is worse than the criticism of intent, it’s blog-level distortion.


DD: I’ve never met Wieseltier or had anything to do with him. I haven’t read anything else he’s written.  (Somebody asked me if perhaps I’d stolen his wife or raped his daughter, but no, his loathing for me and my book is, I gather, entirely generated by the book itself.)  I can only guess why he was rattled. Some people are deathly afraid that if religion falls into disrespect, the world of morality and goodness will collapse—the moral heat death of the universe!  To somebody of that conviction, my matter-of-fact attitude towards religion (not DISrespectful, but not displaying the standard hyper-respect religion tries to command in our society) is scary indeed. I discuss this in the book, but of course Wieseltier doesn’t comment on those aspects of my book.


DS: Since some people, like Wieseltier, have difficulty with interpreting words, let’s turn to qualia. Can we ever really know how a chemical impulse in the brain becomes the smell of Aunt Em’s apple pie when you were six? Will we ever really know if the red you see at a stoplight is the same color I see. These ‘qualia’ are sensory experiences that are, as you define them, ineffable- essentially hermetic. That your experiences are yours alone, and so are everyone else’s. We can only use analogies and metaphors to describe them. Will they always be hermetic? Or can future technologies or evolution free them?


DD: My definition of qualia is meant to launch a reductio ad absurdum argument: if THIS is what you think qualia are—there aren’t any!  I find the concept terminally confused.


DS: In a related vein, I have always asserted that writing is the highest of the general arts for a reason similar to qualia. Writing is abstraction, or as close as can be depicted, whereas the visual and aural arts are material. Plus, since sight and sound have been around for hundreds of millions, if not over a billion years, while written language only a few thousand years, it is far easier to move someone with a beautiful image or sound, than it is to do so with mere words. Many artists in other fields disagree, but the manifest advantages that the visual and aural arts have over writing means it takes far more effort, to be done with far less tolls, to achieve the same result. Therefore, a great novel is a far greater feat than a great symphony or great painting. One could argue that a great painting beats a merely excellent novel, for greatness is its own company, and traits of greatness cross artistic disciplines, but when comparing the heights of the peaks of the arts, writing is the Himalayas, while the rest of the arts range from the Alps to foothills. Furthermore, within writing, poetry is the highest form of writing for it does more with less than fiction or drama, which has the spine of narrative to work with. Thus, when people want to use a metaphor to describe the greatest things, they say ‘it’s poetry in motion,’ ‘it’s a tone-poem,’ ‘that’s so poetic.’ They do not say, ‘Wow, the interior design of that room is so symphonic,’ nor do they gush, ‘the way she moved across the dance floor was so painterly.’ Any thoughts?


DD: What you say is music to my ears. (Seriously, I don’t buy it.)


DS: Since I mentioned the blogosphere, and Wieseltier’s tactics being borrowed from that sphere, I am put in mind of the old sci fi film Forbidden Planet and the great Monster Of the Id (MOTI) concept. Just as Dr. Morbius and the Krel were destroyed by their own repressed ids, it seems the Internet has unleashed the absolute worst aspects of people, all under a cloak of anonymity. What are your thoughts on this, short of government censorship to clean up the bile?


DD:  The Internet is a frontier, so Wild West behavior is not surprising. It will take a while for people to work out how to behave in sane, secure, non-threatening ways. My guess is that more people are injuring themselves—making fools of themselves, exposing themselves to risks—than are injuring others, so I think we can just sit tight and let the excesses sort themselves out. The last thing we need is government intervention.


DS: As an artist, and someone who has achieved greatness in my field of writing, I have noticed that ‘greatness’ is something that simply seems to be a random thing. When people have tried to make available the sperm or eggs of Nobel winners or Mensans, the kids turn out to be rather average. This gibes with the fact that almost all great people, such as Picasso, Newton, Einstein, and most famously- Thomas Jefferson, have never had any forebears nor descendents come close to their achievements. And the few famed people who’ve had success run in their families- the Adamses, the Darwins, the Barrymores, have never really had greats in their clans, or- as in the Darwin case, Erasmus was not in a league with his grandson Charles. I call this fact the Infinity Spike, meaning that the idea that a Master Race could be engineered- at least intellectually, is folly. Perhaps physical characteristics, but the chances of two Mensans or Nobel Laureates producing another Michelangelo or Kurosawa are only negligibly greater than such a person coming from a plumber and a teacher. Perhaps a three or four out of fifty million chance versus a one and a half to two chance. In short, greatness spikes toward infinity out of nowhere- there is no predictable Bell Curve nor progression toward excellence. What are your thoughts on this posit? Also, what of false modesty? Just as I have stated I am a great writer/poet, and been ripped for it, you have taken massive attacks and distortions (such as that above) because you have stated similar things about yourself, and claimed philosophic descent from other well known thinkers. What’s wrong with people who claim to want honesty, but get ruffled over it if that honesty  includes someone admitting their excellence at some task? Is this American Puritanism, or simple schizophrenia?


DD: I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not shy about putting forward my ideas and the arguments for them, but I leave the value judgments about “great people” to others.  Jerks can come up with really good ideas, and there are people I admire no end but have learned next to nothing from. This is not a fruitful topic of inquiry, I think.


DS: Since we’ve mentioned human consciousness, and I’ve touched upon the idea of alien abductions, let’s combine the two, in a way. Many in science think it likely that extraterrestrial life exists. Obviously, pop culture has made the humanoid alien (ala Star Trek and Star Wars) seem plausible. Yet, some even claim that life could exist in non-terrestrial conditions. There have been proposals of alien life on the moons of Jupiter or Saturn. Carl Sagan proposed life in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Others feel silicon and ammonia could be the bases for a biota. Some feel life could even exist even in interstellar clouds of organic matter. Still others feel that life could even form on neutron stars. Let’s assume that such things are so, that there could be life forms like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Crystalline Entity- a giant piece of salt that navigates between the stars. If life occurs, is not it likely that consciousness, sentience, a mind, will also emerge, as an example of convergent evolution? This is not a given, of course, but if it did, what sorts of other consciousnesses could there be? Surely, a different set of organic conditions would produce a different consciousness? Or, do you think the physical means is irrelevant and that the end result- a rational mind, would be the linkage? Like the paths to Nirvana, can there be multiple paths to consciousness? Or will all consciousness be the same, simply housed in different vessels? Is consciousness potentially detachable from physical matter- be it an alien life form or a ghost? Is consciousness an endpoint or are there different types of consciousness, or forms of superconsciousness?


DD:  Any consciousness worth calling consciousness would be intelligent (not, say, a jellyfish, but a really FEELING jellyfish).  What it cared about knowing would no doubt depend on what its needs were.  Our universal curiosity might not always make an appearance in an intelligent being, I guess.


DS: A few years ago, I wrote an essay called The Day, about the future discovery of an earth-like planet by one of the newer generation of planet-finder telescopes, and worried over the current state of human ethics- when we still destroy our own planet and exploit others. Do you think the human race is a mature enough species to explore the cosmos yet? And do you view religious morality (that imposed from without) as different from secular ethics (that immanent), which is based on deeper, common human values? After all, some moralities justify the killing of infidels, but no ethics do.


DD: Respect for other living things in the cosmos is the key, I guess. I suppose we might find it difficult to enter into reciprocally respectful relations with the brilliant Turd-Faced Spider-people of Planet X, given our homegrown repulsions, but at least we have duly considered such prospects and seen them as problems to avoid.


DS: That puts me in mind of another Charlie Rose show you did, with Steven Pinker and others, at the turn of the century, on the most influential people of last century. What I found a bit galling was some of the sheer stupidity on that panel- most notably by the President of the Carnegie Institute, Maxine Singer. She equated influence with good morality- an asinine position, yet one which no one, not even you, challenged. I similarly recalled Time Magazine having a most important people of the last millennium issue, and leaving off, to my mind, easily the most influential person of the last thousand years, Genghis Khan. My reasoning is that influence comes with time, so the most influential person simply could not be in the last couple of hundred years. Then, there would have to be reach over several spheres. Then, there would be the mind experiment of removing that person and seeing if he or she was merely a part of historic forces, or one of the Great Men of History. Khan fits all of these- even if he was the worst mass killer in human history, up until the 20th Century. He was born early on- the 12th Century, and he took a nomadic Gobi people, with a six thousand year history of no territorial expansion, united the Mongol tribes with the Turkic tribes, and built a nation larger in area than the old Soviet Union- all within two decades- and sans guns or any advanced war materiel. His effect on politics, the arts, religion (his was a secular state), and life was profound. Remove him and the Mongols likely go on as nomads. Then there is no check on Chinese expansionism. Khan forced the Chinese to abandon their junk explorations across the Pacific and likely to the Americas. They hibernated xenophobically as a world power for centuries. The Khanates carved out of his empire, by his descendants, helped establish the Ottoman Empire, which acted as a bulwark against Muslim expansionism into Europe. Without the Ottomans, Islam may have displaced the Papacy, forcing its withdrawal to Scandinavia and a reduced status as a regional Arctic cult. China may have expanded across the Subcontinent, Oceania, and into the Andes and the western half of the Americas, while Europe was Islamized. Moorish Spain and Imam Britain may have then settled the Americas from the east. The Cold War of the last century may not have been between Communism and Capitalism, but between Islam and Sino aggression. Yet, none of that happened because one Mongol named Temujin preferred horseback riding and conquest to life as a scavenger. To me, this omission shows the profound lack of vision many so-called leaders and experts have in their respective fields.

First, would you agree with my ranking of Genghis Khan as numero uno in influence last eon, for despite his genocidal ruthlessness, he was an organizational genius with a mind that wanted to know seemingly everything? He was arguably also the most amazing figure in human history. If you disagree, why? And why do you think he was so ignored on such lists? Was it simple Eurocentrism? Or something more confounding?


DD: I guess I just don’t know enough about Genghis Khan to judge.


DS: This lack of insight and vision displayed by many intellectuals leads me into two more points. The first is my posit that artists are fundamentally different, intellectually, than non-artists, and that the truly great artists are even more greatly different. A similar claim could be made for scientists, and possibly leaders like a Genghis Khan, Abraham Lincoln, or Mahatma Gandhi. This is from an essay I did on Harold Bloom: ‘….the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have this. It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply- especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And also to be able to lead observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts- or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic (Keats’ Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or Functionary3 .’ What are your thoughts on this posit, especially since it is a different assertion than how consciousness forms?


DD: I don’t find such typologies persuasive.


DS: The second point that video made in my mind had to do with the life of public intellectuals such as yourself. Probably the most famous (or infamous) is linguist Noam Chomsky. While I’m no Chomsky expert- on his life nor lingual work, I know enough about him to shake my head at what I see as a grand waste of most of his life. It’s as if Leonardo da Vinci wanted to run a winery rather than create art and practice science. His preenings, and- to be generous, naïve views on politics, his embrace of Marxism and extreme Leftist fringe ideas make him someone every bit as ridiculous as the Right’s Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh- people who have none of the real talent and intellect to make any contributions to society. Why do people like Chomsky not get this, that their best contribution is in the field of their expertise? Why do so many seemingly smart people go crazy- like the Far Left did over Stalinism? Or the Far Right did over Hitler? Or who still support the insane Iraq War? This sort of lunacy has tainted terms like intellectual with Marxist silliness, and is even a more grievous sin that the wackiness I mentioned in the arts community over such people like a Leonard Peltier. Do you feel you have some responsibility as a public figure to not go over the edge? And why do you feel so many public intellectuals make such inane proclamations outside of their fields of expertise? Is it because they are so fawned to that they feel that a great knowledge or wisdom in one area is transferable to another? I’m an expert with words, poetry, writing, but I’d feel foolish if someone even attempted to solicit my opinion on Bulgarian politics or the breeding habits of marmosets. It would never even cross my mind to ‘pretend’ to know a thing about such topics. Another term that annoys me is genius. Yes, it has come to mean an individual of Einsteinian or Mozartian gifts, yet to me, I prefer using it in the non-human noun sense- i.e.- he has a genius for rhetoric, or the like. Why is language so easily bastardizable- think of current text messaging slang, emailese, corporatespeak, etc.? Thoughts?


DD:  I have my strong disagreements with Chomsky, on issues in cognitive science, philosophy, and politics too, but I don’t think your characterization of him is accurate.


DS: Let me wrap up this interview with questions that alone may have populated more conventional interviews. Some quickies: 

I briefly mentioned homosexuality, and it seems that things like a gay gene or a gay brain are no more likely to cause homosexuality than a weak father figure. I’ve always maintained that, while most human beings rarely stretch themselves intellectually, even Joe Average is far more complex a thing than any other living creature on this planet, therefore if one could actually pinpoint a cause or causes of any behavior- especially complex things like sexuality (be it preferences, fetishes, frequency), it’s likely to be multivalent. That is, one would find dozens of ‘causes’ for any group of a thousand homosexuals, with many things overlapping, but each person’s ‘real reason’ being a secret formula. In short, I think the dog is chasing its tail, and origins are not as important, in such cases, as implications. Thoughts?


DD: Almost certainly there are many different genetic and non-genetic paths to homosexuality. So looking for origins in a single gene (or a single aspect of upbringing, say) is not likely a good path to pursue.


DS: Why are dreams never portrayed correctly in film? In a review of the old Laurel & Hardy classic Babes In Toyland I state, ‘The scariest dreams are tattered and not seamless. They are not like slick Hollywood special effects laden films, but like those lower budget masterpieces; Carnival Of Souls or the original Night Of The Living Dead. Thus the most scary villains to ever appear onscreen in film may well be the semi-simian Bogeymen….Of course, no one in this movie is killed, mutilated, raped, nor has anything worse than a clonk on the head or a dart in the ass happen to them, but this only reinforces the dream logic of the film. Thus, grown men in bad ape-like suits and phony masks are even creepier than paranormal ghouls, because they should not scare, but amuse. Yet….they scare, especially a child.’ Do I simply dream differently than others? I think not, at least from anecdoture from others. If so, is there simply a wish factor- that people wish their dreams were Hollywoodized, rather than what they are?


DD: I have no idea.


DS: Have you ever watched Michael Apted’s The Up Series documentaries? What are your thoughts on it as a longitudinal study of human development? How about sociologically? Do you agree with its epigraph, the Jesuit proverb, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.’?


DD: I don’t know the Apted documentaries, and I’m sure the Jesuit proverb is exaggerated. Many children bounce back from quite extreme forms of religious indoctrination quite readily.


DS: Well, the proverb was not meant to be specific to religious beliefs, simply that most people’s tendencies, phobias, strengths, etc., are developed and/or set in place early on, and that the basic template rarely changes. Every seven years, from 7 to 49- in the last incarnation in the series- released in 2005, Apted interviews the same dozen or so British people, and those who were conservative as children stay conservative. Those who were creative retain their curiosity. Those who were slackers remain slackers. I think you might want to look up the series. The series, through age 42, is available in a boxed DVD set. I think it’s one of the few dozen films from last century that will still have great import centuries from now. Despite not seeing the films, is the proverb’s observation regarding tendencies in human nature something that you would concur with?


DD: Ah, now I remember hearing about it. Yes, I’d definitely be interested in seeing it. I’m sure that there are many tendencies in people that are surprisingly resistant to change over the years, just as there are others that are surprisingly labile. I don’t have a strong conviction about whether the ‘permanent’ features are more important—in one way or another—than the adjustable. You can’t teach an old dog some new tricks, but you’d also be amazed what an old dog can pick up without even trying hard. 


DS: Are not most religiots merely Homer Simpsons, who give lip service to their ‘faith’? If so, why do atheists and their ilk worry so much about Homer Simpsons? And what does that say about the confidence they have in their own beliefs?


DD: I don’t think most atheists worry about religious people at all. Only when religious people try to impose their vision on the rest of the world is there anything to worry about.


DS: If you are familiar with the great old British television show from the 1960s, The Prisoner, written and starring Patrick McGoohan, you’ll recall an episode titled The General, wherein McGoohan’s character, #6, defeats the titular room-sized supercomputer by asking the unanswerable Möbian question, ‘Why?’ Nowadays there is talk of quantum computing, and even the idea that the cosmos is a giant quantum computer. But, is that simple question McGoohan asked an intellectual quale? Is ‘first cause’ not simply a theological conundrum? Why this? Why that? Why time? And is the answer likely what Woody Allen suggests at the end of his great film, Crimes And Misdemeanors? That the search for reason and meaning will always be fruitless as long as we look out there, that it is we who invest things with meaning, so we should be careful what we grant? I.e.- it is the engagement of the mind with the real that is the source of wonder.


DD: I have nothing to say about this.


DS: What one BIG question would you want answered before you die?


DD:  Who killed JFK?


DS: Many people want an answer to that question. I don’t think the Lone Gunman hypothesis and the idea that there was a conspiracy are mutually exclusive, though. Care to venture a guess? But, in a more serious vein, is there really any answer to a BIG question that’s particularly thorny- scientific or philosophic, that would make you say, ‘Of course, how could it not be?’ once you learnt its secret?


DD: Shades of Huxley’s reaction to Darwin! I daresay we’ll have more Huxley moments in the future as things fall into place and then look retrospectively obvious, but of course I can’t predict what they’ll be.


DS: Let me end this interview with a hardy thanks. Too often, most do not even attempt serious discourse. I hope that you, and the readers of this interview will have gotten both edification and pleasure from my questions and, especially, your replies. Let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you like, and hope that sometime in the future, when you are at work on your next project, you will again allow us to interview you on that project. I’ve always felt that intelligence is the most human quality- not love, which lower animals can feel, and good discourse is one of the best ways to make one feel less alone in the world. Daniel Dennett, thank you for lending some companionship to our readers.


DD: You’re welcome. It’s been a most unusual interview.

[This interview originally appeared on the Monsters & Critics website.]

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