Nick Spencer interviewed the American philosopher and prominent atheist Professor Daniel Dennett for Third Way
magazine last month. Their conversation covered consciousness, naturalism, morality, and even Jesus Christ.
Your father died in 1947, when you were five years old, but I’ve read that you felt you grew up in his shadow.
He was very charismatic – in my youth I heard tales of how he would enter a room and suck all the air out of it. During the war, he was in the OSS [the Office of Strategic Services, a wartime precursor of the CIA] – he had a diplomatic cover job, so we were at the American legation in Beirut, where he’d taught at the American University.
He was quite the Islamic scholar – he did a PhD in Islamic history and had just been appointed to a chair at Harvard when he died. I tried to follow in his footsteps, but history wasn’t my discipline – that was very clear.
What was it that drew you to philosophy?
I remember at a summer camp one of the counsellors saying, ‘Danny, I think you have the makings of a philosopher!’ I didn’t even know what a philosopher was, but I was interested – I thought, ‘Oh my! You mean you can actually make a living at this?’
You were brought up as a Congregationalist. Was that anything more than a cultural commitment?
It was what I call ‘New England suburban liberal Christianity’. It’s a social thing. You and your friends go to the church that has the best dances for the youth group.
My grandmother was quite the churchgoer, but my mother never went; but she sent us kids to the Sunday school. So, I sang in choirs and learnt all the hymns, memorised the books of the Bible and all that stuff.
Did that experience form your mind in any way?
Well, in a way – I mean, I went through a brief, intense adolescent curiosity about religion. I scared my mother half to death by getting very interested in Christian Science for a while. I went to some of their meetings and stayed up all night with a friend who was having prayer for healing. That was fascinating – but I didn’t convert.
So, your embrace of atheism was more of a shedding of social clothes than any kind of deconversion?
Right. It was not a momentous thing in my life, I just realised I didn’t believe a word of it. It seemed strange that anybody believed this stuff.
You did your doctorate at Oxford and studied under [the ‘ordinary language’ philosopher] Gilbert Ryle…
He was very influential. When I read his The Concept of Mind as an undergraduate, I just loved it. And then I went and worked with him and he didn’t seem to have any ego in the field at all. I tried to pick fights with him: I would come in to see him armed to the teeth with objections to things he’d said and it was like punching a pillow. He was always helping me clarify my objections. I didn’t understand how good that method was until I compared the final version of my dissertation with [an earlier] draft and his hand was just all over it. And I had thought I hadn’t learnt a thing from him!
This was the mid Sixties. Was philosophy then still very much in the shadow of Wittgenstein?
Absolutely! I loved Wittgenstein’s work but I never fell into the hagiography. In fact, I did battle with Elizabeth Anscombe and some of [his other disciples]. I thought she was brilliant but she was also an obscurantist. She seemed to me to be deliberately trying to murk things up, and for religious motives.
I’ve read that your overall philosophical project has remained largely unchanged since those days.
It has, in many ways, yeah. My dissertation was about how one could explain learning and the emergence of intentionality in the human brain as an evolutionary process – that evolution in the brain is the key to understanding how a non–miraculous account of learning is possible. I think I was lucky to have that insight and it shaped the way I thought about everything.
Also, as the title of my first book [Content and Consciousness] makes clear, you [have to account for] content first and then consciousness. You want to understand how consciousness is possible by understanding how unconscious content is possible first. How animals that aren’t conscious – bacteria, starfish – nevertheless have systems that can be seen as intentional: they process information in order to better act in the world.
Once you get a clear vision of that, the question becomes: And what’s consciousness for? And that’s a good and hard question. As a thoroughgoing naturalist, I’ve got to see how human consciousness emerges from biological processes and psychological processes built on them. I think that human consciousness is profoundly different from the consciousness of a bird or a fish – so much so that it’s almost a mistake to use the same word of them. I think that human consciousness is to animal consciousness as language is to birdsong.
You describe yourself as ‘a thoroughgoing naturalist’. Is that a faith position – something you presuppose?
It’s a working hypothesis, I think. It’s defeasible. I could learn to abandon it if I encountered insuperable difficulties in carrying out the naturalist programme. This is not unlike – for instance – the official position of the Catholic Church on the miracles required for sainthood. You start with the assumption that there aren’t any miracles and the burden of proof is on those who think there are. I don’t think they quite live up to their ideal, but that’s the way to do it. If you think that supernaturalism is true, the only way you could ever demonstrate that is by assuming the contrary – namely, that naturalism can handle everything – and then being utterly stymied to make good on that.
What would constitute an insuperable difficulty? If you were committed to naturalism, wouldn’t any problem simply be a stimulus for more research, more thought?
Oh, for a while, yes – and maybe for a long while. But I think that’s a feature, not a bug. It would be foolish, actually, to have, you know, a deadline: ‘If you haven’t got it by 2050, forget it!’ Obviously, it might take a little longer than that!
In the meantime– and this might be for a thousand years – naturalism is a good working hypothesis. Look at its triumphs. Not so many years ago, people believed in ‘vitalism’, in élan vital: they thought that reproduction was an insoluble mystery. It isn’t, at all. We pretty well understand what life is now: we understand how it arose, how it sustains itself, how reproduction happens, how mundane but really astonishing things such as blood clotting – that’s quite amazing. Engineers trying to make machines that can repair themselves have a very tall order and they know it. The complexities required for a living thing are just breathtaking.
But look, we’ve done it. There is simply no mystery left in understanding how life forms get through life. There’s lots of details, but no mysteries.
What might constitute an insuperable problem for naturalism, then?
Well, I thought of one thing in a little reverie just yesterday. If you take all the integers – one, two, three, four – starting with zero and you arrange them in a sort of a square spiral and you put a red circle, say, around each prime number, you discover that there are some interesting patterns – it’s a very tantalising fact about prime numbers. Well, suppose someone said, ‘I’m going to arrange the numbers in a slightly different way and just see what happens,’ and they did it and, after a while, when they’d [arranged] enough millions of numbers, we saw that [the pattern that had emerged] was a crucifix… If something like that was embedded in the number system, my timbers would be shivered, no doubt about it – because you can’t fake the number system.
One of your books is titled Consciousness Explained. Is it possible to explain consciousness?
I would certainly hope so. Many people have commented on the outrageousness of the title – actually, one reviewer [made that comment] and then said it lived up to its title. And I thought: Right on! I’ve always been so pleased with that.
It doesn’t, of course, give all the details, but it gives a sketch that shows how you can avoid some of the major stumbling blocks and can put something positive in their place. And it wasn’t just a philosophical theory, it was a scientific theory – there’s a bunch of predictions at the end, and in every case, I think, they have been confirmed. Maybe I should have gone out on a few more limbs! I predicted ‘change blindness’ – [as demonstrated by] the famous video
of people passing a basketball around when a ‘gorilla’ walks through the middle of them and nobody notices. Part of my theory said that we’re conscious of much less than we think we are. A lot of people thought I was mad.
Isn’t consciousness in a way an irreducibly first–person phenomenon, so it can’t be described from the outside?
Actually, we can interview you and put you in all sorts of experimental situations and get you to [say] what it’s like to be you under these circumstances and those circumstances; and if we’re subtle and ingenious and sympathetic and careful, we can extract from you a voluminous account of what it’s like to be you.
Now, will we inevitably leave something out? Well, of course! But the question is: Is what we leave out a residue of vanishing importance or is it something big? I think we can come close to demonstrating that diminishing returns sets in and we can know as much about what it’s like to be you as you want to let us know.
Let’s move on. Many people claim that evolution by natural selection is incompatible with any conception of moral absolutes…
I think a totally naturalistic and Darwinian approach is perfectly consistent with a strong moral realism which isn’t absolute. People want absolutes. You should never go for absolutes.
[The philosopher] Galen Strawson argues that we can’t be absolutely responsible. He’s right. So what? We can be responsible, we can grow into responsibility; the fact that nobody’s absolutely responsible is a trivial claim.
What if you find yourself arguing against someone who takes a profoundly different moral view on some issue and you say: ‘You are absolutely wrong about this’?
Well, just say: ‘You are objectively wrong.’ Don’t use the word ‘absolute’!
But when people say that torture is wrong, surely they feel they are saying something that is true regardless of what anyone may think?
Well, yes – but not absolutely. Look, philosophers love to invent horrific [scenarios] – you know, the planet is being held to ransom by space pirates and if you’ll just torture this one innocent person they’ll go away. You’re not going to do it, are you? Are you? Or are you going to keep your hands clean and let the planet go down the drain? You get my point.
I think we want these things to be as stable and objective as possible and we make a simple and almost always mistaken move: we say, ‘The only way to preserve stability is by going for absolutes.’ But absolutes, except in things like arithmetic, just don’t exist.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t be a moral realist; it means you just shouldn’t be an absolutist.
Again, we could pursue that further, but let’s talk about religion. You come across as someone who believes that religious people are wrong but not contemptible –
– but some of the rhetoric from your fellow New Atheists has shown real contempt for the religious. Doesn’t that rather encourage them to get down into their bunkers?
It can, I think, although I would encourage everybody to look closely – maybe more closely than they want to – at just what the targets of the ridicule are. You will usually find that it’s not churchgoers that are being ridiculed, it is church leaders who are [knowingly] saying preposterous things. They are what I mock–gently call the ‘faith fibbers’. They lie through their teeth to protect their faith, and I find that contemptible.
No, I’ll back off on that. Sometimes it’s contemptible; sometimes it’s just all too human. When there’s something you love, you’d do almost anything to protect it from criticism, and that includes lying, libelling, slandering the critics of what you love; and so we get a lot of deliberate misrepresentation. A lot. Look at the calumnies piled on Richard Dawkins! And, needless to say, that inspires a certain amount of hostility back.
The widespread belief in the United States that evolution is a myth – that is appalling. That is embarrassing. There is no excuse for deliberately misinforming people. Somebody should be held accountable for the abuse of the children that are being raised that way. It’s absolutely shocking, and I condemn them roundly!
I agree that the case for evolution by natural selection is pretty much irrefutable. It doesn’t oblige me to embrace atheism, though, does it?
No. I think it’s almost that strong a case, but I would back off the last bit, I think. I’ve debated with [the philosopher and Christian apologist] Alvin Plantinga, who argues that there is no logical conflict between a belief in a Creator who intervenes and evolutionary theory, and I concede that his position is logically impeccable. It’s preposterous but it’s impeccable.
There’s also no conflict between Supermanism and evolutionary theory. According to Supermanism, long ago Superman was sent by his father, Jor–el, from the planet Krypton to Earth, where he tweaked the fauna so that in 530 million years there would be human beings for him to play with. Now, there’s a theory. It’s not refutable, it is completely consistent with evolutionary biology and it is, of course, laughable. Plantinga’s theory is just as preposterous. But if he wants to believe it…
Are you really comparing like with like? Christianity has an intellectual history and a legacy that Supermanism does not.
Christianity has a two–thousand–year–plus head start on Supermanism; but that’s all it’s got going for it. Stone Age thinkers put together a theory and their descendants have tried to maintain it ever since.
In Breaking the Spell, you wrote: ‘The daily actions of religious people have accomplished uncounted good deeds throughout history, alleviating suffering, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick’ and so on. You certainly seem to me to be more generous to religion than either Christopher Hitchens or Dawkins. Is that a fair comment?
I think that’s fair. Needless to say, we’ve talked about it a lot, and I think that it largely has to do with the fact that Hitch had seen firsthand much more of the atrocities of religion and very little of the good works. I have seen a lot of good works firsthand (and some atrocities) and I think that society needs institutions that do some of the things religions do. Some of the things. It needs places where people who are not otherwise loved can be taken in and their lives can be made important – I think that’s very important; and if there are no longer churches around to play that role, it really behoves us to foster the sorts of organisations and institutions that will take it over.
I think that the good that religions can do has nothing to do with any credal gymnastics. Believing, having faith – I think that is an anachronistic requirement…
But if you asked a Christian, they’d say: ‘I do this because I believe this.’
Of course they’ll say it.
In their inner workings, they would love those people who are not otherwise loved (as you put it) because of the teaching and example of Jesus.
Well, I could say that. I could say that Jesus set a good example. At one point, Richard Dawkins and I talked, somewhat jocularly, about starting an Atheists for Jesus group. There are many good lessons to be learnt from Jesus – even though he’s probably a mythical character.
‘Mythical’ as in ‘he didn’t exist’?
Maybe not. I think the evidence that he was a historical personage is pretty thin, actually – and many of the features attributed to him were also attributed in antiquity to Romulus and other gods –
I think we’ll park that thought. A common secularistic view is that we don’t need moral teachers –
Of course we do! I can’t imagine who would say that. I mean, there are literally thousands of heroes, great and small, who have set wonderful examples – Gandhi and all sorts of people who have taken brave stands on important issues and made sacrifices for the common good – and we should celebrate them, absolutely.
But why should we need them?
We need them for the same reason we need the thinking tools [I detail] in my new book [Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking]: they dispose our minds to do
the right thing at the right time. I want to emulate people that I admire, and part of my moral upbringing is learning their stories.
Phil Zimbardo, the psychologist mainly famous for the shocking experiment he did at Stanford many years ago, has devoted the latest years of his career to trying to sort of undo the harm it did and he is starting a programme he calls Heroes in Waiting. The idea is that there is a way of educating young people to have in the back of their mind that if they’re lucky – if they’re lucky – they may have an occasion in their life to stand up for something important when all their baser instincts tell them to cave in like everyone else.
I think he’s onto something very important. I think it’s a wonderful idea – and you don’t need religion for that. The idea that you can’t be moral without religion is just a complete falsehood.
I don’t think you would find any serious religious people who would claim that it’s true, would you?
Oh, on every billboard you see that. I use a slide in one of my talks [which shows] a church in rural Maine and its billboard says: ‘Good without God [becomes] zero.’
Yes, but that isn’t serious thinking.
Well, it’s the thinking of most people – maybe that’s not serious. There may be some sophisticated theologians who think they know better, but the average pastor, the average churchgoer, has had drummed into their head that religion is a prerequisite for morality. They think that atheists have to be by definition immoral. Which is preposterous, as you know.
This must be a cultural difference between the United States and this country, because I don’t think I have ever heard a Christian leader in Britain say any such thing.
Well, then, that’s a big difference. You have to remember that in the United States you can’t be elected to public office if you’re an atheist.
Whereas in this country if you are elected to high public office you’re well advised to keep your faith to yourself! I read that in your office you have a quotation from Gore Vidal: ‘It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’
That’s true. I cut it out of a magazine and put it on the door. I thought there was a profound truth in it. [Evolution is] trial and error – it’s only because of all the failed trials that evolution happens. All that nasty waste is a requirement for natural selection to work.
And Vidal was essentially saying that the same thing is true in culture – and it is. Contrary to what some soft–headed educators think, we can’t all be A+ and, like it or not, it’s really important that we recognise differences in quality and accomplishment – and that means that some succeed and others fail.
Still, there’s a chasm between that recognition and all–out Social Darwinism, isn’t there?
We’ve learnt from experience that we shouldn’t try to organise society on purely Darwinian lines, because it leads to outcomes that most people find abhorrent. So, how far should we accept the way nature does things?
Well, let’s look at two areas where I think most people have no trouble. In professional sports and professional music, we recognise that only the crème de la crème de la crème get paid the large salaries and [there are] hordes of anonymous wannabes who don’t make the grade.
Is that unfair? I think it’s OK, I think everybody can recognise that we can’t all be idols, we can’t all be stars – and what makes the stars worth their celebrity is that they’re so much better than the others. It’s a question of the triumph of quality, and we want that. [But] we want to have all that competition go on within a system that has a safety net, that protects people, that does not allow unfair advantage and that is particularly good at not bestowing (as it were) hereditary advantage – not letting the rich get richer.
But why do we want that, when evolution by natural selection hasn’t primed us for that? Of course we should take care of those in our immediate circle, but natural selection wouldn’t make us give a monkey’s about people on the other side of the world, would it?
That’s what culture is all about. In one species and one species only, we’ve had the evolution of culture, beginning with language and then art and ethics and politics and science and all the rest; and that has created the marketplace of ideas, and that marketplace has permitted systems of behaviour to emerge.
Let’s think about some rather simple systems for a moment. Games, like chess and football, have rules. People in their wisdom figured out that chess was better if you had the castling rule, and football was better if there’s such a thing as a red card. These rules have evolved over time and could change again – they are all open to negotiation.
So have the rules about how to live. They’re a work in progress, but we have put our heads together, and our heads at their best are really quite wonderful. The achievement of consensus among people with good intentions, raised in every different circumstance, has a very strong warrant on our allegiance. What could be a better grounding for ethics than that well–meaning people all over the world think that this is a good grounding for ethics? Imagine the dynamic of a parliament where everybody gets to put in their two cents about what they want. You’ve got some taboo in your culture you think is important? Explain it to the rest of us and if you can convince us, wonderful! We’ll all adopt that taboo. And if you can’t, well, you can practise it among yourselves but don’t impose it on others.
The image of rational, well–meaning, morally grounded people is an attractive one, but if it was true to nature I don’t think the last hundred years would have turned out quite the way they have.
Well, actually the world is becoming ever more peaceful, ever less violent, as Steve Pinker shows in his latest book [The Better Angels of Our Nature: The decline of violence in history and its causes]. The facts he marshals are quite impressive.
Do you expect that in another hundred years humankind will be living in even greater peace and concord still?
I think there’s a good chance of that. I think we’re making progress. We may have some horrible backsliding – there could be a terrible terrorist catastrophe that could set us way back, we could blow up the planet – but if we don’t do that, I think the signs are good.
And I think that particularly on the frontier of religion. I think religion changed more in the 20th century than it did in the millennium before that, and this is my prediction: I think it’s going to change more in the next 20 years than it changed in the 20th century.
In what direction?
A lot of churches are simply going to go extinct, and those that survive are going to have to radically change. A lot of people have mistakenly thought that religion is booming in America but it isn’t: most of the denominations are not just losing members but losing members at a great rate. I think it’s pretty clear that religion is going to go through some cataclysmic changes. I would like that to be as painless as possible, [but] I think a lot of people are going to be very hurt, and even, maybe, desperate. And that’s dangerous, and I want the world to be prepared for that.
And I do not view the absolutist claims of traditionalists as helping. They’re simply making their position harder and harder to defend. I would love to ease them out of their redoubts.
The interview was conducted in London on 22 May.