The mind is nothing more than “a collection of computerlike information processes, which happen to take place in carbon-based rather than silicon-based hardware.” The much-loved “self” is “a ‘narrative center of gravity,’ a very convenient fiction that allows us to integrate various neural streams of data.” “The soul is made of lots of little robots,” that is, our neurons. These are phrases and concepts developed by Daniel C. Dennett, 81, one of today’s most renowned and controversial philosophers. He is famous for his crusade against religion, which he accuses of creating fanatics. His atheistic proselytism — which has not been very effective in his own family, since his sister is a priest in a Christian church — led to his inclusion among the so-called “four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse,” along with Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. But the scope of Dennett’s thought is much broader. He has delved into the nature of consciousness from an evolutionary perspective and has added new ideas to philosophy in understandable language.
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Tufts University in his native Massachusetts, where he taught for half a century, and director of its Center for Cognitive Studies, he is known for his gifts as a polemicist and for the informative scope of his 20 or so books. In his latest, a memoir entitled I’ve Been Thinking, he wants to put it on record that what is truly exciting “is the magic of life as evolved, the magic of brain as evolving in between our own ears,” as he recently told The New York Times. For that reason: “You don’t need miracles. You just need to understand the world the way it really is.”
The son of a historian/diplomat and a professor who specialized in publishing, Dennett seemed destined for the academic world from the beginning. He graduated from Harvard University with a degree in philosophy and received his doctorate from Oxford University having written a groundbreaking thesis, Content and Consciousness, a work that has now been published in several revised editions and translated into several languages. From a very young age, his curiosity has led him to try endless activities. He draws and sculpts and is a jazz pianist, a skilled sailor, a computer engineer and a successful lecturer. He is married and the father of two adopted children, who have given him five grandchildren; for many years, he and his wife managed a farm in Maine, where he produced his own blueberry liqueur and apple brandy.
In addition to summarizing his philosophical and scientific views, Dennett also makes some confessions in his memoir. He talks about the pain of losing the child he and his wife were expecting shortly after they married and the serious heart attack that brought him to the brink of death, which was resolved thanks to the artificial aorta implanted in him in 2006. One of his most controversial books was published that year: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, in which Dennett explained religion as a by-product of our biological evolution. “At that time, the debates between evolutionists and creationists were at a high point,” Alejandro Katz, his Argentine publisher, points out via email. “Although it was a strictly Anglo-Saxon debate, the ideas and arguments developed by Dennett” were also of interest in the Spanish-speaking world.
With a long white beard resembling that of a biblical patriarch, Dennett doesn’t just lash out at believers, he also irritates his colleagues by denying the very basis of the philosophy of mind. “He questions whether there is something ineffable in the subjective experience of sensations, that aspect of consciousness which, technically, is known as qualia,” philosopher Josefa Toribio, a professor at the University of Barcelona’s Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats (Catalan Institute of Research and Advanced Studies), who is friend of Dennett, writes in an email. For Dennett, “the very idea of qualia, as it is commonly understood, is illusory.” Toribio praises the American philosopher’s ability “to present complex philosophical ideas to the non-specialist public in an understandable way,” and she highlights “his commitment to naturalism, his integration of scientific knowledge into philosophical debates and his ability to challenge conventional wisdom with innovative and thought-provoking ideas.”
One of the topics that most interests and concerns Dennett is artificial intelligence. He is in favor of containing new AI technological discoveries before applying them on a massive scale. Progress is exponential, and he does not doubt that conscious robots could be created in a few decades, an outcome he wants to avoid. After all, we do not even know what evolutionary benefits consciousness has brought us — assuming that it has any function at all — as the philosopher said in an interview published three years ago in Tufts Now, his university’s magazine. “Maybe consciousness is just an affliction,” he ventured. “Maybe it just evolved as a sort of burden that we have to carry. Maybe it’s something else that benefits us, and consciousness is what we carry around as the price for having this other, better thing.”
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