Daniel Dennett

By Kuba Kaliński (transl. Kuba Kalinski)
Freedom Evolves - Daniel Dennett
Daniel Dennett
Biographical note
Daniel Dennett was born in 1942 in Boston. He is a philosopher and a writer. He spent early childhood in Lebanon. His father was killed during a military mission in Ethiopia in 1947. Dan Dennett studied at Harvard and in Oxford but he considers himself self-taught primarily. Among his teachers and promoters are Quine and Ryle, however, he cites Hume and Austin more frequently. His philosophical interests include the theory of the mind, consciousness, neuroscience and the theory of evolution. He is a professor at Tufts University in Boston, an atheist, a member of the Secular Coalition of America and a supporter of Brights movement. He is well known to YouTube audience as one of the Four Horsemen, next to Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. He married Susan Bell in 1962; they have two children. Dennett is an avid sailor. There are some titles of his more influential books: “Brainstorms”, “Elbow Room”, “The Mind’s I”, “Content and Consciousness”, “The Intentional Stance”, “Consciousness Explained”, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, “Kinds of Minds”, “Brainchildren”, “Freedom Evolves”, “Sweet Dreams”, “Breaking the Spell”, “Neuroscience and Philosophy”, “Science and Religion”, “Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking”, “Inside Jokes”.

Subjective Viewpoint: Freedom Evolves

Thomas Bernhard, Extinction, transl. from Polish

“Once we deal with one of these philosophers, Gambetti, I said to him, we manifest insolence daring crack on them and, so to speak, snatch their entrails alive. We always manifest insolence when we deal with a philosophical work but without this insolence we won’t ever get close to it, from the philosophical perspective we won’t move ahead. We must always approach these philosophical works and theirs revealers in the most brutal and vulgar way, Gambetti, we should imagine them as our biggest enemies and fearful opponents. I must act against Schopenhauer if I want to understand him, against Kant, against Montaigne, against Descartes, against Schleiermacher, you understand. I must be against Voltaire if I want to engage myself in the most thorough discussion with him that would have any chances of success.”

  1. Against Dennett?
  2. There are various ways to act against philosophers. The most honest way, the Bernhard’s way: one has to be merciless. Dennett himself, in his short autobiography, recalls the beginnings of his philosophical career, his attacks on Quine and Ryle. I will do it differently; I will treat Dennett softly and in the kindest possible way. And this is because I like him. I don’t know any other contemporary philosopher equally well disposed towards people and with undisturbed patience to his opponents, religious as well as those more sophisticated intellectually. Compared to him Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris seem to be possessed by a will to fight and win. When they lose their temper Dennett smiles under his beard. So maybe by osmosis? hypnotism? (the person in question knows where do these words come from) I will reach that smile under my beard. After all, his beard – Abrahamic, say his opponents – is a Socratic beard. Let’s assume that we know that we know very little.

  3. A Family Argument
  4. The famous meeting of 4 horsemen, a YouTube historic event, was exceptional from the beginning by the very fact of discussing in more or less harmonious atmosphere. But thinkers are cats. This harmony was instant; the idyll couldn’t last for a long time. At the end of these notes I will refer shortly to the dispute between Dennett and Harris.

  5. Real Magic
  6. The same anecdote repeats in many of his lectures. It is the core of his understanding of consciousness. A professor from Hawaii, Dennett’s friend, wrote a book about magic in India. “About real magic?”, asked Dennett. “No, about tricks, manipulation, and gimmicks, about what magicians really do, not about real magic.” In other words: real magic is not real magic. And the same apply to consciousness.

  7. A Sharper’s Den
  8. Dennett notices that we all feel to be consciousness experts. Everyone knows better. Meanwhile, it is exactly the same as it was with flat earth. Our understanding of consciousness is a mix of mess, superstitions, prejudice, fears, clichés, erroneous philosophical ideas, and nonsense tenacious in common language. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here? In any case abandon good manners and be on guard because you enter a sharper’s den.

  9. Aliens
  10. Ideas we are ready to die for: freedom, justice, truth, communism, capitalism, Catholicism, Islam… wait a moment. Thanks to Dennett I get to know a non-philosophical fact: there are ants that climb the very top of grass stubbornly. For what do they do it? For nothing. There is a worm in their bloodstream and the worm reached its brain. The ants get crazy and climb as high as possible. The thing is that the worm has to get to the guts of a cow or a mouton to proliferate. The ant has nothing to do with that; it is just a first handy idiot. Dennett thinks that sometimes something similar occurs in minds of some people; they become vehicles of something disgusting, like a death in the name of Allah or… whatever you invent.

    Contrary to Dennett I think that the above analogy makes more sense if we assume that all ideas of all people are worms. Our bodies are appropriate by ideas. Not only the Putin’s brain, playing a war game in Ukraine because his new wife is no longer new, is an example of a worm-eaten brain. We all are medium for something we are not. This website is not necessary for anyone, even for me. In this case the internet is a cow that eats me. Thanks to that my meme-ideas, the worms of my brain, proliferate. “I” is a stranger.

  11. Hips
  12. Brave New World of Internet and New Technologies? Did you buy that pup? I did and now I lick the consequences on the street. The truth about human being is quite simple if simple truths satisfy you. The first person that accumulated 1 million likes on FB is Shakira. Rihanna is close behind, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and Selena Gomez are not very far. What about Einstein or Dali? They are out of the classification. Let’s resume:
    – women make the world turn around
    – when turning around the world the most important is turning hips
    – the hips should be in fertile age

    What does it have in common with Dennett? A long time ago he noticed that internet is the best tool ever invented serving for proliferation of toxic meme-viruses. Our considerations about AI are out of date. We have created it already. Does internet have consciousness? Human consciousness? He hasn’t. He won’t fight for liberty, justice and so on. He won’t be ill with AIDS. Will he communicate with us? He does it already. And, after all, do we care so deeply about communication with ants?

  13. Anal Philosophy
  14. Pornography is an example of something that is no longer destructive for our culture. We are resistant. Why so many cultures protect against it? Because from their point of view it is a real plague that will kill them. Liberty is a dangerous meme. I am ill with freedom; I am infected with the meme of truth too. They do not provide happiness which is just another type of meme. On my new painting there is a man who looks inside his own anus. The title of the painting: “Was looking for inner happiness but found truth only”.

  15. Outsourcing
  16. Here is a real intelligence! Cows and sheep outsource all their elementary needs: security, food, health. There are some costs, agree, but half of the humanity would probably exchange a long night of despair and torment for a short and luxurious life. The rich outsource almost everything. What remain are philosophy, drugs, and the like.

  17. Freedom Evolves
  18. In his short autobiography Dennett recalls when, for some time, he had a problem with Hilary Putnam. Any time he started to write a new article it occurred in half of the work that Putnam has just published something very similar on the same subject. It occurs to me my entire life. I invented an umbrella once but it transpired that it exists already. I was a little bit late with the idea of multiverse too. The same applies to freedom. Once I came to the conclusion that freedom is not something finite but it changes, evolves, and its scope gets bigger, it transpired that Dennett had written before Freedom Evolves. I should have become a soccer player.

    We can do much more than in the past. Our freedom grows and responsibility and evil grow together with it. Conquering the Americas we didn’t know that we carry bacteria and viruses that wipe all civilizations off map in the course of one generation. Today we know that building a motorway we deliver a verdict to an endemic species of frogs. Putin can’t plead for not pushing personally the button of the ballistic missile which has killed 298 people on a Malaysian airplane. John Paul II can’t pretend to not knowing how to use condoms when he let thousands of children die on AIDS in Africa. They knew the consequences. There are examples of so huge freedom that the people who were responsible didn’t bear it. Decisions of one man influence life of millions. Such a situation is immoral itself.

  19. How We Shouldn’t Argue in Favor of Existence of Free Will
  20. Basically, I think that Dennett has defended free will in his dispute with Harris. The cost of this defense is higher than Dennett would expect, I am afraid. However, some of arguments seem to me inaccurate, some, and Dennett is not the only one to adduce them, are very ineffective. Particularly that one: we shouldn’t tell people that they lack free will because it causes growth of stupid, immoral, sometimes criminal behaviors. And, it is added, that there are numerous studies supporting the thesis. I do not intend to undermine those studies but a way of thinking behind it. A Dennettian alarm has rung in my head although there is no “surely” word. “Surely” is behind the scenes.

    Let’s begin with two facts. Firstly, the people who discuss about free will in a reasonable way today are atheists without exception. Not so long ago they proclaimed god’s death. Secondly, for most of the religious people it is very difficult, or even impossible, to think about life and world without god because they lose ground. Dostoyevsky was not the only one to put in the mouth of his hero “Без бога-то и без будущей жизни? Ведь это, стало быть, теперь всё позволено, всё можно делать?” Changing the god into free will and translating freely: if there is no free will everything is permitted because we are not responsible for our acts (or we won’t be punished in hell). My point is: if we remove god in the name of truth neglecting “mental good” of poor believers we can’t stop half way not removing free will only because some people will feel dizzy for a moment. Of course, the effect will be a profound mental upheaval. But these effects will be short-lived. Why? For same reasons the complex of god withdrawal is short-lived. It is the same illusion that our good or bad acts depend on existence or non-existence of god or free will. Existence of free will is irrelevant to human acts. A final sentence in the philosophical dispute about free will won’t change the murder rate in US. A ban on weapon possession would do it. Understanding of how the compatibilist version of free will is possible in deterministic world, seeing the god delusion, has to be positive on the long run because it promotes rational thinking at the expense of delusions. If there is no free will such effects would be equally positive. And, though the best efforts of Dennett and other compatibilist, it is still not settled who will be the winner.

    God’s death has its price. Good and Evil as the platonic, real forces have fallen with Him together; the libertarian version of free will has fallen. In one of the Foucalt’s articles the Man has fallen also. (I stay away from French philosophy of second half 20th century because it operates a hysterically pretentious language.) A man is a machine or more precisely an assembly of biological sub-assemblies. This truth is unacceptable for religious people and never will be. For religious people such truth means Man’s death. This idea has deeper consequences than dispute about compatibilist or incompatibilist free will. But we, atheists, we accept biological concept of man and his consciousness. We are not afraid of consequences. So let’s stop put on airs saying that we should not tell people about free will delusion. People in question will cheat once, twice, three times and then they will stop doing it. They are not stupid by default.

  21. A Marginal Note
  22. While translating this text from Polish one question occurs to me. I will not think about it now; I just leave the doubt. Is there any real difference between the meaning of Dennettian compatibilist free will and meaning of the word choice? Certainly we have choices. Certainly we choose. Certainly freedom has to do with possibility of choices. Certainly we act voluntarily or involuntarily if we are under threat. Is there any real necessity and space for free will? I am still not convinced. Free will or simply will? What unfree will would be?

  23. A False Luxury of Philosophy
  24. We the philosophers, professional and weekend philosophers, we think about the world as the whole, get to grips with bigger than ourselves and defeat them with wild satisfaction on the ring of own writing-desk. Soon the same will happen to us. Meanwhile, we give moral judgments throwing half of humanity to the bin on the left and the second half to the bin on the right; we do it lightly as if it was a peel of apples. Proud and arrogant we sit to dinner. We have proven on the screen that free will has a meaning or that it has not any in the slightest degree. Yesterday, in one of the states of the USA a prisoner sentenced to death has been executed. A man was in two hours indescribable agony because the injection didn’t work as expected. Our discussions are worthless if we allow such barbarity to take place. I am not an American but I feel guilty. This is only one of the reasons why I will never become a true philosopher. Too often I am guided by guilt, revenge, and rage. Thinking about barbarity I become barbarian myself.

  25. The Dispute between Harris and Dennett about Free Will
  26. The dispute in question is partly an essential and partly a definitional dispute. My opinion expressed below concerns its second feature. Tradition gives us words, ideas, concepts. They evolve and sometimes a line, similarly to species, divides creating a new ramification. I want to demonstrate using a very simple example that both philosophers use words "I" and "freedom" in different meanings. If we see the difference in meaning, in the way that we could use two different words, a large part of the dispute disappears. I suppose that they both know it but they leave clarification to other people. They are not guilty as philosophers; it is a natural process of evolving philosophy.

    The first box has three lights. There is a cable connected that transfers signals: switch on the green light, switch the red, switch on the blue one. A signal arrives to the box: switch on the red light and red light shines. We would say in such situation: the green light could shine but it didn’t. Could is a short form of: if the input signal would be different the green or the blue light would shine. A new signal arrives to the box: switch on the violet light. The violet light doesn’t shine and couldn’t shine in any circumstances. The violet light doesn’t exist. Can we assign a feature of liberty to that box? In one sense we can it other we can’t. The box is free in this sense that it can shine one of three lights. The box isn’t free in this sense that it doesn’t choose the initial external signal. These senses are clearly different and in a fact we need two words to avoid falling into troubles

    The second box is the first one with an additional mechanic device. Every time a new signal arrives it writes down what signal it was. Then if the box has a proper light it writes down yes, otherwise no. So after a while it can look like that: green yes, violet no, yellow no. The boxes can speak and can speak about themselves. They call themselves “I”. However, some of the boxes saying “I” refer to the boxes as the whole, some boxes refer only to that additional device. There are also such boxes that mix both meanings using “I” referring randomly to the whole or to the device only. Here is a philosophical dispute between boxes:

    – I am free – says box D. – I can shine red, green, or blue. Of course I will shine only with the color I am determined to shine.

    – It is not true; my I is not free – says box H. – I only observe passing orders and write down what they are.

    Both statements are true and both are false depending which sense of “I” and “free” we use in a given situation. The controversy and the paradox emerge in language only because our terms are not precisely defined.

    The third and the last box is the second box but much bigger with a bunch of embroiled cables inside. From time to time this embroilment generates a signal to the lights independently of signals from outside. If we expand the meanings of messy terms “I” and “free” to the third box, a caricature of human brain, we will get quickly a new set of paradoxes only because we don’t care enough about our language. Such kind of problems does not appear in programming languages. On the other hand they appear in every second phrase in human sciences. It does not disturb in everyday life when we can figure out what our interlocutor says if we are kind-hearted. It may be that our everyday language has to be ambiguous for very simple evolutionary reason: it is impossible to have words for all phenomena because the variety of things on earth is far bigger than the capacity of any human brain. That conceptual mess in everyday language disturbs only philosophers who would like to be closer to mathematicians than to poets and disturbs spouses if they resign from resolve conflicts in bed.

    The dispute about free will emerges in language not in the reality itself. If we stop thinking about it the problem disappears.

Daniel Dennett - Breaking the Spell
Breaking the Spell
Daniel Dennett - 
Consciousness Explained
Consciousness Explained
Daniel Dennett - 
Intuition Pumps
Intuition Pumps
Daniel Dennett - 
Dangerous Idea
Dangerous Idea
Daniel Dennett - 
Freedom Evolves
Freedom Evolves

Daniel Dennett - quotes & fragments



Sam Harris’s Free Will (2012) is a remarkable little book, engagingly written and jargon-free, appealing to reason, not authority, and written with passion and moral seriousness. This is not an ivory tower technical inquiry; it is in effect a political tract, designed to persuade us all to abandon what he considers to be a morally pernicious idea: the idea of free will. If you are one of the many who have been brainwashed into believing that you have—or rather, are—an (immortal, immaterial) soul who makes all your decisions independently of the causes impinging on your material body and especially your brain, then this is the book for you. Or, if you have dismissed dualism but think that what you are is a conscious (but material) ego, a witness that inhabits a nook in your brain and chooses, independently of external causation, all your voluntary acts, again, this book is for you. It is a fine “antidote,” as Paul Bloom says, to this incoherent and socially malignant illusion. The incoherence of the illusion has been demonstrated time and again in rather technical work by philosophers (in spite of still finding supporters in the profession), but Harris does a fine job of making this apparently unpalatable fact accessible to lay people. Its malignance is due to its fostering the idea of Absolute Responsibility, with its attendant implications of what we might call Guilt-in-the-eyes-of-God for the unfortunate sinners amongst us and, for the fortunate, the arrogant and self-deluded idea of Ultimate Authorship of the good we do. We take too much blame, and too much credit, Harris argues. We, and the rest of the world, would be a lot better off if we took ourselves—our selves—less seriously. We don’t have the kind of free will that would ground such Absolute Responsibility for either the harm or the good we cause in our lives.

Read more at Sam Harris’s blog