Daniel Dennett has died


The last time I met Dennett was at a Darwin Day event where we were a double bill. We had a good time, he told me stories about his heart surgery, mentioned that all he really wanted to do was get away to his farm and make apple cider, we got to talking about evolution, and I told him I didn’t care much at all for his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea — it was naively adaptationist. He asked my opinion of free will, and I told him I never argue about it, because it was all an illusion and it didn’t matter whether minds had it or not. We got along famously, and corresponded for a while afterwards, until the fact that I was disenchanted with Dawkins, despised Harris, thought the whole idea of the “four horsemen” was disappointing jingo, and that sexism was poisoning everything, made me persona non grata among prominent atheists. Oh, well, we were friends for a while.

Now Dennett has died. That’s a sadness, because he was a good guy and brought a thoughtful, humanist perspective to atheism. I hope someone is taking care of his apples.

With Hitchens and Dennett dead, and Dawkins doddering on the edge of irrelevant crankiness, I guess that leaves young Mr Harris, the least of the quartet, holding the legacy of the Four Horsemen, and that propaganda concept can now fade away, unlamented. Dennett’s legacy will continue and his books are worth thinking about, even when I disagree with them.

Comments

  1. rietpluim says

    Of the four so-called horsemen, I thought Dennett was the only one worth following, being the only one not decreasing himself into bigotry and zealotism.

  2. kenbakermn says

    I’ve read several of his books over the years starting with “Consciousness Explained” back around 1995. As brilliant as he was even an intellect as modest as mine could see he missed the mark a few times. Nonetheless all his books are full to the rim with interesting ideas very well explicated. Right now I happen to be in the middle of “Bacteria to Bach and Back”, which is fascinating. I thought “Intuition Pumps” was his best. Wish I’d had an opportunity to meet him.

  3. Silentbob says

    I guess that leaves young Mr Harris, the least of the quartet, holding the legacy of the Four Horsemen,

    Aye. Young 57 year old Harris. Wee slip of a lad.

    Jokes aside, I’m pleased PZ got to know Dennett.

  4. Silentbob says

    Dennett was surely the most PZ like of the putative Horsemen.

    If he had only had more fondness for spiders.

  5. Silentbob says

    I feel I should explain that last comment.
    I don’t mean PZ and Dennett were similar in public persona. Quite the opposite! X-D
    I mean similar in style and outlook.

    Daniel Dennett on Artificial Intelligence, New Atheism, and the Decline of Religion – YouTube

  6. Bruce Fuentes says

    The only one of the horseman that any effect on me is Hitchens and that is solely because of Hitchens’s Razor. “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
    Dennett always seemed to me to not get a lot of the science side of things. He was a navel gazing philosopher. Nothing wrong with that, but it certainly limits one’s relevance.

  7. KG says

    Sorry he’s dead, condolences to his family and friends. I’ve enjoyed and benefitted from reading several of his books, especially Consciousness Explained, and was disappointed to see his recent association with Dork web numpties. I was once mistaken for him at Brussels train station (I’m a decade and more younger, but even I can see the resemblance).

  8. raven says

    PZ at #9 is referring to Dennett endorsing Helen Joyce, mindless Trans hater.
    I had never heard of her. There are so many Trans haters and they never have anything new or real to say.

    Wikipedia Helen Joyce:

    In March 2019, The Daily Dot reported that Joyce “claimed, among other things, that the trans rights movement is enabling sexual predators… referred to puberty blockers or other treatments that affirm a trans child’s sense of self as ‘sickening’… [and] also called these procedures ‘child abuse,’ ‘unethical medicine,’ ‘mass experimentation,’ and a ‘global scandal'”.[16]

    In June 2022, PinkNews reported that Joyce had spoken in favour of “reducing or keeping down the number of people who transition” and that “every one of those people is a person who’s been damaged” and “every one of those people is basically, you know, a huge problem to a sane world”.[17]

    These are all assertions without proof or data and may be dismissed without proof or data.

    Helen Joyce is simply a mindless virulent hater of Trans people.
    Helen Joyce: In March 2019, The Daily Dot reported that Joyce “claimed, among other things, that the trans rights movement is enabling sexual predators
    Where is the data for this point?
    It doesn’t exist because it is a false statement.

    Helen Joyce: …”every one of those people is a person who’s been damaged” … How and by who?
    Damaged in what ways?
    This is just an insult and an expression of hate.

    Helen Joyce: and “every one of those people is basically, you know, a huge problem to a sane world”.[17]
    Oh really?
    This is just mindless hate and it is obviously wrong.
    Of problems we have in the world, Trans people aren’t even on the list.
    In my entire life, the number of times a Trans person has caused me or anyone I know problems is zero.

    What is a huge problem in the world are…mindless haters like Helen Joyce.

    I’m sorry that Daniel Dennett is dead.
    If I’d have known he went in the direction of mindless Trans hate, I’d have a few things to say to him about that.
    There is always the possibility that someone as intelligent as Daniel Dennett could still be able to look at data and evidence and change their mind.
    (After all, I’ve done it and so have many other people. I was a xian for 50 years.)

  9. says

    I believe Dennett was the one to coin the term “deepity”, which I’ve found to be applicable in many contexts, far beyond merely discussions of religion.

  10. raven says

    This is the tweet that Daniel Dennett wrote about Helen Joyce.

    Daniel Dennett
    @danieldennett

    Helen Joyce shows how the best intentions can morph into bullying in this sane, humane book. The role we all play in letting people be who they want to be is a delicate balancing act, no place for self-righteous partisans.

    It’s so cuckoo and wrong it is hard to believe Dennett actually wrote this.

    .1. Helen Joyce is way past the point of being a self-righteous partisan.
    She is a mindless Trans hater who is openly calling for the elimination of Trans people.

    .2. Dennett: “The role we all play in letting people be who they want to be is a delicate balancing act.”
    No Daniel Dennett. This is wrong.
    We live in a democracy remember?
    It is a free country.

    The Wiccans have it right. ‘as long as you aren’t harming anyone, do as you wish’.
    Trans people aren’t harming anyone.
    It’s their business what gender they are and none of your, Daniel Dennett, (or anyone else’s) business or concern.

    I won’t condemn someone to Richard Dawkins class irrrelevance on the basis of one tweet from two years ago.
    But I’d really like to see Daniel Dennett try to defend his incipient Trans hate.
    If his mind was still intact, he wouldn’t be able to do it.

  11. Matt G says

    Amazing how even people trained in science and medicine can allow their emotional responses to phenomena dictate their positions. Gender dysphoria is nothing new, and should not be surprising to anyone who understands how messy biology is.

  12. stevewatson says

    My wife and I had the privilege of driving the Dennetts to the airport during the 2011 Atheist Alliance conference in Montreal. And neither of us can recall clearly what we talked about on the way :-. But they did give us the bottle of wine the organizers had comped them, I guess because it would have been a pain to take it on the plane. We’ve also got a bunch of autographed books from various events over the years.
    About that quote: unfortunately, it seems to apply to too many atheists as well. In their own minds, they’ve seen through the lie that is religion, which proves they’re really smart, so now all they need to do is sit on their asses with Sam Harris podcasts on intravenous drip, and jeer at stupid religious people on the internet (and all religious people are stupid, without distinction).

  13. Hemidactylus says

    Thanks for this heartfelt post PZ. I had some mixed feelings toward Dennett in the late 90s due to his treatment of Gould in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and my disenchantment with the memes concept he had incorporated. I did take his work on free will quite seriously. Sam Harris and Daniel Wegner had me leaning against it, but Dennett has some pretty good defenses. That and his treatments of consciousness are his most valuable stuff to me. He had warts though (eg your @9).

    I kinda liked this back and forth between Dennett and Sapolsky. I wondered about his physical condition because of his scalp, but he seemed quite with it intellectually trading barbs:

    Here’s Sam Harris and Dennett going at it:

    From the transcript on Medium by Matt O’Brien there was this kinda condescending loco parentis aside by Harris that was very off-putting, like the shared fans are their children or something:

    Then you can see the bad blood that was generated there, and I don’t know, Dan, if you’re aware of this — you don’t squander as much of your time on social media or in your inbox — but I heard from so many of our mutual readers that they were despairing of that contretemps between us. It was like Mom and Dad fighting, and it was totally unpleasant.

    Hitchens too, alongside Dennett, was a mixed bag. His neocon stance toward the Iraq invasion that he never seemed to lament was pretty bad, but I wonder what his post Oct 7th views on Israel and Zionism would be now, given his previous quite critical of Israel, pro-Palestinian track record that so many New Atheists and their blogging ilk seem to conveniently overlook (ahem WEIT, cough, cough).

  14. says

    My response to the free-willers has been, “If you truly believe you have free will, why do you choose to waste your time debating it with people who think they are meat robots? Do you think you will make a difference?”

    Wasting your time with pseudo-philosophers like Harris is even worse.

  15. says

    Oh god, I started reading that Medium transcript, and right away hit the Harris defense: “If I have to spend ninety percent of my energy taking your words out of my mouth, then this thing begins to look purely adversarial, so one thing I’ve been struggling for in my professional life is a way of having conversations like this, even ones where there’s much less goodwill than you and I have for one another”
    Nobody ever understands anything Sam Harris says correctly. I stopped reading at that point, there’s no reason to continue, because he is such a shitty communicator of shitty ideas.

  16. robro says

    raven @ #14

    The Wiccans have it right. ‘as long as you aren’t harming anyone, do as you wish’.

    Which reminds me of these words in “My Conviction” from Hair:

    “You know kids, I wish every mother and father in this theater would go home tonight and make a speech to their teenagers and say kids, be free, no guilt, be whatever you are, do whatever you want to do, just so long as you don’t hurt anybody.”

    A sentiment that had a big influence on me in circa 1968 and still does.

  17. says

    I thought his argument about free will was circuitous and weak, but maybe I should review it. It seemed to me as though he eventually argued “as long as you feel you make choices you have free will even if you do not.” It was unconvincing. I always felt he was one of the “horsemen” to provide some philosophical rigor to Dawkins and Harris, which really did not rub off.

  18. pick says

    I’m really bummed at Dan Dennetts death. Thank goodness for his life. He spoke some simple truths, quietly and clearly and stood out as a rational being in a tsunami of nonsense. I respect and admire PZ who I think performs a similar role for me.

    It was too bad that Dennett ever had anything to do with Sam Harris who was and is just fool.

  19. Ed Peters says

    #17. Hemidactylus, thanks for this. I had never even heard of Sapolsky and never listened to Dennett. After viewing about 1/2 of the debate, I am much more impressed with Sapolsky. Dennett was cantankerous, inarticulate, and unorganized compared to Sapolsky. In fact, within a few minutes of Dennett’s 2nd 10 minutes, I couldn’t take it any more. He stopped making sense, was clearly agitated, and was being gratuitously reductive and insulting to Sapolsky. I think after this I’ll have to stick to his writings. Hopefully they will convey more commendable and coherent thoughts, though his rejection of Gould makes me even more leery. And now I have a new person to read, Sapolsky, who demonstrated a clearer and kinder mind, at least in this video.

    One thing Dennett briefly touched on early was that the debate over free will often hinges on the definition, with one party arguing about one kind of free will, and another arguing for another kind, with the result being they tend to talk past each other. Dennett argues for what I call a moralist’s free will and dismisses Sapolsky’s. People who believe in God need moral free will to exist or else God would have no basis to decide who to send to heaven or hell. So what is atheist Dennett’s excuse? Sapolsky is very polite in calling it intuition-based, but really, isn’t Dennett just arguing for a definition of free will that allows us to judge others? It’s sounds a lot like religion-based morality dressed up as philosophy.

    Now that I’ve written this, I’ll finish watching the video. I hope Dennett can acquit himself better in the 2nd half.

  20. joep says

    I saw Dennett give a very enjoyable talk 25 or 30 years ago and I have long respected him even if I didn’t always agree with him. But I didn’t know until reading these comments about the Helen Joyce stuff…sheesh. But the main purpose of this comment is to mention sad little Jerry Coyne, who so desperately wanted to be a horseman but could not attain in the eyes of the acolytes even the stature of Sam Harris; I felt these comments would be lacking without his presence.

  21. Ed Peters says

    In the second half, Dennett says nothing new. He just keeps pulling out examples and asking the same questions over and over – shouldn’t we judge this guy and hold him responsible? Shouldn’t we apply punishment and reward? Sapolsky keeps agreeing that this is how we train people to be members of society, but his point that the two part model of choice generation and selection is dependent on a host of things, some easily identified and many not yet identified, seems to antagonize Dennett, who never acknowledges the point that rather than focusing as a moralizer on judging, we should focus on the biology – identification and amelioration of the causes of bad behavior. Dennett comes off as a moralist, and like most if not all moralists, cannot help but think that if they cannot moralize, the world will go to hell. And he thinks of free will as a never ending series of moral choices that the person has perfect control over, as though their entire existence was as a disembodied moral philosopher. Thus any argument that tries to assign external causes to a person’s development that results in their bad behavior must necessarily jeopardize the moral order of society. Dennett fear of Sapolsky’s overall viewpoint comes through loud and clear and it drives him to make incoherent and contradictory statements, as well as repeatedly bring up examples irrelevant to Sapolsky’s main point. E.g. “How about asking them if they want to be held responsible?” This gets tedious until the 56:00 mark when Sapolsky summarizes his POV. Then when Dennett responds, he just goes back to bad analogies and irrelevant examples (Money. Signing a mortgage with your free will). Sapolsky responds we’re back where we started. Round and round we go. It’s just like talking to an evangelical Christian. He resorts to fatuous reductions of his opponent’s arguments too much for my taste. If this is all Dennett has got, I’m not impressed.

  22. Ed Peters says

    #27 Oops. In my penultimate sentence, ‘He’ was meant to refer to Dennett, not Sapolsky.

  23. raven says

    I mentioned that Dennett was a fan of Helen Joyce, the Trans hater in comment #12.
    Her statements that weren’t just meaningless insults didn’t seem right.
    That is because they are lies.

    Helen Joyce:

    In March 2019, The Daily Dot reported that Joyce “claimed, among other things, that the trans rights movement is enabling sexual predators

    I hadn’t heard this one in a while.
    It’s a lie.

    Trans Teens Less Likely to Commit Acts of Sexual Violence, Says New Study
    Eliza Partika June 03, 2022 Medscape:

    Transgender and nonbinary adolescents are twice as likely to experience sexual violence as their cisgendered peers but are less likely to attempt rape or commit sexual assault, researchers have found.

    Transgender teens are less likely to commit acts of sexual violence.

    What is noteworthy is that Transgender teens and adults are far more likely to be victims of sexual violence, It is twice as high according to this study.

    US government Department of Justice

    Statistics documenting transgender people’s experience of sexual violence indicate shockingly high levels of sexual abuse and assault.

    One in two transgender individuals are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives.1

    The US Federal government says the same thing.
    Transgender people have very high levels of violence and sexual violence directed towards them.

    This isn’t surprising at all.
    Rates of violence are always higher in disadvantaged, discriminated against and marginalized groups of people.
    Which means that Helen Joyce as a hate monger is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    I’d like to think that Dennett could learn something by looking up a few things on the internet but since he is dead, it isn’t going to happen.

  24. nomdeplume says

    Looks like Dennett on transgender is like Hitchens on Iraq – a gaping blind spot in otherwise sane people.

    And “naively adaptationist”? Aren’t we all “Adaptationists”?

  25. Hemidactylus says

    Hey I had been mad at him for dissing Gould in DDI decades ago. That sort of side eye goes back quite aways. Never forget!

    I understand people not liking the concept of free will. I’m between no and agnostic myself. I couldn’t do Dennett justice on that right now so here’s another link… Philosophy Bites : https://philosophybites.libsyn.com/daniel-dennett-on-free-will-worth-wanting

    Whether it holds water or not is up to you. He does touch on subtle stuff in the weird response audio with Sam Harris upthread if you get past the annoying host himself.

    Since he passed I feel it important to show some of his IMO better stuff. YMMV.

    I concur with nomdeplume @30 except the point about being adaptionists. Junk DNA happened. Dennett was a bit adaptionist as was Mayr. Not great selling points for either.

  26. Hemidactylus says

    joep @26
    Funny thing about Coyne is that he keeps propping up Hitchens’ ghost for some reason yet fails to acknowledge ever Hitchens’ views on Palestine. I call Coyne out on that omission right here and now:
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaming_the_Victims

    Has Coyne read that book? I have! I own a copy.

    And:

    Yeah those awkward bits per Hitch, Coyne! When will he ever address that? Not holding my breath.

  27. pacal says

    Ed Peters No 27

    “Sapolsky keeps agreeing that this is how we train people to be members of society, but his point that the two part model of choice generation and selection is dependent on a host of things, some easily identified and many not yet identified, seems to antagonize Dennett, who never acknowledges the point that rather than focusing as a moralizer on judging, we should focus on the biology – identification and amelioration of the causes of bad behavior.”

    Well if Sapolsky actually believes in focusing on the “biological” causes of bad behavior he has lost me completely.

    Has for Judging and Moralizing vrs. whatever Sapolsky has in mind. Well the identifying and amelioration of bad behavior is Judging and Moralizing also just with a not very different “focus”.

  28. DanDare says

    I met Dan twice here in Oz. I liked him a lot and always looked forward to his next book.
    He shall be missed.

  29. Jim Balter says

    Very sad to hear about Dan Dennett’s death. Glad I was able to meet and talk to him on several occasions, still have quite a few of his books and articles I have not yet read.

    Scientific American ran a horrible piece about him by John Horgan, who completely misunderstands Dennett’s views on consciousness and the mind–it’s an insult to Dennett’s memory and to his life’s work.

    (Ditto for this focus on one ill-advised tweet out the man’s entire life of brilliant thinking.)

  30. Jim Balter says

    All this talk about free will, dissing Gould, a tweet about Helen Joyce … does anyone here even know that the primary focus of Dennett’s work was consciousness and the mind; that he was the leading proponent of physicalism as opposed all the woo woo dualism that permeates philosophy of mind, that he was the most scientifically informed of philosophers and constantly chastised other philosophers for not caring what the facts of the world are?

  31. Jim Balter says

    Dennett always seemed to me to not get a lot of the science side of things. He was a navel gazing philosopher.

    Yeesh, so many grossly ignorant comments here. This is the complete opposite of the facts.

    My response to the free-willers has been, “If you truly believe you have free will, why do you choose to waste your time debating it with people who think they are meat robots? Do you think you will make a difference?”

    That’s a rather ignorant and irrelevant response. Dennett was a compatibilist … he argued for a form of free will that is compatible with determinism. (I’m not endorsing that view, just pointing out that the above “response” has no bearing on his position.)

    I never argue about it, because it was all an illusion and it didn’t matter whether minds had it or not.

    And yet here you are arguing about it. Perhaps if you had discussed it with Dan you would have understood that he didn’t consider it to be some property that minds do or do not have.

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