Just FYI, there’s a profile of Dan Dennett by Jennifer Schuessler in yesterday’s New York Times “Book” section: “Philosophy that stirs the waters.” I knew Dan was a sailor, but didn’t realize that he once had a 42-foot “cruiser” (I guess that’s a sailboat). His books must be doing pretty well!
The piece highlights Dan’s new book, Intutition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, which I’ve read (it’s full of Dan’s characteristically clear writing, although of course I disagree about the free will stuff). Schuessler sums it up well—it’s very like a “Greatest Hits of Dan Dennett” tome, especially useful for those who haven’t read many of his other books:
That blunderbuss style is amply on view in “Intuition Pumps,” which provides a dictionary of dozens of Mr. Dennett’s own jokily named thinking tools — the Sorta Operator, the Curse of the Cauliflower — along with demolitions of the rigged thought experiments and intellectual tics of rivals, who get called out for everything from willful ignorance of science to overuse of the word “surely.”
“Philosophers are infamous for being navel-gazers, but a lot of them are remarkably unreflective about their own methods.” He added, “If you do get a little self-conscious, it opens up so many weak spots and helps you think.”
The new book, largely adapted from previous writings, is also a lively primer on the radical answers Mr. Dennett has elaborated to the big questions in his nearly five decades in philosophy, delivered to a popular audience in books like “Consciousness Explained” (1991), “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” (1995) and “Freedom Evolves.”
. . . his preference for the company of scientists lead some to question if he’s still a philosopher at all.
“I’m still proud to call myself a philosopher, but I’m not their kind of philosopher, that’s for sure,” he said. The new book reflects Mr. Dennett’s unflagging love of the fight, including some harsh whacks at longtime nemeses like the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould — accused of practicing a genus of dirty intellectual tricks Mr. Dennett calls “goulding” — that some early reviewers have already called out as unsporting. (Mr. Gould died in 2002.)
Mr. Dennett also devotes a long section to a rebuttal of the famous Chinese Room thought experiment, developed by 30 years ago by the philosopher John Searle, another old antagonist, as a riposte to Mr. Dennett’s claim that computers could fully mimic consciousness.
Clinging to the idea that the mind is more than just the brain, Mr. Dennett said, is “profoundly naïve and anti-scientific.”
Both free will and consciousness, he insists sunnily, are empirically solvable problems. But if he had to do it all over again, he said, he’d still rather tackle them as a philosopher than as a scientist. That way, he says, he can think about all the cool theories and lab experiments without ever having “to do the dishes.”
Well, I think that consciousness is an empirically solvable problem in the sense that we will someday understand how, both evolutionarily and neuronally, the sensation of consciousness arises. But “free will” is already empirically solved: we do not have the kind of dualistic or contracausal free will that is how most people conceive of the term. End of story. Whether we have other types of free will is a semantic and not an empirical problem. All compatibilist philosophers define it in such a way that we already have it. So what is to solve empirically? The advances in both consciousness and how we make “decisions” will come not from philosophy, but from biology: those people who have to wash the dirty dishes.
Schuessler’s piece also has a nice capsule biography of Dan. Since he hasn’t written much about his career—though Richard Dawkins is about to publish an autobiography—it’s quite interesting.