FleshFactor FleshFactor


FleshFactor: Dennett Interview

A E C  F O R U M - "F L E S H F A C T O R"


concluded June 10, 1997

Daniel C. Dennett, is Distinguished Arts and Sciences Professor, Professor
of Philosophy, and Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts
University.  He lives with his wife in North Andover, Massachusetts, and
has a daughter, a son, and a grandson.  He spends most of his summers on
his farm in Maine, where he harvests blueberries, hay and timber, and
makes Normandy cider wine, when he is not sailing. He is also [sometimes] 
a sculptor. 

His first book, "Content and Consciousness", appeared in 1969, followed by
"Brainstorms" (1978), "Elbow Room" (1984), "The Intentional Stance"
(1987), "Consciousness Explained" (1991), "Darwin's Dangerous Idea"
(1995), and "Kinds of Minds" (1996).  He co-edited "The Mind's I" with
Douglas Hofstadter in 1981.  He is the author of over a hundred scholarly
articles on various aspects on the mind, published in journals ranging
from Artificial Intelligence and Behavioral and Brain Sciences to Poetics
Today and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.  His next book,
"Brainchildren: A Collection of Essays 1984-1996" (MIT Press), is
forthcoming in 1997.


Tom Sherman interviewed Daniel Dennett by e-mail for FleshFactor:

TS:  Historically philosophers have spent a lot of their time explaining
how humans are different than animals.  For FleshFactor we, like many
others, are currently preoccupied with determining how we differ from
machines.  You yourself have stated that the brain is a kind of computer.
Do you think it is a positive thing to have people think of themselves as
(organic) machines?

DD:  I think we philosophers should help people get over their anxiety
about being machines, since it is no longer possible to deny it, unless
one chooses to be weirdly uninformed.  Logically, there are two
possibilities: diminish our sense of self-worth because we discover we are
machines, or raise our appreciation of the power of machines because we
discover we are machines.  There is no good reason to slump into the first
alternative, and many good reasons for adopting the second. 

TS:  A lot of contributions to FleshFactor emphatically state the
importance of remembering our species' (animal) relationship within the
eco-system.  Do you consider your writing on Darwin and natural selection
supportive of this need for humans to once again feel they are part of

DD:  Yes, I do.  I realize that many self-appointed guardians of human
culture are appalled at the prospect of granting that even human
culture--art, ethics, religion, politics, science--is a product of nature,
that the Cathedral at Chartres is part of the extended human phenotype in
exactly the same way a beaver dam is part of the extended phenotype of the
beaver.  But their hope of "protecting" culture from biology by denying
its biological roots is myopic; it could only succeed if culture were some
sort of miraculous gift from on high.  Manna from heaven.  Since that idea
is simply preposterous, they should take a deep breath and try to notice a
simple fact: art (and culture more generally) is not less wonderful for
being a product of nature.  Anybody who thinks that evolutionary processes
could produce a nightingale but not an ode to a nightingale has an
impoverished appreciation of just how wonderful a nightingale is.

TS:  You are widely respected by scientists because you go the extra mile
to know the science when you write about neuroscience, perceptual
psychology or AI.  In fact you have stated and largely realized your goal
to be a collaborating researcher in these fields, a complementary
intellectual force from your position as a contemporary philosopher. 
Since perception, consciousness and intelligence embody creativity as a
kind of 'engine' of change and growth, I'm wondering where artists fit
into your thinking on interdisciplinary research, in these fields or

DD:  Philosophy's primary role, I think, is to open up our imaginations to
new prospects, new possibilities.  This places philosophy, at its best,
about half way between art and science.  Without the methods and
aspirations of art, philosophy just trudges down well-worn paths, policing
the grounds.  Without the discipline of scientific inquiry, philosophy is
too easy to be worth very much.  The point is not just to think new
thoughts--anybody who wants to can think new thoughts; the point is to
think GOOD new thoughts. 

     As a former (or sometime) sculptor, I have a great sympathy for, and
appreciation of, artists--but I have a generally very low opinion of the
rest of the art world, and in particular of the pretentious culture of the
galleries, critics and collectors.  I have a similar attitude towards
contemporary "serious" (as opposed to popular) music.  But these phenomena
of high silliness are passing fancies, in my view, and real art will
continue to be created, and continue to play its rich, illuminating,
insight-provoking roles.  We can see the role of art better, I think, if
we look back on the art of Galileo's day, or Newton's day, or Darwin's
day.  The proposal, or hope, that art might play a bigger role today than
it has done in the past is unrealistic and unnecessary. 

TS:  It seems that your thoughts about the roles of philosophers and
artists reveal a belief in a kind of natural selection of ideas or images
or melodies; that creative variation or diversity is only one aspect of
cultural evolution, but that audiences ultimately decide which ideas,
images or melodies are good and worthy of significant replication and
dissemination.  Surely you must recognize the editorial influence that
institutions have on an ecology of ideas, or the control museums or the
music industry have on art and music?  A good thought, image or song does
not often replicate just because it is good.  Spielberg's dinosaurs do not
outdistance and crush an experimental filmmaker's personal cinema because
they are better art.  Don't you think it is dangerous to label serious art
or music as "high silliness" or "passing fancies"?  Isn't variation and
diversity essential in a healthy cultural environment? 

DD:  Variation and diversity are indeed crucial to a healthy cultural
environment.  The richer the meme pool, the better.  But as a Darwinian I
also expect that most artistic ideas, like most organisms, most lineages,
will be extinguished after relatively brief trajectories, and that this is
nothing to wring our hands about.  That's the cost of innovation, and it
would be myopic to urge equal support for all ideas.  My point is not at
all to dismiss serious art, but just to remove it from its presumptuous
pedestal.  I think that an excellent country & western song can be better
art than a second-rate experimental opera--but that's just my personal
contribution to cultural selective pressure.  Others may counter it with
their own, and we'll all be better off if we have a wide variety of
different DEMANDING environments. 

TS:  Following the logic of your writing, it would seem that you would
argue that artists are simply genetically hard-wired to be artists.  Being
a parent, you would have to acknowledge that all children begin their
development as almost infinitely creative individuals, but that for some
reasons, exposure to the arts included, only a very small percentage of
people manage to stay 'open' as creators.  Do you think creativity is
constructed genetically?  [I am not referring to 'talent' here--the
obvious manifestation of hand-eye, hand-ear, or full-body coordination,
permitting one to exercise superior drawing, musical or physical skills.]

DD:  I have no well-supported conviction about the relative contributions
of genetic and environmental factors in "constructing" creativity.  I
would guess those factors can be extraordinarily varied.  I suspect,
however, that there are a few simple "tricks" that some people never
learn, and that are well-nigh essential for creativity.  Chief among them
is a taste for making mistakes and then savoring them.  People who hate to
make mistakes are locking themselves in a closet.  The trick is to learn
to make mistakes in a fruitful way, so that you and others can gain from
them, and so that the damage is minimized.  Then making mistakes can be
fun, both for you and the onlookers.

TS:  There seems to have been a change in the size or scale of the
individual person over the past two decades (certainly artists have
experienced this...).  Our mediated self presence has expanded with
personally, commonly accessible telecommunications technologies, to the
point where the individual seems to have attained institutional or
corporate influence, without institutional or corporate affiliation.  Is
this perceived expansion of the self largely illusionary and only
temporary (is this just the result of leaving signs here and there in the
media environment, or actually communicating frequently with strangers?)
or is the individual and his or her sense of self more or less permanently

DD:  I suppose Alexander the Great and Louis XIV and a few other colossal
figures had "selves" that reached as far as everyday human selves can
reach today, but not at the speed, or with the efficiency, that we all can
do today.  In fact, this unprecedented enlargement of our powers has left
us in serious moral confusion.  As philosophers so often say, "ought" 
implies "can"--and a corollary of this is that when new powers become
widely available (so that each of us CAN do things our grandfathers
couldn't do), we have a harder time deciding what we OUGHT to do.  Each
one of us, today, CAN make a non-negligible difference in, say, the
well-being of people starving or enslaved or oppressed in the farthest
corners of the earth.  With a surfeit of choices, we are embarrassed to
discover that our hands are NOT tied, there IS something we can do.  What,
though, will we choose to do?  We can't do everything (and we just don't
want to try).  That was not a problem very often faced by our ancestors,
even the most virtuous of them.  Philosophers have not prepared us well to
deal with this problem.

TS:  An important aspect of this expansion of choices and potential for
acting in the world is an incredible increase in range.  Individuals can
manage to intervene on a global scale, and they can dramatically increase
their volume of information exchange and even the number and nature of
their relationships with other people.  As the scale and range of personal
endeavours increases there can be problems with overcommitment, not to
mention psychological and physical exhaustion due to hyper-involvement. 
Some would say that those who survive this expansion of self have
necessarily adapted to a more superficial life, a life lived on the
surface.  If emotional and intellectual depth is sacrificed for an
expansion of range, won't the dilemmas be both about making choices and
the degree of commitment to directions chosen? 

DD:  I think you are right.  In fact, I raised just those concerns some
years ago, in an essay in DAEDALUS entitled "Information, Technology, and
the Virtues of Ignorance." (1986)   We have not yet learned how to live
good lives in the age of Information, and we philosophers have been
particularly backward in our recognition that "classical" perspectives on
these problems show signs of obsolescence.  Some people may find this
shocking, but they would laugh at anybody who thought the art or science
of grandfather's day, or Kant's day, or Aristotle's day, defined the field
for all time.  Why should philosophy--or ethics in particular--be the one
area of human culture that cannot tolerate innovation? 

TS:  One of the main things we are trying to determine through FleshFactor
is how much our self-understanding of humanness has changed over the past
couple of decades, especially in this age of information technologies. 
The contributors to this net-symposium have been drafting and re-drafting
their observations, issuing multiple drafts of a collective
self-understanding of their humanness.  This has served to delineate a
line in the sand between people and machines and of course we have found
out that increasingly people and machines are on both sides of the line
and that those we once thought were people are actually machines and
perhaps someday vice versa.  In closing, would you offer us what you think
is the main way we have changed in our perception of ourselves as humans
over the past couple of decades? 

DD:  In an age of prosthetic body parts and increasingly sophisticated
"repairs" of bodily flaws ranging in scale from molecules to limbs, the
idea that our bodies are machines has become prosaic, too obvious to
warrant comment.  The idea that our minds are also machines still
encounters enormous resistance, since it seems to imply that we are not
free, or responsible.  I am optimistic, however, and expect to see this
scary illusion evaporate.  In twenty years it will not seem paradoxical to
declare that we human beings are the only machines (so far) with free
will.  The major philosophical obstacles to appreciating this have already
been cleared away; we just have to keep educating each other and avoiding
the overstatements that set the pendulum swinging.  In their anxiety,
people try to protect what really matters to them by protecting a little
too much--as if defending an extra "margin of safety" surrounding the
actually defensible visions was the prudent course instead of a recipe for
dogmatic disaster.  I can think of no better project for philosophers than
showing people--showing them, patiently and calmly--that they can afford
to give a little ground and still hang on to everything that really

TS:  Thank you Daniel Dennett.


For further information on Daniel Dennett, check out his
homepage at:  www.tufts.edu/~ddennett/

For information on the Center for Cognitive Studies, go to:

Daniel C. Dennett, Director 
Center for Cognitive Studies 
Tufts University 
Medford, MA 02155-7059 
(617) 627-3297/fax: (617) 627-3952 

email: ddennett@diamond.tufts.edu

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