Monday, May 28, 2012

Atheist heroes: Daniel Dennett

I felt privileged to meet Daniel Dennett last year and have him autograph my copy of Breaking the Spell.  He is unquestionably one of my atheist heroes.

Dennett shares the distinction with Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, of being one of the "four horsemen" of New Atheism.  He is a philosopher, writer and cognitive scientist, whose research centers on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and philosophy of biology, particularly as those fields relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science.

I am fascinated by the philosophy of the mind.  Like Dennett, I believe in physicalism, which holds that all that has been ascribed to "mind" is more correctly ascribed to "brain" or the activity of the brain.

At the recent Global Atheism Convention in Melbourne, Australia, Dennett gave an amazing speech titled "How  to Tell You are an Atheist."  If you don't already self-identify as an atheist, I highly recommend viewing his presentation on YouTube.  You might be surprised.


  1. You met Dennett?? He is amongst the top people for whom it is a goal to meet and interview for the Consciousness Survey Project. So I’m constantly looking for conferences, and such, where they will be attending, in hopes that I might be able to catch up with them.

    Yes, I think Dennett is great, in many fields. But, I do question his primary argument against qualia: “We don’t have qualia it just seems like we do”. One of our motivations for the survey was a hope that we could get a good concise handle on all the best of these arguments, along with a rigorous measure of expert consensus for each.

    However, I’ve been totally shocked at the lack of experts willing to stand up and explicitly support the critics of qualia position. In the many years that I’ve been contacting and interviewing experts, attending conferences, e-mail, and so on – I’ve been focusing on this critic’s camp, trying to get this camp started at Most everyone in this camps seems to point to Dennett, as their primary expert, for whom they all agree, support, and subscribe to his arguments, the primary one being: “We don’t have qualia, it just seems like we do”. An example philosopher, who has published in this field, being Keith Frankish (see this public conversation I had with him on Philosophy TV: ). Like most experts they love the idea of, and are initially very willing to help out. Keith explicitly stated, there, he’d be will to help out the ‘we don’t have qualia, it just seems like we do’ (his words) camp. But sadly, nobody has yet actually started any such camp. This is in startling contrast the comparatively large number of experts willing to stand up and defend the idea and importance of qualia, and the powerful arguments for such that falsify, at least for them, any critical of qualia theory.

    I suspect the primary problem is the simple now canonized argument being made against this ‘it only seems like we have qualia’ position which is so devastating/falsifying for so many experts. It is basically simply built on Shanon’s theory of information (see: ) which says if you know something, there must be something that is that knowledge. The expert consensus at has now agreed to call this the “Physical Law of Information”. Once supporting experts see this, they seem to suddenly have a ‘stupor of thought’ and lose all interest in supporting this position, or worse, start to repudiate anything to do with this survey project?

    There are finally a good group of a few experts that are finally stepping up to support Dennett’s position, and they’re calling their new camp: Representational Functionalism. (see: ). But even these experts, once they fully understand this “physical law of information” are admitting that perhaps Dennett doesn’t have things quite right, or isn’t really saying what he seems to be saying. (You can see where even these experts are now admitting this in the topic forum: ).

    Anyway, if you, or anyone, ever do have Dennett’s ear, it’d be great to point out how many people subscribe to his arguments, and that there are now at least some of them stepping up to support his position at It’d be great if anyone could ask him if he is aware of this “Physical Law of Information” argument that seems so devastating to his position, for so many people, and if he has any thoughts or responses regarding such.

    And of course, most importantly of all, everyone desperately needs to know, concisely and quantitatively, everyone’s thoughts about this. If you were a proponent of Dennett’s ideas about qualia (or not), is this “Physical Law of Information” devastating to or falsifying of this view for you, like it is for so many others? And if not, why?

  2. I would counter “we don’t have qualia it just seems like we do” with John Searle's "where consciousness is concerned, the existence of the appearance is the reality."

    Dennett, a student of Quine and Ryle, comes over strongly as an eliminative materialist of the functionalist variety. I think he would maintain that he is only arguing against mistaken or confused ideas about the mind such as dualism.

    For a seemingly straightforward statement of eliminativism, see page 141 of his book Brainchildren (1998). Dennett refers to properties that have "been banished from the 'external' world by the triumphs of physics" such as redness. He says "I deny that there are any such properties. But i agree wholeheartedly that there seem to be." The article (Instead of Qualia) maintains an eliminative flavour but goes on to argue not that qualia don't exist but that the traditional concept of qualia is mistaken.