Daniel Dennett: The man who saw reality's patterns

The intellectual landscape of Daniel Dennett

With the passing of Daniel Dennett, Keith Frankish reflects on his life and the power of his thought. Daniel Dennett was one of the greatest philosophers of our age, his clarity of thinking brought new light to the philosophy of evolution, consciousness, free will and metaphysics. The IAI will be releasing several reflections on Daniel Dennett, his loss will be felt at HowTheLightGetsIn Hay, where we will be honouring his memory and debating the philosophy of evolutionary psychology.


The American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars said that the aim of philosophy is ‘to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term’. No contemporary philosopher pursued that aim more energetically and successfully than Daniel Dennett.


Dan didn’t ask us to deny their reality, only to give up naïve essentialist views of them


Dan didn’t see philosophy as a specialism remote from everyday life or distinct from the work of scientists. He saw it as an attempt to see how science and everyday reality fit together — how a world of subatomic particles obeying strict physical laws could at the same time be a world of free, conscious agents, with thoughts, hopes and dreams. Some said he was an eliminativist, who denied the reality of belief, consciousness, and free will, but he wasn’t. He would say that of course thoughts, experiences and choices are real — as real as threats and opportunities and dances and jokes and cuteness and love and all the other things that populate our everyday ontology — our manifest image. They are real patterns in the blooming buzzing confusion of the world, which we have learned to identify and value. Dan didn’t ask us to deny their reality, only to give up naïve essentialist views of them and replace them with better, more flexible ones, which permit a deeper engagement with the world and its value. He took broken concepts and mended them.

Dan had the mind of an engineer. He wanted to understand how things work, and he had no sympathy for those who prefer embracing mysteries to solving puzzles. That was just lazy, Dan felt. And Dan was never lazy. He was also keenly aware of how much we don’t yet know and how important it is to identify the right paths for future exploration. Too much of modern philosophy, he felt, was occupied with working out the fine details of theories that were fundamentally flawed. It was ingenious but pointless, he thought, like studying the theory of a chess variant no one plays. He preferred to develop flexible frameworks which could be refined in the light of future scientific discoveries. He called it ‘meanwhileism’. He didn’t have all the answers, but he had a sure sense of where to look for them, and his instincts were proven right time and time again.

Dan was many other things as well as a philosopher: a devoted husband and father, a farmer, a sailor, a sculptor, a cider-maker, and an inveterate tinkerer. He could turn his hand to pretty much anything. He approached philosophical problems in the same practical spirit, devising thinking tools that would help us crack difficult problems.


He saw the world as full of magic — real magic, he would say, the sort that is not really magic but a natural effect so finely crafted as to be wondrous to us.


Some people felt that his practical outlook blinded him to the magic of the world. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. He saw the world as full of magic — real magic, he would say, the sort that is not really magic but a natural effect so finely crafted as to be wondrous to us. The great magician who crafted the magic of the world is, of course, evolution, both biological and cultural, and in his 2017 book From Bacteria to Bach and Back Dan sketched the grand evolutionary story from the origins of life to the greatest achievements of human art and science. The book is as sound a framework for understanding our place in the universe as any human has produced.

related-video-image SUGGESTED VIEWING Arc of life: Daniel Dennett With Daniel Dennett

Dan was an atheist, and he was critical of many aspects of organized religion, but it was hypocrisy, deception, and exploitation that were his real targets. He was a kind and humane man, keenly aware of the value of the compassion and acceptance that religion, at its best, fosters.

Many people have been sharing anecdotes about Dan. (He loved anecdotes and had a fund of them, which he told with relish.) So here is one of mine. A few years ago, Dan and I were giving a presentation together at a conference in the UK. At the end of the day, we called for a taxi to take us to a local restaurant. The taxi driver was an Iranian exile, who had read Dan’s work and been inspired by his humanism. He immediately recognized his eminent passenger and spent the whole journey talking animatedly to him about philosophy. (Sitting in the back, I was alarmed to see that he spent more time looking at Dan than at the road.) He bombarded Dan with questions about his views, his influences, and his responses to objections. ‘Suppose you die,’ he said, ‘and go to Heaven and meet God. What would you say to him?’ Without a pause, Dan replied, ‘I would ask him why he went to so much trouble to trick us into thinking he didn’t exist’. This was Dan all over. He didn’t believe in God, miracles, or mysterious mental properties, not because they were incompatible with some crass materialism, but because they were lazy explanations, unworthy of a serious seeker after truth. Our driver was delighted with the answer and refused to take payment for the ride.

I don’t think Dan is talking to God now. The man I knew and loved is gone. But he was a generous man, and he has left a lot of himself behind. He has left many wonderful books, beautifully written and packed with exciting ideas, arguments, and thinking tools. He has left a multitude of colleagues, students, and readers who have been profoundly influenced by him and through whose work he will continue to shape the discipline of philosophy for generations. And he has left us an inspiring example of a serious, generous, well-lived life.

If you were not lucky enough to meet Dan in real life, I urge you to meet him through his books and recorded interviews. (A good place to start is with his memoirs I’ve Been Thinking, published last year.) You will find a reliable and friendly guide to the perplexities of life and mind.

There is no god to thank for Dan’s life. His extraordinary mind was the product of nature, culture, and his own zest for exploration and learning. Let us thank them for giving us Dan Dennett.

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