Posts Tagged ‘daniel dennett’

Caught in the Pulpit

Thursday, July 9th, 2015 | Books

Not only does the audiobook of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind feature Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola reading their work, but it also includes a foreword by Richard Dawkins, also read by the man himself. I was hard before it had even finished downloading.

The book itself is about a study by Dennett and LaScola on ministers who have stopped believing. Most of them are trapped in this difficult situation – their family, friends, and livelihoods are tied up in church ministry, so admitting their non-belief is typically not an option.

Yet it is apparently widespread. Many of the people they interviewed share a common desire to help people, but think that the stories contained within their holy texts are nonsense.


Consciousness Explained

Monday, January 19th, 2015 | Books

In Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett puts forwards his theory of consciousness. Below, I have done my best to explain my understanding of the concept idea, and several other interesting ideas that he puts forward. However, that is assuming I have understood it correctly, and I would not want to bet a significant amount on that.


Take two dots that take it on turn to go on and off, each one a different colour. If you watch this you will see the dots changing from one colour to the other. However, they don’t. They just take it in turn to go on and off. It’s known as “colour phi phenomenon”.

There is an online demonstration here, though I have to admit that I was completely unable to recreate the effect.

Lets assume the demo does work though. What is going on here? The continuous motion the brain sees must be invited by the brain. In a traditional Cartesian theatre model in which Descartes suggests there is a mind inside our head watching everything, we have two options.

It could be a Orwellian revision. That is to say our body sees the two spots separately but then goes back and tampers with the memory to add the motion. Just as in 1984, they went back and re-wrote history. It could also be a Stalinesque revision. Much like Stalin’s show trials, our brain never sees the truth, but merely a fakery concocted by the brain for the purposes of the mind.

Dennett puts forward the Multiple Drafts model. This replaces the Cartesian theatre all together and suggests that nobody is actually looking. We record it, but don’t have consciousness until we actually look, at which point our brain has made a conclusion without actually filling the rest in. There is no tampering, our brain simply takes in the information of the two dots and assumes that it must be motion because there is no evidence to contradict this.


We taste with our nose as tongues can only detect the basic five tastes (four according to Dennett). The rest is with the nose.


Strong hallucinations are impossible. You cannot touch a ghost for example. This is important because it is good evidence the mind makes it up. Simply seeing a ghost is easy for the mind to make up. However, to actually touch, get feedback, would be far more difficult for the mind to do.


Beer is not an acquired taste. If the taste remained as bad as the first time you try it, you would never drink it. What happens is that the taste changes to you. A subtle but important difference.


Pain is evolutionary useful, but not all pain. What is the point of being pain from gallstones for example? However, in general, pain is a result of evolution because it serves a useful purpose. It tells us to avoid harmful activities.

For this reason, it may be sensible to assume that trees do not feel pain. As they cannot run away, there seems to evolutionary purpose for developing the ability to feel pain.

It is also worth noting that ideas cannot cause physical pain. Imagine yourself being kicked in the shins. It feels uncomfortable, but not physically painful. This is interesting because people often call anxiety “uncomfortable”. Whereas any anxiety suffer knows, it causes physical pain. And there is a distinct difference, as this mental exercise shows.


Breaking the Spell

Thursday, November 13th, 2014 | Books

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is a 2006 book by Daniel Dennett.

In the book he argues that we need to break the spell of using scientific enquiry to consider religion. He has no problem with religion in itself, but wants it to be given the same treatment as any other discourse – that of evidence rational scientific enquiry.

He writes in his somewhat slow and lumbering style that can take a while to get going but certainly puts forward some thought-provoking ideas. It has not been my favourite recent read but did nor did I get overly bored either.

I was really enjoyed some of the little, almost throw-away sentences, that made some quite profound points. The rotting caracas of an elephant for example. It smells horrible. But it does not objectively smell horrible. It smells horrible to us as humans, but to a vulture the smell is a pleasant one.


Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

Saturday, September 6th, 2014 | Books

In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett looks at Darwinian theory and what follows from that.

It is packed with interesting ideas but is also incredibly long. When your book is significantly longer than Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, your book is probably too long. I struggled to take a lot of it in, partly because there were so many ideas, but partly also because it was such a huge text to really look at in perspective.

Dennett explains how evolution is a algorithmic process and yet is simultaneously capable of creating the entire tree of life. This includes the human mind of course, which is perhaps the most controversial part of the theory, even though the only alternative theory that has been proposed so far is “god did it”.

Many of the concepts he uses to explain the theory are well-thought-out too. For example, skyhooks and cranes. SKyhooks are a miracle that just happen (Dennett claims none exist) whereas cranes are structures that build on top of each other in slow steps (how things actually work). Notably, once the structure has been built, the crane may then disappear, though there is often a trace of it left.

It is also important to look at things from an evolutionary perspective. Take sleep for example. One of my friends once said to me “you know, there is no reason for sleep – we can’t find any biological reason why we need to do it! What’s it for?”

I never knew the answer to that question. However, as Dennett points out, the answer could be that we are looking at it from the wrong way round. Sleep is safe. Plants, and many simple lifeforms spend their entire lives in this state. It is the default state. We assume that we are supposed to be awake but from an evolutionary perspective this might not be the case. It could be that being awake is something Mother Nature cooked up to allow us to find food and procreate easier, but once that is done there is no point wasting more energy.

Overall, I am not suggesting that the 3.7 billion years of life fighting for survive can be compared with my struggle to read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and its many big words. They are different things entirely. Despite it being tough going, I am glad I read it as it contains some incredibly insightful ideas packaged into one text about the origin of life from a philosophical perspective.

We should feel special because most genetic lines are now dead. But not us. We have an unbroken chain of ancestors right back to 3.7 billion years ago. That is amazing. But do not feel too special, as every blade of grass you can see has that too…


Dan Dennett – A Darwinian Perspective

Friday, May 20th, 2011 | Humanism

At Atheist Society last week, they screened a Dan Dennett lecture given at Conway Hall. During the talk he made some excellent points including a new quote to go on my favourite quotes list: fairies are invisible – so how come everyone knows what they look like?

In the lecture he also answers the question often asked – if religion was just total rubbish, why is it still around? Surely it must be good for something? Dennett’s response was to give an analogy – think of the common cold. What is it good for? It’s good for itself. Similarly, what keeps religion alive is not because it’s good for society, or humanity – it’s just good at keeping itself around.