Daniel Dennett (1942 – ) is an American professor of cognitive science and promoter of atheism. That’s enough. I’ve considered this matter enough and now I’m going to act.
Quotations from Daniel Dennett
“That’s enough. I’ve considered this matter enough and now I’m going to act,” in the full knowledge that I could have considered further, in the full knowledge that the eventualities may prove that I decided in error, but with the acceptance of responsibility in any case.
If you can approach the world’s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things.
Not a single one of the cells that compose you knows who you are, or cares.
If you want to teach your children that they are the tools of God, you had better not teach them that they are God’s rifles, or we will have to stand firmly opposed to you: your doctrine has no glory, no special rights, no intrinsic and inalienable merit. If you insist on teaching your children false-hoods—that the Earth is flat, that “Man” is not a product of evolution by natural selection—then you must expect, at the very least, that those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this to your children at our earliest opportunity. Our future well-being—the well-being of all of us on the planet—depends on the education of our descendants.
It’s this expandable capacity to represent reasons that we have that gives us a soul. But what’s it made of? It’s made of neurons. It’s made of lots of tiny robots. And we can actually explain the structure and operation of that kind of soul, whereas an eternal, immortal, immaterial soul is just a metaphysical rug under which you sweep your embarrassment for not having any explanation.
Every living thing is, from the cosmic perspective, incredibly lucky simply to be alive. Most, 90 percent and more, of all the organisms that have ever lived have died without viable offspring, but not a single one of your ancestors, going back to the dawn of life on Earth, suffered that normal misfortune. You spring from an unbroken line of winners going back millions of generations, and those winners were, in every generation, the luckiest of the lucky, one out of a thousand or even a million. So however unlucky you may be on some occasion today, your presence on the planet testifies to the role luck has played in your past.
To put it bluntly but fairly, anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant—inexcusably ignorant, in a world where three out of four people have learned to read and write.
Words are memes that can be pronounced.
We live in a world that is subjectively open. And we are designed by evolution to be “informavores”, epistemically hungry seekers of information, in an endless quest to improve our purchase on the world, the better to make decisions about our subjectively open future.
I don’t think the 9/11 attacks taught us anything we didn’t already know about religion. It has long been obvious – even to the deeply religious – that religious fanaticism is an extremely dangerous deranger of otherwise sane and goodhearted people.
A child raised on a desert island, alone, without social interaction, without language, and thus lacking empathy, is still a sentient being.
The mind is the effect, not the cause.
As every scuba diver knows, panic is your worst enemy: when it hits, your mind starts to thrash and you are likely to do something really stupid and self-destructive.
I think many people are terribly afraid of being demoted by the Darwinian scheme from the role of authors and creators in their own right into being just places where things happen in the universe.
In 50 years – or 20 years, or 200 years – our current epistemic horizon (the Big Bang, roughly) may look as parochial as the horizon Newton had to settle for in his day, but no doubt there will still be good questions whose answers elude us.
In short, we need to recover the courage we celebrate in our heroes, and in particular, the courage to tolerate, for the sake of a free society, a level of risk we hardly ever imagined in the past.
Now that mobile phones and the internet have altered the epistemic selective landscape in a revolutionary way, every religious organisation must scramble to evolve defences or become extinct.
The problem is that no ethical system has ever achieved consensus. Ethical systems are completely unlike mathematics or science. This is a source of concern.
Wherever there is a design that is highly successful in a broad range of similar environments, it is apt to emerge again and again, independently – the phenomenon known in biology as convergent evolution. I call these designs ‘good tricks.’
This is the great danger of symbols — they can become too “sacred”. An important task for religious people of all faiths in the twenty-first century will be spreading the conviction that there are no acts more dishonorable than harming “infidels” of one stripe or another for “disrespecting” a flag, a cross, a holy text.
Scholars have uncovered a comically variegated profusion of ancient ways of delegating important decisions to uncontrollable externalities. Instead of flipping a coin, you can flip arrows (belomancy) or rods (rhabdomancy) or bones or cards (sortilege), and instead of looking at tea leaves (tasseography), you can examine the livers of sacrificed animals (hepatoscopy) or other entrails (haruspicy) or melted wax poured into water (ceroscopy). Then there is moleosophy (divination by blemishes), myomancy (divination by rodent behavior), nephomancy (divination by clouds), and of course the old favorites, numerology and astrology, among dozens of others.
The fact that so many people love their religions as much as, or more than, anything else in their lives is a weighty fact indeed. I am inclined to think that nothing could matter more than what people love. At any rate, I can think of no value that I would place higher. I would not want to live in a world without love.
“””If anybody ever raises questions of objections about our religion that you cannot answer, that person is almost certainly Satan. In fact, the more reasonable the person is, the more eager to engage you in open-minded and congenial discussion, the more sure you can be that you’re talking to Satan in disguise! Turn away! Do not listen! It’s a trap!””” [I inserted the very scary scare quotes.]
We used to think that secrecy was perhaps the greatest enemy of democracy, and as long as there was no suppression or censorship, people could be trusted to make the informed decisions that would preserve our free society, but we have learned in recent years that the techniques of misinformation and misdirection have become so refined that, even in an open society, a cleverly directed flood of misinformation can overwhelm the truth, even though the truth is out there, uncensored, quietly available to anyone who can find it.
This is perhaps the most shocking implication of my inquiry, and I do not shrink from it, even though it may offend many who think of themselves as deeply moral. It is commonly supposed that it is entirely exemplary to adopt the moral teachings of one’s own religion without question, because — to put it simply — it is the word of God (as interpreted, always, by the specialists to whom one has delegated authority). I am urging, on the contrary, that anybody who professes that a particular point of moral conviction is not discussable, not debatable, not negotiable, simply because it is the word of God, or because the Bible says so, … should be seen to be making it impossible for the rest of us to take their views seriously, excusing themselves from the moral conversation, inadvertently acknowledging that their own views are not conscientiously maintained and deserve no further hearing.
COMMENTS on Quotations from Daniel Dennett
When I read Dennett’s quotes I constantly have the feeling I am listening to a nine-year-old child describing his world. That is the value of simple ideas well expressed, and it is what Einstein spoke of when he said good ideas can be explained to a six-year-old.
You don’t get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether some other religion, or no religion at all, does better. It seems people need a power of some sort, an important goal to strive toward, to have a sufficient purpose to their lives. Unfortunately, any motive, any goal, any action scrutinized to its ultimate ends will have some negative aspects; and yet we must perform actions to live, and need a goal for those actions and a motive for energizing them. We come to Dennett’s conclusion – “That’s enough. I’ve considered this matter enough and now I’m going to act,” in the full knowledge that I could have considered further, in the full knowledge that the eventualities may prove that I decided in error, but with the acceptance of responsibility in any case. I’ve considered this dilemma and it seems best to set goals which maximize the long-term moments of human freedom of choice.
It is commonly supposed that it is entirely exemplary to adopt the moral teachings of one’s own religion without question, because — to put it simply — it is the word of God (as interpreted, always, by the specialists to whom one has delegated authority). We live in a incredibly complex world where we are compelled to delegate almost everything to other people, to their abilities and to their authority over their specialty. Thus it is easy to delegate our moral responsibilities to others, if they appear to be honest and have the respect of other honest people with whom we feel comfortable. However, when it comes to moral questions our authorities are often in direct contradiction to other people’s seemingly equally moral authorities. Most people, if they think about it at all, simply follow their local leaders.
We live in a world that is subjectively open. And we are designed by evolution to be “informavores”, epistemically hungry seekers of information, in an endless quest to improve our purchase on the world, the better to make decisions about our subjectively open future. It would seem this seeking would be a self-evident truth, and yet if one observes people they seem to be questing after short-term solutions to their problems, instantaneous solutions, and when given the opportunity of time and access, seek out entertainment which confirms their previously held beliefs. The techniques of misinformation and misdirection have become so refined that, even in an open society, a cleverly directed flood of misinformation can overwhelm the truth, even though the truth is out there, uncensored, quietly available to anyone who can find it. A simple example of misinformation – the cause of most people’s death are blood-borne embolisms, as in heart attacks, and yet the media barely mentions them and their prevention; while a murderer randomly killing a few people in Boston, or Washington, out of a population of a third of a billion, creates nationwide media-panic for months, and anxiety for years. The error is a million to one, and that degree of error may reasonably be branded as misinformation.
Wherever there is a design that is highly successful in a broad range of similar environments, it is apt to emerge again and again, independently – the phenomenon known in biology as convergent evolution. I call these designs ‘good tricks.’ This idea is a profound lever for human research into better ways of doing things. When we look into complex systems, like the various life forms, and note that there are situations of convergent evolution, it is a clear indicator that there are processes beneath the individual species use of the convergence, that have a general application. When we humans bring this to verbal attention we can probably find ways to apply the basic idea to our needs. An example of this is Adam Smith’s hidden hand directing the evolution of business, which transposed into Darwin’s idea of evolution of species by the living beings most adapted to the environment giving rise to more offspring. This process when sought for in the form of convergence from the millions of various species will reveal many, as yet undiscovered, modes of human adaptation and success. If we can state a human problem clearly, we can probably find examples of life forms having a similar problem and solving it some way, and the idea presented here is that when you can discover different species converging on a similar strategy you have a potent idea.
[Why do we have consciousness? The simple and obvious answer is that our women value men who manifest consciousness, and our ancestral women have chosen men for spouses who possess more consciousness than the other men with whom she has contact.]