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Daniel C. Dennett

About Daniel C. Dennett

An Interview with Daniel C. Dennett

More About Daniel C. Dennett

Daniel C. Dennett, the author of Freedom Evolves (Viking) and Darwin's Dangerous Idea, is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher 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 was born in Boston in 1942, the son of a historian by the same name, and received his B.A. in philosophy from Harvard in 1963. He then went to Oxford to work with Gilbert Ryle, under whose supervision he completed the D.Phil. in philosophy in 1965. He taught at U.C. Irvine from 1965 to 1971, when he moved to Tufts, where he has taught ever since, aside from periods visiting at Harvard, Pittsburgh, Oxford, and the Ecole Normal Superieure in Paris.

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 most recent book is Brainchildren: A Collection of Essays 1984-1996 (MIT Press and Penguin, 1998).

He gave the John Locke Lectures at Oxford in 1983, the Gavin David Young Lectures at Adelaide, Australia, in 1985, and the Tanner Lecture at Michigan in 1986, among many others. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987.

He was the Co-founder (in 1985) and Co-director of the Curricular Software Studio at Tufts, and has helped to design museum exhibits on computers for the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Computer Museum in Boston.

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 a sculptor

Opening salvo from Professor Daniel Dennett in a debate with Professor Richard Swinburne (Theology, Oxford) on Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. (PROSPECT MAGAZINE www.prospect-magazine.co.uk

It's high time science took a good hard look at religion. Why? Because it has become evident in recent years that if we are to make significant progress on the world's major problems, we will have to learn more about religions and the influence they wield over people's lives and actions. Failure to appreciate the dynamics of religious allegiance, and the psychological impact of religious differences, will likely doom our best efforts to inconsequence or worse: we may invest heavily in deeply counterproductive policies. The phoenix-like rebound of religion in the former Soviet Union suggests to many that just as Prohibition and the War on Drugs have proven to be disastrous if well-meant attempts to deal with the dire excesses of these popular indulgences, so any ill-informed effort to rein in the fanatical strains of religion will probably backfire badly if we don't study the surrounding phenomena carefully and objectively.

From a biological perspective religion reveals itself to be a remarkably costly human activity that has evolved over the millennia. What "pays for" this profligate expense? Why does it exist and how does it foster such powerful allegiances? To many people even asking such a question will seem offensive, a sacrilege. But to undertake a serious scientific study of religious practices and attitudes we must set aside a traditional exemption from scrutiny that religions have enjoyed. Religious adherents may not welcome this attention, but we should press ahead with it, since blundering along with ill-understood myths and misperceptions is a recipe for global catastrophe.

Some people are sure that the world would be a better place without religion. I am not persuaded, because I cannot yet characterize anything that could replace it in the hearts of most human beings. (Perhaps we should try to eliminate music while we're at it. It inflames the passions and seduces many young people into wasted lives. A preposterous idea? Perhaps, but if so, we should be even more dubious about calls to extirpate religion.) What people care about deeply matters, and deserves to be taken seriously. Exempting it from scrutiny is actually a patronizing way of declaring it to be all just fashion and ceremony, the mere clothing of what is important in this world.

But people are going to have to decide if they want to have their religions taken so seriously. A double standard will not do; either we take religion just as seriously as we take global warming and El Niño, and study it intensively, or we treat it as mere superstition and backwardness. As with the other marvels of nature, I find that paying scrupulous attention to its elegantly designs increases my appreciation of it, but others may think that too much knowledge of the backstage machinery threatens to diminish their awe, to break a spell that should not be broken. This is not just a difference in taste, or a purely academic disagreement. Our futures may well depend on how we decide to proceed.

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