Bronze-level article

Daniel Dennett

From RationalWiki
(Redirected from Daniel C. Dennett)
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Dr. Dennett's beard, seen here attached to the person named Daniel Dennett.
Going One God Further
Icon atheism.svg
Key Concepts
Articles to not believe in
Notable heathens
Thinking hardly
or hardly thinking?

Icon philosophy.svg
Major trains of thought
The good, the bad,
and the brain fart
Come to think of it

Daniel Clement Dennett (March 28, 1942–April 19, 2024) was a p-zombie an American author, philosopher, and cognitive scientist who has been compared to Bertrand Russell.[1] He was the co-director at the Center for Cognitive Studies and teaches as Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He was a prominent atheist and a Bright. He was one of the so-called "Four Horsemen" of New Atheism.


Dennett’s beliefs were shaped by his self-directed studies of artificial intelligence, computer science, linguistics, neuroscience and psychology, as well as his formal training in philosophy. His writings emphasize that religion is a natural and virtually inescapable result of the way the brain functions, and any idea of the "supernatural" is a result of evolution and biology, not actual encounters with anything supernatural. Like the other 'Four Horsemen', he also apparently blames a nebulously defined 'postmodernism' for some social ills, such as Donald J. Trump and people spending too much time on their computers.[2][3] To his credit, he does not blame feminism or 'Cultural Marxism' for Trump's rise either, but any parks with swans have been put on high alert.


"Heterophenomenology," or the "phenomenology of another not oneself," is Dennett's term for his theory of consciousness. Dennett argues that a full theory of consciousness requires a third-person methodology. In addition to reports of first-person experience, a scientific investigation of consciousness should also include an account of the person's brain activity and surrounding environment. Where the latter two do not match with the first-person report, the first-person experience is not a true experience at all, but an illusory belief about experience. In other words, "You are not authoritative about what is happening in you, but only about what seems to be happening in you, and we are giving you total, dictatorial authority over the account of how it seems to you, about what it is like to be you."[4] Some of Dennett's critics assert that heterophenomenology suffers from some of the same flaws as classical behaviorism,[5][6] or that it is internally inconsistent in that taking its assumptions to their logical conclusion leads to the denial of consciousness, but Dennett does not deny consciousness.[7][8]


I’m so optimistic that I expect to live to see the evaporation of the powerful mystique of religion. I think that in about twenty-five years almost all religions will have evolved into very different phenomena, so much so that in most quarters religion will no longer command the awe it does today.
—Daniel Dennett, 2007[9]
(about 8 more years to go)

Dennett believes that the dogmatic religions of the present will be unable to withstand the onslaught of information that the Internet provides and he expects religion to change more during the next decade than it changed over the last century.[10] Dennett expects religion will lose its mystique among most people during the next 10-25 years.[9]

One of Dennett's most compelling statements is about the social role of the church (or generally "religion") in society, doing things like feeding and sheltering the homeless and providing medical care to the poor — something secular society had been loath to do until the last century. In this insight, he points out that for these people (often people who have devoted themselves to the god or goddess, such as monks or nuns), the belief in a god is fully irrelevant to their work for humanity.[11] This stance provides a jumping off point to ask "how do we replace this aspect of religion in the otherwise selfish human society?" His TED talks have generated interesting discussions on how non-religious societies could provide these services.

Preachers who are not believers[edit]

One of Dennett's more interesting studies, which he conducted with researcher Linda LaScola, involved five Protestant preachers who no longer believe what their church teaches. They were interviewed; three were from liberal churches and two from churches that take the bible literally.[12][13][14] Yet all five of them chose to remain in the clergy, not being qualified for similarly paid work elsewhere feeling there is still good work to be done.


All real names withheld

  • "Jack" - Jack's views come from a tradition of a literal reading of the Bible. As he began to study, he found it unreasonable that an omnipotent and omniscient God could have created such a poorly thought out world. He does not see why God would create his son to die or why humans should feel lifelong remorse because of it. Jack also feels parts of the Bible strain credulity[note 1]. As he studied, he also figured out that the moral message of the Bible is contradictory - violent in some places and sacrificially loving in others. Jack's final argument is that a God wanting to reveal himself would find an unquestionable way of doing this. Any divine message would be clear rather than in code that only linguists can interpret.

Two clergymen became atheists partly from reading authors Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, both New Atheists.

  • "Adam" read God Is Not GreatWikipedia and many other books, both atheist and Christian, and finally determined that the reasoning in the atheist books was stronger, though he had believed as a minister for years. There is, Adam feels, something wrong about a god who needed humans to say how magnificent he is. Adam is in a conservative church and still works there because he has no other source of income which he could use to support his family, but feels he is playacting.
  • “Wes”, a Methodist, believed literally in Adam and Eve on starting Christian further education but no longer believes in God except as a kind of poetic imagery. The people in his congregation are quite liberal but do not know about his atheism (pantheism?). His liberal clergy colleagues do not believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus or a literal Virgin birth.
  • “Rick” who had stopped believing in God before he left college, joined a very liberal church and became a college chaplain, thinking he could not succeed carrying out pastoral duties in a traditional church. Rick does not believe in “creedal stuff” like the incarnation of Christ or the necessity of salvation but stays a clergyman because he identifies strongly as a cultural Christian. He describes himself as a post-supernaturalist.
  • “Darryl” acknowledges he stays in the clergy primarily to provide financially for his family.


Dennett is known for his copious coinage of neologisms. Here are some of his better-known ones:

  • Belief in belief: The idea that religious belief is a moral virtue and ought to be encouraged. One can be a believer in belief without being a believer in the divine.
  • Cartesian theater: A term referring to the persistence of Cartesian dualism even among those who deny said dualism. It is similar to a "homunculus argument," in which the mind is conceived of as if it contained a homunculus watching a screen to observe sensory data, leading to infinite regress.[15][16]
  • Deepity: A statement that seems profound but is actually trivial in one sense and meaningless in its second broader sense.
  • Greedy reductionism: Reductionism that tries to explain too much and fails. As Dennett defines it: " their eagerness for a bargain, in their zeal to explain too much too fast, scientists and philosophers[...] underestimate the complexities, trying to skip whole layers or levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything securely and neatly to the foundation."[17]
  • Intentional stance: Adopting the "viewpoint" of something as a rational agent as a means of prediction. Dennett again: "Here is how it works: first you decide to treat the object whose behavior is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its beliefs."[18] Also the title of his 1989 book.
  • Intuition pump: A category of thought experiment designed to focus the reader's attention on "the important" features.


In 2009, at a meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Dennett had a debate with Alvin Plantinga, where Plantinga presented the evolutionary argument against naturalism.[19] This specific debate was later turned into the book Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?. [20]

Personal life[edit]

Dennett has suffered from a heart attack and in 2006 an aortic dissection and was hospitalized for some time. Dennett's blog at "The Edge" explores this experience and what it meant to him as both an atheist and a philosopher of the human condition.[21] He died of interstitial lung disease at Maine Medical Center on April 19, 2024, at the age of 82.[22][23]

In popular culture[edit]

Eliezer Yudkowsky used Dennett as a character in his philosophical zombie movie.[24]

Selected bibliography[edit]

Dennett is known for a number of books on the subjects of cognitive science, psychology and philosophy of mind, but also delves into Darwinism and religion. His works include:

  • The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on the Self and Soul (1981)
    A collection of essays and other short works co-edited with Douglas Hofstadter.
  • Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology (1981)
    A collection of essays that includes Dennett's classic short story 'Where Am I?'.
  • Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (1984)
    Defends the compatibilist view of free will.
  • Consciousness Explained (1992)
    It is known among its detractors (as well as some of its fans) in philosophy of mind by its nicknames Consciousness Explained Away[25] or Consciousness Ignored.[26] Contains many handy tips on how to remain conscious.
  • Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995, ISBN 978-0-684-80290-9)
    Describes the theory of evolution in terms of an algorithmic process and spends some time telling us that we shouldn't be upset or worried by this. Predictably, Stephen Jay Gould was not impressed.[27]
  • Breaking the Spell (2006, ISBN 978-0-14-303833-7)
    A challenge to religious types to analyze their beliefs in a skeptical manner.
  • Just Deserts (2020)
    A debate book co-authored with Greg Caruso.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. One example he gives is Jonah


  1. Dan Dennett: Philosopher, cognitive scientist
  4. Daniel C. Dennett. Who's On First? Heterophenomenology Explained. Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 10, 2003
  5. Max Velmans. Heterophenomenology versus Critical Phenomenology. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences (in press)
  6. Quoth Ned Block: "Dennett is basically a behaviorist."
  7. Tan Kock Wah. "Heterophenomenology Debunked." Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences. vol. 1, no. 1 (2007).
  8. Dennett's Consciousness Explained: Its Critics, and the Controversy Over the "True Nature" of Consciousness, Benjamin Newman, Swarthmore College
  9. 9.0 9.1 The Evaporation of the Powerful Mystique of Religion, 2007
  10. Dan Dennett in Cork: What should replace religion?
  12. Dennett and LaScola study of nonbelieving clergy
  13. Preachers who are not Believers
  14. Preachers Who Don’t Believe
  15. Daniel Dennett. Escape from the Cartesian Theater. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15, 183-247, 1992.
  16. See also the homunculus fallacy.
  17. Darwin's Dangerous Idea, p. 82
  18. The Intentional Stance, p. 17
  19. The Plantinga-Dennett Session at the Central Division APA, Leiter Reports
  20. [
  21. Daniel C. Dennett, "Thank Goodness!" Edge, 2006 November 3, <>.
  22. Kandell, Jonathan (2024-04-19). "Daniel C. Dennett, Widely Read and Fiercely Debated Philosopher, Dies at 82" (in en-US). The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. 
  23. Leiter, Brian (2024-04-19). "In Memoriam: Daniel Dennett (1942–2024)". 
  25. Anthony S. David. Consciousness Explained? British Journal of Psychiatry, 183: 265-267, 2003
  26. Brian D. Earp. (2012) I Can’t Get No (Epistemic) Satisfaction: Why the Hard Problem of Consciousness Entails a Hard Problem of Explanation. In Dialogues in Philosophy, Mental and Neuro Sciences
  27. Darwinian Fundamentalism by Stephen Jay Gould, with a reply by Dennett