INTERVIEW BY IAN MURPHY
Is Obama better than Jesus? Did Darwinism destroy our economy? Are people more than just meaty robots? If Chris Brown beats Rihanna in the woods and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound? Is Christopher Hitchens ever sober? The BEAST’s Ian Murphy asked world-renowned philosopher-genius Dr. Daniel Dennett these questions and more!
BEAST: Recently, Harris Interactive asked 2,600 Americans: “Who do you admire enough to call a hero?” Obama beat out Jesus for number one—
DENNETT: Oh, that’s good.
B: That’s change we can believe in?
D: I think so, yeah. I think that, actually, Jesus makes a fine hero. I’ve always thought that Gandhi was about right there. He says, I like your Jesus, it’s your Christians that I have trouble with. In fact, we had some discussion of forming a group called Atheists for Jesus. Although, I think it’s still problematic. Yeah, I think this is a good sign.
B: President Obama seems to be a smart guy. Do you think he truly believes in God or do you think he’s pandering, and which is more frightening?
D: I suspect that he’s like a great many people. He believes in belief in God. And that he believes that the belief in God can accomplish a lot of good, especially if it brings people together. And it’s political, I think, in some ways and sidesteps problems. You know, we all want to pick our problems, and I think he’s very wisely decided that there are other people that can—can and should—do the job of critiquing religious excess. He’s got, actually, more pressing and important things to do. I think he’s right.
B: What do you think about his continuation of Bush’s Faith Based Initiative?
D: Well, I think it will be a continuation in name only and that it will be done with quite different emphases. We’ll see. Of course, it’s also true that the right wing Christians were not very happy with the faith based program the way Bush was running it, because it was not being run as doctrinally as they wanted, so, the difference in the way Obama runs it may not be so great.
B: When economies tank, religions have historically prospered and that trend seems to be holding true today. Why are people more religious when they’re poor?
D: I don’t know if that’s true. I haven’t seen any figures on that. Have you?
B: I’ve read only a few news reports.
D: Well, I haven’t seen any figures that suggest that church attendance or more conversion or declarations of faith are on the rise. We’ve actually been on the wane in recent years. If there’s been a sudden uptick, I haven’t heard about it. But maybe if it is the case, then I would think that’s probably because when people are feeling relatively anxious and desperate, how nice it would be….if only there were some simple answers. And so, people find simple, reassuring answers very attractive.
B: The whole thing kind of makes me think of Jared Diamond’s chapter on Easter Island in Collapse, where he talks about how as resources became more scarce, people became more superstitious and tribal, and they dedicated huge amounts of energy to fighting over what was left and trying to appease gods with, you know, statues, rather than solving their problems. Do you think, considering global warming and the possible ecological catastrophe that’s up ahead, do you think the whole world is headed down that crazy road?
D: No, I don’t think so. I always have to correct for my eternal optimism. I’m really a very, very optimistic person, in general. It’s just my personality. I’m actually fairly heartened by a lot of recent events. I think that the light is dawning on lot of people and that the powerful people who’ve been ignorant or worse about these matters are losing power fast, and that’s good. We may not do it right, but at least we’ve got a good chance, now, of fixing the world.
B: OK. So, you’re hoping for a new era.
D: Yeah. In fact, I think that it’s hard to see how we can get a new era started without some serious pain at the outset.
B: There’s got to be a bottleneck—
D: Well, there’s got to be a squeeze down. We have to—I think we all have to rethink our priorities and realize that, of course, we can make sacrifices. We’re the most pampered, wealthiest people in the world and we should just swallow hard and realize that there’s a tremendous amount we can give to solving these problems. And we should give. And everyone should give. And the very rich should give a lot more, because they can afford to give a lot more.
B: In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea you wrote that Darwinism is a ‘universal acid’ that washes over and transforms all disciplines of scientific thought—including economics. Do you think that that acid is what corroded our economy, and do you think that maybe you’re ultimately to blame for the recession?
D: (Hearty philosopher laugh) No. Darwin’s universal acid—all it does is change the theoretical foundations of a lot of things, turns thing upside down, so that we don’t any longer see things in quite the same light. Everything’s pretty much the same except that it’s upside down from what it was, so instead of a having a trickle-down theory of creation, we have a bubble-up theory of creation. Everything gets affected. It means that things that were thought of as miraculous are now just seen as interesting recent developments on the evolutionary scene, and souls that were once thought to be immaterial are now understood to be information structures in brains. But they’re still souls. It’s what distinguishes us from animals, and it’s what makes us moral agents. It’s just not made of miracle stuff; it’s made of, you know, little protein robots all working together.
B: So, are you saying that animals don’t have souls?
D: Yeah, I am really. In an important sense, animals don’t have the capacity to evaluate their own reasons. They have reasons for what they do, but they don’t represent those reasons. They just—they can’t criticize their reasons. They can’t wonder if there might be better reasons for doing something else, beyond a very, very limited set of reasons. They can’t reason about their reasons, but we can. And it’s the fact that we can respond rationally to the representation of reasons, that’s what makes us moral agents. That’s why small children aren’t moral agents. They can’t do that yet. When they can, when we can reason with them, when we can explain to them why some behavior is antisocial and bad and they shouldn’t do it, and when they can actually get to the point where they can understand that and you don’t have to say, because momma says so. When they can begin to appreciate that there’s a reason why momma says so, then they’re responsible agents. Now, that—that promotion through responsibility is based on structures in their brains that have competences that they didn’t used to have in their brains. That’s where the soul is.
B: To get back to economics, do you think that it’s especially vulnerable to the perversion of Social Darwinism?
D: Social Darwinism is a perversion in any case. And certainly we’ve lived through the ‘me decade’ and we’ve lived through Ayn Rand, the virtues of selfishness and all that, and I hope we’ve seen through that. And if we haven’t seen through it yet, I think we soon will. Certainly, the masters of the universe on Wall Street are no longer regarded with much admiration—maybe with envy, but not with admiration or approval. I think that the idea that one should have projects that serve the whole world and not just make people rich is gaining ground.
B: I was astounded last week. I was driving and I heard the old mind-brain problem discussion on National Public Radio. Apparently, the verdict is still out. Why are people so resistant to being reduced to meaty robots?
D: Well, if the verdict is still out, it’s only out in certain precincts. (Chuckles) I think that materialism is still the default view of pretty much everybody in cognitive science and for most philosophers, too. There are some interesting holdouts, and that’s the nature of philosophy: to have people seeing what kind of job they can make of defending the indefensible. So it’s not surprising that there’s still a debate there. It’s not cut-and-dried by any means. It’s still quite a counterintuitive proposal—proposition. It took a long time for vitalism to die, and there are still some embattled vitalists—people who think that living things have a magical extra property, they’re not just really, really well-designed collections of little robots. That’s what living beings are. That’s what bacteria are. We now understand that machinery pretty well. We can’t make one, yet, but we sure understand how the parts work. I think vitalism is still attractive to many people, because they don’t know the details. And Dualism is just sort of vitalism about the mind.
B: Do you think that’s comparable to the resistance some people, like John Searle, have with Strong AI?
D: Yeah, I think it is. In fact, I have a new name for people that have that view. I call them mind creationists, because they think that the mind is—in my terms—a sky hook. It is something—you can’t get there from here. You can’t get to consciousness and strong artificial intelligence from a whole lot of computation, from a whole lot of little robotics. Yes you can. It’s just more complicated than people thought. The creationist says, you can’t get to us from amoebas. Yes you can. It’s just more complicated than people thought. There’s these two, really parallel and deeply similar processes, both through time and synchronously, thus we, you and I, are descended from descendants of descendants of descendants of single celled things not unlike amoebas. And they’re just made of robots. And that’s what you’re made of. So right now, not only are you descended from them, but you’re made of them. Yesterday I heard a new figure. I was putting it at a hundred trillion. I heard, no, just ten trillion. Well, your ten trillion cells and—maybe this is how it works: Ten trillion human cells and a hundred trillion symbiont visitors. Nine out of ten of the cells that are inside your clothes are not human. And that whole community, thousands and thousands of different lineages, works together in pretty good harmony. Only a few bad guys in there.
B: It’s kind of parallel to James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, isn’t it?
D: Well, yeah. I’m not a big fan of the Lovelock theory, because insofar as there’s self-correcting mechanisms—feedback mechanisms—in the whole world, this is a sort of lucky accident. I think that the sort of homeostatic properties, the self-correcting properties, of the planet are very limited. And anyone who thinks otherwise is actually putting forward a fairly dangerous proposition. You shouldn’t count on Gaia to heal itself. Of course, maybe Gaia’s going to heal itself just fine by getting rid of its main parasite, which is Homo sapiens. It can go on, healthy, for hundreds of thousands of years more.
B: If we’re made of ten trillion robots, which presumably have no choice, how do we have free will?
D: I have a whole book answering that question—FREEDOM EVOLVES. We can have free will even though our working parts don’t. Something that is red is made of parts that aren’t red. Atoms aren’t red, for instance. But you have to understand free will for what it really is, a biologically evolved competence, not a metaphysical miracle.
B: You talk about Darwinian replication as being a ‘substrate neutral algorithm.’ So I’m wondering if you think things like economic markets, corporations or even religions have taken on an evolutionary life of their own—if we’re just cells of these, kind of, meta-organisms?
D: Well, if you’re careful, you can make some sense of that, and there is some truth to that. I think that informational structures—to use a deliberately very abstract and noncommittal term—informational structures can replicate just the same way genes can. We can call them ideas. We can call them memes. Words are a good example. Words are pretty much like viruses or very simple memes. They replicate like mad, and the ones that don’t replicate go extinct. And there are descendants of descendants of descendants of earlier words, and they turn out to be extremely valuable mental tools for us. That’s why we are so happy to have them. They’re mutualist memes. They’re mutualist symbionts. They’re not parasitic. Some words are maybe parasitic.
B: Have you and Richard Dawkins ever played chess, and if so, who won?
D: You know, we never have. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a chess board at his house. I don’t know. We’ve never talked about chess either, as far as I know. I can’t remember an occasion. So I haven’t played chess with him. I haven’t played any game with him. We’ve always had so many diverting topics to discuss that we don’t have any time for board games or card games.
B: All right. You’re in that great ‘Four Horseman’ video with him, Harris and Hitchens. I’d like to know: Was Hitchens proper drunk or just hungover?
D: I don’t think he was either. He has a sort of, sometimes, slurry way of speaking. We did that in the middle of the afternoon and he was sober. And if he was hungover, he was not really showing it. Could have been.
B: When, do you think, will robots gain consciousness, and what will their religion be like?
D: I rather doubt that we’ll make robots that are conscious like us, because what’s the point? If they were conscious like us then we couldn’t ask them to do the things we want robots to do, because it would be cruel. I think it’s possible in principle, but not particularly desirable to make robots with human levels of consciousness. We can learn what we need to do by making simpler robots and doing proof of concept. That said, if there were a conscious robot, and if it started off as a fairly primitively-conscious robot, it would probably treat us as God. More or less the way our dogs do.
B: Here’s a scenario: An earless pop star is beating his deaf girlfriend in the woods and no one else is around to hear it. Does it make a sound?
D: (Laughter) That old chestnut, in various guises, is not worth answering. Of course, a term like sound is conveniently ambiguous. I like, much better, to bring it up by looking at color. And so, here’s the same example, a little cleaner: it’s before any creatures with eyes exist on the planet and there’s a great earthquake and a giant—a great cliff rises up where the earth splits, and there’s layer after layer of sediment and there’s an iron rich stripe of sediment in that cliffside. Now the question is: is it red? Or even, is it visible? Is this a visible stripe? Well, you see, it all depends on what kind of sight you’re talking about. It might be isoluminant with the surrounding rock, in which case, it wouldn’t be visible to any organism that didn’t have spectral sensitivity—basically, color vision. We can say, well, if there were a creature with color vision in the area, it would look red to that creature. That’s all it can mean. We know what the properties of that band of iron oxide are. We know that if we were, counterfactually, magically, to transport a living human being, let’s say, with normal color vision back there, he’d say, ‘Oh, bright red stripe.’ But there’s no meaning to the claim that it’s red in any other sense.
B: Say a tree fell on your house and your insurance company is willing to pay out only if you called it an act of God. Would you take the cash?
D: Oh sure. Absolutely, because I view that as a term of art. I think there’s also a law that establishes that, too. Somebody took, I think, the Catholic church to court claiming that damage that was done to their house, or whatever, was declared an act of God in some way that didn’t give them coverage. So they figured, well, the Pope claims to be God’s earthly representative, so he’s the one to sue. It didn’t get very far, as I recall.
Dr. Daniel C. Dennett is the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts university. His books include Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life, Consciousness Explained, Freedom Evolves and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. He’s also a super cool dude!