Friday, July 13, 2007

Daniel Dennett, the "rock star philosopher"

I'm no fan of philosophy, but this interview with Daniel Dennett is very interesting. Here's his answer to the first question asked:

I'm a philosopher, and I've written books on the Big Questions: consciousness, evolution, free will, moral responsibility, and even the meaning of life, and most recently, religion as a natural phenomenon. But my approach is unlike that of most philosophers. I've always thought that philosophers who attempted to address these issues without first finding out what the relevant sciences could offer in the way of illumination were being intellectually irresponsible. And in the process of mining the sciences for help with the philosophy, I've found that scientists could often use my philosophical help with conceptual problems in their fields. It's been a two-way exchange, and I could only guess how the balance of payments stands. Happily, both philosophers and scientists take me seriously enough to disagree vigorously with me about some of my attempted contributions. As you say, there are also those who loathe me, and a few who make it a point of honor not to admit to learning anything from me, but I view that as sign that I'm unsettling them-which is what Socrates told us was the main point of philosophy. I'm often described as a cognitive scientist, and since I spend more time and energy working with cognitive scientists than with academic philosophers, and often teach courses in cognitive science, this is not inaccurate, but my academic training, such as it is, is in philosophy. For decades, however, I've been lucky to have mentors and informants in the cognitive and biological sciences who have informally educated me in their fields, and thanks to their tutelage, and lots of reading and questioning, I can hold my own pretty well in the fields I cover. I was born in Boston-not Beirut, a mistake that has somehow crept into some biographical notes. I moved with my family to Beirut when I was about 2 or 3 and lived there only till I was five. My father, with the same name (I'm actually DCD III, but I've never used it), was in the OSS and had a diplomatic cover as cultural attaché at the American Legation there. He was a historian of Islam, and very knowledgeable about the history and language of the Arabs. I have lots of "memories" of Beirut in my childhood- by now an unsortable scramble of genuine memories, memories-of-memories-of-memories, and things people later told me. Since I spent much of my waking life interacting with children who spoke Arabic or French or both, I must have been fairly comfortable, as kids are, with those languages, but most of it evaporated when we left Beirut. My mother never learned more than shopping Arabic, and her French was comically bad.

If you're in the mood for some long reading, click through to enjoy nuggets like "How do you tell truly great impressionism from shlock impressionism if you never see any of the latter?" I'd suggest skipping the long-winded questions.

Via Reason, which points to other Dennett-related links.