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Quotes of the day: Daniel Dennett

Published Friday, March 27, 2015 @ 5:01 PM EDT
Mar 27 2015

Daniel Clement Dennett III (b. March 28, 1942) is an American philosopher, writer, and cognitive scientist whose research centers on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of science and philosophy of biology, particularly as those fields relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science. (Click here for full Wikipedia article)


A faith, like a species, must evolve or go extinct when the environment changes.

A philosopher is someone who says, 'We know it's possible in practice; we're trying to work out if it's possible in principle!'

An inert historical fact is any fact about a perfectly ordinary arrangement of matter in the world at some point in the past that is no longer discernible, a fact that has left no footprints at all in the world today.

Animals are not just herbivores or carnivores. They are, in the nice coinage of the psychologist George Miller, informavores.

Are zombies possible? They're not just possible, they're actual. We're all zombies. Nobody is conscious- not in the systematically mysterious way that supports such doctrines as epiphenomenalism.

Consider flipping a coin, for instance. Why do we do it? To take away the burden of having to find a reason for choosing A over B. We like to have reasons for what we do, but sometimes nothing sufficiently persuasive comes to mind, and we recognize that we have to decide soon, so we concoct a little gadget, an external thing that will make the decision for us. But if the decision is about something momentous, like whether to go to war, or marry, or confess, anything like flipping a coin would be just too, well, flippant.

Every human mind you've ever looked at... is a product not just of natural selection but of cultural redesign of enormous proportions.

Experience teaches... that there is no such thing as a thought experiment so clearly presented that no philosopher can misinterpret it.

Go ahead and believe in God, if you like, but don't imagine that you have been given any grounds for such a belief by science.

I think religion for many people is some sort of moral viagra.

In spite of ferocious differences of opinion about other moral issues, there seems to be something approaching consensus that it is cruel and malicious to interfere with the life-enhancing illusions of others- unless those illusions are themselves the cause of of even greater ills.

Minds are in limited supply, and each mind has a limited capacity for memes, and hence there is considerable competition among memes for entry in as many minds as possible. This competition is the major selective force in the memosphere, and, just as in the biosphere, the challenge has been met with great ingenuity. For instance, whatever virtues (from our perspective) the following memes have, they have in common the property of having phenotypic expressions that tend to make their own replication more likely by disabling or preempting the environmental forces that would tend to extinguish them: the meme for faith, which discourages the exercise of the sort of critical judgment that might decide that the idea of faith was, all things considered a dangerous idea; the meme for tolerance or free speech; the meme of including in a chain letter a warning about the terrible fates of those who have broken the chain in the past; the conspiracy theory meme, which has a built-in response to the objection that there is no good evidence of a conspiracy: 'Of course not- that's how powerful the conspiracy is!' Some of these memes are 'good' perhaps and others 'bad'; what they have in common is a phenotypic effect that systematically tends to disable the selective forces arrayed against them. Other things being equal, population memetics predicts that conspiracy theory memes will persist quite independently of their truth, and the meme for faith is apt to secure its own survival, and that of the religious memes that ride piggyback on it, in even the most rationalistic environments. Indeed, the meme for faith exhibits frequency-dependent fitness: it flourishes best when it is outnumbered by rationalistic memes; in an environment with few skeptics, the meme for faith tends to fade from disuse.

New discoveries may conceivably lead to dramatic, even 'revolutionary' shifts in the Darwinian theory, but the hope that it will be 'refuted' by some shattering breakthrough is about as reasonable as the hope that we will return to a geocentric vision and discard Copernicus.

Not a single one of the cells that compose you knows who you are, or cares.

Philosophers' Syndrome: mistaking a failure of the imagination for an insight into necessity.

Political correctness, in the extreme versions worthy of the name, is antithetical to almost all surprising advances in thought.

Scientists are just as vulnerable to wishful thinking, just as likely to be tempted by base motives, just as venal and gullible and forgetful as the rest of humankind.

Thanks to technology, what almost anybody can do has been multiplied a thousandfold, and our moral understanding about what we ought to do hasn't kept pace.

The Darwinian Revolution is both a scientific and a philosophical revolution, and neither revolution could have occurred without the other.

The distinction between responsible moral agents and beings with diminished or no responsibility is coherent, real, and important.

The earth has grown a nervous system, and it's us.

The juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea searching for a suitable rock or hunk of coral to cling to and make its home for life. For this task it has a rudimentary nervous system. When it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn't need its brain any more so it eats it. It's rather like getting tenure.

The methods of science aren't foolproof, but they are indefinitely perfectible.

The mind is the effect, not the cause.

The only meaning of life worth caring about is one that can withstand our best efforts to examine it.

There is much to be gained from communication if it is craftily doled out- enough truth to keep one's credibility high but enough falsehood to keep one's options open. (This is the first point of wisdom in the game of poker: he who never bluffs never wins; he who always bluffs always loses.)

Unpredictability is in general a fine protective feature, which should never be squandered but always spent wisely.

We almost all want a world in which love, justice, freedom, and peace are all present, as much as possible, but if we had to give up one of these, it wouldn't- and shouldn't- be love.

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.

Wherever there is a conscious mind, there is a point of view.

Categories: Daniel Dennett, Quotes of the day

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