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Scientists' Nightstand: Daniel C. Dennett

Frank Diller

Daniel C. Dennett, the author of Freedom Evolves (Viking Penguin, 2003) and Darwin's Dangerous Idea (Simon & Schuster, 1995), 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 the University of California, 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 École Normale Supérieure in Paris.

Daniel C. DennettClick to Enlarge Image

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure?

I'm working on a book on religion as a natural phenomenon, and among the books I've just been reading are J. M. Balkin's Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology and Alan Wolfe's The Transformation of American Religion.

Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

I'm long overdue reading Balkin's 1998 book, which is a very interesting attempt to use memes as the foundation for a theory of ideology. I don't agree with all of it, but I've learned lot from it. I wish I'd read it when I first got it! Wolfe's book attempts to correct many of the stereotypes of contemporary American religion. There are some real eye-openers in it, but I think he protests too much; I am not persuaded that religious belief plays as light a role as he insists.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

I read everywhere, and just about all the time when I’m not driving, teaching or sleeping. I read myself to sleep with lighter fare (novels, magazine articles—New Yorker, Science, Nature, New Scientist, . . . )

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)?

I've read and loved just about all of Nabokov and Updike, and I like Pynchon, Barth, DeLillo. I think Nicholson Baker's novellas (The Mezzanine especially) are one-of-a-kind works of genius, and I think Richard Powers's novels, especially Gold Bug Variations and Galatea 2.2, are great. For fun, there's David Lodge, and one of his recent novels, Thinks . . ., was in part inspired by my book Consciousness Explained, which alludes to another of his novels. Obviously I like novels that are full of verbal pyrotechnics, humor and intricate THINKING.

What are the three best books you've ever read?

After a few minutes' thought, I decided that I don't really approve of this question. It’s not that I couldn't answer it if I tried, but I don't want to try. My answer wouldn't mean anything important and would be misconstruable in dozens of ways I couldn't prevent. And how do you compare a novel with a science book or a philosophy book? It's like asking what are the three best VEHICLES I have ever traveled in—how do you rank a sailboat against an airplane and an automobile?

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

I guess I'd have to say W. V. O. Quine's Word and Object (1960). I transferred to Harvard to work with Quine, whose earlier book From a Logical Point of View I had read as a freshman in college and loved/hated. I read Word and Object in Quine's philosophy of language course the first year it appeared, and it not only convinced me that I should become a philosopher, it convinced me that I should try to be the same kind of philosopher Quine was. I would never have been a philosopher without his example. His view of the relatively modest role of philosophy as one of the natural sciences—"epistemology naturalized," as he once put it—has always struck me as right on target, still leaving us with plenty of valuable work to do, continuous with the grand traditions going back to Plato, while responsive to the wealth of new insights science provides.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution, by F. John Odling-Smee, Kevin Laland and Marcus Feldman; Making It Explicit, by Robert Brandom; and Justice, Luck and Knowledge, by Susan Hurley. (These are all large, hard books! I've read dozens of easier, shorter books while postponing these. Sigh.)

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Richard Dawkins's books are all great—wonderfully thought-provoking and vivid, and packed with valuable ideas. I'll also unblushingly recommend that they read The Mind's I, the collection that Douglas Hofstadter and I put together more than 20 years ago, still in print and still an intellectual roller coaster of a book.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Dawkins's books, again. But there are plenty of others that are elegant and accessible. Danny Hillis's The Pattern on the Stone is a brilliant introduction to the ideas behind computers; Nicholas Humphrey's Leaps of Faith is a trenchant and imaginative look at superstition and unreason.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

Dan Lloyd's new book, Radiant Cool: A Novel Theory of Consciousness, which is both a novel and, as he says, a novel theory of consciousness. This is a fine example of what an empirically well-informed and deeply imaginative philosopher can do to open up imaginations to some of the new scientific ideas about consciousness.

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