The Point of Inquiry Weekly Wrap-up: Daniel Dennett

June 17, 2013

Daniel C. Dennett is many things.

Author of sixteen books, including his latest in May, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. Eramus Prize-winning philosopher. One of the so-called Horsemen of the New Atheist movement alongside such widely-read writers as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. And now, perhaps even more prestigiously, a two-time returning guest on Point of Inquiry.

Indre Viskontas sat down with the titan of thought himself to delve into everything from human (and not-so-human) cognition to the very idea of free will. Here are some highlights.

Dennett on whether it’s actually possible to build an artificial intelligence:

“Absolutely. Sure. Possible. Unlikely, very unlikely. Just because the perplexities are staggering. It’s very hard to keep track of just how complicated this would be to do but in principle, you could do it. ”

On his definition of free will:

“Free will is moral competence of the following sort: a person, an agent, has free will who is well informed and has well-ordered desires and preferences, who is good at detecting when he or she is being manipulated by other agents, and is good at protecting itself from manipulation by others. And also, in order to have free will in the requisite sense, you got to have – as the card players say – you’ve got to have skin in the game. You’ve gotta be punishable.”

And lastly, a rule of thumb that any skeptic should take into consideration:

“Sturgeon’s Law is that 90% of everything is crap. And that’s true whether you’re talking about physics or chemistry or evolutionary psychology or sociology…90% of everything is crap, so don’t waste our time and yours hooting at the crap. Go for the good stuff. If you want to criticize something, and there are many things that deserve criticism, do not abuse your privilege of the floor wasting our time and yours by pointing out the dismal features of the worst stuff at the bottom of the barrel. It just shows that you’re not serious. If you’re serious, go after the very best stuff.”

As lyrical as Dennett can be, it’s easy to see why our POI listeners loved this week’s episode. Of course, seeing as they’re POI listeners, it’s also easy (and great) to see why they’re more than willing to debate some of his finer points. That’s why this comment of the week goes to JT, who decided to offer a response to Dennett’s earlier mentioned definition of free will. As the full comment is a bit lengthy, here’s an excerpt:

“Finally, framing free will in terms of moral competency seems a bit narrowing. Certainly there are many important choices we make in life that have no moral implications.”

The entire post, located on this episode’s comments section, is certainly worth checking out.

That’s all for this week.

As always, feel free to buy some of our brilliant guest’s sixteen wonderful books through POI’s website, and look for Dan Dennett elsewhere just about everywhere.

If you want to stay up-to-date on the latest POI news and episodes, follow us on Twitter and Facebook. You can also follow the great Indre Viskontas on her Twitter.

Thanks for tuning in and we’ll see you next time.


Photo credit: Peter Yang/August