Daniel Dennett, a Deep Thinker About What it is to Be Human. R.I.P.

The world has sadly just lost one of its most provocative and inspirational thinkers and writers.

Daniel Dennett, 1942-2024

Douglas Hofstadter at Marcus on AI: I just received the very sad news about the passing of Dan Dennett, a lodestar in my life and in many thoughtful people’s lives.

Dan was a deep thinker about what it is to be human. Quite early on, he arrived at what many would see as shocking conclusions about consciousness (essentially that it is just an emergent effect of physical interactions of tiny inanimate components), and from then on, he was a dead-set opponent of dualism (the idea that there is an ethereal nonphysical elixir called “consciousness”, over and above the physical events taking place in the enormously complex substrate of a human or animal brain, and perhaps that of a silicon network as well). Dan thus totally rejected the notion of “qualia” (pure sensations of such things as colors, tastes, and so forth), and his arguments against the mystique of qualia were subtle but very cogent.

Dan had many adversaries in the world of philosophers, but also quite a few who shared his views, and as for myself, I was almost always aligned with him. Our only notable divergence was on the question of free will, which Dan maintained exists, in some sense of “free”, whereas I just agreed that “will” exists, but maintained that there is no freedom in it. (Scott Kim joked that I believed in “free won’t”, which was very clever, but really the negation should apply to “free” rather than to “will”.)

Dan was also a diligent and lifelong “student” (in the sense of “studier”) of evolution, religion, artificial intelligence, computers in general, and even science in general. He wrote extremely important and influential books on all these topics, and his insights will endure as long as we humans endure. I’m thinking of his books Brainstorms; The Intentional Stance; Elbow Room; Consciousness Explained; Darwin’s Dangerous Idea; Kinds of Minds; Inside Jokes; Breaking the Spell; From Bacteria to Bach and Back; and of course his last book, I’ve Been Thinking, which was (and is) a very colorful self-portrait, a lovely autobiography vividly telling so many stories of his intercontinental life. I’m so happy that Dan not only completed it but was able to savor its warm reception all around the world.

Among other things, that book tells about Dan’s extremely rich life not just as a thinker but also as a doer. Dan was a true bon vivant, and he developed many amazing skills, such as that of house-builder, folk-dancer and folk-dance caller, jazz pianist, cider-maker, sailor and racer of yachts (not the big ones owned by Russian oligarchs, but beautifully crafted sailboats), joke-teller par excellence, enthusiast for and expert in word games, savorer of many cuisines and wines, wood-carver and sculptor, speaker of French and some German and Italian as well, and ardent and eloquent supporter of thinkers whom he admired and felt were not treated with sufficient respect by the academic world…

More here.