Daniel Dennett Discusses Secular Spirituality

Philosopher and Cognitive Scientist

Daniel C. Dennett is the author of Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Breaking the Spell, Freedom Evolves, and Darwin's Dangerous Idea and is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-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 U.C. 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.

His first book, Content and Consciousness, appeared in 1969, followed by Brainstorms (1978), Elbow Room (1984), The Intentional Stance (1987), Consciousness Explained (1991), Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), Kinds of Minds (1996), and Brainchildren: A Collection of Essays 1984-1996. Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, was published in 2005. He co-edited The Mind's I with Douglas Hofstadter in 1981 and he is the author of over three hundred scholarly articles on various aspects on the mind, published in journals ranging from Artificial Intelligence and Behavioral and Brain Sciences to Poetics Today and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.

Dennett gave the John Locke Lectures at Oxford in 1983, the Gavin David Young Lectures at Adelaide, Australia, in 1985, and the Tanner Lecture at Michigan in 1986, among many others. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987.

He was the Co-founder (in 1985) and Co-director of the Curricular Software Studio at Tufts, and has helped to design museum exhibits on computers for the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Computer Museum in Boston.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: Do you have spiritual moments?

Dennett:    Of course I have spiritual moments in a bland sense of that word.  I suppose but I think the right sense.  I have times when I am just transported with awe and joy and sense of peace and wonder at whether its music or arts or just a child playing or some other wonderful thing off of my sailboat, being amaze at the beauty of the ocean.  I think that people make a mistake of thinking that spirituality in that sense has anything to do with either religious doctrines or with immateriality or the supernatural.  The world is a stunningly interesting and glorious place and at every scale and the awe that one can experience because one understands something about how the parts are put together is I think far greater than the sort of awe of incomprehension.  Just I think, I think it’s, the universe is much more wonderful the more you know about how its put together. 

Question: Can meditation change your brain?

Dennett:    Of course we can change our brains through meditations.  You can change your brain through doing cross word puzzles or reading a novel or through meditating or through running.  Brains are stunningly adjustable plastic organs and everything you do changes your brain a little bit other wise you couldn’t leave a trace of what you do, you couldn’t have any memory.  So meditation is one actually very good way of changing your brain I think meditation play some of the roles that are played also by sleep of restoring balance, getting rid of tension and excess and generally calming the whole system down so that it can confront the world anew.  It’s a sort of refreshment.

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