Daniel Dennett

Thursday, April 4, 2013
1:45 p.m. - 3:00 p.m.

"The Evolution of Reasons"

The question "why?" is ambiguous; it can mean "how come?" (as in "why is the sky blue") or it can mean "what for?"  (as in "why do people shiver when they are cold?"). Darwin's great achievement was showing how nature could begin with processes that had only "how come" explanations (process narratives) and end up with a host of phenomena that have  "what for" explanations, in terms of their function or purpose.  There has been much confusion and controversy about these terms, but it can be clarified and demystified. The natural world is saturated with reasons—but until reasoners like us evolved, these reasons were not represented anywhere.  We reason-representers can now retrospectively discover the reasons for many of the features of the biosphere; Darwin shows that these reasons didn't have to be represented, or thought about, or appreciated, or understood by anyone or anything until we came along and began reverse-engineering nature.

Daniel C. Dennett, the author of Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006), Freedom Evolves (Viking Penguin, 2003) and Darwin's Dangerous Idea (Simon &Schuster, 1995), 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 three grandchildren. 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, the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, the London School of Economics and the American University of Beirut.

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 (MIT Press and Penguin, 1998). Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, was published in 2005 by MIT Press. He co-edited The Mind's I with Douglas Hofstadter in 1981. 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.

He 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.

(photo credit to Steven J. Eliopoulos, A89, www.GravityBoston.com)