Daniel Dennett: A Biography

Daniel Clement Dennett (born March 28, 1942, in Boston, Massachusetts) is one of the leading academic writers and activists engaged in promoting scientific atheism. His field is the philosophy of mind, of science, and of biology in particularly.

He holds the position of co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher professorship of philosophy at Tufts University. While his earlier and somewhat more technical writing did not play an important role in the debate about faith and evolution, he emerged as a central figure with the publication of his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1995). He is not regarded as quite the gifted popularizer of atheism and Darwinism that Richard Dawkins is. Dennett’s writing is often criticized for needless bombast and excessive prolixity.

In photographs he looks strikingly like Charles Darwin. It is not known whether, by growing his beard as Darwin did, he consciously seeks to cultivate the visual likeness.

Dennett’s father was an agent for the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the CIA, in connection with which, during World War II, the elder Dennett was attached undercover to the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. After returning the United States in 1947 following his father’s death, Dennett was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard University (where he received his undergraduate degree in 1963), and Christ Church, Oxford University.

His views on faith were perhaps most startling crystallized in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea in a passage explaining why it could become necessary to confine conservative Christians in zoos. That is because Bible-believing Baptists, in particular, may tolerate “the deliberate misinforming of children about the natural world.” That is, they may doubt Darwinian evolutionary theory. “Safety demands that religion be put in cages,” explains Dennett, “when absolutely necessary….The message is clear: those who will not accommodate, who will not temper, who insist on keeping only the purest and wildest strains of their heritage alive, we will be obliged, reluctantly, to cage or disarm, and we will do our best to disable the memes they fight for.”

While his fellow atheistic activist and author Dawkins allows that any person who denies Darwinism must be “ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that),” Dennett goes further. He states that anybody who merely “doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant—inexcusably ignorant.” That is, simply doubting evolution places a person in the category of both the ignorant and the wicked (“inexcusable”).

In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett argues for Darwinian evolution as the total explanation for all of life’s most wondrous features and encourages fellow believers in philosophical naturalism to affirm the uttermost ramifications of the Darwinian insight. Darwinism, he argues, constitutes a “universal acid” fully capable of dissolving all traditional ideas about God, and much else as well.

As with Dawkins, his argument for atheism rests on the foundational belief that Darwinism’s success has forever banished the traditional argument for God’s existence from the evidence of design in nature. Thus believing in God is rendered childish and naïve.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga responds that one problem with Dennett’s analysis is that arguments from design are probabilistic. They do not claim to prove God’s existence. So when Dennett criticizes, for example, the fine-tuning argument because there could be other explanations (e.g., multiple worlds) for the seeming fine-tuning of the universe’s physical constants, he is striking out at a straw man. Writes Plantinga, “You might as well reject the argument for evolution by pointing out that the evidence for evolution doesn’t entail that it ever took place, but only makes that fact likely.”

In his most recent book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Dennett seeks to give an entirely naturalistic, rationalist theory of religion’s origins. The book came under harsh fire in the prominent venue of the New York Times Book Review (February 19, 2006), where New Republic literary editor Leon Wielseltier savaged the author as “the sort of rationalist who gives reason a bad name.”

In Wieseltier’s telling, Dennett misrepresents his purported intellectual ancestors (David Hume, William James, Thomas Nagel), misrepresents his argument as scientific when it is not based on empirical research, but mainly for subscribing to the fallacy that one can disprove an idea (in this case, religion) by supposedly revealing its historical roots.

Wieseltier notes that for all Dennett “flatters himself that he is Hume’s heir,” Hume was a theist who could write that “The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author.” That is a sentence, one might add, which could be fit easily into the writings of any intelligent design advocate today.

Dennett joins Dawkins, too, in shrugging off the efforts of other Darwinian activists who wish to give the public the impression that Darwinism may be reconciled with traditional ideas of religious faith. In an article in the London Guardian (April 4, 2006), he singles out Eugenie Scott, direct of the National Center for Science Education, and philosopher Michael Ruse.

Dennett criticizes the two for “favor[ing] the tactic of insisting that evolution biology doesn’t deny the existence of a divine creator” and for their alleged “evasiveness” on this point.

Following major, life-threatening open-heart surgery in 2006, Dennett wrote an essay assuring readers he had no near-death conversion to theistic belief but that, instead, he had enjoyed a renewed appreciation for “Goodness.” Instead of “Thank God,” he urged thoughtful and enlightened people like himself to say “Thank Goodness!”

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David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.