Originally published in The Weekly Packet, February 9, 2017
At home in Little Deer Isle with free-will philosopher Daniel Dennett
Daniel Dennett, in his home on Little Deer Isle, is the subject of “Pioneers: Daniel Dennett/Do Lobsters have Free Will.”
by Anne Berleant
At the end of a long and winding dirt road on Little Deer Isle, Daniel Dennett—philosopher, cognitive scientist and writer—sits in the living room of a large, modern house overlooking Eggemoggin Reach. A Christmas tree sparkles beside his padded chair, and steam from fresh mugs of coffee gently evaporates as he settles in for an interview.
Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., Dennett has spent summers, weekends and vacations on the Peninsula for decades, moving to Little Deer Isle from a Blue Hill farm four years ago.
“It keeps me sane and healthy,” he said. “Here, I prefer to be the guy who bought the Brooks place.”
Dennett’s professional life includes being named one of The Four Horsemen of the New Atheism, which is, in the 21st century, both an academic school of thought and a Facebook page. Recently, he said goodbye to a New Yorker journalist who had been “tagging around me for a while” for an upcoming profile to coincide with Dennett’s latest book, which comes out next month.
The son of a former OSS officer and Islamic historian, Dennett spent his early childhood in Beirut, moving to New England with his mother when his father was killed in 1947 while on a mission. Dennett was 5 years old at the time.
“He was a very charismatic man. I lived with his ghost for many years,” he recalls.
Dennett describes his younger self as “sort of old for my years in some ways, a very reflective kid,” who would “get into what were, in effect, philosophical discussions” with his summer camp counselors. His early leaning towards philosophy grew as, first, he realized that “I could get paid to do this,” and second, he read René Descarte’s 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy, in which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated, as a college freshman.
“I read it in one sitting and was so eager to show what was wrong with it,” Dennett said. “I’ve been working on it ever since.”
Do lobsters have free will?
Two years ago, Dennett was the subject of a documentary titled “Do Lobsters Have Free Will?” by science writer, reporter and filmmaker Karol Jaochowski, one of a series of his films on pioneers in science.
And while lobsters are only briefly discussed, early scenes feature a familiar drive that ends with Dennett driving over the Deer Isle-Sedgwick bridge and down Brooks Lane to his home, where the film takes place. A backyard lobster trap makes an appearance about 22 minutes into the 46-minute film; Dennett first describes how it works and then discusses the consciousness of a lobster, itself.
“Of course a lobster has a self, a lobster-y sort of self,” he says in the film. “It protects itself. It could eat itself, if it was hungry. It could snap off one of its own claws. It’ll snap off its brother’s claw, but it won’t snap off its own. So it has a sense of self in a very simplistic way, I suppose.” Dennett uses lobsters as a path into a discussion on animal consciousness and other mammals’ ability to experience pain and suffering, as compared to humans.
“My view is, to some people, notorious,” he notes in the film, a preview of which is available at youtube.com/watch?v=FAccde-pyHI.
Be good for goodness’ sake
For Dennett, the transcendent power in the universe is gravity, not God, he said. A lifelong atheist, human consciousness, for Dennett, is based on science and neurons.
“I’m like the bore at the party that explains how the magic trick is done,” he laughed.
Dennett’s faith lies “in the goodness of human beings, that people are basically good, want to be good,” he said. “Goodness will triumph, but you have to contribute…. Be good for goodness’ sake.”
When faced with a close call with death from a bisected aorta a few years ago, Dennett said he didn’t credit God for surviving but was grateful “for all the people whose contributions” kept him alive. In effect, he was “eliminating the middle man, thank[ing] the people who are responsible.”
In 2006, he published Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which cast him as one of the main voices of the New Atheism. In all, he has written 17 books about consciousness, neuroscience, the brain and free will. In February 2017, his most recent will be published, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds.
As family arrived for a holiday visit and dusk slowly settled over the Reach, Dennett concluded:
“There are a lot of things that are bigger than us,” he said. “The secret to happiness is find something bigger than you and devote your life to it.”