One thing it is impossible not to notice about the Darwinian philosopher Daniel Dennett is that he loves a scrap. This is not just a matter of sparks flying as ideas clash off each other, but of bruising hand-to-hand combat with other thinkers – mainly philosophers, all men – the big beasts stalking that part of the scientific-philosophical terrain that Dennett himself bestrides. Sometimes, too, there is a whiff of something darker, of simmering feuds, personal animosities, scores being settled and of Dennett taking an unmistakeable delight in vanquishing his enemies.Daniel Dennett by Des Willie
Portrait: Des Willie

This is a man for whom philosophy is a contact sport. It’s not a reputation he shies away from. His new book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, gleefully revisits past battles with some of his chief foes, and reminds you of his relish for a fight.

An intuition pump is a philosopher’s tool for analysing the logic of any argument – a “handy prosthetic imagination-extender” – you know the sort of thing, the thought games and scenarios philosophers like to use to explore the logical consequences of an idea, think Schrödinger’s Cat or Descartes’ Demon. The first section of Intuition Pumps is stuffed with such thinking tools, including classics like reductio ad absurdum (the technique of taking others’ arguments to their (il)logical conclusions), “wonder tissue” (how to spot when an argument invokes some supernatural cause) and, my favourite, “Sturgeon’s law”, named for science fiction writer Ted Sturgeon, which dictates that “90 per cent of everything is crap” (the important lesson Dennett draws is to concentrate on the 10 per cent that isn’t).

Alongside these “good” thinking tools Dennett introduces “boom crutches”, his own coinage, drawn from a sailing metaphor, for “bad” thinking tools which prop up mistaken conclusions. It is in this section that Dennett reminds us of his combative nature, when he revisits his more than two-decade dispute with the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Both prominent Darwinists, their dispute, fought out in the pages of books and in the letters pages of the New York Review of Books, had its origin in a disagreement over the pace and exact workings of natural selection, but it quickly took on a more personal and testy flavour involving increasingly furious denunciations by each of the other.

In Intution Pumps Dennett passes over the details of natural selection and focuses instead on Gould’s method of argumentation, granting him a distinguished place in the canon of bad thinkers. The chapter “Three Types of Goulding” credits Gould with inventing, or at least excelling in, three distinct varieties of bad argument: “rathering”, “piling on” and “the Gould two-step”, rhetorical devices Dennett says Gould used to slip in “false dichotomies”, make unlicensed leaps of logic and – this is quite a claim – consciously to mislead his reader.

Strong stuff, leaving the reader in no doubt that Dennett considered Gould if not a fraud then certainly a cad and a bounder. The tone is in keeping with the barely restrained viciousness of the past, but of course Gould is no longer around to defend himself. Like all contact sports this can be great fun, but at times, and not only in relation to Gould but the other opponents who get a good mauling, it feels a bit more like a bare-knuckle street fight than a regulation bout, one you linger to watch though you feel you should really break it up.

I met Daniel Dennett in one of those banal too-plush heritage hotels just off Trafalgar Square, and started by asking him why he is so hard on those with whom he disagrees: “Over the years I have come to realise that in many different fields the sort of silverbacks of the field become bullies and behave really badly. They can blight the careers of junior colleagues, terrorise people and attempt to win arguments by authority and intimidation. Not having to worry about where my grant money is coming from, I am relatively immune to their powers.” But he himself is one of these silverbacks, isn’t he? How do we know that he isn’t also one of these bullies?

“You don’t know. I could become one. But I have been telling my students for years: if you ever catch me bullying, be brave, send me a note and tell me. I’m serious about this, I don’t want to fall into that trap. If you go over the history of my bruising, you will find that in every case the person I am treating roughly deserves it. I don’t go after junior professors, I don’t go after people who don’t have a big name on the field. I go after people who abuse their power.” And this includes Gould?

“Absolutely. And Gerald Edelman, Noam Chomsky, Richard Lewontin and Jerry Fodor, to name a few.” To support this he cites his recent skirmishes with the New York University philosopher Thomas Nagel, who set the cat amongst the Darwinian pigeons with his latest book Mind and Cosmos, in which he argues that the universe has a “natural teleology”, an internal logic which cannot be accommodated into a strictly Darwinian account of life. Nagel, unsurprisingly, got flamed by Darwinists: evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne said Nagel’s ideas were “worthless”, and Dennett himself said the book was “cute and clever and not worth a damn”. But he insists that though he disputes the arguments he has never “gone after” Nagel personally, “because he’s not a bully.” As for the others, “they brought it on themselves.”

If you’re getting the picture that Dennett is somewhat self-assured you’d be right. He’s a bear of a man, with the salty freshness of the amateur sailor he is, with an amused and somewhat unnerving gaze and a jolly white beard. Yes, a bit like Santa. His conversation is both erudite and breezy, with a nice line in down-home humour. He’s not pompous, but he is rather sure he’s right and he sets out, in the new book, to convince everyone else of this. It’s a hefty tome – 450-odd pages – and recapitulates many of the arguments he has been making throughout his long career (he’s 71). Some reviewers have complained about this but I found it handy to have a digested overview of all his big ideas and a sense of his worldview.

And what is this worldview? Well, it starts with thinking – both the fundamental job of a philosopher and the great pleasure of being a human being – which is why he devotes the first half of the book to the discussion of thinking tools good and bad. For those, like me, who have dabbled a bit in philosophy and expect it to be somewhat obscure and certainly a slog to read, these early passages are (pardon the phrase) a revelation. Dennett is a genial guide, prodding and tempting you through wonderfully clear (and short) chapters from which you get the distinct impression you may actually have learned something. I’m sure he is a wonderful teacher (he has spent his entire career at Tufts University in Massachusetts, so he must be doing something right) and the first half of Intuition Pumps is an exemplary teaching tool that should be required reading for all first-year philosophy students, perhaps even sixth-formers. In fact, why stop there? Every student, every thinking person, would benefit hugely from his avuncular advice on how to spot bad arguments, how to construct good ones and the difference between the two.

While this section of the book has a value in its own right, for Dennett it is all preparatory work, a prelude to the real show, which is to convince you of the validity of his perspective and the rightness of his arguments in a series of linked scientific-philosophical areas – evolution, consciousness and free will. Dennett’s worldview starts and ends with Darwin, whose idea is that everything there is has come about through a process of evolution through natural selection. This is how matter comes about and there is nothing else but matter: no guiding force, spirit, soul, god, fate, special plan, destination, none of what he calls “wonder tissue”. This is the fundamental proposition of Dennett’s work and thought, and his discussions of everything from Artificial Intelligence to Gershwin, free will to intuition, will always be inflected by, and come back to, this foundation.

This is what led people like Gould to accuse people like Dennett of being “Darwinian fundamentalists” and of “reductionism”– reducing everything, no matter how sophisticated, back to the material governed by evolution. Naturally this is an argument that does not sit well with religious types, but let’s ignore them. It also does not play well with many philosophers, including some out-and-out atheists, who think that the idea that evolution governs or can explain everything – including our minds, ideas, works of art and personalities – misses the fact that we have flown a long way free of the constraints of the merely biological, and diminishes, therefore, what it means to be human.

To put it in concrete terms, Dennett argues that the human mind and the human brain are one and the same (the impression that your mind somehow overflows or transcends your brain is an illusion, with biological roots) and he says that the brain is not just like a computer, it is a computer, in that what it does is compute, and the processes it uses to do so are merely much quicker, much more powerful, chemical versions of the processes that happen when a computer computes. For philosopher Raymond Tallis this is to commit (the crime of) “biologism”, while Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, calls such thinking “scientism”, “one of our main superstitions of the day”.

Between “physicalists” like Dennett, on the one hand, and “idealists” like Tallis and Wieseltier, on the other, there is a fundamental disagreement over consciousness. The idealists, following philosopher of mind David Chalmers (who also comes in for some rough treatment from Dennett), say there is a “hard problem” with consciousness. While accepting that much about consciousness is amenable to explanation by an evolutionary perspective and neuroscience, experience itself will always somehow evade a materialist explanation. Consequently many philosophers think this problem is not only hard but basically insoluble – at least by science or a strictly Darwinian philosophy. Tallis, for example, writing about theories of consciousness for New Atlantis, argues that “materialist accounts of consciousness” have been an “inescapable failure”, and proposes new directions for philosophy that take it far beyond materialism, based on recognising “the existential reality of personhood” and the innately social character of human life (there are no “standalone minds”). For a materialist like Dennett, however, this is all piffle, invoking “wonder stuff” where none is required.

For Dennett there is no hard problem of consciousness at all, and the fact we think so is a consequence of misdirection by philosophers like David Chalmers and illusions created within our own brains – we may think that we are something more than chemicals, and that our mind is not confined inside our skulls, or that we have a soul that transcends the plane of mere matter, but we’d be wrong. “There’s nothing immaterial,” he says; “consciousness isn’t immaterial any more than centres of gravity are immaterial.” Does this include my sense of self?

“Oh, yes, in exactly the same way as the centre of gravity is. The centre of gravity is a nice concept, because it’s physics, it’s not sociology or psychology. It’s a term well regarded in the physical sciences. And yet it’s not an atom, not a particle. It’s a mathematical point, an abstraction. A very, very useful abstraction. And the self is another very, very useful abstraction. It’s not made of anything, any more than the centre of gravity is made of something. But its features are not arbitrary and they are entirely fixed, in the end, by the chemistry of the atoms that compose the phenomenon.”

The task of explaining consciousness, then, for Dennett, is the task of explaining how there seems to be something more than matter to being human, when there ain’t. As for those who won’t accept this, “they are just reluctant to part with an attractive idea, that consciousness is, to use the technical term, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” But doesn’t his materialist view diminish what it is to be human? “What’s demeaning about that? Do we reduce life when we say there’s no élan vital, when we say it’s all just staggeringly complex and ingenious biochemistry? I think it’s a glorious view of life. And I think a similar view of consciousness is equally glorious. Or even more glorious. The idea that it can’t be glorious if it’s not made of some extra stuff or some wonder tissue is, on the face of it, naive, simplistic and old-fashioned. It’s an infantile version of the soul.”

When I ask him what he makes of the accusations that he is a too reliant on Darwin he laughs: “I’m an ultra-Darwinist and an ultra-materialist and ultra-naturalist and an ultra-humanist too. And then there’s scientism, don’t forget about that. These are terms of abuse that people use when they haven’t got any arguments.”

But does he dispute the claim that human beings and human consciousness are special in some way? “Not at all, it’s a specialness evolved, and evolved by natural selection, by two processes: natural genetic selection and natural memetic selection.” Ah memes, I wondered when we would get to those. “Memes” are the idea that not only does evolution work at the chemical level of genes, it also operates at the cultural level, where things like words, dance styles, jokes and political beliefs circulate, mutate and are passed on in a way analogous to genes, where “selfish” replication is the only goal.

It is the deployment of this argument that gets Darwinians accused of land-grabbing and over-stretch by those who think that cultural process are not so easily reduced to, or explained by, biological processes. Here’s anthropologist Adam Kuper writing for this magazine: “Ideas are not independent gene-like entities, much less parasites. They are attached to symbols and institutions. Their power and endurance have to do with the social status and resources of those who propagate them… biological metaphors don’t help us to understand the social history of beliefs and practices.”

Not that this puts Dennett off: “Cultural evolution explains as much of human beings and their powers as does natural selection. We’re not genetically different from our ancestors 100,000 years ago, but we are profoundly different psychologically. And all of that, every last bit of it, is due to cultural evolution. When it started, it was very Darwinian, very memetic, where the individual vectors, the humans, were close to clueless. They didn’t know what they were doing, they had no reason to choose the memes, they weren’t really choosing the memes, the memes were choosing them, in fact. Take words, the early days of language. Nobody invented language, nobody chose to speak. Pretty soon people were speaking. That was culture by memetic infection.” But it conferred an advantage? “It did. But the first thing you have to understand is that the advantages that were conferred in the early days were advantages to the cultural items (the memes), not necessarily to the people.”

This addresses one of the main criticisms of meme theory, that it can’t account for how bad ideas – ideas that are clearly not beneficial to the host (including religion) – propagate and survive: “If you adopt the meme’s-eye point of view, you can acknowledge memes which provide a benefit for humans, but you can also recognise that memes can do very well which don’t provide any benefit. The benefits that count for biologists are always benefits to genetic fitness, not to happiness; evolution doesn’t care if you’re happy [this idea makes him laugh], It just cares whether you have lots of children. So, all of the memes that promote human happiness without promoting human fecundity have to be viewed as commensals, or even as parasites. But that is the way we like it. I often ask my audiences how many of them would like to be grandparents, and just about everybody says yes. I say, how many of you think that’s the most important thing in life, to have more grandchildren than anybody else? Nobody thinks so. That makes us different from any other species on the planet. But there’s nothing mysterious about it. It’s because of our infestation with memes that we have this perspective of life that no other species does.”

It’s been a dizzying hour. What I have written here only represents about a fifth of our conversation – if you want to know about Dennett’s views on free will (on which he surprisingly strongly disagrees with his New Atheist pal Sam Harris), thinking computers (he’s for) or philosophical zombies (he’s against), you’ll have to buy his book.

For my part I feel my encounter with Dennett has sharpened my thinking and my understanding of the strictly materialist view of the world. But I can’t go all the way and I draw the line at memes. Not only because I’m uncomfortable describing John Coltrane, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Flamenco, or any other examples of the flourishing of human creativity, as “parasites”. It’s also that I am not convinced that viewing culture in this way, through the lens of evolution or neuroscience – this is the current fashion – can tell us anything worthwhile about the meaning, much less the value, of these things.

Perhaps this is just a matter of taste, or of temperament, things I am similarly unconvinced are amenable to explanation by science alone. But I didn’t say any of this to Daniel Dennett, of course. I didn’t want to start a fight.

Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking by Daniel Dennett is published by Allen Lane