Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett

American philosopher
28 March 1942 —

Follow this author

Daniel Dennett's books

We philosophers are mistake specialists. (I know, it sounds like a bad joke, but hear me out.) While other disciplines specialize in getting the right answers to their defining questions, we philosophers specialize in all the ways there are of getting things so mixed up, so deeply wrong, that nobody is even sure what the right questions are, let alone the answers. Asking the wrongs questions risks setting any inquiry off on the wrong foot. Whenever that happens, this is a job for philosophers! Philosophy - in every field of inquiry - is what you have to do until you figure out what questions you should have been asking in the first place.

Even the most vaunted experts are susceptible to wishful thinking and can be blinded to a truth by a conviction that is supported more by emotional attachment than reason.

Mistakes are not just opportunities for learning; they are, in an important sense, the only opportunity for learning or making something truly new.

Experience teaches, [...] that there is no such thing as a thought experiment so clearly presented that no philosopher can misinterpret it.

Thinking is hard. Thinking about some problems is so hard it can make your head ache just thinking about thinking about them.

The history of philosophy is in large measure the history of very smart people making very tempting mistakes, and if you don`t know the history, you are doomed to making the same darn mistakes all over again.

Sometimes you don`t just want to risk making mistakes; you actually want to make them - if only to give you something clear and detailed to fix. Making mistakes is the key to making progress.

Darwin`s idea of evolution by natural selection is, in my opinion, the single best idea that anybody has ever had, because in a single bold stroke it unites meaning with matter, two aspects of reality that appear to be worlds apart. On one side, we have the world of our minds and their meanings, our goals, our hopes, and our yearnings, and that most honored - and hackneyed - of all philosophical topics, the Meaning of Life. On the other side, we have galaxies ceaselessly wheeling, planets falling pointlessly into their orbits, lifeless chemical mechanisms doing what physics ordains, all without purpose or reason. Then Darwin comes along and shows us how the former arises from the latter, creating meaning as it goes, a bubble-up vision of the birth of importance to overthrow the trickle-down vision of tradition.

It is estimated that well over 99 percent of all the organisms that have ever lived have died without having had offspring. And yet here you are: of all your billions of ancestors over the years, from single cells to worms to fish to reptiles to mammals to primates, not a single one of them died childless. How lucky you are! Of course every blade of grass has an equally long and proud heritage, and every mosquito, and every elephant and every daisy.

When you`re reading or skimming argumentative essays, especially by philosophers, here is a quick trick that may save you much time and effort, especially in this age of simple searching by computer: look for "surely" in the document, and check each occurrence. Not always, not even most of the time, but often the word "surely" is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument.

The secret ingredient of improvement everywhere in life is always the same: practice, practice, practice.

We are never angrier than when we are angry at ourselves.

There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.

The recognition of the difference between appearance and reality is a human discovery.

The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us.