Dan Dennett

Philosopher, cognitive scientist
Dan Dennett made the case that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes.

Why you should listen

Dan Dennett was best known for his provocative and controversial arguments that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes in the brain. He argued that the brain's computational circuitry fools us into thinking we know more than we do, and that what we call consciousness — isn't.

Dennett's 2003 book Freedom Evolves explored how our brains evolved to give us — and only us — the kind of freedom that matters, while 2006's Breaking the Spell examined belief through the lens of biology. He regarded religion as a natural rather than a supernatural phenomenon, and he urged schools to break the taboo against empirical examination of religion. He argued that religion's influence over human behavior is precisely what makes gaining a rational understanding of it so necessary: "If we don't understand religion, we're going to miss our chance to improve the world in the 21st century," he said.

Dennett's mind-shifting perspective on the mind itself distinguished his career as a philosopher and cognitive scientist. The philosophy community never quite knew what to make of him — he defied easy categorization and refused to affiliate himself with accepted schools of thought. His other landmark books included The Mind's I, co-edited with Douglas Hofstaedter, Consciousness Explained, Darwin's Dangerous Idea and Intuition Pumps, among many others.

Dan Dennett’s TED talks

More news and ideas from Dan Dennett

Live from TED

Lies, sex, an even freer Wikipedia and Sir Ken at a slaughterhouse: A recap of “The future is ours,” All-Stars Session 5 at TED2014

March 20, 2014

By Kate Torgovnick, Morton Bast, Thu-Huong Ha The future. When it comes down to it, it’s not about flying cars, flashy robots, jetpacks, or awesome sunglasses. It’s about the little things we can do to advance healthcare, better education, create opportunities, improve connections between each other, and make lives just a little bit easier. In […]

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Where does consciousness originate? All over our brain

March 19, 2009

New Scientist is running a fascinating article on new brain research happening at INSERM that appears to show that consciousness arises from activity distributed across the brain — rather than any single locus or “seat.” Gaillard’s team flashed words in front of volunteers for just 29 milliseconds. The words were either threatening (kill, anger) or […]

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