When he’s not sailing his boats or preparing apple cider on his farm in Maine, Daniel Dennett ponders big questions: What is consciousness? How did it emerge in humans? How is it related to the brain and mind?
Dennett, philosophy professor at Tufts University, will give two lectures at IU for an undergraduate audience. The lectures are titled “From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds” and “A Magician’s View of Consciousness” and will take place Nov. 10 and 11, respectively.
The lectures will be from 4 to 6 p.m. in the Whittenberger Auditorium of the Indiana Memorial Union.
A founding father of the philosophy of cognitive science, Dennett tackles the idea of consciousness.
“He works at the interconnections between biology, psychology, computer science, neuroscience and philosophy,” Chair of the Department of Philosophy Gary Ebbs said. “Anyone interested in the connections between the fields should attend.”
Dennett has studied how consciousness emerged as a result of the physical, scientific workings of the brain.
Referred to as one of the Four Horseman of New Atheism, Dennett has also written on religion, evolution and naturalistic explanations of religious belief.
“He’s not afraid to ruffle people’s feathers,” said Colin Allen, provost professor of history and philosophy of science. “This makes him sort of entertaining and engaging.”
Despite these controversial topics, Dennett is very approachable, funny and witty, Ebbs said.
“He’s a very friendly philosopher,” Allen said. “He likes engaging with students at all levels.”
Dennett wrote a story called “Where Am I?” about being in a body that is controlled by a brain in a vat. The narrator wonders where he is — in a vat or a body — before his body malfunctions.
“Dennett has written some articles that have captured the popular imagination,” Ebbs said. “His story, ‘Where am I?’ uses vivid examples to make deep philosophical points fun.”
Dennett believes the best way to explain philosophy is by using concrete examples whenever possible, said Douglas Hofstadter, distinguished professor of cognitive science.
Hofstadter discussed his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Gödel Escher Bach: An Eternal Braid,” on cognition with Dennett in 1979.
“When he first read about ‘Gödel Escher Bach,’ he said he thought it was ‘Californian New Age’ stuff, as if I was some kind of ignoramus who was just slapping things together to make a big buck,” Hofstadter said.
Dennett grew fond of Hofstadter’s work, and the two edited “The Mind’s I,” a collection of science fiction-like essays on the nature of the mind, in 1982.
“He’s very generous with his time,” Allen said. “He’s very happy to be an educator.”
Elucidating mysteries and approaching questions through philosophy and science, Dennett is a clear thinker, provocative inquirer and very influential, Ebbs said.
“Do not attend this lecture if you prefer to keep consciousness mysterious,” Dennett said.