Dan Dennett on his Deer Isle dock

Philosopher Daniel Dennett On the Illusion of Consciousness 

The cognitive scientist has written stacks of influential books, but his new one is in an unfamiliar genre: memoir. We visited him on Eggemoggin Reach for a porch chat about consciousness, artificial intelligence, farm tools, and Maine as a lifelong refuge.

By Rachel Slade
Photos by Tara Rice
From our October 2023 issue

When the affable car-rental attendant asked where I was headed, I said, “Up to Maine, to meet a world-renowned philosopher,” and then immediately encountered what Daniel Dennett has experienced much of his life: the blank stare. 

Dennett’s trade — professional ponderer — is alien to most of us, and I’ll admit that before I met him, I too might have nervously edged away from a conversation. As someone who’s never studied philosophy, I’ve always figured that philosophers don’t suffer small talk, that their heads are so full of jargon and profundity, any discussion would be both humbling and tedious. Fortunately, Daniel Dennett is a master at putting people at ease. 

On a hot day this summer, on Little Deer Isle, Dennett appeared behind the screen door of the neo-Shingle-style summer home he shares with his wife of 60 years, Susan Bell Dennett. With his cottony beard, wire-rimmed glasses, and man-the-ropes hands, he looked like a rugged Maine Plato. He took a moment to size me up, then gingerly stepped down onto the wide porch, leaning on his hand-carved walking stick. Standing a little over six feet — at 81, slightly crouched — he wore a gray plaid button-down and a baseball cap (custom-made by a friend) that read, “. . . and then what happens?” His brown eyes settled on mine and stayed there, patiently searching for connection.

Dennett is modern philosophy’s ambassador to the lay world, eager to meet us wherever we are on our philosophical journey. Human connection is integral to his work. He is a clearheaded speaker who has coaxed the think out of generations of Tufts University students. He has helped to integrate the hard sciences into both the scholarly and popular understandings of the human mind. He’s also written more than a dozen (very readable) books on consciousness, religion, humor, and more. He’s delivered riveting TED Talks, lectured Bohemian Grove billionaires, and publicly debated the most prominent thinkers of our time. 

His new memoir, I’ve Been Thinking, hits shelves this month. It is a delightful collection of anecdotes and reflections from a life rich in curiosity, friendships, big ideas, and practical knowledge — much of the latter of which he’s acquired during some 40 summers as a gentleman farmer in Maine. He has lived here full-time since 2018, when he and Susan moved from greater Boston to Cape Elizabeth. My visit to their place on Eggemoggin Reach coincided with Dennett’s first summer as an emeritus professor.

Dennett was raised in Massachusetts but has family roots in Maine going back to the settlement era. In 1969, he and Susan bought a 200-acre Blue Hill farm for $25,000, after spotting a grainy black-and-white photo of the property in the window of an Ellsworth real-estate agent. They were living in California, where Dennett was teaching at UC Irvine, and didn’t have time to see the place before putting down their money. Upon arrival, they discovered their rural idyll was littered with junk and lacked modern conveniences. The kitchen faucet was fed by a hand pump, the bathroom was a “three-holer” out back, and the place was heated by two wood-burning stoves: a Franklin in the dining room and a cooking stove in the kitchen. But the Dennetts, who bought the farm in part to escape the life of the mind, refused to succumb to buyer’s remorse.

 “The farm had been lived in continuously for 140 years without central heating,” Dennett writes in his memoir, “so we were only doing what folks in those parts had been doing all their lives.”

In Blue Hill, Dennett could use his hands to nurture his other brain, the one that solved practical problems, like how to hoist and restore a rotted shed or maneuver huge logs using a pulp hook. Some of the new book’s most enjoyable chapters recall the lessons the Dennetts learned on the farm. Susan and Dan were fortunate to live next door to Basil and Bertha Turner, native Mainers 30 years their senior who didn’t mind tutoring their neighbors from away. “I think I learned more from Basil than from any other person in my life,” Dennett writes:

. . . how to live in Maine, how to keep the woodstoves from going out overnight, how to set cedar shingles on roofs, how to make electric fences to keep the horses in, how to line wild honeybees to discover their hives, how and where to catch native brook trout, how and where to dig clams, how to catch mackerel, how to fell trees safely, how to mow hay and make windrows with a dump rake, how to organize a blueberry raking, how to raise laying hens, ducks, and a pig, and much more.

Before the advent of email, Dennett’s Maine summers — away from Tufts, where he joined the faculty in 1971 — were full of farm projects, paddling, and exploring. But the philosopher’s brain was always running in the background. Once, when Dennett was on his tractor, a visitor quipped that he was “doing tillosophy.” Indeed, Dennett writes, the rhythmic nature of farm life “encourages a kind of purposeful daydreaming that often reorganizes one’s thinking just enough to make progress. . . . By September, it felt like I’d forgotten all the philosophy I ever learned, but I was rarin’ to go, full of ideas . . . that had popped into my head while I was mowing hay or painting the barn door.”

Dennett’s esteem for Basil Turner is all the more endearing when you consider he’s had some incredible teachers. His first was his mother, Ruth, who taught him to write with verve and clarity. His father, Daniel C. Dennett Jr., was a Harvard-educated scholar of Islam recruited as a spy by the WWII forerunner to the CIA. Dennett was five when his father was killed in a mysterious plane accident, in Ethiopia, in 1947. Ruth took her three children from the family’s Beirut home to start over in Winchester, Massachusetts, her husband’s hometown. She was not only an accomplished pianist who played Rachmaninoff for a lark but also an editor for the Boston textbook publisher Ginn & Co., and she made it her mission to ensure her son could express himself on the page.

At Harvard, Dennett studied under W. V. Quine, “one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century,” as his New York Times obituary put it. A logician who considered philosophy a scientific discipline, subject to empirical testing, Quine helped cement Dennett in the materialist tradition, which contends that all phenomena, including consciousness, can be explained by physical processes. In the early ’60s, Dennett studied at Oxford under Gilbert Ryle, who argued vigorously against the dualists, intellectual descendants of 17th-century French thinker René Descartes, who believed that humans possess a nonphysical mind or soul, distinct from the body. Ryle famously coined the term “ghost in the machine” to poke fun at the belief that an immaterial mind controls the physical body.

Elaborating on the work of his teachers, Dennett has, throughout his career, sought out neuroscientists, psychologists, and roboticists to tutor him, in the hopes he could more fully explain how what he calls “some complicated clumps of molecules” can bring about states of awareness and intentionality. He maintains there’s an answer somewhere in all those neurons, neurotransmitters, and synapses, and he’s pretty sure it works something like natural selection. (“No miracles allowed,” he says.) Dennett holds that our brain’s 86 billion neurons — independent but unintentional entities — respond to stimuli by battling for influence over our circuitry, with the “winners” dictating our perceptions and actions. Thus the “contents of consciousness,” he argues, are an edit of the real world, just one victorious narrative out of countless possible narratives; our experience of being conscious is a byproduct of its inscription into memory. 

It confounds him that so many respected modern philosophers continue to allow for the idea of an immaterial soul. He has often argued with them — in his books and papers and, frequently, in person, as he believes spirited debate can serve a Darwinian purpose, weeding out weak ideas and strengthening the best. In 2014, he famously attended a weeklong cruise off the coast of Greenland — a trip financed by a Russian entrepreneur, whose PhD thesis challenged Dennett’s ideas — to debate his intellectual nemesis, the Australian philosopher David Chalmers, who believes consciousness cannot be reduced to purely physical or material properties. 

Dennett’s restored 1957 Lyman Runabout, the Deer Isle Bridge behind. When he had his sloop, he’d host annual “Cognitive Cruises” for his grad students and postdocs, a few days of “anchoring in beautiful coves, exploring deserted islands, and talking, talking, talking,” he writes in the new book. “I know of no better way to share ideas constructively.”

That’s absurd, Dennett told me on Little Deer Isle. “The idea that your body is just this vehicle that you ride around in, and you’re a little homunculus up there in the control room,” he said. “It’s as H. L. Mencken said: ‘Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.’”

Dennett can’t get around like he used to, on account of arthritis and unsteady heart equipment. Shortness of breath often leaves his resonant tenor clipped. He’s quit many of the things he loves, like sailing; he sold his 42-foot Beneteau a few years ago (named Xanthippe, after Socrates’s wife). So we simply sat on the porch, watching gulls and sailboats, talking about what Dennett calls “the illusion” — what we experience in our daily lives. 

“Look around,” he said to me. “There’s the white paint on the railing. There’s the red hummingbird feeder. There’s the American flag.” (He put it up with the help of some of his postdocs. “That’s when we invented the philosophical doctrine of ‘concrete holism,’” Dennett quipped. “First you dig a hole, then you fill it with concrete.”)

“But the colors wouldn’t exist,” he went on, “if it weren’t for our brains.”

I thought he was talking about how we describe what we perceive, but he corrected me. What we were talking about was why we perceive what we do out of the infinite stimuli of the world. Dennett pointed out that a seagull, which has tetrachromatic vision, sees a broader range of colors than I ever could. The colors are still there, even if I can’t perceive them. So your point, I asked, is that humans are limited? “Not just limited, but also enabled,” he answered.

“Evolution has made us acutely aware of the things that matter to our survival,” he said — and for that, he suggested, we should be thankful. The “user illusion” — i.e., the specific human-brain edit of our world —empowers us to respond quickly to the things we need to respond to and not perceive the stuff that didn’t sufficiently benefit our ancestors, like infrared light or magnetic north. 

The work of Charles Darwin, not surprisingly, has long guided Dennett’s thinking. In 1986, he published an homage to the 19th-century scientist, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Dennett is awed by the idea that all creatures on Earth were created by a series of unfeeling, undesigned, unintentional mutations. “Is this Tree of Life a God one could worship? Pray to? Fear? Probably not,” reads a much-quoted passage from the book. However, he goes on, it is “greater than anything any of us will ever conceive of in detail worthy of its detail. . . . I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. This world is sacred.”

Dennett may now be best known for his forays into artificial intelligence, which he started researching way back in the ’60s. In a 1968 essay, he made the case that computer programs could exhibit intuition because intuition “is not a species of deduction or induction.” Rather, he argued, intuition is simply not knowing how one got to a conclusion. “‘Unconscious’ brute force computing,” he wrote, is a perfectly acceptable way for man or machine to arrive at an answer.

At Oxford, Dennett began to probe the differences between machine learning and human cognition, which he hoped would help him crack the code of consciousness. In Boston, he endeared himself to some of AI’s earliest adopters at MIT and Harvard, wheedling his way to their hearts, minds, and labs. Both computers and humans can think, he concluded, but the difference is that the computer’s architecture is designed top-down while our brains are infinitely malleable and lack a single inventor or command center. Of course, he says, that’s subject to change. 

After decades of enthusiastically following AI’s development, Dennett published a brief, unequivocal essay in The Atlantic earlier this year, “The Problem With Counterfeit People,” arguing that “creating counterfeit digital people” — known as deepfakes — could “destroy our civilization. . . . By allowing the most economically and politically powerful people, corporations, and governments to control our attention, these systems will control us.” Humanity’s future, he believes, depends on strict regulation: he wants every AI-generated thing to have some kind of watermark, so we can tell the difference between fake and real. Meanwhile, he’s taken to warning about the gaps in our understanding of the algorithms that drive machine learning. “Don’t worry about whether it is conscious or not, don’t worry about whether it’s alive or not,” he told me. “Worry about the fact that it can replicate and hence evolve independently of us. That’s what’s scary, because you can’t predict the mutations.”

Dennett has long been fascinated with the machines that humans have developed to tackle problems. It’s part of why he loved his Blue Hill farm, which the Dennetts sold in 2014, to move into their place on Little Deer Isle. Consider the dump rake, he says — simple and ingenious. He once had one that he “dearly loved and loved to use. I had tractors that were so old you could fix them with a wrench and a screwdriver. If the pitman broke on the mowing machine, you could find an old piece of oak and get out your saws and make a new one.”

Such implements, Dennett says, manifest the sum of human culture in their design, refined over generations to work exactly as intended. One of his favorite mechanisms is the shear pin — a component designed to break under stress to prevent damage to the rest of a machine. A shear pin on the propeller shaft of an outboard motor snaps when a boat hits a rock, to save the engine. Similarly, Dennett said, “you have certain shear-pin beliefs so that you don’t break your whole mind if you encounter a radical discontinuity.”

I asked for an example. “God,” he answered assertively. “One of the reasons some people believe in God is that it’s the belief that saves them from worrying themselves sick about something.”

Dennett is an avowed atheist and spent a good part of the early 21st century publicly debating defenders of faith, drawing cheers and jeers from around the world. He earned notoriety as one of what the media dubbed the “Four Horsemen of the New Atheism,” along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, thinkers and writers who considered religion a destructive force and impediment to human progress. In his ninth decade, Dennett has come to acknowledge that it’s nigh impossible to change minds, yet he still opens I’ve Been Thinking with a short essay he wrote in 2006, immediately after he was revived following a nine-hour aortic resection, a procedure during which his brain was chilled to 45 degrees, to prevent tissue from dying. In the essay, entitled “Thank Goodness,” Dennett explains that his near-death experience prompted no revelations about the existence of a God, thanks very much, and he reasserts his faith in the peer-reviewed experimentation that undergirds medicine and science — rather than in divine intercession.

“Yes, I did have an epiphany,” he writes. “There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today.” He appreciated the impulses of friends who prayed for him, Dennett goes on — but he had to forgive them for the gesture. “Don’t expect me to be grateful, or even indifferent,” he writes. “I prefer real good to symbolic good.”

We took a break from talking and headed inside to help Susan prepare lunch. She’d picked up a tub of fresh crabmeat and asked me to butter the hot-dog buns for toasting, then she deftly intercepted her husband as he tried to make the crab salad. She said he mashed the meat too much the last time.

Dennett disappeared to hunt for some of the last of their homemade cider, made with apples from the old farm. He reappeared with a dark-green bottle labeled “Penobscot Cider 2002, produced and bottled by Godland Farm, Blue Hill, Maine.” (The name, ironically, was bestowed on the area by an 18th-century minister, and the Dennetts embraced it.) He unwired its cork, but one sip revealed it was skunked, so Dennett located some of the last of their homemade apple brandy, or calvados. He used to make it from bad cider vintages using the same Prohibition-era still that his surrogate-father’s father had used to make bathtub gin. The bottle was labeled “Pure Quill, ca. 90 proof,” a reference to the goose quill that often served as the output spout of a still.

Dan had devised a way to age his calvados by infusing it with charred white-oak chips. He poured each of us a dram in brandy snifters. The liquid amber had a fine, mellow flavor. We toasted the beauty of Maine. 

As we sipped our Pure Quill — neat, of course, this being precious stuff — Dennett looked out at the blue waters of Eggemoggin Reach, where he was late putting in his 1957 Lyman Runabout 18-footer. He watched a sailboat tacking across the reach: “An Atlantic fractional rig, quite pointy. An old racing sloop, in any case,” he said. I asked whether, as someone interested in the “user illusion” and the workings of the mind, he had any desire to try hallucinogens. No, he answered. He likes his brain the way it is. “When I was out in California,” he said, “everybody was taking mescaline, marijuana, and magic mushrooms. And I watched several very bright students become raisin brains.” 

“Do you have any desire to see the infinite?” I asked.

“Um, no, because I’m sure that the experience I would have of the infinite would not be a veridical one,” he replied. “It would be a sort of hallucination of the infinite.” He told me a story about the 19th-century poet and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., who swore he’d seen the secret of the universe while under nitrous oxide and convinced his dentist to put him under again, this time equipped with a pen and paper. “He realized when he woke up from this that the universe is pervaded with a strong smell of turpentine,” Dennett said, laughing.

He does love taking chances, he added, but he chooses those chances carefully. One thing he enjoyed about sailing, for example, was the recognition that everyone on board depended on his knowledge to get them out and back safely. “Philosophers don’t often get a chance to put their wisdom to the test,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed being able to have the know-how to do what needs to be done. So I am the proud possessor of all sorts of antique skills that are now completely obsolete.”

Dennett attributes much of his success to the fact that, in a world full of contentious egos contemplating the ethereal, he’s been the one who calls bullshit. “At its best,” he has written, “philosophy is intellectual reverse engineering, methodically dismantling bad habits of thought . . . replacing them with better thinking tools.” He likes reality, as he understands it, and he wants all of us anchored there. 

After lunch, the midday heat settled down around us; even the goldfinches retired. The Reach was an unruffled expanse of blue. At least, that’s how I saw it. I asked Dennett what I considered the toughest question of the day: How did he summarize his role in the trajectory of philosophy?

He sat quietly for a good half a minute, thinking, taking deep breaths. He finally answered, “I think that my career has been all about opening philosophers’ minds to the facts they need to know if they are going to avoid the great foible of philosophy, which is mistaking failures of imagination for insights into necessity.”

He paused again, then said he particularly liked the last part of that sentence. “Your imagination is not gonna get any better if you don’t get out there and learn stuff,” he said. Then he repeated one of his more famous lines: “What you can imagine depends on what you know.”

“So maybe,” I asked, “you occasionally need to replace the footing on the barn?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Or build a blueberry press.” He said that when he first tried to use their cider press to make blueberry wine, he discovered that “wet blueberries just are incompressible.” He cranked the press so hard he thought he’d break it when “all of a sudden — ping — like bullets, the berries were squeezing out through the burlap bag and splatting against the wall.” This occasioned the invention of a new tool, much to Dennett’s delight. He found two geared wooden rollers, complete with bearings, at a local junkyard, and used them to build his “blueberry squeezer-crusher.” 

Dennett reached for his walking stick to hoist himself up. He wanted to show me a framed photo of his custom crusher. 

The photo, which hangs in his living room, shows a beautiful tableau of ancient farm implements he used to store in his shed in Blue Hill. While I wandered around the room, looking at the Maine art the Dennetts have collected over their long lives, he stayed put, calling out every implement in the photo: here’s the brush cutter, here’s the clam roller, the bushel baskets, the garden rototiller he pushed like a wheelbarrow. Here’s the axe sharpener with a bicycle seat and pedals. Here’s the ancient still. While studying the photo, his large hands clutched the head of his walking stick as he relished the sense memory of using each tool, still fresh in his insatiable mind.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

Get all of our latest stories delivered straight to your mailbox every month. Subscribe to Down East magazine.