Dan Dennett Expects Smart Drugs, New Role for Churches

“Thinking is hard,” says philosopher Daniel Dennett, who has spent his long career pondering tough questions involving consciousness, free will, atheism and evolution.

His latest book is “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.”

We spoke at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York.

Lundborg: Why take away whatever comfort religion provides people?

Dennett: The short answer is that the cat is out of the bag. It’s like parents arguing about whether we should tell the kids there’s no Santa Claus.

In fact, surveys show the fastest-growing group -- faster than Muslims, faster than Mormons -- is no religion at all.

Lundborg: Are believers doing damage, say in fighting Darwin and global warming?

Dennett: Yes, and we should total it up and stop the traditional policy of averting our eyes from the damage and talking up the good stuff.

One of the most potent effects of the transparent age we are now moving into is that religions can have less and less effect. They evolved for thousands of years in a murky environment where people could see only a little bit of the way, and religions could rely on that general cluelessness and myopia.

‘Sacred’ Texts

Lundborg: What about morality?

Dennett: To me, the very idea that there’s some extra warrant that comes from a sacred text is just bankrupt. I cannot see why anybody thinks that’s a good idea.

We’re creating a larger and larger consensus about what’s the best way to live a life and it’s nurtured by all sorts of texts, sacred and profane. But they all go through the rational mill of political persuasion.

Lundborg: Morality by committee?

Dennett: We sit around a table. You’ve got your views, I’ve got mine and we try to persuade the group that this is the way to behave, these are the rules to adopt.

The ideal outcome of that process would be a morality that achieves consensus among conscientious human beings of all stripes.

Lundborg: Apparently Wall Streeters are using modafinil, a narcolepsy medication, to increase concentration and focus. So is there a future in smart brain drugs?

Smart Drugs

Dennett: Cosmetic neuropharmacology? Sure, because it works. People have been taking things like caffeine and amphetamines forever. There are going to be more.

I know someone who has a sort of periodic table of not-yet constructed polymers, and he has a theory about how they will act in the brain. He’s going through them systematically, making them and then under controlled circumstances ingesting them.

Lundborg: What worries you most about our culture?

Dennett: The big enemy is panic, which turns you into an idiot. There are many ways we could have panic-inducing catastrophes: The Internet could go down -- it’s more fragile than people want to admit -- and we’d all be freaking out. It would be weapons of mass panic -- the panic would do the destruction.

Another source of panic is the opposite -- it’s hyper-connectivity and hackers, plus we have big climate disasters, Ebola. What we need is panic absorbers, panic dampers.

Panic Dampers

Lundborg: And what would those be?

Dennett: Every community in America should have one or more lifeboats -- a local committee of people who know how to fire up a spare generator, repair a motor, cut firewood.

How do you know where the lifeboat is? The answer is easy: The lifeboats are the ones with the steeples.

The idea is to give every church in the country a new subsidiary purpose. And, in some cases I anticipate that would be the tail that wags the dog pretty soon, but in the meantime I say sing your hymns, have all your services, but let everybody come in.

Lundborg: You’re still a believer in free will?

Dennett: If you understand that free will is sort of a dynamic property, you can protect your autonomy by being knowledgeable about the current state of the art in subversive manipulation.

A magician friend of mine took a normal deck of cards and told me to pick any card -- it was the Jack of Clubs. He put it back in the deck, shuffled the deck, held it out and I picked the Jack of Clubs.

Forced Card

He forced the Jack of Clubs on me about 10 times in a row and it was just stunning to see that he could do it.

Now, I didn’t have free will. It was an illusion of free will because there was a manipulator out there. But, what we have to recognize is that most of the time there isn’t.

Lundborg: Not all outside forces are manipulators?

Dennett: There are always outside forces and you wouldn’t want it any other way. The idea that free will is this ideal of complete isolation from causation, that’s just a myth, a sort of philosophical exaggeration.

You want the world in its impingements on you to inform you in a timely manner about everything that’s really important to you, so that you can use that information to guide the choices that you make.

Lundborg: Some people have no free will -- they’re clearly driven rather than driving.

Dennett: You do a fundamental disservice to the concept of free will if you don’t recognize that some people have it and some people don’t.

We have a system that draws some lines that have to be somewhat arbitrary. But, look, we do that in games. You hit it 349 feet, it’s a fly ball; you hit it 350 feet, it’s a home run.

You’ve got to have lines to play the game.

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(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

Muse highlights include John Mariani on drinking and Peter Rainer on movies.