As a philosopher, cognitive scientist, educator, and author of numerous groundbreaking books, Daniel Dennett has used science as the foundation for exploring the biggest philosophical concepts: the nature of consciousness, the mind-body problem, the question of free will versus determinism, and what it means to be human. Blending the rigorous methods of traditional philosophy with the emerging fields of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, and artificial intelligence, Dennett has given us new ways to look at and comprehend ourselves and the world around us.
Dan Dennett received his BA in philosophy from Harvard University (1963) and earned his DPhil at Oxford University (1965). His academic career began at the University of California Irvine (1965-71), after which he moved to Tufts University in Massachusetts. During that time, he has held visiting professorships at universities including Harvard, Pittsburgh, Oxford, the London School of Economics, and the American University of Beirut. He is currently the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts and co-director of their Center for Cognitive Studies.
A prolific writer and much-sought-after speaker, Dennett has authored over 400 scholarly articles and more than 20 books, many highly influential, appealing both to academic and general audiences. Dennett is most famous for his foundational writings on consciousness and the nature of the human mind, but he has also made important contributions to our understanding of religion, evolution, and artificial intelligence.
Throughout his career, Dennett has held fast to the concept that the work of philosophy is contiguous with the work of natural sciences. In his landmark book
Consciousness Explained (1991), Dennett refutes the idea of an inner “self" that observes and evaluates the world, what he calls the “Cartesian theater," holding rather that the brain and its mental activity—neurons and the connections they make—are sufficient to explain consciousness and the sense of “self-hood" that humans have.
He continued this bold trajectory in Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1995), examining how the mindless process of natural selection can elucidate how humans evolved into beings that can think ahead, reflect, evaluate, and think critically about themselves and the world around them. In both of these now-classic books, Dennett posits that natural science is all we need to understand the human mind. A staunch atheist, Dennett argues that humans do have a “soul," but it is one that is made up of billions of neurons, or what he calls “lots of tiny robots."
Dennett is often bundled together with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, journalist and social critic Christopher Hitchens, and neuroscientist Sam Harris as “the four horsemen of new atheism." Several of Dennett's books have tackled the question of religion, including
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006), where he looks at the origins and evolution of religion and argues that religion should be studied the same as any other aspect of our natural world, not allowing it to be fenced off as too sacred to be examined critically. He also co-authored with Linda LaScola
Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013), a pioneering study of current and former clergy who no longer believe in God.
He is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1987) and is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Fulbright. In 2012, Dennett was awarded the Erasmus Prize, one of Europe's most distinguished recognitions. He was named Humanist of the Year (2004) by the American Humanist Association, selected as 2009 Fellow by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and granted the Distinguished Fellow Award from the Cognitive Science Society (2009). He holds honorary doctorates from around the world, including the universities of Connecticut (US), Edinburgh (Scotland), McGill (Canada), Bucharest (Romania), and both Amsterdam and Radboud (Netherlands).
An avid sailor, sculptor, and hobby farmer, he is married to Susan Bell Dennett and they have two children.