Daniel Dennett: a Pragmatic Optimist in a Time of Postmodern Scepticism

15 mei 2024 | Sid Lukkassen

Original publishing date: 24 april 2024

The American philosopher, Daniel Dennett, has died at the age of 82. He published works on consciousness, the philosophy of the human mind and artificial intelligence - weighty books on heavy topics, written in a smooth, playful style to reach the widest possible audience. He also won several honorary doctorates and awards in the Netherlands.

Free debate or loyalty to the tribe?
Especially in the latter phase of his career, Dennett saw woke thought negatively impacting on academic integrity. His close friend and atheist ally, Richard Dawkins, clashed head-on with woke anger, for instance in a discussion on self-chosen identity, racial identity and transgenderism. Old school atheists and humanists, such as Dawkins and Dennett, are committed to questioning existing and established ideas in order to have discussions focused on the truth and the advancement of human knowledge. This makes it necessary to be able to criticise leading dogmas, confront ethical sensitivities and take the bull by the horns.

Dennett saw the same elements reflected in religion as in the 'social justice warrior' movements and in some movements concerned about the environment. This can lead to the formation of tribes. In the process, allegiance to central dogmas is equated with the tribe's 'family belonging', so that truth-telling disappears behind the horizon.

It is here that the philosopher relates 'memes' to the formation of such networks, in which individual truth and conscience formation become overshadowed. Those 'memes' here stand for stubborn notions that take root in people's minds - often not to the benefit of the person in question. Dennett compared this to an ant that sits on top of a blade of grass to be eaten and get into the stomach of another animal. This behaviour does not benefit the ant, but a parasite that has taken over the ant's nervous system. Dennett calls this a 'manipulative symbiotic relationship'. This type of relationship can be recognised in many ideas and group sentiments currently haunting Europe.

These insights apply to the public debate in the Netherlands. When the Free Left manifesto came out, there was a public debate meeting in Amsterdam. That turned into fireworks when the progressives turned out to be divided between two camps, namely the pro-Islam camp (multicultural left) and the pro-Enlightenment camp (secular left).  They accused each other on the spot of regressive-leftism or cultural Marxism. Beneath this cloud of dust, there was no progressive narrative on innovation: in the US, philosophers are wrestling with the same dilemma.

Academic background: Culture Wars
Since the rise of French postmodern philosophy, and the spillover of this particular movement into US universities, ideas of a Marxist cultural politics linked to multiculturalism and counterculturalism have taken root. This path taken, and the desire now to resettle a left based on empiricism and secularism, is again the reaction to an earlier trauma, namely the loyalty of leftist academics to the Soviet Union.

In 1956, the Hungarian popular uprising against Stalinism was bloodily crushed. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev admitted that the regime under Stalin had been atrocious and murderous; meanwhile, in the West, capitalism flourished and any hope of a workers' revolution had vanished. As a result, Marxists in the West responded with scepticism as an intellectual weapon. Everything was put into perspective so that a thick fog was created: underneath, the havoc would be less visible to the outside world, while the academic left assessed the damage and worked out a new strategy.

This relativist scepticism was elaborated into the rhetoric of the New Left: the young generation that, around 1968, got rid of the old guard and took over the workers' parties. As early as 1795, the Enlightenment philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet had warned of this: in his Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain, he explained how a destructive scepticism heralded the fall of Greek philosophy. Where one questions the standards of evidence, every thought becomes shaky. Forwards and backwards are then nowhere to be measured.

Under the cloud of unmitigated scepticism and cultural relativism, the successful fundamentals behind Western intellectual, humanitarian and economic excellence were obscured and then undermined. At the same time, the New Left began its quest for a new proletariat. The battle cry of "decolonising" Western knowledge and institutions brings these lines together perfectly.

Because of their actions, there was no definite basis of standards and norms by which to compare the West and communist states. This mattered because at the time, the belief in the communist utopia - "each works according to his ability and receives according to his need" - was part of the leftist identity. That identity was damaged by rational arguments which demonstrated the superiority of the West. The Marxist abandoned "scientific socialism" and embraced postmodernism - he became sceptical of the principle of objective reality and began to relativise reason. This was because it meant he no longer had to take hostile arguments seriously: his identity - which turns out to be one based not on facts but merely on good intentions - could now be maintained without having to make concessions to rationalism.

Dennett's quest for truth
So this is the background on which Dennett appeared and made an ardent plea for the search for a universal truth. Now he was certainly no Trump fan, but he did identify how the postmodernists had done Trump's groundwork. This was precisely because of the previously described tribal loyalties, the manipulative handling of facts and the downplaying of all standards and evidence. "What the postmoderns have done is truly evil," he declared in an interview on US politics. “It is to their credit that it is now considered a respectable basic attitude to deal cynically with truth and facts. We are entering a period of knowledge-scientific obfuscation such as has not been seen since the Middle Ages.”

In other words, everyone now has his or her 'own' truth, and that truth is constructed, for instance, by 'colonial' or 'post-colonial' experiences that - depending on the group you belong to - you should feel mostly respect or contempt for, but where the content of what is being talked about, and its factuality and veracity, disappears from view and is overshadowed by identitarian clouds. Look at public news coverage today: the mainstream media are steeped in political correctness and uncritically support those in power. In contrast, the alternative media is teeming with conspiracy theories that culminate in all-encompassing explanations around dark powers behind the scenes.

It is powerful but also uncomfortable about Dennett's insights that the 'memes' - including harmful thoughts - have their own life cycle and toughness; their own resistance and survival rate, like that parasite which takes over the ant's body. In this context, Dennett also talked about Google and the power of search engines over public consciousness, and the impending convergence of human and artificial intelligence.

He also drew a comparison with cuddly mammals: they seem nice and sweet when they approach you, but can be infected with parasites that make them reckless and aggressive. From a meme perspective, this can be extended to do-gooders who are ostensibly peaceful and harmless, but are in fact working towards a world where women are no longer safe in women's locker rooms under the guise of 'inclusion', or where potential terrorists are allowed through at the border under the guise of 'refugees welcome'.


American pragmatism
Against the postmodern erosion of scientific standards by referring to colonial trauma and social injustice, Dennett posited an optimistic American pragmatism. "That little mistake, that little imperfection in the process, is the source of all these beautiful and complex forms of life," he wrote in his essay 'The art of making mistakes' (1995). Instead of lingering in the tearfulness of trauma, it is better to pick yourself up and seek solutions with renewed energy and curiosity. With any mistake, the trick is to take advantage of the specifics of the mess you have created.

Tail distributions, for example, are well-founded estimates; according to Dennett, this shows how even imprecise knowledge is valuable, as long as you remain focused on getting close to the truth. When errors occur, details are very important for adjusting the estimate. This American pragmatism consistently asks in which direction we should look for our next attempt now that the previous one has proved a failure.

This practical stance is a response to scepticism: anything that works well we can keep and possibly improve; for what works poorly we should experiment, being pragmatic about taking risks. How can we make mistakes in such a way that everyone learns from them and the damage is limited? According to Dennett, this is the central question for growing human knowledge. Learning from painless mistakes in order to avoid the painful ones.

We conclude that since the late 1960s, academic theorising about society narrowed: the focus shifted from effective social proposals to 'critique' and 'deconstruction' of any form of power and identity. Noting that this could not produce a constructive view of the future of American society, Dennett instead cultivated an optimistic theory of knowledge. To arrive at progress and understanding with manageable practical steps.

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