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Thinking Big

Thinking BigIn Daniel Dennett's Language and Mind course, freshmen and sophomores match wits with one of Tufts' top thinkers.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [11.13.09] In a recent session of Daniel Dennett's Language and Mind course, nearly 100 students sit around wondering what it's like to be a bat.

They aren't daydreaming. Rather, they're considering a question posed in their assigned reading, a famous 1974 essay by philosopher Thomas Nagel called "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" In it, Nagel discusses the challenge of understanding consciousness and subjective experience.

"What did Nagel prove?" Dennett, the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and University Professor, asks the class. One student suggests that Nagel showed you can't understand an subjective thing objectively.

"I think you're right," replies Dennett, "but what does that come to? Might it just be a matter of diminishing returns, where you run out of patience before you exhaust your convictions about your experience?"

That's a lot of deep thinking for one afternoon, but what's notable is that the students aren't philosophy majors. Many in fact are first-semester freshmen. They're just responding to one of the course requirements: to butt heads with the teacher.

"I tell the students that if you are like me, this is actually going to be a harder course for you, because it will be easier for you to agree with me," explains Dennett, author of more than 10 books, including Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life and Consciousness Explained. "That's not what I want. I want you to keep my feet to the fire."

Setting the Philosophical Table

Dennett has taught the class, geared toward freshman and sophomores, once a year for the past decade.

"This is my attempt to set the table for cognitive science and philosophy of cognitive science without any presuppositions," says Dennett, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies. "What I'm mainly trying to do in this course is stretch their imagination, get them to think about things in ways that they haven't thought about before."

"Consciousness is at once the most familiar and at the same time one of the most difficult to understand things in our lives," says Steve Schaus, a second-year master's student in philosophy and one of the teaching assistants for the course. "In the context of this class, it's a good introduction to college in general, because it's about questioning things you take for granted."

Students turn in commentaries on assigned reading before each class, and Dennett himself mines those submissions to get a sense of how students have processed the material, often bringing up the students' questions or observations in class.

The Idea Lab

While the class asks students to stretch out their brains over some challenging topics, it also provides Dennett with an opportunity to develop his own thinking.
"If I look back at my published work over the past 10 years, I could probably find a dozen places where the basic idea was something that first came to light in this class," says Dennett. "Not so much that the student typically formulated the idea, but they asked the question that provoked me to come up with the answer."

In addition, one of his paramount goals as a thinker is to make his concepts accessible, and an undergraduate classroom is the ideal laboratory for finding out whether he's met that goal.

"I've always made it a point, with anything I'm working on, to test fly it in a Tufts course," says Dennett. "My general rule of thumb is if I can't explain it to bright Tufts undergraduates, then I can't explain it. I don't understand it myself."

Back in the classroom, one student suggests that the best way to understand what it's like to be a bat is to exit your own consciousness and become a bat wholly.

"If we become a bat, do we lose the 'I'?" another student asks.

"Maybe that's just like dying," responds Dennett.

Up to the Challenge

While Dennett is a big name in the philosophy world-there are at least a dozen books about his work-students on the whole don't seem intimidated.

"My initial impressions are that in general Tufts students are pretty undaunted, even by a professor as well known as this," says Schaus. "There was one student up here after class today challenging something Professor Dennett said about whether numbers exist."

Freshman Liz Salowitz, who anticipates majoring in international relations and Spanish, registered for Dennett's course after hearing positive recommendations from friends about his work. She was surprised that a class with Dennett was available to her as a first-year student.

"There are certain times in life when you sit down and you're dumbstruck and you're like, 'Why am I this way? Why do I think so much about what I'm thinking about and why I'm thinking about it?'" she says. "You get stuck in this loop and he's trying to unwrap the loop for us, at least a little."

Salowitz says Dennett has been quite accessible to her and her classmates. "When he says he has office hours, he's sitting in his office waiting for students to come talk to him," she says. Once, she chatted with him for more than half an hour about a theory she was studying in another class.

While Dennett may take a fellow philosopher to task for shoddy logic or a shaky theory, he has nothing but patience for his students, says Schaus. "He reserves opprobrium for people he thinks should know better, like his professional colleagues."

For Dennett, the more challenges he gets to field, the better. This semester's class, he says, is "a particularly savvy group."

"This is a feisty bunch," he says. "I really like that. That's what makes life fun."

Story by Georgiana Cohen, Web Communications.


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