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The Naturalist

The NaturalistWhile some philosophers ponder the mysteries of life, Tufts’ Daniel Dennett says there are no mysteries at all – just problems we don’t yet know how to approach. Medford/Somerville, Mass.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.17.04] Daniel Dennett is a modern renaissance man. A sailor, jazz musician and sculptor, a friend once described the Tufts philosopher by saying, "He overwhelmed me - he was very good at so many things." But the talented craftsman is also a world-class mind who is on a quest to replace mysticism with reason.

"Like many scientists, Dennett believes a mystery is simply a problem we don't know how to approach yet, but he adds to this a philosophically educated scorn for the idea that there should be really profound mysteries," reported the Guardian.

Dennett, who was recently profiled by the British paper, is writing a new book called Breaking the Spell that opposes the rise of supernaturalism.

"I don't believe in anything supernatural," he told the Guardian. "That's naturalism, I guess. But the main thing is that it's not supernatural."

Dennett's mission to depose supernaturalism should come as no surprise to those who have followed his career - which began while he was a 17 year old college student with an interest in philosophy.

"I read Descartes [and I thought] this is really interesting, but it's wrong," Dennett told the Guardian. "Let me think if I can figure out why."

The internationally-known philosopher - whose books include Consciousness Explained (1991), Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995) and last year's Freedom Evolves - earned a name for himself as an opponent to some of the most talked-about philosophical ideas of his day.

"I had this instinct for the jugular," Dennett told the Guardian. "I'd think ‘Descartes is wrong; Quine's wrong; Lucas is wrong!' But that's what philosophers do: they find an eminent target, and they think, let's see if I can figure out how to say what's wrong with this."

The professor - who now directs Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts - became interested in computers during an investigation into the mind and how intelligence could arise from the brain.

"I developed a deep distrust of the methods I saw other philosophers employing, and I decided that before I could trust any of my intuitions about the mind, I had to figure out how the brain could possibly accomplish the mind's work - how the mechanical activities of ‘stupid' neurons could be knitted into a fabric of activity that actually discriminated meaning," Dennett told the Guardian.

Dennett - whose books appeal to a popular audience as well as to philosophers - sees his latest inquiries into the supernatural as a new way to approach the questions that has become the thesis of his career.

As the Guardian reported, "His entire professional life has been spent looking at various aspects of one great question: how can meaning, design and morality arise in a universe that began as meaningless, void and without form?"

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