A Q&A with Daniel C. Dennett, whose most recent MIT Press book (with Matthew M. Hurley and Reginald B. Adams, Jr.) is Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind, to round out our Brain Awareness Week Q&A series:
What sparked your interest in philosophy and cognitive studies?
As a philosophy student, I was always interested in how the mind worked, and by that I meant how the brain worked. When I started looking at the attempts by scientists to address these questions, back in the mid 60s, I discovered that they were, with a few notable exceptions, baffled. The pioneers who had some hunches fascinated me, and I began to try to follow in their footsteps and even help with the exploration.
How have your research interests and methods changed over the course of your career?
I've learned--and had to learn--a lot of empirical science and scientific techniques. The philosophical imagination unhindered by facts is actually a very unreliable organ of discovery. My work has always depended on the constraints I have picked up from the various sciences that deal with the questions I'm interested in.
What kinds of changes (if any) do you think we need to make in brain science education?
There have already been huge changes. Even high school students can acquire a vivid, robust, dynamic (if sketchy) model of what the working parts of the brain are, and roughly how they interact. That rough-and-ready roadmap of the brain was something that took years of hard and imaginative work to acquire forty years ago. Since everybody gets to start much better prepared these days, the time is right for bold theorizing. We have the tools and the data to DISconfirm models now. What we need are intrepid model-proposers. They will usually be wrong, but we'll learn a lot. From one perspective most of what we've learned in the last half century is what promising ideas WON'T work. That's progress.