Dennett on Wieseltier V. Pinker in The New Republic

Let's Start With A Respect For Truth
Daniel C. Dennett


"The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are." (From The Emerging Third Culture", 1991) 

Last month, The New Republic published Steven Pinker's article "Science Is Not The Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historian" (August 6, 2013). A link to a  3-minute video attacking the article  was inserted in the middle of Pinker's text—"WATCH: Leon Wieseltier's rejoinder: Science doesn't have all the answers". Billed as one of "An irregular video-interview series with New Republic Literary Editor Leon Wieseltier", the video was conveniently ready for posting within minutes of the publication of Pinker's article.
Now, a month later, Wieseltier is back with a 5,650-word attack in the magazine entitled "Crimes Against Humanities: Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don't let it happen." (September 3, 2013).

This is not a new debate. In my 1991 essay "The Emerging Third Culture", I wrote:

In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

In 1959 C.P. Snow published a book titled The Two Cultures. On the one hand, there were the literary intellectuals; on the other, the scientists. He noted with incredulity that during the 1930s the literary intellectuals, while no one was looking, took to referring to themselves as "the intellectuals," as though there were no others. This new definition by the "men of letters" excluded scientists such as the astronomer Edwin Hubble, the mathematician John von Neumann, the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, and the physicists Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg.

How did the literary intellectuals get away with it? ... 

In a second edition of "The Two Cultures", published in 1963, Snow added a new essay, "The Two Cultures: A Second Look," in which he optimistically suggested that a new culture, a "third culture," would emerge and close the communications gap between the literary intellectuals and the scientists. In Snow's third culture, the literary intellectuals would be on speaking terms with the scientists. Although I borrow Snow's phrase, it does not describe the third culture he predicted. Literary intellectuals are not communicating with scientists. Scientists are communicating directly with the general public.  ...

Given Wieseltier's screed, we can all be thankful that this is happening. His clueless attack is evidence that he doesn't know, and doesn't even know that he doesn't know. It's no accident that Prospect Magazine has scientists (and Edge contributors) Richard DawkinsSteven PinkerDaniel Kahneman, and Jared Diamond at, or near, the top of their "World's Greatest Thinkers 2013" poll ("a snapshot of the intellectual trends that dominate our age"). Or that The Guardian has proclaimed Edge the world's smartest website

Edge is pleased to publish the following response to Wieseltier from philosopher Daniel C. Dennett.


DANIEL C. DENNETT is Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University. Among his books are Intuition Pumps; Darwin's Dangerous Idea; and Consciousness Explained.

Daniel C. Dennett's Edge Bio page 


Further Reading on Edge:  "The Emerging Third Culture" (1991); "The New Humanists" (2000), "The Expanding Third Culture" (2006).


Leon Wieseltier sees that the humanities are in a deep crisis, but his essay, "Crimes against the Humanities," is not a helpful contribution to its resolution. Name-calling and sarcasm are typically the last refuge of somebody who can't think of anything else to say to fend off a challenge he doesn't understand and can't abide. His response to Steven Pinker's proposed conciliation of science and the humanities is neither polite nor fair, and amounts, in the end, to a blustery attempt to lay down the law:

It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science.  

This is true enough, if carefully interpreted, but Wieseltier asserts it without argument, showing that he himself is not even trying to be a philosopher, but rather a Wise Divulger of the Undeniable Verities. He knows—take it from him. So this simple passage actually illustrates the very weakness of the humanities today that has encouraged scientists and other conscientious thinkers to try their own hand at answering the philosophical questions that press in on us, venturing beyond the confines of their disciplines to fill the vacuum left by the humanities.


George Dyson

I might add three points that were not included in the piece I wrote for FAZ in Germany and also published by Edge, roughly:

1) The Corona program was of such immense historical and strategic importance because the intelligence it produced showed that the USSR did not have nearly as many missiles and launchers as we feared they did. Corona served as a much-needed damper on the Cold War arms race (pushed vigorously by that military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned about) which might have been even worse without reliable intelligence.

2) PRISM etc. could well produce the same result--if we capture all the e-mails in the world, and break all the encryption, we may discover that the world is not nearly as full of terrorists actually threatening the homeland as certain factions are warning us to be afraid of. It may really turn out to just be mostly cat videos (and normal criminal activity). The question is, will the security-industrial complex inform us of that?

3) The current security hysteria has all the indicators of an autoimmune disease--when the organism starts reacting against itself.


Nicholas G. Carr


Dyson , in his essay "NSA: The Decision Problem", has done us a favor by connecting the dots, both backward to the origins of modern predictive algorithms and forward to the potentially stifling effect of using such algorithms to spy on personal action and speech. I wonder whether there’s another set of dots to be connected to the commercial use of data-mining and prediction tools. 

NICHOLAS G. CARR, former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, writes and speaks on technology, business, and culture. He is the author of The Shallows and The Big Switch.

Nicholas G. Carr's Edge Bio Page


George Dyson

The ultimate goal of signals intelligence and analysis is to learn not only what is being said, and what is being done, but what is being thought. With the proliferation of search engines that directly track the links between individual human minds and the words, images, and ideas that both characterize and increasingly constitute their thoughts, this goal appears within reach at last. "But, how can the machine know what I think?" you ask. It does not need to know what you think—no more than one person ever really knows what another person thinks. A reasonable guess at what you are thinking is good enough.

GEORGE DYSON, Science Historian, is the author of Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, and Darwin Among the Machines.

[ED. NOTE: George Dyson's piece was commissioned by Frank Schirrmacher, co-publisher of the national German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), where he is Editor of the Feuilleton, cultural and science pages of the paper. First published by FAZ on July 26, 2013.]

THE REALITY CLUB: Nicholas Carr, George Dyson


Shortly after noon, local time, on 19 August 1960, over the North Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, a metal capsule about the size and shape of a large kitchen sink fell out of the sky from low earth orbit and drifted by parachute toward the earth. It was snagged in mid-air, on the third pass, by a C-119 "flying boxcar" transport aircraft from Hickam Air Force base in Honolulu, and then transferred to Moffett Field Naval Air Station, in Mountain View, California—where Google's fleet of private jets now sit parked. Inside the capsule was 3000 feet of 70mm Kodak film, recording seven orbital passes over 1,650,000 square miles of Soviet territory that was closed to all overflights at the time. 

This spectacular intelligence coup was preceded by 13 failed attempts. Secrecy all too often conceals waste and failure within government programs; in this case, secrecy was essential to success. Any reasonable politician, facing the taxpayers, would have canceled the Corona orbital reconnaissance program after the eleventh or twelfth unsuccessful launch.


A Conversation with
David Bunnell

By John Brockman

You wouldn't expect that the personal computer would have been invented and commercialized in 1974 by a company of twenty employees called MITS in Albuquerque. You would expect that the personal computer would have come out of the labs at IBM or Xerox PARC. But that's not what happened, and David Bunnell was present at the creation, having left his job as a sixth-grade teacher in the Chicago public schools to find his place in what he perceived to be a new and important industry.

"One of the more interesting things that happened," he recalls, "was that two fellows in Cambridge, Massachusetts, noticed the Altair on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics and got very excited about working at MITS to develop software for this first personal computer. Their names were Bill Gates and Paul Allen. They created a basic language program for the Altair and called us up and said, 'Gee, wouldn't you like to have Basic for the Altair?' The company president, Ed Roberts, who is regarded by many as the father of the personal computer, replied, 'Well, if you can show us that it works, we'd love to have it.'

"Paul Allen hopped on an airplane and flew to Albuquerque and demonstrated that Basic worked, even though Paul and Bill hadn't seen an Altair. They created the Basic language interpreter on a mainframe computer at Harvard University using an emulator for the 8080 Intel chip that was the brains of the Altair. The entire personal computer industry sprung out of MITS, and the Altair, and Paul Allen and Bill Gates."

"I worked with David in the very early days of this business when it wasn't really a business and nobody paid attention." recalls Bill Gates. "And he did the first computer convention, which was a MITS Altair-based thing. And he did the first interesting magazine, PC Magazine. Then PC World got involved with him on encouraging him to do MacWorld. You know, it's great to have somebody who's played the role he has. I think it's a real contribution."

That David happened to be at the right place at the right time and was able to take advantage of it was probably no accident. And that circumstance has been a hallmark of his career in the personal computer industry. He was not a technical person like everybody else; it was his job as a writer and an editor to interpret the personal computer for people who wanted to use it, to explain what you could do with it, and to help market it. That became his role not just at MITS but in the industry at large. At MITS, David and his colleagues created the first retail computer stores, the first computer conventions, the first publications. David, present at the creation, has been a player from the very beginning.

David is best known among his peers not for his stunning successes in promoting the personal-computer magazine industry but for his idealistic and deeply humanistic vision. (Perhaps this just means that he's not quite as greedy as his counterparts in the computer revolution.) He devotes his considerable energies and resources to this end. One of his favorite projects is Computers and You, a program he founded at San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church to give hundreds of underprivileged kids and homeless adults computer training every day.

After a detour into biotechnology, David came back just in time for the Internet. He is now publisher and editor of Upside Magazine.

— JB

DAVID BUNNELL is the founder of several major media properties including PC Magazine, PC World, Macworld, Macworld Expo, New Media and BioWorld.

David Bunnell's Edge Bio Page


Edge Editor


Prospect Magazine has published its annual world thinkers poll. "World Thinkers 2013" is based on more than 10,000 votes from over 100 countries, "Online polls often throw up curious results," the editors write, "but this top 10 offers a snapshot of the intellectual trends that dominate our age."  In it's coverage of the event, the Guardian noted:

When Prospect magazine listed Britain's leading public intellectuals in 2004 and invited readers' votes, it was Richard Dawkins who emerged as No 1. Nine years on, the biologist, author and campaigner has bettered that by topping its "world thinkers" rankings, beating four Nobel prize winners (and another contender regarded as certain to receive one soon) in a poll based on 65 names chosen by a largely US- and UK-based expert panel.

Joining him in the top 10 are the psychologists Steven Pinker (3) and Daniel Kahneman (10), the economists Paul Krugman (5) and Amartya Sen (7) and the philosopher Slavoj Žižek (6), who all, like him, figured in the magazine's first list of world-class thinkers in 2005.

A late run by the octogenarian British physicist Peter Higgs (8) secured him a place in an elite squad containing three other scientists, while the remaining slots are taken by academics turned politicians from the Middle East: Afghanistan's Ashraf Ghani (2), an economist who served as finance minister after the US-led invasion; Iraq's Ali Allawi (4), another ex-minister and author of The Occupation of Iraq and The Crisis of Islamic Civilization; and Egypt's Mohamed ElBaradei (9), prominent in the Arab Spring and now in opposition to Mohamed Morsi.

To qualify for this year's world thinkers rankings, it was not enough to have written a seminal book, inspired an intellectual movement or won a Nobel prize several years ago (hence the absence from the 65-strong long list of ageing titans such as Noam Chomsky or Edward O Wilson); the selectors' remit ruthlessly insisted on "influence over the past 12 months" and "significance to the year's biggest questions". ... ("Richard Dawkins named world's top thinker in poll",  by John Dugdale, April 25th)

Among the leading 65 public intellectuals on Prospect's long-list are a number of Edgies. Indeed, four out of the top twelve — Richard DawkinsSteven PinkerDaniel KahnemanJared Diamond — are among the long-time core contributors who have helped establish Edge, in the words of the Guardian, as "the world's smartest website".



John Brockman

Jerry Coyne, Leonard Susskind, Daniel C. Dennett, Nicholas Humphrey, Tim D. White, Neil H. Shubin, Richard Dawkins, Frank Sulloway, Scott Atran, Steven Pinker, Lee Smolin, Stuart A. Kauffman, Seth Lloyd, Lisa Randall, Marc D. Hauser, Scott Sampson


Just as I was about to send out this edition of Edge announcing the publication of Intelligent Thought: Science Versus The Intelligent Design Movement, I received the email below which it a stark reminder of why this book is necessary, why it belongs on your bookshelf, and why sixteen of the world's leading scientists (and Edge contributors) dropped everything to write essays on a crash schedule so the book would be published before the end of the school year.

Also, below, please find the (a) the chapter by Neil Shubin ("The 'Great' Transition"), evolutionary biologist at University of Chicago who was responsible for the discovery of "Tiktalik", the 3.5 million year-old fossil that gives evidence for the water-to-land transition, and (b) the letter signed by all the contributors sent with the book to every member of Congress.

Maulik Parikh is a post-doc in the Physics Department of Columbia University. He is leaving the U.S. to teach physics at a university in India.


Date: Mon, 8 May 2006
From: Maulik Parikh
To: John Brockman
Subject: Intelligent Design


I have been teaching a new course on the frontiers of science, required for all freshmen at Columbia. These students are mostly sharp, capable, and open-minded. Still, many of them think that intelligent design should be studied in the interest of being fair and balanced. What's troubling is that even those who accept evolution often treat it as a matter of belief, of political persuasion, as if it were akin to being for or against free trade. And if they reject intelligence design it's often not because they can see its vacuousness as a scientific theory, but merely because the religious and conservative stripes of ID can sometimes look a little uncool. As for science, reason, evidence -- what's that?





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We've shown that disfluency leads you to think more deeply, as I mentioned earlier, that it forms a cognitive roadblock, and then you think more deeply, and you work through the information more comprehensively. But the other thing it does is it allows you to depart more from reality, from the reality you're at now. ..


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