Daniel C. Dennett

"There are going to be things that meet those conditions that are not interestingly computational by anybody's standards, and there are things that are going to fail to meet the standards, which nevertheless you see are significantly like the things that you want to consider computational. So how do you deal with that? By ignoring it, by ignoring the issue of definition, that's my suggestion. Same as with life! You don't want to argue about whether viruses are alive or not; in some ways they're alive, in some ways they're not. Some processes are obviously computational. Others are obviously not computational. Where does the computational perspective illuminate? Well, that depends on who's looking at the illumination."


A philosopher by training, Daniel C. Dennett is known as the leading proponent of the computational model of the mind. He has made significant contributions in fields as diverse as evolutionary theory, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, animal studies, computer science among others. Never one to avoid a good fight, he has clashed with such noted thinkers as John Searle, Roger Penrose, and Stephen Jay Gould. In this regard, Dennett is emblematic of the third culture intellectual.The strength of the third culture is precisely that it can tolerate disagreements about which ideas are to be taken seriously. There is no canon or accredited list of acceptable ideas. Unlike previous intellectual pursuits, the achievements of the third culture are not the marginal disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class: they affect the lives of everybody on the planet.

"Dan Dennett is living proof that philosophy is not, as many think, airy speculation and effete musing.," notes Steven Pinker. "Time and again Dan has worked as a razor-sharp cognitive scientist, analyzing the implications of research more thoroughly than the researchers did themselves. His elucidation of different explanatory "stances" (physical, intentional, design) provided the key ideas behind mental modules (or multiple intelligences) for different domains of knowledge. His analyses of behaviorism, artificial intelligence, imagery, consciousness, free will, and evolutionary psychology just brim with insight and original ideas. And it doesn't seem fair that someone with such serious and important ideas should be so much fun to read!"

Marc D. Hauser credits Dennett (along with Jerry Fodor) as one of the two empirical philosophers — those who use data to drive philosophical discussion — that has hs had an extraordinary impact on evolutionary studies of the mind. Although these two often hold quite radically different positions, they have each contributed in important ways to our understanding of the mind, and how psychological findings bear on profound philosophical distinctions.

According to Hauser, "Dennett has had a significant impact on studies of animal cognition due in part to his work on the intentional stance and his intuitions about the kinds of inferences that humans and nonhuman animals might make with respect to other minds. When Dan laid out, in his typically lucid and playful fashion, how ethologists might go about studying intentionality from a Gricean perspective (I know that you know that I want that banana hidden from view from our fearless leader), this opened the door to a series of studies and analyses of animal behavior.

"Most crucially, Dan's insight into the problem of other minds, and of using studies of false belief to test for such mental states, set forth a cottage industry of research in animals and human infants. It is the combination of Dan's playfulness and creativity that makes him an asset to those of us working on animal cognition. One is almost tempted to say that in the same way that imaging provides a tool for understanding the neurobiological and functional architecture of the human mind, Dennett represents a tool for those of us studying animal minds."


DANIEL C. DENNETT is Distinguished Arts and Sciences Professor, Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. His first book, He is the author of Content and Consciousness; Brainstorms; Elbow Room;The Intentional Stance; Consciousness Explained; Darwin's Dangerous Idea; Kinds of Minds; and Brainchildren: A Collection of Essays. He co-edited The Mind's I with Douglas Hofstadter and he is the author of over a hundred scholarly articles on various aspects on the mind, published in journals ranging from Artificial Intelligence and Behavioral and Brain Sciences to Poetics Today and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.

Daniel C. Dennett's Edge Bio Page

THE REALITY CLUB: Jaron Lanier responds to Dan Dannett



  • MIND

"There are going to be things that meet those conditions that are not interestingly computational by anybody's standards, and there are things that are going to fail to meet the standards, which nevertheless you see are significantly like the things that you want to consider computational. So how do you deal with that? By ignoring it, by ignoring the issue of definition, that's my suggestion. Same as with life! You don't want to argue about whether viruses are alive or not; in some ways they're alive, in some ways they're not. Some processes are obviously computational.


Michael Shermer

The one thing we've arned from the last three decades of research is that science is socially and culturally embedded and thus biased. Still, it's the best system we have for understanding causality in all realms, in all fields. So despite the fact that it's loaded with biases, there is a real world out there that we can know and the best way to know it is through science. The reason for that is because there's at least a method, an attempt to corroborate one's own subjective perceptions. There's a way to find out if you and I are seeing the same colors when we see red. There's actually a way to test these things, or at least try to get at them. That's what separates science from everything else.



Michael Shermer is mainly interested in understanding how science works as a system of thought, as a social system and as a psychology of beliefs. His general field of study is in the social sciences, and particularly how belief systems work. As the man behind SKEPTIC Magazine, and Director of the Skeptics Society, he notes that his "engagement with the paranormal, pseudoscience, fringe groups, cults and all sorts of wacky, X-files stuff is not just to debunk, but to understand belief systems on the fringes work, in order to understand how science works, and how mainstream beliefs work. Shermer works the edges, the fringes, what he calls " the borderlands and the nonsense stuff."

In 1992 he founded Skeptic Magazine with a circulation 1,000, and now it's up to about 40,000. Ultimately Shermer wants to reach half a million readers, like Scientific American, but, he notes, "that's a bit of a reach because selling ideas is much harder than selling personalities and celebrities".

— JB

MICHAEL SHERMER is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the Director of the Skeptics Society, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, the host of the Skeptics Lecture Series at Caltech, and the co host and producer of the 13-hour Fox Family television series, Exploring the Unknown.

Shermer is the author of How We Believe: The Search For God In An Age Of Science; Why People Believe Weird Things; and Teach Your Child Science. He is the coauthor of Denying History: Who Says The Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? and Teach Your Child Math And Mathemagics.

He has appeared on such shows as 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, Tom Snyder, Donahue, Oprah, Sally, Lezza, Unsolved Mysteries, and other shows, as well as on documentaries aired on A & E, Discovery, and The Learning Channel.

Click Here for Michael Shermer's Bio Page

THE REALITY CLUB: Helena Cronin, Piet Hut respond to Michael Shermer 

The Emergent Self

Francisco Varela

"Why do emergent selves, virtual identities, pop up all over the place, creating worlds, whether at the mind/body level, the cellular level, or the transorganism level? This phenomenon is something so productive that it doesn't cease creating entirely new realms: life, mind, and societies. Yet these emergent selves are based on processes so shifty, so ungrounded, that we have an apparent paradox between the solidity of what appears to show up and its groundlessness. That, to me, is the key and eternal question."

FRANCISCO VARELA (1946 - 2001)

Francisco Varela died on May 28 at his home in Paris. According to his friend and collaborator Evan Thompson "I am told he died completely calm and at peace. I spent several days last week with him and his family. I will always cherish the strength of spirit, intelligence, and kindness he continued to manifest in his last days, despite his illness. He will be deeply missed."

Francisco, an experimental and theoretical biologist, studied what he termed "emergent selves" or "virtual identities." His was an immanent view of reality, based on metaphors derived from self-organization and Buddhist-inspired epistemology rather than on those derived from engineering and information science. He presented a challenge to the traditional AI view that the world exists independently of the organism, whose task is to make an accurate model of that world — to "consult" before acting. His nonrepresentationalist world — or perhaps "world-as-experienced" — has no independent existence but is itself a product of interactions between organisms and environment. He first became known for his theory of autopoiesis ("self production"), which is concerned with the active self-maintenance of living systems whose identities remain constant while their components continually change. Varela is tough to categorize. He was a neuroscientist who became an immunologist. He was well informed about cognitive science and was a radical critic of it, because he was a believer in "emergence" — not the vitalist idea promulgated in the 1920s (that of a magical property that emerges inexplicably from lower mechanical operations) but the idea that the whole appears as a result of the dynamics of its component parts. He thought that classic computationalist cognitive science is too simplemindedly mechanistic. He was knowledgeable and romantic at the same time.

In 1995 I talked to Francisco for my book The Third Culture (Simon & Schuster, 1995. Speaking about Varela in the book, theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman noted that "Francisco Varela is amazingly inventive, freewheeling, and creative. There's a lot of depth in what he and Humberto Maturana have said. Conversely, from the point of view of a tied-down molecular biologist, this is all airy-fairy, flaky stuff. Thus there's the mixed response. That part of me that's tough-minded and critical is questioning, but the other part of me has cottoned on to the recent stuff he's doing on self- representation in immune networks. I love it."

To remember and honor Francisco, to think about his ideas, I present "The Emergent Self", Chapter 12 in The Third Culture. Included in the chapter are commentaries on Francisco and his work by Stuart Kauffman, W. Daniel Hillis, Christopher G, Langton, Daniel C.Dennett, Niles Eldredge, Brian Goodwin, and Lynn Margulis.

— JB

FRANCISCO VARELA was a biologist; director of research at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, and professor of cognitive science and epistemology at the École Polytechnique, in Paris; author of Principles of Biological Autonomy; coauthor with Humberto D. Maturana of Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living and The Tree of Knowledge, and with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch of The Embodied Mind .

Francisco Varela's Edge bio page


How Our Artifacts Will Be Able To Interact With Our Biological Forms
Jordan Pollack

"I work on developing an understanding of biological complexity and how we can create it, because the limits of software engineering have been clear now for two decades. The biggest programs anyone can build are about ten million lines of code. A real biological object — a creature, an ecosystem, a brain — is something with the same complexity as ten billion lines of code. And how do we get there?"

The New York Times, in a front page article on August 31st ("Scientists Report They Have Made Robot That Makes Its Own Robots" By Kenneth Chang) reported on the work of Jordan Pollack and his Brandeis University colleague Hod Lipson: "For the first time", The Times reported, "computer scientists have created a robot that designs and builds other robots, almost entirely without human help."

"I work on this question of self-organization, using evolution, neural networks, games, problem solving, and robotics," says Pollack. "And the way that we work on it is by trying to set up non-equilibrium chemical reactions in software which dissipate computer time ­ a form of energy — and create structure. Some of that structure we can actually make real in the form of robots, and although robots are much more exciting to cameras and the media than problem-solvers, games and language learning, our fundamental work is in trying to understand where complexity itself comes from, without a designer."

He sees "a merger of bio-informatics, biotechnology, and information processing. As we understand cellular processes, neural representations, and develop microelectronic and nanoscale technologies, our artifacts will be able to interact with our biological forms at a most fundamental level. Unfortunately, we really haven't fathomed the complexity of nature yet to know what to do with it."

— JB

JORDAN POLLACK, is a computer science and complex systems professor at Brandeis University. His laboratory's work on AI, Artificial Life, Neural Networks, Evolution, Dynamical Systems, Games, Robotics, Machine Learning, and Educational Technology has been reported on by the New York Times, Time, Science, NPR, Slashdot.org and many other media sources worldwide. Jordan is a prolific inventor, advises several startup companies and incubators, and in his spare time runs Thin Mail, an Internet based service designed to increase the usefulness of wireless email.

Click here for Jordan Pollack's Edge Bio Page



  • MIND

"I work on developing an understanding of biological complexity and how we can create it, because the limits of software engineering have been clear now for two decades. The biggest programs anyone can build are about ten million lines of code. A real biological object — a creature, an ecosystem, a brain — is something with the same complexity as ten billion lines of code. And how do we get there?"


Two Questions for the Edge Community
Joseph "Yossi" Vardi

I wanted to use the opportunity of my Digerati Dinner on February 22, 2001 to ask the guests, a group that included many of the movers and shakers of the digital revolution, to comment on the state of the Digital revolution. At every place setting as a brief questionnaire, leading off, in bold type, with the following:

"What's Next?"

As I should have suspected, people were too excited by being in each other's presence to respond. But just as I was about to give up hope, Israeii investor Joseph "Yossi" approached.

"Mr. Brockman," he said in a thick accent. "Being an Israeli, I must respond to your question not with an answer but with two more questions, which I would like to adress to your faithful readers. First: Where are we right now on the enclosed chart (see "The Economics of Dreams" below). Second: How long will it be until the stock market begins to go up?"

I had met Yossi during the "Cool People in the Hot Desert" trip sponsored by our mutual friend, the Bavarian media mogul Hubert Burda. At the time of my visit, a year had passed since he had sold the extremely popular Internet communication program ICQ to AOL for a reported $400 million. When the deal had been announced, the Israeli press and technology sector were incredulous that the 19-month old company run by Yossi with its founders, three college-aged men including his son, with a tiny revenue stream and no profits, could be worth $400 million. The news created a stampede, the result of which is that greater Tel Aviv now rivals Munich in technology startups after Silicon Valley and New York City. When I landed in Tel Aviv, a year had passed since the deal and the press perception was different: "What kind of schmuck sells out early for $400 million when the company could easily be sold today for $4 billion!!

Mirror Neurons and Imitation Learning as the Driving Force Behind the Great Leap Forward in Human Evolution

Vilayanur Ramachandran

In 1995, to an audience of 6,000 scientists, V.S. Ramachandran (known to friends and colleagues as "Rama") delivered the inaugural "Decade of the Brain" lecture at the Silver Jubilee meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, this country's leading organization for brain research. His talk, laced with wit and humor, received a standing ovation. Ramachandran also delivered the "Decade of the Brain" lecture to the Library of Congress and the NIH. He received invitations to give the Dorcus Cumming Plenary Lecture at Cold Spring Harbor and the Weissman Memorial Lecture at the Weissman Institute, Israel. He is in great demand as a speaker, both for scientific and lay audiences.

Rama is on the editorial boards of several international journals and has published over 110 scientific papers, including three invited review articles for Scientific American. He edited a four-volume Encyclopedia of Human Behavior that was cited by Library Journal as "the most outstanding reference for 1994 in the behavioral sciences." In 1995, he was elected a member of the Atheneum, the world's oldest scientific club, founded in London by Michael Faraday and Humphrey Davy. He has appeared on numerous television programs (PBS, BBC, German television), and his work has been featured in The New York Times, Discover, National Geographic, Time and Life.

Originally trained as a physician at Stanley Medical College, where he was awarded gold medals in pathology and clinical medicine, Ramachandran went on to earn a PhD in neurology from Trinity College at Cambridge University. Before moving to La Jolla, he held appointments at Oxford University and the California Institute of Technology. In 1998, he received a gold medal from the Australian national university, and in '99 the Ariens Kappers Medal by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences for landmark achievements in neurosciences. In the same year, he was elected a fellow of All Souls College Oxford. Newsweek named him a member of the "Century Club"—one of hundreds of people to watch as America enters the next century. Today he works exclusively with human neurological patients, and one of his main interests is in the neurological basis of art. He has been lecturing widely on this subject not only to scientists but also to art galleries and museums.


Patrick Bateson*

When he was about 14, Patrick Bateson went to a bird observatory where enthusiasts assembled to look at migrating birds. "I met a man who asked me what I was going to do at university. I said 'I'm going to be a biologist'. He then asked me what I was going to do after that. I wasn't quite sure and he asked me whether I had thought of doing a PhD. I didn't know what PhD meant. So he explained and it sounded like heaven. I could go on playing at things I loved doing after I got my first degree."

At Cambridge Bateson read Zoology and met Robert Hinde, who was a lecturer in the Zoology Department at that time. "I thought he was one of the cleverest men I had ever encountered and I wanted to do research under him", he says. In due course, he stayed on to work on behavioral imprinting in birds which then got him interested in the development of behavior. That was how he was drawn into lab-based work rather than the field ornithology which he had originally looked forward to doing.

After getting his PhD at Cambridge in 1963, he went to Stanford for a couple of years. "I went there to work with a fascinating man called Karl Pribram who had started out as a neuro-surgeon and then became one of the most imaginative neuro-psychologists of his time." When he returned to Cambridge, he was interested in tying together the ideas that he'd got from Pribram with his continuing interests in the development of behavior. By this time he was a research fellow of King's College. "At dinner one night in Kings, I happened to be sitting next to Gabriel Horn. He was a neuro-physiologist working on the neural mechanisms of attention and habituation. He was getting increasingly interested in more complicated learning processes. We discovered that we had similar interests, but approached the matter from very different angles. We liked the way each other thought and started experimental work together. The collaboration and friendship has continued to this day."

A couple of years later Bateson and Horn started to collaborate with Steven Rose, who was one of the first biochemists to become seriously interested in learning and memory. The three of them worked together until the mid-'70s, "but once again," Bateson notes, "the collaboration developed into life-long friendship."


Judith Rich Harris

Judith Rich Harris is frequently accused of being an extremist. Is she an extremist?

"Well, I'm prone to making statements like this one," she says. "How the parents rear the child has no long-term effects on the child's personality, intelligence, or mental health. I guess you could call that an extreme statement. But I prefer to think of myself as a defender of the null hypothesis.

"The null hypothesis is the hypothesis that a putative 'cause' has no effect, and it's supposed to be the starting point for scientific inquiry. For instance, when a new drug is being tested, the researchers are expected to start out with the hypothesis that the drug is no better than a placebo. If they find that the patients who received the drug are more likely to recover than the ones who got the placebo, then they can reject the null hypothesis at some level of confidence, some probability level.

"This comes as a surprise to most people, but psychologists have still not managed to collect evidence of a sort that would enable them to reject the null hypothesis of zero parental influence. In the absence of such evidence, the only scientifically sound position is the one I've taken."


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