Freethought Radio, June 29, 2013

Guest: Daniel Dennett

[The audio of this show can be heard at: Freethought Radio Broadcast, June 29, 2013.]


This is Freethought Radio, I’m Dan Barker. This is the June 29, 2013 show. Freethought Radio originates from Madison, Wisconsin, on the Progressive Talk, The Mic 92.1. WSXM. We broadcast on Saturday mornings here in Madison.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is not here today. She was ready to get in the car and drive over to do the show—and we worked on the show together—but she said she just couldn’t. There are so many pressures, so many deadlines. She’s happy to do it all, but the ad rep from the Scientific American came in, we got the building expansion pressures going on right now, she’s doing a lot of media and planning a trip to Dublin. She says, “I can’t, I just can’t ,can you do it on your own?” So I’ll try to do half of a good show without her being here. She’ll be back next week. Next week we’ll be talking with Jerry Dewitt.

Today, June 29th, is the birthday of the songwriter Frank Loesser, a major songwriter. Frank Loesser was born in 1910. He wrote the musical Guys and Dolls, which includes the songs “Luck be a Lady,” and “If I Were a Bell.” He wrote the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which has “The Brotherhood of Man” and the song, “I Believe in You.”

Frank Loesser was not a believer. We talked with his daughter Susan last year on this show. She told us that her dad’s family was Jewish by blood only, but not by thought or deed. No religion was practiced at home.

Frank Loesser wrote the lyrics to the song “Heart and Soul.” He wrote the music to many other songs including, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You Baby,” which Irving Berlin said was the best song that he had ever heard. That’s quite a compliment coming from Irving Berlin! Loesser wrote, “Slow Boat to China,” “Standing on the Corner,” “Two Sleepy People,” “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” and the music for the movie “Hans Christian Anderson.”

During the second half of today’s show we’re going to talk with Daniel Dennett, our favorite philosopher. Daniel Dennett has a new book out. It’s called “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.” It’s a book about how to think about thinking. It’s one of the most enjoyable philosophy books I have ever read. I’m almost half way through it, so there is more enjoyment to come.

In the news, we have some victories to report. Well, I guess I should say, I have, because Annie Laurie sent me here on my own. I have some victories to report, and a loss to report. First, we’re making some headway in our complaints; our interns and attorneys are working real hard.

There was a top of the fold story out of Tucson, just this week, about one of our complaints. The story says:

“Not on public property. That’s the demand an out-of-state group is making over something on Tucson’s west side. The organization is arguing that a group of mountainside shrines needs to go. But the city doesn’t plan to lift a finger. The shrines are of Our Lady of Guadalupe. They are around the southeast base of A Mountain, where Mission Road meets Star Pass. They include two hidden grottos as well as a manmade shell covering a statue of Mary.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the city of Tucson stating that those shrines need to be removed because right now they are on public property. A local member of our group first brought the concern to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Annie Laurie says it’s always a big deal when the First Amendment is violated. If we want to honor the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, we have to uphold it.

The letter we sent argued that the mountain display confers government endorsement of Christianity in an extremely public way. But, some other Tucsonians disagree. “This mountain, as very many mountains are, is very sacred,” said Cardenas, a native Tucsonian. “There’s earthquakes, there’s crime, there’s murder, if you want to be focused on something that saves our soul, why take that away from us?” She said the shrines are a reminder of local culture, history and faith. “It signifies who we are,” she said.

But Annie Laurie said, and she’s quoted in the paper saying, “There’s always a quote-unquote ‘good reason’ to make an exception and violate the provision of the separation of church and state. I don’t actually see any good reason here. I mean, it’s just litter. It belongs on private property.”

Our letter suggested: don’t tear it down, but just move it down to ample private and church grounds. The city said: “We’ve looked at the shrine and determined it does not pose any public safety or health issue and there is no plans to move it.” Of course, that misses the point. We’re not complaining about public safety or health. It’s about its constitutionality.

You know, it’s too early to talk about a lawsuit on something like this. We get thousands of complaints like this from around the country. We would hope that with some more legal pressure the city would see that it would make more sense to move those shrines to a more appropriate location like a church or private property where those people can advertise their views.

I have a victory out of the Freedom From Religion Foundation about immigration. Here’s from our press release at

“FFRF has successfully stood up for equal rights of the nonreligious by forcing the U.S. Office of Customs and Immigration Services to strike down an unconstitutional requirement for religious documentation that would have barred an atheist from becoming a citizen.”

A woman named Margaret Doughty—she’s a 30 year resident of the U.S., and she’s also an atheist—she applied to the Houston office of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services to become a citizen.

Doughty is 64 years old and she has lived in the United States for more than 30 years as a permanent resident running a non-profit, an adult literacy organization. She has been honored by Queen Elizabeth II for her service to education. All applicants must take an oath if they want to become a citizen to bear arms for the United States before full citizenship is granted. Exceptions to this oath are permitted to those who object to war based on “religious training and belief.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter on June the fourteenth noting that U.S. Supreme Court precedent does not require any religious test to receive an exemption to bear arms. It only requires a deeply held belief.

Ms. Doughty asked for that exemption based on her deeply held non-religious belief. She said “I’m sure the law would never require a 64 year-old woman to bear arms, but if I am required to answer this question I cannot lie. I must be honest. I would not be willing to bear arms. Since my youth I have had a firm, fixed and sincere objection to participation in war or bearing arms in any form. I sincerely believe it is not moral or ethical to take another person’s life.”

At first the Houston office admitted the sincerity of her believes, but in violation of the precedents cited by Seidel, still required her to submit religious documentation. It had to be like a letter from your religious congregation.

Well, failure to submit the document could have resulted in a denial of her application. But, she did get in touch with FFRF. We protested this illegal burden in strong language. “It is shocking that the U.S.C.I.S. would not be aware that a nonreligious, yet deeply held belief would be enough to obtain this exemption. Either the officers in Houston are inept or they are discriminating.”

On June 20, Doughty was informed that her case was escalated to the highest level and the request for evidence was withdrawn.

This was a victory! In a phone conversation with Seidel she expressed her gratitude for our prompt action in defense of atheists.

You can become a U.S. citizen without believing in god.

We have some more news to talk about: the Boy Scouts ad, and we’re going to talk about the Big Mountain Jesus decision out of Montana. In the second half of our show today we’re going to be talking to the philosopher Daniel Dennett. So stay tuned for more Freethought Radio. I’m Dan Barker, and Annie Laurie Gaylor is unable to be with me today. She can talk twice as much next week.

MUSIC OUT: OUTRO "Baby, It's Cold Outside" Loesser    1:00



We told you last week about the Boy Scout ads that we have been running. There was last Sunday in the New York Times an ad about the Boy Scouts of America that the Freedom From Religion Foundation ran, a quarter page ad. It has a picture of a Boy Scout pointing to all these merit badges saying, “This one’s for swimming, this one’s for woodcraft, this one’s for religious bigotry.”

We told you last week how we congratulated the Boy Scouts for lifting their ban on homosexual young people, although not leaders, and yet we point out:

“Why are you still discriminating? You’re going so far to lift the ban on gay members, what about the atheists? Every Boy Scout has to swear an oath to duty, to god, and that is unfair to the students and to the families that are good people and want to join.”

I might want to join and a Boy Scout leader told me, “No, you’re not good enough.” Nor is my grandson good enough to join the Boy Scouts of America.”

This ad itself has run in other papers and it has generated some news and commentary around the country, including in Houston and then on the Christian Post, which is a religious webpage. They reported on our ad. They quoted a man named Rob Schwarzwalder of the Family Research Council. The Family Research Council is a rightwing Christian organization that is anti-gay rights. They want, essentially, a Christian nation to go back to what they think was the Christian founding of our country. But ironically this Rob Schwarzwalder of the Family Research Council agreed with us, because he’s angry at the Boy Scouts of America for bending their rules.

The Christian Post quoted him saying, “The bottom line is scouting has now removed any logical or legal basis for protecting against the inclusion of openly gay scout masters, so in a sense, this group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is perfectly correct.”

The religious right is chastising the Boy Scouts saying, “You’ve opened the floodgates! Look, if you’re going to allow gays in, guess what’s next? It’s a slippery slope. You’re going to have to allow (gasp!) atheists and agnostics students to join the Boy Scouts.

Well “here, here,” as Annie Laurie would say. We have also talked about a federal lawsuit of ours about the Jesus statue on public property, federal property on a ski slope called Big Mountain. We lost that case this week, but we’re going to appeal that case. The judge issued a very bad decision.

Annie Laurie and I were working late the other night. A phone call came into the office from a man in Montana. We didn’t know the decision had come in. We get a lot of crank calls, a lot of crank mail. By the way if you do call us and want to harass us, we’ll listen once. We’ll listen to what you say once, but if you keep calling back we’ll very politely put you on hold and you can listen to our freethought music on hold as you rant and rave.

Anyway, Annie Laurie was bracing herself for another crank call, but this guy surprised her by saying he just heard the news that FFRF just lost the case. He said it’s incredible to him that the facts were so clear that the Jesus statue did not belong on public land, and then he wanted to join the Freedom From Religion Foundation. So other people have shared our dismay and our shock that we lost this time, not on standing, the judge actually upheld our standing. We lost on merits with an Obama appointee.

Briefly—and you can read more about this on our website at—briefly, the judge said that a shrine to Jesus has a secular purpose. A ski slope on federal property is like a museum. We talked about the Lemon Test after the recent death of Alton Lemon. The Lemon Test requires a government action to have a secular purpose. Yet, although the application for the Knights of Columbus says in writing that the purpose was to erect a shrine to Jesus, the judge says the secular purpose was simply to lease federal land. The judge said that if the government’s actions are motivated in part by secular purpose, well then, it’s ok. The judge went on to say some people are upset, it’s a religious shrine, but some people want to worship. Most people are not upset, so he let it stay.

We will appeal this bad decision because the judge was off the point. The federal government is endorsing religion by putting that religiously purposed item on public property. We would complain even if it was Buddhism, or if it was Islam, or if it was Hinduism, or whatever the religion was.

MUSIC OUT: OUTRO "Standing On The Corner" Loesser    1:00



Daniel Dennett. We’ve talked with Daniel Dennett on this show before. He’s spoken at the Freedom From Religion Foundation convention before and he’s received an award from us. Daniel Dennett, the philosopher and author, is one of those really rare people. Not only has he written a lot of books that widely read and influential. He is one of those people about whom books are written. That’s a totally different level. You can go into the store and find books not just by Daniel Dennett, but about Daniel Dennett.

He’s the author of the book “Breaking the Spell” — which we talked about a couple of years ago on this show — the book “Freedom Evolves,” and the powerful book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” Dan Dennett is university professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. Other books include “Content and Consciousness,” “Brainstorms,” “Elbow Room,” “The Intentional Stance,” “Consciousness Explained” another of my favorites, “Kinds of Minds,” and “Brain Children.” He also co-edited the book, which I also read, called “The Mind’s I” with Douglas Hofstadter back in the 80’s.

He’s written over 300 scholarly articles on various aspects of the mind in such journals as “Artificial Intelligence,” “Behavioral Brain Science,” “Poetics Today” and “The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.”

His most recent book, which I am reading now, is “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking,” an intriguing title. It’s by Norton in the U.S. and by Penguin in the U.K. Dan Dennett, his bio says, spends most of his summers on his farm in Maine, where he harvests blueberries, hay and timber, and makes Normandy cider when he’s not sailing. What a versatile person.

Welcome back to Freethought Radio, Dan.

DENNETT: It’s great to be back, Dan. You’ve spent so much time listing my books we won’t have time to talk.

BARKER: That’s right. Now we’ll end the show and you’ll all have to go out and read Dan’s books. I’m really impressed by his new book I have to say, because of how accessible it is.

DENNETT: That was the point.

BARKER: Yeah, and I love your other writings as well, but tell us about the freshmen students and the whole idea behind this book.

DENNETT: Well, for some time I’ve been thinking that what makes us smart is actually the tools that other people, mainly, have invented that we use, thinking tools. I’ve invented a few of my own, some of them quite elaborate thought experiments and some of them very simple. I’ve began thinking about how many of those I have to tell people about and I wanted to sort of demystify the whole business of doing philosophy and say, “Hey look, you can do it to if you equip yourself with the right tools.” So this is my “Uncle Dan’s collection of thinking tools for the would-be philosopher,” and some of them are very simple. They are just very simple tools; one of my favorites is the “surely” alarm. I tell my students, “Anytime you see the word ‘surely’ a little bell should ring—‘ding’—alerting you to the fact that this is probably the weakest point in the author’s argument. It’s not quite so obvious that it goes without saying and the author doesn’t want to argue for it, so maybe that’s where the wool is being pulled over your eyes.

BARKER: It’s like a hand waving, quickly saying “surely we all know this.”

DENNETT: “Nudge, nudge. Surely.”

One of the funny things is that since the book has come out I give talks where I encourage people to send me examples of their surely alarm going off and being a case where in fact that was the weak point. I’ve got a few now. It does work. That’s a very simple one. Other ones are quite elaborate thought experiments. It takes more time to present them than we have time for here.

BARKER: You explained in your book that the book was vetted not by grad students or other philosophers but by first-year Tufts students, and surely they’re not going to understand this, are they?


DENNETT: ‘Ding!’ Well, that was the challenge. I thought, “I want this book to be super accessible.” I don’t want graduate students or undergraduate majors being my target audience for the read-through. This was something I’ve done with all my recent books is to do a sonar on the book and have my students hold my feet to the fire and object, because, you know, graduate students want to impress you and undergraduate majors are eager to not reveal that they don’t understand something. But you get a lot of freshmen, and they’ll ask the tough, embarrassing questions because they don’t know any better yet. It really makes an ideal test bed for a book like this. So, I simply took the first dozen that signed up and they had at it. I was actually amazed at how often they showed me, “This is clear Professor Dennett, but it could be clearer.” It created misunderstandings on their part, which instead of making me angry, I thought, “Oh great, I never thought anybody could misunderstand it that way. Let me rewrite it.”

BARKER: So it was Daniel and the twelve disciples, something like that?

DENNETT: Actually, 13 because of a clerical confusion.

BARKER: I think that’s a great tactic because you’re writing a book for a popular audience, for someone like me. I’m not a trained philosopher. I think I’m conversant, but nothing like you. I can pick this book up, and probably that freshmen class represents sort of a median of the general popular readership. People who are smart, who care, who are plugged in but want to learn more.

DENNETT: In fact, I think it is better than that, I think the only people that don’t benefit from this are fellow paid professional philosophers and that’s a very small and arcane group and they can read it for pleasure and insight too, but so many of my colleagues write books only for their colleagues and I think that explains largely why so little philosophy that is written these days is read by anybody else.

BARKER: I went out on the hammock to start reading this book and I have to say I was chuckling, I was laughing, I was smiling: This is fun! When was the last time it was fun to read a philosophy book? So thanks for doing it.

DENNETT: Well you’re welcome, thank you for saying it.

BARKER: How many tools are there? It looks to me in the Contents that there are seventy.

DENNETT: There are over seventy tools, but how do you count, some of those little chapters have more than one tool in them. There are somewhere between seventy and eighty, I guess.

BARKER: What is “jootsing”?

DENNETT: That’s a term that I got from Doug Hofstadter. It’s an acronym that stands for Jumping Out Of The System. It is something we would all like to do because some of the great creative moods are when you manage to jump out of the system. You can’t teach anybody how to do it, but you can alert them to the fact that this is a great thing to do if you are lucky enough to be able to, and at least if you know about it, if you ever do jump outside the system, you may be able to discover or recognize that this is something to treasure. You’ve managed to find a new perspective. I don’t recommend you siting around thinking, “Well now let’s see, how do I jump out of the system?” That won’t work. That’s like the advice buy low and sell high. It’s good advice, but it’s hard to follow.

DENNETT: I remember when I was a preacher, an ordained minister, re-evaluating my faith, not imagining I was going to end up an atheist at the time, but just going through it. Part of that—I guess I could use the word JOOTSing—part of that was kind of getting outside of my system and myself and, you know, how would I feel if a Muslim in Baghdad were to rise above the culture and think for himself or herself, and say, “Wait a minute, I’m rejecting…”? I would have applauded that. I remember thinking, well why should we not equally applaud Christians in the United States who do the same thing. I remember kind of that feeling of getting outside, like John Loftus writes abut in “The Outsider Test.”

DENNETT: I think that’s right, and when you jump outside of the system what you’re doing is simply questioning which you never thought to question before that you think well nobody would question that would they. Give it a try, give it a try.

BARKER: And why not question?

DENNETT: Yeah. The worst that could happen is that you reestablish your confidence in something that everybody else believes anyway.

BARKER: Your book breaks into, looks to me like four general groups: tools for thinking about meaning and content, and then for thinking about evolution, and then for thinking about consciousness (my favorite), and then for talking about free will. Let’s continue talking about consciousness a bit.

MUSIC OUT: OUTRO "If I Were a Bell" Loesser    1:00



BARKER:  I wanted to remind you Dan, I think I sent you an email about this, but there was a movie out this year, with Tina Fey called “Admission.”

DENNETT: I haven’t seen it.

BARKER: In one of the scenes a student is interviewing to get into Princeton. During the interview they tell this kid, “Tell me about yourself.” The student says, “What do you mean by ‘self?’ Do you mean self as in the center of narrative gravity?”

DENNETT: Laughs. Wonderful!

BARKER: So you’re in the movies!

DENNETT: Woo, that’s great.

BARKER: So, what is that? Is that a meme?

DENNETT: It’s a meme, yeah.

BARKER: It has become a part of culture, and now you’re in popular culture. Tell us a little bit about consciousness and what are some of the tools for thinking about consciousness?

DENNETT: Well, consciousness is everybody’s favorite mystery now that we’ve pretty well cleared up scientifically all of the other great mysteries. We understand how procreation happens, how reproduction happens. We have a pretty good handle on how life got started and how gravity works and all the rest of this--how light works. Consciousness is the last great puzzler, the stumper. For that very reason a lot of people inflate it, they really don’t want consciousness explained. They want to make sure that the phenomenon is, to use the technical term, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Well, consciousness might instead be a bag of tricks, like just about everything else in nature. It’s very hard for people to see that. One of things that my tools are designed to show is how we might take consciousness and divide and conquer. Break it up into its parts and show that it’s wonderful, it’s flippin’ wonderful, but it isn’t that wonderful. It is not so wonderful that it can’t be explain with neurosciences and evolution. Evolution plays a big role because going back a million years there wasn’t any consciousness, and now there is. So how did it arise, and why? Those are the good questions.

BARKER: One of the tools in your books, I think it’s one of the tools in your book, because it stuck with me, you know I think we pretty much agree is that the homunculus has been debunked, there is no little person in the brain. Otherwise, what’s in its brain, and what’s in its brain? But you suggest an alternative hypothesis what you call “a sorta homunculus.” Did I get that right?

DENNETT: Yeah and a cascade of homunculi. Let me expand on that. Everybody knows that, oh, you got a homunculus in your theory. They think that this is a clearly bankrupt theory, because you just got a little man in there and what’s going on in the little man’s brain? Does he have a little man in his brain? And so forth. Well that would certainly be bad. That would be a postponement of theory, not any kind of theory.

But what about if you took a whole human being, a whole homo sapien, and divvied up that homo sapien’s brain into a bunch of lesser entities, proper parts that were specialists. No one of them knows everything or is in charge of everything, or perceives everything, but they specialize in calculating different parts of the perceptual scenes and keeping track of certain sorts of memory jobs and so forth. And then what about, what’s inside their brains? More homunculi, but with even simpler jobs so that you don’t get an infinite regress of homunculi, you get a finite regress of homunculi, eventually you bottom out with homunculi that are so simple they can be replaced by a machine.

BARKER: Like a cell.

DENNETT: Yeah, like a cell. Look at individual neurons, they’re really quite enterprising little cells, so they’re not, to replace one of them with a machine is way beyond the capacity of engineers now, but their parts could be mechanical.

BARKER: So you call each one of those a “sorta homunculus” but to a lesser degree, the lower you go.

DENNETT: Each of those several hundred billion neurons is a “sorta homunculus.” When you get proper parts that have some serious competence, they can do some interesting cognitive work when you put them all together you can get teams and armies that are capable of breaking that mystery of consciousness down into manageable hunks.

BARKER: So where does the soul go?

DENNETT: The soul remains as an organization. I was once interviewed by a wonderful Italian journalist, Giulio Giorello, and the next day the paper’s headline was, Sì, abbiamo un anima. Ma è fatta di tanti piccoli robot. (“Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots.”)

BARKER: Laughs

DENNETT: Yes! Bingo! That’s it. that’s my view. We have a soul in this sense, the organization of those tiny robots, is such that it is capable of making responsible, morally responsible decisions, of remembering, of loving, of honoring the law of being a lovable human being. All the roles that the soul in tradition play are played by this organization of homunculi, this team of little robots. It differs, the soul of a human being is something—that’s an organization that no bear or monkey or whale has.

BARKER: It’s not a thing at all.

DENNETT: It’s an organization.

BARKER: So, like, if a corporation can be a person, then consciousness can be a committee, let’s say.

DENNETT: Actually, that’s not such a wild parallel. Consciousness—we can even imagine cases where we took great, large teams of people and put them together into an organization—it has to be the right organization—then there would be a consciousness, which was its consciousness, not just the individual consciousness’s of all the people.

BARKER: You also talk about freewill, I haven’t gotten to that section yet, but you have some tools for thinking about freewill. What about freewill?

DENNETT: Well, let’s see, what can I do really quickly. How about two lotteries? Here’s two lotteries. One, the tickets are sold, the winning stub is randomly drawn from a big batch of stubs after the tickets are sold. That’s lottery A. That’s after.

In lottery B, the winning stub is chosen and put in a safe before the tickets are sold. Now the question is, are both lotteries fair? And I think mot people agree, yeah, both lotteries are fair. You have as good of a chance in one as in the other. Well, if that is true then the winning ticket was already determined before you even bought your tickets. How can that be fair? Well, if you think about it, you realize this can be fair. If determinism is true then basically all of your lottery tickets were chosen before you were even born. But that’s all right because everybody’s got roughly an equal number of lottery tickets and you win some and you lose some. But it’s all perfectly fair. Determinism isn’t so horrible after all. There’s no reason to hope that at the moment you decide something your choice is undetermined.

BARKER: Well, I have no choice, Daniel! We’re out of time. Thank you! If you want to know more about all of these topics, Daniel C. Dennett’s new book is called “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.” Thank you Dan for a great interview today.

Tune in next week for more rational radio and blasphemous broadcasting.

MUSIC OUT: OUTRO "If I Were a Bell" Loesser    1:00

[Thanks to Sarah Eucalano for transcribing the show.]

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