Former Laureates

Daniel C. Dennett


Daniel Dennett (1942) is an American philosopher, author and cognitive scientist, whose research focuses on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of science and philosophy of biology. He is currently co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and University Professor at Tufts University, USA. Professor Dennett has addressed the most fundamental cultural questions of our time, such as: Where do we come from, and what is it that makes us human? He has worked on a philosophical theory that integrates biological and cultural phenomena under one overarching, unifying principle, taking Darwin’s theory of evolution as the basis for his worldview. A source of inspiration for colleague scientists and students, Daniel Dennett builds bridges between different disciplines, he stands firm for the importance of scientific research and shows how the natural sciences have a fundamental impact upon our lives. With books and articles on a wide range of topics (books such as Consciousness Explained; Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), he manages to reach a broad audience way beyond the confines of philosophy.


Article 2 of the Constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation reads as follows: Within the context of the cultural traditions of Europe in general and the ideas of Erasmus in particular, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, social sciences and the arts. The emphasis is on tolerance, cultural pluralism and non-dogmatic, critical thinking. The Foundation tries to achieve this aim through the award of prizes and by other means. A money prize is awarded under the name of Erasmus Prize.

In accordance with this article, the Board of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation has decided to award the Erasmus Prize for the year 2012 to professor Daniel Dennett.

The Prize is awarded to him on the following grounds:

  • With great audacity Daniel Dennett has addressed the most fundamental cultural questions of our time, such as: Where do we come from, and what is it that makes us human?
  • Over the years, Mr Dennett has worked on a philosophical theory that integrates biological and cultural phenomena under one overarching, unifying principle, taking Darwin's theory of evolution as the basis for his worldview.
  • In his work, Dennett builds bridges between different disciplines, he stands firm for the importance of scientific research and shows how the natural sciences have a fundamental impact upon our lives and our future.
  • He writes books and articles on a wide range of topics and manages to reach an audience way beyond the confines of philosophy. One of the great thinkers of our time, Daniel Dennett is a source of inspiration for colleague scientists, for students from different disciplines as well as for a broad general public.


Dr Dennett, ladies and gentlemen,

As the director stated in his citation, in the choice of Erasmus Prize winners, our Foundation is motivated by a number of values that we call Erasmian: tolerance and non-dogmatic critical thinking. Openness to other ideas and cultures. Independent research of original sources.

In an age of fierce religious controversies and wars, Erasmus showed moderation in his statements, as well as humanity and a firm belief in the power of good arguments, rather than violence and war.

One particularly momentous debate took place between Erasmus and Martin Luther. Erasmus agreed with Luther's criticism of clerical abuses, and also advocated church reform. But he disagreed with Luther on major points, such as his position on predestination and free will. According to Luther, man's actions were all predetermined, making free will essentially an illusion. To Erasmus – who held that free will did exist – this was a highly dangerous idea. He was anxious to rebut Luther's doctrine, fearing that it could have profound social consequences.

This debate between giants took place 500 years ago. But the issue of whether free will exists is still very much alive today. Only the nature of the debate has changed, with arguments often drawn from the world of science. Just imagine if Luther and Erasmus had known then about genes or DNA!

Our laureate today is a prominent participant in the current debate. So we are delighted that Dr Dennett has written a special essay for us on free will, building on the debate between Erasmus and Luther. He shares much of the former's line of thought, but approaches it from a fresh and fascinating new perspective. I will not disclose more of the argument here. You will receive the essay later today and can read it yourselves. Sometimes a spin-doctor is right!

Ladies and gentlemen,

The theme of this year's Prize was the cultural significance of the natural sciences.

Science and technology are products of human culture. And they profoundly influence our lives and our culture in turn. Insights derived from evolutionary biology determine our thinking about life and society. Social media are changing the way we communicate. Advances in medical research are prompting ethical and philosophical questions about consciousness and free will.

Science and technology shape our lives irreversibly. Our understanding of the world and ourselves is constantly challenged by scientific and technological advances. With this year's theme, our Foundation wishes to underscore the importance of science and technology for our lives, for our society, and for our future.

The board of our Foundation has decided to award the 2012 Erasmus Prize to the American philosopher Daniel Dennett. The author of such influential books as Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Dr Dennett has reached a huge audience that extends far beyond the confines of academia.

Broadly speaking, Daniel Dennett has grappled with two of the major cultural questions of our time. Questions that define our self-image. Where do we come from? And what makes us human?

Dennett chose the broadest and most fundamental questions he could imagine. He acquired the knowledge to write about these subjects with great authority. And, through powerful thinking and sheer hard work, he fed new insights into those fields of study that traditionally grapple with these questions. Biologists, neuroscientists and psychologists agree that his insights break new ground and challenge traditional assumptions. Original thinking and excellent writing have given his work mass appeal. His fearless approach to big issues has invigorated philosophy.
I remarked earlier that Erasmus and Luther did not yet know about genes. Neither did Darwin. Few scholars have endeavoured to reinvestigate Darwin's theory of evolution with the scientific knowledge of today. But this is exactly what Dennett did in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, describing it as a 'universal acid', eating through traditional beliefs and ways of looking at the world.

In his work Consciousness Explained, he investigated the nature and meaning of consciousness in the light of modern neuroscience. Although all thoughts are essentially chemical processes, we all know and feel that consciousness exists. But what is it and how does it work? This is where Dennett's intellectual adventure starts.
During his mission, he ventures in many directions. But whether writing about religion and Darwinism, about cognitive science, freedom or robotics, Dennett's work is linked by one overarching philosophical programme. A unifying vision of how humans and their lives can be integrated into the scientific world-view, without undermining their significance and value.

Dennett seeks to negotiate between the manifest world-view of our daily lives – of tangible things like tables and chairs, but also of intentions and longings – and the scientific world-view, made up of entities like neurons, quantum particles and black holes.

Human values should never be undermined in the name of science. But the reverse is just as true. The human and the scientific are not only compatible; they support each other. Dennett searches for a comprehensive world view that incorporates both the humanist tradition and advances in natural science. He wants it both ways, and it is this integrating vision that forms such an exciting aspect of his philosophy.

Dr Dennett,

It is not just your views on free will, which I mentioned earlier, that seem to indicate a certain like-mindedness between Erasmus and yourself. As an active participant in the world of learning, Erasmus was open to other ideas and used these in his work. Scientific research thrives on using different approaches, and on having an open and inquiring mind. This too is evident in your own work. Ideas matter. You are a passionate and inspiring promoter of the power of thinking. No wonder that your optimism holds a strong appeal for young people. But what your scholarship radiates above all is that a life of learning and thinking is more than just hard work. It is fun!
Dr Dennett, one of our daily newspapers features a well-known cartoon series about 'Dr Sigmund'. A psychiatrist who treats his patients with therapeutic interventions full of ironical wit. But his patients often outwit him. Let me give you an example:

In walks an old, bespectacled, bald-headed man with a Socrates-type beard. He starts off by lecturing Dr Sigmund, saying: Man is just a kind of computer. Our psychological state is determined by a series of connections in the brain. He continues: Nowhere in the brain can you find anything like a soul or a self that guides us. At this point Dr Sigmund interjects angrily: Wait a minute. You can't reduce man to a sterile machine! The bearded man's eyes twinkle and he chuckles: Wow, you sound just like an 8-bit ZX Spectrum!

Dr Dennett, just one question: who are you really? Are you Dr Sigmund or are you his bearded interlocutor? Or perhaps even both?

Whichever side you choose, I would like to congratulate you on being awarded the Erasmus Prize. May I now ask you to please come forward so I can present you with the Prize insignia.


Acceptance Speech

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, distinguished members of the Erasmus Prize Committee, friends and family,

I accept this award with gratitude and not a little amazement. It is an honor to be here, speaking to you, and I want to thank the committee and indeed the Dutch people for this thrilling moment. As you can no doubt imagine, I have spent some time reflecting on how this happened, on what I have done that led to my being chosen for this award, on whether I deserve it, on what it all means. In the last few years I have been devoting much of my effort to the still vexing issues of free will and responsibility, but following in the tracks of other philosophers, I've mainly concentrated on the grounds for holding people responsible for the evil they do, not their good deeds. I want to turn our attention for a few minutes to whether anyone is ever justifiably held responsible for their achievements. This occasion strongly suggests that we all do think that an award can be merited, but let's not jump to conclusions. Maybe we're all making a serious mistake.

Naturalism, the perspective I unreservedly adhere to and recommend to all, is the denial of supernaturalism, and involves the recognition that we are primates, joining all our relatives on the tree of life, and governed, like them, by the laws of physics. We are not equipped with élan vital or immaterial souls or wonder tissue of any kind. An oak tree is not morally responsible for anything, nor is a bacterium or a bird or even a dog. How can such a non-miraculous living entity as a person be responsible for anything? We naturalists need to ask if the traditional concepts of praise and blame, reward and punishment, moral responsibility and just deserts need to be abandoned, or heavily revised. (Everybody needs to ask this question; non-naturalists may imagine that their view secures a place for responsibility, but that is an illusion).

So now, what about my current enviable status? Is it all just luck, simply a series of good breaks that have accumulated in my life, to which now is added yet another stroke of great good fortune? Or can I claim with any justice to have earned this prize, at least in part?

A few years ago, I participated in a remarkable event in Seattle, at which promising teenagers from around the country were brought together for several days of short talks by outstanding achievers—famous novelists and Nobel laureate scientists, and young entrepreneurs like Larry Page and Sergei Brin, the Google boys—and one philosopher, me. Each of us had fifteen minutes to tell the young audience how we had managed to climb the ladder to success. What struck me was how every speaker told of a stroke of luck that changed their early trajectory, followed by others strokes of luck. We were apparently a collection of extraordinarily lucky people. It occurred to me then that the message we were delivering to these earnest young achievers might be truly depressing: it didn't make any difference what they did or didn't do—either Dame Fortune would smile on them or not. Next year they might have another gathering of smart high school kids and introduce them to a few dozen lottery winners, who could each spend fifteen minutes telling how they happened to buy their winning tickets and what they planned to do with their newfound millions. What difference, if any, could I point to that would distinguish those who deserved their success from those who were just plain lucky?

I daresay that one of the reasons the speakers in Seattle stressed the role of luck in their lives was dictated by modesty, both actual modesty—in some cases—and the obligatory protestation of modesty that society expects of its heroes. "Aw shucks, ma'am," as the cowboy in the Western says with lowered gaze and ten-gallon hat in hand, "Twarn't nothin'. Anybody woulda done the same." I appreciate this polite expectation, but according to two of my colleagues, commenting on the outrageous title of my 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, "For Dennett, modesty is a virtue to be kept for special occasions". This is certainly a special occasion, but not for false modesty. I am proud of what I have done, and proud to be honored for my work, but I still want to take seriously the question of whether such pride is unjustified, a natural emotion, surely, but at best a vestigial reaction that has outlived whatever adaptive value it may once have had.

We are all lucky, in some regards. Of all the organisms that have ever lived, the vast majority—over 99%—died without offspring, but for billions of years not a single one of your ancestors did! You are descended from an unbroken line of billions and billions of parents, going back to bacteria, and not a single one of them died childless! This is true of you, no matter how unlucky you think you have been lately, and it is true of the unluckiest person you know, and it's true of every mosquito and snake. We are all lucky to be alive, but more particularly, we are lucky to have inherited the talent, the competence, that explains our ability to stay alive. We are not responsible for our 'God-given' talents but because we have them, when we do well, it is not just our good luck; it's our talent, that explains this. Some people, to be sure, are truly unfortunate, denied the normal competence to live the life of a citizen, free to move about and act as one chooses. They are no more responsible for their fundamental incompetence than the rest of us are for our fundamental competence.

And some who have fundamental competence also have unusual gifts, musical, mathematical, athletic talent, or even just beauty. Life isn't fair. No matter how good you are at one thing, there are other things for which you have no talent at all. Faced with this obvious truth, the wise course is to make as sober an assessment as you can and exploit your strengths. If you do, and you have just a little bit of luck, you will be rewarded—if only with your own satisfaction with what you have managed to accomplish with your endowment. If you don't try. If you squander your gifts, it will not be bad luck that accounts for your lack of achievement. This is common knowledge, and so far as I can see, it is not jeopardized by the recognition that we are physical beings enmeshed in a world of physical causation.

Alex Bird, famous for making a fortune betting on horse races in England, once said, "I've never thought of myself as lucky. I'm a coward. That's why I can't be a gambler. But I work very hard. The harder I work, the luckier I get!". When I review my own trajectory, I find that I want to echo his observation. Luck exploited with hard work generates ever more luck.

My mother was an excellent editor for a textbook publisher, and from the time I was in primary school and trying my hand at writing stories. I was lucky that she always dared to suggest ways of improving my writing. (My wife has happily taken over that role.) My mother also coaxed me into taking a touch-typing course, so I could bash away effortlessly for hours on end, writing, writing, writing. So eager was I to do this that when I went to Phillips Exeter Academy I was placed in the writing course of a famous teacher, George Bennett, who had had an impressive list of students: Gore Vidal, John Irving, and others. Talk about luck! Then off to college where by a stroke of luck I discovered Willard van Orman Quine's book, From a Logical Point of View, in the mathematics library and stayed up all night reading it. The next day I made plans to transfer to Harvard to study with Quine and become a philosopher like him. Next came Gilbert Ryle, my supervisor in Oxford, another excellent writer. So I got coached by the best.

In 1979 I was lucky to be persuaded by Doug Hofstadter to join him in editing and composing The Mind's I—but of course it was my writing that persuaded him to do this. And Piet Hoenderdos decided to include my story "Where am I?" from that book in his film, Victim of the Brain, which brought me to the Netherlands when I played myself—my later self—in his film. And then Wim Kayzer catapulted me and my distinguished fellow panelists to something rather like fame—and not just in the Netherlands—with A Glorious Accident, (Een Schitterend Ongeluk). Meanwhile my work on the philosophy of cognitive science persuaded leaders in its various disciplines that I was worth educating further in their fields, and so once again, I was fortunate to be coached and informed by the very best, in computer science, psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, evolutionary biology.

In short, whatever I have done has been done, as Ringo Starr has sung, with a little help from my friends. And lots of help from my family, who also share in the credit for what I've managed to do.

For all the help, and for this great occasion, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

Video 'Daniel Dennett, an introduction'

Daniel Dennett, an introduction

Daniel Dennett visiting the 4e Gymnasium

Daniel Dennett, Erasmus Prize winner of 2012, together with students of the 4e Gymnasium.

Entrance HRH Princess Beatrix and Erasmus Prize winner Daniel Dennett

HRH Princess Beatrix and Erasmus Prize winner Daniel Dennett enter the Burgerzaal.