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.