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.
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.