Daniel C. Dennett. (image: SFI)

Daniel C. Dennett, one of the most influential and provocative philosophers of our times, passed away on April 19 at the age of 82 in Portland, Maine. At the time of his passing, Dennett held the position of External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute. He had recently left Santa Fe, having attended the late-March “Investigating Reality – A Philosophical, Mathematical, and Scientific Exploration” workshop where he gave the closing remarks.
Best known for his books Consciousness Explained, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Breaking the Spell, and many others, Dennett was a firm proponent of the importance of philosophical debates informed by science. He challenged existing perspectives about the mind, consciousness, free will, intelligence, religion, and evolutionary biology.

“Dan Dennett's work was to identify and explicate the ways in which the underlying, impersonal world described by natural science gave rise to the emergent human world of our everyday experience,” says SFI Fractal Faculty Sean Carroll (Johns Hopkins University). “It was precisely aligned with the philosophical side of SFI's mission, and he worked to make sure philosophy always played a role here.”
Dennett first visited the Santa Fe Institute in 1996 for a workshop on artificial life. He became a frequent visitor, participating in numerous workshops over the years, delivering public lectures at local SFI events, and choosing to spend his sabbatical at the Institute. In 2010, he became a Miller Scholar. “Santa Fe Institute is heaven for intellectuals. It’s just a wonderful place to be,” he said when opening the SFI community lecture titled Wild and Domesticated Religions: How the Machinery of Religion Evolved he delivered in March that year. In 2011, he joined SFI as External Faculty.
Post-pandemic, when Dennett was not able to visit Santa Fe, he would attend talks and workshops at the Institute virtually. Sometimes, after a visiting researcher had delivered their lunchtime seminar — a regular feature at SFI — a voice would crackle to life and, much to the visitor’s surprise, it would be Dennett, larger-than-life on screen, asking follow-up questions in his usual incisive manner.
“I’ve learned more, and learned more about learning, at the Santa Fe Institute than at any of my other idyllic think tanks … the institute’s denizens uniquely combine open-mindedness with a bracing insistence on clarity and rigor,” wrote Dennett in his book I’ve Been Thinking. However, as much as Dennett was influenced by ideas at SFI, researchers at SFI were equally influenced by his.
“Dan’s distinction between competence and comprehension, and the spectrum of intelligence that lies between them, has been very influential for me,” says SFI External Professor John Krakauer (Johns Hopkins University). “I owe to him, more than to anyone else, the conviction that philosophical thinking is critical to good scientific thinking.”
“Dennett’s 1991 paper ‘Real Patterns’ expressed the incredibly powerful idea that coarse-grained features of the world could simultaneously: 1) be real (in the sense that they compose our reality), and 2) emerge from a more fine-grained description of nature in a way that is affected by our practical perspectives as agents,” says former SFI Postdoctoral Fellow David Kinney (Yale University). “That idea is really a key that unlocks a conceptual scheme for understanding how physics, biology, and psychology can all fit together in a unified picture of reality.”
In 2022, Dennett organized the “Real Patterns in Science and Cognition” workshop with former SFI Postdoctoral Fellow, Tyler Millhouse (University of Arizona), and two other researchers. Millhouse, who had also been Dennett’s M.A. student at Tufts, remembers his kind nature. “Despite Dan’s often controversial public image, he was a warm, open, and generous person,” he says. “I remember him telling stories about his grandkids, buying a bottle of wine for a graduate student who found him the original version of a long-lost comic, and driving me home from one of his talks at MIT.” The workshop turned into a book contract with MIT Press for which, Millhouse says, Dennett was planning to write a chapter.
“Dan incepted our minds. I grew up with Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology and The Intentional Stance,” says SFI President David Krakauer. “Losing Dan is the loss of a great human being, a living stimulus to endless thought, and an integral part of one’s intellectual childhood and self-discovery. He managed to connect many of the topics I came to care most about, from evolution to cognition to computation, despite the academy placing each in separate boxes. I am sad and mad at the same time. Mad at the loss of the irreplaceable.”