Dennett in The New Yorker

I wanted to bring to your attention a lovely profile piece on Dan Dennett, “Daniel Dennett’s Science of the Soul“.  It’s nice to see a philosopher as respected and well-known as Dennett come alive as a human being.

I’d also like to remind those of you interested in this sort of thing that Dennett has a new book out, From Bacteria to Bach And Back: The Evolution of Minds. The central project is to do what creationists are always saying can’t be done: use the explanatory resources of evolutionary theory to understand why we have the kinds of minds that we do. There are decent reviews here and here, as well as one by Thomas Nagel in New York Review of Books that I regard as deliberately misleading (“Is Consciousness an Illusion?“).

[Note: The profile and/or the Nagel review may be behind paywalls.]

 

211 thoughts on “Dennett in The New Yorker”

  1. waltowalto

    CharlieM: My argument is that the likes of Dennett understands life as having originated from his Umwelt which is a product of his Umwelt-organs, whereas I see life as having originated from the Umgebung.

    That’s not actually an argument.

  2. Kantian NaturalistKantian Naturalist Post author

    CharlieM: My argument is that the likes of Dennett understands life as having originated from his Umwelt which is a product of his Umwelt-organs, whereas I see life as having originated from the Umgebung.

    Well, my days not taking CharlieM seriously are certainly coming to a middle.

    The remark by Eagleman on the importance of the concept of Umwelt is helpful.

    There’s a line of thought, originating in Heidegger and continuing through Gadamer and Merleau-Ponty (and getting picked up by McDowell via Gadamer and Bert Dreyfus via Merleau-Ponty), that all animals have an Umwelt but only humans have a Welt or world.

    I go back and forth as to whether this Umwelt/Welt distinction really does the right kind of work. The idea is that all animals have some range of affordances and solicitations to which they are responsive, but only human beings are aware of objects, or have thoughts with objective purport. Only we can realize that our thoughts are made true or false by virtue of whether they align with the world, that we can disagree with others about what’s true and false, and so on.

    There are questions here about how language transformed the hominid Umwelt into a human Welt, about the origins of objective cognition and awareness of truth, and about the construction of discursive/symbolic affordances and solicitations.

    I will need to think here a bit about the relation between constructed discursive affordances and ideologies, since there is something important here about how ideological thinking is closed off to critical examination.

  3. CharlieMCharlieM

    Kantian Naturalist: I will need to think here a bit about the relation between constructed discursive affordances and ideologies, since there is something important here about how ideological thinking is closed off to critical examination.

    Yes its an interesting topic. You find that people tend to get really heated when their ideologies are challenged. I notice there was a discussion here, Is ‘Darwinism’ Science or Ideology or Both or Neither?. I must have a look at it but I don’t have the time at the moment.

  4. CharlieMCharlieM

    Kantian Naturalist: It’s almost as if intelligence comes in degrees, isn’t it?

    There are two different questions here: what drove the evolution of comprehension, and is human life possible without comprehension? I take it that the second question has an obvious response — no, we couldn’t function without comprehension. Without comprehension there is no human form of life.

    What drove the evolution of comprehension is interesting. I haven’t gotten to Dennett’s answer yet. My own conjecture is that comprehension is a result of the need for social cooperation.

    So living beings have needs and evolution mysteriously fills that need. Why do we need comprehension but individual termites (which are social insects and according to Dennett, clueless) do not?

    CharlieM: Where are his examples of these original memes down at the bottom of cultural evolution?

    Are you asking for examples of the very first words ever uttered or gestured by a prehistoric hominid?

    Yes. Isn’t that what Dennett was referring to when he said: “So what we should realise is that the original memes down in the bottom layer when human cultural evolution was very Darwinian, they were pretty much exactly what Dawkins said they were and the’ve since become more and more intelligently designed”.

    He must have knowledge of what these memes were in order to make that statement.

    CharlieM: Is it true that every other creature expends all its energy having offspring?

    No, and that’s not what he said, either. Dennett said that successful reproduction is the final goal or purpose of every organism — the ultimate for-the-sake-of-which. It doesn’t have to expend all its energy doing that one thing in order for that action to the final goal of the organism’s life-history.

    It probably seems that way to you because you don’t know much biology.

    His exact words were at 52 minutes, 15 seconds into the video: “…your head is full of memes. If it weren’t you’d be like every other living thing on the planet and all of your energies would be for having more offspring.”

  5. Kantian NaturalistKantian Naturalist Post author

    CharlieM: So living beings have needs and evolution mysteriously fills that need.

    That’s not even wrong. Living beings have needs and evolutionary theory explains why living things have the needs that they do, by positing the existence of processes that produced those needs. That’s not even anything like filling those needs, let alone “mysteriously.”

    Why do we need comprehension but individual termites (which are social insects and according to Dennett, clueless) do not?

    There’s actually a lot that we do know about what intelligence is and what it’s good for, at least a coarse-grained level. But I can’t tell if what you’re talking about it is intelligence or what Dennett calls ‘comprehension’.

    Are you asking for examples of the very first words ever uttered or gestured by a prehistoric hominid?

    Yes. Isn’t that what Dennett was referring to when he said: “So what we should realise is that the original memes down in the bottom layer when human cultural evolution was very Darwinian, they were pretty much exactly what Dawkins said they were and they’ve since become more and more intelligently designed”.

    He must have knowledge of what these memes were in order to make that statement.

    Ah, just like cosmologists must have knowledge of what exactly the first stars were like in order to know that there were first stars at some point in the history of the universe!

    The morale of this story: Just because we’re not able to identity particular examples of a past stage in a historical process, doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable to posit the existence of those past stages.

    Again, that’s something that should be easily understood by anyone who understands archeology, paleontology, or cosmology.

    His exact words were at 52 minutes, 15 seconds into the video: “…your head is full of memes. If it weren’t you’d be like every other living thing on the planet and all of your energies would be for having more offspring.”

    There is something to the fact that human beings have cultures, politics, religions, art, music, philosophy, and science, and that these “symbolic forms” (to use Ernst Cassirer’s lovely phrase) are invested with emotions to the degree that they re-direct impulses inherited from our evolutionary past. Human beings routinely die and kill for their beliefs all the time. No other animal does, or can. That’s a fact in need of explanation, even though “memes!” is a dumb explanation.

  6. Gregory

    “‘memes!’ is a dumb explanation.”

    Yes, of course it is. Gee, that took long enough to finally admit. And since Dennett can’t yet put them away, it shows Dennett’s ‘dumb explanation’ is doubly dumb to continue to hold onto.

    Why is ‘memetics’ (you don’t appear to recognise a difference between ‘memes’ and ‘memetics’, which is obvious to others) a “dumb explanation”?

    Let us see how far KN can now take the air out of the nonsense he’s been pushing for a few years. We know he is basically afraid to write anything about the EMT that would show he’s actually seriously engaging with it. Now, he’s thrown ‘memetics’ under the bus as ‘dumb.’ Let’s see if he has any ‘insight’ to explain why.

  7. keithskeiths

    Gregory,

    Why are you asking KN to do your work for you? Let’s hear your arguments against memetics — if you have any.

  8. Kantian NaturalistKantian Naturalist Post author

    I’m about 3/4 through with From Bacteria to Bach and Back.

    I think I’m still unclear on why it’s better to talk about memes than it is about habits and practices. If a meme is just a culturally transmitted (via imitation) way of doing things, then I’d need more convincing that talking about memes is better than talking about habits and practices. And I find it frustrating that Dennett doesn’t engage with theorists who have developed ways of talking about habits (like Dewey) or practices (like Pierre Bourdieu),

    But, that’s a somewhat minor quibble.

    I like his emphasis on the evolution of the manifest image, which no one has even tried to think through before, and I like that he clarifies his views on consciousness and free will. I keep wanting to see him say that real patterns is the ontology of the scientific image (since it seems to me that that has got to be his view) but I haven’t seen it yet.

    One big problem I have with Dennett is that his contempt for phenomenology and all things Continental leads him to be frustratingly vague on how he thinks about manifest image ontologies. I like his use of affordances to flesh out species-specific manifest image ontologies, and I think that he should have leaned even harder on Gibson and on Uexkull. But then he says that even elevators have ontologies! And this seems utterly daft to me.

    Elevators have functions, and they have the control system for performing those functions. To use Brandom’s phrase, they have “reliable differential responsive dispositions”: they have dispositions to respond, in differentiated ways, to other ‘objects’, and those dispositions are reliable (aren’t brittle, don’t break down often, etc.). Brandom notes that even a chunk of iron has RDRDs — it tends to rust in the presence of oxygen and not otherwise. In my book, I suggested that an RDRD is really just the idea of a causal power: a tendency to interact in some ways with some things and not with other things.

    If RDRDs are causal powers, and if an ontology is just the RDRDs of an object, then every object has its own ontology. For every thing that there is, there is an ontology specific to that thing. So there’s no such thing as a universal ontology — every ontology is specific to the object that ‘attaches’ to that object.

    I find this an interesting line of thought but I don’t see how it’s supposed to cohere with scientific realism.

    However, it might cohere with some ideas in Madhyamaka Buddhism, according to which there are no intrinsic natures or essential properties.

Leave a Reply