Dan Dennett profiled in The New Yorker

It’s early in the morning in Queenstown, and I have a 7.5-hour bus ride to Fox Glacier ahead of me. All I can do this morning is direct your attention to a (free) New Yorker profile on Dan Dennett and his views on the mind, “Dan Dennett’s Science of the Soul.” I haven’t read it, but several readers brought it to my attention. His new book (which I have in Chicago but haven’t read either) is From Bacteria to Bach and Back: the Evolution of Minds; if you’ve read it, weigh in below.

Do note the use of the word “soul” in the tile; I would never have characterized Dan’s work as involving the “science of the soul.” But such is The New Yorker.


h/t: Nicole Reggia, John B.



  1. GBJames
    Posted March 20, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    I’m midway through From Bacteria to Bach and Back. I’m enjoying it. Whenever I read Dennett I hear his voice.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 20, 2017 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      He’s the Morgan Freeman/James Earl Jones of philosophy.

      • rickflick
        Posted March 20, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        Don’t forget the Chales Darwin and Santa Clause of philosophy.

    • BobTerrace
      Posted March 20, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      Same here, halfway through the book. I am not buying all of its premises but I am enjoying the book and the thinking that it is causing in me, as reading Dennett always does.

      From the article referenced, I want to agree 100% with Dennett on Cincioysness, but I can’t. I definitely do not agree with Chalmers.

      • BobTerrace
        Posted March 20, 2017 at 1:38 pm | Permalink


  2. Posted March 20, 2017 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    The first paragraph ends with “A new level of order had been achieved on Earth. Life had begun.”

    But if something was “achieved” then that implies that something or someone had attempted to achieve it and succeeded.

    It seems that language is full of snares that block the expression of rational ideas.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 20, 2017 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      Language is tricky – it often suggests agency where there is none. This is some of the reason why discussions of free will can get so muddled.

      • eric
        Posted March 20, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

        At the same time, I dislike the notion of ceding vernacular English to the theologians. So I’m going to happily accept sentences like Dennett’s can be reasonably and normally read as implying an achievement without an achiever.

        • darrelle
          Posted March 21, 2017 at 7:21 am | Permalink

          Agreed 100%. What the author means to convey is what others should accept they meant to convey. If the meaning is ambiguous you can ask or look further into what the author has written / said.

          I’d hate to see science oriented writing sterilized of all words that could possibly be interpreted as alluding to agency. It would be damn boring reading. Like reading a contract drawn up by a team of highly paid lawyers.

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted March 21, 2017 at 3:17 am | Permalink

        E Prime. From Wikipedia:

        The E-Prime versions communicate the writer’s experience rather than judgment, making it harder for the writer or reader to confuse opinion with fact.

        Kellogg and Bourland describe misuse of the verb to be as creating a “deity mode of speech”, allowing “even the most ignorant to transform their opinions magically into god-like pronouncements on the nature of things”.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 20, 2017 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      “…then that implies that something or someone had attempted to achieve it…”

      Dennett would dispute your assertion. He is explicit about it in terms of design. His case is that design happens without a designer. (With reference to Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker, of course.)

      I agree that language is full of snares. The free will debate comes to mind in that regard.

    • James Walker
      Posted March 20, 2017 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      Would it be better if you replaced “achieved” with “reached”? Or does that imply agency/design as well?

      • eric
        Posted March 20, 2017 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

        Pretty much any verb in English can have an actor. The flexibility of language is often a strength – not so much when doing philosophy. Thus the famous “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”

        • James Walker
          Posted March 20, 2017 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

          Well I was trying to figure out whether there was a verb that … achieved the same meaning as “achieve” but didn’t imply that the subject was volitional. I can’t think of an example with “achieve” that isn’t volitional, but I can with “reach” (e.g. “The waves reached the shore”).

    • grasshopper
      Posted March 20, 2017 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      A new level of order had been achieved on Earth. Life had begun.

      Maybe merely a deepity.

      • BobTerrace
        Posted March 20, 2017 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

        Not a deepity at all. When life began, the earth was heavily transformed.

    • Filippo
      Posted March 20, 2017 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      How about, “Something (significant?) happened or occurred”?

  3. Steve Beck
    Posted March 20, 2017 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I read about a fourth of the book, and I couldn’t stand the long, convoluted sentences, and the italicized words on almost every page. I also had the impression that Dennett thought that he was quite clever indeed. The first 75 pages are a review of the theory of evolution, and he presents it such a way that he expects the reader to be in awe of his exposition. I returned the book to the library, and I suspect that I didn’t miss much.

  4. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 20, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    “Science of the self” would be far less ambiguous.

  5. Posted March 20, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I have read it and, as with all of Dennett’s writing, I found it very engaging and enjoyable, even if sometimes challenging to follow. I like that he comes right out and calls the products of natural select “design” (without a designer) rather than “designoid” or “illusion of design” or any other circumlocution. He just claims that natural selection is an algorithm for producing design.

    Another of his central concepts is “competence without comprehension” which applies to things like automatic elevators and computers (so far, at least) as well as probably to every organism other than humans. “Competence” can encompass biochemistry, physiology, etc. but also behavior. His main argument, as I understand it, is that natural selection built up increasingly complex behavior (and the neural architecture to support it) until it finally, in humans, crossed a threshold to comprehension. He compares this to other singularities like the origin of the eukaryotic cell.

    I recommend it.

    • Posted March 20, 2017 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      Another interesting insight that I don’t recall seeing before concerns the origin of life: It is probably a mistake to ask “what is the simplest living thing we know about or can envision” (defined as smallest genome smallest number of molecular components or some such notion) and expect the first living things to look something like that. Rather, the first organisms were probably large, grossly inefficient “kludges” cobbled together from way more components than really needed. Only millions (or billions) of years of subsequent natural selection could produce compact, streamlined, highly efficient cells as we now know them.

    • Posted March 20, 2017 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      I like that he comes right out and calls the products of natural select “design” (without a designer) rather than “designoid” or “illusion of design” or any other circumlocution.

      I definitely would not like this. I think that is a misuse of the word and liable to confuse people.

      A design is something that preconceived and then executed (built or manufactured). The word makes no sense in any other context. Stating that the products of EBNS have the appearance of design is exactly correct.

      Definition of design in English (Oxford Dictionaries):


      1A plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is made.

      ‘he has just unveiled his design for the new museum’

      1.1 noun The art or action of conceiving of and producing a plan or drawing of something before it is made.

      ‘good design can help the reader understand complicated information’

      1.2 noun The arrangement of the features of an artefact, as produced from following a plan or drawing.

      ‘inside, the design reverts to turn-of-the-century luxe’

      2A decorative pattern.

      ‘pottery with a lovely blue and white design’

      3. noun Purpose or planning that exists behind an action, fact, or object.

      ‘the appearance of design in the universe’

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted March 20, 2017 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

        Is DNA not “a plan or drawing of something before it is made”, and is the arrangement of the features of an organism not produced by following that plan?

        • BobTerrace
          Posted March 20, 2017 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

          As Richard Dawkins famously said, (paraphrasing) DNA is NOT like a blueprint; it is more like a recipe. It describes a procedure to make a cake but does nor resemble a cake. A blueprint resembles the object being built.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted March 20, 2017 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

            I didn’t say it’s a blueprint; I said it’s a plan. A plan doesn’t have to resemble the object being built; procedures and recipes count as plans.

          • DiscoveredJoys
            Posted March 21, 2017 at 8:44 am | Permalink

            I’d go further and suggest that ‘design’, ‘plan’ and ‘recipe’ are all misleading since they link metaphorically with agency no matter what disclaimers are made.

            I’d prefer the term ‘parameters’. So genes are just parameters being passed into natural processes and affecting the outcome of those natural processes. Natural selection discards parameters which affect processes which contribute less to overall fitness (again in naturalistic terms).

            No design required. Just parameter testing, over and over again.

            • GBJames
              Posted March 21, 2017 at 9:29 am | Permalink

              I don’t see why “testing” is any less agency-ish than “design”.

              • DiscoveredJoys
                Posted March 22, 2017 at 3:16 am | Permalink

                You’re right. My bad. Use of non-teleological language is tough. Perhaps ‘differential survival of parameters during repeated use’?

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted March 21, 2017 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

              Machines can execute plans, as in computer-controlled machine tools. They can even formulate plans, as in chess-playing computers.

              So where do you draw the line between agents capable of planning, and natural processes limited to parameter-testing? Dennett’s point is that you don’t have to. It’s a continuum, with all manner of systems having a “sort of” agency to varying degrees.

              So I don’t have a problem with the idea of designs that come into existence without a designer, and plans without a planner, since both designers and planners originally came into existence that way.

  6. Francisco
    Posted March 20, 2017 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Be sure, is the religious maffia working.
    They know that many people reads only the title and few lines and keeps the impression that Dennett also believe in souls…

    They introduce their terms, their myths in subtle way to maintain the fight against science and atheism.
    I live in Spain, suffering daily attacks from Opus Dei and sects related, and unhappily Im nothing else than a ex-sectarian that left that and join the atheist side with the security of somebody that studied theology and concluded: NO GOD.
    But they maintain the pressure to try to silence, to isolate, to maintain in poverty, etc.
    Is a huge maffia, appears to be enemy among sects but they helps each other more that seems possible.

    • rickflick
      Posted March 20, 2017 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      You seem to feel threatened by the Church in Spain. Most people are Catholic of course. Sorry to hear that. I hope you manage to hold strong.

      I hope you can find support among other atheists in Spain. According to Wikipedia 27% of Spaniards identify as atheists or non-believers. That’s a higher percentage than in the US for sure. I would hope you could find some organizations of atheists in your local area with whom you could enjoy the rewards of you new understanding.

  7. Posted March 20, 2017 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just read it. He puts a big emphasis on, and a spirited defense of, memes as the bottom up explanation of our top down intellect. I can’t say I learned anything truly new and, as usual, Dan (G*d bless him) is not one to use a hundred words when a thousand will do. Nevertheless, a very worthwhile read.

    • Posted March 20, 2017 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      I have never, EVER, seen a useful employment of the idea of a “meme”. It’s whatever it of culture that can be taught, but that’s it.

      • Posted March 20, 2017 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

        You’ll “enjoy” the book, then. 🙂

        I did like Dan’s connection between words and memes.

        But first enjoy your time in NZ! An amazing place.

  8. Kevin
    Posted March 20, 2017 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Dennett’s task has always been an ambitious one. Unlike many of his critics, i.e., the ‘Consciousness Explained Away’ crowd, they do little to provide evidence to suggest consciousness is something not physical.

    I will grant the dualist their strength: consciousness has not been explained, but no alternatives come as close as science to getting the answers right. And science keeps getting better. It’s only game in town.

    • rickflick
      Posted March 20, 2017 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      The ‘consciousness explained away’ crowd are sometimes called mysterians. Basically they replace the rather curious relationship we have with our “selves” with an emotional response of overwhelming shock and angst. A giant, flashing, neon, question mark. Somehow I don’t think they will ever be satisfied with layered neural complexity and emergence.

    • darrelle
      Posted March 21, 2017 at 7:31 am | Permalink

      Their arguments are exactly analogous to the God Of The Gaps arguments. Consciousness hasn’t been explained yet. Lots of things haven’t been explained yet. We’re working on them.

  9. Becky Alvarez
    Posted March 20, 2017 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    This article is in my local paper. The pictures are wonderful. http://www.ocregister.com/articles/snakes-746986-rattlesnakes-snake.html

    Sent from Becky’s iPad


  10. Posted March 21, 2017 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    This is an exceptionally well written article and it’s a real pleasure to see an article on such a philosophical theme appearing in a broadly read publication. Pity that Dennett’s ideas on compatibilism are not presented, but perhaps that’s a bit too much more to ask for.
    I had little knowledge of Dennett’s personal life, outside of the fact that he likes to sail and he once had such a life threatening heart condition. I must say it’s nice to see someone experience such a wide ranging and rewarding lifestyle as Dennett seems to live. A model life exhibiting “the good life” that philosophy suggests, I’d say. It is curious though, how we do take such an interest in the PERSON even sometimes more than the IDEAS. It doesn’t seem quite right, but it is indeed a very human trait.

  11. Posted March 21, 2017 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Dennett has been one of my philosophical inspirations from before I studied philosophy formally. He’s spent his career working on questions like “what is a person?” and “what are humans?” (note the difference), questions I share.

  12. peepuk
    Posted March 21, 2017 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Nice article.

    “If you think there’s a fixed meaning of the word ‘consciousness,’ and we’re searching for that, then you’re already making a mistake,” Dennett said.

    It illustrates the complete confusion of philosophers and scientists; conceptual models shifts every second and cannot be shared.

    “He (Dennett) thinks that we have souls, but he is certain that those souls can be explained by science.”

    It is already explained by science; souls only exist in our imagination and are not part of reality. We know for a couple of centuries that humans have no soul, due to Darwins Dangerous Idea 🙂

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