Post-Discussion Commentary regarding Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: III. The Silly

Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017. [All page numbers in this commentary come from the 2018 paperback edition]

[NOTE: In previous posts I have provided some pre-discussion tutorials about this book, and post-discussion essays about what I found UGLY and GOOD in the book. In the present essay I will concentrate on what I found to be SILLY.  A future commentary will focus on the BAD.].



My copy of this book is littered with comments I jotted in the margins, sometimes accompanied by strong urges to throw the book across the room out of frustration. That is not necessarily a bad attribute for a book. It means Dennett has succeeded in engaging me in an emotional way to think seriously about ideas he is proposing. And I am fully cognizant that sometimes there is a fine (and not easily discernible) line between ideas that are silly and those that are profound. Nevertheless, there is much in this book that strikes me as simply being silly. If the numerous parts that seem silly were not intermixed with some ideas and conjectures that I judged to be creative and potentially insightful (see my previous essay on THE GOOD), I would not even bother commenting on them.

There appear to be several different types of silly stuff in the book. In this essay I will try to illustrate each type by providing an example.


Being Too Clever by Half

Some of the silliness stems from the fact that Dennett’s (considerable) intelligence often exhibits itself in the sense of being clever. However, sometimes he comes too close to the adage of being too clever by half. Here is an example:

“The reasons tracked by evolution I have called ‘free floating rationales,’ a term that has apparently jangled the nerves of some few thinkers. … Some find this way of thinking unnerving and probably ‘unsound,’ but I am not relenting. Instead I am hoping here to calm their fears and convince them that we should all be happy to speak of the reasons uncovered by evolution before they were ever expressed or represented by human investigators or any other minds.” [page 50]

Really?! So Dennett, a professional philosopher, is seriously trying to convince us that we should include ‘free-floating rationales’ as real things that exist, as part of our ontology. This concept is such a mess of disorganized thinking that it is hard to know where to start. Dennett spends over 400 pages trying to construct an argument that our ‘conscious self’ is illusory and so should be jettisoned from our ontology. In the midst of this argument he asserts that ‘free-floating rationales’ deserve to remain in our ontology as real things that exist, and existed long before human brains existed. So, the argument (to the extent there even is a serious argument to be made here) would have to go something along the lines that ‘rationales’ or reasons that were formulated by human brains after human brains evolved, already existed as real (but ‘free-floating’) things long before human brains existed, and were able to act as the ‘reasons’ (causes?) for why certain evolutionary events happened. I am not a philosopher, and Dennett is, so he probably has a more profound understanding of these issues than I do. But I don’t plan to hold my breath for some future book in which Dennett explains how this does not constitute backwards causation, and while at it explains how his ideas fit in with traditional distinctions between ‘epistemology’ (our knowledge of how things operate) and ‘ontology’ (the properties of things that exist). In this book he never even attempts to give a thoughtful explanation that makes sense for a reader like me. I suspect it is simply more fun to be outrageously clever than providing a clear explanation of one’s ideas. Speaking of outrageous…


Outrageous Claims

Sometimes the silly assertions appear to be deliberate attempts to use words and phrases to make ‘outrageous’ claims, probably because that works to sell books and get oneself onto the lecture circuit. That is understandable, but a little bit of that kind of thing goes a long way, and the amount included in this book is excessive for my tastes. Here is an example:

“[One possibility about how comprehension could arise in human brains is] feral neurons, released from their previous role as docile, domesticated servants under the selection pressure created by a new environmental feature: cultural invaders. Words striving to reproduce, and other memes, would provoke adaptations, such as revisions in brain structure in coevolutionary response. Once cultural transmission was secured as the chief behavioral innovation of our species, it not only triggered important changes in neural architecture but also added novelty to the environment—in the form of thousands of Gibsonian affordances—that enriched the ontologies of human beings and provided in turn further selection pressure in favor of adaptations—thinking tools—for keeping track of all these new opportunities. Cultural evolution itself evolved away from undirected or ‘random’ searches toward more effective design processes, foresighted and purposeful … Cultural evolution de-Darwinized itself with its own fruits.” [page 412]

Dennett precedes this quote with a description of how rapid evolutionary changes can sometimes be seen when domesticated animals are allowed to go feral. That is a legitimate topic. It might even be a legitimate analogy to use here, something along the lines, “Something analogous might explain changes that take place in neurons in the brain under some conditions.” But Dennett doesn’t do that here. He segues from this legitimate evolutionary phenomena to this made up (ridiculous from the point of view of a neuroscientist like myself) story of ‘feral neurons’ in the brain. His story violates basic premises of how evolution works, among other mistakes. And as someone who has a pretty good understanding of Gibson’s concept of ‘affordances’ (I have described this in a previous posting), I can only state that Gibson would probably be turning over in his grave if he were aware of how badly Dennett misuses/misunderstands the concept of affordances here. Stories like this might sell books, but as a scientist I find them to be an embarrassment to good science writing.


Lack of Consistency

And the final source of silliness, the one that bothers me most as an academic scientist, involves examples where what is asserted on page X is contradicted or inconsistent with what is stated on page Y in later sections of the book. These examples are probably due to the fact that Dennett has made numerous modifications to parts of his theory over the years and has not always taken the time to fully think through the fact that changes to one part of his theory in order to correct certain problems can create unforeseen (unless carefully thought through) problems for other parts of the theory.

Consider a topic that philosophers commonly refer to as the issue of ‘vitalism’. An argument, commonly referred to as the Strong AI position, made by some researchers studying artificial intelligence is that brains give us consciousness because of the algorithm they are carrying out, not because brain cells have some unique special properties not found in any other physical substances. The assertion carries with it the implication that other types of physical material such as silicon should also be capable of exhibiting consciousness if the components were numerous enough, wired together in a complicated enough manner, and able to operate fast enough to carry out the same algorithm as the one controlling brains. In some passages Dennett describes and seems to embrace this Strong AI position:

“The standard working assumption of Artificial Intelligence has always been that any living organ is really  just a very sophisticated bit of carbon-based machinery that can be replaced, piece by piece or all at once, by a nonliving substitute that has the same input-output profile…” [ page 156]

As Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, once put it (1961, p. 132): ‘Information is information, not matter or energy. No materialism that does not admit this can survive at the present day.’ [page 136]

And Dennett continues making statements that appear compatible with the Strong AI position throughout the book, as in:

 “Our ability to do this kind of thinking is not accomplished by any dedicated brain structure not found in other animals. There is no ‘explainer-nucleus for instance. Our thinking is enabled by the installation of a virtual machine made of virtual machines made of virtual machines.” [page 341]

But then without any explanation or clarification, Dennett suddenly advocates the opposite position:

 “But there is one feature of living things that might matter greatly… illuminated by Terrence Deacon, in his difficult but important book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2012).  … [He] insists that Living things, in contrast [to other kinds of physical entities], are autonomous, and moreover they are composed of living things (cells) that are themselves somewhat autonomous.” [page 157]

“it is important, Deacon claims, that a brain be made of cells that are themselves autonomous little agents with agendas, chief of which is staying alive, which spawns further goals, such as finding work and finding allies. [Deacon’s argument might appear to be] a fatal step or two away from vitalism, but his reasons are practical and compelling.” [page 159]

So this passage would seem to indicate that Dennett has now adopted Deacon’s point of view. But as I read from these passages to the end of the book, I could not find any evidence that Deacon’s ideas were incorporated into Dennett’s own theory of consciousness. Based on reading this book I have no clue what Dennett’s position is regarding the issue of vitalism, except that he appears to have described and embraced two opposing/contradictory positions.

One final example to illustrate how Dennett apparently forgets the nature of an argument he made at one point in the book when he later makes the opposite argument in a different context.

At one point late in the book Dennett sarcastically mocks scientists who surmise that we might need to wait for some new scientific breakthrough before we will be able to solve the hard problem of consciousness:

 “Even many neuroscientists, committed naturalists, tend to flinch when they start closing in on how the neural machinery works its wonders, and a tempting bit of modesty is to deny that they are even trying to tackle the ‘Hard Problem’ (Chalmers 1995), leaving the ‘real magic of consciousness as a cosmic mystery for future centuries to track down, with the help of currently unimaginable revolutions in physics.” [page 318]

Dennett apparently forgot that he made the opposite argument earlier in the book when extolling the value of potential future discoveries in solving another hard problem, how did life arose from nonlife:

 “There may actually be many ways life could possibly have arisen out of nonlife, but finding just one that deserves scientific allegiance … would muffle the ‘impossible in principle’ choir for good.” [page 27]


I prefer Dennett’s second argument when it comes to the question of how to explain consciousness from a scientific perspective. I am still waiting for “just one theory of consciousness deserving of scientific allegiance”.  I am just hoping that when it arrives it displays more thoughtfulness than silliness.

Ron Boothe,

About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
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