Field of Science

Daniel Dennett decidedly disappoints

Daniel Dennett, professor of philosophy at Tufts University, gave a lecture at UW Madison two days ago, and some people wishes he would have given a better performance. First off, as this article details, two random (?) listeners were disappointed:
University of Wisconsin freshman Sam Bolstad said he was disappointed by Dennett’s lecture.

“He argues for evolution, but he didn’t argue against intelligent design. He didn’t demonstrate how evolution knocked intelligent design out of the ranks, and I thought he would,” Bolstad said.

UW freshman Alex Plunkett agreed the lecture was a disappointment and said he expected more from the speaker.
Okay, so they had their expectations, and they weren't met. Another person not quite satisfied was... me. Not that I was there, but no need (I can be judgmental from a distance). Here's what he said:
Dennett added he believes humans have a purpose on earth made evident by our ability to use language, have culture and be able to reflect on our purpose.

He continued by telling students human beings “wield a paintbrush” because of our unique capacity to understand the significance of our future and ability to represent it.

Dennett also discussed the trickle-down theory of evolution, explaining “big fancy smart things [make] less smart things” in contrast to the bubble up theory of creation that argues things are created from the bottom up.
And evident purpose? Wield a paintbrush? Trickle-down theory?

Sigh. What a load of hogwash.

He is free to have any belief that he chooses, but advocating that humans have purpose, basing such belief on the existence of language, culture, and our ability to reflect is just too silly to take seriously. However, Dennett is a staunch atheist and prominent advocate of evolution (e.g. watch The Four Horsemen on YouTube, or read Darwin's Dangerous Idea), and it is sort of expected that what he says then makes some sort of sense. In the light of science, the notion that humans have a purpose isn't supported. I'm sure he would counter that that's not what he meant, but that's the quote, nonetheless.

"Wielding a paintbrush" means... what? Something, I'm sure, but what of it? Bah! No comment.

And then this trickle-down theory of evolution. I'm seriously considering if the reporter misquotes Dennett here, because it really should be exactly the other way around. But then, why would he name it the trickle-down theory? Evolution generally makes things from the bottom up (there are exceptions), and these become more complex as time goes on. Bubble-up theory of creation? That would make more sense if put on its head, too, since the idea is that the creator, from above (also in terms of complexity), made every creature, big and small.

As for the term 'Brights', I predict it's not going to catch on.
A noted atheist and advocate for the Brights movement, a term coined in 2003 to put atheist philosophers and their followers in a positive light,
One commenter to the article put it perfectly:
"Brights, a term coined to put atheist[s]in a positive light."

Ya, that should do it. "I'm a bright and you're not." Good plan.
And good night.


  1. Unfortunately the neologism Bright (noun - person with a naturalistic world view free of supernatural or mystical beliefs) has already caught on - at least with more than than 44,000 individuals in 181 countries, all of whom are delighted to use an identity that defines what they are rather than what they are not and use it in preference to any other currently available word!

    And to be clear, Bright is not a synonym for atheist; you can be an atheist but not a Bright, and its antonym is Super for Supernaturalist.

    However, as you say, Dennett's thinking on evolution may well be open to question but then he's a philosopher rather than an evolutionary biologist!

  2. I fund these quotes rather surprising and suspect that they were either taken out of context--or, possibly, Dennett was not as clear as he should have been. The latter would be strange since he seldom suffers from lack of clarity...

  3. Unfortunately the neologism Bright (noun - person with a naturalistic world view free of supernatural or mystical beliefs) has already caught on

    Yes, that is unfortunate. And as I recall it was introduced to supplant 'atheist' because of the bad connotations that has, but I realize that the meaning might be slightly different.

    Also, it comes too close for me to 'blight', as in disease or plague. What of those who can't tell the difference between r and l? I'm a blight!?

    Jorgon, I agree they might be taken out of context, and in that case I can only say that my post is written in lieu of what I read. I'll be ready to write a retraction when Dennett sends me an email.

    But, apart from that I am also not very impressed with his performance at TED, where he spoke after Rick Warren, and commented on his talk (which, by the way, I find highly obnoxious). See them here: Dennet, Warren

  4. Ugh! Warren!... The less said, the better.

  5. Hey Bjorn, saw your post while I was searching for a different Dennett article. I just wanted to say that your suspicion about the journalist was absolutely right- they either misunderstood Dennett (which is unusual) or deliberately misrepresented his views.

    Dennett- in conjunction with his close friend Richard Dawkins- is strongly against intelligent design, on the grounds that I.D is based on the trickle down theory. I feel that he is doing excellent work in explaining the theory of natural selection to non-scientists. And yes, he uses the phrase bubble up, as you say he should.

    I'm curious, it seems that you have a suspicion about philosophers. Or am I mistaken? It's that I know that it's a suspicion widely held, but I've ever quite understood why. I read your post on philosophy and science and I think you'll find that philosophers have in fact played an important role in the scientific revolution, and have made contributions to mathematics, without which we wouldn't be where we are today.

    Also, the philosophers of biology that I know (i.e John Wilkins) are doing everything they can to stop I.D advocates from getting I.D into mainstream education. Is there something wrong with that?

    My point here is that Daniel Dennett- and analytic philosophy as a whole, which he belongs to- is not in opposition to science at all. He/It loooooves science!

    The question about the foundations of science, which you raise in that other post, is something that only really comes from the sociology of science. And the physicist Alan Sokal has written extensively showing why those people are total loons. Those people also hate analytic philosophy, and I guarantee they would hate Dennett.

    So please don't lump Dennett in with that lot! It's just totally unfair, and makes even less sense than the silly article you read.

    Anyway, best of luck with the PhD!

  6. ... strongly against intelligent design...

    Of course, I'm well aware of this. I have no problem with how he apparently handled that. My quip was, rather, that he talked about humans having a purpose. What do you think of that?

    I'm curious, it seems that you have a suspicion about philosophers. Or am I mistaken?

    No, you aren't mistaken. At least, not entirely. Once in a while I see philosophers going from science to something that's wild speculation, and presenting it as though they are the same. I actually think Dennett's 'words are memes' thing is slightly like that. It's okay for a start, but why stop there? Why not do actual experiments (i.e. elevate it from philosophy to science)?

    Secondly, my problem with philosphers is that they often quote too damn much. Hegel said this, Kant thought about that. Well, consider that they didn't really know half as much about the natural world as we do now, and that should make us be much more skeptical about what they said than what I see people are.

    I met Dennett at the 74th Symposium at CHSL a couple of weeks ago, and I know he loves science, and is persuaded by evidence (e.g. Tim White cured Dennett's fancy for the aquatic ape theory right in front of me).

    So please don't lump Dennett in with that lot!

    I think I didn't. I just wrote about my problems with the specific quotes from the article.

    Anyway, best of luck with the PhD!


  7. Re: humans having a purpose, I think the journalist is just putting words into Dennett's mouth.

    My understanding of Dennet's view on purpose- though clearly I can't speak for him- is that it's something we create our selves, not that it's something inherent in the system. I think he'd say that it's silly to suppose that there exists any direction or teleology in evolution, but the lack of inherent purpose or meaning doesn't detract from the wonderful state of where we are now.

    What's your opinion about purpose?

    I'll tell you one area that I think Dennett is a little over-confident about, though, since I have been doing nothing except defend him in the previous post. I think his enthusiasm evolutionary psychology is should be more tempered. Is the EP argument held in higher regard in the biological sciences?

  8. On purpose, my view is that since nothing in science/biology points to any entity that can determine that purpose, then there is none. Except for the one that we are masters of ourselves, of course.

    EP is not regarded very favorably within biology, is my feeling. I see big problems with it, namely that it's mostly psychological experiments with an adaptationist hypothesis tied to it in the end. If this hypothesis is never tested, then that's as far as the science goes, and it really isn't evolutionary biology at all. However, if the hypothesis is tested, then it is science. Problem is that this can be very hard, but it isn't always impossible. For example, if data naturally suggest a particular hypothesis about why a certain behavior evolved, then that hypothesis could be tested be seeing what is predicts, and then testing that prediction. Circular reasoning must be avoided, of course.

    Bottom line is that 1) not all behavior needs to be adaptations (David Buss, for example, is well aware of this, but still tries to give adaptive reasons for everything (= too many things)), and 2) other adaptive arguments can often be made, so rigorous testing must be done if they want to talk about evolution. I haven't seen that done (but have not read overly much of EP either).

  9. Hi Bjørn,

    I see that you published this earlier this eyar and in one of your comments (written in June) you mention that Dennett has been cured of the aquatic ape hypothesis. In Elaine Morgan's TED talk, posted in July, she mentions Dennett as one on her side of the argument. I've read Dennett's points in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, but if he has been shown the science against the theory, why is Elaine still claiming that he is one her side (and even more interesting is that Dennett never was fully a believer of the kooky theory). You mnetion actually being there when Dennett's schooling went down, but has Dennett actually said or written about this since?


  10. Ajita, I have not seen anything in writing where Dennett talks about the aquatic ape theory since the meeting in June. I mentioned the theory, and he said that he has asked around for any evidence to dispute it, but never received any. Tim White then told him of the lack of certain isotopes that should have been found in bones if they had gone through an aquatic stage, and Dennett then agreed that was pretty good evidence against the theory. Elaine Morgan is unlikely to have heard of this conversation, I suppose.

  11. @"Dennett also discussed the trickle-down theory of evolution, explaining “big fancy smart things [make] less smart things” in contrast to the bubble up theory of creation that argues things are created from the bottom up."

    This is in direct contradiction to everything I've ever seen or read Dennett say about evolution. One of Dennett's most consistent tenets is that evolution opened up our thinking to increasing complexity from the bottom up. "The crane rather than the sky-hook".

    I can only assume that whoever reported that was not paying attention, knows nothing about Dennett, or simply woefully misunderstood the whole point.

  12. Tim, I'd have to agree. I'm leaning towards a misquotation.

  13. Bjørn, then why quote a misquotation? Or did you have nothing original or useful to offer with this post?

  14. I quoted what I read. If someone can confirm that it's a misquotation, then I'll write that it is in big red letters in the middle of the post.

    And, no, I didn't have anything original nor useful to offer. Did you expect that? Why? I simply like to discuss many of the same issues as Dennett does.

  15. What if the Universe is so big and so complex that

    a) No matter for how many hundreds or thousands of years man-ape HSS makes learned assumptions based on work of other man apes, it will never even get close.

    b) No matter how wild theories HSS ever makes, it is still so far from the absolute truth that it will be more a matter of taste to whomever superior intellect viewing the evidence, which is more ludicrous; what the science department say's or the theological department of said man ape school?

    First time reader


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