Matthew called my attention to a series of pieces in the Times Literary Supplement (free online) in which materialist philosophers Dan Dennett (Tufts) and David Papineau (King’s College London) battle it out over a number of philosophical issues.
It began with a fairly negative review by Papineau of Dan’s newest book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, a book I own but haven’t yet read. In the review, called “Competence without comprehension,” Papineau takes issue with Dan’s idea that consciousness is an illusion; with his notion that humans are unique among animals in being able to comprehend some of why they do what they do (i.e., running away from predators, which he thinks humans can “comprehend” but zebras cannot, for the latter react from instinct or a form of learning that doesn’t involve “comprehension”); and with Dan’s idea that memes are self-selecting units of culture that can spread independently of “the role of human understanding in cultural exchange” (I have to admit I don’t understand this last criticism). Papineau ends his review this way:
Dennett has done much over the years to show how fruitful this strategy [an appreciation for natural selection creating “designoid” features and a rejection of “greedy reductionism”] can be. But perhaps his good reductionism has its own blind spot. He might not be a greedy reductionist but he is arguably a very grudging one. He is constitutionally disinclined to give credit to the powers of the mind, even when it is due. Throughout this book, he constantly plays down the ability of agents to knowingly manage their destinies, and instead portrays them as shaped by processes that unfold unthinkingly.
It is no accident that Daniel Dennett has gained such a wide readership. He is always fun to read. He has few equals at explaining complex topics, and his positive theories are never boring. But his public would do well to take those theories with a pinch of salt. They are by no means the latest scientific insights that he cracks them up to be. The real source of his views is rather a set of peculiar philosophical assumptions that he acquired more than half a century ago.
Well, Dan couldn’t let that rest, and so he and Papineau had a debate in a subsequent issue of the TLS, a debate that comprises a brief introduction by Tim Crane, the TLS philosophy editor, and then two rounds of back-and-forth letters between Dennett and Papneau.
I have to admit that even though this is in a popular book-review magazine, I find a lot of it either above my pay grade or about things that can’t be resolved. (Does a zebra understand why it’s fleeing from a lion? How can we know?). But I suspect that many readers who are more philosophically educated or inclined than I will enjoy the exchange.
But I do have an opinion on memes: I think they’ve added absolutely nothing to our understanding of culture. I’ve discussed some of my reasons in a book review in Nature, and since I wrote that in 1999 my opinion hasn’t changed. “Memetics” is a weak analogy to natural selection that adds nothing except tautology to our view of how human culture evolves. Memetics boils down to this: memes spread because they have properties that allow them to spread. The rest, and the important bit, are the reasons why some aspects of culture spread and others go extinct. You can analyze all that without ever mentioning the concept of memes.
But I digress again; here’s Dan’s widely viewed TED talk on consciousness, designed to show you that just because we’re all conscious doesn’t mean that we’re authorities on how it works. I have to admit that in the series of changing pictures at the end, I did really horribly spotting the changes.