April 23, 2009

Dennett Devolving, Part I

Can evolution alone account for the advent of human consciousness, meaning and intentionality? Analytic philosopher and Darwinist, Daniel C. Dennett thinks so. However, a critical look at Dennett’s position reveals its poor logic and philosophically untenable ideas. To illustrate a few of Dennett’s philosophical difficulties I have selected several passages from his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), which I think are particularly representative of his views on human consciousness.

In Chapter VIII, Dennett discusses (p. 204-207) the “Darwinian campaign” to subvert the traditional understanding of the origin and nature of human consciousness, saying,

“Through the same molecular-level microscope we see the birth of meaning, in the acquisition of “semantics” by the nucleotide sequences, which at first are mere syntactic objects. This is a crucial step in the Darwinian campaign to overthrow John Lock’s Mind-first vision of the cosmos. Philosophers commonly agree, for good reason, that meaning and mind can never be pulled apart, that there could never be meaning where there was no mind, or mind where there was no meaning. Intentionality…is the “aboutness” that can relate one thing to another--a name to its bearer, an alarm call to the danger that triggered it, a word to its referent, a thought to its object. Only some things in the universe manifest intentionality. A book or a painting can be about a mountain, but a mountain is not about anything…Where does intentionality come from? It comes from minds, of course.”

Dennett next lists salient points in the traditional (Lockean) view of intentionality’s origin: original intentionality is God, who is Mind; and since we are God’s creatures, our intentionality comes from Him.

This is the view that Darwinism inverts. By "Darwinism" I mean here Darwinian ideology, not Darwinian science. The scope and competence of natural science properly does not concern itself with God. It is philosophy (primarily metaphysics), and theology that concerns itself with non-material reality. It is Darwinian ideology, grounded in philosophical materialism, which removes God from the picture and reassigns the origin of mind to mindless matter. Instead of mind originating in a top-downwards creation, so to speak, it arose from a ground-upwards “creation” by natural forces.

For Darwin and his followers, mind originated by chance and the random activities of earth’s natural events: “from the initially mindless and pointless algorithmic processes that gradually acquire meaning and intelligence as they develop (Dennett).” Pseudo-meaning evolves into full-fledged meaning in an incremental process: “Before intentionality can be fully fledged, it must go through its awkward, ugly period of featherless pseudo-intentionality (Dennett).”


If we ask of Dennett just how mindless matter can result in human consciousness, he does not provide a philosophically tenable hypothesis. Dennett attempts to deal with the problem by creating a picture of continuity between the mindless and minded by interspersing supposedly transitional elements: the “semi-minded,” “pseudo-meaning,” and so on. This approach has its own logical and philosophical problems, which I cannot go into here. Yet, we can ask the same question about causality regarding the transition from mindless matter to the dubious “semi-minded” that we asked about the transition from the mindless to consciousness. Dennett’s speculation remains as vague and imprecise as “featherless pseudo-intentionality.”

Dennett’s assumption that intelligence developed from nature’s mindless activity, entails his rejection of the traditional principle that an effect cannot be greater than its cause. Dennett’s position assumes there is something in the effect that was not contained in the cause. But nature gives us no examples of this. For instance, everything that an oak tree is was contained in the acorn. Science, especially genetics, tells us that nature adds nothing new as the acorn matures into a full-grown tree. In contradiction to what we know about natural causes, Dennett asserts that human consciousness is the product of all the “semi-minded” and “mindless bits” that make up the individual. The effect, consciousness, is greater than its cause, all the “semi-minded” and “mindless bits”.

Dennett asks, “Can it be that if you put enough of these dumb homunculi together you make a real conscious person?” Dennett answers, “The Darwinian says there could be no other way of making one.”

The idea that Nature can drop enough “dumb homunculi” into a hat and magically pull out a conscious person is no explanation at all for the origin of human consciousness. The absurdity of Dennett’s position, as previously stated, involves the metaphysical impossibility of an effect being greater than its cause. As far as I am aware, Dennett does not address his irresolvable predicament.


Dennett's proof that initially mindless and pointless algorithmic processes eventually resulted in a conscious person is, “The Darwinian says there could be no other way of making one.” The logical fallacy here, proof from authority, “The Darwinian...,” is no proof at all. He provides no genuine evidence to support his speculations on the origins of consciousness. Dennett’s conclusion is merely question begging.

The Darwinian assumes the conscious person, as a whole, to be a product of evolution. Why does he believe this is true? Because, he claims, “there could be no other way.” For the extreme Darwinists, there is no other way since the epistemological presumptions of Darwinian ideology arbitrarily limit what the human mind can know about reality.


The extreme Darwinist excludes the possibility of a non-materialist account of human consciousness. Yet he remains unable to provide us with an account that is scientifically sound and philosophically coherent. Dennett’s view on human consciousness, rather than being good science and good philosophy, is more like an elaborate myth of human origins adorned in modern scientific garb. The poor logic of Dennett’s naturalist doctrine, a subtle form of reductionism characteristic of modern philosophical materialism, accounts for the gross inadequacies of his speculations about human consciousness.

To state the matter more specifically, the philosophical naturalist commits an inductive fallacy of favoring select types of data over equally evident types. That is, he favors the data of the natural sciences, while being discriminatory against data involving a significant range of specifically human activities and interests. As a result, the naturalist’s law of continuity is an unwarranted assumption into which he must force-fit the data of human consciousness, abstract thinking, will, philosophy, religion, and much more.

A researcher’s particular underlying philosophical assumptions influence pre-investigatively the type of the questions he asks, and post-investigatively the kind of the conclusions he draws from his data. We see a highly problematic instance of this fact in Darwin’s Descent of Man, where he assumes a strict continuity between the human and animal mind. Darwin says,

“Nevertheless the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.”

I stated that Darwin “assumes” this claim, even though Darwin said it was “certain”, because he lacked scientific evidence for his conclusion.


The best research and thinking supports the difference in the human mind and higher animals as one that is radical in kind. Neo-Darwinists (e.g. Ernst Mayr, et al) reject Darwin’s position on the mind and maintain the human mind differs in kind and not just in degree from that of higher animals. However, the neo-Darwinists’ difference in kind is a difference that is superficial; it is not a radical difference in kind. One reason for claiming that man differs radically in kind from the higher animals and anthropoid apes is that he is the only animal capable of propositional speech. (M. J. Adler)

Why did Charles Darwin, a brilliant scientist, insist on his peculiar conclusion about the mind of man over the objections of Mivart, Wallace and others? Though Darwin was not philosophically inclined, he possessed an underlying philosophical view about man and the world, a certain Weltanschauung, which skewed his judgement about the nature and origin of the human mind. Some folks may object that I have these matters in reverse chronological order; that it was, instead, Darwin’s scientific research that determined his views on the human mind. However, comments Darwin made in his Early Notebooks tell a different story.

In conclusion, the challenge for those in search of scientific and philosophic truth is to separate sound Darwinian science from the erring Darwinian ideology of which Daniel C. Dennett is a notable proponent.

This discussion will continue in a future post where I will explain the nature of human knowledge and the conditions that make knowing possible. This will provide some insight why philosophical naturalism, which underlies Darwinian ideology, can never be adequate to the task of explaining human consciousness.

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