Monthly Archives: December 2014

A short blog on psychology from a sickly man

In my experience of psychology, its history is a series of dramatic swings where saviours appear on the scene to destroy supposed anti-scientific rivals. When Watson wrote his ‘Psychology as the Behaviourist Views it’ he attacked introspective psychology as being totally unscientific. This was a bit of an exaggeration. The introspective school was an improvement on the rationalist and empiricist philosophical schools because of its use of experiments and statistical generalisations of their results, and their recognition that all people don’t think or experience the world in the same way etc. Watson was right to criticise a lot of their work. For example, the fact that different labs were confirming the different theories of Titchner and Wundt, did show that something was badly wrong with the experimental techniques they used. But I think Watson went too far with his arguments that the study of introspection was unscientific. The work of people like Dennett and Evans, have in different ways, shown that we can gain scientific data from introspection if we are careful. Watson’s rhetoric was useful in one sense though; his emphasis on external behaviour, and behaviour modification did make science more practical. We can see this with the countless people with Intellectual Disability and Autism who have had their lives dramatically improved by Applied Behavioural Analysis.

But there were a lot of problems with behaviourism, for example the downplaying of introspective data, and notably the fact that they constantly attacked theory driven science. If one looks at physics, the most successful of the sciences, it is typically theory lead. There is nothing wrong with letting theory lead the way, as long as one modifies the theory when new data comes in.

One thing the behaviourists were not though was blank slate theorists. Watson famously made a very silly claim about modifying a child in any conceivable way using behavioural techniques. He ended his famous quote by admitting that it was a wild exaggeration of the facts, but that it was no worse than the exaggerations of Nativists in the opposite direction. But people like Pinker latched onto to Watson’s silly claim as evidence that behaviourists were blank slate theorists. But the quotes below from behaviourists Quine and Skinner clearly show that they were not blank slate theorists:

 “What can be said of innate dispositions now? When I posit an innate disposition I am assuming some specific though unspecified arrangement of cells or perhaps some combination of such arrangements. It could be a nerve tract or a gland. It could consist of several structures, variously situated in the organism. It could be one structure in one individual and some different and some different structure to the same specified effect in another individual. Its innateness consists in its being complete at birth…The innate dispositions, then, are a mixed bag: innate reflexes are learned in utero, while innate dispositions of deeper sorts are handed down in the chromosome. They are a mixed lot of structures, specified primarily by what they make the animal do in what circumstances, and grouped together by the accident of being complete at birth” (Quine ‘The Root’s of Reference’ p.13)

“Yet the innate sense of perceptual similarity has, for all its subjectivity, a degree of objective validity. After all, man’s inductive expectations are reached by extrapolating along the lines of perceptual similarity: experiences that begin similarly are expected to turn out in similar ways. Our innate standards of perceptual similarity show a gratifying tendency to run with the grain of nature. This concurrence is accountable, surely to natural selection. Since good prediction has survival value, natural selection will have fostered perceptual similarity standards in us and other animals that tend accordingly.” (ibid p.17)

“Descartes thought we had innate knowledge and innate ideas. Locke thought not. I despair of sharpening the issue by defining the term ‘idea’. Definition even of ‘knowledge’ is in trouble since Gettier’s challenge of the definition of knowledge as true warranted belief. However, we need no such sharpening of the issue to see that the evidence favours Descartes over Locke.” ( Quine: The Innate Foundational Endowments 1996)

“For, whatever we make of Locke, the behaviourist is knowingly and cheerfully up to his neck in innate mechanisms of learning-readiness…Since each learned response presupposes some such prior inequalities, some such inequalities, some such inequalities must be unlearned; hence innate. Innate biases and dispositions are the cornerstone of behaviourism, and have been studied by behaviourists.

The qualitative spacing of stimulations must therefore be recognised as an innate structure needed in accounting for any learning, and hence in particular, language learning. Unquestionably much more addition innate structure is needed to account for language learning” (Quine: ‘Philosophy and Linguistics’ p.37 1968)

“Just as we point out the contingencies of survival to explain an unconditioned reflex, so we point out to ‘contingencies of reinforcement to explain a conditioned reflex” ( Skinner 1974 p. 43)

“The task of a scientific analysis is to explain how the behaviour of the person is a physical system is related to the conditions under which the human species evolved, and the conditions under which the individual lives” (Skinner 1974 p. 14)

These quotes show the absurdity of the caricatures of used by Chomsky and Pinker. But it has to be said that Chomsky and Pinker’s caricatures of behaviourism were no worse than Watson’s caricatures of the introspective school of psychology.

I think that we are making progress in psychology but I think this constant talk of revolutionary paradigm shifts doesn’t help. I believe that thinking interms of integrating past knowledge and modifying our theories in light of new data is a better approach than painting older theorists as radically unscientific. Though who knows if people like Chomsky, Watson, etc didn’t play a bit dirty and exaggerate a bit things might not have changed.

I am not a behaviourist. If I had to attach an “ist” label to myself it would be pragmatist. I think psychology and linguistics would improve vastly if it adopted a more pragmatic attitude, making use of all empirical data instead of simply restricting itself to a particular school of thought. So called evolutionary psychology used the same rhetoric as the behaviourists and cognitive scientists. By labelling themselves as ‘evolutionary psychologists’, they instantly associated themselves with evolutionary theory, and implied that other psychologists were ignorant of evolutionary psychology and denied that our evolutionary history played any role in our psychology. This though is unfair; Skinner and Freud, for example, tried hard to integrate their theories with evolutionary science. There is no option but to be an evolutionary psychologist unless one is a creationist psychologist. But the term evolutionary psychologist should not be reserved for Cosmides, Tooby, and Pinker’s hyper modularity theory. We should be wary of falling for the simplifying rhetoric of evolutionary psychologists, which implies that psychologists who don’t agree with Pinker et al are anti evolutionary theory. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take home point. Don’t believe the hype of any psychologist, and look closely at the actual data.

The Language Myth: A Review

Evan’s ‘The Language Myth’ is an excellent reply to the accepted dogma that language acquisition can only be explained by postulating an innate domain specific language faculty. The book covers a lot of ground and evaluates virtually all of the arguments for linguistic Nativism, yet despite agreeing with the conclusion that there is no language instinct, I was not impressed with aspects of the book; at times it reads like a wild caricature of generative grammar. Such caricatures will serve to turn off generative grammarians from reading past the first chapter. Generative grammarians are no strangers to caricature. Chomsky’s review of Skinners ‘Verbal Behaviour’ was a complete mess and didn’t really deal with any of the facts as Skinner presented them. Pinker attacks those who do not agree that the evidence supports a language faculty by claiming they hold a blank slate view of human nature, this is despite the fact that these supposed blank slate theorists use innate architecture in their theories. If you disagree with Pinker and Chomsky their first reaction is to ridicule and misrepresent you. But I don’t think the correct response to caricature is further caricature. This approach makes dialogue between the disciplines impossible. And it creates an army of followers who believe the caricatures and refuse to look at empirical data relevant to the subject. The tone and caricatures used by Evan’s are counterproductive and other criticisms of the idea of a language instinct are far superior; for example, Sampson’s ‘The Language Instinct Debate’ and Lappin and Clark’s ‘Linguistic Nativism and Poverty of Stimulus Arguments’. Pinker and Chomsky have never replied to Lappin, Clark, or Sampson presumably because they know the empirical evidence provided by Sampson et al refutes their belief in a language instinct. I expect them to reply to Evans and to point out the caricatures in the book. This is a good tactic from them refuting a few caricatures presented by Evans is easier than dealing with the mountains of empirical evidence which counts against their theories.

Evans made four claims in Chapter 1 which were inaccurate:

  • He claimed that Generative Grammarians argue as though all languages are like English. This is false. Rather they claim all languages including English follow universal principles which deviate because of parametric variations. They set themselves the task of empirically discovering what the universal principles and parametric variations are. They study languages from all over the world including Hebrew (one of the first languages studied by generative grammarians), Japanese, Chinese, Irish, Piradha etc.
  • He argued that generative grammarians do not do comparative studies of human and non-human communicative systems. This is false. See, for example, Chomsky, Fitch and Hauser (2002) and the follow up papers.
  • He attacked Chomsky’s language is a mutation theory, and implies that this view is the standard one in generative grammar. This is not true. There is much debate on the evolution of language within Generative Grammar. See Jackendoff and Pinker (2005) Berwick (2009). Etc it would be much fairer to address the diversity in the literature instead of focusing on Chomsky’s minority position.
  • He called Poverty of Stimulus Arguments nothing but appeals to incredulity. The idea being that since I cannot think how language is acquired then it must be innate. This is a caricature. Poverty of Stimulus arguments are usually precisely structured and purport to show that since it is impossible for a child to learn x because they have no experience of x, and they don’t try false approximations of x, and even if they did they would not be corrected. Therefore the child cannot learn x by induction and trial and error. This is a perfectly sensible approach and not an appeal to incredulity. However we now know that children are exposed to x in their primary linguistic data, they do try false approximations of x, and they are corrected for these approximations. So the poverty of stimulus arguments are empirically refuted, though there is nothing wrong with that mode of argumentation.

In chapter 2 Evan’s sets out to refute what he claims is a key myth of the language instinct paradigm:

“Myth: Language is the preserve of humans, and humans alone; it cannot be compared to anything found amongst non-humans, and is unrelated to any non-human communicative activity” (The language Myth p. 27)

Chomsky does spend a lot of time arguing for the uniqueness of human language. And to some degree this is justified. There are clearly massive differences between human language and the communication abilities of other creatures whether bees, monkeys or starlings. Evan’s of course doesn’t deny any of this:

“Despite the range of communicative systems evident in the animal kingdom, the complexity of human language, the nature and type of texts it allows us to signal, how it is acquired, and crucially the range of functions it facilitates, are both a different quality and a different level of complexity from any other” (ibid p. 63)

Yet despite agreeing that human language is far more complicated and richer than any other animal language Evans spends the entire chapter discussing various different linguistic abilities that animals share with humans. This is because he wants to show how human language evolved out of the communicative abilities of the common ancestor that humans shared with Bonobos and Chimpanzees. He wants to contrast his position with Chomsky’s argument that language emerged suddenly as a result of a random mutation. He argues that this Chomskian position makes language a kind of singularity. Evans thinks that the empirical studies he brings together show that aspects of human language are shared with a variety of other different species. Thus he speaks of the bee waggle dance, of monkey’s who use suffixes to alter the meaning of sounds, and of Starlings who can master recursion.

The fact of Starlings mastering recursion is relevant because of claims by Chomsky et al (2002) that recursion a unique and universal feature of human language. It is obviously not unique if Starlings can master it, while Dan Everett’s research with the Piranha indicates that recursion may not be a universal feature of natural language either. Now while I think Evans makes some good points against Chomsky’s views on the evolution and uniqueness of human language he doesn’t make it clear enough that Chomsky’s views on this topic are a minority. The minimalist programme is not really accepted by the majority of generative linguists. Chomsky et al (2002) divided language into the faculty of language narrow (Recursion) and the faculty of language broad the conceptual intentional system and sensory motor system. This division seems to me to have resulted from accepting Chomsky’s minimalist programme and I am not sure there is much reason to divide up the supposed language faculty in the way Chomsky proposes. So I don’t think refuting Chomsky’s speculations on evolution and minimalism really affects the idea of a language instinct, not as the instinct is understood by the majority of linguists. But that said I do think Evan’s arguments to show a lot of weakness’s in Chomsky’s position.

It is hard to know what to make of this chapter. He does show, by means of comparative data of other species, that Chomsky’s claims about recursion being a unique feature of language are wrong. He also shows that Hockett’s supposedly unique design features of human language are actually not uniquely human and the features are shared by many other animal species. However the whole point of discussing what communicative abilities humans and animals share is to indicate that language emerged gradually from our ancestor species and didn’t require a sudden leap/mutation to produce this entirely new thing. But theorists like Pinker and Jackendoff do not support this sudden leap story, they focus on selection for communication. Evans will have to deal with their arguments in detail. In fact if he wants to critique generative grammarian’s views of the evolution of language he will need to do a detailed literature review of the main papers on the topic and not merely focus narrowly on Chomsky’s minority position.

In chapter 3 Evan’s addresses the question of whether language is innate. A lot of his arguments are supported by empirical evidence from Tomasello. Evan’s cites approvingly the following Tomasello quote:

“The conclusion in the case of individual differences and the language acquisition process is thus that input does matter. Children learn what they hear, and different children hear different things and in different quantities. What this suggests is that language acquisition is not just triggered by the linguistic environment, as proposed by generative grammarians, but rather the linguistic environment provides the raw materials out of which young children construct similar their linguistic inventories. The fact that most adults end up with fairly similar (though not identical) linguistic inventories does not negate the obvious fact that early in development children can only learn what they are exposed to. It is also useful in this context to note that when pattern finding computer programs are given CDS as input, they are able to group together, by means of distributional analysis, linguistic items in a way that would seem to be psychologically realistic for young children.” (Tomasello ‘Constructing a Language’ p. 110)

The paper Tomasello is referring to which shows computer programmes learning to group together linguistic items in a psychologically realistic way is: ‘Distributional Information: A Powerful cue for acquiring syntactic categories’ Redington et al. (1998).

It may seem that he is question begging against Nativists who claim that we don’t need exposure to learn certain syntactic constructions. However Evans (and others) have provided evidence to show that the amount of linguistic exposure a child receives is directly proportional to their linguistic abilities.

Some of this evidence is:

  • Hart and Risely (1995) ‘Meaning Differences in Every Day Experience of Young Children’
  • ‘Semantic generality, input frequency and the acquisition of syntax’ Theakston et al. (2004)
  • Naigles, L. R. And E. Hoff-Ginsberg. (1998) ‘Why are Some verbs learned before other verbs? Effects of input frequency and structure on children’s early verb use’
  • Huttenlocher, J. M. Vasilyeva and P. Shimpi. (2002) ‘Syntactic Priming in Young Children’

These papers are merely the tip of the ice-berg of empirical research, and clearly show that despite what generative grammarians claim, a child doesn’t just have their universal grammar triggered by a bit of linguistic exposure. Rather the linguistic environment a child grows in will be directly relevant in determining the richness of the language a child will learn. Evans does well in bringing together empirical data which seriously undermines the claims of those who support the principles and parameters approach.

One area of his discussion of innateness that I think could have been improved was his discussion of poverty of stimulus arguments. Evan’s does mention Pullum and Schulz’s empirical research on a child’s primary linguistic data.  But I thought a more careful discussion of the issue was warranted. Chomsky (and later Pinker), used Auxiliary  Inversion in question formation as evidence that children could learn the rule for structure dependence without receiving any evidence from their linguistic environment. In his 1975 ‘Knowledge of Language’ Chomsky has argued that a child could go much or all of his without receiving evidence relevant to learning the rule. Pullum and Scholz (unlike Chomsky or Pinker) actually looked at the linguistic exposure that children actually receive, and they showed that Chomsky and Pinker were wrong. Children are routinely exposed to enough evidence in their linguistic environment to learn the relevant rule (Sampson replicated this finding). Lappin and Clark in their ‘Linguistic Nativism and Poverty of Stimulus Arguments’ showed that domain general machines could learn the rule from less exposure to the linguistic data than a child receives. This is clear evidence against the claims of linguistic Nativists. Their reaction to this refutation has been both comical and sad at the same time. The reply by Chomsky et al has been that the rule wasn’t really meant as a poverty of stimulus argument, so the fact that it was refuted is irrelevant. This reply is strange because this poverty of stimulus argument is the most cited one in cognitive science. Pullum and Scholz cite eight different occasions that Chomsky uses the example (Chomsky 1965, 55-56; 1968, 51-52; 1971, 29-33; 1972, 30-33; 1975, 153-154; 1986, 7-8; 1988, 41-47). They also cite other Chomskian thinkers (including linguists such as Lightfoot, 1991, 2-4; Uriagereka, 1998, 9-10; Carstairs-McCarthy, 1999, 4-5; Smith, 1999, 53-54; Lasnik, 2000, 6-9; and psychologists such as Crain, 1991, 602; Macrus, 1993, 80; Pinker, 1994, 40-42, 233-234) who here endorsed the claim. However the second it is shown to be false Nativists  claim that it is not the real poverty of stimulus argument and argue there is some other piece of evidence that represents the poverty of stimulus argument.  In her ‘What’s Within’ Fiona Cowie spends a lot of time demonstrating a number of occasions that poverty of stimulus arguments have been refuted.  She then noticed the following depressing pattern:

The nativist- say, Chomsky- articulates a version of the argument. The empiricist counters it by pointing to its evidential short-falls and/or its failure to do justice to empiricism’s explanatory potential. But no sooner is one rendition of the APS cut down than myriad other variations on the same argumentative theme spring up to take its place. For every non-obvious rule of grammar (and most of them are non-obvious), there is an argument from poverty of stimulus standing by to make a case for Nativism. And for every such argument (or at least for the ones I have seen), there are empiricist counter examples of exactly the kinds we have reviewed in this chapter, waiting, swords at the ready, to take it on.  ( Cowie: 1999, 203)”

This shows how difficult it is to get a Nativist to accept any kind of refutation. I think that Evans book would have been much better if he addressed this issue.

One area where I disagree with Evans (and Tomasello) is that I disagree with their contention that children are not corrected for grammatical mistakes. Contrary to their views I think that implicit correction does indeed play a role in helping the child to learn his first language. There is a lot of empirical research into this issue that supports the view that correction plays a role in a child acquiring their first language:

(1) Nelson, K.E., et al. ‘Maternal Input Adjustments and Non-Adjustments as Related to Children’s Linguistic Advances and to Language Acquisition Theories’ (1984)

(2) Demopoulos, M.J. et al. ‘Feedback to first Language Learners: The Role of Repetitions and Clarification questions’ Journal of Child Language 13 (1986)

(3) Saxton, M. ‘The contrast theory of negative input.’ Journal of Child Language 24 (1997)

(4) Saxton, M. ‘Negative Evidence and Negative feedback: Immediate effects on the grammaticality of child speech’ First Language 20 (2000)

(6) Choinard and Clark ‘Adult Reformulations of Child Errors as Negative Evidence’ Journal of Child language (2003).

Again this data is just the tip of the iceberg but the above papers shows both that the child is corrected for ungrammatical speech and makes use of these corrections. There is a lot of empirical data on both sides of this particular debate and I don’t mean to imply that all the evidence supports the view that children make use of corrections in learning their language. Rather I just mean to point out that Evan’s complacent assertion that correction plays no role in them acquiring a language needs a much more robust defence than he supplies.

Having dealt with the idea of innateness he goes on to attack the idea of universal rules that all that the estimated 7000 languages in the world share. This chapter is a bit quick but he does nicely make the point that no two generative grammarians seem to agree on what these supposed universal rules are. Furthermore as we study more and more of the world’s languages the less sense empirical support exists for these supposed linguistic universals.

He attacks the modularity of the mind thesis proposed by Fodor and supported by Pinker in his ‘The Language Instinct’ (1994). Pinker claimed that language and general intelligence were clearly different modules and this can be shown by the strange case of double disassociation between language and intelligence in Specific Language Impairment (SLI) and in Williams Syndrome.  In the case of Specific Language Impairment Pinker discussed the case of the KE family who allegedly had normal IQ but who had deficit in the ability to understand and produce grammatical sentences. He contrasted this case with the case of people suffering from Williams Syndrome, who Pinker claimed are linguistic savants with an extremely low IQ.

Evans does a good (but too brief) job of debunking this myth. He shows how the members of the KE family did in fact have IQ deficits, and their supposed grammar impairment could be mostly explained in terms of problems with motor control resulting from damage to the Foxp2 gene. While in the case of Williams Syndrome, Evans examines a variety of different empirical sources to show that people with Williams Syndrome are not the Savant’s Pinker claims. In fact Evans manages to demonstrate a variety of semantic, pragmatic, and syntactic difficulties with their speech. Overall he does a good job of critiquing this particular argument of Pinker. That said I think that people with Williams Syndrome do still seem to have excellent linguistic abilities relative to their general intelligence. So I plan to dedicate my next blog to discussing this issue in more detail than Evan’s manages to.

Evans also attacks the idea of mentalese proposed by Pinker. His attacks on the Computational Theory of the Mind which he incorrectly equates with Pinker’s Mentalese hypotheses are pretty weak.  He notes that there are three problems with the mentalese hypothesis:

  • How meaning arises from computation (Searle’s Problem)
  • How are symbols in mentalese interpreted? (The infinite Regress of homunculus (Ryle’s Problem))
  • The third problem is that mentalese theories are too syntacticocentric. (Chomsky’s ‘Colourless ideas sleep furiously’ doesn’t show syntax and semantics are separate)

A few points need to be made here. Firstly by equating mentalese (a language of thought) with the computational theory of mind Evans is really showing an outdated and unnecessarily restrictive conception of computation. The subject has moved on since the 80s (though apparently Pinker and Fodor aren’t aware of this), Bayesian and Connectionist models are far superior to the old symbol crunching computation and don’t rely on any idea of a language of thought.

Secondly, one would have thought that if he was going to bring in Searle’s Chinese Room Argument into the book he would have responded to the systems objection. The systems objection reveals the Chinese room argument to be an intuition pump which misdirects our intelligence in trying to understand what is going on with the machine. As far as I can see systems objection nicely refutes Searle. Why Evans doesn’t even mention the objection is a mystery to me.

Finally he sums up by defending the Sapir Whorf hypothesis against the criticisms made against it by Pinker.   He notes that Pinker creates a caricature and then destroys the straw man he has set up. Evans explicitly quotes Whorf to show that he does not hold the views that Pinker attributes to him. He then reviews some recent empirical research which demonstrates that a weak form of Linguistic relativism is possible. But this version doesn’t rely on anything like the linguistic determinism that Pinker attacks.

Over all I found ‘The Language Myth’ interesting and thought it offered some good criticisms of the idea of linguistic Nativism. However I thought his overblown rhetoric and caricatures of generative grammar took away from the central message of the book. I thought his attacks on the computational theory of the mind weak (and could have been made much stronger by incorporating the work of Evan Thompson and Terrence Deacon). But thought that his emphasis on embodied cognition and behavioural and cross linguistic data did show many weakness of linguistic Nativists approach to language acquisition.


“Over the years, I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to figure out which bits of Daniel Dennett’s stuff are supposed to be the arguments and which are just rhetorical posturing. In the present case, I give up.” Jerry Fodor LRB 2008

I have recently finished reading Evan Thompson’s (2007) book ‘Mind in Life’ and found the book clearly written, well argued, and challenging. Part of my interest in reading the book stemmed from the fact that I was also very impressed by Terrance Deacon’s ‘Incomplete Nature’ (2013) and wanted to see how the two books compared with each other. I next plan to read Juarrero’s ‘Dynamics in Action’ (2002) and see how it compares with the work of Deacon and Thompson. Having finished ‘Mind in Life’ I decided to re-read Dennett’s largely negative review of it ‘Shall we tango? No, but Thanks for Asking’ (2011), alongside his largely positive review of ‘Incomplete Nature’ written two years later ‘Aching Voids and Making Voids’ (2013). Now while Deacon’s book and Thompson have a lot in common including the assumption that explaining life and explaining mind are connected, and both place heavy emphasis on the importance of systems theory in this explanation; there is much they disagree on. So it is no surprise that Dennett could be largely positive about one book and largely negative about the other. Nonetheless there are aspects of things Dennett criticised Thompson for that he neglected to critique Deacon for. This can be explained as an oversight on Dennett’s part. Or it can be explained as Dennett changing his mind on the topic based on Deacon’s superior arguments. I will return to this issue later in the blog. Firstly I want to outline Dennett’s main difficulties with ‘Mind in Life’.

I began this blog by quoting Jerry Fodor in his reply to a criticism Dennett made of his views on evolution. Now while I don’t share Fodor’s views on evolution, I can understand his frustration with Dennett. Throughout his review of ‘Mind in Life’ he grossly misrepresents Thompson as someone who thinks that his book represents some wild paradigm shift in our world view. Dennett then goes on to argue that all of the facts Thompson brings together are already known by those in the orthodoxy and that Thompson would have realised this if he dealt with their actual work instead of caricaturing them by creating straw-men. The problem with this heavy handed rhetoric of Dennett’s is that anybody who has read ‘Mind in Life’ will know that Thompson doesn’t present any of his data as radical, rather he just presents it as a accumulation of theoretical insights which challenge the world view of certain rival theorists. Furthermore far from creating straw-men Thompson presents detailed quotations from the theorists he is criticising such as Dawkins. So he is disagreeing with their expressly stated beliefs as opposed to attacking straw-men. Why Dennett resorts to such heavy handed rhetoric is anyone’s guess but I think his rhetoric gets in the way of an even-handed analysis of the issues and he should try to curtail such over the top devices.

Rhetoric aside Dennett does have four clear areas of disagreement with Thompson.  (1) He disagrees with Thompson’s supposed belief that Autopoiesis provides radical new foundation for evolutionary theory.

(2) He disagrees with Thompson’s belief that developmental systems are an alternative to ‘geneo-centrism’ and Dennett’s Design Stance.

(3)  He disagrees with Thompson’s arguments against the uses of information by people like Dawkins and Dennett.

(4) He disagrees with Thompson’s preference for the first person method over Dennett’s Hetrophenomenology. (Shall we Tango? No, but Thanks for Asking p. 24)

Of Dennett’s 4 criticisms above the first three apply to the views expressed by Deacon in ‘Incomplete Nature’ only number 4 is not applicable to Deacon. Yet while Dennett attacks Thompson he asks us to applaud Deacon’s achievement (Aching Voids, and Making Voids p. 324). This is strange stuff indeed, and is in need of an explanation. To explore this issue I will first show how Dennett’s first three objections apply to Deacon, and then consider why he doesn’t criticise Deacon in the same way he attacks Thompson.

Dennett’s first two criticisms of Thompson centre on the fact that Dennett believes that Thompson is caricaturing the geneo-centric selfish gene view and is overplaying the ability of autopoeitic explanations to provide a new foundation for evolutionary theory. Firstly as I said above Thompson doesn’t think that autopoeisis provides a new foundation for evolutionary theory, he just think it is an important concept within any adequate evolutionary theory. It is true though that Thompson does think that the selfish gene metaphor is an inaccurate way of characterising evolution. However, it is worth noting that Deacon makes similar criticisms:

“Dawkins describes genes as replicators…This connotation is a bit misleading. DNA molecules only get replicated with the aid of quiet elaborate molecular machinery, within living cells or specially designed laboratory devices…

DNA replication depends on an extensive array of cellular molecular mechanisms, and the influence that a given DNA base sequence has on its own probability of replication is mediated by the physiological and behavioural consequences it contributes to in a body, and most importantly how these affect how well that body reproduces in its given environmental context. DNA does not automatically replicate itself; nor does a given DNA sequence have the intrinsic property of aiding its own replication…In fact there is a curious irony in treating the only two totally passive contributors to natural selection-the genome and the selection environment-as though they were active principles of change…

But where is the Organism in this explanation? For Dawkins, the organism is the medium through which genes influence the probability of their being replicated. But as many critics have pointed out, this inverts the location of agency and dynamics. Genes are passively involved in the process while the chemistry of organism bodies does the work of acquiring resources and reproducing…

The question being begged by replicator theory, then is this: What kind of system of properties are required to transform a mere physical pattern embedded within that system into information that is both able to play a constitutive role in determining the organization of this system and constraining it to be capable of self-generation, maintenance, and reproduction in its local environment? These properties are external to the patterned artefact being described as a replicator and are far from trivial” (Incomplete Nature pp. 129-132)

I quote this long section from Deacon because here he is criticising the “Selfish-Gene” theory of treating the organism as a passive vehicle of selection. When Thompson does this Dennett argues as follows:

 “He quotes a rathering from Levins and Lewontin: adaptationism ‘implies that the organism is simply a passive object of selection rather than an active agent or subject of the evolutionary process’ (Levins and Lewontin, 1985). How does this implication run, and does anybody believe it?” (Shall we Tango p.26)

One wonders why Thompson is accused of rathering while Dennett asks us to applaud Deacon’s achievements? It is possible that Dennett disagrees with the above criticisms of Dawkins but didn’t have time to mention this disagreement. One would think though that since Dennett found time to criticise Deacon for his unnecessarily coining new terms and for his weak account of consciousness he would also make time to at least mention that he disagreed with Deacon on the idea of the “Selfish Gene”. One wonders if Dennett has changed his mind on this topic. This though is extremely unlikely given his ultra Darwinism, and if he had changed his mind he would have presumably have made this explicit.

A similar disparity of Dennett’s analysis of Thompson and Deacon emerges when one considers their difficulties with the concept of Information, in particular Deacon and Thompson critique Dawkins for his views on DNA as an intrinsic information vehicle. Here is Deacon on the issue:

As our analysis of the concept of information in previous chapters has demonstrated, however, genetic information cannot be simply identified with a physical substrate or pattern. Information is dependent on the propagation of constraints linking a teleodynamic system and its environmental context. This means that information is not an intrinsic property of the substrate that embodies or obeys these constraints. Although one of the crucial properties of an information bearing medium is that it can serve as a template for copying and propagating constraints, this simple quality is not what defines it. The general theory of information that we explored in the two previous chapters demonstrated that information is identified with a transmission of constraints, exemplified by some physical medium linking a teleodynamic system with its environment. Information does not stand apart from this relationship, nor does it pre-exist the teleodynamics that it informs. Another way to say this is that teleodynamic organisation is primary, and information is a special feature of some teleo-dynamic processes.

What does this mean for the role of genetic information in the origin of life? Basically, it suggests that genetic information is not primary, but is rather a derived feature of life?…A DNA molecule outside of an organism does not convey information about anything, and is mostly just goo… It is not the template replication that is the basis for the information-displaying capacity of DNA and RNA in organisms; it is the integration of the patterns that they can exhibit into the teleodynamics of the living processes that matters (Incomplete Nature: p.436)

Thompson makes almost identical claims in ‘Mind in Life’:

“Yet it is unacceptable to say that DNA contains the information for phenotypic design, because this statement attributes an intrinsic semantic-informational status to one particular type of component and thereby divests this component of its necessary embedding in the dynamics of the autopoietic network…In summary, the linguistic mode is emergent from the dynamical mode, and information exists only as dynamically embodied. (Mind in Life p. 57)

Here we again see Thompson and Deacon making virtually identical claims and Dennett attacks Thompson for caricaturing the selfish gene idea and yet he reports no difficulties with Deacon’s characterisation. Again I am left wondering why this is the case?

Dennett and Thompson do agree on is that the weakest aspect of Deacon’s book is his attempt to deal with consciousness. Dennett disagrees with Deacon because he finds his ideas too speculative. Thompson, who marries his enactive approach to a close phenomenological analysis of experience, obviously had difficulties with Deacon completely ignoring phenomenological data.

While neither Dennett nor Thompson are impressed by Deacon’s take on consciousness they are far from in agreement with each other on the best approach to take when studying consciousness. Dennett opts for a heterophenomenological approach while Thompson adopts for a phenomenology approach. I think that it is this difference that lies at the core of Dennett’s disagreement with Thompson. In my next blog I will discuss how their different approaches bear on their views on the nature of mental imagery and explore to what extent Dennett’s far from even handed treatment of Thompson and Deacon may be attributed to this major difference. In my last blog I will critically evaluate whether Deacon and Thompson’s disagreements with the selfish gene theory stand up to critical scrutiny.