“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.


  1. Matthew David Segall

    Thanks for this review. I look forward to the others. It seems to me that Thompson has been ramping up his criticisms of standard conceptions of metaphysical naturalism since the publication of “Mind in Life.” This criticisms, and the move toward a conception of nature as intrinsically self-organizing, no doubt make the more reductionistic and mechanistic Dennett quite uncomfortable, even hostile. In conversation with Thompson, I’ve asked what he believes the ontological implications of autopoietic theory are. In other words, if life is best accounted for in terms of autopoiesis (rather than genetic replication), what does this tell us about the role of self-organization in the physical and chemical domains? As a Whiteheadian, I asked whether something like Whitehead’s process-relational panexperientialism might be implied as an ontological groundwork for autopoietic biology and enactive philosophy of mind. Evan is not so sure, but said he was planning on reading Stengers’ “Thinking With Whitehead” in an attempt to bring his thought more into conversation with the process traditions (including James and Deleuze). We’ll see how his thought develops in the coming years… As for Dennett, he is stuck in an old paradigm and seems unable to understand the novel approach articulated by Thompson.

    1. surtymind Post author

      Thanks Matthew,
      I am ashamed to say aside from the Principia I have never read Whitehead. What book of Whitehead would you recommend reading? And is there a particular secondary text on Whitehead you would recommend? I had a quick look at your ‘Foot Notes to Plato’, it looks excellent I am looking forward having a read of your stuff.
      Best wishes,

      1. Matthew David Segall

        Hi Dave,

        There is no easy place to start with Whitehead, though his first book after moving to America to teach at Harvard may be appropriate: “Science and the Modern World.” As for secondary sources, there is no beating Isabelle Stengers’ “Thinking With Whitehead.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s