Dennett’s Speculative Bet in “From Bacteria to Bach and Back”

At the time of writing this post, I’m still not quite finished my final thorough read of Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back (“B2BnB”) and, apart from his focus on “words” in linguistic development, I’d still say the whole is an improvement – a consolidation, clarification and most importantly an evolution – of his life’s work. Highly recommended for that reason, as I’ve said.

[Post Note: See also “Our very rationality is at stake” for my final
review of Dennett’s B2BnB published in New Humanist 25th Oct 2017.]

How much B2BnB actually advances his thesis – on the evolved reality of conscious self – in the wider world of “accepted fact” is of course a wide open question.

Julian Baggini is one of many published reviewers of B2BnB and one for whose philosophical intelligence I have a lot of time, and I was moved to add this comment to his Prospect review:

I think the following is key when it comes to those critics who demand an answer to their “hard question” – how to explain “subjective experience”.

You quote Dennett’s response: “if you debate on your opponents’ terms, you have already lost. To win, you must set the agenda. His bet is that if you understand consciousness in the right way, the Hard Problem will be exposed as an artefact of an outmoded way of thinking—a pseudo-problem”

Yes he uses the throwaway “life’s too short” response in his conclusions, but the real answer is in the quote above. Notwithstanding the need to (eventually) have agreed, documented versions of Dennett’s ontology of consciousness – to satisfy the expectations of rational philosophy – I’d be interested in your own view of his speculative bet?

All too easy to predict his (existing) critics view, he does it himself. A large part of his book is in fact a plea to suspend disbelief on that bet. So, in that spirit …. are you a critic or a betting man?

And Julian’s reply?

“My hunch is that it’s a better bet than many think.”

Dan does of course address many of his critics points in B2BnB as well as in much previous work, life’s never too short for a little “contact sport”, but he makes no apology here for sticking to his own agenda to work through his arguments his way. A strange loopy journey to evolve our understanding of our evolved conscious self, rather than fit simple syllogistic logic to the arguments of others.

So no prizes for spotting that there is more work to be done before his critics can be satisfied and brought on board, but I tend to agree with Dan, that this is work for the rest of us. It cannot be a criticism of his omission in B2BnB.


Also published on Medium.

4 thoughts on “Dennett’s Speculative Bet in “From Bacteria to Bach and Back””

  1. It’s interesting that Dan recognises that it is difficult to win an argument when somebody else has set the agenda and phrased the question. Not sure if it is fair that the agenda is set by Dan on all occasions though. I prefer a dispassionate third party agenda-setting approach. Intelligence Squared seems to do a decent job of that. Wish I could get Dan along to do a talk for us….

  2. Not on all occasions, sure, but on this one topic for the purposes of one argument, can’t be too much to ask? (Although his hope, and mine, is that after having one or two arguments on this basis, others would start to see it’s a good basis, the right basis, for ANY …. er … knowledge dialogue? (Part of the problem is built into the word “argument”.)

    And, neutral dispassionate third-party? Can’t agree here. This is the REAL problem.

    The generally accepted basis of rational “argument” is totally engrained in our culture, (it is itself a meme / memeplex), that it is very unlikely a neutral would see the issue. A neutral “facilitator” could work, provided for the purposes of “this” debate they took “instruction” from Dan on “the rules of this argument”, and then refereed it neutrally. What is there to lose? You need to “buy” Dan’s argument, even if only on a sale-or-return basis 😉

    As to getting him to speak to “us” – it would need to be in collaboration with a larger group. (I’m working on a couple of pieces for publication elsewhere, as part of trying to engage him in his own discussion already. He does respond in friendly, helpful, if brief, ways to correspondence I’ve found. Shaking him by the hand in London, may have helped put a face to an email name for him?)

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