Book Review: Daniel Dennett rides again

Dan Jones in Nature:

542030a-i1In Joel and Ethan Coen's 2009 film A Serious Man, physics professor Larry Gopnik is in the middle of an existential crisis. In a dream, he gives a lecture on Heisenberg's uncertainty principle; Sy Ableman, the older man with whom Gopnik's wife is having an affair, stays on after the students disperse. In a condescending drawl, he addresses Gopnik and his equation-covered chalkboard: “I'll concede that it's subtle, clever — but at the end of the day, is it convincing?”

Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett has been hearing variants of this riposte for decades. If history is a guide, his latest book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, will elicit similar responses. It is a supremely enjoyable, intoxicating work, tying together 50 years of thinking about where minds come from and how they work. Dennett's path from the origins of life to symphonies is long and winding, but you couldn't hope for a better guide. Walk with him and you'll learn a lot.

The book's backbone is Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. That replaced the idea of top-down intelligent design with a mindless, mechanical, bottom-up process that guides organisms along evolutionary trajectories into ever more complex regions of design space. Dennett also draws heavily on the idea of 'competence without comprehension', best illustrated by mathematician Alan Turing's proof that a mechanical device could do anything computational. Natural selection has created, through genetic evolution, a world rich in competence without comprehension — the bacteria, trees and termites that make up so much of Earth's biomass.

Yet, as Dennett and others argue, genetic evolution is not enough to explain the skills, power and versatility of the human mind.

More here.

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