Daniel Dennett: Evolution and Meaning in Life

Dennett wearing a button-up shirt and a jacket

In his book, DARWIN’S DANGEROUS IDEA: EVOLUTION AND THE MEANINGS OF LIFE, Dennett describes evolution as a universal acid that eats through everything it touches; everything from the cell to consciousness to the cosmos is best explained from an evolutionary perspective, as are metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, religion, and the meaning of life. To better explain his ideas, Dennett considers the “great cosmic pyramid.” Traditionally this pyramid explains design from the top down—from god down through mind, design, order, chaos, and nothingness. In this interpretation, god acts as the ultimate “skyhook,” a miraculous source of design that does not build on lower, simpler layers. By contrast, evolution reverses the direction of the pyramid explaining design from the bottom up, by what Dennett calls “cranes.” Here physical matter and the algorithmic process of evolution explain the evolution of more complex structures from simpler ones, and they do so without miraculous intervention.

Now applied to meaning, evolution implies that no godlike skyhook is needed to derive meaning; instead, meaning must be created from the ground up, as subjectivists like Sartre argue. So if we abandon the idea that god or mind comes first, we see that meaning can evolve from the bottom up as order, design and mind are created. At one time there was no life, mind, or meaning, but slowly, imperceptibly each emerged. Meaning does not descend from on high; it percolates up from below as mind develops. The meaning that mind now experiences is not full-fledged meaning, but it is moving in that direction as mind develops. From a mind that was built by cranes—composed of molecules, atoms, and neurons in ever more complex arrangements—meaning evolves.

The mental states that give rise to meaning are themselves ultimately grounded in biology. Darwin showed us that everything of importance, including our minds, evolved slowly from below, and all are connected in a tree of life. The tree of life created by evolution is no god to be prayed to, but it inspires awe nonetheless. It is something sacred.

We summarize Dennett’s position thus: Life is not now completely meaningful, but it is becoming progressively meaningful as mind evolves.

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6 thoughts on “Daniel Dennett: Evolution and Meaning in Life

  1. As I read about the philosophy of the mind and how human consciousness arises, Daniel Dennett’s name kept appearing. Reading about him and watching some videos of his lectures left me awestruck by his intelligence and insights. One of his video lectures was largely about the subject matter in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” (and I have the book on order). The profile of him by Joshua Rothman in the March 27, 2017 issue of the New Yorker described his many talents in addition to philosophy.

    I thought “surely John has written some posts about Dennett on his web site”. Although I didn’t see his name appearing in any of your menus, a search of your site turned up this post, among others.

    Perhaps it is just confirmation bias (since I am a reductive physicalist), but Daniel Dennett seems to be literally reading my mind! Once I grasped his evolutionary basis of the formation of the mind and consciousness, it was as if light bulbs went off in my head. All the various similar thoughts and ideas that I’ve had about these topics, incoherently floating around in my brain and largely inexpressible, were clearly and cogently explained by Dennett.

    Clearly and without a doubt, in my opinion, Daniel Dennett is among the greatest of all contemporary philosophers. He even resembles Darwin with his beard!

  2. John,

    Thanks again for this post. Here are my thoughts on the book, some of which mirror those from your post above.

    DARWIN’S DANGEROUS IDEA is one of those books that should be read slowly and savored – and then re-read again and again. It took me all summer to work my way through the book (I’m a slow reader), but it was a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking experience. Dennett has sharpened my understanding of Darwinian evolution from a vague concept that I learned many years ago in school to a much richer perspective.

    While I gained many new insights from the book, perhaps the one that has stuck with me the most is Dennett’s description of natural selection as being a mindless, purposeless, algorithmic process. The feat of traversing through design space from the earliest, simple organisms to the present-day complexity of life was done in a bottoms-up manner by little chemical and biological “cranes”. No “skyhooks” lowered by imaginary beings from above were needed. In Dennett’s words (p. 75): “Darwin has offered us an account of the crudest, most rudimentary, stupidest imaginable lifting process – the wedge of natural selection. By taking tiny – the tiniest possible – steps, this process can gradually, over eons, traverse these huge distances.”

    Being an engineer, I was intrigued by how often Dennett’s explanations drew on familiar concepts used in engineering and computer science. He even has an entire chapter titled “Biology is Engineering”, in which he states the following (p. 187): “I want to make out the case that the engineering perspective on biology is not merely occasionally useful, not merely a valuable option, but the obligatory organizer of all Darwinian thinking, and the primary source of its power. I expect a fair amount of emotional resistance to this claim. Be honest: doesn’t this chapter’s title provoke a negative reaction in you, along the lines of ‘Oh no, what a dreary, philistine, reductionist claim! Biology is much more than engineering!’?”

    Actually, I got quite excited when I saw the title of that chapter!

    Dennett does not shy away from trying to correct misconceptions about evolution. Although written back in 1995, with some particular disagreements now consigned to the dustbin of history, his analysis still seems relevant today. In particular, Dennett singled out the popular author Stephen Jay Gould (now deceased). Although Dennett was very complimentary about the many contributions that Gould made, he ultimately felt that Gould often misled and confused the public on what evolution is. Dennett writes about a possible reason for this (p. 265): “The hypothesis I shall defend is that Gould is following in a long tradition of eminent thinkers who have been seeking skyhooks – and coming up with cranes.” This controversy between Dennett and Gould, over twenty years ago, is OBE at this point. But there are still currently many well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning individuals that confuse and mislead the public about evolution and science in general. After all, it is basic human nature to seek and want to believe in skyhooks dangled by deities. That thesis is much more comforting (and marketable) than the notion that the meaning of life is to be found buried among the cranes. Yet, that latter notion is the net result of Dennett’s uncompromising and precise analysis, which is also like a universal acid in its own right: it eats through one’s misconceptions and cognitive biases and leaves behind a more clear-thinking, rational human being. (Well, I hope that happened to me…)

    Of all the well-deserved comments of praise about the book inside the front cover, my favorite is the one from Matt Ridley of The Times (London): “If we had to choose one man to represent Earth in a debating tournament with extraterrestrials, the American philosopher Daniel Dennett would be a prime candidate”. I heartily agree.


  3. “Dennett describes evolution as a universal acid that eats through everything it touches; everything from the cell to consciousness to the cosmos is best explained from an evolutionary perspective, as is metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, religion, and the meaning of life.” It’s a universal acid that eats through everything — except, of course, the ideas of Daniel Dennet. 😉 All fully reductive worldviews are self-contradicting.

  4. Being able to explain things doesn’t give the universe meaning. That’s the cognitive trap of the ego that you have to defeat when you’re filled with unexplainable awe. You tell yourself it’s your stellar understanding of the mechanics of the universe and your bottom-up knowledge that instills this awe. Not one bit. Can it fuel it, enrich it? Sure. But only momentarily, transiently, unless you learn to relinquish the compulsion to explain and validate your awe with some ideal of formal understanding or communication of it. We are choking off our minds and intuitions in our rejection of rationalism. What should fill you with awe and meaning is the way you relate to questions, not answers.

  5. “It’s a universal acid that eats through everything — except, of course, the ideas of Daniel Dennet.”

    No, it applies there too. And what is it with critics of Dennett who can’t spell his name right even when it is right in front of them?

    “All fully reductive worldviews are self-contradicting.”


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