An Inquiry into & a Critique of Dennett on Intentional Systems

A new working paper. Downloads HERE:

Abstract, contents, and introduction below:

* * * * *

Abstract: Using his so-called intentional stance, Dennett has identified so-called “free-floating rationales” in a broad class of biological phenomena. The term, however, is redundant on the pattern of objects and actions to which it applies and using it has the effect of reifying the pattern in a peculiar way. The intentional stance is itself a pattern of wide applicability. However, in a broader epistemological view, it turns out that we are pattern-seeking creatures and that phenomenon identified with some pattern must be verified by other techniques. The intentional stance deserves no special privilege in this respect. Finally, it is suggested that the intentional stance may get its intellectual power from the neuro-mental machinery it recruits and not from any special class of phenomena it picks out in the world.


Introduction: Reverse Engineering Dan Dennett 2
Dennett’s Astonishing Hypothesis: We’re Symbionts! – Apes with infected brains 6
In Search of Dennett’s Free-Floating Rationales 9
Dan Dennett on Patterns (and Ontology) 14
Dan Dennett, “Everybody talks that way” – Or How We Think 20

Introduction: Reverse Engineering Dan Dennett

I find Dennett puzzling. Two recent back-to-back videos illustrate that puzzle. One is a version of what seems to have become his standard lecture on cultural evolution, this time entitled


As such it has the same faults I identify in the lecture that occasioned the first post in this collection, Dennett’s Astonishing Hypothesis: We’re Symbionts! – Apes with infected brains. It’s got a collection of nicely curated examples of mostly biological phenomenon which Dennett crafts into an account of cultural evolution though energetic hand-waving and tap-dancing.
And then we have a somewhat shorter video that is a question and answer session following the first:


I like much of what Dennett says in this video; I think he’s right on those issues.

What happened between the first and second video? For whatever reason, no one asked him about the material in the lecture he’d just given. They asked him about philosophy of mind and about AI. Thus, for example, I agree with him that The Singularity is not going to happen anytime soon, and likely not ever. Getting enough raw computing power is not the issue. Organizing it is, and as yet we know very little about that. Similarly I agree with him that the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness is a non-issue.

How is it that one set of remarks is a bunch of interesting examples held together by smoke and mirrors while the other set of remarks is cogent and substantially correct? I think these two sets of remarks require different kinds of thinking. The second set involve philosophical analysis, and, after all Dennett is a philosopher more or less in the tradition of 20th century Anglo-American analytic philosophy. But that first set of remarks, about cultural evolution, is about constructing a theory. It requires what I called speculative engineering in the preface to my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil. On the face of it, Dennett is not much of an engineer.

And now things get really interesting. Consider this remark from a 1994 article [1] in which Dennett gives an overview of this thinking up to that time (p. 239):

My theory of content is functionalist […]: all attributions of content are founded on an appreciation of the functional roles of the items in question in the biological economy of the organism (or the engineering of the robot). This is a specifically ‘teleological’ notion of function (not the notion of a mathematical function or of a mere ‘causal role’, as suggested by David LEWIS and others). It is the concept of function that is ubiquitous in engineering, in the design of artefacts, but also in biology. (It is only slowly dawning on philosophers of science that biology is not a science like physics, in which one should strive to find ‘laws of nature’, but a species of engineering: the analysis, by ‘reverse engineering’, of the found artefacts of nature – which are composed of thousands of deliciously complicated gadgets, yoked together opportunistically but elegantly into robust, self-protective systems.)

I am entirely in agreement with his emphasis on engineering. Biological thinking is “a species of engineering.” And so is cognitive science and certainly the study of culture and its evolution.

Earlier in that article Dennett had this to say (p. 236):

It is clear to me how I came by my renegade vision of the order of dependence: as a graduate student at Oxford, I developed a deep distrust of the methods I saw other philosophers employing, and decided that before I could trust any of my intuitions about the mind, I had to figure out how the brain could possibly accomplish the mind’s work. I knew next to nothing about the relevant science, but I had always been fascinated with how things worked – clocks, engines, magic tricks. (In fact, had I not been raised in a dyed-in-the-wool ‘arts and humanities’ academic family, I probably would have become an engineer, but this option would never have occurred to anyone in our family.)

My reaction to that last remark, that parenthesis, was something like: Coulda’ fooled me! For I had been thinking that an engineering sensibility is what was missing in Dennett’s discussions of culture. He didn’t seem to have a very deep sense of structure and construction, of, well, you know, how design works. And here he is telling us he coulda’ been an engineer.

Continue reading

EvoLang XI: Call for workshop proposals

In addition to the general session, The 11th Evolution of Language Conference will be able to host a number of thematically focused half-day workshops to be held between 09:00 and 13:45 on the first day of the conference March 21st (e.g. accommodating 8 half-hour slots, 15 minutes for an introduction, and 30 minutes for a coffee break).

Workshop proposals should be sent to EvoLang2016@gmail.com by October 2nd, 2015.  Proposals should include a title, the names of the organisers and a one paragraph summary of the theme.

Notification of acceptance will be given by October 16th, 2015. The responsibility for the detailed scheduling of the workshops and for the quality of workshop contributions will rest with workshop conveners. It is suggested that the workshop contributions be short papers (e.g. 4 pages) in the format of the main submissions to the conference (see the Call for Papers section of the website).  It will be possible to publish the workshop papers online, alongside the main conference papers.  A list of workshops from the previous conferences is available here.

For more information, see the EvoLangXI website.


Vocal Iconicity Challenge (Deadline Extension: August 15th)

Earlier this year I mentioned that Gary Lupyan and Marcus Perlman were running a competition to win a $1000. All you have to do is pop over to their website, record yourself doing some sounds, and then submit. The good news is that they’ve extended the deadline until August 15th. So, if you fancy yourself as the iconic vocalisation master, then go to http://sapir.psych.wisc.edu/vocal-iconicity-challenge/

Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 14.25.56

Future tense and saving money: Small number bias

Last week saw the release of the latest Roberts & Winters collaboration (with guest star Keith Chen). The paper, Future Tense and Economic Decisions: Controlling for Cultural Evolution, builds upon Chen’s previous work by controlling for historical relationships between cultures. As Sean pointed out in his excellent overview, the analysis was extremely complicated, taking over two years to complete and the results were somewhat of a mixed bag, even if our headline conclusion suggested that the relationship between future tense (FTR) and saving money is spurious. What I want to briefly discuss here is one of the many findings buried in this paper — that the relationship could be a result of a small number bias.

One cool aspect about the World Values Survey (WVS) is that it contains successive waves of data (Wave 3: 1995-98; Wave 4: 1999-2004; Wave 5: 2005-09; Wave 6: 2010-14). This allows us to test the hypothesis that FTR is a predictor of savings behaviour and not just an artefact of the structural properties of the dataset. What do I mean by this? Basically, independent datasets sometimes look good together: they produce patterns that line up neatly and produce a strong effect. One possible explanation for this pattern is that there is a real causal relationship (influences y). Another possibility is that these patterns aligned by chance and what we’re dealing with is a small number bias: the tendency for small datasets to initially show a strong relationship that disappears with larger, more representative samples.

Since Chen’s original study, which only had access to Waves 3-5 (1995-2009), the WVS has added Wave 6, giving us an additional 5 years to see if the initial finding holds up to scrutiny. If the finding is a result of the small number bias, then we should expect FTR to produce stronger effects with smaller sub-samples of data; the initial effect being washed out as more data is added. We can also compare the effect of FTR with that of unemployment and see if there are any differences in how these two variables react to more data being added. Unemployment is particularly useful because we’ve already got a clear casual story regarding its effect on savings behaviour: unemployed individuals are less likely to save than someone who is employed, as the latter will simply have a greater capacity to set aside money for savings (of course, employment could also be a proxy for other factors, such as education background and a decreased likelihood to engage in risky behaviour etc).

What did we find? Well, when looking at the coefficients from the mixed effect models, the estimated FTR coefficient is stronger with smaller sub-samples of data (FTR coefficients for Wave 3 = 0.57; Waves 3-4 = 0.72; Waves 3-5 = 041; Waves 3-6 = 0.26). As the graphs below show, when more data is added over the years a fuller sample is achieved and the statistical effect weakens. In particular, the FTR coefficient is at its weakest when all the currently available data is used. By comparison, the coefficient for employment status is weaker with smaller sub-samples of data (employment coefficient for Wave 3 = 0.41; Waves 3-4 = 0.54; Waves 3-5 = 0.60; Waves 3-6 = 0.61). That is, employment status does not appear to exhibit a small number bias, and as the sample size increases we can be increasingly confident that employment status has an effect on savings behaviour.





So it looks like the relationship between savings behaviour and FTR is an artefact of the small number bias. But it could be the case that FTR does have a real effect albeit a weaker one — we’ve just got a better resolution for variables like unemployment and these are dampening the effect of FTR. All we can conclude for now is that the latest set of results suggest a much weaker bias for FTR on savings behaviour. When coupled with the findings of the mixed effect model — that FTR is not a significant predictor of savings behaviour — it strongly suggests this is a spurious finding. It’ll be interesting to see how these results hold up when Wave 7 is released.



Plenaries for EvoLang announced

The plenary speakers for EvoLang XI have been announced.  As well as standard plenaries, there are two discussion plenaries, focussed on a theme with discussants taking different positions.

The deadline for paper submission is the 4th of Setpember 2015 (see the conference website).


Discussion Plenaries

Language localization in the brain

Gricean communication

Single Plenaries

  • Vincent Janik (dolphin communication, Biology, University of St. Andrews)
  • Joan Bybee (usage-based grammaticalization, Linguistics, University of New Mexico)
  • Ljiljana Progovac (Evolution of Syntax, Linguistics,Wayne State University)
  • Erich Jarvis (neurobiology of birdsong, Neurobiology, Duke University)
  • Dean Falk (paleoneurology/motherese, Anthropology, Florida State University)
Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 14.25.56

Future tense and saving money: methods

Our recent paper on testing the correlation between future tense and saving money uses a variety of statistical methods, which I’ll summarise in this post.

The challenge was looking at correlations between traits of individual people while controlling for properties of their cultural history.  Saving money is an individual trait which can change in the short term, while languages are properties of groups which change over very long periods of time.  In addition, we would like to control for three sources of non-independence:  similarities between people’s economic conditions caused by them being in the same state, similarities in their language and culture caused by historical relations and similarities in their language and culture caused by cultural contact.

Continue reading

commonsense think twirl dif

Dan Dennett, “Everybody talks that way” – Or How We Think

Note: Late on the evening og 7.20.15: I’ve edited the post at the end of the second section by introducing a distinction between prediction and explanation.

Thinking things over, here’s the core of my objection to talk of free-floating rationales: they’re redundant.

What authorizes talk of “free-floating rationales” (FFRs) is a certain state of affairs, a certain pattern. Does postulating the existence of FFRs add anything to the pattern? Does it make anything more predictable? No. Even considering the larger evolutionary context in which talk of FFRs adds nothing (p. 351 in [1]):

But who appreciated this power, who recognized this rationale, if not the bird or its individual ancestors? Who else but Mother Nature herself? That is to say: nobody. Evolution by natural selection “chose” this design for this “reason.”

Surely what Mother Nature recognized was the pattern. For all practical purposes talk of FFRs is simply an elaborate name for the pattern. Once the pattern’s been spotted, there is nothing more.

But how’d a biologist spot the pattern? (S)he made observations and thought about them. So I want to switch gears and think about the operation of our conceptual equipment. These considerations have no direct bearing on our argument about Dennett’s evolutionary thought, as every idea we have must be embodied in some computational substrate, the good ideas and the bad. But the indirect implications are worth thinking about. For they indicate that a new intellectual game is afoot.

Dennett on How We Think

Let’s start with a passage from the intentional systems article. This is where Dennett is imagining a soliloquy that our low-nesting bird might have. He doesn’t, of course, want us to think that the bird ever thought such thoughts (or even, for that matter, perhaps thought any thoughts at all). Rather, Dennett is following Dawkins in proposing this as a way for biologists to spot interesting patterns in the life world. Here’s the passage (p. 350 in [1]):

I’m a low-nesting bird, whose chicks are not protectable against a predator who discovers them. This approaching predator can be expected soon to discover them unless I distract it; it could be distracted by its desire to catch and eat me, but only if it thought there was a reasonable chance of its actually catching me (it’s no dummy); it would contract just that belief if I gave it evidence that I couldn’t fly anymore; I could do that by feigning a broken wing, etc.

Keeping that in mind, lets look at another passage. This is from a 1999 interview [2]:

The only thing that’s novel about my way of doing it is that I’m showing how the very things the other side holds dear – minds, selves, intentions – have an unproblematic but not reduced place in the material world. If you can begin to see what, to take a deliberately extreme example, your thermostat and your mind have in common, and that there’s a perspective from which they seem to be instances of an intentional system, then you can see that the whole process of natural selection is also an intentional system.

It turns out to be no accident that biologists find it so appealing to talk about what Mother Nature has in mind. Everybody in AI, everybody in software, talks that way. “The trouble with this operating system is it doesn’t realize this, or it thinks it has an extra disk drive.” That way of talking is ubiquitous, unselfconscious – and useful. If the thought police came along and tried to force computer scientists and biologists not to use that language, because it was too fanciful, they would run into fierce resistance.

What I do is just say, Well, let’s take that way of talking seriously. Then what happens is that instead of having a Cartesian position that puts minds up there with the spirits and gods, you bring the mind right back into the world. It’s a way of looking at certain material things. It has a great unifying effect.

So, this soliloquy way of mind is useful in thinking about the biological world and something very like it is common among those who have to work with software. Dennett’s asking us to believe that, because thinking about these things in that way is so very useful (in predicting what they’re going to do) that we might as well conclude that, in some special technical sense, they really ARE like that. That special technical sense is given in his account of the intentional stance as a pattern, which we examined in the previous post [3].

What I want to do is refrain from taking that last step. I agree with Dennett that, yes, this IS a very useful way of thinking about lots of things. But I want to take that insight in a different direction. I want to suggest that what is going on in these cases is that we’re using neuro-computational equipment that evolved for regulating inter personal interactions and putting it to other uses. Mark Changizi would say we’re harnessing it to those other purposes while Stanislaw Dehaene would talk of reuse. I’m happy either way. Continue reading

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 23.04.20

Future tense and saving money: no correlation when controlling for cultural evolution

This week our paper on future tense and saving money is published (Roberts, Winters & Chen, 2015).  In this paper we test a previous claim by Keith Chen about whether the language people speak influences their economic decisions (see Chen’s TED talk here or paper).  We find that at least part of the previous study’s claims are not robust to controlling for historical relationships between cultures. We suggest that large-scale cross-cultural patterns should always take cultural history into account.

Does language influence the way we think?

There is a longstanding debate about whether the constraints of the languages we speak influence the way we behave. In 2012, Keith Chen discovered a correlation between the way a language allows people to talk about future events and their economic decisions: speakers of languages which make an obligatory grammatical distinction between the present and the future are less likely to save money.

Continue reading


Become a founding member of the Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution

There is a new society for the study of cultural evolution, who are currently recruiting a base of founding members. People interested in language evolution are encouraged to join here: https://evolution-institute.org/project/society-for-the-study-of-cultural-evolution/

They encourage the following people to become founding members:

  • Academic professionals, graduate students, and undergraduate students from any discipline relevant to cultural evolution. They especially encourage the next generation of scientists to become involved.
  • Anyone (professional or nonprofessional) who is trying to accomplish positive cultural change in the real world and who would like to base their efforts on cultural evolutionary theory.
  • Anyone (professional or nonprofessional) with an intellectual interest in cultural evolutionary theory who would like to get involved and support the newly emerging field.
  • They are especially eager for our members to come from all cultures around the world—an appropriate ideal for a Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution!

Learn an Alien Language!

I’ve set up a little experiment in collaboration with a small armada of co-authors (Jonas Nölle, Peeter Tinits, and Michael Pleyer). Be a pioneer in interstellar communication and try to accomplish an important mission:


Many thanks to Thomas Hartmann for programming the online interface and to James Winters for some enormously helpful advice on the design of the experiment.

We’ll keep you posted about the results…

Culture, its evolution and anything inbetween