Philosophy: Beyond Dennett and Darwin

Philosophy: Beyond Dennett and Darwin February 24, 2006

DennettAs you may know, I am studying Daniel Dennett’s book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” (a review) for a course on “Ethics and Evolution.” The goal of the course is a rigorous understanding of the theory of contemporary biology, its development, and more importantly, its repercussions in ethics.

The French Catholic philosopher Paul Ricoeur famously labeled the “Masters of Suspicion” regarding religion as Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. Each of these thinkers presented a critique of the very foundations of religious thought that must be overcome in order for one to have authentic religious views. For instance, Marx identified religions as particular manifestations of historical class structures: what we believe in is just a result of our class status and social context (eg. if you’re middle/upper-middle class and well educated, you are probably 50 times as likely to convert to Buddhism than a poor, uneducated person).
He could well have added Darwin to his list. Yet Darwin’s foundational critique is different. It is more subtle, and Darwin himself was not the antagonist that each of the other three was. He was a mild mannered reporter of the facts, just the facts. It would be up to others, principally Dennett (also Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins) to take Darwin’s innocent treatment of the facts and stoke the revolution waiting within them.

Dennett’s own account of Darwinian evolution is somewhat exuberant, to say the least. He is very confident, some might say head-strong, and he is certain that if we just understand biology right we’ll really have no choice but to convert to Darwinism. It’s really simple, he’ll have you believe, and then he leads you through his arguments, showing systematically where God and any other non-naturalistic entity is not (which I guess at the end of the book will be everywhere).

The trouble is that Dennett effectively reduces everything remarkable (namely intelligence, us) to the unremarkable (an evolution algorithm of self-replication, variation, etc and lots of time). The difficulty for us is to understand how we are ‘just’ a product of evolution, a point on a spectrum of intelligence which goes far, far down the phylogenetic tree, and still make sense of our view of ourselves as something remarkable.

One suggestion by Dennett is that (my words:) “wow, your existence is so unlikely! Any little accident or mishap in your family tree going back (way back) however long could have *snap* erased an entire branch of that tree right down to you. The process itself, while made up of completely unremarkable organic self-replication, etc, is still remarkable. Any search for the remarkable outside the process is a hopeless pursuit, nothing escapes the algorithm from which you are made (even in this very moment, countless little algorithmic processes are going on in your body and brain, making these dark marks on light background intelligible.)” Buy it?

If so, what does it illuminate in terms of ethics? Anything? Could it be morally neutral? If not, what is your ‘wedge’ out of the iron grip of evolution? I have some ideas, but I’ll tuck those away for now.

ps. Thanks to Tom at Zenunboud for alerting me to a New York Times review of Dennett’s latest book, “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”. I enjoyed the review and found myself in general agreement that Dennett is excessively self-assured (but I do sympathize, as this is a ‘general audience’ book, it is not going to be the dry, point-by-point analysis one finds in academic writing – the bold claims and all-to-unsupported-at-times arguments allow him to cover enormous territory in few pages – at least that is the case with what I am reading).

The review was also discussed briefly in my class by Dr. Borgmann. His appraisal was that while he agreed in general with the substance of the review, he did not agree with the tone or demeanor of it. I think I am a bit less sympathetic toward Dennett than my good professor, but then I have not read the Book.

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