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No Hookers in the Sky for Dennett

Les Reid reviews Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel C. Dennett.

This book is awesome in its scope. It is philosophy in the grand style, observing and speculating on life, the universe and the whole damn thing. Fortunately, however, it is not written in the grand style, but is instead jokey, informal, observant, orderly, helpful and, in places, abrasive and polemical – in short, very readable. You are climbing an Everest of ideas, but Dennett is such an accomplished guide that the climb is exhilarating, rather than exhausting.

The task that Dennett sets himself is to formulate a framework of ideas, a World-view, which will run without gaps all the way from the basic chemical reactions of the pre-biological era, right through to the most complex creations of the human mind. All our history, he says, is one long story of evolution, starting with chemical reactions, evolving to simple organisms, evolving to conscious organisms, evolving to language users, and so evolving to all the peaks of culture as we know it today, such as Philosophy Now and Father Ted. There are no unbridgeable chasms along the way. We have become accustomed to thinking that there are such chasms: between the animate and the inanimate, between mind and body, between language use and computer process. But Dennett will have none of them. For him, Darwin’s great discovery of evolution resolves the lot.

What do S.J.Gould, Noam Chomsky and John Searle have in common? Answer: they are all sky hookers. No, that does not mean that they are an unholy trinity of gay clerics; it means that they cling to unbridgeable chasms, insisting upon a special status for entities such as the human species, or language, or minds. Dennett pulls them off their skyhooks and down to earth with great vigour. There are no sky-hooks, only cranes; by which Dennett means that when evolution stumbles upon one solution to a problem, it attains a vantage point from which further developments are possible, developments which were out of reach earlier. Being able to reach that later development is a crane.

For example, Victorian engineers working with steam engines could not have designed an aeroplane. There is the appearance of an unbridgeable chasm between steam engines and powered flight. Not even Brunel could have designed a road-roller that would fly. But Victorian engineers discovered Good Tricks which the next generation of engineers applied to combustion engines, which in turn enabled the next generation to fly. Using the Good Tricks or gadgets that the previous generation discovered is an example of a crane in action.

The above is my own example and I sincerely hope it too is a Good Trick and not a Dud Hand or a Shot in the Foot. Probably an example from biology, such as the evolution of the hoof or the eyebrow, would have seemed more persuasive, but Brunel’s flying road-roller has the advantage of its engineering background. Dennett is very keen on engineering, to the point of taking it as a model for explanation. It resembles the evolutionary process in its ad hoc, practical problem-solving. Thus, when Chomsky said that he would prefer psychology to be like literature, rather than physics, Dennett sided with Minsky in his retort that it might be like engineering instead. Physics deals in abstract, universal truths; whereas engineering and evolution are embedded in the contingent facts of the here-and-now.

Dennett is a cheerful, candid, reductionist materialist. Like the rest of the biosphere, we, humankind, have arrived at our present situation thanks to a long evolutionary process. The basic mechanism has been the algorithmic process of Natural Selection which Darwin discovered. There have been no magic moments and no gaps. There have only been cranes. So it follows that Dennett is a strong supporter of Artificial Intelligence, envisaging computers which will perform all kinds of mental acts, in the same way that they already play chess to World Championship level.

Some people feel threatened by such talk. John Cornwell issued dire warnings in the Sunday Times that this philosophy represents a threat to human creativity and civilisation. What has stung Cornwell, I think, is that Dennett not only promotes a materialist philosophy of mind, he also sides with Richard Dawkins when the latter denounces religions as rogue memes, transmissible units of culture which treat fictions as truths and cause social division by segregating people into different sects and cults. A pack of cults with sects on the brain, you might say.

Dennett is actually more indulgent about religions than that. He allows that the moral codes they have constructed have evolved over thousands of years and may contain folk wisdom, of the sort that produced herbal medicines. Scientific medicine used to scoff at folk remedies, but now it looks to see if they work first. Dennett recommends a similar caution.

I wonder if Dennett is being over-indulgent. In the first place, some adaptations are mistakes: the dodo evolved into a flightless bird and thus into an easy lunch for hungry sailors. Exit the dodo. Secondly, I think that religions impede and obscure moral discussion because they introduce arbitrary edicts and supernatural authorities into the argument. Contraception, heresy, circumcision, homosexuality,….. – there is no telling which of these Zeus is going to condone, condemn or make compulsory. Religions make moral values dependent on His Will (or Hers, or Its, according to the particular creed) and so they create employment for professional mediators to declare what those values are and to sermonise at the rest of us. Fair enough, if you want a theocratic dictatorship, but it is no way to run a moral discussion.

A more serious problem that I have with Dennett’s philosophy concerns the notion of selfhood. Dennett seems to employ a third-person ontology which eliminates the ‘I’ of first-person experience. Thus it eliminates the paradox of death, which is that when I die the world will come to an end, though I know it will also simply carry on without me. The paradox only works in the first-person. When someone else dies, the world carries on without them, no problem. But when I die, the special status of first-person experience comes into play and the world, which is my world in the end, dies with me. So I am stuck with a parting of the ways, a point where Dennett and I part company, because I still feel that there is an unbridgeable chasm between the first-person and the third.

I do not relish the role of sky-hooker and I feel almost apologetic, because I agree with so much of what Dennett says and I regard his book as a tremendous achievement. His vision is so clear and so wide-ranging, it is as if one is only now seeing the picture whole. I hope that many other readers of Philosophy Now will peruse this book and enjoy the awesome vistas that Dennett lays before the reader. Then perhaps one of them will write in and help me down off this sky-hook which I am left wriggling on.

© Les Reid 1996

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel C. Dennett is published by Penguin Press. £25 hardback (ISBN 0-713-99090-2) or £9.99 paperback (0-140-16734-x)

Reviewer: Les Reid wrote ‘Santa Lives!’ (PN Issue 7) on the philosophy of religion. He is Chair of the Belfast Humanist Group.

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