Darwin, Mind and Meaning
John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy
University of Notre Dame
According to the English philosopher John Lucas, philosophical
naturalism is now the orthodoxy of the Western intellectual world.
This is plausible; it is at any rate one of the current academic orthodoxies
(another, perhaps, is the sort of creative anti-realism and relativism with
respect to truth associated with certain brands of post modernism). Perhaps
the easiest way to understand naturalism to see it as the view that there
no such person as God (no all powerful, all knowing and wholly good person
who has created the world and has created human beings in his image), nor
anything at all like God. The naturalist--the contemporary naturalist,
at any rate--typically adds a high view of science, seeing it as the only
possible source of our salvation.
Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea is a big (very big), bright
exploration and defense of naturalism--or at least of one aspect of it.
In several areas it is authoritative; it is written with passion and power;
I wouldn't be at all surprised if this book acquires the status of a minor
(or maybe major) classic among statements of naturalism. Dennett tries
to do at least three things: (1) explain Darwin's dangerous idea and show
how the world looks if you take it really seriously, (2) argue for
this idea, or perhaps defend it, or perhaps argue that it is at any
rate possibly true, or perhaps persuade us that it is true,
or possibly true (it is hard to tell which), and (3) buck up and admonish
timid, half-hearted naturalists who are unwilling to accept the full implications
of their position, thus falling into false consciousness.
Dennett doesn't confine himself to matters just of theoretical interest.
He sees serious religion as steadily dwindling with the progress of science,
but suggests that we should keep a few Baptists and other fundamentalists
around in something like cultural zoos (no doubt with sizable moats to protect
the rest of us right-thinking nonfundamentalists). We should preserve a
few Baptists for the sake of posterity--but not, he says, at just any cost.
"Save the Baptists", says he, "but not by all means
[Dennett's emphasis]. Not if it means tolerating the deliberate misinforming
of children about the natural world." Save the Baptists, all
right, but only if they promise not to misinform their children by teaching
them "that 'Man' is not a product of evolution by natural selection" and other blatantly objectionably views. But what if they do
insist on teaching these heresies to their children? (Baptists will be
Baptists, after all.) Will we be obliged to remove Baptist children from
their parents' noxious influence? Should we put barbed wire around those
zoos, and check to see if perhaps there is room for them in northern Siberia? [ 1 ] Dennett doesn't say, but it would be interesting to hear his answer.
There is much to be said for Dennett's book. It contains a wealth of enthusiastic
information about Darwinian thinking generally, as well as many detailed
explanations of particular Darwinian theories. There is an excellent explanation
and development of the central notion of Design Space--the space of all
possible organic designs--and some of the notions (adaptive topology) in
its neighborhood. There is also a wealth of detail on topics only tangentially
connected with the main lines of the argument: an excursion into spandrels
and medieval architecture, a fair number of etymologies, accounts of things
Dennett has thought and said, anecdotes about famous figures in the evolution
of evolutionary thought, and much more. The book is well written, if a
bit windy. It is fun to read, although some may be put off by its prolixity
(no classical restraint and economy here), by frequent and sometimes inexplicable
digressions, and by a certain pervasive tendentiousness, or perhaps a certain
list towards demagoguery. [ 2 ] There is also something to be said against
the book. In particular, although Dennett purveys his wares with religious
fervor (and in fact his wares are, from an Augustinian point of view,
broadly religious), his forays into philosophical theology and philosophy
of religion are at best underwhelming. To say that they do not inspire
confidence would be colossal understatement.
The Idea Itself
First, then, what is Darwin's Dangerous Idea and why is it dangerous?
As we'd expect, it includes the notion that all of the world's creatures
came into being by way of evolution--descent with modification. All contemporary
creatures are linked by genealogical ties, so that any two living creatures
you pick--you and the summer squash in your garden, for example--are really
cousins under the skin (rind). But it involves much more than that. Dennett
begins the book by recalling the words of one of his favorite childhood
camp fire songs, "Tell me Why":
He goes on to quote the last verse "Because God made the stars to shine
, . . . Because God made you, that's why I love you." (He even goes
so far as to provide the music in an appendix, helpfully adding that "The
harmony line is usually sung by the higher voices an octave above the melody"). The image of the young Dan Dennett singing "Tell Me Why",
moistened eyes rapturously closed, is no doubt sweet and touching, but what
is his point?
As follows. Darwin's dangerous idea, says Dennett, is really the idea
that the living world with all of its beauty and wonder, all of its marvelous
and ingenious design, was not created by God or anything at all like God,
but produced by blind, unconscious, mechanical, algorithmic processes such
as natural selection--a process, he says, which creates "design out
of chaos without the aid of Mind." The idea is that mind, intelligence,
foresight, planning, design are all latecomers in the universe, themselves
created by the mindless process of natural selection. The idea is that
human beings are the outcome of a mindless process; they are not designed
or planned for by God or anyone else. And this idea is dangerous, he thinks,
because if we accept it, we are forced to reconsider all our childhood and
childish ideas about God, morality, value, the meaning of life, and the
like. Christians, of course, believe that God has always existed; so mind
has always existed, and was involved in the production and planning of whatever
there is. In fact many have thought it impossible that mind should
be produced just from unthinking matter; as John Locke puts it, ".
. . it is as impossible to conceive that ever pure incogitative matter should
produce a thinking intelligent Being, as that nothing should of itself produce
Matter." [ 3 ] Darwin's dangerous idea is that this notion is not merely
not impossible; it is the sober truth of the matter.
What we have so far is really just an endorsement of perennial naturalism
or atheism; Democritus and Lucretius would have agreed. What is new or
special about Dennett's version? First, Dennett sees that Darwin's evolutionary
ideas (in particular natural selection) give the naturalist a genuine suggestion
as to how it could be that all the wonders of the living world should arise
without divine creative activity or guidance and orchestration. Prior to
the advent and development of Darwinism, the naturalist (Hume, e.g.,) had
no answer to the question "Well then, how did all this enormous
variety of flora and fauna, with all its apparent design, get here? Where
did all that design and variety come from?" But after Darwin there
was an answer to the question--not a satisfactory answer, perhaps, but at
least a viable story. According to Richard Dawkins, "Darwin made it
possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." [ 4 ] I doubt that
it is possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, but Darwinism
does confer upon the naturalist a possible answer to an otherwise embarrassing
question. As Dennett puts it, "Here, then, is Darwin's dangerous idea:
the algorithmic level [the level of natural selection] is the level
that best accounts for the speed of the antelope, the wing of the eagle,
the shape of the orchid, the diversity of species, and all the other occasions
for wonder in the world of nature." He might have added as well:
our moral sense, our religious sensibilities, our artistic strivings, and
our ability to do science. Much of the book is an effort to show just how
well this algorithmic level of explanation does in fact work, and what a
fine answer to the above question Darwin has put into the naturalist's hands.
Well, how does Dennett try to show that this is indeed a fine answer?
First he insists that all of life really has been produced by evolution.
Indeed, he adds that if you so much as doubt this, you are inexcusably
ignorant: "To put it bluntly but fairly, anyone today who doubts that
the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution
is simply ignorant--inexcusably ignorant . . . ." Note that you
don't have to reject evolution in order to qualify as inexcusably
ignorant: all you have to do is harbor a doubt or two. You study the evidence
with great care, but are finally doubtful that God did it that way: according
to Dennett, you are then inexcusably ignorant. Here Dennett is stealing
a march on Richard Dawkins, who wrote in a New York Times book review
that, "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet someone who claims
not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or
wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)". I say Dennett goes Dawkins
one better here, because at least Dawkins gives us skeptics a choice.
We could be ignorant, or stupid, or insane or maybe even
wicked. But Dennett is made of sterner stuff: he gives us no options at
all, and in fact plumps for two of Dawkins' possibilities: we evolutionary
skeptics are both ignorant and wicked (inexcusable). Apparently
evolution is like the law: ignorance of it is no excuse. Here Dennett and
Dawkins remind one of a certain kind of religious personality with which
we are all too familiar: if you disagree with them, you are not only wrong,
but wicked, and should be punished, if not in this world then certainly
in the next.
Of course Dennett's claim is not just that all the marvels of contemporary
life have been produced by descent with modification, but that this has
happened without the aid of God or anyone (or anything) at all like God;
it all happened just by the grace of mindless natural selection. Life itself
originated just by way of the regularities of physics and chemistry (through
a sort of extension of natural selection); and natural selection has produced
language and mind, including our artistic, moral, religious and intellectual
proclivities. Many have found this claim at least extremely doubtful; is
it really so much as possible that language, say, or consciousness should
have been produced by processes of this sort? One of the most striking
characteristics of thought is intentionality, aboutness. We can
think about things of all sorts, some very far removed from us. We can
think about ancient Sparta, the Big Bang, the angel Gabriel, logical theorems,
moral principles, possible states of affairs, God himself and much else:
could this ability really have come about (starting from bacteria, say)
just by way of mindless natural selection? Dennett doesn't really show,
of course, that this did happen, or even that it is possible that
he did. His basic ploy is just to assert (loudly and slowly, as it were)
that these things must have happened, providing an accompanying blizzard
of scientific hypotheses and speculations (e.g., about what happens in various
parts of the brain when you remember, speak, perceive, etc.). This rich
brew of contemporary evolutionary thought and hypothesis on these topic
is very interesting, and Dennett has a first rate grasp of the vast relevant
literature. But (for example) none of his suggestions (drawn from cognitive
science and elsewhere) really addresses the question whether it is even
possible that mind and intention should have arisen in this way;
they just assume that it is. [ 5 ] These parts of the book contain a good deal of unbridled speculation as well as much very energetic hand waving.
A second project of the book, as I said, is to buck up flagging naturalists.
Dennett distinguishes what he calls cranes from skyhooks:
An example of a crane would be sexual reproduction, by virtue of
which, says Dennett, organisms "can move through Design Space at a
much greater speed than that achieved by organisms that reproduce asexually." On the other hand, God's specially creating life, or mind, or human
beings, or sparrows, or whatever would be a skyhook, as would be any unspecified
or unknown process (elan vital, e.g.) that takes up the slack left
by alleged deficiencies in Darwinian evolution.
Now Dennett thinks there are many who have quite properly given up childhood
religion and reject the idea that there is such a person as God, who endorse
the idea that all living things including ourselves have somehow arisen
by way of evolution, who pay at least lip service to Darwin's dangerous
idea, but who nonetheless don't or can't embrace its full implications.
They find themselves doubting that Darwinian evolution can really explain
or account for such things as the development of the human brain, for example,
or language, or consciousness. They don't necessarily doubt that we have
somehow evolved, but they doubt or deny that Darwinian mechanisms are sufficient;
there must have been something else. Such people, Dennett thinks, should
be ashamed of themselves. They are soft on religion, or at least lust after
skyhooks; and in so doing they display a sort of failure of nerve, a false
consciousness. Lusting after skyhooks is a bad thing, and much of the book
is devoted to disapproving discussion of those who (he thinks) do--Noam
Chomsky, Roger Penrose, John Searle, and especially Stephen Gould. [ 6 ] (Of
course the ambivalence of these thinkers may be due to something other than
bad faith or faint-heartedness; perhaps they are inclined to accept Darwin's
dangerous idea, but also see some of its implications as giving serious
occasion for pause, rather than as new discoveries to be enthusiastically
Why Believe it?
One question that naturally occurs to a reader of the book: why does Dennett
think we should accept Darwin's dangerous idea? Concede that it
is audacious, revolutionary, anti-medieval, quintessentially contemporary,
with it, and has that nobly stoical hair shirt quality Bertrand Russell
said he liked in his beliefs: still, why should we believe it? I think
Dennett means to attempt an answer to this question (and isn't merely preaching
to the naturalistic choir). He repeats several times that believing in
an "anthropomorphic" God is childish, or irrational, or anyway
nowadays out of the question. What he sees as an anthropomorphic God, furthermore,
is precisely what traditional Christians believe in--a God whom we human
beings resemble by virtue of being persons, the sorts of beings who
are capable of belief and knowledge, who have aims and ends, and who act
on their beliefs in such a way as to try to accomplish those aims.
Well, why is this childish? Dennett's answer, as far as I can make it out, is that the traditional arguments for the existence of God don't work. He mentions only one argument, the so-called argument from design: the universe and many of its parts give the appearance of having been designed by an extraordinarily knowledgeable and powerful designer, so probably there is an Intelligent Designer. Dennett thinks Darwinian considerations suffice to dispose of this argument; they show how it could be that all this apparent design in the living world arises without the aid of an intelligent Designer.
Nowadays, however, the most popular version of the argument from design
involves the exquisite fine tuning of the laws or regularities of nature.
The fundamental constants of physics--the speed of light, the gravitational
constant, the strength of the weak and strong nuclear forces--must apparently
have values that fall within an extremely narrow range for life to be so
much as possible. If these values had been even minutely different (if,
for example, the gravitational constant had been different in even the most
minuscule degree) habitable planets would not have developed and life (at
least life at all like ours) would not have been possible. This suggests
or makes plausible the thought that the world was designed or created by
a Designer who intended the existence of living creatures and eventually
rational, intelligent, morally significant creatures. Like its 17th and
18th century predecessors, this version of the argument is probabilistic
rather than deductive: given the nature of the world, it is likely that
it was fashioned by an intelligent Designer. The premises don't entail
the conclusion, but are supposed to give you some reason to accept it.
Dennett's rejoinder to the argument is that possibly, "there
has been an evolution of worlds (in the sense of whole universes) and the
world we find ourselves in is simply one among countless others that have
existed throughout all eternity." And given infinitely many
universes, Dennett thinks, all the possible distributions of values over
the cosmological constants would have been tried out; [ 7 ] as it happens,
we find ourselves in one of those universes where the constants are such
as to allow for the development of intelligent life (where else?).
Well, perhaps all this is logically possible (and then again perhaps not).
As a response to a probabilistic argument, however, it's pretty anemic.
How would this kind of reply play in Tombstone, or Dodge City? "Waal,
shore, Tex, I know it's a leetle mite suspicious that every time
I deal I git four aces and a wild card, but have you considered the following?
Possibly there is an infinite succession of universes, so that for any
possible distribution of possible poker hands, there is a universe in which
that possibility is realized; we just happen to find ourselves in one where
someone like me always deals himself only aces and wild cards without ever
cheating. So put up that shootin' arn and set down 'n shet yore yap, ya
dumb galoot." Dennett's reply shows at most ('at most', because that
story about infinitely many universes is doubtfully coherent) what was never
in question: that the premises of this argument from apparent design do
not entail its conclusion. But of course that was conceded from the beginning:
it is presented as a probabilistic argument, not one that is deductive
valid. Furthermore, since an argument can be good even if it is not deductively
valid, you can't refute it just by pointing out that it isn't deductively
valid. You might as well reject the argument for evolution by pointing
out that the evidence for evolution doesn't entail that it ever took
place, but only makes that fact likely. You might as well reject the evidence
for the earth's being round by pointing out that there are possible worlds
in which we have all the evidence we do have for the earth's being
round, but in fact the earth is flat. Whatever the worth of this argument
from design, Dennett really fails to address it.
But there is a more important question here that Dennett completely ignores.
As I say, he seems to think one could be a sensible believer in God only
on the basis of some argument, something like one of the traditional
theistic arguments. But why think a thing like that? Why think you need
an argument to be rational in believing in God? There are plenty of other
things we rationally accept without argument--that there has been a past,
for example, or that there are other people, or an external world, or that
our cognitive faculties are reasonably reliable. Moreover, one lesson to
be learned from the history of modern philosophy from Descartes to Hume
and Reid is that there probably aren't any good arguments for these
things--but we are still perfectly rational in accepting them. Couldn't
the same be true for belief in God? Still further, Christian thinkers such
as Aquinas, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards (not to mention St. Paul) and many
others have held that belief in God and in the more specific truths of Christianity
is rationally justifiable, all right, but need not be accepted on the basis
of such arguments. Still further yet, this very question has been at the
heart of contemporary philosophy of religion (right here in the US, where
Dennett lives) for at least the last 20 years or so. [ 8 ] But Dennett totally
ignores the question, blithely assuming that belief in God is rationally
justifiable only if it is accepted on the basis of argument, or at least
only if there is good argument for it.
I say Christian thinkers going all the way back have claimed Christian
truths need not be accepted on the basis of 'rational argument' in order
to be intellectually or rationally justifiable. On what basis then? Suppose
we think about the cognitive or intellective faculties involved in science:
they would include perception, memory, and what we could call 'rational
intuition', the faculty whereby we know mathematical and logical truths.
Use the term 'reason' to refer to these faculties (perception, memory, rational
intuition, whatever else is employed in science) together; then what Aquinas,
Calvin and most of the rest of the Christian tradition have held is that
the truths of Christianity don't have to be (and probably can't be) proved
on the basis of reason in order to be rationally acceptable. For there
are other sources of knowledge in addition to reason: there are also
(to put things Calvin's way) the Sensus Divinitatis, and faith,
which is a response to the Internal Testimony of the Holy Spirit. It is
by virtue of these sources of knowledge that one knows the truths
of faith, such truths as that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to
himself. One position a Christian might hold on evolution, then, is that
one knows by faith that (contrary to Darwin's dangerous idea) God created
the living world in one way or another, and by reason (science) that he
might have done it or probably did do it by way of evolution. But what
about the origin of life itself? Here the salient fact is the absolutely
enormous difficulty in conceiving of some way in which this might possibly
have happened just by way of the regularities of physics and chemistry.
A Christian or other theist, therefore, might sensibly conclude that God
did something out of the ordinary here, specially creating life.
Dennett notes this possibility, but makes a most extraordinary reply.
He quotes Richard Dawkins:
Dennett apparently considers this a master stroke: "Dawkins' retort
to the theorist who would call on God to jump-start the evolution process
is an unrebuttable refutation, as devastating today as when Philo used it
to trounce Cleanthes in Hume's Dialogues two centuries earlier." I am sorry to say that it doesn't seem to me to be a masterstroke
at all. Dawkins' retort is neither unrebuttable, nor devastating, nor even
relevant; it irrelevantly addresses a claim not at issue. Dawkins accuses
theists of giving a circular explanation. They set out to explain
organized complexity (e.g., mind); they then propose as an explanatory hypothesis
that there is an uncreated Eternal Mind who created everything else; but
they stupidly overlook the fact that this Eternal Mind would be (naturally
enough) a mind, and would have to think thoughts complex enough to match
the complexity of what it creates. [ 10 ] So they set out to explain organized
complexity, but absently-mindedly just assume or postulate it.
That would be pretty absent-mined, all right, but of course theists do
no such thing. For first, they aren't here trying to explain the existence
of organized complexity, but rather the existence of life on earth.
And secondly, they don't postulate the existence of God, as if this
were a scientific hypothesis of some kind. They don't typically propose
the existence of God (let alone other characteristic Christian doctrines,
such as Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement) as a kind of hypothesis,
designed to explain organized complexity or other phenomena. They don't
believe in God because God's existence and activity is a good hypothesis
, a good explanation of organized complexity in the world. When God spoke
to Moses from the burning bush, Moses didn't say, "Hey, look at that
weird bush! It's on fire but isn't burning up! And listen to those sounds
coming out of it! What's the best explanatory hypothesis I can think of?
Perhaps there is an all-knowing, all-powerful wholly good being who created
the world, and he is addressing me from that bush. Yes, that must be it,
that's a good explanation of the phenomena." Christians do not reason
as follows: "What is the best explanation for all that organized complexity
and the rest of what we see about us? Well, let's see, perhaps there is
an omniscient, omnipotent, wholly good being who created the world. Yes
that's it; and perhaps this being is one of three persons, the other two
being his divine son and a third person proceeding from the first two (yet
there are not three Gods but one); the second person became incarnate, suffered,
was crucified, and died, thus atoning for our sins and making it possible
for us to have life and have it more abundantly. Right; that's got to be
it; that's a dandy explanation of the facts." What Christian would
reason like that?
Hardly any. Rather, the traditional Christian thinks she knows these things
by way of faith and its correlate, divine revelation through divinely
inspired Scripture and/or the teaching of the church, the body of Christ.
She doesn't, of course, claim that these teachings constitute the best
scientific explanation of some phenomena, anymore than we believe
that there has been a past because we think this is a good scientific explanation
of such present phenomena as wrinkled faces, dusty books, rusted automobiles
and crumbling mountains. (Of course once she knows, as she thinks, that
God has created the heavens and the earth she can use that fact to explain
what might otherwise be inexplicable.) Dawkins and Dennett make a wholly
unjustified, unargued, and implausible assumption about Christian teachings:
that they are really proposed and held as a sort of science, an effort to
explain such things, e.g., as that there is a great deal of organized complexity
and variety and apparent design in the world. Looked at as a scientific
hypothesis designed to explain organized complexity, Christian doctrines
are perhaps wanting--perhaps almost as wanting as science is, looked at
as religion, as a way of coming to be in the right relationship with God.
Now Dennett notes that believers in God have often claimed that there are
sources of knowledge in addition to reason. His riposte, once more, is
Well, probably not, but what prompts Dennett to bring up this miserable
ham sandwich in the first place? What is his point? It's not easy to tell.
The topic is the claim on the part of some (most) Christians that they
have a source of knowledge or information about the world in addition to
reason. Is Dennett claiming that anyone who makes such a claim is carrying
on as irrationally as Dennett would be if he launched that ham sandwich
zinger? I think so; further down the same page he says: " . . . think
about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side."
Then follows a tale about how you are sightseeing in a foreign land, your
loved one is killed, and, at the trial, the judge is swayed more strongly
by testimonies (from the killer's kinsmen) to the fine character of the
accused than by the testimony of eyewitnesses who saw him commit the crime:
that would be unreasonable and you wouldn't like it, would you? He goes
But philosophers have come up with a good defense of the idea that
there can be sources of knowledge in addition to reason (i.e., perception,
memory, rational intuition . . .). Furthermore it looks as if Dennett thinks
that if there were any sources of information and knowledge in addition
to reason, the deliverances of those sources would necessarily go contrary
to reason. But of course that's just a confusion. Christians and other
theists may think they know by faith that God created the world and in some
way superintends or orchestrates or guides the process of evolution (perhaps
by seeing to it that the right mutations arise at the right time, that certain
bands of creatures don't suffer untimely extinction, etc.); then they would
be claiming to know something in addition to what reason delivers--but not,
of course, something that goes contrary to reason. (There is nothing
in current evolutionary science to show or even suggest that God did not
superintend evolution.) It is no part of reason to insist that there can't
be any other source of truth; it is perfectly in accord with reason to suppose
that there are sources of truth in addition to reason. [ 11 ] It looks as if
here it is Dennett who is conveniently lowering the net a foot or
two when he makes his return. (Perhaps a more apt tennis metaphor would
have him take a whack at the ball and miss it altogether.)
But what he says also suggests still a third possibility:
Here Dennett seems to assume that if you can't show by reason that a given
proposed source of truth is in fact reliable, then it is improper to accept
the deliverances of that source. This assumption goes back to the Lockean,
Enlightenment claim that, while there could indeed be such a thing as divine
revelation, it would be irrational to accept any belief as divinely revealed
unless we could give a good argument from reason that it was. But again,
why think a thing like that? Take other sources of knowledge: rational
intuition, memory, and perception, for example. Can we show by the first
two that the third is in fact reliable--that is, without relying in anyway
on the deliverances of the third? No, we can't; nor can we show by the
first and third that memory is reliable, nor (of course) by perception and
memory that rational intuition is. Nor can we give a decent, non-question-begging
rational argument that reason itself is indeed reliable. Does it follow
that there is something irrational in trusting these alleged sources, in
accepting their deliverances? Certainly not. So why insist that it is
irrational to accept, say, the Internal Testimony of the Holy Spirit unless
we can give a rationally conclusive argument for the conclusion that there
is indeed such a thing, and that what it delivers is the truth? Why treat
these alleged sources differently? Is there anything but arbitrariness
in insisting that any alleged source of truth must justify itself at the
bar of rational intuition, perception and memory? Perhaps God has given
us several different sources of knowledge about the world, and none of them
can be shown to be reliable using only the resources of the others. Once
more, arbitrarily lowering the net (or missing the ball).
Finally, it seems to me that there is one respect Darwin's dangerous idea
is vastly more dangerous than Dennett realizes. According to Richard Rorty,
Rorty's pronouncements do not always inspire maximum confidence, but here
he seems to be on to something (although like Dennett he fails to see the
real danger here). He says that two ideas are unDarwinian: that we have
a mind oriented towards the Truth and a conscience that puts us in touch
with right and wrong. Now Dennett does try to deal with the second from
the Darwinian perspective (although what he really tries to explain is not
how there could actually be such a thing as right and wrong, good and bad,
from that perspective, but how it is that we think there is such a thing.)
But the other part of Rorty's suggestion is where the real intellectual
danger in Darwin's dangerous idea lies (at any rate if Rorty's "Truth"
is just ordinary everyday truth). Why so? Here I can only hint at the
argument. [ 13 ] Darwin's dangerous idea is really two ideas put together: philosophical
naturalism together with the claim that our cognitive faculties have originated
by way of natural selection working on some form of genetic variation.
According to this idea, then, the purpose or function of those faculties
(if they have one) is to enable or promote survival, or survival
and reproduction, more exactly, the maximization of fitness (the
probability of survival and reproduction). Furthermore, the probability
that our cognitive faculties are reliable (i.e., furnish us with a preponderance
of true beliefs) on Darwin's dangerous idea is either low or inscrutable
(i.e., impossible to estimate). But either gives the devotee of evolutionary
naturalism a defeater for the proposition that his cognitive faculties
are reliable, a reason for doubting, giving up, rejecting that natural belief.
If so, then it also gives him a reason for doubting any beliefs produced
by those faculties. This includes, of course, the beliefs involved in science
itself. Evolutionary naturalism, therefore, provides one who accepts it
with a defeater for scientific beliefs, a reason for doubting that science
does in fact get us to the truth, or close to the truth. [ 14 ] Darwin himself
may perhaps have glimpsed this sinister presence coiled like a worm in the
very heart of evolutionary naturalism: "With me," says Darwin,
Modern science was conceived, and born, and flourished in the matrix of
Christian theism. Only liberal doses of self-deception and double-think,
I believe, will permit it to flourish in the context of Darwinian naturalism.
Dennett's views here nicely match Richard Rorty's declaration that in the
new liberal society, those who believe there is a "chief end of man",
as in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, will have to be regarded as "insane"
(and perhaps deprived of the vote and confined in gulags pending recovery
from the seizure?).
As in such suggestions as that we keep a few fundamentalists around in
zoos. Dennett just takes it for granted that serious religion is disappearing,
despite the fact that there are far more Baptists than believers in Darwin's
dangerous idea. He also fails to note that even in academia--and perhaps
especially in the hard sciences--there is a sizeable ground swell of classical
religion. Indeed, the same is true even in philosophy, Dennett's own subject.
The Society of Christian philosophers, founded some 20 years ago, now has
more than 1000 members; 40 years ago such a society could have had no more
than a tenth as many.
Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) IV, x, 10.
The Blind Watchmaker (Longmans, 1986).
Dennett's Consciousness Explained (Little, Brown, 1991) is an extended
effort along these lines; the fact is, though, the book doesn't so much
explain consciousness as explain it away, trying to show us how we can manage
perfectly well without thinking there is any such thing.
"I see his [Gould's] antipathy to Darwin's dangerous idea as fundamentally
a desire to protect or restore the Mind first, top-down vision of John Locke--at
the very least to secure our place in the cosmos with a skyhook" (p.
But is that at all obvious? How would one know a thing like that? Further:
wouldn't one of the possibilities be that a certain possible set of values
just never turns up? If so, the suggestion isn't merely baseless: it's
See, for example, William Alston's magisterial Perceiving God (1991) and
Plantinga and Wolterstorff's Faith and Rationality (1983).
The quotation is from page 141 of Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker.
There is also the tradition according to which God, despite the complexity
of his creation, is himself wholly simple; but this is a story for another
Indeed, it isn't even part of reason to claim that there couldn't be a
source of truth whose deliverances were (to some degree) contrary to the
teachings of reason.
"Untruth and Consequences," The New Republic, July 31, 1995,
For a development of this argument, see my Warrant and Proper Function
(Oxford University Press, 1993), chap. 12.
Indeed, in providing one who accepts it with a defeater for anything that
person believes, it also provides a defeater for itself; evolutionary naturalism
is therefore self-defeating.
Letter to William Graham, Down, July 3rd, 1881. In The Life and Letters
of Charles Darwin Including an Autobiographical Chapter, ed. Francis Darwin
(D. Appleton and Company, 1887), vol. 1, p. 255.
This essay was originally published in the May/June 1996 issue of Books and Culture.
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