Sunday, October 10, 2004

Wright Replies

Robert Wright has posted this reply to Dennett's protestations. There are a few points in this reply relevant to my discussion so far.

Wright begins by pointing to his statements, which I quoted in an earlier post in this series, that words like “design” and “purpose” do not necessarily have supernatural overtones. He then writes:

However, I added these important qualifiers many paragraphs later, after explaining the logic of the argument for design. So readers who quit reading my piece part-way through it may have been left with the impression that Dennett had renounced his atheism or had made a more dramatic concession than he in fact made (though I still consider his concession quite dramatic, given his previous position). In retrospect, I think I should have added these qualifiers higher in the piece. In other words, I am arguably guilty of “sensationalizing” the news.

As I have pointed out in earlier posts, Wright made it very clear that Dennett had said something in his interview that should make atheists uncomfortable. But since Wright agrees that “purpose” and “design” do not necessarily have supernatural overtones, there was absolutely no justification for this assertion. In other words, even if Wright had accurately characterized Dennett's remarks during the interview, he still would not have been justified in writing what he did. Wright is not “arguably” guilty of sensationalizing the news, he is flat-out guilty of doing so.

Furthermore, Dennett conceded nothing during the interview, and the opinions he expressed there were in no way different from what he has said previously. In the sense that Wright attributed views to Dennett that Dennett does not hold, it is clear that Wright misrepresented Dennett's views. The only issue is whether Wright could have, in good faith, believed that Dennett had conceded the validity of the analogy Wright was making.

To address that charge, Wright transcribed certain portions of the interview. You can find these excerpts here. These excerpts are fairly long and really have to be read in their entirety. So I won't print an excerpt here. Here is what Wright said next, however:

In a reply to Dennett, I quoted stretches of the interview that showed the following: Not only had he not “kept insisting” on relevant differences between evolution and embryogenesis (sometimes referred to as “ontogeny” in the video clip); he had in fact spent much time agreeing with me on the similarities. If you want to read these parts of the transcript, see this excerpt of my e-mail to Dennett.

In reply to my e-mail, Dennett wrote, “I can see why you think you have me granting you your key premises, but I didn't see it that way, and still don't.” In elaborating, he slightly amended, or at least clarified, his position. He no longer denied that he had acknowledged various similarities between evolution and embryogenesis (or ontogeny--an organism’s maturation). But he said that the similarities he had acknowledged weren’t the kind of similarities that would qualify as evidence of design.

Now, Wright has a fair point that Dennett was not so insistent about the differences between evolution and embryogenesis during the interview. He was clearly uncomfortable with the analogy, but does not clearly articulate many objections to it. So Wright scores a small point here.

But I'm afraid the rest of this paragraph leaves something to be desired. Wright is responding here to the e-mail I reprinted in the previous post. Nowhere in that e-mail does Dennett deny having acknowledged certain similarities between embryogenesis and evolution. It's not as if our only choices are that evolution and embryogenesis are identical or completely different. There are clearly similarities between the two, but such similarities as they have are not adequate for drawing the conclusions Wright wants to draw. Just as Dennett says.

By all means follow the links and read the transcripts. As I've already remarked, my response to Wright's argument was precisely the one Dennett is making here. It also seems clear that the legitimacy of the analogy between natural selection and ebryogenesis was explored only in the most cursory terms during the interview. I think Wright was so interested in getting Dennett to concede something that he failed to make sure he was really giving an accurate account of Dennett's beliefs.

Wright goes on to respond to this charge at some length. I think these posts have gone on long enough so I will simply note for the record that I don't find Wright's reply convincing. There is no doubt that anyone reading either the original article or Wright's replies to the ensuing controversy will come away with a wrong impression of what Dennett believes. Wright really ought to say that forthrightly.


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