Sunday, October 10, 2004

What Did Dennett Actually Say?

There is no transcript of the interview, though Wright does transcribe certain portions of it here. That is why I have not reproduced portions of that transcript here.

I e-mailed Dennett to find out what he had to say about this. He was kind enough to forward to me an e-mail that he sent to Robert Wright. He confirmed my impressions both of what he had said during the interview and what is a good way of thinking about Wright's analogy. I reprint it here with his permission:

OK. Bob, I just reviewed the video clip, and here is what you say, and
what I say:
Wright: “To the extent that . . . evolution on this planet turned out to
have comparable properties [as embryogenesis, development, epigenesis],
that would work at least to some extent, to any extent, in favor of the
hypothesis.. . ”
DCD: “Yeah, I guess. . .” (and then you cut me off and 'declare victory'.)

But all I am granting in this acquiescence is that IF evolution
exhibited the properties that embryogenesis exhibits (which it doesn't,
as I've kept insisting) this would work to some extent in favor of your
purpose hypothesis. That is, embryogenesis is not just in itself an
“evolutionary” process in that there is massive excess generation pruned
by cell death, etc., but it is also a DESIGNED evolutionary process--the
very process has itself evolved by natural selection. But there is no
evidence that the same is true of natural selection viewed from the
widest perspective. As I have argued for years. So all I am agreeing to
here is the HYPOTHETICAL, and I've rejected the antecedent of that
hypothetical all along. You draw attention to an interesting avenue of
argument that has not been particularly well explored so far as I know,
but I don't think it is a winner. It reminds me of the Gaia hypothesis.
If life on our planet really WERE designed to be in homeostatic,
self-sustaining balance, then the Gaia freaks would be on to something,
but there is no reason to believe this.

So you forget that you'd posed a hypothetical to me, and run off with my
answer without giving me a chance to elaborate. This after a most
concerted effort to get me to agree with you that I steadfastly resist
to the point of tedium! To my ear, this is what happens:

“Wright. blahblah, Dennett, NO. Wright, blahblahblah. Dennett, No
again. Wright, blahblahblahblahblah, Dennett STILL NO. Wright, But
won't you agree that IF blahblahblahblahblah, Dennett, Well, yes, .if
all you mean is . . . . Wright, TaDAA! Dennett agrees with me!”

Not good ground for your rather inflammatory interpretation--would you
agree? I am not impressed.

What Dennett says here conforms exactly to the impression I had watching the interview.

Wright, neither in his original article nor in his reply to Dennett's e-mails (see next post) denied that Dennett was speaking in hypotheticals. The confusion seems to revolve around whether Dennett had conceded the validity of the analogy between ontogeny and evolution. Wright seemed to think that he had made this concession earlier in the interview. Dennett says he did not.

Having watched the entire interview, I'm with Dennett. It seems to me that the validity of the analogy was never discussed in any depth. Wright made the vague point that both lead to complexity from intial simplicity and Dennett is plainly uncomfortable with this analogy. But I for one didn't feel they really cleared up this point. I think this reflects badly on Wright as an interviewer.


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