Sunday, October 10, 2004

Wright's Characterization of Dennett

Wright's article is smug and self-congratulatory throughout. The truly remarkable passage occurs early on:

I have some bad news for Dennett's many atheist devotees. He recently declared that life on earth shows signs of having a higher purpose. Worse still, he did it on videotape, during an interview for my website (You can watch the relevant clip here, though I recommend reading a bit further first so you'll have enough background to follow the logic.)

Dennett didn't volunteer this opinion enthusiastically, or for that matter volunteer it at all. He conceded it in the course of a dialogue with me—and extracting the concession was a little like pulling teeth. But his initial resistance makes his final judgment all the more important. People who see evidence of some larger purpose in the universe are often accused of arguing with their heart, not their head. That's a credibility problem Dennett doesn't face. When you watch him validate an argument for higher purpose, you're watching that argument pass a severe test. In fact, given that he's one of the best-known philosophers in the world, it may not be too much to say that you're watching a minor intellectual milestone get erected.

There are two especially important points here. First, note that Wright is quite explicit that Dennett has said something that should make atheists uncomfortable. The second is that Dennett was forced to this concession as a result of Wright's ingenious and persistent questioning. We will be revisitng both of these points later.

So what was the big concession? Well, first we have to take a moment to understand the argument Wright was making to Dennett:

In short: Dennett has long believed that William Paley was right to look at organisms and surmise that (a) they had a designer (in some sense of the word); and (b) this designer had imbued them with goals, with an overarching purpose (however ignoble a purpose genetic proliferation may seem to us).

The gist of the argument I made to Dennett was this: What if you took this part of Paley's logic—the valid part—and applied it not to individual organisms, but rather to the whole system of life on this planet? Doesn't it suggest that the whole system had a designer (again, in some sense of that word). To see what I mean, let's look again at an organism through Paley's eyes, only this time let's look at its whole life span, starting at the very beginning.

Wright goes on to make an analogy between ontogeny - i.e. embryonic development - and the history of life on Earth. Just as ontogeny begins with a single fertilized egg that subsequently becomes more complex and diversified, so too does life on Earth apparently being with a single bacterium, from which life evolves to become more diverse and complex. He then writes:

In other words: If you watched evolution on this planet unfold from a distance (and on fast forward), you would find it strikingly like watching the maturation of an organism (“epigenesis”). So why can't the part of Paley's argument that can be validly applied to an organism's maturation—the idea that it suggests a designer of some sort—be applied to the whole system of life on earth?

This was the argument Wright was trying to get Dennett to agree too. Wright then characterizes Dennett's remarks in a series of numbered points:

1) Dennett's climactic concession may not sound dramatic. He just agrees reluctantly with my assertion that “to the extent that evolution on this planet” has properties “comparable” to those of an organism's maturation—in particular “directional movement toward functionality”—then the possibility that natural selection is a product of design gets more plausible. But remember: He has already agreed that evolution does exhibit those properties. Ergo: By Dennett's own analysis, there is at least some evidence that natural selection is a product of design. (And this from a guy who early in the interview says he's an atheist.)

Notice that Wright is once again rubbing Dennett's concession in the faces of atheists. Also, notice that Dennett's remarks are clearly described as being hypothetical. If the evolution of life is comparable in significant ways to the process of embryonic development, then the possibility that natural selection is the prduct of design goes up. Thus, there is nothing here for atheists to get worked up about until we come to Wright's next assertion: that Dennett has conceded the validity of the analogy.

Sadly, Dennett made no such concession. And with that simple realization, Wright's triumphalism is shown to be unwarranted.

Wright's next statement is this:

2) Again: to say that natural selection may be a product of design isn't to say that the designer is a god, or even a thinking being in any conventional sense. Conceivably, the designer could be some kind of natural-selection-type process (on a really cosmic scale). So Dennett might object to my using the term “higher purpose” in the first paragraph of this piece, since for many people that term implies a divine purpose. But “higher purpose” can be defined more neutrally. You can say that organisms have a “higher purpose” in the sense that (a) they have a purpose (genetic proliferation) and (b) the purpose was imparted by a higher-level process (natural selection)—so much higher, in fact, that all organisms on earth were oblivious to it until revelation came in the form of Charles Darwin. Analogously, once you accept the argument that Dennett has now accepted, you can say that evolution's directionality is evidence of “higher purpose.”

This is an important and accurate paragraph. Dennett is quite clear elsewhere in the interview that terms like “designer” and “purpose” do not necessarily have supernatural overtones. Quite right. But since Wright understands this, why does he think that Dennett's remarks provide anything for atheists to get worried about? It is Wright, not Dennett, who is making a concession here, and that concession completely undercuts his earlier bloviations.

Wright goes on to make some further points, but since they do not relate directly to what Dennett said I will not address them here.


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