Friday, July 14, 2006

The not-quite-last word from Dennett

The following is from the concluding chapter of Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which, as some of you know, I've been reading and discussing with colleagues over the summer. I don't quite know how to respond to it, which is one reason why I'm posting it here; perhaps some of you might be willing to respond. I should also say that, whatever your thinking about evolutionary theory and its implications for every aspect (no exaggeration, for Dennett) of human endeavor and thought and belief, this concluding chapter, "The Future of an Idea," could not make any clearer what the stakes are, for good or for ill. If this issue interests you in the least, at least swing by your local bookstore and read that final chapter, all 10 pages of it.

Here's the passage, somewhat shortened:

At what "point" does a human life begin or end? The Darwinian perspective lets us see with unmistakable clarity why there is no hope at all of discovering a telltale mark, a saltation in life's processes, that "counts." We need to draw lines; we need definitions of life and death for many important moral purposes. The layers of pearly dogma that build up in defense around these fundamentally arbitrary attempts are familiar, and in never-ending need of repair. We should abandon the fantasy that either science or religion can uncover some well-hidden fact that tells us exactly where to draw those lines. There is no natural" way to mark the birth of a human "soul," any more than there is a "natural" way to mark the birth of a species. . . . I do not suggest that Darwinian thinking gives us answers to such questions; I do suggest that Darwinian thinking helps us see why the traditional hope of solving these problems (finding a moral algorithm) is forlorn. We must cast off the myths that make these old-fashioned solutions seem inevitable. We need to grow up, in other words. (513-514)
We're concluding our discussion of this book tonight; I have some questions to ask there that I hope will get answered, and some more to ask here.


R. Sherman said...

I suppose I need to buy this book and read it before commenting, what is the Blogosphere if not commenting in ignorance.

Anyway, it would seem Dennett says that because he cannot see how science or religion can answer the question he poses, then the question can never be answered. Any further seeking of the Truth is a waste of time.

I, for one, find it sad, that someone who at least tacitly acknowledges the existence of a "human soul" does not wish to contemplate its purpose.

How bereft we would be if we took Dennett's admonition to heart.

In truth, Dennett doesn't wish us to "grow up." Rather, he would see us regress to point where, as C.S. Lewis puts it, we are "Men without chests."


P.S. I checked out your other commentators for your post on Flannery O'Connor. Wonderful stuff.

Josh Rosenau said...

It's a rather long line from not having a bright line between things with souls and things without to saying that he doesn't want to contemplate its purpose.

Growing up means accepting ambiguity, accepting that the process of embryogenesis doesn't operate in a way that leaves us bright lines cleaving between non-life and life, any more than the process of dying in our modern, technologically sophisticated hospitals offers a clean demarcation.

That life itself is fuzzy doesn't mean it doesn't exist, nor that it isn't worth pondering. It just means "when does life begin" is the wrong question.

Winston said...

As R. Sherman said, probably need to read the entire book prior to commenting. But ignorance has never stopped me before...

I like what Josh said and the way he said it. Life is ambiguous.

There are questions and ponderings which will never be satisfied completely, because discovery and learning are continuous processes that do not, should not, stop. The questions raised, reiterated, or discussed by the author and those of us who have these discussions ... those questions have no quantitative answers, only qualitative answers which are really nothing more than informed opinions. And therein lies the rub ... the conflict.

You highlighted one sentence:
We should abandon the fantasy that either science or religion can uncover some well-hidden fact that tells us exactly where to draw those lines.

I do agree with that. I do NOT agree that we should not ask the questions. I firmly believe that before we can expect answers, we should understand the questions. Too many do not. Does Bush understand stem cell research and the answers that are likely to be provided? Of course not. But heavy doses of dogma and ignorance combined to let him squash it without caring what the questions really were.

While this should not be a political discussion, it is almost impossible to swim in this pool without getting wet. Not necessarily the Dems-Reps kind of politics, but more of a bell-curve distribution of cultural or social leanings, with free-thinking liberal at one end (make it the left ;-)) and fundamental conservative at the other end. Many of the scientific persuasion are housed under the left side of the curve, while it is more likely to find religious zealots to the right.

Extremists at both ends are the ones who answer and argue loudest, and neither takes time to understand the questions. Do we "need to grow up", as the author suggests? What a silly and trivial way to conclude a serious discussion! What we need to be intelligent enough to understand is that life is ambiguous ... fuzzy, and there may not be answers to whatever questions we may conjur about life and death. However, that acceptance should never preclude well thought out questions being asked and discussed by reasonable people.

Paul Decelles said...

Josh is right, often we ask the wrong questions-when does life begin is a good example. This is the wrong question, from Dennet's persepctive,because the only algorithm that seems to be involved in the deveopment of all aspects of the universe is the natural selection algorithm. That is why he refers to it as the universal acid. It destroys (I submit he thinks in a positive sense) any hope of divine intervention, any divine guidence. The presence of a moral algorithm doesn't make sense to Dennett because it would imply the existence of (to use his terminology) a skyhook something he views as superfluous.

So yes, we have to grow up, and talk to each other as members of a global civilization and not look for some cosmic skyhook to save us. We have to make our own moral algorithm.

Sometimes I am optimistic but there are other times such as this week watching the proxy wars in the Middle East when I despair for our civilization.

Maybe I will feel better after some coffee.