Dennett's Dangerous Idea: Defining Objectivity Subjectively

Jackie Marano's picture

        In the context of mid-nineteenth century Western culture and society, Charles Darwin’s decision to present his theories on evolution to the public with “On the Origin of Species” (1859) was, indeed, a dangerous idea; it was a considerable risk to publish a work that challenged prevailing (Christian) notions of how existent life forms came to be. One part of the ‘danger’ is that his empirical science-based work greatly opposed many long-established beliefs, such as the biblical story of Creation, which had already accounted for the origins and existence of life on earth. But another ‘dangerous’ element of Darwin’s masterwork, destined to encounter opposition by contemporary society, was his subtle insinuation that humans have not been excluded from evolution by natural selection. While prevailing Christian beliefs insisted that humans were special creatures in God’s eyes among all other organisms, natural selection simply did not; it leveled the playing field, so to speak. Darwin was not only aware of the imminent opposition to his theories, but he was also most interested in the implications of his empirical evidence for the process of evolution itself. As a result, “On the Origin of Species” contains few direct references to humans or their significance in the process.

Despite the fact that Darwin did not care or choose to do so, others such as philosopher and author Daniel Dennett have since gleaned unempirical, philosophical meaning from Darwin’s work and ideas. In his recent interdisciplinary work “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life” (1995), Dennett rigorously applies Darwin’s theories to humanity to further some of his ideas, including the notion that evolution as defined by Darwin is the ultimate source of ‘meaning,’ or purpose or significance, in life. It is through this assertion that Dennett credits Darwin with the dangerous idea that evolution is a mindless process from which all organisms and ‘meaning’ itself have evolved.

However, that Darwin was an empiricist and not a philosopher, that Dennett is a philosopher and not an empiricist, and that Dennett defines 'meaning' from the human perspective are all factors that highlight the importance of subjectivity in valuing any assertion, judgment, or observation. One could presumably argue that all ‘truths,’ assertions, discoveries, and observations made by organisms on, from, or about Earth are fundamentally subjective. That is, organisms that can perceive that which is to be perceived cannot do so without the agency of interpretation or judgment of some kind. Between and among ‘perceiving’ organisms of every level of complexity, such interpretations of what is ‘out there’ will always differ, and to various extents (magnitude, method, complexity, etc). But what is perceived at the individual, population, or species level is strictly perceived, and there is no ‘right’ or wrong’ to any given perception. And thus, with the notion in mind that human beings themselves are perhaps the apotheosis of subjectivity, Dennett actually appears to possess a more ‘dangerous’ idea than that which he has credited to Darwin, as ‘meaning’ and its origins cannot be objectively defined. And though this assertion is, itself, subjective, it is, like the works of Darwin and Dennett, worthy of consideration nonetheless.

Perhaps it is most important to note that, although “On the Origin of Species” is founded upon Darwin’s empirical data and observations, this work is, by no means, objective. Humans are incredibly sophisticated organisms with high cognitive abilities that contribute to our general sense of curiosity, our tendency to inquire, and our desire to ‘make sense’ of our surroundings in way that we can accept at the individual level and that might be accepted more universally. We could reasonably argue that since our arrival on earth as anatomically modern humans, we have had to make simple subjective judgments such as, “This is a bird, this is not a bird” that, over the course of time, we have come to view as objective ‘fact’ (2). In the past, we have been compelled by our human nature to observe the world, to ponder it, and then to tell a credible story about it. If the story is credible enough, it may, over time, become a ‘truth’ for many, and its subjective foundation henceforth fades to nonexistence. Thus, as objective as we believe some of our perceptions to be, everything that we claim to know and to perceive is founded upon subjective judgments. And the formation of such judgments requires that each individual blend his/her own subjective interpretations with those of others to establish individual and more universal ‘truths.’ With this said, we note that Darwin’s method and approach in “On the Origin of Species” is not at all different. Darwin, too, was a curious human that used his subjective perceptive abilities and those of his predecessors to weave together a very convincing story that we know as evolution. Many, including Dennett, accept this story as the ‘truth,’ perhaps in part because it can be applied to fossil/geological evidence that excites some of our senses, furthering the credibility of the story in our ‘perceiving’ minds.

We notice, then, that the ‘story’ and its author (Darwin) that both form the basis of Dennett’s assertion, that ‘meaning’ is derived solely through ‘mindless’ evolution, are fundamentally subjective. For this reason, Dennett’s own ‘story’ is doubly subjective. But interestingly enough, Dennett’s assertion and his ‘crane and skyhook’ analogy both attempt to eliminate the role of subjectivity in defining or influencing ‘meaning, and certainly the notion that it is inherently related to ‘meaning.’ So does Dennett’s subjective assertion, based itself on the subjective observations of Darwin, successfully eliminate the role of subjectivity in evolution and ‘meaning’ in favor of objective truth?

Dennett’s endeavor is admirable, but a pretty ‘dangerous’ one indeed. His assertion that ‘meaning’ evolved objectively within the confines of ‘mindless’ evolution greatly oversimplifies the matter at hand and it does not account for the possibility that the process that he describes could very well function in reverse: ‘meaning’ can promote evolution, just as much as evolution might foster meaning. But because ‘meaning’ is the product of subjective perceptions and the corresponding subjective interpretations, it becomes difficult to agree with Dennett that the evolutionary process is ‘objective’ and ‘mindless’ on all accounts.
Perhaps natural selection depends on the subjective nature of organisms on earth and selects for greater subjectivity among organisms over time; is subjectivity not a fantastic source of randomness, of change, and of deviation from the usual or expected…all of which could lead to the formation of life that is new or improved or different?

Dennett’s ‘crane and skyhook’ analogy represents two distinct ways of accounting for phenomena. According to this analogy, a ‘crane’ represents a process or phenomenon whose products do not require anything mindful for their existence, whereas a ‘skyhook’ represents a process or phenomenon whose products were created as a result of mindfulness or intention, both of which come from another world but act on our own. But Dennett does not like skyhooks, and actually wants to eliminate them; he does not want to appeal to another world to account for what occurs (or has occurred) here on Earth. So since he wants to eliminate skyhooks and subjectivity, we can reasonably state that subjectivity is Dennett’s ‘skyhook,’ and that objectivity is his ‘crane,’ in the form of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The first problem here, however, is that Darwin’s theory is not objective, and that it is not a universal truth: it is a story, and therefore cannot realistically explain or account for an absolute Truth. The second problem is that even though Dennett wishes to eliminate ‘skyhooks’ for good, he cannot rationally do so, and this is actually a result of his subjective nature. As humans, we tend to believe that if we cannot perceive something in some way, then it doesn’t exist.  Even if Dennett does not want to appeal to another world to explain what happens on Earth, he cannot prove that it does not exist. In fact, none of us can. Why? Because we cannot perceive this other world. But does that mean it doesn’t exist? Not necessarily.

It is not necessary to look to spiritual or religious belief to ponder the existence of another outer ‘minded’ world, but it should be recognized that this quandary is a testament to the limits of subjectivity. And if, by Dennett’s own definition, ‘skyhooks’ are fixed, eternal, and perfect, then subjectivity simply can’t be a skyhook. It is too limited and too variable to be a skyhook, and much too valuable to be rejected. Thus if one were to reverse Dennett’s associations of what is the ‘crane’ and what is the ‘skyhook,’ such that subjectivity was the crane, his story would be greatly improved according to his own definitions; the limits, variability, and value of subjectivity contribute to the role of ‘meaning,’ the force that unifies all life forms on earth and requires some degree of perceptive interaction between the organism and its surroundings, which in turn accounts for other subjective observations such as Darwin’s theory on evolution. Thus, subjectivity enhances the ‘truth’ of another subjective phenomenon, but does not at all account for an absolute Truth beyond the scope of our perceptive abilities.

And if one were to take Dennett’s objectivity ‘crane’ and turn it into a ‘skyhook,’ this too would improve his story according to his own definitions. If objectivity (in the form of Darwin’s theory of evolution) were the ‘crane,’ as Dennett suggests, would it not completely disappear if life on earth were to disappear? Does objectivity depend on life? Is it limited to life? How can a phenomenon be strictly objective if it is conditional? For this reason, subjectivity is the better ‘crane’; it is limited to entities that can somehow perceive something ‘out there.’ We cannot prove or disprove that objectivity and ‘meaning’ are dependent on life (via evolution by natural selection), as such an investigation would be limited by our subjective nature. But we do note that, unlike evolution or life on earth, objectivity is fixed, eternal, unconditional, and perfect, just like a ‘skyhook.’

So then what is the role of objectivity? Is it one of those phenomena ‘out there’ but not perceivable? Is it the source of subjectivity? Is it a secondary, indirect source of meaning, for which subjectivity is the mediator? Is objectivity an idea, or is it an entity? And though we do not know much about it, would we want to eliminate this ‘skyhook’? Would Dennett eliminate objectivity if he were told that it might no longer be his ‘crane’? Can objectivity, if it is indeed a ‘skyhook,’ be useful in some way? Would life as we know it exist without it? Dennett and Darwin have certainly given us much to think about, at both the empirical and philosophical levels. These two storytellers have not only created stories for our interest and consideration, but also, perhaps unwittingly, for our use and our modification in accordance with our own subjective judgments.  And in this way, they help to support and inspire future generations of storytellers, including the author of this essay.



1. Dennett, Daniel C. “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.” Smith and Schuster Paperbacks, New York. 1995.

2. Raymo, Chet. “Skyhooks and Cranes” (accessed 12 March





Paul Grobstein's picture

objectivity and subjectivity: cranes or skyhooks?

"Would Dennett eliminate objectivity if he were told that it might no longer be his ‘crane’? Can objectivity, if it is indeed a ‘skyhook,’ be useful in some way?"

A very rich set of questions do indeed emerge from this.  For more on the objectivity/subjectivity relationship, see The "objectivity"/"subjectivity" spectrum: having one's cake and eating it too.  

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