Yes, in Fact- Dennett's attitude and intelligent design

amoskowi's picture

Yes, in Fact

“There's a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.” -Maya Angelou


In my last piece, I argued that the theories of natural selection and intelligent design can coexist peacefully due to the underlying differences in the theories. Natural selection, like all science, is based on the realm of what I will call “facts:” concrete, communicable observations of the world. The evidence for religious understanding, however, cannot be faithfully transmitted or duplicated in the way that scientific proof must be; it is based in the abstract realm.

The theories of natural selection and intelligent design don’t present conflicting views unless one claims to nullify the other. Implicit claims to superiority undermine the potential harmony between the theories. It serves as a necessary premise for arguments that seek to show how factual findings undermine spiritual conclusions, or vice versa. Daniel C. Dennett in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea exemplifies this caustic, implicit superiority in his arguments, insisting that having a successful factual argument disproves the existence of a valid religious perspective. By unquestioningly equating that which is unnecessary for concrete, observable reality with the imaginary and the fake, Dennett reveals the attitude that creates tension between two theories that could otherwise compliment each other.

Dennett begins his persuasive piece on the implications and applications of Darwin’s theory of natural selection with a description of it as “a cascade of algorithmic processes feeding on chance” (59). He proceeds to ask rhetorically “why designed that cascade? Nobody” (59). All Dennett’s argument has so far proven, however, is that evolution can exist without a divine creator, not that it does exist without one. To support his statement, he quotes Darwin’s assertion that “‘I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, [sic] if it requires miraculous additions…If I were convinced that I required such additions to the theory of evolution, I would reject it as rubbish’” (60). Dennett claims that his statement reflects how “Darwin himself put it,” but he, consciously or not, takes it one crucial step further, declaring that something not “required” in a scientific sense is therefore not present. If I choose to believe what I have been told, that scientific discoveries show that natural selection and the development of the corporal world is entirely possible without the influence of the abstract realm, that still does not preclude the existence of God or the possibility of his influence. It simply proves my initial argument, that religious and scientific theories do not rely on each other but rather exist separate from the influence of each other. It is arrogance on the part of science to imply that nothing not scientifically necessary could affect the “occasions for wonder in the world of nature,” and simply bad logic to state that something not proven is disproved (59).

Dennett’s choice of metaphors further reveals his belief in the absolute supremacy of fact over any other understanding of truth. One of his most ubiquitous metaphors compares different types of explanations to skyhooks and cranes, with “cranes” being theories based in concrete, identifiable facts and “skyhooks” those derived from what Dennett considers less legitimate sources. He prefaces his use of the word skyhook with a definition taken from the Oxford English Dictionary, introducing it through this source as “an imaginary contrivance” (74). They would, by his account, be “wonderful things to have, great for lifting unwieldy objects” but they are unequivocally “impossible” (74). He chooses an imaginary, impossible device as his metaphorical representation of anything unsupported by fact, anything unscientific. He praises theorists who “think that everything can be explained without skyhooks,” deeming it “the commitment to the non-question-begging science without any cheating by embracing mysteries or miracles” (82). His disregard for anything outside the factual realm reveals itself unabashedly in this language. Even though he qualifies his statements as pertaining to “Darwin’s theory,” his invocation of the word “everything” reinforces his belief that anything categorized as a skyhook explains nothing. Anything, in fact, that is not “non-question-begging science” becomes “cheating,” a disgrace to the implicit right way of doing things, simply for including anything other than fact in its understanding of “everything” (82).

Pointing out that Dennett criticizes religion, or, indeed, all that is not science, is hardly unique to me; his condescending reference to people appealing to a “Superdupergod” makes that clear within the text (71). My point, however, is that his assumption about the absolute supremacy of facts makes religion conflict more with his argument, not less. He could, to use his language, explain all the science with cranes without deeming everything else an imaginary, impossible, cheating skyhook. That would not undermine the science, only his understanding of science as the only right answer. However, his language reveals that his understanding of reality includes only that which can be supported in fact: “everything can be explained without skyhooks” (82). Curiously, however, there can be no concrete evidence that supports this underlying belief that facts encapsulate reality. It is an ideological, fundamentalist stance that construes alternate ways of understanding the world as useless and false. And yet, were that last sentence taken out of context, most people would think that I was referring to a religion stance, not a scientific one.

This variety of restrictive fundamentalism based in destructive delusions of supremacy is of course prevalent on the religious side of the argument as well. However, centuries-old frustrations with religious doctrine overriding fact have primed people to see it as an exclusively religious phenomenon when, as Dennett illustrates, those on both sides of the needlessly perpetuated conflict can be guilty. Natural selection and intelligent design, example of the two modes of thought, address different aspects of the world, the concrete and the abstract, and neither says everything about it. It is arrogance for either side to declare that its view encompasses all aspects of reality, and it perpetuates a conflict that ultimately minimized the full range of all that can be understood and explored.

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Simon and Schuster: New York. 1995.


Anne Dalke's picture

an alternative polemics?

You yourself signal the way in which this paper steps off from your last, which argued that religious and scientific realms of thought are not comparable—really “incommensurate”—and so not in conflict. What this paper adds to your earlier one is flagging a particularly unhelpful polemical stance--shared by scientists and religionists alike, and “best” exemplified right now by Daniel Dennett—which insists on one’s own story being the “only one.”

This was precisely the argument that was teased out @ our last Café Scientifique: that we stop arguing about Truth; accept the useful existence of multiple stories, even incommensurable ones; and (this goes beyond where you go, here) develop new stories about the origins of morality, the benefits of responsibility, and the value of randomness.

We turn this week to the study of Walt Whitman, whom one of your classmates has flagged as presenting an approach entirely different from Dennett’s, a welcome alternative:

Other books we have read in this class have been so determined to prove a point that they almost force you to be on the lookout for mistakes and fallacies in logic, however Leaves of Grass doesn't try to prove something, Whitman is simply telling the reader his interpretation of life and its wonders…With Whitman…I don't feel defensive or combative…

I’ll be talking about Whitman as bringing together literary and scientific points of view; I’m wondering if reading him will invite you to move beyond your attachment to “non-overlapping magisteria” to the possibility that these realms actually intersect, are “one culture,” as Sontag argues? We’ll see…

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