Strange Inversion Reasoning: Dennett’s Case Against Design

The Darwin Bicentennial celebration continued to this week with some rare freebies from PNAS, which generally always requires a subscription to view. Daniel Dennett wrote in great admiration if not downright idolization of Charles Darwin, claiming  he made the greatest contribution to philosophy.

“In a single stroke Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection united the realm of physics and mechanism on the one hand with the realm of meaning and purpose on the other.”

“From a Darwinian perspective the continuity between lifeless matter on the one hand and living things and all their activities and products on the other can be glimpsed in outline and explored in detail, not just the strivings of animals and the efficient designs of plants, but human meanings and purposes: art and science itself, and even morality.”

“When we can see all of our artifacts as fruits on the tree of life, we have achieved a unification of perspective that permits us to gauge both the similarities and differences between a spider web and the World Wide Web, a beaver dam and the Hoover Dam, a nightingale’s nest and “Ode to a Nightingale.”  Darwin’s unifying stroke was revolutionary not just in the breadth of its scope, but in the way it was achieved…”

After giving Darwin such praise, he then shifted focus to those who believe in God as the designer. Dennett used Turing’s theory to argue that a mindless based system can create a highly specialized complexity on earth from the bottom up, without the need for an intelligent “skyhook” providing the design from the top down.

While dismissing “mind creationists” Dennett targeted his arguments to  Jerry Fodor, Thomas Nagel and Alvin Plantinga.

“This is adaptationist reasoning, of course, and it is not surprising that creationists of both kinds [full creationists and mind creationists] have typically taken aim at adaptationist thinking in biology, for they see, correctly, that if they can discredit it, they take away the only grounds within biology for assessing the justification or rational acceptability of the deliverances of such organs.”

“We need to put matters in these “reverse engineering” terms if we are to compare organs with respect to their reliability—and not just their mass or density or use of phosphorus, for instance.  Such an appeal to the power of natural selection to design highly reliable information-gathering organs would be in danger of vicious circularity were it not for the striking confirmations of these achievements of natural selection using independent engineering measures.”

“The acuity of vision in the eagle and hearing in the owl, the discriminatory powers of electric eels and echolocating bats, and many other cognitive talents in humans and other species have all been objectively measured, for instance.”

Dennett’s argument here is nothing more than reaching for metaphysics in  his explanation. It was though he was shopping in a supermarket, strolling along the aisles helping himself to various metaphysical packaged concepts he seen on the shelf in order to build his explanation. In other words, he was building this crane while hanging from the skyhook. It’s a very circular argument in attempts to replace intelligent designs with something mindless.

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2 thoughts on “Strange Inversion Reasoning: Dennett’s Case Against Design

  1. “Dennett’s argument here is nothing more than reaching for metaphysics in his explanation. It was though he was shopping in a supermarket, strolling along the aisles helping himself to various metaphysical packaged concepts he seen on the shelf in order to build his explanation. In other words, he was building this crane while hanging from the skyhook. It’s a very circular argument in attempts to replace intelligent designs with something mindless.”

    In what way are the arguments of creationists any different? They vary only in the desired result, viz:

    Alvin Plantinga’s (for example) argument is nothing more than reaching for metaphysics in his explanation. It was though he was shopping in a supermarket, strolling along the aisles helping himself to various metaphysical packaged concepts he seen on the shelf in order to build his explanation. In other words, he was building this crane while hanging from the skyhook.* It’s a very circular argument in attempts to replace something mindless with intelligent designs.

    ===============
    *–I must remember not to mix my metaphors so horribly!

  2. Michael, where exactly does Dennett reach for metaphysics ? I do not read this at all … please elaborate.

    I also do not see the circularity you claim. Haven’t you read the “… would be in danger of …” in his piece ?

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