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Volume 5, No. 5 - August 1995  
Cranes and Skyhooks
By Richard Rorty

IN ADDITION to being one of our most original and most readable philosophers, Daniel Dennett is the editor of a jokebook called The Philosopher's Lexicon. This book is made up ofplays on the names of great thinkers (e.g., "It's buried so deep we'll have to use a heidegger"). The most famous definition in the book, perhaps, is that of "chomsky." This adjective "characterizes the attempt to derive very broad philosophical conclusions from very specialized scientific results, as in 'The conclusions drawn from Gödel's Theorem are even chomskier than those drawn from Heisenberg's Principle.'"

Chomsky projects are often undertaken by aging Nobelists, on whom it has dawned that their own discipline (and, as it happens, their very own contribution to that discipline) provides the Clue to Everything. Some of the worst philosophico-religiocosmological books ever written have, alas, been produced by some of our most distinguished scientists.

If it were not for such books, we should have less use than we do for analytic philosophers--the sort of Anglophone philosopher who owlishly insists that an unusual degree of clarity and rigor distinguishes his work from that of his French and German colleagues. Even those who deplore the smug parochialism of the analytic philosophers will grant that they are very good indeed at debunking chomsky books.

Dennett (who refers to the late, great Paul Tillich as a "continental obscurantist") is a card-carrying analytic philosopher. But he is no mere debunker. Once in a blue moon an analytic philosopher comes along who redeems his subdiscipline by combining professional persnicketiness with a romantic spirit, a vivid imagination, and a sense of humor. Gilbert Ryle, Wilfrid Sellars, and Willard Van Orman Quine are examples, and so is Dennett. Furthermore, Dennett is an even better writer than Quine--which is saying a great deal. His Consciousness Explained (Little, Brown, 1991) was a splendid piece of argumentative prose, even though it was not so much an explanation of the nature ofconsciousness as an explanation of how to get along without the notion of consciousness. Darwin's Dangerous Idea is even better--it's even more lucid, and it defends an even more gripping, and much more far-reaching, thesis.

The thesis is that Darwin, unlike Heisenberg, Gödel, and those aging laureates, is just as philosophically significant as he has been thought to be. Very occasionally, the results ofwork in a special scientific discipline do change everything. Copernicus really did place all in doubt, just as Donne said he had. Darwin is just as dangerous to theocracy as Pat Robertson fears, and as fatal to idealist metaphysics as Dewey hoped.

This is because the effect ofaccepting Darwin's account of how we got here is to separate the question ofour origins from that of the meanings we should give to our lives. After Darwin, we could begin distinguishing questions about the hidden causes of things from questions about what to do with ourselves. We found that we could think of ourselves both as having emerged, assisted only by chance, from some primeval, slimy protein soup, and as close kin to Beethoven and Lincoln. We became able to stop pretending, like socially insecure upstarts, that our origins are commensurate with our latterly acquired dignities.

Dennett could have told the story of our attempts at such commensuration by going back to Platonic otherworldliness. But he keeps things simple by starting with John Locke's succinct little argument that only a nonhuman Mind can explain the existence of human minds. "It is as impossible to conceive," Locke said, "that ever bare incogitative Matter should produce a thinking intelligent Being, as that nothing should of itself produce Matter...." Dennett argues that, although it was indeed impossible to conceive of this in Locke's time, it has now become possible. The detailed work that biologists have done to test and fill out Darwin's hypotheses has given us a thoroughly plausible story to tell, not only about how we got here, but about how that primeval soup got there. So philosophy, if conceived as an approach to studying the limits of what can be conceived, must historicize itself. It must admit that conceivability is as much a function of time and chance as was the emergence of Darwin, or of intelligent beings generally.

To make this last point, Dennett uses Richard Dawkins's notion of a "meme"--the cultural analogue ofa gene. New memes emerge in the same way as do new genes, as a result of the workings (deep in our component protein molecules) of the same physical laws. Like genes, they compete with one another, and survive by virtue of their compatibility with the current state of a constantly changing environment. Certain memes contained in the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth, in the Origin of Species, and in Lincoln's Second Inaugural address turned out to be just what certain situations demanded--just as had, earlier on, certain finches' beaks and certain moths' camouflages.

Beethoven, Darwin, and Lincoln all helped us conceive of things that we previously found inconceivable. Like mutated genes, mutated memes make genuine novelty possible. They let us have ideas and images, hopes and fears, ofwhich we were previously incapable--just as we were incapable of a lot of our current behavior before the situations we faced a few million years back encouraged the proliferation of certain mutated genes (the ones that led, eventually, to prehensile thumbs and extra neurons).

The work that has been done since Darwin consists of explaining how, as Dennett puts it, various "cranes" (the uninspiring and unmysterious interactions between the environment and the new anatomy, or new behavior resulting from newly mutated genes) can do the work that Locke believed could only be done by "skyhooks." Dennett calls "skyhooks" such inspiring and mysterious nonphysical mechanisms as the imitation of Platonic Forms by material things, the approximation of Divine perfection by the revolutions of Dante's lovesick stars, the framing of Nature's Laws by Nature's God, the call to moral obedience from the depths of Kant's noumenal realm, and the Descents of the Dove and of the Muse.

Dennett treats Chomsky (who thinks that a "language organ" in the brain emerged by a process distinct from natural selection), Roger Penrose (an eminent physicist who has revived Gödel's attempt to milk some philosophy out of his theorem), and John Searle (the great would-be debunker ofArtificial Intelligence) as united by a yearning for skyhooks. All three hope that Darwin will turn out not to have been the last word. In this respect they are the heirs of Locke. But Locke himself was the direct descendant of the first Western skyhook designer, Plato--a mathematics-obsessed romantic who hated the thought that Democritus might have given us the last word about the nature of things. Plato postulated skyhooks in order to provide a theory of human origins more commensurate with the certainty of mathematical demonstration and with the sublimity of eros than were Democritus' atoms.

Dennett thinks that Darwin helped us realize both that Democritus was, in essence, right and that Plato's rescue operation was unnecessary. Darwin helped us see that we cannot hope to get hints about the meaning of life from finding out how things, or we ourselves, are put together. Even an ideally unified scientific world-picture will only be an account of how, rather than why, things came to be as they are. That is all that science is ever going to find out. It will never give us Tennyson's "one God, one law, one element / And one far-off divine event / To which the whole creation moves."

This means that it was a mistake to infer from the spectacular success of the corpuscular physics developed by Galileo and Newton that a body of science is successful only when it comes up with universal laws. Galileo and Newton did, indeed, discover some nice, succinct formulas for predicting the behavior of ideal corpuscles in a vacuum. Many equally elegant laws of the behavior of some equally boring objects have been discovered since. But it was a great mistake to infer from the existence of Newton's Laws that the discovery of Law is the proper business of scientific inquiry. Making this mistake produces the idea that we must not give up until we find Laws of Biology, Laws of Psychology, Laws of Linguistics, Laws of Society, and Laws of History. That sort of physics-envy encourages the fantasy that the point of science is to recapture the entire text of a great corpus juris, one that will manifest the deep purposes of a pantheistically pictured Lawgiver.

What we should have gleaned from Galileo and Newton is that you get the best explanations of the behavior of big conspicuous interesting things (the starry heaven, the human mind) by seeing how they are put together out of teensy uninteresting things. Once you realize this, you become willing to admit that the former would never have existed had the latter not been laid out in a particular, entirely contingent way. You can think of yourself as the accidental product of the operations of a universe that has no particular interest in you, and not be depressed by that thought.

Those who are happy to see themselves that way are typically accused of mechanistic reductionism. Dennett, however, is a nonreductionist mechanist. For he is entirely free of the impulse that led Democritus to say that everything other than atoms and void is "mere appearance," an impulse that leads from useful mechanist physics to useless materialist metaphysics. Dennett thinks that every description of everything is as good as the purposes served by the uses of that description. Describing things as clusters of atoms whirling about in a void is useful for rather few purposes, though very usefull for those. Science is not, as Democritus and Wilfrid Sellars thought, the measure of all things. It is just the source of yet another useful set of descriptions. We are accidental products of the layout of some elementary particles, but we are not just such products. We are also many of the other things that we describe ourselves as being.

As restated by Dennett, Darwin's dangerous idea is that mechanistic, atoms-and-void narratives--the kind that tell us how atoms got made out of quarks, molecules out of atoms, mitochondria out of protein molecules, colorful butterflies out of drab protozoa, the Origin of Species out ofa few basic marks are the best results you can expect scientific research ever to come up with. Anything more--for example, the various descriptions of ourselves that give meaning to our lives--must be left up to our "unscientific" imagination. But once we stop thinking, with Democritus, that imaginative redescription gives us mere "fiction," as opposed to Scientific Truth, this will no longer seem discouraging. Scientific Truth is the whole truth about how things (including ourselves) got here, but only a tiny part ofthe whole truth about what things are. There are as many truths about what daffodils and human beings are, and about what their existence means, as there are true descriptions of them. We do not have to choose between the botany textbooks and Wordsworth, nor between econometrics and Whitman. All four are, in Dennett's language, "Good Evolutionary Tricks," useful memic adaptations to our current situation.

Dennett treats memes like the opening passages of Schiller's "Ode to Joy" and of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica as on a par with each other, and on a par with beavers' dams and weaverbirds' nests. All are, in the same way and the same sense, what they are because various atoms and genes were as they were. They are all episodes in a continuous evolutionary narrative: the narrative of the big, generic macrocosmic process which every smaller process illustrates microcosmically, a narrative which Dennett calls "the exploration of Design Space"--that is, the trying out of new combinations of simples (atoms, chemical elements, DNA codings, letters of the alphabet, literary tropes) in order to test the value of the resulting complexes. Biology, psychology, linguistics, sociology, and historiography are not, in this view, unsuccessful searches for Laws. They are brilliantly successful attempts at reverse engineering--at seeing how Nature managed to put together cells, brains, languages, societies, and cultures.

In the course of defending Darwin against those who still hanker for skyhooks, Dennett takes on a whole battalion of opponents--philosophers like Searle, who think that computers have only "pseudo-minds"; physicists like Penrose, who think that the "nonmechanical subtlety" of minds may be explained by "possible quantum effects occurring in the microtubules of the cytoskeleton of neutrons"; cognitive scientists like Chomsky, who think that it is "beneath the dignity of mind to be a gadget or a collection of gadgets"; and overenthusiastic biologists like E.O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology (who thinks that memes remain the humble servants of genes).

His most formidable opponent, however, and the one to whom he devotes the most attention and argument, is Stephen Jay Gould, a biologist who has become dubious that Darwin and his successors have as yet given us the whole story. Gould is Dennett's only peer as an expositor of modern biology and is the best known (at least among laymen) of contemporary evolutionary theorists. But Gould has doubts that we fully understand how evolution works, and Dennett has no such doubts. Those who have been convinced by Gould that there is a lot that Darwinian adaptationism cannot explain may have their faith in Darwin restored by reading Dennett. Those who, like me, have never been able to figure out exactly what Gould thinks Darwinian adaptationism cannot explain are gratified to learn that Dennett cannot either. Dennett thinks that Gould still hankers after skyhooks, and that he does not properly grasp one of Darwin's central points: that "evolution is not a process that was designed to produce us, but it does not follow from this that evolution is not an algorithmic process that has in fact produced us."

Those who find Darwin as unsatisfactory as Plato found Democritus would like to maintain a greater distance between ourselves and the brutes than such algorithmic processes allow for. Dennett argues that the only relevant thing the brutes lack is language, and that the process that got us language, and got language from grunts to Goethe, is no more mysterious, and no less algorithmic, than the process that got life from the primal soup to us. It is the same process, produced by the same algorithm: chance mutations selected by survivability in current environmental conditions as Good Evolutionary Tricks. Gould, Dennett argues, is just wrong when he says that "biological evolution is powered by natural selection, cultural evolution by a different set of principles that I understand but dimly."

Dennett can, however, enthusiastically agree that language makes a big difference. It makes our relationship to our genes, as he puts it, "importantly different from the relationship of any other species to its genes--because what We are is not just what we as a species are." Differing memes have split our species up into many different communities, different ways of being human. As history speeds up, rapidly mutating memes produce an accelerating diversification, resulting in a variety of organisms (the ancient Athenians and the Ik, the Christian Scientists and the deconstructionists) far more elaborate and interesting than were ever produced by more slowly mutating genes.

When all organisms were dumb, it took new species to make diversity possible. Once one species acquired language (and, thereby, imagination), it began to diversify itself at fabulous speed. Dennett sums up his picture of the relation between nature and culture by saying, "Just as the genes for animals could not come into existence on this planet until the evolution ofplants had paved the way (creating the oxygen-rich atmosphere and ready supply ofconvertible nutrients), so the evolution of memes could not get started until the evolution of animals had paved the way by creating a species--Homo sapiens--with brains that could provide shelter, and habits of communication that could provide transmission media, for memes." Culture has now taken over from Nature as the source of hope, glory, and meaningfulness.''Yet nature is made better by no mean / But nature makes that mean," as Shakespeare put it.

If you still hope that science may come up with a discovery that tells you what we are here for, you will find Darwin's Dangerous Idea exasperating and depressing. But you will like this book a lot if you think that science as reverse engineering, offering nothing more or less than detailed explanations of how various tricks are done, is science enough. Nobody can accuse Dennett of being antiscience, but in campaigning against skyhooks he is also campaigning against the nineteenth-century suggestion that science should step into the place once occupied by religion. He is warning us against the occasional, clumsy, chomsky attempts of scientists to play the role once played by priests and philosophers, to give us expert advice about the meaning of life. If we can ever stop trying for skyhooks, that role will be left vacant. In a democratic culture--the most efficient mechanism for producing diversity yet developed in the course of five billion years of exploration of Design Space--no such experts are needed.

Richard Rorty teaches philosophy at the University of Virginia


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