The Philosophical Legacy of Charles Darwin
Philosophy Talk

05 December 2009

Today our topic is Darwin's Philosophical Legacy and our guest is the one man in best suited to help think this through. That would be Dan Dennett, author of many books inspired by Darwinian ideas. Dennett thinks that Darwin's idea of evolution through natural selection is both the single best idea that anyone has every had about life and how it works and also a deeply unsettling even "dangerous" idea. You can join the conversation by posting to this open blog entry.

Comments (21)


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Guest

Saturday, December 5, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

Can religion and be explained in terms of evolutio

Can religion and be explained in terms of evolution?
People are in competition. Part of game is to cheat. Cheaters often win, but cheat too often and you get a bad reputation and start to lose. In game theory, those who lie or cheat all the time fare poorly compared to those who cheat rarely, especially if they cheat only when the stakes are high. Religion allows people to cheat within a structure that says "you are theoretically perfect, it's just the devil makes you sin." People who believe this have a conscious mind that believes they are perfect and they have a subconscious that knows when and how often to cheat. This ability to believe you are perfect while still able to believeabley lie and cheat strategically is a terrific evolutionary advantage.
What is this so-called "apparent purpose" Ken mentioned a few times? What makes you think we have a purpose? If there is one, what is it?

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Guest

Saturday, December 5, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

Your show mentioned that Darwin's legacy includes

Your show mentioned that Darwin's legacy includes the extension of the idea of evolution to domains beyond genes and biology.
Human biological and cultural evolution have given rise to modern societies which are entirely dependent on technology. Does technology itself adapt and grow through an evolutionary process?
A new book considers just this idea very much in the Darwinian spirit. "The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves", is by Brian Arthur, a noted economist associated with Stanford, the Santa Fe Institute, and Xerox PARC.
In a nutshell, Arthur concludes that technology does indeed evolve in the sense that primitive technologies give rise to more complex ones. But the mechanisms are quite distinct from those of biological evolution, largely because human cognition is involved, and human needs provide directed purpose that behaves differently from the simple survival imperative of biological evolution.
It is very worthwhile to get this perspective on the different forms that evolution can take, under different substrates. An overarching theory of evolution will encompass evolution of species, evolution of culture, evolution of technology, evolution of societies, etc. Each will share aspects with the others, but bring their own unique patterns and phenomena as well.

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Guest

Saturday, December 5, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

While this is off topic from the discussion at han

While this is off topic from the discussion at hand (and thank you for hosting this discussion on your always interesting radio show), I do think it's important to remember that Darwin is not the "inventor" or "creator" of the theory of evolution. That theory had existed for a long time before Darwin, but lacked a solid scientific base to unify the various observations and data.
As far as the theory of natural selection goes, he isn't really the sole originator of that either. Wallace deserves a lot of the credit for that. Between his voyage on the Beagle and the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin was assembling data from animal husbandry to show the subtle steps of species change. He wasn't writing about the Galapagos or using that as a basis to establish his theory until Alfred Russel Wallace sent him and essay about his observations of species variations in Indonesia.
I wrote a longer blog post about that here, if you're interested:
http://colinfrangos.com/blog/2009/02/on-the-origin-of-on-the-origin-of-s...
I don't want to sell Darwin short or overstate Wallace's importance, and I realize this might come across as pointless nitpicking, but I do think it's important to understand that this profound idea had many parents and a long period of development. While the simple narrative of Beagle-to-Origin does get the main points of the theory across, I think knowing the details results in a richer history.
A tangent, but one that I think is worthwhile.

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Guest

Saturday, December 5, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

How does dennett manage to justify dogmatically us

How does dennett manage to justify dogmatically using memetics in his literature as if memes hadn't been debunked scientifically?
Why use terms like conciousness-raising given their propagnda-like sound?
Why say on edge that ALL dawkins was saying was that religious people had cause some bad things, as if dawkins hadnt also been implying a connection between terrorism and religion despite the scientific evidence against this?
does dennett find many people think he is intellectually dishonest, even in spite of all his foot-stamping about being so intellectually honest?

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Guest

Saturday, December 5, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

Danielle, I have to say that I found that comment

Danielle, I have to say that I found that comment pretty absurd.
1. Dennett doesn't justify dogmatically using memetics in his literature because, as far as he's concerned, memes haven't been scientifically debunked. The conceptualization presented by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) is still relevant to modern evolutionary study today, and the understanding of memes as method of transferable, translatable information (while far from concrete, which is really a part of my personal frustration with the concept) is incredibly important to studies of consciousness.
2. "Consciousness-raising" sounds propaganda-like? That seems silly and unjustified. At worst, the term is bland, rhetorical and useless (and it probably is all of those things), but hardly characteristic of propaganda.
3. Apart from the fact that there is a necessary connection between religion and many institutions present in terrorism (though the potential for secular terrorism certainly exists and has been manifested throughout history), you seem to miss the point of the argument produced by Dawkins and (later) Harris altogether. The argument is that unquestioning commitment to any ideological structure is dangerous, and the opposition to dogmatism must be an internalization of the Socratic virtue, which entails inquiry, humility and a demand for the logical presentation of meta-theories and compliant data.
4. I'm not sure what Dennett finds or doesn't find. I suppose he should speak to that. I will say that his presentation of a critical analysis of consciousness (both in Consciousness Explained and, later, Sweet Dreams), while certainly not the best I've come across, is one of the most introspective and self-critical analysis of consciousness I've come across.
I'm glad Professor Dennett will be appearing on the show. Certainly a wonderful philosopher in his understanding of this particular issue, despite the generally controversial nature of many of his other philosophical issues. Should be a great show.

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Guest

Saturday, December 5, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

Well I'm glad that you found my comment rather abs

Well I'm glad that you found my comment rather absurd.
1. At the very least, the theory of memes has not played out well and has little to no explanatory insight. Dennett seems to be the only one that isn't aware of this situation. Frankly, whenever he gets around to defending his reliance on the theory, it's rather embarrassing. I'd love to know how he expects those of us persuaded by the other camp to be swayed by what appears to be merely his insistence to wait a little longer. Personally, I think the theory can be made to explain anything, and thus its abuses in some recent literature.
2. I understand why he uses the term consciousness-raising, but the term sounds like propaganda given that it often appears to be used to make positions seem more desirable while selectively providing information on a topic. At the best the term is bland, rhetorical, and useless- so why use it so often, particularly in Dawkins case?
3. As far as I'm aware the only firm studies of religion and terrorism present strong evidence that there is no correlation between religion and terrorism. The slight of hand to suggest that Dennett, and Harris, are merely talking about dogma is lame. There is no indication that the sort of people they uphold, including themselves, as questioning, rational actors are any more, on average, than other people, religious or otherwise, to question or be rational. Given my survey, I don't find religious people to be any more dogmatic, less questioning, or less rational than anyone else.
In the case of the edge piece I was referring to, Dennett claims Dawkins is *only* making a casual list of some negative things religion has caused. I find this claim to be disengenious; clearly Dawkins is making a scientific claim about a correlation between extreme violence of a political nature and religious conviction. This correlation can be tested (and has been), yet Dennett seems more interested in letting Dawkins' statement work more as propaganda then as real science.
4. My question, seriously, is if Dennett finds that other people, people who don't find his claims about evolution and the mind to be controversial at all, just feel that he is being intellectually dishonest often. I think I remember David Sloan Wilson (not my favorite person in the world, but...) accusing Dennett and some others of bad science- even of lying at one of the Beyond Belief conferences. Does Dennett find that this happens to him often?
I'm also glad Dennett will be on the show. A good deal of his work has greatly helped me in advancing my own projects. I agree with him in large parts, very large parts. But I really just can't help but feel that he's sometimes being blatantly manipulative and dishonest- hopefully I'm wrong on this claim, but I fear more and more that I'm not.
Either way, I'm sure the show will be enjoyable.

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Guest

Saturday, December 5, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

1. The application of the concept to cultural phen

1. The application of the concept to cultural phenomena does seem to get a bit excessive, but I suppose I'm having a hard time seeing what you see as so terribly controversial about the concept. There may be an argument that the definition of what a "meme" is covers too much ground to really be useful, but the concept of an infrastructure and evolutionary process for information seems incredibly useful, and helpful in understanding the progression of cultural phenomena throughout history.
2. I don't think he should use the term. I think we agree on that one. I was just making a point that it's not really a propaganda-based term, just a benign (if irritating) rhetorical devise.
3. I'm almost sure that we're not going to agree on what it means to be a "religious" person, but I'll most past that for a moment. Harris' claim in the End of Faith is one that the internalization of religion demands a suspension of reason, and that the suspension of reason, in any degree, is dangerous.
I'd like to see the studies you're referring to, personally, as they sound fascinating, but I think that it is clear that an exceedingly high percentage of active terrorists become involved for religious reasons. Whatever someone like Dinesh D'Souza may say about the Tigers of Tamil Elam, we're still talking about organizations that are advocating a religious cause as the primary motivator both in recruiting and in performing acts of violence.
4. I'll work very hard to avoid speaking for Professor Dennett, but it seems apparent that everyone, on both sides of that table, get attacked for intellectual dishonesty at some point. I'd like to hear what he has to say on that point.

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Guest

Tuesday, December 8, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

I really enjoyed the show. I happened to have the

I really enjoyed the show. I happened to have the radio on while driving on Sunday and listened to it again during lunch Tuesday. I was thinking about calling in with a question, but was worried that I could not articulate it properly. I will try to do that here.
I am a computer developer who primarily works on implementing statistical models in order to predict outcomes, using historical outcomes on similar populations. This involves what is generally known as, "data mining." As I have been working at this for about a decade, I have become a bit concerned about how it is changing our decision making process. Those changes seem analogous to me as the changes that occur in the assumption of natural selection over intelligent design or creationism as the model for our metaphysics. The basic nature of the difference is the absence of causality in the decision making process. To use the example at the beginning of the show, the brown beetles that outsurvived the green ones on the island did not cause their survival. They didn't look up at the birds and say to themselves, "It looks like the birds see green better than brown. We'd better come up with some eugenic breeding program to start to phase out our green progeny for the survival of the species." But God planned it out for us. I think this difference is the most disturbing aspect for people who cannot accept natural selection as our origin. We are pretty fond of our tie to causality and think of it as the gauge of our intelligence, success, bravery, (insert positive human characteristic of your choice). I would go so far as to say that the discovery of causes is what defines intelligence. If we can explain, "Why," we understand something. Natural selection does not rely on causal intellect at all, so, if it explains the nature of things better than our causal concepts, it is a grave threat. It means that our entire knowledge base, which is based upon a library of these "theories of cause" is suspect.
The whole basis of the syllogism is not supported by the decision making done in natural selection. Everything in a sense becomes a sort of market basket analysis. Brown beetles, higher survival rates, Green beetles, lower survival rates. But immediately Ken said, or seemed to imply, "That's because the birds see ..." With the logic of natural selection there is no, "That's because..." There are only things that happen colinearly, and we are so wedded to the idea of causality, that it is almost impossible for us to think of the outcome without trying to presuppose its cause.
I'm sort of worried that, as computers continue to make more decisions for us using this non-causal logic(?) ( which books you get shown in Amazon, which movies on Netflix, ...), we will get into feedback loops that may be a disdvantage to diversity. And it may lead us into a state that we would not have wanted to be in if we had proactively chosen our direction. In a sense everything will become pulp, based on the path of the most common outcomes. We may have not been created by God, but we may want to act more like our best concept of god ( the angels of our better nature) in what we create.
Ok I'm getting more obtuse by the minute, so I'll stop here, but I would like to hear more thoughts about the difference in value between the intelligent design process and the decision making of stochastics, and the implications of choosing one over the other.
I tried my best, but I'm sure a lot of it is just babbling.
Mark

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Guest

Saturday, December 12, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

I think that one of you, Stanford Professors, shou

I think that one of you, Stanford Professors, should address the views of Fodor who questions natural selection, but not the fact of evolution. As I understand him he has two criticisms of natural selection, accuses it of being
1) Unfalsifiabile tautologoy of the kind: Those fittest survive. Those who survive are the fittest ("They have must been doing something right to last so many years").
2) Metaphor, because only living organisms select (not nature).
Also why do writers on natural selection use so many metaphors, which do not always seem at first sight very well translatable or explainable away.

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Guest

Saturday, December 12, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

Correction: Sorry for many misspellings, I have

Correction:
Sorry for many misspellings, I have some other urgent job to do, but this discussion is important, so I had to join in
One important correction
Instead of
"Metaphor, because only living organisms select (not nature)".
it should be
"Metaphor, because only conscious organisms select (not nature)".
Marek Witkowski
Warsaw

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Guest

Monday, December 14, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

Darwin's theory of evolution's ambiguous, but subs

Darwin's theory of evolution's ambiguous, but substantial effects on socialism, sociology, eugenics, criminology, psychiatry, etc. should be taken together. Darwin's works have purportedly saved animals, 'souls,' and 'backwards peoples,' from their extinction, damnation, and barbarism, via dissection, proselytizing and imperialism. Scientific 'progress' and the dogmatism that comes with it--the new secular religions--ought to be understood as but a structure, a newly forming thing, as Foucault said "a new domination." So rather than dispute dogmatically, let us see it as such and talk about its scientific merits and worth; let us vivisect it and find those areas where it dominates(/saves) and cut those areas off like a cancer.

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Guest

Wednesday, December 23, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

Evolution is nothing but a creation theory of inte

Evolution is nothing but a creation theory of intelligent design.
And science equals religion in this or their uncertain regards.
Call it; quantum faith.
=
MJA
PS: The only person who can truly tell the past is the same person who can tell the future, and fortunately there is no such person. Fortunate because that simple truth should guide us to now, or what truly and most importantly is.

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Guest

Thursday, January 14, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Just because you can write a long comment doesn't

Just because you can write a long comment doesn't mean it is a good comment. The only philosophical legacy of Charles Darwin is that you can learn everything (and I mean everything) through your own observations. This is all anyone needs to know.

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Guest

Tuesday, January 19, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

The Darwin stuff is pretty interesting, do you rec

The Darwin stuff is pretty interesting, do you reckon it sits opposite buddhism's karma idea? Or do they work together?
In Bob Versus The Meaning of Life I got 5 other unsual opinions. Do you agree with any of their answers?
http://bobversus.com/archives/432

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Guest

Saturday, February 13, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

A man who dares to waste one hour of life has not

A man who dares to waste one hour of life has not discovered the value of life. - Charles Darwin
Great quotes, Great thoughts, Great Man

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Guest

Sunday, February 21, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Darwin theories and assumptions about his own di

Darwin theories and assumptions about his own discoveries, along with Hegel's philosophy, arose from, and contributed greatly to, a widerspread belief in the linear progression of civilizations and evolution of species.
It is, for instance, difficult for us to entertain nostaliga for past conditions without suspecting ourselves of having fallen prey to some sort of regressive tendency.
Likewise, we think of the past as something "used up", which must be "left behind", while we, almost instinctively, associate the future with progress.
Ultimately, this has done us tremendous harm.
We refuse to take objective stock of our situation in history, being assured, by the likes of Charles Darwin and his school, that there was never a more conscious time than now.
The reality, in fact, is that a child born into the world today has perhaps more to learn from the Early Bronze Age Minaon civilization on Crete than from all of our contemporary industrial societies put together.
"The ideal of Morality has no more dangerous rival than the ideal of highest Strength, of most powerful life; which also has been named (very falsely as it was there meant) the ideal of poetic greatness. It is the maximum of the savage; and has, in these times, gained, precisely among the greatest weaklings, very many proselytes. By this ideal, man becomes a Beast-Spirit, a Mixture; whose brutal wit has, for weaklings, a brutal power of attraction."
~ Novalis

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Guest

Saturday, March 13, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

"We refuse to take objective stock of our situatio

"We refuse to take objective stock of our situation in history, being assured, by the likes of Charles Darwin and his school, that there was never a more conscious time than now."
If you point me to where Charles Darwin said this, I would be enlightened.
More importantly, it's a fallacy to think that natural selection implies that whatever exists today is better than whatever existed before. The idea of the fittest surviving is simply that the ones that adapt best to the current environment are able to reproduce and thus propagate more of the "fittest". If you recognize that the environment is non-static, than you must also recognize that the ideal of the fittest is also changing. As such, it doesn't imply any sort of correlation between time and progress in terms of factors such as strength/intelligence.
Thus, there is no way to prove from the theory of natural selection that we are more conscious than any of our predecessors.
If this is what you meant by "more conscious," (intelligent? Better?) than I must disagree with your conclusions.
Furthermore, you state it as if it's obvious that we have "more to learn from the Early Bronze Age Minaon civilization on Crete than from all of our contemporary industrial societies put together." Consider me ignorant, if you and will, and explain exactly in what ways do we have more to learn from them, because I just don't see your claim as obvious. Is it morally, scientifically, etc.?

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Guest

Tuesday, March 16, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I dont wanna waste my time talking about this cha

I dont wanna waste my time talking about this charles darwin..Jesus Christ died for u!!! wake up, he loves u, he will give u joy and peace that would be insane. Yes, humans are smart and they make up theories that make sense up to some point, i will admit that, but science only goes so far. "where where you when i laid down the earths foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!"(JOB 38 4-5). Come on guys tell me everything about the creation of the universe, oh wait u cant can u, uh?. you only have a theory Mr.Darwin!whoa! A doctor cant tell you everything about the human body, but jesus has performed miracles that doctors have stumbled over. yes god gives us knowledge about our bodies and science, but we must except the fact we are never going to know all lifes answers.Come on just ask jesus into your heart, u may not feel anything right away but you will begin to feel his presence, ur sins keep u apart from him. im not brainwashed, i just love Jesus.=] Repent. he loves u. if u dont believe me ask him urself, sounds stupid but its not. God Bless. hes coming sooner than we think. stop looking for answers in all the wrong places we have a manual(the bible).

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Guest

Sunday, April 25, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

God gives us knowledge about our bodies and scienc

God gives us knowledge about our bodies and science, but we must except the fact we are never going to know all the answers.

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Guest

Tuesday, August 31, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

God bless Darwin

God bless Darwin

 
 
 

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