Friday, June 27, 2008

Daniel Dennett: Hypocrite and Fool

First of all, and despite the inflammatory nature of the title, I would like to say that I came to Dennett's work with a relatively open mind. I had seen some of his lectures on YouTube and I had heard about his advocacy of atheism. He seemed to be a relatively rational thinker and a proponent of similar beliefs. I was wary of his advocacy of meme theory, but nothing in his mainstream presence suggested any hint of what I was to find when I started reading his latest book, my first and last Dennett work, Breaking the Spell.

I thought Dennett might be a safe bet because he comes highly recommended by Richard Dawkins. While I disagree with Dawkins' advocacy of socialist politics and his own claims to meme theory, it has always struck me that Dawkins' attachment to memes is more of a kin to humoring an interesting analogy as opposed to seriously proposing it as a foundation for rational debate. He introduced it in The Selfish Gene, a work otherwise highly commendable for its astute and forthright explanation of evolutionary theory. But after reading Dennett's work, I am forced to reevaluate my estimation of Dawkins' intellectual honesty as well. I will give him the benefit of doubt and withhold my judgement till I have further explored Dawkins' works. As for Dennett....he embodies everything that I feared would happen in the world of philosophy when I first encountered Dawkins' suggestion.

Dennett tries to sell his book as an attempt "to investigate religion in a scientific manner". Now, I am an anti-theist, which means that I not only do not believe in any god or supernatural presences, powers, or forces whatsoever, but it means that I think such beliefs are fundamentally harmful to humanity and destructive of science and progressive humanistic thought. In this sense, I mean "progressive" as in advancing in a beneficial manner and "humanistic" as in pertaining to the notion that the lives of human beings should be the standard and focal point of philosophic enquiry. I came across Dennett as one of the so-called "Four Horsemen" of modern atheism, the others being Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. It is in fact the recent spate of media coverage in recent years that drew me to start investigating their works, and Dawkins' own sense of consciousness-raising that inspired me to start this blog as an expression of my own beliefs.

Harris, while his arguments against religion are indisputable, leaves much to be desired when he starts to argue for anything. He tends to convey the impression that his assertion is sufficient to justify any demand on our moral judgments and seems quite confident that the majority of his atheist peers are as hopelessly liberal as he is. While he rightfully condemns moral relativism, he unwittingly falls into the trap of being a moral relativist, as he argues in defense of torture. This is an issue which it is impossible to defend morally unless one assumes that one party is always in the right simply for the reason that it is one's own. He blatantly ignores that if one is to relinquish the moral high ground by engaging in the debased tactics of one's moral rivals, that one sacrifices the grounds from which such one-sided moralizing can be justified in the first place. Harris seeks to undermine the universality of human rights and his argument is half-based on assumptions of some vaguely stated moral solidarity with the American vox populi.

Dawkins, as I have already stated, is at his best when he is addressing his speciality of biology and evolutionary theory. Especially as the only pure scientist of the four, this is to be expected. However, as I have also argued elsewhere on this site, Dawkins is comitted to a form of socialist politic which ignores many of his own conclusions. But I see this contradiction stemming from only the slightest of moral misdirections, his lingering attachment to christian morality and his desire to force it into biology so as to rationalize his view of morality in a world that cannot logically accommodate it. But his attachments to Harris who favors torture and now Dennett who is much worse, seriously demand that Dawkins philosophical work be scrutinized more closely. That is a task which I must regrettably leave for later. I also have not yet had the opportunity to investigate Hitchens' work closely, but that, too, will be addressed in due time.

No, the topic at hand is Dennett and his book Breaking the Spell. What it should be called is Hail the Meme and Other Unsubstantiated Assertions. I could not get more than one third through this book before I became physically ill for trying to choke down the slew of outrageous propositions he tries to foist on the reader. A book, I might add, for which Dennett says, "a reader-friendly flow for a wider audience was more important than the convenience of scholars."

Certainly scholars should have nothing to do with this book whatsoever. Of course the first two chapters deal with relatively innocuous subjects like why we should investigate religion and whether or not scientific investigation is appropriate to or capable of the task. It is the third chapter, "Why Good Things Happen" that starts to rank of shoddy (or perhaps even consciously deceptive) reasoning. I was left wondering that if this is the best Tufts has to offer in the realm of philosophy, perhaps Tufts is not quite worthy of the respect it has been accorded.

The reason is memes. Unlike Dawkins' scientifically cautious approach to the concept of memes, Dennett charges head-on taking all sorts of wild conjectures for granted. I quote:

"If boatbuilders or potters or singers are in the habit of copying old designs "religiously," they may preserve design features over hundreds or even thousands of years. Human copying is variable, so slight variations in the copies will often appear, and although most of these promptly disappear, since they are deemed defective or "seconds" or in any event not popular with the customers, every now and then a variation will engender a new lineage, in some sense an improvement or innovation for which there is a "market niche". And lo and behold, without anybody's realizing it, or intending it, this relatively mindless process over long periods of time can shape designs to an exquisite degree, optimizing them for local conditions."

...The italics are Dennett's....the confusion is mine.

First of all, as a linguist, I cannot help but notice that Dennett strategically uses the passive voice to avoid betraying who or what it is that is acting upon the design process of boats and pots and songs. He also strategically places these "customers" in the circumstance of the phrase. An approach that those familiar with Halliday's functional grammar will recognize as being extremely useful for hiding the impact of a participant or obfuscating their role almost entirely. The fact that Dennett is desperately trying to obscure is that boats do NOT design themselves. That the process of copying or innovation is something which is consciously decided by human minds, by active participants in their own existence, by active participants in the contents and products of their own minds.

But to state that humans actually DO something would be to give up the game and declare from the start that what he intends is ludicrous tripe. In fact, in order to substantiate even the possibility of his beloved memes, Dennett must beg the question by first assuming that there is no such thing as free will, as self-modification of one's mental structure, as the ability to choose which ideas one accepts and which ideas one rejects and which ones and how one modifies. Dennett must use the passive voice to obscure these facts because when they are placed directly next to the assertions he draws, it becomes obvious that what he is saying isn't worth the paper on which it is printed.

Again I quote: "Here we have the design of a human artifact-culturally, not genetically transmitted-without a human designer, without an author or inventor or even a knowing editor or critic."

THIS of boatbuilding. Where, one is forced to ask, would Dennett be if there was not some convenient boat to copy? Presumably he would be up the creek without a paddle, because he has already dismissed the possibility that somebody could conceive of a new idea and create a paddle much less a boat to carry him. Without a human designer? How could a boat come to be without a human designer? I am really forced to wonder if not only Dennett but his editor and publisher were not all smoking crack when they were going over this drivel.

If only because they permitted Dennett to start from this rather dramatic and unsubstantiated assumption and progress to "make a point that should be uncontroversial: cultural transmission can sometimes mimic genetic transmission, permitting competing variants to be copied at different rates, resulting in gradual revisions in features of those cultural items, and these revisions have no deliberate, foresighted authors."

No authors? Who is supposedly making these cultural artifacts if not human beings? Of course Dennett has already decided that humans have no free-will or control of their consciousness, so naturally they cannot be an active participant in the creation of anything. Dennett sees some undefined class of artisans who mindlessly copy designs passed down by some mysterious and undefined source and who copy even mistakes mindlessly without appraisal with no judgment whatsoever as to the content of that work. One is forced to question whether this isn't what Dennett truly hopes that humanity is and is desperately trying to substantiate it as opposed to truly scientifically investigating human nature at all.

He then moves on to try and appropriate linguistics to substantiate his 'meme-ological' musings. Language is well-understood to be a characteristically unique cognitive function. The interrelationship between language and thought is anything but a settled issue. And strong versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis have been almost thoroughly ruled out by rigorous scientific study. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis basically states that our cognitive functions are influenced by our language. The strong form of this theory would imply that a person's cognitive processes are defined by their language. Theoretically, this would mean that a person cannot conceive of ideas that are not encoded in the language. This is clearly not true, as new words are coined to accommodate new concepts and inventions as they are introduced into the environment. This is a major factor which drives the invention of words, something that Dennet ignores completely. By saying that language evolves itself without any conscious modification, he is ruling out the participation of the actors, the ones who actually voice and write language, us, the human beings.

"On even rarer occasions," he says, " individuals may set out to invent a word or a pronunciation and actually succeed in coining something that eventually enters the language, but in general, the changes that accumulate have no salient human authors, deliberate or inadvertent."


How would Dennett then explain the invention of words like "computer", "robot", "bug", "virus" or the slew of technical computer-based terminology which inundates us today? The invention of these terms was not an outgrowth of already extant phrases that somehow "evolved" through the accumulation of minor changes via the reproduction process and limited by natural selection. These were terms and senses that sprang out of their functional necessity, out of the emergence of new objects which had previously not existed. Objects, machines, devices, which were created, not out of some natural process, but by the dedicated application of human thought to solve real problems in a real universe, not in some magic fantasy land of actorless dynamics like the foggy cloud of disembodied determinism gone mad that rattles around Dennet's echoing chamber of a cranium. Changes in the existential universe mandated changes in language. So, too, changes in modes of thought, changes in our understanding of things have always mandated changes in our language. Language and cognition are intricately intertwined.

However, even though the words we use, through the influence of things like accent, can produce an almost evolutionary shift in language so that German becomes English or Latin becomes Portuguese, the concepts expressed by language remain steadfastly connected to ultimately concrete descriptions of the world around us. As such, the word's meaning does not change as much as Dennett would like us to think. Perhaps words can be shifted to mean things that they were not originally intended to mean, like "gay" or Dennett's pet term "bright". But when they do so, the concepts (for as long as they remain valid concepts in human knowledge) will engender the birth of new phrases which are then needed to express potentially ancient concepts which have been left unheralded by the detachment from the word which had previously served that function.

"Cat" may be "gato" or " neko" or any number of words in any number of languages, but a cat is still a cat, no matter which language you're speaking. And it doesn't take a genius to see that a word is very different from a boat. So, one once again wonders why Dennett doesn't realize this.

After becoming physically ill at this point from trying to understand how someone could present such a mishmash of arbitrary assertions which contrast so starkly with physical reality, I decided to cut to the chase and read Dennett's proffered Appendix which is a reproduction of his article "The New Replicators" originally published in the Encyclopedia of Evolution from Oxford University Press. It was hoped that reading something a bit more technical could help dispell some of Dennett's own mumbo-jumbo.

Unfortunately, fully dissecting that would take another post almost as long as this one, and it would simply be a reiteration of the arguments I have already presented. To sum it up, while accepting that there is no basis in physical reality for the existence of memes, he claims that they are simply because they are possible. However, their very possibility once again assumes that people do not have free-will or active control over the contents of their own minds or the products of their labor. In short, it assumes that ideas are generated by the very processes that would need to be established to prove the existence of the process proposed. If this circle of logic makes you dizzy, then you can sympathize with the motion sickness I got while reading Dennett's book in my living room.

Perhaps Dennett is happy ruminating on his prophesied day "when a cleverly turned phrase in a book gets indexed by many search engines, and thereupon enters the language as a new cliche, without anybody to read it." But if nobody reads it, it is doubtful that it can be said to have entered the language at all. At the very least, it can only be hoped that both Dennett and his abuse of human reason are not long for this Earth. Although with the support and following of so many prominent intellectuals, it may be that he will instead be remembered as the messiah of a brand new breed of totalitarian rhetoric, yet one known to readers of Ayn Rand's philosophical work as the "Aristocracy of Pull." For once you have abdicated belief in you own mind, then you will be very easy to control.

And petty hacks like Dennett have long yearned to pull the trigger in the face of humanity.


Anonymous said...

At last a piece of logic. Thanks.

If all thought is no-thought, I wonder why he bothers at all? What is he saying if what he says does not have a meaning? Maybe he IS really a machine.

American Anti-theist said...

If this was facebook, I would "like" that comment. :)