The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 52 Gods, Words, and Other Invasive Species: The Work of Daniel Dennett, Querysmith

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Gods, Words, and Other Invasive Species: The Work of Daniel Dennett, Querysmith

And one day, came the Horsemen.

All in a lurch, atheism went from the beloved secret pleasure of a diffuse collection of sci-fi and philosophy nerds to a charismatic industry of ideas boasting a rich array of quotable notables. The publishing industry flung tantalizing titles at us at a clip our bookish clan was hard pressed to keep pace with, and suddenly, gloriously, we had choice in what to read—choice in style and temperament and topic. The Mozartean elegance of a Dawkins phrase or the Wagnerian punch of Hitchens’ prose were intoxicating after so many years of stylistic drought, but I think where most of us felt really at home, our comfortable armchair at day’s end, was in the work of Daniel Dennett.

He was our Haydn, professional and witty, even mischievous at times, who eschewed dazzle in the name of clarity, a reliable guide through the terminological minefield of philosophy wed to science. He said in no mixed terms what he thought, but was equally clear to innumerate all the ways that he might ultimately be wrong. Dennett’s voice, careful and purposeful, and which cleared the ground for new ideas with near-maddening punctiliousness before at last erecting his concepts and explanations, was for many of us what humanism was all about—an approach of considerate, exhaustive caution ratcheting up to snarky boldness to be imitated in matters of life and philosophy alike.

Dennett is a philosopher first. An asker of questions, his paragraphs feature a greater ratio of queries to statements, I’d hazard, than any of the leading lights of humanism this side of Socrates. Studying intellectual history in college, we used to say that philosophy was the art of asking brilliant questions and then running like hell before anybody asked us to answer them. But Dennett has always been in earnest about wanting to find answers, and showed from the first a refreshing lack of restraint in allowing science and the scientific method a say in shaping those answers.

When he was a student at Oxford in the early 1960s, Dennett’s British co-philosophers were shocked by his idea that, to answer a question about how the mind perceives the world, it might be useful to study what is known about the brain. While they argued from metaphysical principles, he hit the science library. What did Darwin really say? What type of reactions can become self-replicating? What light does neural plasticity have to shed on what thoughts ultimately are? His multidisciplinary approach to the basic problems of life, society, and belief, alienating though they might have been to philosophical purists who held their jargon dear, ultimately brought together wide-ranging experts in common cause and gave philosophy a renewed sense of purpose.

That purpose shaped his philosophical project. Originally a philosophy of mind and language student under Harvard analytic philosopher and logician Willard Quine (whose views on logic struck Dennett as deeply seductive but deeply wrong), his scientific questions about the evolutionary construction of mind, nudged along by the early papers of Hilary Putnam, pushed Dennett into a thorough study of the Darwinism among clever chemical reactions and the meanings that co-evolve with them.

What sorts of replicating biological structures can be made by blind chance, and, those having been finally created, what sorts of cultural objects can use those structures for their own success in the differential replication game? How did minds happen, and how are they hijacked by ideas or memes once they do? It’s a project that requires every scrap of evolutionary, neurological, psychological, anthropological, historical, and cultural insight that philosophy and science between them have managed to scratch out over the last couple of centuries, and which could only be partially answered during ages when philosophy and science talked at rather than with each other.

It is useless to talk about how ideas might behave and evolve until you first determine what the molecules that carry those ideas can do. First, you need to identify a set of chemical reactions that allow for high fidelity information replication. Otherwise new and potentially useful characteristics, once acquired, would be lost just as quickly, unable to perpetuate themselves into the future. The structure of DNA, discovered by Watson and Crick (and let’s not forget Franklin) just a decade prior to Dennett’s arrival in Oxford, suggested a mechanism for that, when combined with Darwin’s original idea of differential reproduction and Margulis’s principles of endosymbiosis, allowed for a steady development of interesting chemical structures displaying any number of good tricks to aid survival. So far so good, but filling in the hole between chemicals behaving competently and minds possessing comprehension was the daunting question.

You can start with a Bayesian biological system, which has developed chemical means of comparing current inputs against stored previous experience and is furthermore able, again through purely molecular manipulation, to use the disparity between the actual outcome of the current situation and the predicted outcome to generate new information. Such a system is entirely within the realm of pure molecular mechanisms to produce and is evident in the behavior of all manner of life forms. But how do we get from there to religion, or sports mania, or words?

Elucidating this juncture was Dennett’s signature gift to the world. Instead of resting content with the question, “How do certain ideas benefit humans?” he drew our attention to the perhaps more important question, “How do humans benefit certain ideas?” Our survival has required the development of certain neurological structures that are eminently hijackable by ideas that possess certain properties. Ideas that use those structures will tend to survive and be culturally replicated. Ideas that don’t, won’t. In the great arms race of memes, survival means getting brains to notice you, which means taking every advantage you can get from the local mental topography.

In religion, as Dennett laid out most famously in Breaking the Spell (2006), that involves plugging into the structures that have evolved to read intentionality into moving objects, to imprint onto parents, and to notice and store slightly incongruous formulations in memory better than entirely expected occurrences or totally incongruous nonsense. Folk religion built itself up in the rich valleys of those quirks of human mental processing, and, once established, it was able to move into its curated phase—the formal religion of today that survives not merely because of its adaptation to our brains, but because it has attracted active agencies and agents invested in its success.

And it’s not just religion that competes for our attention, but indeed everything in the cultural field. It takes energy to preserve something in individual memory, and more energy still to preserve something in cultural practice. What survives might do so not because it makes us happy or fulfilled, but simply because it is the best at exploiting our species oddities. Sometimes a cultural idea or meme is purely parasitic, with the idea thriving while the host’s life is made steadily worse, as is often the case with religion. But usually, according to Dennett, the relation is a mutualistic one, where the idea or practice allows us to better organize our complicated lives and, in return for that favor, we keep it in circulation while letting its competition in the marketplace of ideas fizzle steadily out. And of all our symbiotes, words contributed most to making us the reflective-bordering-on-neurotic critters we are.

Dennett’s history of language is controversial, as is his application of evolution to the development of the mind and ideas. One of the constant charms of his books is how, like Putnam before him, he exhaustively characterizes where he might be wrong, what questions might or might not be worth asking, what it would take to reverse one of his points, and exactly what subsidiary points you will be asked to believe before even taking on his main topics.

We used to say that if you want to start at the beginning of a Dennett book, page 100 or so is probably what you’re looking for. But if you take that advice, you’ll miss one of the great experiences that humanist scholarship has to offer: reading a man, sure of his approach after decades of multi-disciplinary scholarship, who is nonetheless willing to start from scratch and guide the newest of new readers, in language they can understand, through every question or doubt they might harbor about the morality and utility of questioning what they think they know. He moves along deliberately, comfortably asking questions, pointing out why he thinks some things are worth consideration and others not, and in general making everybody feel perfectly at ease before starting into ideas so confidence-shaking that any less of a preamble could not possibly have been sufficient.

That is humanism at its best: patience and study put at the service of rooting out self-harming behaviors ossified by tradition, all in the service of self-knowledge and the freedom it brings. In the often bloodied halls of philosophical disputation, Dennett’s approach is a very good trick indeed.


Further Reading

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1996) and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) are the two books on most humanists’ must-read list, but just last month Dennett published From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017), a grand survey that covers the junction between evolution, ideas, mind, and society from his previous works with updated data from the last decade of neuroscientific investigation. If you want an all-in-one Dennett experience, it’s a pretty good option.