Dawkins (and Coyne) Doth Protest Too Much

A second review vignette from Dennett’s greatest hits.

As I’ve said many times when Richard Dawkins sticks to evolutionary biology, he’s a great writer and a credible scientist, but when he joins (leads!) the science vs religion fray all he does his display his inadequacies as a philosopher, politician or general factotum saviour of humanity. (Jerry Coyne less / more so, but with less pretence.) Unlike Dennett, a colossus straddling both science and philosophy, or (say) Bronowski before him.

Dennett also considers Dawkins a great writer on evolutionary biology. Chapter 38 of his “Intuition Pumps” is, almost in its entirety, a 3 page direct quotation from Dawkins “The Ancestor’s Tale” to which Dennett feels unworthy to add even any editorial value. [A passage inspired by Matt Ridley on the subject of the metaphor of genes not so much as words or sentences as stock-phrases or sub-routines, to continue Dennett’s unbroken computing thread.]

In fact, in the next chapter Dennett introduces Dawkins (and Coyne) as “two of my most esteemed colleagues and friends” … as a prelude to demolishing their positions.

Remember Dennett’s book is about thinking tools, methods and processes for making progress, and a recurring agenda theme is discovering error and learning from mistakes. Here he is pointing out the dangers of overly defending a strongly held position, investing in defenses, exaggerating the territory held, raiding enemy territory, generally behaving as warlike thugs – being the worst form of argument if your objective is progress.

It’s a corollary of Dennett’s “intentional stance” that the world of possibilities is a multi-dimensional “design space” and so many of his metaphors involve R&D and Engineering. Questions of what things are designed to do, how they came to be designed the way they are, and how any such designs came to be implemented at the expense of others. If it quacks like a duck, why not use the word design? Remember real intentional systems with designs in mind do arise in this real world, so why make the intentional stance – the very idea of design (with purpose towards meaning*) – some kind of taboo to be vilified at every turn. Understanding is better than denial.

“I disagree with the policy [of denying design], which can backfire badly. They [Harvard medical students] seriously underestimated the power of natural selection, because evolutionary biologists had told them, again and again, that there is no actual design in nature, only the appearance of design.”

The biosphere is utterly saturated with design, with purpose, with reasons.”

Turn the other cheek to your perceived enemies and listen to your real friends, Dawkins, and maybe Coyne and other lapdogs will follow their leader.

[Did I mention? Dan Dennett “Intuition Pumps” is a thoroughly recommended read – I see it made Brain Pickings books of 2013 list too. Read and learn.]

[(*) intentionality itself concerns “aboutness” – the idea than syntax (structure in the world) might entail some semantic (meaning) – some aspect of one thing being about (or significant to) another. Linguistically and practically, it’s a short step to intention and purpose (and design), and indeed the intentional stance positively advocates this leap, but it’s important to bear in mind that intentionality itself is more fundamental to the underlying facts of the matter or not, as the case may be.]

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