Daniel Dennett: Why Darwin’s idea was the greatest ever

December 31, 2009 | By | Reply More

In this terrifically engaging and accessible video interview, Daniel Dennett (talking with Richard Dawkins) explains his view that Darwin’s idea was the greatest idea ever. Dennett, who authored Darwin’s Dangerous Idea explains that natural selection unified the world of mechanism/material/physical and the world of meaning/purpose/goals which, until Darwin, seemed to be unbridgeable.

Many people feel that Darwin’s idea destroyed their sense of meaning, but Dennett argues that this “immaterial immortal soul” is a “crutch,” and that Darwin replaced that idea with that of a “material mortal soul.”  Dennett describes our material souls as made of neurons.  “They are blind little bio-robots . . . They don’t know; they don’t care; they are just doing their jobs.”  If you put enough of these simple little bio-robots together, you end up with a soul.  Out of these little bio-robots, you can assemble the control system of a complex organism. Simple little parts can self-organize into sentient being that can “look into the future . . . because we can imagine the world in a better way, and we can hold each other responsible for that.”

There’s no need to assume that a God implants any sort of soul. Rather, according to Dennett, a functional soul can “emerge” from soul-less little individual parts. The simple little parts don’t need to exhibit the functions and abilities of the assembled groups of parts, but this illusory jump is a huge stumbling block for many theists. They wonder how you can “make a living thing out of dead stuff,” but that is exactly what happens, “and that’s the wonder of it.” Science has also shown that you can also “make a conscious thing out of unconscious stuff.”

Over great periods of time, natural processes can constitute the design function that allows these incredible results we see in the world. It is not necessary that complex things need to be created by even more complex things. Darwin’s ideas destroyed this misconception and “this is a really stunning fact. Purpose can emerge from the bottom up.” The brain itself is a fast-paced evolutionary device; the learning process is a matter of generation and testing and pruning, over and over.

Dawkins asks Dennett to explain further how “cranes” (simple natural processes) can really account for the wonderful complexity of life in the absence of “sky-hooks” (supernatural beings). You could argue that our planet has grown a nervous system and it’s us. The above summarizes only the first ten minutes of the fifty-minute interview.

Numerous other topics are discussed in the video, including the following:

– Modern wars and strife constitute growing pains resulting from our being flooded with great amounts of information about each other. (15:00)

– Cultural evolution clearly exists. Languages and musical ideas evolve, for example, without anyone initially consciously “laying down the law.”

– Dennett’s recent brush with death (his aorta suddenly burst), resulting in many intriguing observations (21:00), including a deepened understanding of the phrase “thank goodness.” You can put goodness back into the world, “and you don’t need a middleman” (God). You can directly thank the doctors, nurses and medical journalists, the peer reviewers and the entire scientific enterprise that allows elaborate cures such as artificial aortas. According to Dennett, don’t bother thanking God, “go plant a tree, go try to teach somebody something . . . let’s make the world better for our children and our grandchildren.”

– Dennett elaborates on being part of this elaborate social and scientific fabric, this complex exploratory process. He finds this view much more inspiring that the idea that he is “a doll made by God . . . to pray to him.” (24:00)

– The scientific process is double-edged, exacerbated by the Internet. We can’t tightly control this information, and their effects might be detrimental. We need to think “epidemiologically” about this possibility, and to better prepare people to deal with the ideas gone awry to protect them. (26:00) Knowledge can be a “painful process,” yet we need to honor other people to make their own considered decisions.

– Darwin offers some consolation regarding our impending deaths: that they had the opportunity to walk on this planet “for awhile.” (29:00) Dawkins adds that it is a huge privilege to have been born, in that “you are lucky to have had anything at all . . . stop moaning.” Dennett adds that we are not aghast at the thought that there were many years that passed before we were born when we were also not alive . . . it shouldn’t bother us that we will someday again no longer be alive. Our grief at someone’s death is a measure of how wonderful someone was.

– The urge to thank someone for the many good things in one’s life is a great temptation for believing in God. (33:00). Dawkins argues that contemplating that amazing process that gave rise to you “is better than thanking because it is a thoughtful thing to do . . . You’re not just thanking your Sky-Daddy.” He argues that the urge to thank should be “sublimated” into the drive to understand how it all happened. Atheists, too, can feel the sense of “awe.” Dennett exclaims, “Hallelujah! It’s just spectacular. It’s so wonderful! The universe is fantastic!” Dawkins adds, “Hallelujah for the universe and for the fact that we . . . are working on understanding it.”

This June 2009 video is uncut; it is the full Dennett interview by Richard Dawkins. Parts of this interview were used in a British television documentary entitled “The Genius of Charles Darwin.”


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Category: Evolution, Human animals, Meaning of Life, scientific method, Videos

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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