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Evolit: Week 6--Individual and Cultural Evolution

Paul Grobstein's picture

Anne and I are glad you're here, to share thoughts about the story of evolution and the evolution of stories. This isn't a place for polished writing or final words. It's a place for thoughts in progress: questions, ideas you had before, in or after class, things you've heard or read or seen that you think others might find interesting. Think of it as a public conversation, a place to put things from your mind or brain that others might find useful and to find things from others (in our class and elsewhere) that you might find useful. And a place we can always go back to to see what we were thinking before and how our class conversations have affected that. We are looking forward to seeing where we go, and hoping you are too.

As always, you're free to write about whatever you thought about this week. But if you need something to get you started, how do you feel about Dennett's extension of biological evolution to account for individual and cultural change? About trying to do so without "skyhooks"?


Hilary McGowan's picture


Where does foundationalism stop and religion begin? Or are these two phenomenons interwined like a roll of sticky candy? It seems like we are trying to pull them apart, piece by little piece, when instead we should be finding how and why they are similar in the first place. Religion, it seems, is not exactly what we tend to think it is in the first place. It's a belief system, yes we know that. So if it is simply a program where we categorize our beliefs, then how come it is looked at so narrowly?

It seems that Dalton places religion and his own beliefs in two incredibly seperate categories, even going so far as to insult religion in the numerous places that he references it. Yet he doesn't seem to realize is that his own dialogue is religiously affiliated because he is merely spouting his own beliefs. 

I ask again, when does foundationalism stop and religion start? 

lewilliams's picture

Dennet's Philosophy

To me, it is obvious that Dennet is essentially a philosopher. I cannot read Darwin's Dangerous Idea without being inspired to philosophize myself (probably to the disdain of my quadmates or whomever happens upon me at the incorrect time.) In one of these instances, I couldn't get over the dicussion of meaning. Could the story of evolution, in fact, rid life of its meaning? I scared my roommate in the early hours of the morning exclaming, "I need a reason to live." Juding from the horrified face of my friend, I'd realized that I'd probably overstated. I think, though, that it is exactly that reaction that makes so many oppose the story of evolution. We all want meaning in our lives. I chose to have a discussion with my roommate about this desire for meaning. She professes to have absolutely no desire for a meaning in her life. This puzzles me. I feel that even if there were no Greater Meaning, no skyhook explanation for why we are here... should we not find a crane solution? Couldn't the meaning in our lives be found in what we do with them? Aren't our passions our meaning? Career? Family? Education? Helping Humanity? Having fun? ... but I see how that all goes wrong. Many need a reason for that reason. Dennet and Darwin seem to be describing a progressive path to nowhere-- getting rid of the mind and of any skyhook notion of our specialness. It's somewhat humiliating.
dshanin's picture

The geometry of metaphorical examples

I am still a little bit obsessed with the idea that a skyhook can only "hang" things from it while a crane can be built on top of.  Building things on top of the crane is easy enough to understand but the hanging part needs a little clarification.  Beliefs that are based on skyhooks are top-down beliefs.  In the physical sense this is because they are mounted in the sky and gravity naturally pulls all that are attached to them towards earth; in the metaphorical sense they are also top-down beliefs.  Skyhooks such as religion are based on an incorruptible ideal (the hook) on which many more worldly beliefs have been hung.  We discussed the issues of attempting to build cranes on top of skyhooks but it is also interesting to think what would happen if you tried to build a crane to a skyhook.  At a certain point the crane would reach the beliefs hanging from the skyhook and the whole structure might appear solid.  The issue occurs when one tries to build on top of the skyhook, assuming the whole structure has the support of the crane.  Instead there is hidden fundamental jump that must occur from crane to skyhook.  I believe that this is what Dennet is against.  He does not seem to attack religion itself. but rather those followers who are standing on top of a skyhook and calling it a crane.   
kcofrinsha's picture

Week 6 Post

Sorry for the late post, I was thinking about my paper due later this week and completely forgot about this post. I missed class on Tuesday, but after our discussion on Thursday I am not convinced I would be any less confused had I been there. Our discussion of foundationalism reminded me that our class’s current usage of the term differs completely from the definition I gave it when we first discussed it.  At this point, I just don’t know what it means and am semi frustrated by our constant use of it.  In our discussion on Thursday we discussed what to replace the term with, but I’m not even sure what idea it is that needs replacing.  

kgould's picture

I think Dennet's talk of

I think Dennet's talk of abolishing skyhooks is misguided. I think what he really wants is to get rid of blind faith and a stubborness that does not allow for consideration of other ideas. More than anything, I think he just wants people to reject religion and accept evolution).

Getting rid of skyhooks doesn't really fly with me. I mean, I said it in class and I'll say it again, we need skyhooks. Skyhooks are what enable us, humans, to look toward the future. Back in the early 1900's, when science fiction was gaining popularity, writers were scoffed at for looking to the stars. For projecting humans to the moon.

And we reached the moon some odd decades later. Without that "skyhook," humans would never have even entertained the notion of space travel.

The same can probably be said of cloning, any kind of genetic manipulation, hybrid cars, or robots. These were ideas people just through around at first, dreaming about the possibilities, hanging up their skyhooks. Eventually, those skyhooks became cranes.

I know that in class we said that the problem was not that skyhooks existed, but that individuals tried to build upward off of skyhooks, to use them as a foundation for other ideas. 

That's probably true. But, regardless, we should not get rid of skyhooks. We depend on them to make life interesting. I would suggest questioning the line between reality and fantasy (COUGHVAMPIRESCOUGH), and allow room for speculation... but don't tear all of the skyhooks down.

...Because I really want a flying car.

mfradera's picture

Yes! And I really want an

Yes! And I really want an island park of dinosaurs with Richard Attenborough at the helm!
Sophiaolender's picture

I am very interested in

I am very interested in Dennett's talk about human brains. He argues that they are different from all other animal brains because we can conceive the future. I wonder if this is true. It seems to me that animals always make decisions based on the future. Why do dogs respond to invisible fences? Because they know what will happen if they cross the line. Maybe I am misinterpreting Dennett's observation as to the difference between human and animal brains. Dennett then introduces the idea of artificial intelligence. The more I try to distinguish between human and animal brains, the more I wonder if the differences are as large as humans assume them to be. Animals have their own languages, and their own cultural patterns.
mfradera's picture

Riverdancing on my hopes and dreams

In regards to the stomping we've been talking about, I'm pretty sure it came up more than a week ago when I commented that while Dennet is trying to reassure those who believe their dreams and pure hopes have been demolished by Darwin, I found it particularly ironic and hope stomping that it was Dennet who crushed one of my own fantasies. This specific dream was that maybe, in some way, Jurassic Park was plausible. On page 114, however, Dennet obliterates any grip of hope I may have had around the subject. My issue with this was as follows:

I can see why most subjects and stories must be challenged for the sake of intellectual exploration (though that itself is a slippery slope of moral dilemma), but I saw no reason why the genre of fantasy needed to be touched. It's already fantasy, isn't that enough? We know its fantasy and willfully suspend our disbelief in order to enjoy a story; it is using story simply for aesthetic pleasure. That hardly seems to be preventing other stories from existing or holding more wide spread validity.

As a group, we came to a common conclusion that sometimes fantasy does need to be “stomped.” This should be done mostly when one tries to bridge the gap between reality and the island of fantasy.

Now we get into a tricky area: What distinguishes fantasy from reality? Well, there are certain biological and neurological realities that we as humans experience. “Reality,” here shouldn't be confused with the “Truth” we've been talking about; Truth, I think, should have more personal value than needing oxygen to live, (at least for me it does). Maybe reality can only be distinguished by when we know is Other or fantasy. Our culture tends to call this lack of distinction mental illness while others call it holiness. Whatever the case may be, problems and conflict (social, physical, and economic ones) arise when people begin to ignore the space between reality and fantasy for too long a time.

I believe that fantasies should be entertained, so long as the suspension of disbelief that allows one to buy into it is willful rather than unconscious. The risk created by unconsciously bridging that gap is that the connection between the two worlds may remain for too long and become permanent (i.e. psychosis or eternal sacredness). Okay, that sounds a bit magic-like (not my intention) but it also brings up a couple other interesting questions: Is it a bridge or a draw bridge that can be retracted? Does the island become a peninsula when the tide is out? Is it an island or just a sectioned off part of the mainland?

Any how, I thought I'd finish with an extended quote from Peter and Wendy by J. M. Barrie. It kind of illustrates my point about the geography of fantasy and the fears of some parents:

I don't know if you have ever seen a map of a person's mind... There are zigzag lines on it... and these are probably roads on the island, for the Neverland is always more or less and island...

When you play at it by day with chairs and table-cloth, it is not in the least alarming, but in the two minutes before you go to sleep it becomes very nearly real...

She dreamt that the Neverland had come too near... in her dream he had rent the film that obscures the Neverland, and she saw Wendy, John and Michael peeping through the gap.

skhemka's picture


Well, I feel that people have equated Evolution as analogous to a crane and God to a skyhook and are not comfortable replacing them with each other.

 We have multiple faiths who worship different Gods and these different Gods have been used inorder to explain the human diversity so far. No one group has to really justify for their God being true while another’s is false. This multiplicity of religions has to lead to the concept of superiority and inferiority of races. And this concept of superiority is what humans are scared of losing because evolution is one standard concept. It doesn’t vary from one race to another. It doesn’t differentiate in a manner that can be controlled and manipulated for anyone’s convenience. This is what in my opinion has kept people who can accept and understand evolution from doing just that. It isn’t the question of how much we need skyhooks or God or Religion , it is about how we can use the idea of skyhooks and God to appease ourselves.

aybala50's picture

culture evolving

In class I found it interesting that we talked about evolution in terms of culture. I've been thinking about cannibalism and how I thought we had evolved passed eating our own kind. Now, I think it's more of a fact of culture evolving to the point that eating our own kind is considered terrible. Hence, a lot of what we are today is not because we have evolved past that point biologically, but more so culturally. 
aseidman's picture

The Origin of Thought

"Who knows where thoughts come from? They just appear."

This quote, profound as it may seem (or seem to be trying to be) is actually from cult film Empire Records.  It does seem to effectively sum up one of the arguments we had in our small group this past thursday, though.

 We accessed, in class, Dennett's reference to the fact that many authors claim that ideas "simply come to them" or that their characters take on a life of their own independent of the thought of the author his or herself. This of course brings to mind the frustrating chicken-or-the-egg style dilemna, "which thought came first? Where did they originate? If all thoughts are just memes, creations of other thoughts, where did the first thought begin?"

I'm bothered, of course, by the assertion Dennett seems to be making that creativity doesn't really exist. I follow his reasoning and I see his point, but the idea that nothing we could ever come up with would be original or truly creative is very worriesome and disheartening. The fact that we can't really explain where the firs thoughts came from kind of helps that difficulty. Sometimes I'm glad we can't explain everything. I"m not sure I like that fact about myself.



fquadri's picture


In Prof Grobstein’s group on Thursday, most of agreed that Dennett is trying to “stomp on” and get rid of skyhooks. Is this good or bad? I personally think it’s unnecessary for him to do such things. Usually skyhooks are not harmful. For example, one of the ultimate skyhooks and the example brought up in class was heaven and god. Science, mainly evolution, can be seen as a crane because it is supported by a “ground” of evidence. However some scientists, even evolutionary biologists, believe in God and the concept of heaven and hell; that does not get in the way of their empirical research. In this case, skyhooks are not causing any harm. In fact, skyhooks can be a driving force to construct more cranes. Some people may get into scientific work in order to discover the wonders of the world, and the wonders of god’s creations. In class, we discussed that the trip to the moon in the 1960’s would have been impossible if someone did not believe in the skyhook of traveling to the moon at first. I think skyhooks are essential to some degree. Without them, we lose our uniqueness as humans. One of the great things about us is that we have the ability to imagine and create stories, art, and all sorts of ideas with our skyhooks. To me, the concept of skyhooks evolved with humans. As our brains grew, so did their imaginations, and these imaginations created skyhooks.


As for comparing biological evolution with cultural and individual evolution, I think the comparisons between the two are limited. Biological evolution is undirected, random, and depended completely on environmental factors. Cultural and individual change is directed towards a better something, even perfection; it is not entirely random, there tends to be at least a vague plan. It may depend on the environment, but we’re at a stage now that we can influence the environment.


This may be a little late, but I found this video on about Darwin and Lincoln, watch away if you're interested:

Rica Dela Cruz's picture

Dennett believes that

Dennett believes that "skyhooks" are destructive and that they should be gotten rid of all together. I have not read far enough to know why he believes getting rid of "skyhooks" would make the world less destructive, but it was mentioned in class that he may be against "skyhooks" because there are various kinds of "skyhooks", which people argue about. From class, we now know that by "skyhooks", he is referring to religion (the hand of God is holding the skyhook). Therefore, he wants to get rid of religion because the differences in religious views have caused destruction in the world. Dennett seems to think that by getting rid of religion, there would only be one belief of life origins, evolution. However, I do not necessarily think that getting rid of religion and believing in only evolution would create less conflict. I feel that even evolution would contain different beliefs within it because it is a theory and not a fact. It does have more evidence to support it, but the evidence is still unclear and can be interpreted in different ways. As a result, destruction may still be present.
eolecki's picture

Week 6

I’m a little hesitant aboutDennett’s explanations for cultural evolution in terms of biological evolution.  A lot of his explanations and metaphorsjust don’t make sense to me.  I’mstill not sure if I know exactly what a mene is.  Some of the parallels he draws seem a little weak.  It makes sense to try and explaincultural evolution without skyhooks, but Dennett does not do a very good job.      

            Fromour previous discussion of algorithms a particular point that stood out to mewas the idea that if evolution is just a series of algorithm why don’t we justend up with one species sense they are all undergoing the same process.  This made me think of a Rubik’scube.  I don’t know how many peopleknow how to solve a Rubik’s cube, but you do it with a series of algorithms.  Its not just one, but five or sixalgorithms that have to be applied in a certain order, in certain situations, acertain number of times.  Thealgorithms produce different results depending on what you start with and whatalgorithms are applied and in what order. And that is why using the metaphor of algorithms as an explanation forevolution makes sense. 

Lisa B.'s picture

Week 6

I thought Daniel Dennett's use of memes, genes analogues of cultural evolution, is confusing, and that his "cranes of culture" (chapter 12) is a desperate argument against intelligent design. Dennett believes that memes are invisible, like genes, and are carried by the human language instead of DNA and RNA in genes. This develops into a weak analogy against the use of skyhooks, explanations that require a miracle, in evolutionary biology. Although Darwin's Dangerous Idea has yet to convince me to abandon religion, it is a fascinating book and I have learned more about the theory of natural selection. 
kbrandall's picture

What did the frog mean?

I found it frustrating that one of the subjects that Dennett brings up that I, personally, find most interesting-- the possibility of "evolved" rather than "intrinsic" meaning-- is one where he is very unclear. Some of Dennett's analogies, particularly at the beginning of the book, I found very helpful, but I feel that those in the chapter on meaning were only confusing. I've been trying to figure out since reading it exactly what he was trying to get at with stories about two-bitsers and frogs.

I think the point he was trying to get at was the actions of the two-bitser, or frog, do not have a set meaning or particular purpose before they are performed. Instead, they acquire meaning through their effect? I'm not sure that his stories prove this point, or even illustrate it in a helpful way, but the point itself is really interesting. It seems to suggest that we (and all other organisms, and possibly machines) create the meaning of our acts by acting.

If so, what does that imply when the intention of the act misfires-- when the result is not what you were going for? Is the "meaning" of your act what you were trying to do, or what you did by mistake?


ibarkas's picture

The more I read Dennett,

The more I read Dennett, the more I realize that I am having trouble trusting him and making the connections he wants us to make.  When beginning to read Dennett, I was a little bit suprised by his initial comment that those who do not believe that natural selection is a very real process are ignorant.  I understood this to be a very nonfoundationalist statement.  However, the more I read, the more I begin to wonder if Dennett is himself a foundationalist.  He makes numerous statements throughout the text that to me scream foundationalist.  I may not fully understand where Dennet's statements fall along the nonfoundationalist-foundationalist continuum because perhaps, I  myself have not fully understood the term foundationliast. Does a foundational story needs to have a foundation in the beginning? Or does it need to be working towards a final foundation? Can it be either one or does it have to be both? Does a foundational story need to be unchanging or can it be a changing story with a foundation? I know we had discussed foundational stories a while ago, but I did not realize why I was having so much trouble believing Dennet until I realized perhaps, I still have not defined what it means to be a foundationalist.

I am also having trouble understanding where Dennett's argument is going and what his ultimate conclusion will be.  When first beginning to read Denett, I was excited by the statement he makes on page 22 in the introduction.  Dennett asks his audience, "Do you want to follow me? Don't you really want to know what survives this confrontation? What if it turns out that the sweet vision-or a better one-survives intact, strengthened and deepend by the encounter?"  I was excited by this because as someone who is having trouble reconciling my reiligious upbringing with my scientific intuition, Dennet's welcome to follow him in this confrontation implied to me that after considering both sides of this confrontation, as readers we would come out with a renewed idea of what evolution means to us-not necessarily Dennet's idea, but one in which we are able to reconcile our own ideas with those that we are taught to be scientifically accurate.  In other words, maybe I was hoping for this confrontation to serve as the "universal acid" that Dennet refers to.  Maybe I was hoping that somehow this confrontation would change my vision of evolution into one that is "less fragile" as Dennett says.  However, I find that Dennett does not really provide us with a confrontation, but rather numerous reasons and metaphors proving that natural selection has to be a real process.  Although I definitely agree with Dennet and find many of the metaphors he uses to be extremely helpful, I also can't help but feel like I was misled.  

rmehta's picture

In our group discussion on

In our group discussion on Thursday, someone asked the question “what is the difference between imagination and fantasy”? Imagination perhaps has a distinct purpose, a knowing belief in a greater understanding that will lead to additional possibilities.  Fantasy contains a “negative” connotation in that there is this unachievable that is not believable.  It is within this distinction that I believe lies and interesting commentary to what Dennett is trying to propose with his desire to eliminate all skyhooks.  Perhaps he is afraid of the combination of these two words. We understand Dennett wants to provide meaning for a process of purpose; however, does meaning not exist within the realm of imagination or fantasy, the proposed skyhook? We cannot get rid of all skyhooks because these are what push us to move forward and develop as a society and culture; thinking of the unthinkable is a necessity, not a detriment. Perhaps his “fear” of skyhooks stems from a fear of uncertainty.  To him, perhaps certainty (more so a sense of reality) eliminates a fear of a dangerous, meaningless unknown.  Random note: In one of my Spanish classes, Borges y sus lectores, we studied several of Borges’s works.  One of my favorite quotes is from his work “Tlön, Uqbar Tertius” is which he says in regards to the main character, “In life, he suffered from a sense of unreality, as do many Englishmen.” Whether relevant or not, I thought I’d just add this in here.
enewbern's picture


As has already been mentioned by several people already, Prof. Dalke's discussion gorup tried to define foundationalism. We came up with something along the lines of a grounded idea, but even that didn't really seem to sit well with everyone. I believe that it is a very difficult term to define or even to replace with another word as we also attempted to do in class with little success. I think that foundationalism should maybe have a looser definition than just  grounded or something fixed, eternal, and un-changing. Something about those definitions rankled about; they felt a little too set in stone. So I decided to look up the term foundation on the online Oxford English Dictionary. It is defined at length but I found the following to be most helpful in forming my idea of foundationalism: 1) the action of founding or building upon a firm structure;the state or fact of being founded and/or 2) The action of establishing, instituting, or constituting on a permanent basis. On the basis of that definition, I think that foundationalism is some idea or theory that can be built upon like a foundation for a building; something that can be permanent in some way if left alone, but not necessarily unchangeable, because I don't really believe that anything is completely unchangeable.

jrlewis's picture

metaphors and paradoxs

As a result of our discussion on Thursday, I feel more comfortable talking about metaphors from a stylistic as opposed to content-based approach.  So I would like to reinterpret Dennett’s universal acid metaphor from a more literary perspective.  The abstract component of the metaphor is the theory of evolution; it is that which needs explanation.  The concrete element is the concept of a universal acid.  A universal acid is an imaginary creation, something that is physically impossible to achieve or produce.  The story of the universal acid is paradoxical.  Can a paradox function as the concrete component of a metaphor? 

Maybe, the idea of a paradox was what Dennett was trying to get at.  That people perceive the theory of evolution with such fear, they imbue it with all sorts of fantastic powers.  For example, potency analogous to a universal acid. These imaginings are simply creations of the human mind, exaggerations at that.  The theory of evolution might be analogous to an ordinary weak acid, not an infinitely strong acid. 

eawhite's picture

Human Diorama

Thursday’s small discussion group was all over the map in terms of discussing Dennett’s ideas. Two seconds before we dispersed, Professor Grobstein asked if a skyhook could be suspended without a suspender (God, an intelligent designer, etc.). I said yes, and then he said you have until Tuesday to prove it. Well, I can’t prove it but I do have a theory.


My theory is that Darwin and Dennett among others are and were incredible forward thinkers and were purposefully inserted into ‘our’ world, the earth, in order to assist in an enormous scientific experiment. We are nothing more than a diorama suspended by some unknown or alien world. These unknown beings are trying to figure out their evolutionary process but unlike us have the ability to configure a diorama of miniature real and unreal things and organisms to be able to watch and perhaps manipulate their evolutionary process and determine first-hand how they themselves have evolved. We are all actors in a gigantic scientific experiment.

selias's picture

I think you may have been

I think you may have been trying to use your story as an example of something that does not require a foundation for the skyhook to exist.  Your story, however, is a perfect foundationalist story (at least, in what I believe the definition of foundationalism is).  Although I can't tell whether or not you believe that these great manipulators are what put us on Earth in the first place (this would make them our creators), I still think this is a foundationalist story because it assumes that there is a greater purpose than the one we can see, a final outcome which we are we going to arrive at.

Actually now that I am writing about your idea, I am starting to doubt whether or not it is foundational.  As I understand it, your story does not assume that there is a finite set of outcome, only that someone is watching and observing what we do and what happens to us.  You also mention that these observers could interfere or influence what is happening.  Reflecting upon what I understand to be the definition of a foundationalist story, I don't think this makes your story one.  In no way do you suggest that there is a finite set of possibilities that are just being explored in different ways, I suppose that was just my assumption once I saw that some other, more powerful "being" was involved.  Honestly, I think my uncertainty about where to classify your story comes from my own lack of a solid definition of what a foundationalist story really is - and this is something I should definitely work on!

(on a slightly less serious note, I wonder how I would feel if I did discover that we actually were all pieces in a giant human diorama orchestrated by someone above us...I want to believe that I would just be impressed and amazed, but I can't help but think that I would simply feel betrayed and tricked.  would knowing that we were part of some experiment make life feel meaningless, or add more meaning to our lives?  I'm going to think about this some more...)

Tara Raju's picture

The first question I

The first question I thought of was: what came first the chicken or egg? It's a simple question that no one really knows the answer too and that is exactly the type of thinking that we are following in Dennet's case. And of course, many others have thought about that simple question that seems to be plaguing our discussion on a very very fundamental level. We will never know where the first idea came from because there is no truly real and definitive answer to everything. As individuals, we can only believe in a story that sits best with our individual philosophies and critical rubric of evaluation.          

I like the quote by Nietzsche that "truths are illusions that forget that they are illusions". We choose to believe in these illusions because without it we wouldn't be held accountable against or to anything. We choose to believe this narrative of Darwin's because we, as humans, can rationalize it and have some visual evidence that can substantiate our claims. Believing in a higher power as the creator of everything and as a cause for everything, takes a great amount of will and security- attributes that most people possesses but simply, not enough to allow us to be complete secure in leaving it to something out of our hands. It has been engrained in our minds that "we can put anything that we set our mind to" or that "our destiny is in our hands"- phrases like this force us to push the boundaries that something else is in control of us. Is that not the reason why we sometimes find the extreme religious right so fascinating? Isn't that why shows like "Big Love" are so highly viewed? We are fascinated by those that believe so much in a higher power because maybe deep down we know that we can't handle believing that truths are illusions so we choose, subconsciously or consciously, to believe.


Student Blogger's picture

When we further discussed

When we further discussed the quote by Nietzsche that Tara mentioned, I became very intrigued. In the scientific field, researchers and scientists are trying to find answers to the many mysteries that the world presents us with.  There is a need to find the closest answer to the truth as possible, however this truth is constantly changing due to different developments and advances the scientific community.  So when is there an end? When can we find an ultimate truth?  When do we think we have researched enough?

In my Biology and Public Policy class, we were disucssing how there are drugs that are made for a specific group of people with a very specific condition which can be a great advantage to this group, yet put other groups at a disadvangate because of unequal federal funding or research.  However, this is one possible solution to finding an ultimate truth.  If certain researchers focus all of their attention on one particular problem in one area for the entirity of their research, could a possible Truth be found?

Marina's picture

the f word?

In Prof. Dalke's discussion section we spent a reasonable amount of time attempting to define foundationalism and from my understanding of the word it is meant to convey something fixed, eternal, and resistant to change. Non-foundationalism, on the other hand, refers to something adaptive and responsive to change. From these definitions it seems that religious beliefs and belief in a higher power would fall under the foundationalism category while biological evolution would fall under the non-foundationalist category. Yet the laws of nature are unchanging, fixed, eternal- are these considered foundationalist as well? 

 I don't agree with Dennett's idea of greedy vs. non-greedy reductionism. Dennett claims that greedy reductionism is using all skyhooks to explain things which leads to gross oversimplification whereas proper reductionism uses all cranes to explain things. I feel like Dennett's use of the term "greedy" is too subjective because those who he deems "greedy" reductionists would probably view the proper reductionists as the true "greedy" ones who rely so much on rationality and are very dismissive of skyhooks. It is alarming how much Dennett opposes sky hooks. I believe we discussed in lecture how sky hooks are still necessary in some situations. In fact, sky hooks can even lead to the discovery new cranes. There are many things in this world that were previously thought of as impossible until further investigation led to a new discovery.

L.Kelly-Bowditch's picture

The Chicken and the Egg

On Thursday, the idea of memes and the resemblance of these cultural measurements to genes and biological reproduction was a discussion point in our smaller group. However, we discovered a problem in Dennett's reasoning--if ideas are not created by an individual, but rather absorbed and replicated by our minds, where did the first idea come from? If we as people do not produce ideas from observations, etc., than where did this first idea originate from? It seems Dennett seriously undermines his argument by 1) bringing up this problematic argument and 2) not addressing it.

By bringing this cultural analogy into his book, Dennett ends up making his reader question his thesis that evolution clearly occurred without the help of a higher power, because if ideas just magically appeared and began being replicated by the mind, where did the first bit of life come from?

Secondly, by not mentioning this problem, Dennett leaves the reader doubting his credibility for either not noticing this vital error in his argument or for insulting us by assuming we would not notice.

Dennett puts himself in the same situation later on when he uses the robot analogy--both situations call for a moment of creation. (not to mention he asks us to DESIGN the robot...)

sustainablephilosopher's picture

In class on Thursday, Paul

In class on Thursday, Paul asked whether the fact that something created us, such as God, mind, intelligent design, what have you, gives us meaning. This drew a distinction in my mind between knowing something created us and therefore having meaning, and believing something created us as a route for obtaining a personal sense of meaning/ cohesive narrative/ inspiring worldview. Why isn't it possible to ascribe to a creation story with full knowledge that it is a fantasy, never intending or thinking it to be literally true? Nietzsche writes that "truths are illusions which have forgotten that they are illusions." I think it is fully possible to believe in an inspiring story and live by it while openly acknowledging that it is not or cannot be proven to be empirically true. Science has seeped into the culture to the point where even something like religion has to prove itself, which misses the point entirely. Religion is metaphorical.

I think the problem that Dennett is addressing is people who believe the creation story as literally true, to the point where it becomes a harmful idea because wars are fought and people are killed over a story. The problem with Dennett, however, is that he doesn't see evolution, too, as a story that isn't literally true. He certainly acknowledges that evolution can be useful or harmful, but he never really considers that it might be a false or at least not a completely accurate way of looking at the world - indeed, for him, people who are of this opinion are woefully ignorant and hopeless. Thus, it seems he is trying to set out with a heavy agenda - to prove evolution, to get people to believe in it rather than promoting it as a helpful new paradigm that can shed light on everything it examines.

I think it is possible for people to see evolution as an accurate narrative for describing events in natural history, while still creating their own inspiring stories or assembling their own meaning for life. Why does meaning have to depend on something 'true'? We can, and must, have useful or inspiring illusions - this is probably the best our species will ever be able to do. To think, like Dennett does, that we know the limits of what is possible is purely arrogant and entirely refutable - no human knows what life will look like in 100 years.
Jackie Marano's picture

Meaning, money, and truth/Truth

     I too have find the meaning of 'meaning' very interesting, and I have been thinking about how we probably don't really need 'Truth' to have meaning, as 'truth' seems to function just fine. I tried to think of one of the most universal 'truths,' all of which are subjective/man-made. The best thing I could come up with is MONEY. In an economics class here at Bryn Mawr, I learned about something called 'fiat money.' What this refers to is the universal acceptance of some common form of exchange (even if what is exchanged has no intrinsic value) that allows us to assign values to things. The US Dollar, for example, is fiat money. Everyone in this country accepts the same green-and-white pieces of paper (worthless intrinsically) to be our units of exchange.

    And when you think about it, so much of human life revolves around these really worthless pieces of paper. But they aren't worthless, because our 'truth' says they're not. They can even be exchanged internationally for other intrinsically meaningless pieces of paper. This seems like an outrageously fragile system, based on nothing, really. But it DOES work, and it IS effective, and it is what ultimately allows our global community to thrive. As long as we all accept this 'truth,' even if it is founded on nothing tangible, it will continue to define what we do, when we do it, how we do it, why we do gives us meaning and a often sense of presence or purpose or importance in the world.

     And then of course, people have strategies of how to manage this 'truth' of money. Perhaps just like Darwin's theory on evolution, all of these money-management strategies that we employ to give us meaning only have meaning, themselves, in the context of the 'truth' and not the Truth. So, in this way, maybe evolution doesn't matter in the context of the Truth...and maybe it isn't relevant?! Isn't it just like money, a man-made 'truth' that is even less universally accepted than money? Like the 'truth' of money, Darwin's theory of evolution opens up opportunities to add more meaning to our life. But when you think about applying 'Truth' to Darwin's theory of evolution, it's like wondering whether "God said 'Let there be Money (not light)'" really does get reduced to just a good story. But the story works well in the 'truth' of our lives, and it gives many of us meaning.

     But I still wouldn't 'kill' the idea of Truth, because maybe it would explain how the concepts of money and evolution (a ridiculous comparison I know) came to be on earth. Or maybe it is, itself, that nothing that our money system seems to be fundamentally based on. But whether Truth can explain or define our 'truths' is a real complex matter...maybe knowing this would give more meaning to our notion of meaning? Or our notion of nothing? And then where do we go from there?

kapelian's picture

Dennett seems to try to

Dennett seems to try to apply evolution to culture and individual changes as a way to make change seem as much of "crane" work as possible, because Dennett's major goal is to get rid of skyhooks.  However, in my session on Thursday, we looked at the Library metephor Dennett used.  We came to the conclusion that since the library had infinite, unchangable information, it would technically be foundational, but also that if evolution is just the path of an organism through this library, that Dennett was in fact explaining evolution with a skyhook.  It's really interesting to me that Dennett didn't realize this when he was writing, unless later on in the book he had some plan to avoid this issue all together.

Another thing we talked about in our session how if Dennett wants to get rid of skyhooks, what about religion? I couldn't think of anything Dennett had specifically said about religion, but upon flipping through the book again I found on pages 153-155, saying that "...Dawkins and I are ignoring the very widespread claim by believers in God that their faith is quiet beyond reason, not a matter to which such mundane methods of testing applies." He then compares talking about religion like playing tennis without a net, and spends the majority of the section talking about how religion is crazy.  I think this is a really bold move on Dennett's part not only because he talked trash to one of the oldest institutions in the western world, but he seems to act like some of these religious crazies that he is trying to say are wrong.

eglaser's picture

In a footnote

For this post I wish to discuss a problem I came across during my reading of Dennett for last week. We spent some time on the quote on page 346 in our group which spoke of how thoughts and ideas simply pop into a persons mind without their having to do much about it. The quote in question is cited as having been uttered by Mozart which would be a great support of Dennett's argument if it weren't for the footnote he slips in at the bottom of the page. In this footnote he casually explains that the quote he uses to support his theory was not spoken by Mozart at all but, "the passage so well suits my purposes that I am choosing to ignore its pedigree."

This footnote deeply shook my ability to read Dennett and take his argument seriously. Although this inclusion of one misquoted quote is not a serious issue in and of itself it raised the question of how much has Dennett ignored, omitted or misquoted in other sections of the book because the information so well suited his purposes? To include this in a published, persuasive book that spends much of its time insulting its readers for believing in unproven information is... well, a little ridiculous. 

In its place, what else could have been used to support Dennett's argument and why did he choose to use this quote when he knew that it was false? I'm afraid that I have lost all confidence in an author who willfully uses misinformation to support his theories.

mcurrie's picture


In our group discussion we talked about Dennett's purpose or what he wanted to lead us to believe.  It all came back to skyhooks vs. cranes.  Dennett wants to completely stomp skyhooks and never hear anyone using a skyhook as an explanation for some idea.  Although that may be a good place to start we decided that skyhooks were useful because they can lead us to explorations and figuring out if a goal or fantasy can be turned into reality.  Probably a good example was the landing on the moon which many though impossible but became possible.  In order to keep skyhooks we need to remove the second world that it is hanging from, a.k.a heaven.  Then once removing this second world what does the skyhook hang upon. Is it our minds, thoughts, ideas, or do the skyhooks just defy gravity and hang on nothing?  I guess I'm betting on our thoughts what we can imagine is what the skyhook represents.  Although some of our ideas may not be based upon anything it still can become a reality in time.  Although I still need to think over the idea of skyhooks and its basis to then figure out what it hangs upon.

About Dennett, I feel that we are now stomping his beliefs.  He has written this book to try and explain his thoughts on evolution and yet can just make me more confused with each metaphor.  Although I have enjoyed his ideas I guess it is his tone that turns everyone away from his ideas.  Throughout our discussions we have found some useful metaphors but many that are contradicted by what their definitions really mean, for example algorithms.  I guess I'm trying to figure out how we can put our prejudices aside, forget about his tone and try very hard to understand his thoughts.  Then again it is our prejudices that have lead to some very interesting discussions.  

amirbey's picture


Reading Dennett is a bit difficult because he uses a lot of metaphors.  We saw in class on Thursday that the metaphors are always wrong because they give the definition of only one aspect of the object being described.  Therefore, we can get confused very easily if the image does not get across (if the picture of the metaphor does not match the object) and if we try to make it fit with the full definition of the metaphor, our understanding can be completely different.  This example happened to a lot of us for the definition of foundationalist.  With the word “foundation”, I had assimilated the image of something that was based on a support and therefore, when Professor Grobstein said that a skyhook could be called foundationalist, I did not understand what he meant, and I thought he was himself confused about this affirmation that he had made.  How could something that comes from nowhere have a foundation?  But, if we take the definition of foundationalist as something that has fixed ideas, unchanging, eternal, and not to be questioned, we can understand better what Professor Grobstein meant when he said a skyhook was foundationalist.  Indeed, skyhooks are foundationalist because they are fixed ideas, not to be questioned and they have another foundation in another world! (Maybe the world of imagination?)

epeck01's picture

In my small discussion

In my small discussion group, we spent a lot of time attempting to define "foundationalism."  The problem seems to be that the popular view of "foundationalism" is religious foundationalism - beliefs grounded on a central religious idea.  However, in the class we are defining the term (to my understanding - I am still unsure of what the term means) to mean holding beliefs that are grounded in anything.  In this case, I do not understand how anyone could be a non-foundationalist.  It seems that everyone has some belief and does not question everything.  In this case, anything that we would define as "non-foundationalist" is something that most people would not be interested in - anything that has no grounding usually is not useful or even possible.  The problem I find in our discussions on foundationalism versus non-foundationalism is that foundationalism is treated as such a dirty word (even reffered to jokingly as "the f-word" in my section).  This treatment of the term seems to me to be a foundationalist belief in the irrationality of foundationalism (although apparently rationalism can be something to base beliefs on and therefore one can have their foundationalist foundations in rationalism) versus the rationality and higher value of non-foundational thinking.  As we found out in my small discussion group, this term is extremely problematic (as shown by my cyclical and probably nonsensical argument above).  Maybe we should be using foundationalism as "fundamentalism" (or at least the common use) and define it by saying that foundationalism is having beliefs founded in a central idea that cannot be proved using scientific means.