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On the necessity of believing in the imaginary world: Praising Skyhooks contra Dennett

sustainablephilosopher's picture

On the necessity of believing in the imaginary world: Praising Skyhooks contra Dennett
by Tim Richards

Daniel Dennett, in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, makes much ado over distinguishing between "skyhooks" which represent "unsupported and insupportable" (DDI p. 75) explanations of natural phenomena, and "cranes" which represent feasible, fact-based, and "real" (DDI p. 75) explanations. Skyhook is quite the dirty word for Dennett. He uses this skyhook/ crane dichotomy to attempt to stamp out all influence of mind or intelligence on the process of biological evolution, perhaps seeking once and for all to destroy God or at least expose this concept as radically untenable from a scientific vantage point. This is a project that could be both useful and counterproductive in various capacities: useful if it helped to quell violent religious fundamentalism; counterproductive if it merely stamps out inspiring beliefs that many people in the world shape their lives, identities, and actions by. Unfortunately, through Dennett's manifestation of the project, I feel that he is more destructive than constructive, painting evolution as a universal acid that eats through all it encounters, itself turning out to be the only harsh truth. In the process, he stamps out the room for human imagination, creativity, and volition by insisting that evolution is a mindless, random project that happens completely without the aid of anything that we don't already know about or can't already calculate as probable.

Dennett writes that "a skyhook is a 'mind-first' force or power or process, an exception to the principle that all design, and apparent design, is ultimately the result of mindless, motiveless mechanicity" (DDI p. 76). I think the idea that nature is merely "matter in motion" without mind or intelligence is only a narrative that results from Newtonian physics and classical mechanics. This scientific worldview led thinkers like Descartes to believe that animals were merely well-functioning machines or bodies that were moved by gears in motion without volition; humans, by contrast, have a mind that is separate from the body and thus can rise above mechanistically determined actions. According to this narrative, humans are either supernatural beings or beings which have supernatural aspects to them, which in either case makes them special and "above" the "lower" creatures.

Such a narrative, which Dennett seems to be motivated by and takes as obviously true, does not allow for mind-driven evolution, which I want to assert quintessentially defines culture. If there is no such thing as intelligence in nature, where did the human brain come from? Surely it evolved from the same processes and materials that shaped everything else in nature. Does Dennett ascribe to the theory of panspermia, where extra-terrestrial elements introduced the necessary elements for life to begin on our planet? Perhaps this would explain our uniquely phenomenal minds and self-consciousness in contrast to the rest of creation. If he doesn't, then he seems to be clinging to a supernatural conception of the human wherein we have some special capacity that is somehow separate from or above our animal nature. Both of these explanations smack of skyhooks, being deus ex machina interventions in what is supposed to be an Earth-based, "algorithmic" process of evolution. Of course, neither of these explanations characterize Dennett - on the contrary, he wants to assert that our individual and cultural activities and creations are merely byproducts of history, similar to the way in which genes determine the behavior of organisms based on genetic history.

Under the narrative of Darwin and Dennett, biological evolution has no goal and is essentially random. However, it seems that cultural evolution, in contrast to biological evolution, is fundamentally different because as active shapers and participants in our cultural narratives and direction, we can intentionally choose to have things follow a certain path and lead to an ultimate goal. By being able to provide an overarching goal or teleology for our culture, cultural evolution seems to have at least some kind of influence from mind and imagination. Unless one holds the view that free will is impossible because even our thoughts and actions are biologically determined from genes, then the evolution of human culture is guided by forces devilishly similar to skyhooks.

Moreover, we seem able to influence biological evolution with our ideas and imaginations, steering or at least influencing the process ourselves. One needs to look no further than climate change or species extinction to see this truth. It seems, therefore, that Dennett may be overreaching or off-based to limit cultural evolution to the functions and structure of biological evolution. Surely, history has an important role to play in determining the character and characteristics of both individuals and cultures, but not everything is historically determined - both free will and chance seem to play equally important roles in determining who we are, biologically as individuals and culturally as a society. Perhaps our brain, which developed in and through biological processes very much in line with "crane" like explanations, emerges to itself become a skyhook which can provide intelligence to shape the process of evolution, both biologically and culturally.

I think Dennett's main problem with skyhooks 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 (necessarily) literally true. He certainly acknowledges that evolution as a narrative can be useful or harmful depending on whether you take it to be true or not, 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. In fact, Dennett seems to be a paradigm case of science as sharpener of the sword of the cultural wars rather than science as a searchlight on the universe, to borrow a phrase from conservationist Aldo Leopold.

Evolution is a story, and we are storytellers. Working with the framework provided in class, the storyteller possesses both representative and generative abilities, which is to say that he can either describe this world accurately (which science aims to do and Dennett thinks that evolution does with irrefutable truthfulness) or can conceive of alternative worlds. This second, imaginative capacity can shape both inanimate things and living beings or "model builders," to use the language from class. Why isn't it possible to subscribe to a creation story with full knowledge that it is a fantasy, never intending or thinking it to be literally true? Why does meaning have to depend on something 'true'? 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. 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. 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, but one can safely bet that our unpredictable minds will both proactively invent and creatively react to future circumstances. Sometimes, like cranes, this will be a function of explainable, mechanical phenomena; other times, the creations will be purely from imagination and seemingly out of nowhere, like skyhooks. Our capacity to envision and strive to achieve the non-possible is one of the primary driving factors of cultural evolution.


Paul Grobstein's picture

mindfullness, its presence (and absence) in cultural evolution

"Our capacity to envision and strive to achieve the non-possible is one of the primary driving factors of cultural evolution."

I'm with you, but perhaps you could have chosen some better examples than "climate change or species extinction" to make your point?  I doubt that either one of those reflects the envisioned outcome of anyone's "inspiring story."  So maybe there ARE indeed aspects of human cultural evolution that are "mindless" and OTHERS that are more mindful?