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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Second Web Paper
On Serendip

Dickinson versus Dennett

Ro. Finn

"The Brain—Is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—"

So goes the first stanza of poem #632 by Emily Dickinson (1). For the moment, let us infer, as Paul Grobstein does, that Dickinson is saying that each of us is in our brain (2). Our conscious self is situated inside that physical wet stuff of neurons, chemicals, electrical impulses, and the like. Some people feel uncomfortable "that 'self,' rather than being safely housed in some form resistant to physical disturbance, might actually, itself, be a material thing" (2). Reading Dickinson, I do not. Not until Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (3) did I begin to squirm. But Dickinson's "theory" is every bit as radical and not dissimilar to Dennett's. Does the human brain take a different (intentional, physical, design) stance when assessing scientific versus non-scientific information?

Neither Grobstein nor I complain about Dickinson's lack of rigorous logic or scientific underpinnings in this poem. Instead, we accept it as a welcome springboard for our own imaginings about her concept. By contrast, many have criticized and resisted the sometimes-slippery logic and swift-handed science that Dennett uses to explain his neo-Darwinian theory, or explain away whatever challenges it. In the end, both writers/thinkers rely on historical narrative to persuade their readers: "Many scientific patterns are also historical patterns, and hence are revealed and explained in narratives—of sorts. Cosmology, geology, and biology are all historical sciences. The great biologist D'Arcy Thompson once said: 'Everything is the way it is because it got that way.' If he is right--if everything is the way it is because it got that way--then every science must be, in part, a historical science." (4).

Even the motives suggested in Dennett's and Dickinson's writings parallel each other. Neither is less astounding than the other. Dennett would convince us to discredit Descartes' theory that there is a physical place where brain states become conscious (Cartesian Theater) and replace it with a new science of consciousness (5). Dickinson would convince us of the logic of converting from an omniscient (Calvinistic) god to the omnipotence of poetry. Her poem concludes:

"The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—"

Dickinson's story (or our story of it) is that there are two states in each of us: the external/physical "other" and the internal/spiritual "self." She places our consciousness as a defining container around any spiritualism we might have. With humility akin to Dennett's, she puts the sky, and then the sea, inside our brain. If the brain can imagine these, it contains them. By some sort of intuitive extrapolation, our brain contains all that is physically external to it. Furthermore, it can make up stories about what all of our senses register; we have the capability to extend, reshape, even eliminate those entities altogether. The brain is bigger.

Supremely adept as a poet, Dickinson can label or categorize anything, even the royal "You." She uses textual symbols to help us see her point: those dashes and capital letters are carefully positioned. Then, to help us hear/feel her, the poem's meter follows a ballad stanza. This ploy curiously aligns with a quote from one of her letters: "Let Emily sing for you because she cannot pray"(6). The final stanza of the poem contains her agenda: regarding god, our brain is no bigger, no smaller; it is not so much equal as it is the same. Dickinson's identity is as a poet; she valorizes language and poetry as the means to define humans and human nature. Visual, sensual, textual language conveys her views—to our delight.

Does Dennett delight us? His critics use words such as obfuscating, condescending, smug, and flippant to describe his language in Darwin's Dangerous Idea. For example, Gould bristles: "Dennett, as Dawkins's publicist, manages to convert an already vitiated and improbable account into an even more simplistic and uncompromising doctrine"(7). But Dennett's logic is no more provocative than Dickinson's. Consider Dennett's conclusion: "The best reason for believing that robots might someday become conscious is that we humans are conscious, and we are a sort of robot ourselves."(3). Is this more audacious than assigning the human brain god equal weight? Dennett's "belief" would displace the god-friendly notion that a self-conscious mind is immaterial and has causal powers beyond algorithmic definition. Dickinson's would subsume the almighty. There is no difference.

Yet we ask more of Dennett. He must convince us of (at least) the following: 1) natural selection is driven by algorithms that can support the application of strong Artificial Intelligence (itself, a tall pole); 2) the algorithms of natural selection can be consistently applied to the propagation and selection of ideas; and 3) natural selection also applies to intentionality. According to his theory, humans are automata (descended from automata, composed of automata) driven by algorithms—both our biological and cultural states. Therefore, he tells us, machines can be reengineered to replicate (and surpass) humans. This would amount to a sort of artificial speciation of Homo sapiens. While certain computers exist that learn, none has demonstrated self-awareness, so these tall poles must be first addressed—but by what criteria?

By contrast, we ask nothing before embracing Dickinson's portrayal of the Brain, You, and God—or at least the Brain and You. Consider Grobstein's detailed distillation (8) of Dennett and Darwin's Dangerous Ideas, versus his comfortable acceptance of "Emily's" idea (nowhere does he refer to Dennett as Daniel or Dan) (2). Grobstein selects and categorizes aspects of Dennett's theory as supportable, questionable, or refutable. He determines that "universal acid," emergent meaning/ intentionality, the notions of cranes versus skyhooks, and "nice tries" are useful, that "selfish" genes and memes, forced moves, and Dennett's (random) algorithms are iffy, and that Dennett's conclusions belying personal agency and free will are flawed/problematic.

Then Grobstein sizes up Dickinson. He simply muses, "What particularly intrigues me is not just that Dickinson neatly put the self in the brain but that she did it happily, 'with ease'." While this may be true, how does he know it? He surmises, "If so, Emily's thought that the brain is THAT big is even more impressive as a prediction of understandings to come... Was Emily right? Perhaps and perhaps not. Only time will tell" (2). He has not challenged her methods, motives, or the possibility that she intended some other meaning. Indeed, his impression of what she meant impressed him. Given that it's poetry, I would have done the same.

For science versus poetry, we take different "stances." According to Dennett, intentional stance is the speedy application of our beliefs and desires about the things we encounter, enabling us to assess these things quickly and make predictions. By contrast, physical stance requires that we reduce things to physical laws. The short-cuts of intuition do not apply. Indeed, both intentional and physical stance would appear to be useful in combination when we have some historical narrative and some scientific patterns available. This is the case with Dennett, but not with Dickinson alone (without Grobstein's extended analysis). We do assess them differently, perhaps because it is difficult to jettison engrained standards of scientific inquiry and proof. But if we recognize this and approach Dennett in a two-stance manner, he may provoke us less and inform us more. This hope is an echo of Dalke's and Grobstein's desire regarding how humans learn and teach: "Different styles need not be in conflict. We desire-perhaps even more strongly, we need to see binaries as mutually supportive and, if kept constantly in interaction with one another, mutually generative" (8).

I choose to "read" science by its historical narrative patterns along with whatever scientific patterns might be available. Looking at Dennett this way, he has set up evolution by natural selection as a sort of kaleidoscope that reveals what each of its storytellers wishes to see as each twists and tilts it. Just so, in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, he jiggles the colored crystals, finding patterns to serve his intent to supplant Descartes' notion of dualism with new underpinnings, the "Dennettian niche," where the next human taxa can be engineered. And, just so, in poem #632, Dickinson tilts heaven and earth in order to supplant one Supreme Being with another. "Emily Dickinson's religion was Poetry" (9). Daniel Dennett's "religion" is that Emily Dickinson can be reengineered. Both are intriguing and each can amplify our understanding of the other, depending upon where and how we choose to stand.

Works Cited

1. Dickinson, Emily. Johnson, Thomas H. Ed. (1960) The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston. Little, Brown & Co.
2. Grobstein, Paul. (2002) "Who's Afraid of Emily Dickinson, Or... How I learned to stop worrying and love the brain."
3. Dennett, Daniel C. (1995) Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York. Simon & Schuster.
4. Dennett, Daniel C. (1999) "The Evolution of Culture." The Charles Simonyi Lecture, Oxford.
5. Dennett, Daniel C. (1992) Consciousness Explained. Boston. Little, Brown, & Co.
6. Dickinson, Emily. Johnson, Thomas and Ward, Theodora, ed. (1958) The letters of Emily Dickinson Cambridge, MA. Belknap Press of Harvard.
7. Gould, Stephen Jay. (1997) "Darwinian Fundamentalism." The New York Review of Books. Volume 44, Number 10.
8. Dalke, Anne. Grobstein, Paul. (2003) "Story-Telling in (At Least) Three Dimensions: An Exploration of Teaching, Reading, Writing, and Beyond." (draft submitted for publication)
9. Howe, Susan. (1989) My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley, CA. North Atlantic Books.

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