Gotcha!…?

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Daniel Dennett is among the foremost writers on the philosophical issues surrounding evolution. Indeed, I consider him the greatest philosopher alive. Among his books are Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Consciousness Explained, and Freedom Evolves. He's attacked creationism and its surrounding notions time and time again. But--gasp!--he's admitted that Intelligent Design makes sense!

No, not really.

Robert Wright argues that evolution reveals a direction, and that this direction indicates that there is a Designer Who has run the evolutionary process. He claims that Dennett "recently declared that life on earth shows signs of having a higher purpose," during an interview with Wright. According to Wright, "Dennett didn't volunteer this opinion enthusiastically, or for that matter volunteer it at all. He conceded it in the course of a dialogue with me--and extracting the concession was a little like pulling teeth."

Let's pause here a moment. Suppose that Wright is telling the entire truth--Dennett actually said, during an interview, that life shows signs of a higher purpose, and that he did so only after rigorous interrogation by Wright. If that is true, it does not support Wright's position. We are talking about a philosopher who has spent decades criticizing the notions of "purpose in evolution" in the most vocal, public, eloquent, unequivocal way. For a person who is this thoroughly committed to a proposition to break down under intense "tooth pulling" inquiry is far more likely to mean that the person misspoke, was misunderstood, was misrepresented by the interrogator, or finally broke under the strain of the interrogation and said anything to stop the psychological pressure. We know from criminal law that people will confess to crimes they did not commit, even when the death penalty is a certain consequence, if they are pressured enough. The fact that Dennett only "condeded" the point after "tooth pulling" means one of three things:

1) That Dennett has long been engaged in a lie, or in some way has dishonestly withheld the true opinion about the alleged direction of evolution, or

2) That Dennett misspoke, was misunderstood, or broke under the strain of interrogation, or was misrepresented, or

3) That Dennett experienced a revelation of the errors of his ways.

Wright, of course, characterizes the event as number 3. I think number 2 is by far the likeliest explanation, just off hand, but let's turn to the evidence. Wright provides us with a clip from his interview here. This "interview" actually consists of a long speech by Wright, interspersed with some sentences and "rights" from Dennett. Finally, the following incident occurs--keep in mind that at this point, Wright has spoken for a solid minute:

Wright: ...you said, you said tons of organisms dying childless, right, and yet you agree that they were designed by natural selection to--

Dennett: To propagate themselves.

Wright: --the fact that some of them don't do it doesn't rule out that possibility. Secondly, the fact that lineages go extinct, well, that's true in epigenesis as well. If you look at the cells that were--

Dennett: Sure.

Wright: --that you started out with, tons of them go extinct, and what goes on inside your body is more like a process of natural selection than--

Dennett: Oh, absolutely.

Wright: --than a lot of people realize. And one thing it has in common with natural selection is that although certain properties were very likely--I was very likely to wind up with eyesight--with eyeballs--um, it wasn't at all inevitable which of my stem cells would be the grandfather of the linkeage that led to the eyesight. That's also true of natural selection. So, I'm using it to the extent, I mean, I think we've agreed that observing, what is it, ontogeny, I guess is the term, or--you know, development of an organism--

Dennett: Mm hmm.

Wright: --that it has its direction, its movement toward functionality by design, and that's in fact the hallmark of design--

Dennett: Mm hmm.

Wright: To the extent that natural, that evolution on this planet turned out to have comparable properties, that would work, at least, to some extent, in favor of the hypothesis of design.

Dennett: Mmmm. [Makes "well, I guess, sorta" facial expression; pauses] Uh--

Wright: To some extent. To any extent.

Dennett: Yeah, I guess.

Wright: Okay! I'll declare victory.

Does this sound like option 3 to you? In philosophy as in all other scholarly pursuits, conversation is the least likely to lead to an important statement on a subject. Conversation is not peer reviewed, it's not very carefully weighed before it's uttered; people frequently misspeak, or concede points they don't very clearly understand. Yet Wright is willing to declare on the basis of this statement alone, despite the nine or ten books that Dennett has published, that Dennett believes that evolution has a direction that upholds the concept of a conscious Designer.

This sort of "gotcha" argument is, to say the least, childish. When I was a kid, I would sometimes get in arguments on the playground, and perhaps I would misspeak--I would say the ball belonged to Rob instead of Tom--whereupon Rob's friends would snatch my error as if it were some sort of subconscious confession of the truth, rather than a simple misstatement or error. What Wright has done here is similar. Hammering Dennett with terms like "design" and so forth, he has extracted from Dennett the most lukewarm of responses ("Yeah, I guess") and takes the lukewarmness as evidence that Dennett is either scared of being caught or is embarrassed at how wrong his career has been all this time. At the least, Wright's device here is the sort of exaggeration which makes for children's playground conversation, not for science.

I could leave it there, and say that I gotcha! to Wright. But let's look at what is really being said here--let's try to understand, rather than counting coup. Wright is attempting a sophisticated analogy here: the cells in the body are "designed" for the purpose of, say, becoming eye cells or becoming brain cells. Some of them don't make it, but that doesn't disprove the fact that they were "designed." Likewise, animals are "designed" for their environments, and the fact that some of them die off doesn't disprove the idea that they were "designed."

A single egg cell replicates itself, and the offspring cells in turn replicate themselves, and so on. Eventually the resulting lineages of cells start exhibiting distinctive specialties; there are muscle cells that beget muscle cells, brain cells that beget brain cells. If [William] Paley were around today to watch videos of this process he would say: Wow!--Look at how exquisitely directional this process is; the system grows in size and in functional differentiation until it becomes this large, complex, functionally integrated system: muscles, brains, lungs, etc. This directionality is evidence of design! As it happens, you can describe the history of evolution on this planet in a way that closely parallels this description of an organism's life cycle.

Wright claims to have convinced Dennett of this--in reality, he has at best suckered him into signing this without reading it. But the problem is that it wildly equivocates on the word "designed." Dennett has never denied that biological processes reveal what he calls "design." What he denies is that this evidence is evidence of a Designer. Evolution "designs" organisms through the process of natural selection. This terminology, Dennett has repeatedly said, is to be taken as shorthand. The "direction" of the cells in forming the human body have been "designed," in the sense that the DNA has come to code for these things over time, because that DNA which didn't code for these things, tended not to reproduce itself. DNA which didn't code for eyeballs resulted in blind creatures which had less opportunity to thrive and reproduce than did creatures with eyes. There is a "direction" to the development of the eye just as a river has a "direction," but not because Someone made it flow in that direction. Rather, it's simply because natural processes resulted in its flowing in that direction. That's what Dennett believes, and to discuss the term "design" with Dennett while ignoring the fact that he has written so extensively on this meaning of the word is misleading.

Now, add to that the fact that Wright was asking whether "to any extent," if fact X happened, it would support theory Y. A philosopher can discuss these things without any connection to the reality of the case. He has asked Dennett to assume that "you can describe the history of evolution in this planet in a way that closely parallels this description of an organism's life cycle," and then asks if that fact would lend credence to the theory of the existence of a Designer. To that, Dennett answers with the most equivocal support. This is tantamount to asking, suppose that Columbian drug lords were out for O.J. Simpson; if that were true, would it support, to any extent, the argument that they killed Nicole Brown Simpson? The answer to any honest person is yes--but then, an honest person would not then conclude from this "gotcha" style concession that Simpson was therefore innocent. There are two problems with any such argument: first, it rests on a disprovable observation (do Colubmian drug lords really have it out for O.J.; does the world resemble the physical development of an organism in the relevant ways?) so this may undermine the claim if disproven; second, even if X would lend credence to theory Y, it could also lend credence to theory Z. Suppose Bill thinks that the moon is made of cheese. He might say to Dennett, "to the extent that the moon is the same color as cheese, would that lend credence to my theory?" Dennett would, of course, answer yes.

Wright has wrenched the sorriest sort of pseudo-admission out of Dennett, and uses it to proclaim that "there is at least some evidence that natural selection is a product of design." (Which is silly, of course, since the very existence of natural selection constistutes "at least some" evidence that natural selection is a product of design.) This is wrong. At the very end of the full interview, Dennett says that Wright is defending the indefensible, and that "by my lights I see you going along just beautifully, and then--fft!--you veer off....where did that swerve come from?" Doesn't exactly sound like a conversion to me.

Update: I see Doing Things With Words beat me to it. And Daniel Dennett has a reply on Andrew Sullivan.com.

Update 2: Prof. Dennett has forwarded me an email which he wrote to Wright, which he gave Andrew Sullivan permission to publish, so I assume that means I can publish it, too:

OK. Bob, I just reviewed the video clip, and here is what you say, and what I say: Wright: "To the extent that . . . evolution on this planet turned out to have comparable properties [as embryogenesis, development, epigenesis], that would work at least to some extent, to any extent, in favor of the hypothesis..."

DCD: "Yeah, I guess..." (and then you cut me off and ‘declare victory.')

But all I am granting in this acquiescence is that if evolution exhibited the properties that embryogenesis exhibits (which it doesn't, as I've kept insisting) this would work to some extent in favor of your purpose hypothesis. That is, embryogenesis is not just in itself an "evolutionary" process in that there is massive excess generation pruned by cell death, etc., but it is also a designed evolutionary process--the very process has itself evolved by natural selection. But there is no evidence that the same is true of natural selection viewed from the widest perspective. As I have argued for years. So all I am agreeing to here is the hypothetical, and I've rejected the antecedent of that hypothetical all along. You draw attention to an interesting avenue of argument that has not been particularly well explored so far as I know, but I don't think it is a winner. It reminds me of the Gaia hypothesis. If life on our planet really were designed to be in homeostatic, self-sustaining balance, then the Gaia freaks would be on to something, but there is no reason to believe this.

So you forget that you'd posed a hypothetical to me, and run off with my answer without giving me a chance to elaborate. This after a most concerted effort to get me to agree with you that I steadfastly resist to the point of tedium! To my ear, this is what happens:

"Wright. blahblah, Dennett, NO. Wright, blahblahblah. Dennett, No again. Wright, blahblahblahblahblah, Dennett STILL NO. Wright, But won't you agree that IF blahblahblahblahblah, Dennett, Well, yes, if all you mean is . . . . Wright, TaDAA! Dennett agrees with me!"

Not good ground for your rather inflammatory interpretation--would you agree? I am not impressed.

Update 3: More at Protein Wisdom.

Update 4: More at Majkthise.

3 TrackBacks

A few days ago, Andrew Sullivan gleefully exclaimed: AN ATHEIST RECANTS: Philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of the influential 1995 book, "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," now says he sees a higher purpose in the universe. Bob Wright breaks the news. Well, no... Read More

Dennett's Response, via Andrew Sullivan from Dispatches from the Culture Wars on October 8, 2004 5:25 PM

Yesterday, I wrote about Robert Wright's claim that Daniel Dennett had reluctantly admitted that there is evidence of design in nature. Today, Andrew Sullivan has Dennett's reply: "This is ridiculous: Wright misinterprets his own videoclip (I am gratef... Read More

Did Daniel Dennett admit that there is a "higher purpose" to life? asks Robin Verghese of 3quarksdaily. This strikes me as an odd way of putting the question. The alleged "admission" is to be found in an interview between Robert Read More

34 Comments

It should not be a surprise that living organisms demonstrate order, such that they appear to have been instantiated through some sort of intelligent design. Likewise, it should not be surprising that living organisms are not found surmising those conglomerations of “fundamental particles” that, through some undoubtedly causal relationship, make up a macro-structure which is not ordered in any way that allows human beings to emperically or “naturally” recognize/discover them (for instance, the simultaneous consideration of 1 random atom on each of the nine planets in our solar system could not, or would not without any sort of mysticism exhibit any characteristics of life). Obviously, while so-called “designs” are undeniably ubiquitous throughout the universe (living and non-living) - for example, the spiral shape of many galaxies - and it would be presumptious to call such inanimate particle compositions as “functional,” it is still (should be) nonetheless rather intuitive that only those macrostructures that contain some sort of patterns or organization would be able to exhibit or contribute to what is commonly known as life. Thus, Dr. Dennett - being a satisfactorily rational human being (although some say zombie) - should not be scared to admit that there is some chance for ID theory to be true, because the theory, in part, attempts to demonstrate that some of the complexities (designs) found in nature could only have been made through intelligent design, and that the mere fact that these designs exist delineate that there is a “designer” - and, I doubt there are many scientists who deny the existence of these organizations which to us appear complex and anti-NeoDarwinian (so-called too perfect to have been formed through random mutations and selection); similarly, I am sure he would not appreciate (or even contemplate) those who discount his theories while saying that there is NO chance that they could be true, as if to deny ANY possibility (and therefore existing emperical evidence) for neoDarwinian characteristics in nature - as if they are the supreme designer [sic] him/herself.

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I read the Wright article yesterday, because gullible Andrew Sullivan had a link to it with the title AN ATHEIST RECANTS. The article is so poorly written it’s hard to see what Dennett actually said. That’s probably intentional.

simple:

Granted, magic can explain anything and everything. If you prefer magical explanations, you enjoy great advantages, since you need no study, nor knowledge, nor evidence, nor even much intelligence. Best of all, nobody can ever prove you wrong. So nobody denies that magic *might* be the “cause” of whatever you wish. Unfortunately, you have explained nothing in the process.

The claim, however, that ONLY magical explanations can satisfy your requirements is something a bit different. At this point, you move from philosophical emptiness to religious belief. After all, other explanations are always possible. Just because you can’t think of one doesn’t rule one out. This blog is densely populated with those who have not only found a competing explanation requiring no magic, but who explain it in detail. Of course they might all be wrong, and you STILL haven’t excluded all possibilities.

This sort of logical error lies at the heart of most creationist arguments: “I can’t think of any other explanation. Therefore there IS no other explanation. Therefore what I “knew” to be true before I looked remains true.” But you haven’t established here anything but a failure of imagination. Much better to propose a positive explanation based on evidence and tests, than a negative explanation based on elimination (that is, you eliminate anything you can’t think of, and think you have eliminated everything!).

So to be sure, magic MIGHT be the explanation. But just assuming that it is not, people HAVE come up with something a great deal more compelling, not to mention testable.

Another juicy post from Mr. Sandefur. Keep ‘em coming!

Dennett may be the “greatest philosopher” alive. I have no idea because I haven’t read a single one of his books nor do I ever intend to.

I will say this, however. I certainly would not want to give anyone the impression that Daniel Dennett’s opinion with respect to the vacuousness of intelligent design arguments has exceptional merit. That would be a mistake.

Why?

Because one need only be a less-than-mediocre philosopher to possess the ability to utterly destroy ID creationists in a debate. And because Daniel Dennett engaged in real-time discussions with a gaping creationist a-hole like Robert Wright and failed to do so.

One would imagine that the world’s greatest philospher would have the common sense to understand that anyone who (1) claims to be intellectually mature and (2) who believes that intelligent design arguments have scientific merit is a dissembling sack looking for another excuse to worship a deity. But for some reason Dennett chose to engage Wright in a discussion relating to embryological red herring bullshit of the highest order.

As someone once asked as they hurtled towards the earth: Why??????!!!!!!

An excelent post, though I would disagree with the claim that Dennet is the greatest living philosopher. (Kripke certainly deserves a claim to that title.) I also disagree with your comments about “design”. Dennet is bright enough to realise that Wright was using “design” in the metaphysically weighted sense used by ID advocates.

Never-the-less, Wright’s claim is simply false. Dennet agreed only that, If evolution is like development to some extent; then there is some slight extent to which that consitutes an argument for the design of evolution as a process to produce life. Even that admission was grudging - an indication that it was fraught with qualifications in Dennet’s mind.

I think it is worth clarifying one point in Wright’s responce to Dennet. Wright writes:

It seems obvious to me that by “comparable properties” I meant “directional movement toward functionality.” But Dennett now seems to be saying that by “comparable properties” he took me to mean “directional movement toward functionality by design.” (At least, that’s the only interpretation I can put on his latest e-mail to me: Here’s the relevant section.) In other words (so far as I can tell) he now says he thinks I was asking the question: “Would you say that if a process has a certain property by design, that’s evidence that the process was designed?”

First of all, if he thought I was positing an argument so blatantly circular, why didn’t he stop me and ridicule me, rather than pause, reflect on the question, and answer it affirmatively?

http://www.nonzero.org/replytodennett.htm

Here is is important to distinguish between “design”, something that can arise from natural selection, and “Design”, something creationists want to find everywhere in the world. Dennet admits that to the extent that “design” can be found in the process of evolution itself, to that extent that would be evidence for “Design”. He also admits that ontogeny is a process that exhibits “design”. However, he also denies that evolution exhibits “design” as a process. Specifically, ontogeny involves programmed cell deaths as important stages in development. These are “designed” events. Equivalently, extinctions are important features in the history of life, and hence of the development of function on Earth (as Dennet understands it). For instance, humans would not have existed had the dinosaurs not gone extinct. But the death of dinosaurs was not “designed” in any sense analogous to the death of cells forming webs between fingers in humans.

It appears to me that Dennet has understood the logic of Wright’s argument more clearly than Wright himself. He has seen a potential valid argument for design which fails because the premises are false. Wright, however, confuses “design” and “Design”. In consequence he is unable to appreciate the distinctions Dennet is making.

Viewed the clip. Wright clearly states…

“let me be clear that I’m using design in a very loose sense.…”

(shortly thereafter)

“..individual organisms as being designed at least in quotes”

Wright’s bait and switch tactics of ‘design’ and ‘Design’ can only leave one wondering if his perceived ‘Victory’ was ‘victory’ (“in a very loose sense”).

I’m the guy who runs Doing Things With Words. I’m familiar with Dennett’s ideas (although I think he’s dead wrong on most of them). One thing which I mention on my blog is that Dennett doesn’t think there are such things as designers, consciousness, intentionality, or function, according to our normal understanding of these terms. He’s pretty clear on this; if we want to use these words, that’s fine, but we shouldn’t go around thinking they mean we have minds. For Dennett, the things we design are on all fours with the objects “designed” by natural selection, in that both are the product of nonintentional, nonconscious processes. It makes sense to think he uses these terms in this way in the interview, and that Wright goes too far in claiming they imply some deep metaphysical commitment to intelligent design.

Yeah, I see your point, although I wince a little at your saying “we shouldn’t go around thinking they mean we have minds.” I don’t think Dennett denies the existence of minds, just that they contain some magical fairy dust that sets them apart from the principles that govern other matter. But this gets much more into Dennett’s specific ideas, and I just wanted to talk about Wright’s misrepresentation of the interview.

Great White Wonder wrote: Because one need only be a less-than-mediocre philosopher to possess the ability to utterly destroy ID creationists in a debate.  And because Daniel Dennett engaged in real-time discussions with a gaping creationist a-hole like Robert Wright and failed to do so. One would imagine that the world’s greatest philospher would have the common sense to understand that anyone who (1) claims to be intellectually mature and (2) who believes that intelligent design arguments have scientific merit is a dissembling sack looking for another excuse to worship a deity.  But for some reason Dennett chose to engage Wright in a discussion relating to embryological red herring bullshit of the highest order. 

Wright is not an “ID creationist”, nor does he believe that intelligent design arguments have scientific merit. He states this clearly on p. 3 of the beliefnet article:

Unlike Dennett and I, Teilhard wasn’t a strict Darwinian; he didn’t believe that nuts-and-bolts natural selection is the sole propulsive force of evolution. And as long as I’m distinguishing myself from others who see the possibility of purpose in evolution: I’m not part of the “intelligent design” school; like Teilhard, intelligent design theorists, such as William Dembski, see forces other than natural selection at work, whereas I’m just saying that natural selection, though able to do all the work of designing organisms, may itself be a product of design.

So Wright clearly takes the Darwinian view that all adaptations are a product of random mutations and natural selection, I think his position is just that the laws of nature themselves were “designed” to make it very likely that life would arise and that RM&NS operating on it over billions of years would produce greater and greater levels of complexity and intelligence. I don’t think he would call this a scientific theory though, since he relies on philosophical arguments to support it.

Flint -

I apologize if I have misrepresented myself (and my constituents). I am a non-reductionalist physicalist. I am a neoDarwinist, or close to it. My entire point was that it should be no victory for the ID supporters (believers) for Dr. Dennett to have supposedly “admitted” that life on earth shows signs of having a higher purpose. I am merely saying that when Dennett says, “Yes, I guess it is TECHNICALLY a possibility that certain structures in nature could have been designed by an intelligent agent” - he is simply conceding that “yes, I guess these complexities could THEORETICALLY have been formed via any number of explanations, with intelligent design being just one of those possibilities.” Of course, he has no qualms (and rightly so) about explaining which of the processes, which now supervenes (epiphenomenally) yet provides a model for that fluctuation of macroscopic organisms with which we refer to as evolution - which has amazingly emerged (with accompanying downward causation) from the interaction of quantum field interactions within our phase space - he thinks that just so happened (indeed randomly) to have produced human primates and every other species of organism (plant or animal) alive now or ever to have lived on this earth (and probably anywhere in the universe). Of course, I am speaking with reference to what is currently referred to as today’s version of neo-Darwinism. And I must say, I have a strong tendency to think that this Dennett fellow is correct about this Darwinistic theory of his :)

But, while I would place a rather large bet on this suspicion that Dr. Dennett and I and many other scientists agree on, I don’t think I could say that there is NO chance that God or a god or magic or some other superhuman intelligence designed much of what exists in our observable universe or beyond. I simply do not quite have the knowledge base and genius to - as Homer Simpson did when doctors took the crayon out of his brain - somehow mathematically disprove the existence of God. I believe Dr. Dennett was simply being polite, out of respect for science and all science-like endeavors.

So I think, Flint, that we are in agreement :)

Wow, it felt weird for a while when I was suddenly being pinned as a Creationist. Take care.

It’s pretty clear, as Jesse M. has pointed out, that Sandefur is misrepresenting Wright’s position. Wright doesn’t claim that directionality in evolution is “proof” of a Designer, just that directionality in evolution is suggestive of the possibility of design. It’s a clear distinction, and it’s one worth considering.

I think if any of these shrill critics (Sandefur, call your office) read Wright’s “Nonzero” with an open mind (i.e. one not corrupted by the illogical idiocy of S.J Gould), they would see that his overarching point is enormously strong: both biological and cutural evolution display clear signs of directionality (towards higher levels of complexity and intelligence in the first, and higher levels of nonzero-sum societal organization in the second).

He makes the argument that the Earth (at least once life on it showed up) seemed likely to produce intelligent life capable of self-reflection (Dennett would agree to this), and that once such a species emerged, it was likely, with the possibility of occasional, massive setbacks, to spread over the globe and find ways to link up with itself (roads, telegraphs, the internet, etc). The logic underlying his argument is that game-theoretical processes are apparent in both forms of evolution, and that if you watched the whole process in fast-forward, it would look a *whole* lot like an embyro developing.

It’s an immensely sophisticated and elegant thesis (it takes up a whole book.) Only at the end does he speculate that directionality *may* be suggestive of design. But unless you are willing to take on the substance of the main argument (the directionality part–and you have to be able to explain it before you can take it on), then you are not really taking on Wright, just avoiding him.

Wright doesn’t claim that directionality in evolution is “proof” of a Designer, just that directionality in evolution is suggestive of the possibility of design.

That’s all very nice Alexei. So what was it that was the “ bad news for Dennett’s many atheist devotees.” ?

To intelligently infer Design (not just natural design as in a snowflake, solar system or mouse) you need a better reason than the argument from ignorance (aka explanatory filter). Evidently one needs some presumptions about the Designer’s intent and capabilities, and one must give up the fall back position “the Designer could have done it that way” regardless of the evidence.

Or as PvM posted here

… ‘Intelligent Design’ can be formulated as a testable hypothesis but this requires us to formulate motivation(s), means and/or opportunity to restrain the explanatory power of an ‘intelligent designer’.

PvM discusses this in relation to commentary at the Adventist GRISDA site, which evidently does not disagree. So, what have the requirements for the inference to do with Dennett?

Quiz: design or Design?

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Timothy Sandefur, if you doubt Wright is being sincere in claiming not to be an ID fan, you should read this article he wrote in slate:

The “New” Creationism

As for Wright’s comparison of the history of life to the development of an embryo, it might help to consider the following speculation. The physicist Lee Smolin has hypothesized that there could be a kind of Darwinian process responsible for setting the values of many constants in physics–his idea is based on the idea from quantum gravity that tiny regions of the universe can pinch off and form a “baby universe” which then expands in a similar way that our own universe expanded after the Big Bang. Smolin suggests that each baby universe might “inherit” similar values of various physical constants as its parent universe, but with slight random variations. He also suggests that baby universes might be formed by the singularity of a black hole, which means the more black holes in a parent universe, the more “offspring” it will have. In this way there would be a sort of process of random mutation and natural selection operating on the scale of universes, with constants that allow for the most black-hole formation being selected for–this would insure, for example, that universes that expand too fast or recollapse too quickly would be selected against, because stars could not form in such universes. Dennett actually discusses this hypothesis in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, I believe.

Suppose we extend this and speculate that any time intelligent life appears in a universe and survives long enough to travel between stars (or creates A.I. ‘children’ that are able to do so), it becomes very likely that they will engage in cosmic engineering projects that result in many more black holes than would have formed naturally (perhaps, for example, the intelligent beings want to maximize the number of computations they’re able to do before the heat death of the universe, and so end up building a lot of black hole computers). In this case, the selection process described by Smolin would also select for values of the constants which increase the probability that intelligent life will form and spread throughout the universe. If there are various typical stumbling blocks along the path to intelligence, like the difficulty of abiogenesis, the difficulty of forming multicellular organisms, and so on, then to the extent that the likelihood of passing these stumbling blocks would be affected by slight variations in the constants of physics (which would surely affect the biochemistry of life in different universes, at least), then the selection process might be able to miminize the chances that a suitable planet will be prevented from giving rise to space-faring intelligence because it hits one of these stumbling blocks.

If all this were true, wouldn’t the analogy to embryology make a fair amount of sense? There are many developmental stumbling blocks that can cause an embryo to die before reaching maturity, but natural selection acts to fine-tune the development process to make it as smooth as possible and to minimize the risk that the embryo will fail in one of these ways. Natural selection acts to insure that the dynamics of the developmental process pull the embryo towards the “attractor” of the adult form, just like the universal natural selection described above would act to insure the dynamics of the biospheres pull them towards the “attractor” of multicellular life with nervous systems of increasing complexity (but note that life in such biospheres would still be evolving in a purely Darwinian way).

The question is, does the development of intelligence in our universe resemble what you’d expect in a universe that had been fine-tuned for it by the Darwinian process described above? My own inclination would be to say no–there’s the Fermi paradox for one thing, and the huge gap between abiogenesis and the development of multicellularity, and I found Robin Hanson’s paper The Great Filter made a good case that the history of life we see on Earth looks just how we should expect if the development of intelligence was in fact very unlikely. On the other hand, if you at least tentatively answer yes, that the history of life on Earth might look about how one would expect if the “universal selection for laws of physics that maximize the probability of spacefaring intelligence” theory were true, then you’ll have to admit that the embryology analogy makes a certain kind of sense. And once you admit that, then you have to admit the possibility that instead of this fine-tuning having been achieved by a selection process, it could have been achieved by a designer who set the laws of physics to maximize the possibility that life would arise and that RM&NS operating on this life over billions of years would lead to the development of intelligence.

Jesse M.…I love this guy! (You should really read the latter half on “Nonzero” (actually the whole thing, but whatever). Wright makes a pretty strong case for directionality in biological evolution.

Anyway, Timothy: I agree that Wright is making some sort of religious statement. But it’s not as strong as you make it out to be: he is posting that there is some strong evidence of Design. Not conclusive, mind you, but highly suggestive.

To take on your original argument more closely:

“to any extent,” if fact X happened, it would support theory Y. A philosopher can discuss these things without any connection to the reality of the case. He has asked Dennett to assume that “you can describe the history of evolution in this planet in a way that closely parallels this description of an organism’s life cycle,” and then asks if that fact would lend credence to the theory of the existence of a Designer. To that, Dennett answers with the most equivocal support. This is tantamount to asking, suppose that Columbian drug lords were out for O.J. Simpson; if that were true, would it support, to any extent, the argument that they killed Nicole Brown Simpson?”

This is clearly a false analogy that goes way too far. You are ignoring that when Wright asks Dennett to assume “that you can descrbe the history of evolution in this planet in a way that closely parallels this description of an organism’s life cycle…”, Dennett has already conceded that, in fact, the history of evolution on this planet does in many ways closely parallel the description of an organism’s life cycle. Just because Dennett didn’t come out the other end a convert doesn’t mean he did not concede this important point.

Look at Wright’s detailed response to Dennett here; the logic is on his side. www.nonzero.org/replytodennett.htm

It’s hard to believe the same guy wrote the good Slate article and the horrible Dennett article.

I agree that Wright is making some sort of religious statement. But it’s not as strong as you make it out to be: he is posting that there is some strong evidence of Design. Not conclusive, mind you, but highly suggestive.

Yes, this is very interesting stuff, Alexei. So, what was it that was the “bad news for Dennett’s many atheist devotees.” ?

The physicist Lee Smolin has hypothesized that there could be a kind of Darwinian process responsible for setting the values of many constants in physics—his idea is based on the idea from quantum gravity that tiny regions of the universe can pinch off and form a “baby universe” which then expands in a similar way that our own universe expanded after the Big Bang. Smolin suggests that each baby universe might “inherit” similar values of various physical constants as its parent universe, but with slight random variations.

Wow, dude, this is like a really really trippy comment to read after a hit of DMT. Whoaaaaa!!!! Like, Smolin lays a real heavy trip on heavyweights like Paul Davies and then these like philospher guys like Wright and Dennett like have to deal with these baby universes and so they like bring up Darwin to like make it kind of all-encompassing and everything because everything is like designed and shit when you really think about it.

Totally rad. I’m going to try smoking some DMT and crystal meth (maybe 50 mics, maybe 75 if I can’t get the residue out from my previous excursion) and see if I can figure out how Smolin’s “kind of Darwinian process” relates to evolutionary biology in the blastula and fetal stage of universes before they are born. I’m trying to figure out if I’m better of playing the 5/23/72 Dark Star->Morning Dew or the entire Avalon show from 10/13/68. Any thoughts?

Alexei:

“to any extent,” if fact X happened, it would support theory Y.

This is not what Dennet agreed to, and nor should he have. Look again at the transcript:

So, I’m using it to the extent, I mean, I think we’ve agreed that observing, what is it, ontogeny, I guess is the term, or—you know, development of an organism—

Dennett: Mm hmm.

Wright: —that it has its direction, its movement toward functionality by design, and that’s in fact the hallmark of design—

Dennett: Mm hmm.

Wright: To the extent that natural, that evolution on this planet turned out to have comparable properties, that would work, at least, to some extent, in favor of the hypothesis of design.

Dennett: Mmmm. [Makes “well, I guess, sorta” facial expression; pauses] Uh—

Wright: To some extent. To any extent.

Dennett: Yeah, I guess.

Wright’s further comment qualifies the consequent of his conditional, not the antecedent. Substituting in at the appropriate places, Dennet agreed that:

“To the extent that … that evolution on this planet turned out to have [movement toward functionality by design], that would work, at least, to some extent [however slight], in favor of the hypothesis of [Design].”

That is not a telling concession, nor yet is it a concession that evolution involves a movement towards functionality “by design”. It is only by forgetting that Wright explicitly qualified his claim of “movement towards functionality” with the phrase “by design”; and be supposing that Dennet agreed that “any extent” of similarity between evolution and ontogeny constitutes evidence of Design that Wright’s claim about Dennet can be made.

At this point in the discussion, there should be no dispute on these points, for Dennet has clearly elaborated what he meant. He has said:

and:

Wright’s response to this counter claim is to argue that such a reading of argument renders it circular. But that is not true. If you can distinguish between “design” in the sense of the products of natural selection and “Design” the activity of an intelligent agent or purpose consequent on Platonic forms, something Dennet clearly does earlier in the interview, then there is no circularity. Dennet agree’s that embryogenesis exhibits design (small d); and agrees that if the process of evolution - not just the products of evolution, but the process itself- exhibited design (small d), then that would be some evidence, however slight, of Design (big D).

As the argument is not circular, there is no reason to suppose Dennet thought it was and Wright’s interpretation of the inverview colapses. Further, unless Wright shows, not just directionality in evolution, but directionality by design he does not have an argument for Design in the universe.

This brings me to Jesse M. First let me say that if he could show his Smolinesque speculation to be true, he would have established the premise of Wright’s argument. If universes evolved towards the possession intelligent life as a functionally necessary feature for generating a maximum number of daughter universes, then evolution of intelligent life in such a universe would be a designed (small d) feature of the universe; and this would, by Wright’s argument suport the case that life was Designed on Earth. Of course, our “higher purpose” would merely be to make more black holes. I doubt this would satisfy any religious sensibility.

However, Smolin’s original speculation does not have this feature. According to Smolin, the presence of carbon encourages the collapse of nebula into stars, and hence increases the number of black holes. Thus universes do evolve to produce carbon, which makes them life friendly - but that life friendliness is a Spandrel. It has no functional role in the propogation of universes. In that case, biological evolution is not a designed feature of the universe, and Wright’s argument is unsuported.

Great White -

Obviously, the baby universes do not exhibit Darwinian processes. Even if they do, each universe (and its microstructures) is probably just too damn complex for these processes to ever fully explain them. Any evidence that we find which leads us to intepret that our so-called scientific “laws” govern their behavior, is simply a mirage. In fact, we are fooling ourselves by even trying to explain them emperically. Our findings will inevitably just be a “crude model” for what was obviously designed by God.

Thus, you are correct, there is intelligent design in everything, especially randomly (deterministically) pocketed regions of the phase space that grow into other universes.

(I hope the sarcasm is not lost)

To answer your question, maybe when a singularity is formed by the complex interactions between quantum field waves, it is at first just a proto-singularity, which then (according to Darwinian principles) undergoes a variety of transformations until it is a fully-formed, ripe singularity ready to be born as a universe.

Yes, infinity undergoes many changes, so that it is then infinity, and then goes through several developmental stages, all of which lead the initial infinity to become a sort of different infinity, eventually forming the fetal infinity, which we know as the infinitely dense singularity which erupts into a universe.

In order to fully understand all of this, I would stay away from the DMT-meth combination.

I find that LSD actually allows you to BECOME a proto-singularity. This provides valuable insite when gathering evidence for determining whether or not the blastula stage of a universe is governed by Darwinian processes.

Further lessons can be learned if one’s meditations on the “survival of the fittest quantum fluctuation” is accompanied by the:

2/4/70 China Cat –> I Know you Rider.

Take care!

Tom Curtis wrote: This brings me to Jesse M.  First let me say that if he could show his Smolinesque speculation to be true, he would have established the premise of Wright’s argument.  If universes evolved towards the possession intelligent life as a functionally necessary feature for generating a maximum number of daughter universes, then evolution of intelligent life in such a universe would be a designed (small d) feature of the universe; and this would, by Wright’s argument suport the case that life was Designed on Earth.  Of course, our “higher purpose” would merely be to make more black holes.  I doubt this would satisfy any religious sensibility. However, Smolin’s original speculation does not have this feature.  According to Smolin, the presence of carbon encourages the collapse of nebula into stars, and hence increases the number of black holes.  Thus universes do evolve to produce carbon, which makes them life friendly - but that life friendliness is a Spandrel.  It has no functional role in the propogation of universes.  In that case, biological evolution is not a designed feature of the universe, and Wright’s argument is unsuported.

I think you’re missing the point. Smolin has not claimed there is any actual evidence for his hypothesis, and there is certainly none for the alternate version I suggested (nor do I think it is at all plausible), but all this is irrelevant to my argument. I was just putting this forward as a thought-experiment–the mere fact that we can all agree it’s a coherent idea shows that the analogy between the development of the biosphere and the development of an embryo is not an obviously flawed one, even if we all agree that evolution has proceeded in a completely Darwinian way. So, any discussion of whether the analogy works or not can be framed in terms of the differences between how the development of the biosphere would look in a possible world where the laws of physics had been tailored for intelligence in this way vs. a possible world where they hadn’t, and which possible world more closely resembles what we see in the actual world. For example, Wright’s arguments about trees functioning as a planetary respiration system can be understood in this way–perhaps with slightly different laws photosynthesis wouldn’t be possible and the only multicellular life would be clustered around hydrothermal vents, which would presumably make the development of intelligence a lot more unlikely.

My point is not that I find Wright’s arguments convincing or that I think Smolin’s hypothesis or my own variation on it are at all likely to be true, my point is just that very general arguments against the ontogeny/evolution analogy, such as Dennett’s “Ontogeny is a designed process. Selection is not.” are insufficient to discount it. Since the whole question is whether or not the development of the biosphere shows signs of having been designed, it would be begging the question to simply assume at the outset that because life evolved in a Darwinian manner, that proves that everything about the development of the biosphere is “undesigned”–my thought-experiment was intended to show that there is a possible world where life still evolves in a purely Darwinian way but certain aspects of the development of the biosphere were designed (by natural selection at the level of universes).

To those who have asked (in effect) “why would Wright write such a stupid, sensationalist article?”, see my analysis here. If you watch the entire interview, there’s a discussion starting around 30:00 in where Wright advances a truly incoherent version of epiphenomenalism. Dennett rejects it politely, but when Wright persists, and persists, and persists, Dennett simply destroys him - very professionally, very completely. If I were Wright, I’d be pretty pissed off at how bad Dennett made him look.…

Jesse M wrote:

I think you’re missing the point. Smolin has not claimed there is any actual evidence for his hypothesis, and there is certainly none for the alternate version I suggested (nor do I think it is at all plausible), but all this is irrelevant to my argument. I was just putting this forward as a thought-experiment—the mere fact that we can all agree it’s a coherent idea shows that the analogy between the development of the biosphere and the development of an embryo is not an obviously flawed one, even if we all agree that evolution has proceeded in a completely Darwinian way.

For what it is worth, Smolin does think there is evidence for his theory.

However, if your point was simply that we can construct an analogy between embryogenesis and the history of life, I do not see how your scenario helps the argument. Dennet agrees with Wright that if you “step back and view the history of life in time lapse” there is an analogy between embryogenesis and the history of life. I would also agree, but I would agree also with Dennet that the analogy is only approximate.

Perhaps the problem is that you are unfamiliar with how argument from analogy works. To establish an argument from analogy, you first establish an analogy between the properties of two things. You establish that for the first object, it has properties A, B, C, etc, and that the second object has analogous properties a, b, c, etc. You then argue that because the first object has property Z, the second must also have the analogous property z.

This argument can be deductive, as in arguments from isomorphism in mathematics. More commonly it is inductive. In that case it can be strengthened either by showing that very many properties are analogous between the two objects. Alternatively, it can be strengthened by showing that very many objects with properties analogous to A, B, and C also have properties analogous to Z.

Notably, Wright does neither of these things. He does not extend the analogy to other classes of objects to reinforce his points. Nor does he detail the analogy, showing the large number of properties that are analogous between the two processes. The reason for that is that the analogy breaks down very quickly. This, of course, only shows the argument to be a weak one - not an invalid argument.

The way to counter an argument from analogy is not to insist there is no analogy. That would be futile, for an analogy can be drawn between any two objects if we have a mind to. Nor yet is it to show the large number of disanalogous properties between the two objects. Except in cases of strict identity or isomorphism, such disanalogies will be available in abundance. Rather, it is to show that the known reason for the first object having property Z does not exist in the case of the second object.

That is how Dennet responds to Wright. The crucial disanalogy, so far as we know, between embryogenesis and the history of life, is that embryogenesis is a designed process, whereas the history of life is not. This was the point of the earlier sections of my post.

Since the whole question is whether or not the development of the biosphere shows signs of having been designed, it would be begging the question to simply assume at the outset that because life evolved in a Darwinian manner, that proves that everything about the development of the biosphere is “undesigned”—my thought-experiment was intended to show that there is a possible world where life still evolves in a purely Darwinian way but certain aspects of the development of the biosphere were designed (by natural selection at the level of universes).

Dennet’s conclusion in the interview is not that there is no Design (ie, higher purpose) in the universe. Rather he concludes that Wright has a valid argument, and that all Wright needs do is show that the history of life “moves toward functionality by design” to have a sound one. But Wright cannot do that. I would not want to argue that those (such as Howard van Till and Simon Conway Morris) who think life moves towards functionality be design for religious reasons are irrational. (Quite the contrary.) But I respect them for recognising that the basis for their belief is religious, not scientific - and for not confusing the two.

For what it is worth, Smolin does think there is evidence for his theory.

In the article you link to, Smolin says he believes it is testable (the test is whether, if you changed any properties of elementary particles, it would always decrease the number of black holes formed or if it would sometimes increase it), and he also says “So far, I haven’t found a way to change the properties of the particles and forces to make a universe that makes more black holes, and I have found several changes that decrease their number.” I don’t know if he would call this real rigorous scientific evidence for his hypothesis though, especially since the hypothesis hinges on assumptions about the way a yet-undiscovered theory of quantum gravity would work.

However, if your point was simply that we can construct an analogy between embryogenesis and the history of life, I do not see how your scenario helps the argument.  Dennet agrees with Wright that if you “step back and view the history of life in time lapse” there is an analogy between embryogenesis and the history of life.  I would also agree, but I would agree also with Dennet that the analogy is only approximate.

Perhaps the problem is that you are unfamiliar with how argument from analogy works.  To establish an argument from analogy, you first establish an analogy between the properties of two things.  You establish that for the first object, it has properties A, B, C, etc, and that the second object has analogous properties a, b, c, etc.  You then argue that because the first object has property Z, the second must also have the analogous property z.

The problem is that this abstract description of the argument from analogy does not really capture the specific type of argument from analogy that I think Wright was making. Wright was not merely saying, as you seem to suggest, that because embryos and the biosphere share some similar properties A, B, and C, that this makes it more likely that any other random property Z of an embryo will also be shared by the biosphere–for example, embryos are produced by the mating of two organisms who used to be embryos themselves, but Wright wouldn’t suggest life on earth was started by the mating of two alien biospheres.

Instead, I think Wright is making an argument for a common causal explanation from analogy. Since we know that properties of A, B, and C of the embryo all have a common causal explanation Z (they have been ‘designed’ by natural selection to grow in such a way that they will become functional adults), then if we also see similar properties A’, B’, and C’ in the biosphere, Wright takes that to increase the likelihood that something similar to Z will also explain why we see all these features in the biosphere. Dennett’s response, as I understand it, is to say we already know the causal explanation for features A’, B’, and C’ in the biosphere, and that it is anything like Z. Because we know that life on the biosphere has evolved by random mutation and natural selection, and because we know that this is a “blind” opportunistic process with no foresight, then the fact that RM&NS caused features A’, B’, and C’ to develop in the biosphere cannot have anything to do with some final endstate that is the “goal” as in ontogeny. This, I think, is what he meant when he said “Ontogeny is a designed process. Selection is not.” It also seems to be what you meant when you said “he crucial disanalogy, so far as we know, between embryogenesis and the history of life, is that embryogenesis is a designed process, whereas the history of life is not.”

But my thought-experiment shows that this is not a valid refutation of the idea that features of the evolving biosphere have a similar causal explanation as features of the developing embryo. In my thought-experiment, life also evolves entirely due to the blind, opportunistic process of RM&NS, but the “foresight” lies in the laws of physics themselves, which have been fine-tuned to channel evolution by RM&NS in certain preferred directions, in order to maximize the probability that the biosphere will reach a certain endstate (I gave the example earlier of a universe where the laws of chemistry were different in such a way that photosynthesis wouldn’t work, which would surely make it far less likely that life evolving by RM&NS would ever develop human-level intelligence). This shows that merely pointing out that life in our world has evolved by the blind process of RM&NS in not relevant to refuting the claim that the various properties A’, B’, C’ of the biosphere which are similar to properties A, B, C in the embryo have similar causal explanations Z’ and Z (i.e., they were ‘designed’ to reach a certain preferred endstate).

Dennet’s conclusion in the interview is not that there is no Design (ie, higher purpose) in the universe.  Rather he concludes that Wright has a valid argument, and that all Wright needs do is show that the history of life “moves toward functionality by design” to have a sound one.  But Wright cannot do that.  I would not want to argue that those (such as Howard van Till and Simon Conway Morris) who think life moves towards functionality be design for religious reasons are irrational.  (Quite the contrary.)  But I respect them for recognising that the basis for their belief is religious, not scientific - and for not confusing the two.

I don’t think Wright ever claimed that his argument from analogy constituted “scientific” evidence for design, I thought it was more of a philosophical argument. If you remember any quotes suggesting otherwise, please provide them.

Jesse M wrote:

In the article you link to, Smolin says he believes it is testable …, and he also says “So far, I haven’t found a way to change the properties of the particles and forces to make a universe that makes more black holes, and I have found several changes that decrease their number.” I don’t know if he would call this real rigorous scientific evidence for his hypothesis though …

He does, in another article, call his theory scientific because it is testable. (From this, I presume he is a Popperian.) A testable theory that passes some tests has evidence in its favour, so I think Smolin would say there is scientific evidence for his theory, though I doubt he would call it “rigourous” evidence.

Personally I think testability (as understood by Lakatos) is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a theory to be scientific, so I do not consider Smolin’s hypothesis to be science, though it is an emperical hypothesis. Further, I think the real test of Smolin’s theory depends on a difference between an ideal world for life, and an ideal world for black hole production. Absent such a difference, there can be no evidence for Smolin’s theory that is not equally evidence for creation be a supernatural being (and vice versa). If, as seem likely, there is such a difference, then Smolin’s theory makes different predictions from a theory of creation, which would be interesting.

Instead, I think Wright is making an argument for a common causal explanation from analogy. Since we know that properties of A, B, and C of the embryo all have a common causal explanation Z (they have been ‘designed’ by natural selection to grow in such a way that they will become functional adults), then if we also see similar properties A’, B’, and C’ in the biosphere, Wright takes that to increase the likelihood that something similar to Z will also explain why we see all these features in the biosphere.

If Wright’s argument is an argument from analogy, then my point holds. Wright argues that embryogenesis has properties A, B, C and Z (ie, the property of A, B, and C being causally explained by Z). By analogy, therefore, the history of life which has properties A’, B’, and C’ should also have property Z’. Thus understood, Dennet’s rebutal is sufficient. To be explicit, Dennet’s rebutal has the form - embryogenesis has the properties A, B, C, but also D, and property D => property Z. The history of life has not been shown to have property D’, so we are not justified to infer Z’ from A’, B’, and C’.

Alternatively, we could treat Wright’s argument as not being an analogy at all, but rather being an inference to best explanation. That would be an unusual, but not impossible interpretation. IF his argument is an inference to best explanation, then the discussion to embryogenesis is illustrative only, and not an essential part of the argument.

However, as an inference to best explanation, Wright’s argument would not be inovative at all. Rather it would be an obscure way of presenting the “fine tuning” argument. This is because it is only the parameters of physical constants that a designer (or designing process) can adjust to make natural selection work. You cannot have a universe with exactly our physical laws (at the level of physics) and not have natural selection work.

I don’t think Wright ever claimed that his argument from analogy constituted “scientific” evidence for design, I thought it was more of a philosophical argument. If you remember any quotes suggesting otherwise, please provide them.

Wright, around the second minute of the clip, suggests that there is evidence that evolution is a designed process. At the end, having declared victory, he concludes that it is now at least an emperical question as to whether this is the case. It is clear, therefore, that he thinks it is at least an emperical question. It does not automatically follow from that that he thinks it is a scientific issue - but it does mean he leans more in that direction than van Till or Conway Morris.

Alternatively, we could treat Wright’s argument as not being an analogy at all, but rather being an inference to best explanation.  That would be an unusual, but not impossible interpretation.  IF his argument is an inference to best explanation, then the discussion to embryogenesis is illustrative only, and not an essential part of the argument.

I’m trying to understand your classification of arguments here–what about an “inference to best explanation” that depends entirely on an analogy? For example, suppose we visit an alien planet and find that a particular species occasionally is seen to become less mobile and experience respiratory difficulties, loss of appetite, and unusual fluctuations in body temperature. We also see that members of this species are more likely to have this happen to them when they have recently been in the proximity of other members who are already exhibiting these symptoms. Even without knowing anything about the biology of this world, we might say that the parallels with human diseases like the flu are close enough to provide weak evidence that these symptoms are caused by some type of contagious microorganism. Would you call this an example of an “inference to best explanation” and not an “argument from analogy”? If so, would you also say that any discussion of earthly diseases like the flu “is illustrative only, and not an essential part of the argument”? It seems to me that if we know absolutely nothing about the biology of this world, the analogy does play a pretty central role in our inference about the cause of the aliens’ symptoms.

However, as an inference to best explanation, Wright’s argument would not be inovative at all.  Rather it would be an obscure way of presenting the “fine tuning” argument.  This is because it is only the parameters of physical constants that a designer (or designing process) can adjust to make natural selection work.  You cannot have a universe with exactly our physical laws (at the level of physics) and not have natural selection work.

From Wright’s arguments it seemed likely to me that he was just presenting a new take on the “fine tuning” argument. Since he has stated clearly that he does believe that life on earth has evolved entirely by random mutation and natural selection, I don’t think he’s arguing that there’s any force controlling the course of biological evolution, just that the laws of nature were set up in such a way to make it probable that unguided darwinian evolution would take certain preferred trajectories.

I’m trying to understand your classification of arguments here—what about an “inference to best explanation” that depends entirely on an analogy?

I do not think there can be such a thing. Taking your example, if we thought that human diseases resulted from the activity of evil spirits, we would apply the analogy and conclude the aliens were also afflicted by evil spirits. The point is that your example is an argument from analogy, and not an inference to best explanation. Now, it is true that our belief in the existance of communicable diseases is a result of inference to best explanation (according to many philosophers of science). But that is not relevant to the argument as presented. It could equally have been formed by acceptance of authority (as it is for most people). That would not effect the inductive validity of the analogy, although as the “evil spirits” illustrates, it may effect its soundness.

I do not think there can be such a thing.  Taking your example, if we thought that human diseases resulted from the activity of evil spirits, we would apply the analogy and conclude the aliens were also afflicted by evil spirits.  The point is that your example is an argument from analogy, and not an inference to best explanation.  Now, it is true that our belief in the existance of communicable diseases is a result of inference to best explanation (according to many philosophers of science).  But that is not relevant to the argument as presented.  It could equally have been formed by acceptance of authority (as it is for most people).  That would not effect the inductive validity of the analogy, although as the “evil spirits” illustrates, it may effect its soundness.

It seems to me that you are artificially breaking the argument in two, and saying that because neither half alone is enough to draw any conclusions about the cause of the alien disease, this somehow proves that combining them won’t be enough either. But I don’t see what’s wrong with saying the justification for the inference about the cause of the alien symptoms involves both the analogy with similar symptoms in humans and the fact that we used an “inference to best explanation” to arrive at our knowledge of the cause of these symptoms in humans. Of course it’s true that if our belief about the cause of human diseases was based only on authority, we would have less justification for concluding anything about the causes of the alien disease, but that’s irrelevant, the scenario I put forth wasn’t intended to take place in some alternate universe where humans lack scientific knowledge about the causes of disease.

It seems to me that you are artificially breaking the argument in two, and saying that because neither half alone is enough to draw any conclusions about the cause of the alien disease, this somehow proves that combining them won’t be enough either.

I do not think it is an artificial break. You have an argument from analogy, ie, that case 1 has properties a, b, c, and z; that case 2 has properties a’, b’, c’; and you conclude that case 2 has property z’. That is fine, and probably a good argument. As it happens, you have established that z by an inference to best explanation. That does not make the analogy a variant of inference to best explanation, for the analogy would have been equally valid had you established that z by authority, or enumerative induction, or Popperian confirmation. I had hoped I had illustrated this point by modifying the example so that the analogy was unsound because it falsely attributed property y in case 1, and inferred property y’ in case 2 as a result. The analogy would have had equal validity in this case, for as an analogical argument, it is distinct from the arguments used to establish the premises.

Now, you may think your example is not an analogical argument, but rather an inference to best explanation, whose primary move is justified by an analogy. The reasoning, I presume goes something like this:

In humans, they sometimes get diseases with properties a, b, c, etc. The best explanation of this is a contagious micro-organism (property z). The aliens also get diseases with properties a’, b’, c’ etc. Therefore by analogy, the best explanation of the alien diseases is a contagious micro-organism (property z’). Therefore, by inference to best explanation aliens have diseases caused by contagious micro-organisms.

The problem with parsing the argument this way is that it merely deffers the inference to best explanation. If that inference is warranted at the conclusion, it was certainly warranted to conclude that contagious micro-organisms are, not just the best explanation of, but the true explanation of the human disease. There is, therefore, no reason not to use this stronger premise in the analogy - which then reduces to the case discussed above of an argument from analogy, one of whose premises is justified by inference to best explanation.

I am unsure how else I could parse the argument so that it was an inference to best explanation of which an analogy was an essential component.

It seems to me that you are artificially breaking the argument in two, and saying that because neither half alone is enough to draw any conclusions about the cause of the alien disease, this somehow proves that combining them won’t be enough either.

I am not sure why you draw this conclusion. As far as I was concerned, the analogy was a good one - and in that context would justify beleif that the aliens were afflicted with communicable diseases. Probably I did not express myself clearly enough, for which sorry. I will try again.

It seems to me that the argument you present is just an argument from analogy. It incorporates an inference to best explanation in that our beleif that certain human diseases are caused by contagious micro-organisms results from an inference to best explanation. But this just means that one of the premises of the analogy was established by inference to best explanation, not that this is an inference to best explanation that incorporates an analogy as a necessary feature. It is not even an analogy that incorporates an inference to best explanation as a necessary feature. The analogy is “inductively strong”, and would be “inductively strong” even if it was unsound, ie, one of its premises was false. I illustrated this point with my discussion of evil spirits. The parallel argument to evil spirits afflicting the aliens is as inductively strong an analogy as was yours, but did not involve an inference to best explanation. Alternatively, we could retain the same premise (infectious micro-organisms) but assume we know humans are afflicted by infectious micro-organisms by strong Popperian confirmation (as some philosophers of science do believe). Your analogy would be equally inductively strong, and sound but not involve inference to best explanation.

You may not think this argument counters your claim, for you claimed it was an inference to best explanation with an analogy as an essential component, and not the reverse. I can think of two ways you could try to incorporate an analogy in an inference to best explanation.

First, were you have an inductively strong analogy between cases 1 and 2, and that case 1 has property z (ie, the property we infer in case 2 by analogy) was established by inference to best explanation, you could use a weaker premise in the analogy. Specifically you could argue that case 1 has properties a, b, c, etc, and the property that “z is the best explanation of properties a, b, c, etc.” You then argue by analogy that case 2 has the property of that “z’ is the best explanation of properties a’, b’, c’ etc.”, and finally make an inference to best explanation to the claim that case 2 has property z’. But, whenever you argue this way, you are in the position to use the stronger premise in case 1, which reduces the argument to the form previously discussed of an analogy where one premise is established by inference to best explanation. Using the weaker premise does not strengthen the argument. It merely makes it confusing.

The second way to incorporate an analogy in an inference to best explanation actually weakens the argument. We might have a situation with properties a, b, and c. We then use analogy to argue that the situation must also have property d, and that its also having property z is the best explanation of its having properties a, b, c, and d. Now, suppose we have a rival explanation z’. There are two interesting cases. z is a better explanation of a, b, and c then is z’; or z’ is a better explanation of properties a, b and c than is z. In the first instance the analogy is redundant, for we have a perfectly good inference to best explanation without it. In the second case, however, it is much worse. The proponents of z’ will rightly claim is that what needs to be explained is a, b and c, not a, b, c and d. Therefore their explanation is better. Further, the fact that their explanation is better undercuts the analogy. It is true that the proponents of z can reinforce their case by independantly showing the existance of property d, but having done that, the analogy becomes redundant again. The analogy becomes important in the history of investigation, but is not itself evidence for the final conclusions.

I hope this fuller, and more complete, explanation of my view helps you.

I do not think it is an artificial break.  You have an argument from analogy, ie, that case 1 has properties a, b, c, and z; that case 2 has properties a’, b’, c’; and you conclude that case 2 has property z’.  That is fine, and probably a good argument.  As it happens, you have established that z by an inference to best explanation.  That does not make the analogy a variant of inference to best explanation, for the analogy would have been equally valid had you established that z by authority, or enumerative induction, or Popperian confirmation.  I had hoped I had illustrated this point by modifying the example so that the analogy was unsound because it falsely attributed property y in case 1, and inferred property y’ in case 2 as a result.  The analogy would have had equal validity in this case, for as an analogical argument, it is distinct from the arguments used to establish the premises.

OK, I see my misunderstanding now. I was using “valid” in a vague untechnical way, as a sort of synonym for “reasonable”, but I remember now that technically a “valid argument” has nothing to do with the likeliness that any of the premises are actually correct–that’s the issue of “soundness”. So can I presume you agree that the argument about the cause of the alien symptoms is more sound if we used an inference to best explanation to arrive at our knowledge of the cause of similar symptoms in humans, rather than an argument from authority?

Even if so, I’m still inclined to say your abstract definition of the argument from analogy is too general to capture why the argument for alien microorganisms is a plausible one. Consider the following argument from analogy: a 1960 red corvette and an apple share a number of properties, like redness, shininess, being found on the surface of planet earth, being solid, melting if dropped into hot lava, and being able to roll down hills. Therefore, since we know apples are good to eat, we should conclude red corvettes are too. Now this is just as valid an argument from analogy as the alien microorganism one, and all the premises are perfectly sound, but somehow the argument as a whole seems a lot less plausible. It could be that the only reason for this is because we already know too much about apples and corvettes–maybe to an intelligent baby who knows nothing about plant grown or car manufacture it might not seem so implausible. But I think it may also have to do with the fact that in one case we are simply picking random traits of the corvette and the apple, while in the other case we are looking at a cluster of features (respiratory difficulties, loss of appetite, contagiousness) that “naturally” seem to go together, and using our knowledge of the common cause of these features to infer something about the common cause of a similar constellation of features in the aliens, as opposed to just taking some other random feature associated with human disease and inferring it is likely to be present in the aliens as well (for example, it is also a feature of many human diseases that they cause us to spend more time in bed, but without knowing whether the alien race even sleeps it would not be so reasonable to conclude this was also true of the aliens who were exhibiting all the other symptoms).

Even if so, I’m still inclined to say your abstract definition of the argument from analogy is too general to capture why the argument for alien microorganisms is a plausible one. … Now this is just as valid an argument from analogy as the alien microorganism one, and all the premises are perfectly sound, but somehow the argument as a whole seems a lot less plausible.

This is as valid an argument from analogy as the alien micro-organism argument (with a quibble to be mentioned later). It is also fundamentally misleading. There is no problem with this, for we have here an inductive argument, and sometimes inductive arguments will lead you astray. An inductively strong argument will only rarely lead you astray, but it still may do so. It is, however, interesting to consider why this particular argument leads us astray.

It could be that the only reason for this is because we already know too much about apples and corvettes—maybe to an intelligent baby who knows nothing about plant grown or car manufacture it might not seem so implausible. But I think it may also have to do with the fact that in one case we are simply picking random traits of the corvette and the apple, while in the other case we are looking at a cluster of features (respiratory difficulties, loss of appetite, contagiousness) that “naturally” seem to go together, and using our knowledge of the common cause of these features to infer something about the common cause of a similar constellation of features in the aliens, as opposed to just taking some other random feature associated with human disease and inferring it is likely to be present in the aliens as well (for example, it is also a feature of many human diseases that they cause us to spend more time in bed, but without knowing whether the alien race even sleeps it would not be so reasonable to conclude this was also true of the aliens who were exhibiting all the other symptoms).

The first and most immediate point is that the list of corvette and apple traits was not random. If you took a list of corvette traits, and a list of apple traits, pairing them according to similarity but such that every corvette trait is paired to an apple trait, and then picked six paired traits at random, it is very unlikely that you would get six pairs of similar traits. Indeed, you would be unlikely to get even one pairing of similar traits. You have been able to come up with an example of an analogy with a false conclusion, not because of a weakness in the argument from analogy, but because you cherry picked your traits for failure.

An argument from analogy is an unusual sort of inductive argument. It can be broken, more or less cleanly, into two parts. The second part is a deductive argument from (partial) isomorphism as appears in mathematics. The first part is a straight forward enumerative induction to establish the isomorphism. (I am pretty sure some people would be unhappy with this characterisation, but it certainly helps understand what is going on.) Because the first part is an enumerative induction, it is strengthened, or weakened in exactly the ways of any enumerative induction. Increase the number of paired properties and the induction becomes stronger, increase the number of cases with similarly paired properties and the induction becomes stronger. But all this assumes that the properties over which the induction are made are a fair sample. If we have reason to believe it is not a fair sample, all bets are of. We are no longer warrented in drawing any conclusion from the sample. (This is my quibble. If your sample had been chosen randomly, it would have been an inductively strong argument that unfortunately mislead. As it happens, there was a strong selection bias, which renders the argument inductively weak in the extreme. Because we know so many things about apples and corvettes, we know your sample was not random, and so that the argument was inductively weak.)

What about the alien micro-organisms? Is their list of traits random? In a way it is. If you took a list of the traits of the alien “dysfunctional” state and paired them with traits of a human dysfunctional state, then randomly selected pairings of traits, it seems likely there would be a lot of similar traits. More importantly, if we knew that such a procedure was unlikely to result in many similar pairings of traits, that would give us a strong reason to distrust the analogy. If we imagine the scientist observing the aliens, we can suppose her to draw up a list of the symptons of the dysfunction. We might imagine her then noticing an analogy between many, or all of these symptons and those of a human disease. That correlation is effectively random, in that she had no prior reason to expect it. If, however, she had a list of alien symptons and selected only those closely correlated to human symptons to make her analogy, we would distrust her analogy for exactly the same reasons as we distrust the corvette/apple analogy.

I might add that Wright’s analogy between embryogenesis and the history of life has more than a hint of cherry picking of traits.

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This page contains a single entry by Timothy Sandefur published on October 8, 2004 3:18 PM.

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