Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Human Nature and Belief, Part 1

Day Three
Wednesday morning, July 8th

What a great way to start my birthday! The morning session was started by Daniel Dennett, philosopher at Tufts University and author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Freedom Evolves, and Breaking the Spell. Dan also has been one of my favorite thinkers and writers ever since I was a grad student at Stonybrook University and George Williams passed on his advanced review copy of Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

I've seen Dan speak three times now, and I think this was my favorite of the bunch. When I ran into Dan on the first day of the festival, I asked him if I could have a picture taken with him . He graciously posed with me (see above) then commented, "I bet you didn't expect Darwin himself to be here." He must have thought that was the only reason I was asking for a picture, but I assured him that I knew who he was, and it was Dennett I wanted a picture with, not Darwin.

Dan's talk was entitled Darwin and the Evolution of Why: The Evolution of Reasons. He began by talking about the pre-Darwin "trickle-down theory of creation" and the replacement with Darwin's "bubble-up theory" which was in the words of a Darwin critic a "strange inversion of reasoning", where understanding is actually the effect, not the cause.

He gave some really cool examples of natural artifacts that show this inversion: Difflugia coronata is an amoeba that builds a beautiful shell out of sand; also the caddisfly larva that builds an ingenious food sieve that looks just like a human-made lobster trap; and the behaviour of a cuckoo chick that pushes out the nest the true offspring of its adoptive parents: "competence without comprehension".

He went on to discuss viruses ("nucleic acid with attitude"), glossogenetic trees of language, and Richard Dawkins' theory of memes. He concluded that we humans are the "first intelligent designers in the tree of life". Originally God was supposed to have created everything, but ever since Darwin's theory of natural selection, there has been less and less need for the direct role of a god in actual creation. According to Dan, since God's role has continually been diminished, all that is left is "a God that plays air guitar...and that's lame".

Some other choice quotes that came up during the question and answer period: "religion can gracefully retreat from science". When asked about religion's freedom to "make things up", Dan replied "it makes things up...and also makes them down". He also compared theologians to Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat, when their reasons and explanations keep disappearing, all that is finally left "is a comforting smile".

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