Is it legitimate for Darwinians to use language denoting purpose when speaking of evolution?

Richard Hoste writes:

You always accuse those of us who talk about evolution of wrongly injecting purpose into a process that we claim is purposeless. [LA replies: You would be more precise if instead of saying, “those of us who talk about evolution,” you said, “those of us who support the Darwinian explanation of evolution.”] In his book, Kinds of Minds, Daniel Dennett explains why we do so and why our language is not incompatible with a blind, meaningless process. He first differentiates between the physical stance (talking about a rock falling to the ground—purposeless, with the laws of physics), the design stance and intentional stance. The last two are explained in the following passage:

[LA notes: the Dennett passage is extremely long. If you want to skip it for the moment, Mr. Hoste’s commentary resumes below.]

Alarm clocks, being designed objects, (unlike the rock), are also amenable to a fancier style of predictions—prediction from the design stance. The design stance is a wonderful shortcut, which we all use all the time. Suppose someone gives me a new digital alarm clock. It is a make and model quite novel to me, but a brief examination of its exterior buttons and displays convinces me that if I depress a few buttons just so, then some hours later the alarm clock will make a loud noise. I don’t know what kind of noise it will be, but it will be sufficient to awaken me. I don’t need to work out the specific physical laws that explain this marvelous regularity; I don’t need to take the thing apart, weighing its parts and measuring the voltages. I simply assume that it has a particular design—the design we call an alarm clock—and that it will function properly, as designed …

Design-stance predictions are riskier than physical-stance predictions, because of the extra assumptions I have to take on board: that an entity is designed as I suppose it to be, and that it will operate according to the design—that is, it will not malfunction … we all routinely risk our lives on design-stance predictions: we unhesitatingly plug in and turn on electrical appliances that could kill us if miswired; we voluntarily step into buses we know will soon accelerate us to lethal speeds; we calmly press buttons in elevators we have never been in before.

Design-stance prediction works wonderfully on well-designed artifacts, but it also works wonderfully on Mother Nature’s artifacts—living things and their parts. Long before the physics and chemistry of plant growth and reproduction were understood, our ancestors quite literally bet their lives on the reliability of their design-stance knowledge of what seeds were supposed to do when planted. If I press a few seeds into the ground just so, then in a few months, with a modicum of further care from me, there will be food here to eat.

We have seen that design-stance predictions are risky, compared with physical-stance predictions (which are safe but tedious to work out), and an even riskier and swifter stance is the intentional stance. It can be viewed, if you like, as a subspecies of the design stance, in which the designed thing is an agent of sorts. Suppose we apply it to the alarm clock. The alarm clock is my servant; if I command it to wake me up, by giving it to understand a particular time of awakening, I can rely on its internal ability to perceive when that time has arrived and dutifully executed the action it has promised. As soon as it comes to believe that the time for noise is NOW, it will be “motivated,” thanks to my earlier instructions, to act accordingly. No doubt the alarm clock is so simple that this fanciful anthropomorphism is, strictly speaking, unnecessary for our understanding of why it does what it does—but notice that this is how we might explain to a child how to use an alarm clock: “You tell it when you want it to wake you up, and it remembers to do so, by making a loud noise.”

Adoption of the intentional stance is more useful—indeed, well-nigh obligatory—when the artifact in question is much more complicated than an alarm clock [like a living thing, doing what it was “designed” to do- RH]. My favorite example is a chess-playing computer. There are hundreds of different computer programs that can turn a computer, whether it’s a laptop or a supercomputer, into a chess player. For all their differences at the physical level and the deign level, these computers all succumb neatly to the same simple strategy of interpretation: just think of them as rational agents who want to win, and who know the rules and principles of chess and the positions of the pieces on the board. Instantly your problem of predicting and interpreting their behavior is made vastly easier than it would be if you tried to use the physical or the design stance. At any moment in the chess game, simply look at the chessboard and draw up a list of all the legal moves available to the computer when it is its turn to play (there will usually be several dozen candidates). Why restrict yourself to legal moves? Because, you reason, it wants to play winning chess and knows that it must make only legal moves to win, so, being rational, it restricts itself to these. Now rank the legal moves from best (wisest, most rational) to worst (stupidest, most self-defeating) and make your prediction: the computer will make the best move. You may well not be sure what the best move is (the computer may “appreciate” the situation better than you do!), but you can almost always eliminate all but four or five candidate moves, which still gives you tremendous predictive leverage/

Sometimes, when the computer finds itself in a tough predicament, with only one nonsuicidal move to make (a “forced” move), you can predict its move with supreme confidence. Nothing about the laws of physics forces this move and nothing about the specific design of the computer forces this move. The move is forced by the overwhelmingly good reasons for making it and not any other move. Any chess player, composed of whatever physical materials, would make it. Even a ghost or angel would make it! You come up with your intentional-stance prediction on the basis of your bold assumption that no matter how the computer program has been designed, it has been designed well enough to be moved by such a good reason. You predict its behavior as if it were a rational agent.

The intentional stance is undeniably a useful shortcut in such a case, but how seriously should we take it? What does a computer care, really, about whether it wins or loses? Why say that the alarm clock desires to obey its master? We can use this contrast between natural and artificial goals to heighten our appreciation of the fact that all real goals ultimately spring from the predicament of a living, self-protective thing. But we must also recognize that the intentional stance works (when it does) whether or not the attributed goals are genuine or natural or “really appreciated” by the so-called agent, and this tolerance is crucial to understanding how genuine goal-seeking could be established in the first place. Does the macromolecule really want to replicate itself? The intentional stance explains what is going on, regardless of how we answer the question. Consider a simple organism-say, a planarian or an amoeba-moving non-randomly across the bottom of a laboratory dish, always heading to the nutrient-rich end of the dish, or away from the toxic end. The organism is seeking the good, or shunning the bad—its own good and bad, not those of some human artifact-user. Seeking one’s own good is a fundamental feature of any rational agent, but are these simple organisms seeking or just “seeking?” We don’t need to answer that question. The organism is a predictable intentional system in either case …

Is this then a misapplication of our own perspective, the perspective we mind-havers share? Not necessarily. From the vantage point of evolutionary history, this is what has happened: Over billions of years, organisms gradually evolved, accumulating ever more versatile machinery designed to further their ever more complex and articulated goods. Eventually, with the evolution in our species of language and the varieties of reflectiveness that language permits (a topic for later chapters), we emerged with the ability to winder the wonders with which we began this book—wonders about the minds of other entities … These wonders, naively conducted by our ancestors, led to animism … As we became more sophisticated … we gradually withdrew the intentional stance from what we call inanimate nature, reserving it for things like us … We still “trick” flowers into blooming prematurely by prematurely “deceiving” them with artificial spring warmth and light, and “encourage” vegetables to send down longer roots by withholding from them the water they want so badly. (A logger once explained to me how he knew we would find no white pines among the trees in some high ground in my forest-“Pines like to keep their feet wet.”) This way of thinking about plants is not only natural and harmless but positively an aid to comprehension and an important lever for discovery. When biologists discover that a plant has some rudimentary discriminatory organ, they immediately ask themselves what the organ is for—what devious project does the plant have that requires it to obtain information from its environment on this topic? Very often the answer is an important scientific discovery.

Intentional systems are, by definition, all and only those entities whose behavior is predictable/explicable from the intentional stance. Self-replicating macromolecules, thermostats, amoebas, plants, rats, bats, people, and chess-playing computers are all intentional systems—some much more interesting than others.

[end of Dennett passage]

There you have it. Try to talk about your chess playing computer without attributing to it motives and desires. Language is a tool used to explain, and the kind of language we use about science is useful as far as it can do that and make predictions. Taking the physical stance when talking about living things would be like describing physical reactions at the mechanical level inside a computer when it’s playing chess. Computer programmers attribute purpose to their machines as biologists do when talking about their machines (us) for practical reasons.

LA replies

What a gas bag Dennett is. All those words, to say so little!

The fact that it may be convenient and natural, when speaking of a chess playing computer which is DESIGNED TO ACT LIKE A PERSON PLAYING CHESS, to speak of it as though it were performing intentional acts, does not justify the constant use of Orwellian doublespeak by Darwinians whereby they use purpose-type language to speak of a process they say is radically lacking any purpose.

Richard Hoste repies:

The principle is the same. The passage was about complicated entities and systems needing the language of purpose for the sake of practicality. The point isn’t that the chess game is designed by a creator and humans (we believe) aren’t. How would you speak about evolution if you were convinced it were true?

LA replies:

“How would you speak about evolution if you were convinced it were true?”

Exactly the way I’ve done it a hundred times, the way I do it every single time I talk about evolution according to the Darwinian view: I use precise language that describes evolution exactly as the theory itself describes it:

random accidental bad copies of genes naturally selected.

Or to boil it down even more:

material accidents that survive better than other material accidents … (repeat a billion billion times)

For Darwinians to use, as I said above, “purpose-type language to speak of a process they say is radically lacking any purpose,” is fundamentally dishonest. More. It is an act of theft, whereby an entity, in this case Darwinian evolution by random mutations and natural selection, is treated as having and bestowing a property that it does not possess.

The very core of the Darwinian enterprise, its excitement and its salvific quality to modern materialist people (salvific in that they felt that it saved them from God), was that it provided a non-design way to explain things that to human sense seem eminently designed, that it provided a radically non-teleological way of explaining biological phenomona that seem, to all intents and purposes (pun intended), to be steeped up to their eyeballs (further intentional wordplay) in teleology. So when Dennett and you make the argument you’re making, you are simply replicating and echoing the initiating impulse of Darwinism itself. You are not standing outside Darwinism and looking at it objectively to test whether it is true. You are using a Darwinian-slanted reasoning process (that is, reasoning which assumes that you can get a designed-looking and purposeful-looking universe out of a random, non-purposeful process) to justify the use of language that makes Darwinism seem more acceptable. That’s not acceptable.

Richard replies:

Hmmm..I just turned to a random page of Dawkins’ Selfish Gene. Translate this into how you think we should talk about evolution. If you think the whole thing is meaningless say so.

However independent and free genes may be in their journey through the generations, they are very much not free and independent agents in their control of embryonic developments. They collaborate and interact in inextricably complex ways, both with each other, and with the external environment … There is no gene which single-handedly builds a leg, long or short. Building a leg is a multi-gene cooperative exercise….

As far as a gene is concerned, its alleles are its deadly rivals, but other genes are just a part of its environment, comparable to temperature, food, predators or companions.

LA replies:

I see what you’re getting at. Let me put it this way. If one type of molecule, say a certain RNA molecule, is controlling what happens in a certain protein, I suppose it’s acceptable to use a word like “control” in that situation, because (1) the use of the word “control” is highly specific and local; (2) it’s not attributing some overall purpose to genes or to the organism or evolution; (3) the word “control” does not necessarily denote intent; we could say, for example, that certain chemicals “control” the operation of other chemicals, without implying intent; and (4) there may be no other convenient language.

The problem is that the evolutionary scientists do not limit their use of intention-denoting language to appropriate contexts in the manner I’ve just described; they use it all over the place, without restraint, with an imperial swagger. They constantly speak, for example, about organisms seeking to “spread their genes,” when according to their own science, organisms have no purpose whatsoever and are totally determined by the genes that they have inherited. .

We see a further example of such imperial overreach in the Dawkins passage you quote:

“[Genes] collaborate and interact in inextricably complex ways.”

Now we could certainly speak of genes “interacting”; even the simplest inorganic molecules interact in highly complex ways. But to say that genes “collaborate” suggests intention and mind. It makes the genes sound like a team of architects and engineers working together on a big project, maybe sending out for a Chinese dinner while they work through the evening. Dawkins thus makes the unbelievable—the process by which new genes or alleles randomly come into being and are naturally selected because of their ability to perform new and staggeringly complex tasks—seem believable to the human mind by making genes sound like human agents. And that is an act of theft, meaning an act whereby an entity (in this case a gene) is given something (in this case a collaborating purpose) which it doesn’t rightfully possess. It is dishonest and unacceptable.

So, if your argument is one of necessity, i.e., that it’s impossible to discuss certain phenomena without language that sounds to some degree as though it were attributing intention to material molecules, the problem with the argument is that the Darwinians constantly use such language when it is not legitimately necessary; They use it out of habit, they use it out of intellectual laziness, and most of all they use it to make evolution of new life forms by Darwinian processes seem somehow inevitable. They state that the process of evolution has no purpose or direction whatsoever, and they treat this process as though it were virtually bound to happen. This doublethink is present throughout the Darwinian literature. And it is fundamentally dishonest.

LA continues:

Further clarification is needed. I am not denying the purposeful quality of life. Obviously, organisms perform myriad purposeful functions. The lungs carry out the purpose of transmitting oxygen to the blood, the heart has the function of circulating blood through the body and so on. These life functions exist, and they are there for a purpose. So there’s no problem in speaking of living things in terms of organs and molecules fulfilling a purpose—which is, maintaining the life of the organism.

But the functioning of molecules and organs and organic systems is not what evolution is about. Evolution is about HOW those molecules and organs and organic systems and the organisms that they are a part of came into being. Evolution asks, HOW do living systems that carry out millions of purposeful tasks exist to begin with. Darwinism says they exist as a result of billions and billions of material accidents that survived better than other material accidents. And when Darwinians attribute purpose to this purposeless process of evolution, that is where they go wrong. But they need to do this, because they are stuck with a contradiction that they cannot escape, namely that it’s inherently impossible that organisms whose bodies carry out millions of highly purposeful functions came into being by a radically purposeless process. And that’s why the Darwinians don’t confine the use of teleological language to the area where such language is appropriate—the description of organic functions. They apply it to Darwinian evolution itself. Because without the covering of teleological language, the impossibility of Darwinian evolution stands stark naked before our eyes.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 11, 2009 08:16 PM | Send

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