Robert Wright wrestles with Daniel Dennet

Robert Wright’s Non-Zero is in many respects an excellent book. He nails the very difficult idea that evolution has produced ever increasing complexity on earth: one celled life, multi-cellular life, biosphere, tribal culture and modern worldwide culture. He gets it right that this complexity only occurs because it has evolved the means to survive and maintain itself. This usually involves some trickery with the second law of thermodynamics where a little increase in order here is paid for with a larger increase in disorder there. In cultural situations it involves situations as described by non-zero sum games where strategies of win/win provide the resources required to maintain and propel society.

The only thing I might take issue with is his last chapter where he seems to make a pitch that there is something spooky about this stupendous abundance of complex designs. Although he remains metaphorical he seems to hint at some kind of divine purpose behind it all. If one can shrug that off his book offers much insight into the power and beauty of Darwinian processes.

 Unfortunately for Robert Wright he is not about to shrug it off. Even though there is no evidence for or rational explanation of a divine purpose that doesn’t mean many don’t long for it. Robert Wright seems to be one of these.

 On his website,, he makes available videos of his interviews with prominent intellectuals and although I have not watched them all, I get the impression they lean to a theme of him attempting to badger his guest into some kind of a concession of the issue of there being a divine purpose. Perhaps the interview having brought him most fame was the one conducted with Daniel Dennett. Dennet is one of the world’s foremost philosophers, an atheist and has always argued forcefully against the possibility of divine purpose. Throughout the course of this ten minute interview Wright tries various convoluted arguments to persuade Dennett of the possibility that the evidence at least doesn’t totally rule out divine purpose. At the end Dennett seems to agree to something but the argument has become so Jesuitical that I couldn’t figure out what exactly was at issue.

 Wright claims that in the interview Dennet admits ‘that life on earth shows signs of having a higher purpose’. Dennett says he did no such thing but Wright is triumphant. Although he concedes that getting Dennett to say the words was ‘a little like pulling teeth’ he none the less thinks that getting those words out of him constitutes a ‘minor intellectual milestone’. Well I for one will just have to accept that if Dennett still professes non-belief in divine purpose then he in fact remains a non-believer in divine purpose.

A more interesting question is why Wright is so desperate for Dennett to proclaim the existence of divine purpose? Well firstly because he desperately wants to be living in such a universe. Secondly Dennett’s views on evolution might be confusing to some. Dennett does believe in design and he does believe that purpose can be seen throughout evolutionary creation in the sense that ‘the purpose of an organism is to get its genes into the next generation’. Within philosophy Dennett champions ‘intentional stance’ explanations. He argues that many natural mechanisms can be best understood as being designed for a purpose, by seeing them as having intentions. However he is clear that this design, that this purpose, is totally constructed by a simple Darwinian mindless and intention-less processes. However when one listens to Wright’s comments regarding ‘hope for a higher purpose’ and ‘divinity’ one assumes that it is not a simple mindless process that he has in mind. Although he hasn’t spelled it out one suspects he envisions hidden back there some extremely complex divine force generating our world and existence.  Although this may be a psychologically comforting notion a scientific explanation can not consist of explaining something simple with something complex. That is not an explanation that is confusion. Once we leave the realm where we seek to explain the evidence with the most efficient rational argument consistent with that evidence we leave the realm of scientific debate.

 Darwin explained design not in terms of purpose but in terms of an amazingly simple and mindless process that creates bafflingly complex design: Natural Selection. Only because his explanation decoupled design from higher purpose did he gain the Ocam’s Razor friendly property of explaining mind-boggling complex design with a dead simple explanation. He explained something very complex in terms of something very simple. It is the vastly superior scientific explanation. Ones involving super complex creators are vastly inferior.

Not content to misrepresent Dennett’s position on the role of purpose in evolutionary thought he also misrepresents Darwin’s views on this issue. He claims Darwin said there was no inherent contradiction between natural selection and religious belief. Wright then proceeds to lambaste Dennett for insisting that evolution lacks ‘any notion of divinity, any hope of higher purpose’. Is Wright really so confused he cannot divine the compatibility of Darwin’s and Dennett’s statements?

 Wright argues that the principals of divinity and higher purpose in Darwinian processes are compelling due to a variation on the argument from design. Wright must be aware of Darwin’s published view from 1876 that the discovery of natural selection falsifies the argument from design.

The old argument from design in Nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.[i][i]

 Wright must also know that Darwin proclaimed himself an agnostic.

 The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.[ii]

Dennett is an atheist but his position here too is very close to Darwin’s as an atheist is only an agnostic who has resolved not to believe in those things which are unknown and unknowable.

The argument from design was best presented by Reverend Paley, to whom Darwin refers and by whom Wright is inspired. He argued that if we were to find a pocket watch in the woods and were to examine it, it would be clear that it must have been created by a watch maker. Nothing so intricately designed could be created by accident and its very existence is proof of a watch maker, a creator. So too, the natural world exhibits exquisite design which therefore proves the existence of a creator of the natural world; God.

Puzzlingly this argument is widely accepted in Western thought as the most compelling ever devised for the existence of God. It is puzzling because it is obviously deeply flawed. That there exists exquisite biological design is evidence of the existence of a means of producing exquisite biological design. That God is that means, specifically the Christian God described in the bible, is a huge and totally unsupported leap. That this argument could be given serious consideration as a ‘proof’ proves only that religious thought overwhelms rationality in many minds.

Darwin destroyed this argument by discovering natural selection, the actual means by which biological design has been accomplished, supported by voluminous detailed evidence that has convinced nearly everyone who has ever considered it. We all enjoy in this his legacy the opportunity to see beyond myth and fairy tale concerning the ultimate nature of the universe in which we live. The theory of evolution is now the central organizing principal of biology and the weight of evidence for it is so overwhelming that there are virtually no scientific voices opposing it.

Wright fancies he has added a new twist to the argument from design by contending that although natural selection may be able to explain design in individual organisms without the aid of ‘divine purpose’ the evolution of life as a whole on earth can only be explained as evidence of ‘divine purpose’.

Unfortunately, as predicted by Daniel Dennett, in Darwin’s Dangerous idea, Darwinian explanations are like a universal acid that have slowly, relentlessly eaten away at our cherished, anthropomorphic explanations and now extend in explanatory scope far beyond the evolution of individual organisms. The explanations of Universal Darwinism are now the preferred scientific explanations for the creation of all design wherever it occurs in the universe.

Lee Smolin, one of the world’s foremost physicists and founder of the theory of cosmological natural selection, a leading scientific explanation for the creation of the cosmos has this to say about Darwinian processes.

There is only one mode of explanation I know of, developed by science, to explain why a system has parameters that lead to much more complexity than typical values of those parameters. This is natural selection.

 Science offers emphatic advice to those seeking explanations of design: look for Darwinian processes.

 Wright seems driven to find scientific support for ‘divine purpose’. Unfortunately for Wright his psychological need for concepts such as ‘divine purpose’ does not constitute an appropriate tool for examining scientific topics such as evolution. Rather evolution is the appropriate scientific tool for examining psychological needs such as ‘divine purpose’ and indeed for religion itself. Boyer’s fine book Religion Explained notes that all cultures include some form of religion and almost all feature supernatural agents exhibiting human-like intentionalities such as ‘divine purpose’. Boyer explains our proclivity to believe in such agents as the result of psychological mechanisms evolved by natural selection for the purpose of helping us understand and predict the motivations and strategies of others in complex social groupings. These evolved mechanisms provide us with answers when we ponder why others are acting the way they are. They also tend to provide us with answers, somewhat less usefully, when we ponder why nature acts the way it does. Inventing explanations involving human-like intentionality is natural to us and forms the content of our religions. That may make it comforting but it doesn’t make it true.

I am eagerly anticipating Daniel Dennett’s new book. I believe it will be titled Breaking the Spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon. Dennett is a fine writer, a master at understanding Darwinian processes and as Wright notes one of the best-known philosophers in the world. I fully expect this book will provide a major step forward in our understanding of religion as a creation of Darwinian processes. If Robert Wright is really interested in Dennett’s views on the relation of Science and Religion he should look for it here.

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[i][i] Darwin Charles, Autobiography (1876), in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin, vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1888), pp. 307-13.

[ii]  Life and Letters, cited in Peter's Quotations, by Lawrence J. Peter (1977), p. 45.