Parallel Postulates

Lawrence Auster is a very smart fellow, and I admire his formidable presence on the ramparts of Western culture. But he has curious blind spots, for one so intelligent, and one of them has to do with Darwinism.

Have a look at this exchange with a reader, one who patiently tries to explain, as I have often done myself (see, for example, here, here, and here), why biologists use the language of intentionality when discussing evolution. We speak, without any qualms, about the “purpose” of the various “designs” of evolved organisms: a wing is “for” flying, a fang is “for” injecting venom, etc. The point is that designed things have purposes — a proposition with which even Mr. Auster would agree — but what he and others refuse to accept is that the rationale behind the existence of a wing or a fang need not be anyone’s consciously conceived or represented rationale: that there is in Nature a process from which design can emerge without the need for any teleological agency at all. Yes, there is a rationale for the existence of a wing, but it is not the bird’s, or even evolution’s, rationale; it is what Daniel Dennett has called a free-floating rationale. But it seems that Mr. Auster and like-minded like others simply cannot conceive of design — real, functional, finely tuned design — arising in the absence of a conscious and purposeful Designer. I am reluctant to psychologize, but perhaps their intuitions are simpy too irrevocably conditioned by their embedding in the world of human agency.

Mr. Auster’s reader, Richard Hoste, quotes a long passage from Daniel Dennett’s book Kinds of Minds, in which Dennett explains what he calls the “intentional stance”: the fact that it is easier to predict the behavior of a goal-seeking system by understanding the goal. The example Dennett uses is that of a skillful chess-player: if the situation on the board is such that there is only one move that will avoid checkmate, we can predict with near-certain confidence that the chess-player will make it. What is more, this is true whether or not the player is human: the behavior of a chess-playing computer is every bit as predictable, from the intentional stance, as that of a person.

Mr. Auster, during this exchange, shows promising signs of “getting it” — but then, just as we think he is about to grasp the nettle, disappoints us once again with this stupendously question-begging assertion:

[Darwinians] 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.

What a pity, and how mistaken. Of course we can escape it; indeed, on our view, natural selection’s “radically purposeless” process is the only plausible account of how such purposeful functions can arise that doesn’t just “kick the can down the road”: to an invisible, immaterial agency whose own origin and purpose is simply left unaccounted for.

But it is clear, by now, I suppose, that there is little hope of rapprochement on this subject; the division between these two camps seems deep and unbridgeable. Each side thinks the other is in the grip of a delusional fixation upon axioms that are simply wrong, and as Luther said (and Bill V. recently reminded us): Contra Negantem Prima Principia Non Esse Disputandum — “One should not dispute with those who deny first principles.”


  1. Charles says

    Correct me if I am wrong, but my own interpretation of the argument has always been rather simple: Darwinian design is essentially “design by the environment.” The environment selects design A over design B because design A allows the species to thrive in that environment more than design B, or it gives those members of the species with design feature A an advantage in that environment over those members of the species with design feature B.

    Say one subset of a generation of moths develops a slightly different pattern on their wings. If this pattern is more successful at camouflaging the moth or frightening off predators, then that subset will have a slight advantage over other moths of the same species and thus contribute more to the gene pool. On the other hand, if this pattern makes the moth stand out or even attracts predators, then contributions to the gene pool from this subset will be few and the variation will soon die out. In this way, the patterns on moth wings are designed by the moth’s particular environment.

    This is my understanding of the issue, although it is possible that I am confusing and conflating a number of things I have read (I’m pretty sure, for example, that Darwin didn’t talk about the “gene pool,” did he?). I have my own particular beliefs, as you know, but I’m pretty sure I “get” the idea. Am I mistaken?

    Posted September 15, 2009 at 3:14 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    That’s it, Charles, in brief, though it is the question of the arising of “purpose” and intentionality that is the nub of the issue here.

    Perhaps it isn’t fair to say that Mr. Auster et al. don’t “get it”; it is more that they cannot see, given their world-picture, how it can possibly be the correct account of reality.

    Posted September 15, 2009 at 8:42 am | Permalink
  3. Charles says

    It would seem to me that neither side is capable of seeing how the other side could possibly be the correct account of reality… it is one thing to understand an argument, and an entirely different thing to be convinced by it.

    Perhaps this is a simplification, though.

    Posted September 16, 2009 at 7:12 am | Permalink

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