Godel, Universality and Darwin

July 2, 2012    By: Jeff G @ 10:58 am   Category: Evolutionary psychology,Truth

If I were to be stranded on an island with nothing but three books to keep me company there is no doubt that two of them would be Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and Godel, Escher, Bach.  When taken together, these two books provide almost the entire thrust behind this post-scientistic, neo-pragmatic mind-set in which I currently find myself.

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is Daniel Dennett’s strong defense of Neo-Darwinian thinking, but probably not in the way you are thinking.  This book is not scientific nor does it argue “for” evolution at all.  Rather, it is a philosophical book which takes the truth of evolution for granted.  As such, its primary target is not the religious young earther, but various intellectuals who look down their noses at such non-Darwinians with one eye while closing the other to the implications which Darwinism has for themselves.  Less cryptically, Dennett argues that Darwin’s theory is a universal acid which eats through any container, religious or not, which we might build in order to protect ourselves or our beliefs from it.  By Dennett’s lights, any realm of thought which thinks itself fully isolated from Darwinian thinking is simply fooling itself.

Godel, Escher, Bach is, in a word, brilliant.  One simply cannot help but stop at various points in Douglass Hofstadter’s book and think aloud, “This man is a genius!”  While the primary objective of the book is defending a particular theory of mind, I think the clearest focal point around which the book pivots would be the concept of self-reference.  According to Hofstadter, once you have any system which is rich and detailed enough to be isomorphic with itself in some way, you have what he calls
a “strange loop” of contradictions, infinite regresses and other such Godelian knots .  In other words, once we start talking about “sets” that in some way “contain” themselves the idea of universality goes out the window.  All such sets must either be inconsistent, incomplete or both.  A few such systems which are explored in the book include but are not limited to Godel-numbering, Escherian artwork, a number of Bach’s fugues, the Liar’s paradox, self-consciousness in animals, self-replication in DNA, perfect, high-fidelity record players, and many more.

Now, if we take these two books together we get the following question: Just how universal is that Darwinian acid?  Is it truly universal such that it is able to dissolve itself or is it merely “almost” universal?  Is Dennett’s book actually inconsistent or is it just incomplete?  I hope this question strikes the reader as more than just a sort of “gotcha!” jab at Dennett’s book, because that is certainly not my intention.  Indeed, I see this Godelian take on Darwinism as having very broad implications.

As a brief example of this Darwinian antinomy in everyday life, let us consider the present day culture wars.  The Liberal Left, in general, has a tendency to beat the Religious Right over the head with Darwinian science, arguing that intelligent, rational and well-designed systems can and are created without any Intelligent, Rational Designer at the controls.  By these lights, anybody who cannot see this is simply too unintelligent or irrational to be in control of anything important.  But this conclusion contradicts the very premise by which it was reached, since Darwin’s theory just is the claim that there doesn’t need to be anybody who is intelligent or rational at the controls for a system to work just fine.  Thus, as a weapon in the culture wars Darwin’s theory is either inconsistent or incomplete.


  1. Hi Jeff G. I enjoyed the post. Have you read Hofstadter’s newer book, “I am a strange loop”? If not, I recommend it. Also, I think you’ll like this article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carter-phipps/are-you-an-evolutionary_b_1638096.html

    Comment by Lincoln Cannon — July 2, 2012 @ 11:52 am

  2. I started it, but that was right after I had just finished thumbing through his Metamagical Themas and might have been a bit “Hofstadter’d out” and dropped it after the first 50 pages or so. I’m sure I’ll give it another go…. eventually.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 2, 2012 @ 2:19 pm

  3. I have read neither book (though I have read a few things by Dennett). A question – do they actually make the argument that formal and final causes don’t exist or do they just take this for granted? That’s what I don’t get about this line of thinking. Evolution is only a “universal acid” if nothing like formal and final causes don’t exist – but the question of whether they do can’t be determined by looking at evolutionary biology (even if true) – it’s a metaphysical question. If formal and final causes DON’T exist and matter just behaves mechanistically, then Dennett’s view might carry some weight.

    Comment by Syphax — July 2, 2012 @ 6:49 pm

  4. Argh, double negative. Just ignore that.

    Comment by Syphax — July 2, 2012 @ 6:50 pm

  5. Hmmm, I think you misinterpret Dennett (which is really easy to do). Dennett holds that of course there is teleology and intentionality out in the world…. and evolution is the sole source of ALL of it. *That* is the universal acid, that there is no source for design or meaning in the world except evolution by natural selection. This is why none of the social sciences can isolate themselves from Darwin, for the very thing that makes them a social science is their teleology and intentionality and evolution is the exclusively responsible for both. Thus, Dennett’s is a strong position indeed, but not in a mindless, physicalist kind of way.

    Hofstadter doesn’t have too much to say on such matters.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 2, 2012 @ 9:09 pm

  6. Heheh. Nice last paragraph of your post, Jeff. Made me chuckle.

    Of course no one really cares about the alleged intellectual reasons for why they want to be in charge. Said reasons are always just excuses to put themselves or their friends in charge in the end.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 2, 2012 @ 10:58 pm

  7. #5. Jeff. How could evolution be the source of teleology in the planets’ motions, or tectonic plates moving, etc.? I don’t understand. For an Aristotelian or a Thomist, natural bodies are “directed at” certain outcomes or ranges of outcomes due to teleology (electrons are “directed at” flowing down copper wires and not rubber, for instance). The intentionality and teleology in human minds is just one mode or sub-type of natural final causality. I’m not sure how evolution could have created that, if anything like an Aristotelian/Thomistic/Scholastic view of nature is correct. So I’m wondering whether Dennett argues that this view of nature is NOT correct to start his argument.

    Comment by Syphax — July 3, 2012 @ 4:22 am

  8. I’m sorry Syphax, I misunderstood your original question. Dennett does not accept any kind of final, ultimate causes or purposes to the universe. Rather, his view is that all causes and purposes are both in and products of the universe and not the other way around. But then, he doesn’t really argue for this position so much as dismiss it as an uninteresting question to begin with. For him it is enough to show that evolution created people who believe in final causes and the like.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 3, 2012 @ 8:45 am

  9. Then it’s hard for me to think of his position as anything but question-begging, and that’s why it’s hard for me to get into his work. He doesn’t seem to countenance the possibility that we believe in final causes because that’s how the universe actually works, and evolution just gives us reliable minds to discover the true way reality is. So before I can consider evolution to be a “universal acid” I have to consider the question of whether final causes don’t actually exist, and since Dennett never tells us why we should reject the existence of final causes I don’t know how to take his subsequent points seriously, and I don’t know how to speculate on whether his position really “dissolves” anything else.

    A note of clarification though – a “final cause” is not something extrinsic to an object, so I don’t think I’d use the term “ultimate” to describe final causes, in the sense that God or an intelligent designer created objects “for the purpose of generating effect X.” A final cause is simply a built-in feature of an object’s nature (form) that causes it to be directed at the generation of a certain outcome or range of outcomes and not others. A designer creating an artifact for the purpose of generating an effect is only a special kind of final cause.

    Comment by Syphax — July 3, 2012 @ 10:50 am

  10. Meh. Maybe you’re right. I for one don’t see much use for such metaphysical questions other than picking fights with those who disagree.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 3, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

  11. I think Syphax just pointed out that this particular metaphysical question is useful for determining whether Darwinism is a universal solvent or not. Meh is a singularly unuseful response.

    Comment by Adam G. — July 3, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

  12. Oh, I got that. I’m just not terribly inclined to defend Dennett on this site, especially with regard to metaphysical questions which are answered with little other than faith. Indeed, the whole purpose of my post was to criticize Dennett (along with other Darwinian intellectuals) on his own terms. If somebody else wants to discuss other terms upon which such debates might be carried on, by all means let them. But I for one see little point.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 3, 2012 @ 3:46 pm

  13. So you’re saying its off-topic? Fine.

    Comment by Adam G. — July 3, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

  14. Hey, it’s your post, and I don’t have much else to say besides what I’ve said. Sorry for the diversion.

    Comment by Syphax — July 3, 2012 @ 4:25 pm

  15. No, I really meant it when I said you can argue about it all you want. Maybe somebody else wants some of that, but I’ll pass.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 3, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

  16. @jeff g and @syphax Maybe God is merely the farmer of a truly Hawkings-esq universe… one that resides in a multiverse, and in Card fashion God tells useful stories. As primal story teller infinite recursion is stopped the same way we do it; with the highly utilitarian and infinitely elegant tautology. Who would want to live in a fully rational story anyway? Primal cause is therefore imposible to derive; sets impossible to observe. And a Denett take on sets would countenance such. Godel might be step in and say: QEP (quod erat probabilis) and the rev bayes and jaynes would nod in assent.

    Comment by mad_scion — July 4, 2012 @ 10:31 am

  17. “Darwinian science” does not argue “that intelligent, rational and well-designed systems can and are created without any Intelligent, Rational Designer at the controls”. It states that the creatures on this Earth came to be “without any Intelligent, Rational Designer at the controls”. That’s it.

    That’s also not what Godel’s theorem says. It just states (echoing earlier work by Cantor), that formal logic systems, using formal logic, are incomplete. Evolutionary theory is not a formal logic system, and can’t be sneak attacked this way.

    Comment by Annoying Person — July 5, 2012 @ 10:53 am

  18. AP,

    I have little doubt that the thrust of your 1st paragraph is based almost entirely our different conceptions of what it means to be rational. Dennett takes Paley’s arguments for deign and rationality in the world very seriously, the only difference being that he replaces Paley’s explanation for it with that of Darwin. I think it’s enough to say that since evolution created all creatures, and since some of these creatures are intelligent, rational and well-designed, then my original claim stands. Personally, I have no hesitation in calling animals, ecosystems or systems of government rational and intelligent.

    As for Godel, I don’t much care what his theorem says, since I never mentioned it in the first place. I don’t see any problem in referencing Godelian themes of self-reference without bringing his actual proofs into the conversation.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 5, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

  19. Interesting. According to Dennett consciousness was explained some 20 years ago. And Godel proved the incompleteness of the American constitution. Maybe you guys might enjoy reading “The Wisdom of Crocodiles” (Paul Hoffman).

    Comment by Jan Pauwels — July 28, 2012 @ 12:40 pm