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.