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Re: Ch. 7: Priming Darwin's Pump
In Ch. 7 we at last get to the real point of the book. Not only does he take on the "cosmic fine-tuning" argument (effectively enough, but not very insightfully, in my view) for the existence of a creator God, but then turns to meaning itself.
I find myself encouraged by his notion that meaning (importance) may have evolved. (Yes, I really am just finishing Ch. 7 - I had a month in the States with no time to read, and a book club book to finish when I got back, so here I am just getting back to Dennett.) While that is pretty likely to be true, in my view, I want to see what he does with it before endorsing the idea in Dennett's hands.
I was not as satisfied with his presentation on "creating" meaning. I am disgusted with the academic crowd who use and endorse this terminology. To put it succinctly, they cheat.
First, they present the term as applying to all options in which humans are the active agents, thus somehow encompassing all possibilities other than "receiving meaning from God." No doubt the usage by the great existentialists Sartre and Camus legitimate that application, but I think their false dichotomy is now passé.
You may think I am exaggerating or nitpicking, but I found, in Rorty's "Contingency, Irony and Solidarity," the absurd assertion that scientists "create" science (and mathematicians create math) explicitly contrasting this with the idea that they "find it." As one can read on the Wikipedia entry about his work, Rorty rejects the idea that nature is "mirrored" by our musings, and outside of science he rejects the notion that nature "settles" our issues. The folks at CERN would be amused at the notion that they are "creating" science rather than discovering it, or that our "vocabularies" (as Rorty would have it) are generated by human ingenuity in order to make science proceed effectively. He argues that the Copernican/Galilean revolution was not a conceptual argument won by one camp, but a replacement of an old vocabulary by a new one.
Of course, his real target is social "science" and he is about inventing a vocabulary which will be more satisfactory (to Western academics, that's who) than the hopelessly pedestrian vocabulary which takes facts to be revealing of the nature of the world, as if they are morally neutral.
The truth is, there is a process which is in between the moral neutrality of "discovering" nature and the moral posturing of "creating" truth by choosing vocabularies. For a master class in the omitted middle, I recommend Stephen Jay Gould's refutation of Christopher Jencks (and thus, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein of "The Bell Curve"). Jencks treats test scores as "given" and derives policy implications from an unexamined interpretation of those scores, thus pretending to merely "discover" truth but actually "inventing" it. Gould does not fatuously assert that Jencks is wrong because he invents the morally wrong thing, though he is quite clear that he thinks Jencks' work reflects racist bias. Rather, he shows why Jencks is wrong, as in inaccurate, as in, does a bad job of reflecting nature.
The second problem, besides the false dichotomy issue, in claiming that we create meaning is that neither the existentialists nor anyone else has given a satisfactory account of how that can be done. The idea that we can simply assert, ex nihilo, that such and such is important, or (more to the point) more important than competing considerations, is completely inadequate.
The French Existentialists asserted that we must be able to, because life's inherent nature is absurdity (and Dennett echoes this with his examples about repetition), but these only make sense by comparison with the (highly questionable) view that meaning is given by an external creator. Rorty might say that the vocabulary of absurdity is simply not up to the task of sorting out the sources and bases of meaning and importance.
Like Zeno's Paradox(es), I think this stems from the gap between implications of the logic we take as naturally given and the requirements imposed by reality. We do not have a natural, experiential account of the process by which meaning is forged. And there will always be a gap between "external" accounts, which function as a skyhook in explaining why certain things "must" mean what they do, and the actual process, which is internal. The subject/object split is an alien presence rendering a full natural account impossible.
The fact that we change our systems of assigning importance is not mechanical but organic. We can learn a lot about it by looking at anthropological work on large changes which have been forced on people. The Cargo Cults of Melanesia (e.g. the Solomon Islands) are a favorite of mine. When Western artifacts began to arrive regularly for trade, people accepted the preaching which interpreted this as some supernatural process calling for a restoration of lapsing practices of virtue. What was missing was a sufficiently dense understanding of the origins of the artifacts (steel tools, medicine, etc.) to imagine how to replicate the process. They also reflected the status system of the culture, as people naturally interpret everything they meet in life in terms of the conceptual structures built around status. A new, modern set of values could only emerge with a new, modern set of understandings, and in the absence of such a set of understandings, the flailings of supernatural "revelations" would occur within the value systems previously in place.
External accounts, which reflect nature, are only going to help us to understand values systems to the extent that we are capable of imagining what life feels like from the perspective of the people who do, actually, value things that way. If that sounds a bit chicken-and-egg, well, so is the process of value formation. It is about understandings of the relationship between nature, which tells us what is possible, and our purposes. And at the heart of that relationship we have, not an object to be analyzed, but a subject making sense of things.