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Ch. 6: Threads of Actuality in Design Space 
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 Ch. 6: Threads of Actuality in Design Space
Ch. 6: Threads of Actuality in Design Space


Please use this thread to discuss the above listed chapter of "Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life" by Daniel Dennett.



Thu Feb 16, 2017 11:51 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 6: Threads of Actuality in Design Space
Dennett has talked about design throughout the book, and in this chapter he zeroes in on it. Not being very familiar with the rest of the literature on evolution, I wonder whether Dennett is different in this regard--seeming to embrace the word that, after all, forms part of term that creationists came up with in an attempt to argue against evolution in a more sophisticated way. And it appears that at this point, anyway, Dennett doesn't quite rule out intelligence in the design work that has gone into each living thing--or does he? He can rule out that evolution is not the kind of process that could have been wielded by an handicrafter God, such as the God of the Bible. But could intelligence, if not actually operating at the algorithmic level, be somehow dispersed throughout the process?
Quote:
Alternatively, we may choose to think of species as
perfectly mindless nonagents, and put the rationale in the process of natural
selection itself (perhaps jocularly personified as Mother Nature). Remember
Francis Crick's quip about evolution's being cleverer than you are. Or we may
choose to shrink from these vivid modes of expression altogether, but the
analyses we do will have the same logic in any case....So Paley was right in saying not just that Design was a wonderful thing to explain, but also that Design took Intelligence. All he missed—and Darwin
provided—was the idea that this Intelligence could be broken into bits so tiny
and stupid that they didn't count as intelligence at all, and then distributed
through space and time in a gigantic, connected network of algorithmic
process. P. 133


What evolution does is to add to the natural process of random genetic drifting that can be compared to "typographical change," a "lifting" that produces "an accumulation of design." Just by that gerund, "lifting," Dennett brings into play certain ideas of improvement, "rising,""progress," and telos, and he knows that he does.
Quote:
These intuitions about getting somewhere important, about design improvement,
about rising in Design Space, are powerful and familiar, but are
they reliable? Are they perhaps just a confusing legacy of the pre-Darwinian
vision of Design coming down from a Handicrafter God? What is the relationship
between the ideas of Design and Progress? There is no fixed agreement
among evolutionary theorists about this. Some biologists are fastidious,
going to great lengths to avoid allusions to design or function in their own
work, while others build their whole careers around the functional analysis of
this or that (an organ, patterns of food-gathering, reproductive "strategies,"
etc.). Some biologists think you can speak of design or function without
committing yourself to any dubious doctrine about progress. Others are not
so sure. Did Darwin deal a "death blow to Teleology," as Marx exclaimed, or
did he show how "the rational meaning" of the natural sciences was to be
empirically explained (as Marx went right on to exclaim), thereby making a
safe home in science for functional or teleological discussion?

On a related point, the "forced moves in design space" that seem to mean that certain basic living structures were arrived at out of necessity, I confess a diminished belief in the randomness of evolution. While I fully acknowledge that my existence is an entirely random result of how my genome assembled at the very moment of conception--a moment that could have been influenced by what my father ate for lunch--I'm not so sure the same can be said for our species' existence. Sure, we arrived as a result of many linked contingencies, but there would have been millions of other possible contingencies that could have happened to produce an animal with something like our characteristics. I don't think that if one contingent event hadn't happened a half billion years ago, it would have been lights out for us. There are, as Dennett would put it, a Vast number of possible books in the library of Mendel. Shades of the anthropic principle.

The section on what we might expect aliens to look like underscores that there appear to be a certain determinism about design space. Aliens would have met the basic design criterion of having a self-contained metabolism bounded by a body. It also should not surprise us to encounter aliens who have developed locomotion and an enabling ability, vision. It might surprise us somewhat more to see a bilateral body layout, and a little more to see four appendages each with five digits. But it could be that the latter arrangement has very powerful benefits that life would find it hard to avoid--we don't know. It also is well within reason to expect the aliens to have developed arithmetic because that appears to be dictate of Reason, Dennett says. If the aliens had hands, with five digits each, they might even have a base-ten number system! But what would astound us beyond measure is if the aliens used numerals the same as ours. We recognize that numbers could be a sort of a Platonic category, but the lines and squiggles of numerals that came to represent our numbers are entirely accidental, are due to our particular cultural development.



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Sat Mar 25, 2017 7:54 am
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Post Re: Ch. 6: Threads of Actuality in Design Space
DWill wrote:
Dennett has talked about design throughout the book, and in this chapter he zeroes in on it.
And it appears that at this point, anyway, Dennett doesn't quite rule out intelligence in the design work that has gone into each living thing--or does he?
But could intelligence, if not actually operating at the algorithmic level, be somehow dispersed throughout the process?
Quote:
All he missed—and Darwin provided—was the idea that this Intelligence could be broken into bits so tiny and stupid that they didn't count as intelligence at all, and then distributed
through space and time in a gigantic, connected network of algorithmic process. P. 133

What evolution does is to add to the natural process of random genetic drifting that can be compared to "typographical change," a "lifting" that produces "an accumulation of design." Just by that gerund, "lifting," Dennett brings into play certain ideas of improvement, "rising,""progress," and telos, and he knows that he does.

I could be wrong, but it looks to me like what he is after is some notion that there is no intrinsic difference between the intelligence embodied in the human mind (material, made up of mindless units) and the intelligence embodied in Darwinian selection as an algorithm.

Thanks for lifting this out as a way of seeing what he was saying - it looked to me like a rather formless argument for materiality, which, as I have said, I find boring.

DWill wrote:
Quote:
These intuitions about getting somewhere important, about design improvement, about rising in Design Space, are powerful and familiar, but are they reliable? Some biologists think you can speak of design or function without committing yourself to any dubious doctrine about progress. Others are not so sure. Did Darwin deal a "death blow to Teleology," as Marx exclaimed, or did he show how "the rational meaning" of the natural sciences was to be
empirically explained (as Marx went right on to exclaim), thereby making a safe home in science for functional or teleological discussion?

I think the way to consider this is as an evaluation of vocabulary. We are used to thinking of our own design process as "motivated", that is, having a goal in mind. And that is one version of what Teleology means. Evolution, on the other hand, cannot be said to "have a goal in mind", even if there are forced moves which lead it to predictable (abstracting from hindsight advantages) results.

When we get into artificial intelligence, this distinction will matter very much. To be "intelligent" a program must, at a minimum, be able to choose from among strategies without the possibility of comprehensive evaluation of the consequences. That is, it must be able to heuristically evaluate the likelihood of success of different strategies. At some level of complexity, a program with such a capacity might be thought of as evaluating ends, that is, of directing its own motivation. At that point, the teleology becomes internal, and the AI is a mind. Questions of slavery arise morally, and questions of secret plots to displace "meatware" become practical issues.

I suspect Dennett is leading up to some of those issues by suggesting that we disconnect "goal-oriented problem solving" from "having a goal in mind." Essentially, I think he has in mind a claim that "materiality" plus "disperal into mindless algorithms" fools us into thinking that a process like artificial intelligence is not actually the same as what humans do when they think and design. I would be interested in reading the thoughts of others on that subject.

DWill wrote:
On a related point, the "forced moves in design space" that seem to mean that certain basic living structures were arrived at out of necessity, I confess a diminished belief in the randomness of evolution. While I fully acknowledge that my existence is an entirely random result of how my genome assembled at the very moment of conception--a moment that could have been influenced by what my father ate for lunch--I'm not so sure the same can be said for our species' existence. Sure, we arrived as a result of many linked contingencies, but there would have been millions of other possible contingencies that could have happened to produce an animal with something like our characteristics. I don't think that if one contingent event hadn't happened a half billion years ago, it would have been lights out for us. There are, as Dennett would put it, a Vast number of possible books in the library of Mendel. Shades of the anthropic principle.


Well, sorting out which aspects of our morphology were forced moves (that is, required to give intelligence of our level) is an interesting exercise, but I suspect the result will be a combination of contingency and strong pressures. Hands free from walking (bipedalism), with opposable thumbs, and mouths capable of shaping careful sounds seem to be strongly favored. Likewise small "broods" of one or two babies per pregnancy, and maybe omnivorous digestion. Do we really care about the rest, like prominence of brow ridges or overall hairiness or eyes facing front or number of teeth? If our faces looked like pandas, would it matter?



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Wed Mar 29, 2017 5:43 am
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