Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President's Council on Bioethics
The President's Council on Bioethics
Part 1: Dignity and Modern Science
Commentary on Dennett
Daniel Dennett is a leading spokesman in our times for Darwinian natural science and, more broadly, for scientific materialism. Known for his long white beard and sense of humor, he is often compared to Santa Claus. But this comparison is very misleading. Dennett's intellectual mission, one might say, is to tell the world that there is no Santa Claus-no "comforting myths" about God, creation, intelligent design, the human soul, or ultimate purpose and meaning in the cosmos.
Dennett likes to shock audiences by saying that such beliefs are like appeals to mythical "skyhooks"-to miracles from heaven that have been discredited by modern science, which has shown all educated and intelligent people (the "brights," as he likes to call his superior group) that the universe is just an accident, the laws of nature are accidents, the emergence of life, human beings, and society are simply the incremental accidents of Darwinian evolution. "Get over it!" Dennett implores us: there are only material causes in a material world that is indifferent to man and that has order (if not purpose) only because the incremental accidents that shaped the world have been "frozen" in place over time. We live in a universe of "frozen accidents," and that is where we must make our home.
Dennett also likes to argue against philosophers of mind who still believe that human consciousness arises from an immaterial substance like a rational soul or in an irreducible free will which gives human beings the power to choose independently of material causation. Nonsense, says Dennett, we are complex machines, and the mind is just the motion of brain cells and neurological processes that will one day be replicated by the fancy robots of Artificial Intelligence. We may still speak of human "souls," Dennett argues mischievously, as long as we understand them to be made up of tiny robots. And we may still speak of "free will" as long as we mean the way our genetically programmed selves react to the environment rather than the rational choice of ultimate ends.
None of this would be very surprising if Dennett followed his Darwinian materialism to its logical conclusions in ethics and politics. After all, scientific materialists have been around for a long time, attacking religion, miracles, immaterial causes, and essential natures. Think of Lucretius and his poem about the natural world consisting of atoms in the void, or Hobbes's mechanistic universe of "bodies in motion," or B. F. Skinner's "behaviorism," Ayn Rand's "objectivism," E. O. Wilson's "sociobiology," Darwin's Darwinism, and even Nietzsche's "will to power." But all of these materialist debunkers of higher purposes and soul-doctrines drew conclusions about morality that were harsh and pessimistic, if not cynical and amoral. Lucretius saw that a universe made up of atoms in the void was indifferent to man, and he counseled withdrawal from the world for the sake of philosophical "peace of mind"-letting the suffering and injustices of the world go by, like a detached bystander on the seashore watching a sinking ship, and treating the spectacle of people dying with equanimity as impersonal bundles of atoms in the void. Hobbes, Skinner, Rand, and Nietzsche saw humans as essentially selfish creatures of pleasure, power, and domination who in some cases can be induced by fear and greed to lay off killing each other. Darwin never spelled out the moral implications of his doctrine, but presumably he could not have objected to the strong dominating the weak or to nature's plagues and disasters as ways of strengthening the species. Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism-the survival of the fittest in a competitive world-is a logical conclusion of Darwinian natural science.
But such conclusions are alien to Daniel Dennett. He is a Darwinian materialist in his cosmology and metaphysics while also strongly affirming human dignity as well as a progressive brand of liberalism in his ethics and politics. Herein lies the massive contradiction of his system of thought. He boldly proclaims that we live in an accidental universe without divine and natural support for the special dignity of man as a species or as individuals; yet he retains a sentimental attachment to liberal-democratic values that lead him to affirm a humane society that respects the rights of persons and protects the weak from exploitation by the strong and from other injustices. He also objects to B. F. Skinner and the sociobiologists for reducing man to the desires for pleasure, power, and procreation. And he condemns Social Darwinism as "an odious misapplication of Darwin's thinking" and expresses outrage at child abuse, the exploitation of women, and President Bush's attempt to rewrite the Geneva Convention's definition of torture as violations of personal dignity. In short, he is a conventional political liberal of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, type whose moral doctrine is a version of neo-Kantian liberalism that assumes the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. But none of this follows logically from his Darwinian materialism and it even contradicts it, which means Dennett's humane liberalism is a blind leap of faith that is just as dogmatic as the religious faith he deplores.
In my essay, "Human Dignity and the Mystery of the Human Soul," I sought to expose some of these contradictions in Dennett's book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995). How could he say that the universe is an accident-"it just happened to happen"-while claiming that "the world is sacred" and that life is basically good? How can he say that the human mind is a result of mindless and purposeless evolutionary forces and that animal species are not essentially different from each other, while also maintaining that "there is a huge difference between the human mind and the minds of other species, enough even to make a moral difference"? How can he destroy the foundations of human dignity in cosmology and metaphysics, while continuing to affirm human dignity and human rights in ethics and politics? Thomas Jefferson was more consistent when he proclaimed that our natural and human rights are "endowments of our Creator" and derived from "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" that give human beings a special moral status as rational beings in a universe possessing the moral order of a benevolent Creator. The moral philosopher Kant was also more thoughtful when he argued that human dignity could be sustained only by the dualism of nature and freedom.
Perhaps, then, Dennett really is Santa Claus, because he gives us free gifts like the goodness of life, the dignity of human beings, and democratic human rights without any logical or theoretical support for them, and indeed with a materialist doctrine that subverts them at every point. Perhaps Dennett's materialist humanism is even a residue of Christian humanism with its emphasis on the special status of human beings as rational creatures in the cosmos (a trenchant point made by John Gray in his review of Dennett's book on free will).i
In Dennett's essay for this volume we can detect signs of uncertainty about whether his earlier position can be sustained. The title, "How to Protect Human Dignity from Science," acknowledges that there is a real problem here-a potential conflict between modern science and technology, on the one hand, and the grounds for defending human dignity, on the other. He realizes that the underlying assumption of human dignity is the special moral status of man in the universe and that this status was upheld traditionally by the doctrine of the human soul. Dennett even admits that science cannot easily provide an alternative grounding for human dignity and that biotechnology might lead to treating humans as commodities for sale and as objects for manipulation and destruction. Dennett is also uncharacteristically silent about Darwinian materialism, even though his main point is that the doctrine of the human soul is discredited in the 21st century and that natural science will have to produce a substitute that will be more "workable" in defending human dignity: "We can have dignity and science too," he says nervously.
Dennett's argument is strange because it often sounds like a plea for a new kind of mythology for human dignity. He talks about the "belief environment" surrounding cherished moral ideas, such as the sacredness of life and the dignity of persons, and he praises the value of "belief in belief "-of upholding the necessary assumptions of moral order, such as freedom of the will and the special status of human beings, even if they are unprovable or illusory. Dennett even speaks sympathetically of Paul Davies's view that freedom of the will may be a necessary fiction for morality (like a combination of Plato's noble lie and Kant's postulates of practical reason). Yet, Dennett insists that belief in an immaterial and immortal human soul cannot serve as the basis for human dignity any longer, as it did in the Western tradition under the influence of Christianity and Platonism. Belief in the soul is "discredited," so we have to find something else to defend the human dignity that even Dennett seeks to preserve.
In reflecting on Dennett's provocative analysis, I would raise two critical questions: Why is he so sure that belief in the human soul is discredited? And what alternative does Dennett offer?
The first question is obviously a momentous one that I will answer with a few brief points. The doctrine of the human soul will never be "discredited" as long as the relation of mind to matter or of conscious reasoning to the brain remains mysterious; and it remains an awesome mystery. Most neuroscientists and philosophers honestly admit that they have few clues about how mental activities such as consciousness, free will, language, and even much of common sense arise from the firing of brain cells across synapses. Therefore, some kind of immaterial substance-call it "the rational soul"-must be at work here; and since the soul is mysteriously connected to the body, the best definition of man's essence is "an embodied rational soul." This view of man is just as workable today as it was centuries ago in Greek philosophy; and, in fact, modern science heightens the case for the mysterious existence of man as an embodied rational soul rather than dispelling it. Science properly done teaches us to "live with mystery" rather than to embrace one-dimensional materialism dogmatically.
Likewise in cosmology, the more we learn from science, the more we see how mysterious the universe really is and how purely naturalistic causal explanations are inadequate. Nature is not a self-contained whole because the laws of nature themselves are contingent and had to be "selected" by some mysterious power outside of nature; this is one way that science points toward God as the intelligent selector of the laws of nature. In addition, Big Bang Cosmology takes us back to a beginning point or "singularity" that preceded everything-including the laws of nature, the formation of space and time, and the formation of matter and energy. Cosmologists admit that what happened "in the beginning" is in principle a mystery because it is beyond science to comprehend; what they resist is calling it the miracle of a mysterious power because this too implies God as the Creator. Furthermore, the appearance of rational beings such as man at the top of a hierarchy of living beings, capable of rationally analyzing the process, appears to be the result of self-organizing complexity rather than a mindless accident, as Paul Davies argues. Yet rationality as a primary feature of matter and of the universe is itself mysteriously selected. Because the Bible presents the creation of the world and the creation of man at the top of a hierarchy as the mysterious acts of a still more mysterious power, and because science properly done points toward these mysteries, it is both scientific and reasonable to place faith and trust in the Bible's teaching about man's dignity as an embodied rational soul made in the image of God. Belief in the Imago Dei is thus more reasonable than Daniel Dennett's completely unjustified leap of faith.
The second question about Dennett's analysis is easier to answer than the first: Dennett offers nothing to replace the traditional doctrine of the human soul as the distinguishing feature of human beings and the foundation of our essential humanity. He claims that natural science can find a substitute for the soul-doctrine but offers no new grounding. At most, Dennett appeals to the social conventions of a liberal democratic society or a pragmatic test, like the late Richard Rorty's appeal to historical contingency: we in modern liberal democratic societies act in such a way as to respect human dignity by not desecrating human corpses, for example, so pragmatically it works for us. In other words, respecting human dignity is a social convention of our times in the modern Western world. But this is patently inadequate because it simply means living off the moral capital accumulated by the Judeo-Christian tradition. I conclude therefore that Daniel Dennett's leap of faith from materialism to ethical idealism is not only rationally unjustified, it also points toward genuine religious faith as the logical path to the beliefs that he and others so ardently cherish.
i. John Gray, "Review of Freedom Evolves by Daniel C. Dennett," The Independent , Feb. 8, 2003: "The ringing tone of Dennett's declaration of human uniqueness provokes a certain suspicion regarding the scientific character of his argument. After all, the notion that humans are free in a way other animals are not does not come from science. Its origins are in religion-above all, in Christianity."