What Darwin and Turing Missed

In a recent article for The Atlantic, the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett compares the work of computer pioneer Alan Turing to Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection. What both Darwin and Turing realized, argues Dennett, was that the operations of any complex system can be reduced to the apparently mindless repetition of its individual parts. The motor of history can thus be characterized as “a purposeless, mindless process [that cranks] away through the eons, generating ever more subtle, efficient, and complex organisms without having the slightest whiff of understanding of what it is doing.” At the micro level, we see the existence of “competence without comprehension,” or, the mysterious process by which individual actors carry out tasks successfully without understanding why they are doing them. We all miss the forest for the trees, and that’s the only reason the forest survives. Dennett calls this paradoxical logic a “strange inversion of reason.” But is it so very strange?

Dennett defends the materialist theory of evolution against its critics, namely those who subscribe to some version of “intelligent design” or divine providence. To them, preceding every small development in the world is some big idea. In order for us to carry out even the most basic task, we must possess some understanding of what we are doing. This kind of thinking is why, Dennett claims, educators have moved away from rote instruction toward more sophisticated exercises in cognition. So for him, there is a fundamental disagreement between people who believe in a “bubble-up” logic of development (Darwin, Turing, Dennett) and those who believe in a “trickle-down” philosophy of mind (Descartes, John Searle, religious people, etc.). Another way to define this difference is one between materialists and idealists.

That Dennett presents this distinction as novel is somewhat misleading. For a century before Darwin, the main problem of German philosophy was how to reconcile idealist conceptions of the world and history with the radical, new materialism of the empirical sciences. [addition, 7/5/12: Frequently philosophers resorted to counterintuitive explanations of natural and historical processes in their attempts to effect this reconciliation.] Immanuel Kant[, for example,] suggested in the late 18th century that the human species gradually approaches perpetual peace by means of “unsocial sociability”: wars will get worse and worse until people decide that the costs of war are no longer worth the gains. Some decades later, G. W. F. Hegel postulated the so-called “cunning of reason” whereby history progresses toward greater rationality in spite of the intentions of individual actors (e.g. Napoleon may have intended to rule Europe indefinitely, but the failure of his intentions actually led to the creation of the modern state throughout Europe). And most explicitly, Karl Marx — who after all was “a German philosopher” — formulated a materialist conception of history that held “ideologies” (or, what we think we understand about the big picture) to be the ossified leftovers of economic structures that were already obsolete. To put it in Dennett’s terms, Marx argued that a social system might function competently without any comprehension of its destiny. But even in this “competence” lay numerous contradictions that would lead inevitably to the deterioration of the system.

And Marx added something else that was crucial, something that Darwin, Turing, Dennett, and other positivists have consistently missed: the present system of development is not permanent. In a sense, Darwin was a theorist of historical change; but his ideas of evolution and infinite variation always made reference to a static world biosystem. In computing, Turing had the important insight that machines might self-replicate and “learn” more advanced processes without any understanding of their purposes, but judging by Dennett’s synopsis he did not emphasize sufficiently the role that the human engineer plays in predetermining the role that machines will play. For Marx, whose object was admittedly not the natural world but artificial human society, systems change all the time; between one system and the next we experience a total revolution — in politics, in culture, in science, in technology, and most importantly in social relations. If individual parts or actors want to preserve the present system, then competence is indeed possible without comprehension (competence may even require ignorance). But if one’s object is to change the world, then comprehension of the totality is a prerequisite. Marx of course had an interest in doing just that: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Perhaps this points toward a difference between machines and humans that Dennett would prefer to elide: machines are tools made by conscious human subjects and are thus dependent on the purposes we set for them. The “reason” that Dennett calls strangely inverted isn’t inverted at all. It’s actually two kinds of reason: an instrumental, means-ends rationality for which the competence-without-comprehension principle holds true, and a substantive rationality that depends on comprehension to create new values, new ends, and new forms of society. Humans have repeatedly transcended the limitations imposed on them by nature; until computers can do the same — i.e. transcend the limits imposed on them by their human creators and define their own purposes — then Turing’s insights (and perhaps Darwin’s as well) must be restricted to the domain of instrumental rationality, natural necessity, and the functionality of preexisting systems.


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