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Philosophical Methodology

Lost in a Paradigm: Dennett's Dangerous Dream

Richard Rickert

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ABSTRACT: The power of paradigm in science is ascendant, as exemplified in the growing debate over the role of DNA in natural selection, which Dennett (1995, 1996) has sustained with opponents like Gould (1996) and Fodor (1996). Here I focus on Dennett's quest for a dominating theory of natural selection and the ways in which two key issues of scientific method escape the notice of all debaters. In a scientific report or expository book a summary is an essential component of method — work which authors should do, not readers. Experience demonstrates its superiority in research analysis, reporting and conclusions. The second omission in Dennett's DNA model is any summary admission of limitations and of types of potential confounding factors which might be overlooked. In Dennett's case, the force of his material object reductionism and his rejection of Penrose's suggestions on quantum effects apparently prevents him from recognizing other field effects on DNA molecular dynamics, such as EMF and other radiation sources. I then introduce an amended version of the DNA paradigm in evolutionary causation, based on a range of evidence that researchers need to address. There are reports of certain types of adverse health effects of EMF proximity that have not, to my knowledge, been denied. But given DNA components of complex atoms bonded into a dynamic structure, it is prima facie implausible that proximate EMF fields have no influence on DNA dynamics, whether or not influence can be proved negative.

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"What but design of darkness to enthrall? If design govern in a thing so small."

(Frost. 212)

The power of paradigm in science is ascendant. Continuing debate over meanings of the term has not slowed its adoption, as if we knew very well what it means. The OED, quoting the classic sources, knows what it has meant, and Kuhn used its key synonym — exemplar — referring to that application in teaching science (187f.). But the holding power of paradigms is exemplified in the extending debate over the role of DNA in natural selection, which Dennett (1995, 1996) has sustained with opponents Gould (1996) and Fodor (1996). Here I focus on Dennett's quest for a dominating theory of natural selection and the ways in which some key issues of scientific method escape the notice of all participants in this debate. Dennett does not use "paradigm" nor mention Kuhn's 1969 postscript to the original SSR. In an age of paradigm consciousness and the cultural triumph of science, the nature and power of DNA theorizing as paradigm must be noted and scrutinized critically. I offer amendment, on evidence.

I emphasize the aspect of domination often implied by "paradigms" as exemplars and their role in scientific method, and in particular, in Dennett's exposition of DNA as a paradigm of evolutionary causation. I will argue that he does not sufficiently note two crucial components of scientific method, which must place his exposition in some doubt. Then I will offer for discussion an amended version of paradigm for evolutionary causation, based on a range of evidence that researchers need to address.

Both models and procedures can become paradigms, where they dominate scientific thinking. Margolis notes that the discovery of the DNA model by Crick and Watson was received uniquely in the biology community, a victory "almost routine" (28). But his focus on the effects of habit in scientific thinking, with other illustrations, also applies to the subsequent fate of the model. My key point about limitations of theory reflects ways in which scientific theorists can, by explication and testing, and inadequate critiquing, become fixated on a limited or false paradigm.

In the case of DNA, an actual visualized (two- or three-dimensional) model of DNA serves as dominating paradigm in scientific thinking and learning, focussing results visually, and serving as a heuristic device for further investigation and explanation. Paradigm models too depend on evolution of both thinking and instrumentation. The paradigm of science itself has evolved variously over the past three and a half centuries. Method, technology, and model of DNA have advanced so far that theorists regard it as the focus of conclusive explanation in biological causation and the leading stimulant in hi-tech research for further questions and applications. Standard biological texts assume its validity and offer graphic illustrations (Marieb; Talaro and Talaro). Explanatory languages may differ, as does the Talaros' definition of evolution in terms of increasing complexity, which Gould apparently rejects.

Dennett forcefully argues for his view of DNA algorithms as exclusive causal explanation and defense of Darwinism. Other theorists agree on DNA structure, but argue for inclusion of other factors in evolutionary causation (e.g., Gould, Kauffman). They show the role of search for alternate hypotheses in scientific thinking and method, a search leading to formulating null hypotheses to be rejected. Some question such moves now (Bower).

So far as I know at this point, the most forceful case for DNA as sole explanatory device for maintaining hegemony in natural selection debates is Dennett's, in particular, the first 307 pages of his book. To summarize his fundamental premises and their links: Natural selection is determined by "a foolproof recipe" (51-the algorithm) embodied in DNA as a result of eons of prior evolution. Because it embodies a "logical process," it produces "guaranteed results" with "underlying mindlessness." He reformulates reputed Darwin's discovery in extended defense:

No matter how impressive the products of an algorithm, the underlying process always consists of nothing but a set of mindless steps succeeding each other without the help of any intelligent supervision: they are "automatic" by definition, the workings of an automaton. They feed on each other, or on blind chance-coin-flips, if you like — and on nothing else. (59).

For Dennett, all the ingenious functional diverse biological organs and forms we see are "the product of a blind, algorithmic process" (59). Quoting as authority Darwin's rejection of any role for "miraculous additions" in natural selection, Dennett reduces our options with an excluded middle. He also approves of Darwin's sloppy argument for natural selection (107).

But then, ". . .if mindless evolution could account for the breathtakingly clever artifacts of the biosphere, how could the products of our own "real" minds be exempt from an evolutionary explanation?" (65) Notice now — before arguing his case for the rise of intelligence from mindless acts of DNA (205), he uses a wide variety of mental terms to characterize its operations. Products of "mindless" evolution are "clever artifacts of the biosphere" (65). "Clever" is today so inextricably bound up with concepts of talent and ingenuity (OED) — mental concepts — that its application here, along with "artifact," is patently inconsistent. He also injects the concept of skill (55), but what its actual relevance is, Dennett does not, in the end, say. And later, "incessant local improvement . . . seeks out the best designs," involving "underlying algorithms, mindless all the way down . . . capable of discovery, recognition, and wise decision" (308). Mindless X's are capable of recognition and wisdom in decisions? Metaphors in poetry intrigue and stimulate, but used in anticipation of proof, as if scientific, contradict and confuse.

Similar problems occur with the term "Design" (65ff.). Dennett's usage is clumsy, starting with a verb, "designed," which creates ambiguity in "design." Is it "organized form," or a verb, "organized process"? This ambiguity dogs Dennett throughout (1995) and into his reply to Fodor (1996), failing to rebut Fodor's own forceful way of putting the point (253). Dawkins' "blind watchmaker" (1986) is another case of confused metaphor. A blind watchmaker, skilled with mind and fingers, can make a watch, perhaps crudely. A blind bonsai master can even make a thing as lovely as a tree. When does intentionality enter evolution and designing? Design in fact, as anticipatory tool planning and production, is now found down at even lower evolutionary levels: Caledonian crows make tools to extract meals from ant hills. So, could there be conspiracy behind those American crows who dump execrable stuff on our automobiles? Do they have intentionality? Or are they "blind"? (See Kastner, 1986)

That Dennett's thinking on algorithms too can go awry is seen in the way he claims that the "uniform" size of grains of sand on a beach is due to "a natural sorting process" with the surf acting as an algorithmic process in the "repetitive launching of the grains by the surf" (57). As stated, this seems to me a paradigm of inaccurate observation. What "uniformity"? How many beaches of distinctly different sizes and densities of individual sand grains has he not visited, how many differing areas on a single beach, how much fine-grained sand suspended in the surf gets in his hair or sun-tan lotion? The scientific proofs are missing — take some sieves out there and find the "uniform sizes" of sand on beaches across the globe — Cape May East vs. Southwest, Hatteras, Juan de Fuca vs. Ruby and Puget Sound, Naxos' white sand-pebble beaches, Santorini's foot-frying black lava stones and volcanic ash beaches, etc. Please.

Through as many highways and by-ways of the issues as he can, Dennett eagerly takes on his rivals with competitive ferocity. There's Darwinian irony. He does acknowledge and argue to dismiss key alternatives to his view of the algorithmic DNA paradigm. He simply dismisses competitors at the other extreme, with clever metaphor: Fantasies of "skyhooks." I don't recall Dad ever associating skyhooks with that ineluctable vast diffuse something that was called "God." Dennett's is derisive metaphor. I don't read his opponents as deriding his own fixation as elevators to the fifth floor. But none of this is science, I think. If we are going to attack an "Artificer" behind "skyhooks," then do the hard work in phenomenology on candidates for "religious experience and belief," and personally test some key suggestions in relevant literature around the planet. If non-scientists have obligations to listen to scientists, the reverse holds too.

Dennett, moving deeper into his argument, cautions against over-confidence. Yet he fails to provide readers with two of the leading steps needed to ensure a proper review and critique of his argument and paradigm. Though he sums up each chapter and writes a forecast of the next, and states his advancing conclusions, he never fully writes a summary and re-cap of this evidence and where we are in his argument and in the paradigm. The reader is forced the job on to cycle between his exposition and index. We need, near the critical mid-point of his text (end of Chapter Ten) Summary No. 1: a clear, critical, summarizing review, with key conclusions.

Dennett, at the peak of his satisfaction, leaves to readers the task of pulling together a summary of his total argument to review and critique. Having long dealt with this sort of expository writing problem in the work of graduate students and professional colleagues in other fields, I see the weakness of an exposition which leaves summation up to the reader. I emphasize this as an essential component of research, of scientific method and reporting. It is the obligation of authors in science reporting and explication of complex subjects to provide readers with adequate summaries, not vice versa. The numerous deficiencies I have seen over considerable time all reinforce the general conclusion that such authors — in whatever field — are much too ready to be satisfied that their work is sufficiently stated (entrenched?), that readers need not expect convenient and clear summing up which could lead to closer examination and doubts. A statement, "The outlook is positive," is not a useful summary of twelve pages of economic data and analysis. Real estate appraisers, under Federal regulation, must, in a final section of their reports, review and weight the significance of all three common approaches to valuation, even if one or two are not used at all. If "valuation scientists" can be obligated by legal standards, why not "real" scientists, many of whom spend millions in tax-funded grants?

We need also Summary No. 2: A "Statement of Limitations and Ignorance": A careful review of the limitations of his paradigm, including an assessment of the degree of ignorance it may involve, of blocking out potentially crucial factors, and of the impact of too obsessive a satisfaction with the paradigm. Dennett does not volunteer the key confessional question, "Have I missed anything, major or minor? What is relevant that I might not know?" This should lead him to more intent review of limitations and possible alternatives. A summary might make it easier for readers to assist him in finding additional arguable alternatives. Must we restate crucial moments and experiments in the history of modern science that illustrate this point?

Paradoxically, Kosso offers "entrenchment" as a standard for good scientific theories, a commendation which he equates with compatibility with other theories (36f.). The OED focuses on its military and constitutional origins, which emphasize security. American usage implying dogged fixation in place is best relied on by opponents of theories. As Dennett admires his achievement, he views Darwinism's "dominion over every corner of biology more secure than ever" (312). He might as well have said "more entrenched than ever."

The following all may contribute to ideas on limitations, but lack greater pursuit of more serious issues of confounding factors. The scientific method of investigation refined continuously became more formalized within the past 100 years as the IMRAD model of scientific publication: Introduction (problem), Methods, Results, And Discussion. Robert Day only explains the applications of this model for aspiring scientists. Howle and Urbach in their advanced treatise discuss briefly "Falsifying Hypotheses" and Popper's influence on the issue (81). Anderson and Borkowksi offer a reasonable exposition and table of types and features of confounding variables, plus strategies for control (1978. 115-170). A nursing research text does urge discussion of limitations as required in scientific investigation and reporting (Lobiondo-Wood). Mott Greene, a historian of science, reports the increasing narrowness in scientists' knowledge created by the proliferation of sub-disciplines (1997), giving the appearance of being part of the scientific method itself, enforced by the procedures of scientists. The inertia of "science" arguing to exclude extra-disciplinary commentary risks the fallacy of authority.

I emphasize the importance of a scientific author's clearly weighing, as an intrinsic part of scientific method, the possibility of oversight and error by stating more than a Standard Error of the Estimate. Any research design can be vulnerable to substantial errors of measurement from unidentified influences. Dennett gives insufficient indication of such questions in the field of DNA studies. This is a methodological hole in his paradigm. Often I have urged students to make explicit concession to ignorance, by stating the question, "What relevant factors might escape my attention; what do I not know on this issue?" Where science publications lack clear exposition of limitations and the potential for serious alternatives, I mark them as suspect.

There is much more here than meets the unobservant mind. For example: The static constructed models and textbook graphics of DNA which connect little colored balls (e.g., Talaro and Talaro, 58) can seriously misguide visualization of actual DNA, as if constructed of solid "material objects." But the sub-units of DNA are not microscopic solid balls. They are sub-molecules of atomic dynamics constructed by chemical bonding into the great double-helix array, the whole being itself an atomic process of an electro-molecular order (Talaro, 56f.).

The bearing of all this on DNA modeling and research programs needs to admit additional influences on DNA functioning: the general radiation environment, whatever the frequencies, which gets not a whisper of mention in Dennett's exposition. Some relevant researches have been reported in the public press. Other authors' language tempts him as well. He discusses favorably Stuart Kauffman's work on self-replicating systems, relative to adaptationism. Here is most of his quote from Kauffman:

Adaptive evolution is a search process — driven by mutation... — on fixed or

deforming fitness landscapes. An adapting population flows over the landscape under these forces. The structure of such landscapes, smooth or rugged, governs both the evolvability of populations and the sustained fitness of their members. The structure of fitness landscapes inevitably imposes limitations on adaptive search. (118)

Note the conscious choice of terms and metaphors. With "fitness" ringing of Darwinism, is "landscapes" literal or metaphoric? Or both? "Flows" is a metaphor, but applies literally to downward cascades rather than to salmon leaping or fingerlings tumbling in the spring.

But more serious in Kauffman's language, metaphoric or otherwise, is its domination by physical object terms, which monopolize our entire concept or visualization of the setting in which adaptation and selection take place. But, whether natural or man-made, the physical landscape is permeated by natural and man-made field forces, from hi-tech transmission facilities to fields coming from deep space (Gamma and X-rays, etc.). Can these penetrating fields lack some directive effect on biochemical/bio-electrical organisms? Rees distinguishes "matter" from "radiation" (in Brockmans. 1995) See Cairns-Smith (1982) and Dawkins (1986).

All the variant explanations Dennett offers in Chapter 8, Section 1 to 3, can hold relatively true and at the same time leave room for other more diffuse controls, such as the inevitable natural and man-made EMF fields. To call them "mindless" or "stupid" overlooks the coordinative, integrative functions of such fields enveloping individual organisms. Numerous types and sizes of algorithmic DNA are afloat in the cosmological sea, given directive push by such fields, which penetrate vast spaces. Electro-magnetic fields have received perhaps the most headlines about biological effects in recent years. The most recent denials of evidence of adverse health effects of EMF's does not deny that there are effects. No electric utility engineer denies that readable gauss values are found at the door of residences within defined distances from high-voltage, low-frequency transmission lines. We need not deny EMF effects on condominium residents with rear decks nor on infants in bedrooms just 60 feet below 135-KV lines. Where we experience gauss effects we can safely argue the existence of some micro-effects on brain waves, whose Beta-wave runs up to 60 herz, in tune with AC currents of whatever voltage. A recent EMF experiment reputedly yields a leukemia-stimulating enzyme.

This challenges denials of EMF influences on children's health and brain development. Reports also argue serious health effects on electrical substation and cable workers, and testicular cancer apparently caused by high-frequency radar units which highway patrol officers had chronically placed in their laps. In general, the EPA recommendation of prudent avoidance of such fields would seem to be continued wisdom. Regardless, EMF and other radiation fields still penetrate those biological conductors called organisms, including people. To deny all influence of field forces on either DNA biochemistry or consciousness is implausible on the face of it.

I argue this further on the basis of 1) direct, sustained phenomological observation, that consciousness is not reducible to brain states; 2) intent, trained consciousness can successfully defeat certain low-level illnesses; 3) an observed form of subtle intelligence links humans and certain feral animals in the natural environment; and 4) known medical research shows beneficial effects of meditation on serious illness; and 5) the close institutional and causal relations between DNA/genetic research under a reductive model to medical institutions and professionals who are inclined to wield an elitist logic of domination over health-care consumers (I base this statement on long-term monitoring and personal experience). We need to desist from an inaccurate or insufficient DNA model in isolation from any kind of radiation field effects and issues of personal autonomy and consciousness, and develop the models, theory, and methods for investigating what those effects on DNA functioning and field effects might be.

Dennett feels Darwin expanded Donne's "No man is an island," with clams and tulips: "every possible living thing is connected by isthmuses of descent to all other living things" (121). Fine. What prevents him from taking this all the way to admitting the connection of everything with everything else, including non-organic? Everything present today has descended together, from interacting influences. Long ago I named such a principle, distinct from Butler's Idiosyncrasy Platitude, as the Vacuity Platitude: "Everything is what it is because of everything else." A paradigm of evolution must account for phenomena historically expressed as "interdependence" and "interpenetration" (see Capra). And add a practicing phenomology of consciousness, considered dispassionately and not dismissed out-of-hand as if meaningless. DNA: a living electro-dynamic component of living organisms and a radiant, living environment.

Dennett notes a campfire song he sang long ago (523). Ages ago I too sang it. In May, 1997 I delivered in North Dakota supplies and funds for flood victims. Later, in the dead of pre-dawn, through my sleeping consciousness, the final refrain melody of a hymn floated casually. No words ... just a tune not recognized for more than 40 years. I had to track the words down: "Here Am I — Send Me, Send Me." I do not go looking for such meanings. I simply accept what is placed before me to work on. I sum up for evolutionists the intuition that I have often expressed to students: "Reality is vastly different from what you believe it to be." Any beginning for penetrating study of human and trans-human reality should start with an intent, sustained direct phenomenology. Work to transcend your quest for meaning and certainty. May all those hear these points who have DNA-driven microphones and DNA models on their altars.

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