The Purpose of Long-Agers

Thoughts from Steven: Finding a Meaning for Life, Part 1

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For a creationist, it is easy to assign meaning to life.  The Westminister Catechism poses the question, “What is the chief and highest end of man?” and answers it very easily, “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever.”  That is an easy answer and one that can be easily derived from the Bible.  God made man for the purpose of creating someone in His image and to tend the world He created (Genesis 1:26 – 28).  God created and enacted a plan to save fallen man to unite all things under Himself so that we might bring praise and glory to Him (Ephesians 1:3 – 14).  In Johns description of the New Jerusalem, God provides light for the entire city, all nations walk by its light, and all kings of the earth bring their glory to it (Revelations 21:22 – 26).  The purpose of glorifying God is present in the Bible from the beginning to the end.  For a creationist, finding purpose is easy.


What about long- agers?  They also seek to find purpose and meaning in life.  Sometimes, the meaning comes out very shallow such as, “Survive long enough to pass your genes on to the next generation.”  Other times, they write whole books about the meaning of life.  One such book is Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life by Daniel C. Dennett.[i]  Despite first appearances, Dennett does not think of Darwinism as truly dangerous.  It is dangerous to other ideas, like and acid eating them away and leaving a different ideology in its path.  Dennett, however, does not shy away from this new ideology.  Rather, he embraces it.

I want to explore Dennett’s idea about the meaning of life and how it can stem from Darwinian thinking.  In particular, it is interesting to note whether he is consistent in his own thinking, that is, whether his own presumptions match his final conclusions.  To begin, it is necessary to explain some illustrations that Dennett uses repeatedly.

Dennett uses the terms “crane” and “skyhook” very often in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.  Cranes represent natural mechanisms that can be used to build things, such as organisms.  A skyhook is a theoretical crane that is suspended from the sky.  It is used to represent God of divine intervention in general.[ii]  A big part of his argument throughout the book is that cranes are capable of doing the job we may think only a skyhook could do.  The advantage of a skyhook, naturally, is that it extends all the way into the sky.  A tower of any size and height can be built using a skyhook.  Cranes, in contrast, are far smaller and have limited reach.

When faced with a monumental tower, such as human intelligence, people may assume that something of that magnitude can only be built using a skyhook.  Not so, Dennett argues.  While a single crane can not build a tower of that size, a crane could build a smaller tower and then build a second crane on top of that tower.  This second crane can build its own, larger tower with a third crane on it, which in turn can build a fourth tower, and so on until the final, monumental tower is build.

Dennett starts off early talking about design space: a region of possibilities that define what actions can and can not be taken by natural processes.  He highlights that repeated arrival at similar solutions demonstrates the ability of cranes to arrive at useful solutions in this design space.  For instance, if there is one good way to make an eye, or perhaps several good ways that all fall within the same realm in design space, then we would expect evolutionary processes to hit upon or very close to these designs.[iii]  He also uses the example of scientists who happened upon the same or similar solutions to a problem as an example of this process.  For example, Newton and Leibniz independently came upon calculus at the same time.  Why is this?  Because they were looking for a particular solution to problems of the day and there was only one method within design space to solve those problems.  They were looking for the same solution in the same space so it is no wonder that they came upon it at the same time.[iv]

As a brief aside, Dennett claims that similar but imperfect design in nature is evidence of evolutionary processes.  His reasoning is that these imperfect designs represent copying.  Presumably, an intelligent designer (a skyhook) would always hit upon the exact same solution every time, for why would he put flaws, however minor, in his designs?  This is a poor argument, which is illustrated in part by Newton and Leibniz themselves.  These men hit upon calculus at the same time but did so using different methods.  They had the same solution but with different quirks.  I would assume that Newton and Leibiz were both intelligent agents yet they came up with imperfect designs.  In fact, modern calculus is different in some ways from the methods they used: it has been refined to make it better.  Dennett’s own example shows that we can not presume that imperfect designs are indicative of an absence of a designer. It is also here where Dennett makes the argument that those who discover things are replaceable while those who create things, such as poets and playwrights, are not.

Later on, to illustrate that complex processes do not need a skyhook, Dennett gives an example of a virus.  A virus is capable of performing many intricate tasks and yet the virus is merely a complex package of proteins running according to a program.  Viruses are known well enough that we can reduce all of their activities to chemistry and physics.  There is no skyhook necessary here.  To emphasize that point, he ends the illustration with this comment:

An impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all the agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe.[v]


This quote sets the stage for some of Dennett’s later conclusions.  It is obvious that he is searching for a solution to meaning that will be devoid of skyhooks and therefore it will be one built entirely by cranes.  Another quote drives this idea home even more:


If this is correct, then all the achievements of human culture—language, art, religion, ethics, science itself—are themselves artifacts (of artifacts of artifacts…) of the same fundamental process that developed the bacteria, the mammals and Homo sapiens.  There is no Special Creation of language, and neither art nor religion has a literally divine inspiration.  If there are no skyhooks needed to make a skylark, there are also no skyhooks needed to make an ode to a nightingale.  No meme is an island.[vi]


I will say that Dennett is correct.  If evolutionary and natural process is all that are needed to build a man, then everything that man does would merely be an artifact of those processes.  However, to get to that conclusion, it is necessary to demonstrate that cranes are capable of creation bacteria, humans, and skylarks.  To that end, Dennett explores other, more complex designs in nature, such as what shape of a fish is best suited for lying on the seafloor.  While doing this, he concedes a telling acknowledgment:


This is a purely theory-driven explanation, argued a priori from the assumption that natural selection tells us the true story—some true story or other—about every curious feature of the biosphere.[vii]


This is a huge chink in his argument.  If he wants to make the case that everything humans do, and thus any meaning to life, is derived from the same natural processes that create organisms, then it is imperative for him to demonstrate to the ability of said natural processes.  Yet, while trying to make that very point, he acknowledges that he must first assume that natural selection has the power to shape living organisms without limit.  Take away that assumption and his whole argument falls apart.

[i]     Dennett, Daniel C. (1995) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life, Simon & Schuster, New York, New York


[ii]    Ibid. pg. 73 – 80


[iii]   Ibid. pg. 136 – 138


[iv]   Ibid. pg. 139 – 140


[v]    Ibid. pg. 203


[vi]   Ibid. pg. 144


[vii]  Ibid. pg. 250


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