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Dennett's Deal
A Talk With Daniel Dennett


Nicholas Humphrey, Colin Tudge, Peter Tallack, and David Berreby on Dennett's Deal by Daniel Dennett


From: Nicholas Humphrey
Date: 6-7-99

Dan refers to my ideas about Scientific Shakespeare. It occurs to me that Edge readers might like to see my original article, which appeared in The Guardian newspaper, 26th August 1987.

All best, Nick

Scientific Shakespeare

This being the 300th anniversary of Newton's Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, I've been wondering about other anniversaries that fall this year: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1387), Leonardo's painting of the Virgin of the Rocks (1487), Marlowe's Tamburlaine (1587), Mozart's Don Giovanni (1787), Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals (1887).

The eighty-seventh year of the century seems to have been an auspicious time for art and scholarship. Still, if we had to choose just one of these great works to celebrate, we ought surely to give the Principia first place. Newton's law of gravitation, which states that "every body in the universe attracts every other with a force inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them", has been described as the greatest generalisation ever made by the human mind.

What then if we had to choose just one of these works to consign to oblivion? If the choice were forced, I'd have little doubt which it should be: the Principia would have to go. How so? Because, of all those works, Newton's was the only one that was replaceable. Quite simply: if Newton had not written it, then someone else would have done — probably within the space of a few years.

C.P.Snow, in the Two Cultures, extolled the great discoveries of science as "scientific Shakespeare". But in one way he was fundamentally mistaken. Shakespeare's plays were Shakespeare's plays and no one else's; scientific discoveries, by contrast, belong — ultimately — to no one in particular. Take away the person Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or Mozart and you'd take away the arbitrary creation of a one-off human mind; take away Newton, or Darwin, or Einstein and you'd take away nothing that could not eventually be replaced by Mind at large.

It may be unfashionable to say that the job of science is to uncover God's pre-existing truths. But, notwithstanding today's "subject-centred theories of reality", I think science does just that. There are pre-existing truths out there waiting to be found, and it is the job of the scientist to uncover them. In no way however could the same be said of art. There are no pre- existing books out there waiting to be written, nor pre-existing pictures waiting to be painted.

Consider the disputes that arise in science, but not in art, about "priority". Newton quarrelled fiercely with Liebniz about which of them had in fact invented the differential calculus before the other, and with Hooke about who had discovered the inverse square law. But while, say, there may once have been room for dispute about whether Marlowe actually wrote Shakespeare's plays, no one would ever have suggested that Marlowe got there before Shakespeare.

Newton had a dog called Diamond. One day, the story goes, the dog knocked over a candle, set fire to some papers and destroyed "the unfinished labours of some years". "Oh Diamond, Diamond!", Newton cried, "thou little knowest the mischief done!". Suppose that the papers had been the manuscript of the Principia, and that Newton, in chagrin or despair, had given up doing science. Mischief, indeed. None the less, Diamond's mischief would hardly have changed the course of history. If Diamond, however, had been Chaucer's dog and had set fire to the Canterbury Tales, the loss would truly have been irrecoverable.

General Wolfe said of Gray's Elegy "I would rather have written that poem than take Quebec". In 1887 Eiffel built the Eiffel Tower. Would it be understandable for anyone to say they would rather have built the Eiffel Tower than have written the Principia? It would depend on what his or her personal ambitions were. The Principia was a glorious monument to human intellect, the Eiffel Tower was a relatively minor feat of romantic engineering; yet the fact is that while Eiffel did it his way, Newton merely did it God's way.

To be God's scribe, as Newton was, is not to have an undistinguished role. Nevertheless I'd conclude — until someone shows me why I'm wrong — that any person who wants to leave their own peculiar mark on the landscape of other people's minds, should build towers, paint pictures or write stories rather than devote themselves to uncovering the scientific truth. As a scientist myself I find this conclusion worth thinking about, if not worth trying to live by.

Nicholas Humphrey, The Guardian, 26 August 1987.


From: Colin Tudge
Date: 6-7-99

I would like to question Dan Dennett's or indeed Nick Humphrey's assertion (quoted in Dennett's Deal, Edge 56) that (in Humphrey's words) "Shakespeare's plays were Shakespeare's plays, and no one else's; scientific discoveries belong — ultimately — to no one in particular". This thought has often been expressed if rarely as elegantly, but I think it is much less true than it seems — and that it is actually rather a dangerous misconception that threatens to lay the dead hand of Thomas Gradgrind over science education.

Humphrey's idea is often demonstrated empirically, by examples from history. Thus as Dennett argues, if Crick and Watson had not produced the double helix model of DNA, someone else soon would have done (with Pauling a strong candidate). But Dennett has to strain quite hard to come up with that example. The DNA model is brilliant and extraordinarily important but actually, it is very simple. The helix, once proposed, is indisputable. It can be seen under the electron microscope. The intra-atomic distances can be inferred from first principles, and then measured. There is no room for manoeuvre. The model is either right or wrong, and it can be tested in a dozen different ways, which all show its rightness.

But most examples are nothing like so clear-cut. Thus Darwin and Wallace thought of natural selection more or less simultaneously (and others, notably Patrick Matthew, had already outlined what is apparently the same idea). But is Darwin's view of natural selection really the same as Wallace's? In emphasis, not quite. Are they really, then, the same idea? If Darwin had not existed, would Wallace's version of natural selection have filled the same niche? Would it really have led to the Neowallacian Modern Synthesis? Would such a synthesis have been the same as the Neodarwinian version? Furthermore, Darwin went on to describe sexual selection and as Helena Cronin has pointed out in Ant and the Peacock, that idea was effectively ignored for the next 100 years. Wallace never really appreciated it. Would anyone apart from Darwin ever have thought of sexual selection? What evidence is there that anyone else would have done? Similarly, Tschermak, Correns, and de Vries are credited with the 'rediscovery' of Mendel, having apparently (as they liked to suggest) arrived at similar conclusions independently. Did they really? Close inspection of their papers does not support this. There really seems to have been only one Gregor Mendel.

But then, biology is vague and literary, is it not? Physics should be much clearer. Yet what is striking about Bohr, Schroedinger, and Heisenberg, (though this is not my field) is how different they were. The contributions of each can be clearly picked out. Again, they emphasise different aspects of the same body of ideas, though all alluding to the same Universe.

The reasons that biology and physics both seem to leave scope for disagreement are probably qualitatively different in each case. Theoretical biologists, after all, seek to infer processes that have no material existence; the post-Darwinian idea of the handicap principle, for example, is easy to explain but very difficult to demonstrate unequivocally in action. The handicap principle may work but it isn't a 'thing' or even a 'force' in the physicist's sense. Particle physics does deal with real physical phenomena but they happen to be difficult to measure. In both fields, however, particular insights do seem to be associated with particular people.

But empirical arguments are only part of the story. It seems to me logically impossible to demonstrate that any one idea in science would in fact be discovered at time t + X, if it had not already been discovered at time t. For how can we possibly know? We know what Newton, Einstein, and Darwin said because they lived on this Earth and spoke out. If other people of comparable intellect had lived instead, might they not have provided completely different insights? How can we know what people might have said of they did not exist (or if they whiled away their lives in some Indian village)? Of course, there is only one Universe, and science contrives to say things about it that are true, and some of its statements are undoubtedly truer than others (and truer than the guesses of magicians and soothsayers). Yet, as the contrast between classical and quantum physics reveals, there really may be ideas of equal validity that are nonetheless contrasting. More important, though, is the matter of logic: we simply cannot know what people who did not exist might have said, and cannot know whether any one idea might or might not have been thought of by somebody else.

Finally, I am struck by how different western science would be if we took away the top 20 intellects from the past 400 years: Galileo, Turing, Einstein, Bohr, Darwin, Maxwell, Newton, etc. There have been hundreds of other brilliant people — Robert Boyle, T. H. Huxley, Humphry Davy, etc. etc. — but without the top notchers, we would still be living, conceptually, in the 17th century. Only the top notchers make the wild leaps that are necessary. And what if there had been another layer of people who were even brighter than the acknowledged stars? The limit on the complexity of science is surely imposed not by the Universe that is under scrutiny, but by the intellects of the people doing the scrutinising.

So all in all, I reckon science depends much more on individuals than is commonly supposed. In fact the history of science is largely, and inescapably, a history of insights of extraordinary people.

p.s.: Artists are also interested in originality (although the most original are not necessarily the best).


From: Peter Tallack
Date: 6-11-99

Dan Dennett's question — would you rather be first and right or original and provocative but wrong — isn't quite so clear-cut as it initially appears.

For a start, it's possible to be all of these, even at the same time. Take Lamarck. During his lifetime he was hailed as first and right — and in some quarters (notably in France) is still believed to be so. And not so long ago, Stanley Prusiner, the originator of the prion hypothesis, was generally considered by the scientific community to be firmly in the second camp (original but wrong). But a couple of years ago he won a Nobel prize for his work, suggesting that most people now think he was first and right. In fact, the history of science shows that being first and right often entails being labelled original and wrong initially — and vice versa.

And in what sense was Einstein "right"? Many theoretical physicists now regard general relativity as no more than an effective field theory — that is, a field theory that provides an approximation to a more fundamental theory. Indeed, as Steven Weinberg has pointed out in a recent article in Daedalus, the danger in history is that in contemplating the great discoveries or theories of the past, we develop such reverence for them that we become unable to reassess their place in the development of the overall field. Big discoveries invariably become little discoveries, which in turn form the basis of subsequent big discoveries. And so on...

What's more, what constitutes a "big" discovery varies enormously from discipline to discipline. For example, the idea of making a scientific discovery of such great importance that part of the field closes down forever is almost exclusively the aspiration of theoretical physicists; they seem quite happy to imagine finding a final theory that will wrap up their field, effectively putting themselves out of a job. On the other hand, most other scientists would consider a "big" discovery to be one that became the basis of a huge expansion of scientific knowledge; they tend to believe that their lines of investigation will go on indefinitely, and look forward to an endless future of finding and solving interesting problems. Which brings us back to that old debate about the end of science.


From: David Berreby
Date: 6-15-99

Dan Dennett's question — would you rather be first and right or original and provocative but wrong — isn't quite so clear-cut as it initially appears.

For a start, it's possible to be all of these, even at the same time. Take Lamarck. During his lifetime he was hailed as first and right — and in some quarters (notably in France) is still believed to be so. And not so long ago, Stanley Prusiner, the originator of the prion hypothesis, was generally considered by the scientific community to be firmly in the second camp (original but wrong). But a couple of years ago he won a Nobel prize for his work, suggesting that most people now think he was first and right. In fact, the history of science shows that being first and right often entails being labelled original and wrong initially — and vice versa.

And in what sense was Einstein "right"? Many theoretical physicists now regard general relativity as no more than an effective field theory — that is, a field theory that provides an approximation to a more fundamental theory. Indeed, as Steven Weinberg has pointed out in a recent article in Daedalus, the danger in history is that in contemplating the great discoveries or theories of the past, we develop such reverence for them that we become unable to reassess their place in the development of the overall field. Big discoveries invariably become little discoveries, which in turn form the basis of subsequent big discoveries. And so on...

What's more, what constitutes a "big" discovery varies enormously from discipline to discipline. For example, the idea of making a scientific discovery of such great importance that part of the field closes down forever is almost exclusively the aspiration of theoretical physicists; they seem quite happy to imagine finding a final theory that will wrap up their field, effectively putting themselves out of a job. On the other hand, most other scientists would consider a "big" discovery to be one that became the basis of a huge expansion of scientific knowledge; they tend to believe that their lines of investigation will go on indefinitely, and look forward to an endless future of finding and solving interesting problems. Which brings us back to that old debate about the end of science.


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