Gradualism and The Great Chain of Being

There is A Great Chain of Being

How did it all start? Where did all the different things come from?

We have been considering this big and broad question and have come to some conclusions. To think that in the beginning “Something came from Nothing,” is fruitless; no “god” can help us, for that concept is as mysterious as the problem we started with. (See previous passage.)

So, we have agreed that “More has come from Less” and that is, in deed, the modern answer. We are all quite familiar with the idea that, in some sense, everything is “just” matter and energy. The noted physicist Sean Carroll was quoted in the previous passage, that in a very important way, everything is gravity, electromagnetism, electrons and nuclei.

(Depiction of The Big Bang. You can’t say much existed here. Though, in these first few seconds/nanoseconds a whole lot of a couple kinds of things were really cooking! Thanks to

But it should be pointed out very quickly, that what we seek here—in the Nature Religion Connection—is not a scientific explanation of our ordinary world, but a re-enforcement of much of it. Too often a scientific explanation is a reduction of a very ordinary and important thing into terms very much unlike it. “Color” is electromagnetism. A “person” is a biological human animal. “Consciousness” is really neural activity, and Purposes do not exist at all in the world as understood by our most basic sciences.

Yes, many intelligent people believe that the hard sciences, with the help of Darwin and evolution, have chased Purposes (teleology or goals) from nature. “Life is pointless, in a cosmic sense,” they contend. But, this position comes to nonsense, and these thinkers “should add, for consistency’s sake, that science has also demonstrated the unreality of colors and of life itself…Atoms are all there is, and atoms aren’t colored, and aren’t alive either,” contends a philosopher more formally introduced below.* That the character of scientific explanation has its limitations is what should be concluded and that is an old and persistent contention among some philosophers (and scientists) going back at least into the 17th century and Rene Descartes.

Nor does The Connection seek religious supports and explanations for many of these important ordinary ideas. Persons are unique because of their relation to God, it is said, and their possession of an immaterial “soul.” Consciousness and life are themselves “Spirit” and not simply matter. Of death it has long been said, ‘The spirit passes from the body.’

Both Science and Religion have to be re-aligned. Here at Nature Religion Connection we seek a viable modern philosophy, one that has great respect for the accomplishments of science, but also a sense of its limitations. Not quite the same can be said for religion; there we seek something more like a re-invention and a rehabilitation of religion’s still existing archaic forms and habits.


So let us return to our topic, Where does all the variety of the world come from? How does it happen? It has Evolved, we have concluded, through enhancements in structure and design. And Evolution does not allow just anything and everything to appear; there is a very long and connected Chain of developments. It is getting More from The Less that immediately preceded it, a gradual bumping up.

Yet, a few things still stick in our “craw” on this topic of More from Less. Is not there a “leap” from non-life to life, from matter to consciousness, from neural activity to ‘seeing color,’ from things being caused to things that freely choose, to name just a few such stark contrasts. What of “the gap” between “good” and “evil”?

Daniel Dennett, of Tufts University in the Boston area, is a guiding light for the Nature Religion Connection.

But, in reality, there are no drastic gaps, there are only shortcomings in our intuitions and imaginations, argues Dan Dennett, one of the leading philosophers and commentators on our times.

On the above topic of the problem with some scientific explanations, Dennett contends there is “an equivocation” evident among biologists, for example. “Talk of functions and purposes is really only shorthand, a handy metaphor, and that strictly speaking there are no such things as functions, no purposes, no teleology at all in the world,” biologists are forced to awkwardly contend in the end, says Dennett.* They admit that really ‘eyes’ are not for seeing, ‘hearts’ are not for pumping; each—and all—are merely a clump of atoms with no further implications, no more to be said beyond the laws of physics.

Dennett disagrees; there is much worth saying beyond atom-talk. On all the drastic contrasts listed above, he insists that there are between them a series of Gradual Changes, slight adjustments, incremental installments that create slightly different things, sometimes more complex things, more capable molecules, states, and creatures. There is more we should understand as real, than what physics may contend. “Evolutionary processes brought purposes and reasons into existence the same way they brought color vision (and hence colors) into existence: gradually.”* Billions of years of tiny attempts form the evolutionary road to where we are today. Gradualism is one of the principles of our viable modern philosophy.

(Representation of “a spherical-shaped, measles virus particle,” courtesy of the CDC Its size is approximately 20 to 30 millionths of a millimeter.)

For example, viruses occupy a gray zone, neither alive nor dead. Viruses both reproduce and are incapable of reproducing on their own. We can, in a sense, appropriately call them “a bug,” as in “flu bug.” Yet we know they do not eat (metabolize). They are sort of alive, as are early stage fetuses and brain-dead patients. There are different “levels” at which we find it useful to describe many objects.

The Great Chain

Sensitivity and consciousness are other examples of borderline phenomena. In our ordinary world, we tend to think of a continuum of creatures who possess lesser and greater degrees of “mindfulness”—of consciousness and sensitivity. An ant is like a little person, in some ways. It is full of intentions, scurrying about with jobs to do, goals to achieve. Many of us feel a twinge of regret if we step on one. ‘Oh, it must have felt pain,’ we say, but we acknowledge that the ant is not a full-blown person or consciousness when we kill a hundred of them with insecticide when they invade our kitchen.

(At the center of The Tulip: “Pistil, Color, Petal,” photo by GregWW.)
Two Old Dogs

A plant is even less sensitive than an ant, but the family dog ranks way up there —fully conscious (?), loyal, nearly a person. This continuum of growing consciousness, abilities, and ‘person-ality’ is what Dennett calls “a deep fact, the kind you build a theory on.” This fact reflects the history of the evolutionary appearances; a fact recognized in western culture starting as far back as Aristotle and very prominent in the middle ages. There is a Great Chain of Being.

This Great Chain started with God at the top and ran down to angels, humans, animals, plants and finally most inanimate objects. It was thought to be the manifestation of God and Value into the world. In this sense, Gold was thought to be “the highest” mineral; the Lion the highest animal, and the Rose or Oak the highest plant. The King and Queen were the most valuable and god-like of humans. The Sun, Moon and the Planets were thought of as “the most noble” objects, ‘the eternal orbs.’

(The medieval social order was meticulously outlined in The Chain. Notice in this rendition, Actors rank just below Beggars and just above Thieves.)

Of course, this Great Chain is “a top-down model of creation,” points out Dennett. Initially it was used as a central argument against Evolution. “Only Absolute Wisdom could create lesser wisdoms and abilities. From Absolute Ignorance (inanimate matter) no creation occurs,” argued a prominent 19th century English critic of Darwin. Nonetheless, the chain exhibits an awareness of the Gradualism in nature, especially biology. Today’s best understanding of it is as The Tree of Life.

(The History of Ancestry among living things is generally agreed to demonstrate (in many cases) a growing degree of complexity of Design and increases in Ability.

What does this Tree of Life, this Great Chain, really show us? It shows us Life Evolving from non-life, Purposes gradually rising from pointlessness, Advanced Civilizations starting out as bacteria, and Consciousness as a product of insensate materials. In 2017, Dennett wrote his book From Bacteria to Bach and Back (The Evolution of Minds) to demonstrate how it is possible for Whole Things to be More Capable than the Pieces That Compose Them: more intelligent, more free, more responsible, more loving (at least sometimes).

An Enhanced Imagination

Finally, Dennett contends that if you are still skeptical of gradualism and a believer in metaphysical leaps, you need to up-date your intuitions and imagination. A “bottom-up” vision of creation is readily available in fields beyond evolutionary biology.

For example, machines can, now, think! Not only do we have home computers that help us write, calculate, find information and organize ourselves, but we have specialized computers that write first-class music, play chess and solve puzzles too complex for human researchers. Alan Turing’s first modern computer broke the German submarine code (The Enigma Code) back in WWII.

(IBM’s Deep Blue computer beats world champion in 1996. Deep Blue was capable of considering 200 million possible chess positions per second. Thanks to IEEE for photo and info.)

The so-called “miracles of God” are rivaled on a daily basis by modern science and technology. Doctors replace organs, artificially inseminate pregnancies, and study the body’s interior through various scans and pictures. Scientists read the genetic code of living things and search deep into outer space for signs of other life. Ordinary people routinely communicate with each other in real time across countries and continents.

Dan Dennett, himself, has participated in this enhancement of our imagination by convincingly arguing that humans are very fancy, evolved, biological machines, and that soon human designed machines (robots) will come to be considered “persons,” though not biological persons.

Robin Williams as The Bicentennial Man, 1999 movie.

All these are “intuition shakers” and “imagination stretchers” contends Dennett, and they facilitate the belief in what was once considered merely a shameful, godless fantasy: The Bottom-Up Creativity by the Gradual Accumulation of Design. Yes, we have gotten More from Less Gradually through the process of Evolution.

What new and larger system or creature might we be able to imagine ourselves a part of?

Shame, shame! Now here is a kind of critter that didn’t do much with the opportunities life afforded them! But what a chauvinistic thing to say! Hey, they persist!

*From Dennett’s Bacteria to Bach and Back, page 38, 34 and 37-38.

GETTING MORE FROM LESS at The Connection! —–Logo by Marty

2 thoughts on “Gradualism and The Great Chain of Being

    1. Great to hear from you again! Hoping this pandemic is ending so we can get back to that land up North (and I don’t mean Michigan) and see you and everyone. Glad you enjoyed it. The parts about the limits of scientific explanation is particularly important.


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