Monday, July 21, 2008

Dennett's Response

Immediately after the conservative Christian Young Earth Creationist Rick Warren came off the stage in February of 2006, a noted atheistic philosopher of evolution stepped onto the stage for rebuttal. Dan Dennett is a renowned thinker I remember reading a bit about in Classical Problems in Philosophy with Dr. Panza. He is particularly noted for his empirically grounded philosophy of evolution and philosophy of mind. Besides the fact that I always like to keep a close eye on those who insist on empirical data for everything because Positivism is an unjustified philosophy which is just as problematic as Fundamentalism, I think Dennett is a pretty smart guy who displayed a seriously keen, well-balanced, integrated, and grounded charisma and intelligence. Here’s his talk, which I’m sure you’ll find interesting (especially if you watch it immediately following Warren).

But before I get any further, I wanted to make a quick observation. I’m almost done watching all of the TED series, and I think it’s really interesting that all of the people I’ve watched have drastically divergent views on life, yet (almost) all of them appear to be people of solid character and integrity. They are intriguing, intelligent, thoughtful people who just happen to disagree on a particular subject. To me, this speaks tacitly to the idea that one can be a morally upstanding, good person no matter what their particular stance on religion is, be it devout, agnostic, or atheist. I’m sure they could all sit down and have a cup of coffee together without any fights breaking out, and I’ll be they could each lead their own country without creating any wars based around their particular systems of belief. Also, none of the people listening, who I’m sure disagree strongly and intelligently with the speakers on many points, never stand up and yell at the speaker. They are never outwardly disrespectful and they seem to be fairly engaged. I wonder: Are TED talks given in a special realm of existence which the rest of us don’t inhabit in which people are respectful to each other regardless of belief and idea differences, or do they just understand that we need to get along regardless of petty things like religious differences? It seems pretty interesting to me.

Back to Dennett.

Dennett is a really, really smart guy, and that’s the bottom line. He’s been studying for decades and not only does he know how to speak well, but he has a gift for being tactful and respectful when he calls Warren out. That’s a gift I need to work on. I really respect that. All too often I think we get defensive and overly offensive when we’re pointing out where we think others are wrong, which is a reaction that probably stems from our egotistical desire to be justified through being “right.” At any rate, you’re never going to change someone’s mind if you invectively attack them. It’s gotta be done lovingly.

He opens his talk with a very interesting discussion about how religions are natural phenomenon, biologically based and evolving throughout time. It’s true, you know. Religions don’t just pop up fully formed and perfectly understood. That really freaked me out when I started studying religion, as simple and seemingly rudimentary a fact that may seem. When I discovered that much of Christianity and Judaism (its predecessor) had pagan roots, that “orthodoxy” was a loose and definitely man-made term, etc, I freaked out. Now, when Dennett says it, it seems like a “duh” moment.

Anyway, Dennett then talks about how we need to teach the fundamentals facts of all of the world religions to kids in grade school. He says, “Just as we require reading, writing, arithmetic, American history, so should we require education about religion. It should be presented factually, straightforward, with no particular spin to all of the children in the country. That, I think, is maximal tolerance of religion in this country.” Apparently this idea has caught a lot of flack from different writers, though I’m not sure why. Dennett points out that “democracy depends on informed consent,” and seeing as our country is becoming more and more pluralistic, it seems that we need to at least be educated on the demographic of our neighbors. Dennett points out that the problem is that “many religions are so anxious about preserving the purity of their faith among their children that they are intent on keeping their children ignorant of other faiths. I don’t think that’s defensible.” I don’t think it’s defensible either, but what is there to be done? How do we convince the “moral majority” that they are hindering the democratic process that we all love in this country? How do we convince people to put their egos in the back seat in favor of freedom for all, not just freedom for those who believe the “right” things? I have no idea, but that’s why I’m going to a liberal arts university. They make me think about that kind of stuff all the time.

Dennett goes on to talk about some interesting natural phenomena that exist in the world. There is a fluke parasite that exists, it’s apparently about as intelligent as a “petunia or a carrot,” but when it infects its host it goes directly to the brain, influencing the host to do whatever it can to get eaten by another creature. By doing this, the fluke is able to reproduce in this creature’s digestive tract and continue along its merry, suicidal inducing way. Dennett asks the question: Does that ever happen to us? Do we ever have something in our brain that infects us and “induces suicidal behavior on behalf of a cause other than one’s own genetic fitness”?????

You know, Islam literally means “submission.”

An interesting quote that Dennett points out:
“Surrendered people obey God’s words even if it doesn’t make sense.”
-Rick Warren from The Purpose Driven Life

Although I believe Warren to be a very well-meaning individual, he does run the risk of being a bit of an extremist with quotes like that. How do we know exactly what “God’s word” is? I’ll give Warren the benefit of the doubt and say he was probably talking more about leaps of faith in our careers, or with our friends and family, or at our church, but I’m sure there are people out there who read that and take it literally in every branch of their life. People like the Westboro Baptist Church like to plunder the Bible for hateful things that “God says,” and they believe them even if it doesn’t make sense.

Obeying God’s word even if it doesn’t make sense isn’t necessarily a problem in itself, but it runs the risk of creating a congregation that follows what their pastor tells them without questioning it. It’s the kind of thinking that can lead to bombing abortion clinics, or the Crusades, or making signs that say “God hates fags,” etc. Didn’t God give you a brain for a reason? Shouldn’t we be encouraged to think about whether or not what we think God says actually fits in with what we believe God’s character to be? I don’t think Jesus would ever ask a disciple to blow up an abortion clinic or attack someone for their choice of lifestyle. Jesus hung out with hookers and burn-outs because they needed love the most. Shouldn’t we? Maybe if that is the word of God that doesn’t make sense we should follow it, but we need to be very careful with how we interpret a quote like that.

There are a lot of interesting points that Dennett makes about Warren that I tend to agree with. For instance, Warren tries to point out in his first chapter that not believing in God creates a life devoid of meaning and utter moral subjectivism. That’s just plain wrong. I know of no ethical system that contains the caveat, “By the way, this doesn’t work without God existing.” I know lots of moral atheists who have a lot of meaning in life.

Dennett really is a well-thought, respectful man. He really does seem to want the best for people, and he never once attacks Warren’s personal beliefs. And despite the fact that Dennett doesn’t believe in God or anything remotely supernatural, he appears to almost be an advocate of religion at times. He’s never derogatory towards it in any way, at least. I think all Dennett really wants is to help create an informed, mutually respectful, engaged society. He’s standing up against the part of Warren’s book – and religion in general – that could be misused to advocate closed-mindedness. I think we can agree on that point, and we’ll be sure to be forgiving and compassionate to those who won’t.


By the way, happy 100th post to Marko Polo! Too bad it took me over a year to get to that point. I'll work on that consistency thing sometime I guess. :)


Chris Panza said...

I can't remember if you are signed up for Free Will in the fall. If so, we'll be reading a whole book by Dennett that is very good (called "Elbow Room").

Also, I guess I don't buy this "positivist" stuff about how asking for data is just as arbitrary (science)as not asking for it (fundamentalism).

I suppose it depends on what you are trying to do, what and how you are trying to explain something. If you think that, say, a mysterious force drags the sun across the sky, but you've shown that it is almost certainly true that this occurs via basic celestial mechanics, then to cling to the prior explanation seems odd to say the least.

It also depends on what you're trying to do. If you're giving predictions and causal explanations, fundamentalism doesn't work very well. If you are trying to give an explanation to bestow significance or meaning to something, science doesn't fare well.

I guess I just don't buy the "ah, it's all faith at the bottom, so it's all the same" type of stuff.

Mark said...

Sadly, I'm not taking free will in the fall. I'll be in metaphysics with you, but that's it until you come back in th 09-10 year.

I'm not at all trying to state that data is simply arbitrary and because there is a point of faith on the ground floor of both science and religion that they are always on equal footing. That's the kind of idea that puts people like Galileo under house arrest for the remainder of his life.

I just think that there are points when data can be interpreted either way, and when one goes into the experiment or analysis with the idea that data can only be explained in a certain way because the world only exists in a certain way, there's trouble. The Big Bang is a good example for me. Scientists find data that helps prove that the Big Bang occurred. We've got models down to less than a second which explain the whole deal. Even still, understanding the event that put the universe into motion does not give one grounds to say that the world is entirely physical, made up of only matter and space. Kant showed that we simply can't know some things, which in my mind means we also simply can't rule out some explanations.

It's tough for me to explain myself without sounding like I'm trying to open the door for guys like Lee Strobel to have room to stretch, but I just want the fight to be fair. There is no philosophical grounds for saying some of the things that Dennett says, like "The designs discovered by the process of natural selection are brilliant, but the process itself is without purpose, without foresight, without design." That, I think, is what I meant when I said that I like to keep a close eye on those who insist on empirical data for everything. Those people tend to insist on empirical data because they think everything else is worthless, or "ca-ca" as Dr. Ess likes to put it.