Dan Dennet’s AAI 2009 Talk

This is a reponse to comments on Lesly’s post on Rollins.

In a comment there I posted a video by Dan Dennett to which Lesley responded. My response in turn is a bit too long for a comments section, so here is is…

Hi lesley,

I’ll cover each of your specific points, starting with this one…

“he is called a philosopher, but he adds practically nothing”

Reverse engineering – seeing how things fail in order to understand them. Standard scientific process, used in his case in understanding the brain, psychology, etc. Dennett does know a lot about how the brain works, and how it fails to work. And much of this is about how it fails to work when applied to religious belief.

There is the assumption in the religious community that theologians who think about human behaviour in the context of a religious belief have a real grasp of the human condition, as if they have an insight that religious thought and belief brings to their understanding. Dennett’s purpose here is to point out that they don’t. Rollins and Bell are prime examples of believers who maybe don’t appreciate how their stories and their methods are pure snake oil salesmen tricks. Dennett probably finds it hard to believe that many serious intelligent theologians really believe some of the stuff they come out with; and added to that the experiences he’s had with religious believers you yourself might classify as ‘nutters’, simply because their belief is more literal than yours; then this is why Dennett is appears not to address your position on many of the points he makes.

The part of the video that’s about non-believing preachers is a genuine attempt to understand what is happening. It’s a real psychological investigation. As someone interested in psychology I assume you can appreciate this. Even in this small initial study he classifies them as three liberals and three literals – so already he’s naturally covering a range of beliefs.

“why does everything always revolve around the most extreme form of American evangelicalism?”

First, because that’s a pretty prominent group he encounters, so no surprise their views are tackled most often.

Second extreme evangelism covers some of the same issues raised by the great variety of faith, so no surprise that more literalist views are sometimes tackled.

Dennett’s talk was prior to the study. This paper, http://www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP08122150.pdf, outlines the study. If you think it’s only about ‘nutters’, it isn’t.

Some of the clergy interviewed express very similar beliefs to your own. Just because all the examples don’t match your own doesn’t invalidate them.

“at college… there was no sense of not believing what we were taught because it challenged preconceived ideas”

This may have been your experience, but if you read the experiences of those interviewed you’ll see it’s not always like that.

“as far as I know vicars are among the happiest and most satisfied people, and they live longest too.”

That may be the case for many who get through. But on your own blog there are often comments about struggles with faith, so theologians are not always among the happiest and satisfied.

But I don’t think anything controversial has been said that can’t be backed up. Much of what Dennett covers comes from religious people who have rejected faith because they have seen problems with it.

Having said that…

“Prior to that I was in a certain mindset, where I didn’t really question, I was too scared to question, and those who did question were looked on as apostate.” – from your Hotel California post.

“There was so much to scared of, top on the list was Liberal Theology which was the slippery slope to unbelief”

“So we all huddled together in the Hotel California for security, we sounded the same, we acted the same, we looked the same. We looked to the Bible to save us from false prophets and various perceived evils.”

“In this stage, our former views of God are radically challenged. The disruption can be so great that we feel like we are losing our faith or betraying loyalties.” – From stage 4 of The Critical Journey, as quoted in your Abyss post.

“Our aversion to stage 4 is increased because of the very real dangers that accompany this stage. ‘Sometimes people drop off the journey totally at this point. Overwhelmed by pain or crises in our lives, we absolutely cut ourselves off from God’.” – Ditto.

These are all from your experience, and they all sound so much like the quotes from the clergy that took part in the study:

Click to access EP08122150.pdf

“regularly uses the words subversive, willful, cunning, trick, liars etc.”

“He suggests that we learn spin when interpreting the Bible. Not true.”

He’s not implying it’s that open, or necessarily intentional, “There isn’t a course [at seminary college] called how to put a spin. It’s taught by example….They’re sort of the truth.” – And this is the point he is making. It’s the mode of religious language that’s deceptive.

In the examples he cites it’s hard not to see it that way. Again, this might not match your experience, or how you see it.

But much of the work of Bell and Rollins for example does sound like the willful misuse of terms; there is trickery in the language and production that is intended to persuade.

Some of the clergy in the study have said they weren’t telling the whole story:

“I knew I’m not going to make it in a conventional church. I didn’t believe the conventional things, even then. I mean, sure, I’m studying theology with Paul Tillich — and Bultmann who says we can’t know much about Jesus, and Paul Tillich’s philosophical stuff about ‘God is the ground of being’. I’m not going to go into a church and talk like this; I’m not going to, I’m not going to – I did not believe the traditional things even then.”

In the cases he cites of those clergy who have to effectively misrepresent to hide their own degree of disagreement with the doctrine, then it is applying spin. And there’s no way that some of the works he cites by religious authors, such as Spong is not spin.

“He suggests that those who lose their faith at college ‘get out while the going is good’… as far as I know vicars are among the happiest and most satisfied people, and they live longest too. What does he mean?”

He’s referring to those like the ones in the study. Read the quotes.

Click to access EP08122150.pdf

It also ties in with this:

“In this stage, our former views of God are radically challenged. The disruption can be so great that we feel like we are losing our faith or betraying loyalties.” – From stage 4 of The Critical Journey, as quoted in your Abyss post.

“He suggests that theology is to answer ‘awkward questions’.. not true.”

But that’s the history of theology, and it’s been going on for centuries, trying to address the awkward questions. This is what Augustine, Aquinas etc. did, putting so much effort into building a more robust doctrine.

You often comment on versions of the faith that you don’t agree with, and you’ve said yourself that much of what you read is disagreeable. Dennett simply finds it all disagreeable.

“He suggests that we try to stop people having inquiring minds.. not true.”

we? – not you. The hierarchy, the establishment of the church.

You’ve said yourself that the there’s a resistance to inquiry that you feel you struggle against yourself.

“And he says that either you believe God has existence or you are an atheist.. why?”

Because to believe in God as expressed by Christians is to believe in an agent. We have no experience of agents that do not have existence.

We can conceptualise God as an agent, just as we can conceptualise pink elephants and unicorns. But you really want to say God IS, and yet claim he does not exist, then you are reducing him to a mere concept, not an actual God.

In this sense God can be a metaphor for something – but then Dennett says, in that case he too can believe in that God, because he too believes in metaphors, he knows what they are.

This is what the ‘History of God’ reference was about. Many religious explanations describe the history of the religion – which is fine, because religion does have a history.

But in saying it’s a history of God implies that there is a God to have a history about, when really it’s a history of the concept of God, not of God.

Dennett says that he too believes in the ‘concept of God’, i.e. he understands what concepts are, and he gets what this specific concept is. He just doesn’t believe in the content of that concept – i.e. God.

This is related to the Use-Mention Error – next.

” ‘History of God’ … And he relates God to the Easter Bunny..”

First, the Easter Bunny, unicorns, flying spaghetti monster, Russell’s teapot, or God, are all examples used to demonstrate the idea that having a concept of something isn’t the same as that something actually being real. All the inexplicable attributes of God, his incomprehensibility, can all be applied to these other examples, but it doesn’t make them any more true. The argument here is about the similarities with the type of claim being made, and not actually equating God to an Easter Bunny.

The example he uses for his deepism is lousy ‘Love is just a word’” – This is to do with the common use-mention error, which he explains clearly. Here’s some detail on it:

This is what it means:


And here:


The specific History of God error:


It’s a point I’ve picked up on in Bell and Rollins. It’s a way of conflating ideas, where the obvious and literal meaning of the sentence is easy for the brain to accept, and primes the brain for the more profound intention, even though the more profound intentional interpretation doesn’t actually make any sense as a sentence.

So, (as I commented on your Rollins post) Rollins (and Bell) provide many examples of what Dennett calls a ‘Deepity’:

– A proposition that seems to be profound because it is logically ill-formed.

– It has (at least) two meanings, and balances precariously between them.

– On one reading it is true but trivial.

– On the other reading it’s false, but would be earth-shattering if true.

And it’s the failure to recognise the U-M error that allows these double readings to be conflated.

When this usage is mixed in with lots of other emotive sentences and vague notions they’re easy to just absorb as if they have meaning. Dennett expresses something like, “Well, sounds okay, but?….well, I suppose I get it…” With repeated exposure this sort of stuff takes on a life of its own as if it actually means something.

Whenever a theist is asked to explain the detail of what is meant, then the simple claim that it’s too deep, beyond our language to express, is what the rationalisation of the problem resorts to.

“I am honestly appalled…so sickeningly prejudiced…I am shocked that Richard Dawkins…you are better than this, I can’t believe you can stomach it…anything racist or anti-gay or politically obnoxious…I find it distasteful…it seemed at the level of the Sun newspaper to me…It is just appalling…If he said these things about black people you would be rightly outraged and liken his propaganda to Hitler…these vile things…I think that is similar to racists equating black people to apes…as unpleasant as him. He represents for me the worst sort of bigotry.”

I can only put this down to you being genuinely disturbed by it. Yes, he’s preaching to the converted and does use some humour, which if you’re on the receiving end could be considered puerile.

But your response raises another issue that is problematic – there is no right of the religious not to be offended, simply because what’s being said is distasteful.

These are serious challenges to claims of ways of knowing things, and religious claims about what is known and how it is known do not stand up to scrutiny. The fact that you genuinely believe what you do does not make it any more viable, and Dennett is under no obligation to pull his punches when criticising ways of thinking that bamboozle so many people.

There are two topics covered seriously.

One, treated second, is the issue of religious language applied to the explanation of religious belief that has been adapting to criticism of literal meaning for centuries. He clearly shows up some of the flaws in the religious language that is used. he bases much of this on his understanding of philosophy, linguistics, psychology and the study of the mind, and the ideas are consistent with those of many leaders in those fields.

The other is the study that is underway to look into the effect of this religious language. In this particular case it’s about how language is used in situations: where clergy struggle with the disparity in types of belief; where there is a wide range of literal to metaphorical meaning, from traditional fundamental theism to near or actual atheism; where clergy have to deal with these conflicts in their own minds and conscience.

I’m sorry you find much of Dennett’s video so distasteful, but I think the arguments are fair, even if you don’t like the presentation.


McGrath, Dennet, Dawkins – Memes

I read this debate between Dennet and McGrath: http://www.rsa.org.uk/acrobat/dennett_130306.pdf

I think McGrath is right to point out that the meme hypothesis is purely that – with no evidence. The hypothesis can be made to fit history, but is it falsifiable, and what supportive evidence is there?

McGrath points out Blackmore’s acceptence that atheism is a meme, just as theism is. Is atheism a meme? In some respects – when there is unquestioned belief in atheism. And I suppose the same hypothesis can be applied to any human idea – such as the appreciation of art, what art is, how it evolved, etc.

But scientific atheism accepts its own vulnerability, and does not claim infalability, and does not require faith. It is not a belief system in itself, but a consequence of what all humans do – attempt to understand and reason about the world around us. Atheism is a probabilistic conclusion, not a dogma, not a self sustaining belief. It may be that atheism as a world view is falsified in the future, by scientifically supported evidence of God. But how would theism be falsified? No matter what was discovered about the universe god could always be postulated to be beyond that.

McGrath points out some of the flaws in the meme hypothesis: “But my real question is this: how would Dr Blackmore and Professor Dennett be able to settle that point scientifically? If they are not able to do so, then we have a non-scientific debate about imaginary entities, hypothesised by analogy with the gene. And we all know how unreliable arguments based on analogy can be – witness the fruitless search for the luminiferous ether in the late nineteenth century, based on the supposed analogy between light and sound. It was analogically plausible – but non-existent. The analogy was invalid. Richard Dawkins tells us that memes are merely awaiting their Crick and Watson; I think they are merely waiting for their Michelson and Morley.”

I would agree with this, particularly about the inappropriateness of analogies sometimes. Dawkins Burka analogy in “The God Delusion” is suspect, for example.

McGrath makes another good point about the association of ‘evil’ with religion: “Now Professor Dennett might respond by saying that these are not typical of atheism. I believe he would be right to do so. But neither are the excesses of violence and intolerance that he does mention, typical of religion. I appreciate the need for a bit of rhetoric and exaggeration to spice up an argument, but one cannot represent the pathological elements of any movement, religious or antireligious, as if they were normal or typical. Few of us in this audience tonight are in favour of fanaticism; but it is clearly perfectly possible to be a fanatical atheist, as much as a fanatical religionist. It’s fanaticism that’s the problem, not religion or anti-religion.”

Agreed. I think the early use of the ‘evil’, as in ‘evil in the name of…’ and the other old chestnut ‘the problem of evil’ are fine as simplistic rebuttals of simplistic claims of theist about the inherent goodness of religion. Both theists and atheists would be better to leave these out of the main debate. Basically ‘evil’ can be performed by anyone, religious or not. And the problem of evil can be argued either way, as problematic for theism, or inconsequential as evidence against.

McGrath is right here: “In Oxford, we are facing a threat from one of the most fanatical groups in British society today: animal rights protestors. They are not religious. They are driven by an ideology – by a world view. Surely our common enemy is the fanatic, first and foremost. We need to reflect on how to control this phenomenon. But it is a clear factual error to assume that this is limited to, or necessarily characteristic of, religion.”

However, Dawkins point is that the dogmatic teaching of religion to children makes them amenable to irrational unquestioned ideas later. That would also be true if we taught dogmatic atheism to children too. I think Dawkins, (and Stephen Law in “The War for Childrens’ Minds”) are really promoting the teaching of reasoning to children, and the removal of teaching of dogmatic religion – and are not proposing the teaching of atheism. Read Stephen Law’s books on philosophy – they don’t promote atheism as such, but ask questions and invite the reader to think of their own answers.