Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Dennett on Christianity

I recently made a point in the comments over at Victor Reppert's blog that I think warrants fuller promotion. There is much to remark on regarding the debate between Daniel Dennett and Alvin Plantinga that took place several years ago and was then published as Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? Right now I just want to focus on the fact that Dennett does not understand the most basic elements of the view he is criticizing.

The  example of this that stood out for me is when he writes, "Plantinga didn't hypothesize that Jesus guided and orchestrated the course of evolution; he hypothesized that God did. God is not Jesus, and maybe God can do things that Jesus can't do" (p. 47). The obvious problem is that this flies in the face of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. The Trinity states that God is three persons, one of whom is Jesus, and who share one essence. Jesus is not God the Father, nor is he God the Holy Spirit; he is God the Son, one of the three members of the Godhead. Certainly, this is an unusual doctrine and it's difficult to wrap one's head around it (if you doubt this, try explaining it to your kids), but it's not like it's unknown. Regarding the Incarnation, the whole idea there is that "God became man"; God (the Son) chose to be incarnated as a human being. Certainly there are religious groups who deny this for various reasons: ancient Arians denied it, contemporary Arians (Jehovah's Witnesses) deny it, Jews and Muslims deny it, etc. But orthodox Christians accept it, and again, it's a pretty well-known claim. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God."

So the Trinity and the Incarnation are absolutely central to Christianity, yet Dennett writes that, according to Plantinga, "God is not Jesus, and maybe God can do things that Jesus can't do". I guess it's possible that Dennett is accusing Plantinga of denying these doctrines, but this would be the most subtly-phrased accusation of heresy I've ever heard, and Dennett is not known for subtlety. I guess it's also possible that Dennett could simply be speaking of himself: that he rejects the Christian claims of who Jesus is, but accepts the existence of God while denying God had anything to do with evolution. Except I read somewhere that Dennett doesn't believe in God, so I don't think that's the right answer either.

Obviously Dennett is ascribing the claim "God is not Jesus, and maybe God can do things that Jesus can't do" to Christianity. And this is just to announce that he is unaware of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Yet Dennett feels himself fully capable of addressing the claims of Christianity regardless. Note that this wasn't part of his original response to Plantinga, which may have had some off-the-cuff elements to it (although he obviously prepared his response beforehand, since he didn't really address many of the specifics that Plantinga gives in his first speech). This was one of his prepared essays for the book that responded to the original debate. The point is that Dennett is not justified in even having an opinion here, much less expressing it, much less debating the subject. He simply doesn't know the first thing about it, his proud proclamations notwithstanding.

This is not an accident by the way. A page later he writes, "the fact that it [Christianity] is an ancient tradition with many eminent contributors does not make it more deserving of attention than any other mythology" (p. 48). He doesn't have to pay any attention to it, nor should anyone else. Well, that's true, you don't have to pay attention to anything you don't want to. But when you don't pay any attention to something, you give up the right (the epistemic right, that is) to have an opinion about it and to make pronouncements about it. Since you haven't paid attention to it, you don't know anything about it, and if you don't know anything about it, you are not in a position to form a responsible opinion about it. I also have to point out that if there were "an ancient tradition with many eminent contributors" that struck me as so absurd as to be undeserving of attention, then I would assume that I was missing something and that it was in fact deserving of attention.

Now I actually like Dennett. Not because I agree with his conclusions but because I see the issues in much the same way as he does. He argues that if God does not exist, then many of the most elementary properties we ascribe to the mind (like intentionality and qualia) can't be veridical. I agree with this. The difference is that, I argue the modus tollens to Dennett's modus ponens. So whereas he contends

If God does not exist, then certain elementary properties we ascribe to the mind can't be veridical.
God does not exist.
Therefore certain elementary properties we ascribe to the mind can't be veridical.

I argue

If God does not exist, then certain elementary properties we ascribe to the mind can't be veridical.
Certain elementary properties we ascribe to the mind are veridical.
Therefore God exists (he does not not exist)

Nevertheless, my affinity for him with regards to the first premise has nothing to do with his debate with Plantinga, and of course it in no way excuses him from his responsibilities to actually know the topics on which he pontificates. Not to mention that Plantinga, whether you agree with him or not, is kind of a powerhouse on this subject. To participate in a debate with someone like this without being willing to prepare for it in the most rudimentary way (by knowing the basic elements about the subject on which you're debating) should be more than a little embarrassing. It's tempting to say that Dennett brought a knife to a gunfight, but that gives him too much credit. Dennett brought a rubber chicken.


Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

13 comments:

Victor Reppert said...

Oh I can hear the response coming:

Until Dennett has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste.

im-skeptical said...

The point is that Dennett is not justified in even having an opinion here, much less expressing it, much less debating the subject. He simply doesn't know the first thing about it, his proud proclamations notwithstanding.

Perhaps he read the gospels, which existed long before the doctrine of the trinity.

Jim S. said...

Perhaps he read the gospels, which existed long before the doctrine of the trinity.

1. Dennett thinks the gospels are a mythology that is not deserving of attention. So it's doubtful.

2. If he had read the gospels, he might have noticed the first verse of the gospel of John which I quoted in the post: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Or the event mentioned in Matthew, Mark, and Luke where the teachers of the law criticize Jesus for forgiving sins when only God was allowed to forgive sins: "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" Or the numerous other passages in the gospels and throughout the New Testament which portray Jesus as God.

3. Even if he hadn't read the gospels, the doctrines of the Incarnation and Trinity are very well known. They form a large part of the background of Western civilization. It's not asking too much to expect someone to know the very basic idea behind them that in some sense Jesus is identified as God.

4. Nearly all scholars say that the idea that Jesus is God is one of the original beliefs of Christianity. It took a few centuries to formulate a philosophically rigorous doctrine to make sense of it (that would be the Trinity) but the identification of Jesus as God incarnate (that would be the Incarnation) was there from the beginning.

5. Regardless, isn't it reasonable to expect someone to know what Christianity teaches before criticizing what Christianity teaches?

im-skeptical said...

"Regardless, isn't it reasonable to expect someone to know what Christianity teaches before criticizing what Christianity teaches?"

First, Dennett, like most atheists, grew up as a Christian. I suspect he knows much more about it than you suppose.

Second, listening to Plantinga's arguments about evolution makes me cringe at his simplistic understanding of science. I would argue that he doesn't know what he's talking about. And his EAAN proves it.

Stevo Darkly said...

"First, Dennett, like most atheists, grew up as a Christian. I suspect he knows much more about it than you suppose."

Possibly he does. However, if we judge by the evidence available to us -- as good rationalists are supposed to do -- we can't fail to note that he doesn't understand what most Christians believe about the nature of Jesus vis a vis God, and Trinity. This is not esoteric stuff. It is very basic, fundamental stuff -- stuff that religious teachers attempt to educate even the very young about. The evidence being Dennett's own words, quoted in the post. I don't know how you get around that.

It's as if I, while arguing about the evolution of whales, referred to whales as "a type of fish." And then Jim S pointed out that I evidently don't know much about whales (which are mammals), which indicates that any arguments about them probably aren't very valuable. And then you, in my defense, said, "Well, Stevo grew up on the shore of the ocean -- I suspect he knows much more about sea life than you suppose." And that might be true. However, I would have already demonstrated that I don't know some very very basic things about whales.

Stevo Darkly said...

Dammit. Correction: "which indicates that any arguments I MAKE about them probably aren't very valuable."

im-skeptical said...

"This is not esoteric stuff. It is very basic, fundamental stuff"

It is not fundamental to all Christians. The concept of the trinity was unknown to the early Christians, and certainly to Jesus himself. The gospels and Pauline books contain many remnants of adoptionism and docetism. The trinity doctrine is just church dogma, built on top of the more foundational aspects of religion.

Also, I notice you didn't mention Plantinga's shaky knowledge of evolution science. The reason I commented in the first place is that I was struck by the sheer hypocrisy of the author, who says that Dennett doesn't even have the right to an opinion, given his supposed ignorance of the topic.

Jim S. said...

Yay! Commentses! Precious commentses!

First, Dennett, like most atheists, grew up as a Christian.

Why isn't someone who names himself "im-skeptical" skeptical of a claim like the one I've bolded? I mean, even if there were a study claiming to show this, wouldn't a skeptic be, you know, skeptical of it?

I suspect he knows much more about it than you suppose.

See, the whole post is about how he doesn't. You don't show that to be incorrect by saying "Nuh-uh!" Why aren't you skeptical of this claim that Dennett knows what Christians believe?

It is not fundamental to all Christians.

Maybe you should define what you mean by "all Christians". Do you include Jehovah's Witnesses? Mormons? Muslims? Of course the claim that Jesus is God is fundamental to all orthodox Christians, be they Catholic, Protestant, or capital-o Orthodox.

The concept of the trinity was unknown to the early Christians,

Are you arguing that the concept of the Trinity was unknown to Christians over a millennium and a half ago, and that this somehow excuses Dennett from knowing about it today when explaining why Christianity is wrong? Really? Can I be skeptical of that? At any rate, while the particular philosophical details took a few hundred years to work out, the idea that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God, and yet God is one was the position of the earliest Christians. For example, Irenaeus, a century and a half before the council of Nicaea, wrote about this extensively. Plus, my whole point in raising it was to show how the well-known doctrine of the Trinity entails the idea that Jesus is God, and it is this idea that Dennett is ignorant of.

and certainly to Jesus himself.

Well, unless the doctrine of the Trinity is, you know, true. Right?

The gospels and Pauline books contain many remnants of adoptionism and docetism.

I'm skeptical.

The trinity doctrine is just church dogma, built on top of the more foundational aspects of religion.

I'm skeptical.

Also, I notice you didn't mention Plantinga's shaky knowledge of evolution science.

You directed this towards Stevo, but I'll bite. What does he get wrong about evolutionary biology? I think for it to be comparable to Dennett's ignorance of the Incarnation and Trinity, it would have to be something like equating Darwinism with Lamarckism. Anything less elemental than that wouldn't make the case.

The reason I commented in the first place is that I was struck by the sheer hypocrisy of the author, who says that Dennett doesn't even have the right to an opinion, given his supposed ignorance of the topic.

Holy Jeebus! Sheer hypocrisy? I thought I was just evincing modest hypocrisy! I mean, it's not like I put the work "skeptical" in my name when I'm only skeptical of the things I don't want to believe anyway. Amirite? Can I get an amen?

I keed. You're actually approaching a good point here, but you haven't made it yet. Big hint: try to imagine, giving me the benefit of doubt, how I would respond to your charge, and then see if that response could apply equally to Dennett.

In the meantime, I would just point out that saying that Plantinga is just as bad as Dennett does not absolve Dennett. Tu quoque arguments are fallacious. You don't excuse bad behavior by pointing to more bad behavior, and you don't excuse bad reasoning by pointing to more bad reasoning.

im-skeptical said...

Why isn't someone who names himself "im-skeptical" skeptical of a claim like the one I've bolded? I mean, even if there were a study claiming to show this, wouldn't a skeptic be, you know, skeptical of it?
- The data I've seen would indicate that. Also, the accounts of people, such a s bloggers online. I read them. My question for you is why do religious people love to accuse me of being un-skeptical? It always seems to come up when I say something that disagrees with what they believe.

See, the whole post is about how he doesn't. You don't show that to be incorrect by saying "Nuh-uh!" Why aren't you skeptical of this claim that Dennett knows what Christians believe?
- See, the whole post is ignorant and hypocritical. The fact is that Dennett was raised as a Christian. What make you think he doesn't know about the trinity doctrine?

Of course the claim that Jesus is God is fundamental to all orthodox Christians ...
- But not to Jesus, who was not an orthodox Christian. Mark 13:32.

Plus, my whole point in raising it was to show how the well-known doctrine of the Trinity entails the idea that Jesus is God, and it is this idea that Dennett is ignorant of.
- You're just spouting church dogma. It's not that Dennett is completely unaware of such beliefs, but it could be that he just doesn't buy them. Why don't you ask him or do a little research instead of proclaiming his ignorance?

Well, unless the doctrine of the Trinity is, you know, true. Right?
- Dennett doesn't think so.

I'm skeptical.
- What a laugh. So let's get this straight. You don't question church dogma, and that makes you skeptical. But I do question you, and that's why I'm not skeptical. Here's a suggestion. Do some reading. Ehrman might be a good starting point. If you don't like what he says, then read some more. Sticking to the official party line doesn't make you skeptical.

What does he get wrong about evolutionary biology?
- Plantinga speaks about whether evolution selects for true beliefs, which is pure bullshit. There is no such finely-tuned selective mechanism. Once again, do some reading.

Amirite? Can I get an amen?
- You don't have a clue what it means to be skeptical. And you obviously don't know what my name means, either.

Big hint: try to imagine, giving me the benefit of doubt
- Like what you have done with Dennett? From the beginning, I made the attempt to show that there might be a different perspective from which to understand Dennett's remarks. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt the minute you show the first sign of flexibility in your dogmatic thinking.

In the meantime, I would just point out that saying that Plantinga is just as bad as Dennett does not absolve Dennett.
- And I never made the claim that it does. But it does show your hypocrisy.

Stevo Darkly said...

im-skeptical said earlier: "[quoting Stevo:] "This is not esoteric stuff. It is very basic, fundamental stuff"

"It is not fundamental to all Christians. The concept of the trinity was unknown to the early Christians, and certainly to Jesus himself. The gospels and Pauline books contain many remnants of adoptionism and docetism. The trinity doctrine is just church dogma, built on top of the more foundational aspects of religion."

Irrelevant. The doctrine of the trinity and of Jesus being God is a widespread and fundamental belief of most Christians today. Yet Dennett (on the basis of his own comments) appears to be unacquainted with it. Which undermines his ability to make a critique of the religion that's worth taking seriously.

And if Dennett is basing his remarks on unorthodox alternative interpretations, well, that's nice. But it's about as relevant as say, attacking current evolutionary theory by attacking discarded ideas of Lamarck and Lysenko.

im-skeptical also said:
"Also, I notice you didn't mention Plantinga's shaky knowledge of evolution science. The reason I commented in the first place is that I was struck by the sheer hypocrisy of the author, who says that Dennett doesn't even have the right to an opinion, given his supposed ignorance of the topic."

I ignored it as another irrelevancy, a red herring, a tu quoque fallacy that you threw out as a distraction from the criticism of Dennett. I wasn't addressing Platinga's strengths or faults. Maybe Platinga shouldn't be shooting his mouth off about science, as far as I know. Maybe he's just as unqualified to critique matters of science as Dennett is unqualified to critique the Christian religion. Even if I were to grant that, it wouldn't shore up Dennett's position one whit. "You can be wrong too!" doesn't make me right.

Your attempt at counter-argument by way of fallacy, distraction, accusation and angry words is taking on a distinct tone of desperation.

im-skeptical said...

Stevo,

Your comments are irrelevant. They don't even address the points I was making. Perhaps you should take some remedial reading comprehension. And your lame attempt at psychoanalysis is laughable. Here are angry, desperate words: "Dennett is not justified in even having an opinion here, much less expressing it, much less debating the subject." See? It isn't me.

Chris Kirk said...

First, I enjoy *Quodlibet* a lot, despite the envy good writing provokes in me. Pardon for the delay in commenting on this post.

Dennett has no law telling him whose position he must argue against. But in debates it's typical to argue against the view of your opponent for the night. Plantinga's strand of Christianity, and his commitments, are no secret. It's a puzzle why Dennett would argue against a position Plantinga doesn't hold, and then accuse Plantinga of not holding it. Im-skepical is angry that Jim finds that outrageous. I stopped listening to Dennett long ago, except to warn students 'Don't write like him.' Maybe Im-skeptical is right that Dennett is right, but oh! don't write like Dennett; don't argue like him; and for God's (or circumstance's) sake don't lovingly quote your own works in your other works.

There are many more strands of Christianity (defined as broadly as one wishes) that are compatible with science than those that are not. In fact several strands of Christianity historically welcomed science, and argued strenuously against those that denied there was anything to study - such as the medieval philosophical arguments for 'secondary' causes against the likes of al-Ghazali.

Im-skeptical, what's *right* about Dennett? I mean that you couldn't get from Russell, or Ruse? (Who I disagree with, but at least fights at his weight, not below it.) Why should I teach from Dennett's works except to warn them 'don't write like this?'

Chris Kirk

Jim S. said...

Oh my gosh, I'm sorry, I completely forgot about these comments. It's months later now (I'm sure everyone was on pins and needles waiting for me to respond). Rather than rehash everything, let me make a few points:

1. As you can tell, I tried to troll im-skeptical. This was my first foray into the world of trolldom and I think I failed miserably. Trying to maintain the necessary level of smarminess was just exhausting. So my apologies to im-skeptical, I have no plans to be that obnoxious again. (I mean online: in real life I'm extremely obnoxious.)

2. The question I left was what was different between Plantinga's treatment of evolution in contrast to Dennett's treatment of Christianity. Here they are:

a) Plantinga accepts evolution.
b) Plantinga is not addressing the content -- the scientific content -- of evolution. He is addressing some of the philosophical issues surrounding evolution. As he is a philosopher, this is completely appropriate.

In contrast:

c) Dennett does not accept Christianity.
d) Dennett is addressing the content -- the theological content -- of Christianity. He is not addressing the philosophical issues surrounding Christianity (at least in the quote that I'm specifically critiquing). As Dennett is not a theologian, this is not appropriate. He is not an authority here, as is evident from the fact that he does not understand the most basic tenets of Christianity.

TTFN