Sunday, February 14, 2016

New York Values

Here in the States there was a political dust-up recently when one candidate accused another of advocating New York values instead of more broadly American values or rural values or Midwest values or whatever. I make no comment. But if you want to see a real send-up of New York values, read Michael Flynn's short story "Grave Reservations" from his collection The Forest of Time and Other Stories. It's absolutely brutal. In fact, one of the candidates in question receives a brief mention.

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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.

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