Thank goodness for Dan

Julian Baggini meets the least apocalyptic of the four horsemen, Daniel Dennett

Conquest, war, famine and death. It’s an interesting parlour game to decide which of the new atheism’s “four horsemen” – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens – best corresponds to their apocalyptic namesakes. More than one is combative, and more than one seeks to conquer religion once and for all, if not to kill it. Less charitably, you might also say that at times, some have a rather malnourished understanding of what religion actually is.

The game lacks a credible conclusion though, because at least one horseman just won’t fit the eschatological mould. Dan Dennett is certainly capable of pugnacious argument, but he’s more of a wrestler than a boxer, a person who truly grapples with his opponent, even as he tries to get them in a headlock and slam them to the floor.

That’s why his major contribution to the recent new atheism debate, his book Breaking the Spell, is often hailed as the most thoughtful and intelligent. Dennett acknowledges the differences, but is at pains to defend those who take a different approach.

“I don’t object to being lumped in with the others. I don’t think, well, I was doing it the moral way and they were doing it the immoral way, or I was doing it the politic way, they were doing it the impolitic way. I don’t think that’s right. I think we all adopted slightly different but defensible strategies. All four approaches are necessary because there are different people out there, different audiences that have to be reached.”

Breaking the Spell‘s central argument is not that religion is wrong or wicked, but that we should study it just as we do any other aspect of the natural world. It should not be in a kind of protected zone, ring-fenced by excessive respect. Having thus opened up religion, Dennett neither tries to be offensive nor shy away from saying things he know will offend some. His strategy is simply to avoid giving anyone an excuse to use that offence as a reason not to engage with his arguments.

“I thought people were still going to throw the book across the room, but I didn’t want to give them an excuse to throw the book across the room. I wanted them to feel a little bit bad about their throwing it across the room, maybe go and retrieve it and think well, hang on, yes, this irritated me but maybe I don’t have the right to be irritated. I doubt that sentiment would occur to somebody who threw Christopher’s or Richard’s book across the room. That’s alright, because there are different spectra of responsiveness out there and you want to cover the bases. For some people I think the shot across the bows from Christopher Hitchens is exactly what they need, what they deserve.

“Let’s take the group that you might think were my natural audience. These are thoughtful, well-meaning, say, Christians, who are believers, are church-goers, who think everything they’re doing is just wonderful. They think religion is good, they know there are some problems, but not for their church, not for their way of being religious. So you might think my book is ideal for them in that I am respectful and get them gently to think about some of the things. But I think it’s very important for them also to read Christopher Hitchens’s book and realise just how bad things are out there in some areas, and see that this man, somebody who knows so much about it, is this angry, and that’s an important fact.”

Dennett goes further, defending his fellow horsemen against the charge that they are rude or intemperate.

“I listen to all these complaints about rudeness and intemperateness, and the opinion that I come to is that there is no polite way of asking somebody: have you considered the possibility that your entire life has been devoted to a delusion? But that’s a good question to ask. Of course we should ask that question and of course it’s going to offend people. Tough.”

Still, isn’t it the case that you can choose your words carefully? Telling someone their faith is mistaken is one thing, saying it’s a delusion quite another.

”Well let’s compare it to some other cases. Think of how horrible it would be to have to go around and tell people they had been taken in by Bernie Madoff. Think of the pain of learning that you’ve been made a complete fool of by Bernie Madoff. Do we have to tell those people? Yes. Do we really? Well, yeah, they’ve lost everything and we have to tell them and no matter how we tell them they’re going to feel rotten. Now why isn’t it like that?”

Because in the Bernie Madoff case, they can’t hide from the facts, they’re going to find out eventually that they haven’t got their money any more. In the case of a religion you have a job of persuasion to do, presumably so believers can moderate their views or give them up. If you say to somebody, you basically believe things which no sensible, objective rational person could possibly believe, I don’t think you’re going to get as far as if you say, look, I can see you’re committed to truth, take a look at your view as truthfully as you can. Now, can’t you see this, this and this? That seems to be the approach Dennett takes.

“Well, yeah, fair enough. I think a better parallel would be what if we could have gone round to Bernie Madoff’s clients beforehand, before the dénouement. There was that accountant who was desperately trying to get the Security and Exchange Commission to blow the whistle. He wasn’t going round talking to individual clients and if he had it would have been extremely painful and they would have probably kicked him out of the house. How should he have approached them? With a sort of brusque wake-up wake-up you’re being made a fool of, or gentle-gentle-gentle? It’s not clear. Some people need a pail of cold water in the face and some people need very gentle treatment.”

But the balance at the moment seems to me to be too far tilted on the side of the bucket of water, and people saying “you’re a deluded fool who’s been taken in by something no sensible person should be taken in by if they looked at the evidence for five minutes,” is not going to be as conducive as saying, “it’s perfectly understandable to be taken in by this but actually, it is a mistake and let me show you why.” I think that the second approach is surely, most of the time, a more constructive one than the other.

“Well, I think that’s right and I think maybe in a way that’s what I was trying to do. But what’s the downside of doing it my way? The downside of doing it my way is failing to galvanise people at all – then it’s a failure.”

The fear I have, as a fellow traveller, is the perception people now have of atheists is the one I thought we were trying to shake off, which is that atheists are very, very self-confident, virulently anti-religious people, who don’t have anything to do in the mornings unless they can wake up and bash a bishop or two, metaphorically. This is not just a tactical matter: there’s also a kind of lack of integrity about it. There’s something inappropriate about an atheist having too much self-confidence in their own ability to see the truth through reason. If you have a commitment to reason, and Hume is one of your great heroes – as he is for many atheists ­– the first thing you know about reason is that it’s fragile thing. Also, you learn just a tiny bit of psychology and you recognise how easy it is for us to co-opt reason to justify what we already think. Given that, isn’t there too much of a desire on the side of atheists to claim reason for themselves and trust they are fully fit to use it?

“Well, since I’ve just debated Alvin Plantinga [the leading Christian philosopher] at the APA meeting in Chicago, you’re not going to find me very sympathetic to this line, because I find the presumption of reasonableness in his work and the other philosophers of religion to be unimpressive, I’ve got to say.”

Or, in a formulation Dennett endorses, you can take the principle of charity too far.

Another criticism of the new atheism is that it places too much stress on the metaphysics. In other words, many find it quite straightforward to show that the traditional religious metaphysics is nonsense, there are no souls, no heaven and so forth. But isn’t it mistaken to think that, once you’ve established that, religion is blown out of the water? Isn’t it the case that actually, in a way, such beliefs may not even be the most important thing about religion?

“I think that’s exactly right. That’s why I spend so little time on the metaphysics. I deliberately spent hardly any time at all on whether there were any good arguments for the existence of God. Fortunately, Richard spent a lot of time on that and I endorsed what he had to say pretty much down the line and it saved me the trouble.

“I talk to religious people and almost everyone I talked to said it wasn’t about proof or disproof in the belief in God. It wasn’t about dogma at all. I took them at their word, I thought that was right. What it was about was, as I call it, belief-in-belief. And that is what it is about: the behaviours, the professing, the going through the motions – that’s what’s interesting, that people still want to do that. Why they do want to do that is not clear, that’s what we have to find out, but we’re certainly looking in the wrong place if we look at arguments for or against of one kind of god or another. I think that’s missing the point entirely.”

But is it belief-in-belief as much as belief in praxis: the life of religion, rather than the thought? That’s what a lot of intellectuals who want to defend religion have argued recently, most publicly and repeatedly, Karen Armstrong.

“That’s a very sophisticated view and it may be too sophisticated by half. It only works so long as there are some people who still really believe in it. If it’s all just praxis, if we’re all just going through the motions, then something’s been lost.

“Last night we were talking about saying Latin grace at high table at an Oxford College. It’s a charming old ritual – that’s all it is. I think we could welcome the evaporation of all the dogmatic steam out of religion, so we were just left with the ritualistic shells. That would be a good thing. But if that happened, then of course the question is, would the ritualistic shells still do the work of binding together communities, and I think it would, actually. I think people may take an oath before they testify and it works, I think it’s important. I don’t think it has anything to do with believing in God, or believing that the book you’re putting your hand on is anything but just a prop. When people say their wedding vows, when they go through graduation ceremonies and commencement exercises, I think all of these ceremonies work without there having to be any real dogma behind them. They are auspicious occasions, they’re formal, they’re official, and I think that the behaviour enjoined at them, the fact that you are not supposed to be flippant, that you’re supposed to be respectful, take it seriously, this is all important.”

But with religion, isn’t it inevitably going to be the case that if you have these rituals, people are going to end up believing them? Pascal famously advocated just getting on with being religious as the best way to end up sincerely believing it. Only the most self-conscious and cerebral are going to be able to have this “it’s just a ritual” thing in their heads.

“Yeah, I’ve just written about this in a review of Owen Flanagan’s new book, which I admire a great deal. He’s a former choir boy, he had a Catholic upbringing and he loves all the Catholic rituals, and he doesn’t believe a word of it, of course. He draws a distinction – which I don’t buy or I’m very worried about – between two kinds of saying: saying it and meaning it, and just saying it in a ceremonial context. He says it’s ok if you say these things in the ceremonial context: that’s defensible in a way in that asserting these things is not. That’s all very well, but, as I point out in the review, what about the naive people, what about the children? They don’t grasp that distinction and you’re not going to tell them the distinction. The minister isn’t going to say ‘Oh by the way, everything I say this morning from this pulpit has got to be understood as in a ceremonial context.’ No, you don’t say that, and I think since you’re not prepared to say that, it isn’t, in fact, entirely defensible.”

There’s a baby and bathwater question too. Surely there are going to be real losses as well as gains in giving up religion. There are certain things which are good and for which there is a very natural mode of expression in religion, and rather less natural modes of expression of them in atheism. Ron Aronson, for instance, has written very eloquently about gratitude. If you look at the secularised culture we have, it seems that with the loss of religious rituals, rituals of grace and prayer, there is more of a sense of entitlement, less of a sense of gratitude. Don’t we have to be very careful when we reject religion that we don’t chuck out the things that are good about it?

“I think that’s true, I think that’s right. Did you see my piece after my heart operation, a piece called ‘Thank Goodness!’? This was after I had a heart operation where I nearly died, and people were wondering whether I’d had any epiphanies, and I said that I did: that when I say ‘thank goodness’ that’s not just a euphemism for ‘thank God’: I really mean it, I mean thank goodness. I’m very grateful. There’s a lot of goodness around me that my continued existence depended on very definitely and God didn’t have anything to do with it. It’s people and institutions, there’s medicine and science, and particular doctors and nurses and hospitals and friends and family and I’m very grateful for them.

“I suppose my favourite line in it was when I said I excused those who said they prayed for me and I resisted the temptation to say, ‘well thank you very much but did you also sacrifice a goat?’ Because did you think that the praying was any more efficacious than sacrificing a goat or any less preposterous? I don’t. You’re saying you prayed for me and I understand you said that with good intention, but if you really wanted to help, there were other things you could have done and the delusion that this somehow helped, I reject that.’”

He may be miscast as an apocalyptic horseman, but Dennett is clearly no avuncular tame atheist either. In a debate hampered by lack of respect or far too much of the unearned variety, Dennett gives as much as is due, and no more.

Julian Baggini is editor of tpm and author of Atheism (Oxford University Press/Sterling Press)

Leave a comment ?


  1. Great piece, Julian – and thank goodness for Dan, indeed.

  2. A great interview. I do admire Dan Dennett’s refreshing combination of respect and rigour- surely the way we should continue the discussion.

    On the point of prayer, I know Quakers have an interesting attitude: and talking about prayer as a personal promise, rather than a request to a chap with a white beard.

  3. Soul searching « Instant Kaamos (beta) - pingback on January 22, 2010 at 11:37 pm
  4. The truth is that Dennett is a better philosopher than any of the other 3, and more capable of grappling with what people really believe (often not very much of the metaphysical magical stuff) and practise. The others tend to pick extreme examples (which certainly exist, but aren’t necessarily representative or the whole picture) and extrapolate from them unjustifiably. Straw gods, maybe?

  5. Hi

    I realize you are very busy, but perhaps you could spare some time to discuss emptiness, which is important in some religions but seems to be neglected by philosophers.

    best wishes from New Jersey

  6. @ Dudley Jones

    I know emptiness is very important in Taoism, I’m not sure that’s the religion you were thinking of though? I suspect it is important in Buddhism and Jainism too but I know less about these religions.

    If you are interested in a philosopher in the western tradition who has dealt with emptiness or nothingness, I would suggest Heidegger. I don’t think the guys who run this website are of the “philosophical variety” that is too interested in Heidegger though. You might get a bit of Sartre (Heidegger cartesianised), but I wouldn’t expect a TPM discussion on the role of nothingness in Heidegger’s philosophy and possible similarities to eastern and western mystical traditions. And the comment section of an article about Dan Dennett is certainly not the place to start one.

  7. Dan Dennet is a great politician. Here he paints himself as the calm voice of reason, but he once said (paraphrasing from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) something to the effect that religious people should be kept in cages.

    He said he finds the “presumption of reasonableness” in Plantinga (and other philosophers of religion) to be unimpressive. Well, anyone who heard the debate Dennet had with Plantinga at the APA meeting knows that Dennet didn’t even address Plantinga’s argument. There are much better “professional atheist” philosophers (eg Graham Oppy, Miachael Tooley) than Dennet. Dennet is not willing to face the best arguments for the other side; instead, what he does in his books is just assume that he is right about religion being non-sense (can you blame a self-described “bright” for such an assumption?) and then proceeds to pontificate on the work of others in the area of, for example, evolutionary explanations of religion. They do the work and Dennet runs his mouth about it.

  8. Breaking the Spell | HumanistLife - pingback on January 26, 2010 at 4:57 pm
  9. I’d like to make three comments regarding what Daniel Dennett said in the interview with Julian

    1. He neatly side-stepped the important point Julian made about atheists needing to avoid being dogmatic and unable to imagine themselves mistaken in any respect (“claiming reason for themselves and trusting they are fully fit to use it”). His comment about arguing with Plantinga was irrelevant.

    2. His objective of studying religion “just as we do any other aspect of the natural world” provides a conclusion, not a proper starting-point for debate about religion. it actually begs the question because, if God exists, God is infinitely more than what empirical and scientific evidence can indicate. To limit evidence to what is “natural” is therefore to presume what is supposed to be being debated.

    3. A belligerent approach is damaging to serious philosophy concerned with seeking truth because of the danger of setting up Aunt Sallies. Understanding needs to precede criticism, and understanding perspectives different from one’s own requires the softer characteristics of imagination and empathy so that criticism may be to the point.

    I’d be interested to know how far readers might agree.

  10. @Brenda – I disagree that Dennett begs the question here. He simply realises that we, humankind, can only investigate claims about the natural world. Where certain aspects of religious thought make claims about processess that occur in the natural world, science is perfectly entitled to make a study of it. It would of course be ludicrous for a scientific process to be applied to imaginary things like “god’s infiniteness” or other metaphysical “properties”.

    These things are best topics for conversations based on pure conjecture, conversations that are not everyone’s cup of tea!

    By the way you critise the limiting of evidence to what is “natural”. I wonder what other types of evidence you are aware of?

  11. ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’
    ‘Which came first the chicken or the egg?’
    Until Dennett can answer these questions he remains, along with the religious, in the world of conjecture. And no matter how much authority Dennett gives to his ‘reason’ – conjecture is conjecture.

  12. @ Matt:
    Dennett never said anything “to the effect that” religious people should be kept in cages.
    At the end of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea he defends preserving religious texts, rituals etc., even if no-one accepts the beliefs associated with them anymore, and makes an *analogy* between that and preserving animals in zoos when they can no longer survive in their natural habitat. So he’s saying that even if the tide of public opinion turned overwhelmingly against religion it would still be worth preserving its rituals etc.

  13. Chris Richardson

    @ Louis: You say until Dennett answers questions about the ultimate beginnings of the universe he remains in the ‘world of conjecture’ along with the religious, when really any conversation by anyone along these lines is conjecture.

    It’s just that some realise it’s conjecture and thus choose to treat it as an amusing diversion, useful for mind games, and others make up an imaginary story to compensate for our lack of knowledge in this area.

    Many take this further and delude themselves that their imaginary story somehow gives them amazing insights into the truth behind the beginnings of the universe. Others who choose not to base our lives on imaginary stories must be contented, when asked “Which came first the chicken or the egg?”, to answer “Nobody knows, but hopefully one day we’ll find out!”

  14. What actually is religion? What is the malnourishment of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens to understand religion?

    Let us hope the four have different approaches to the current atheism debate as it would most boring if they were all parrots of each other. Dennett is right that there is a necessity that spokespeople of a philosophical position express different facets of a multifaceted subject. Fact is, Dennett’s advice to study religion is actually done by many people in our culture. I have and I know at least a hundred others who shared all the different the classes I had. Personally I don’t mind if people throw books across the room, I just don’t want them throwing them at me! Wake up calls from the truly altruistic Hitchens, who uses his time to attempt a program of enlightenment, not to his benefit for he doesn’t need it (not counting the royalties from books as that is actually irrelevant given this day and age of people who buy books), but rather for the benefit of others. As he could jolly go on with his life with his own philosophy without the necessity of showing people the way to St. Ives, because he’s been there.

    Most of the anger leveled at atheists can most readily be attributed to the idea that they do as Dennett suggests: To give due interrogation to the idea that their beliefs can be questioned such that they might have to consider they have been completely wrong and somehow their thinking has been manipulated their entire religious life even asking perhaps for the first time if they ever gave consideration to the truth of their beliefs at all and if so how did they go about that search? Not that their beliefs are bankrupt but that they did they have any real funds in them in the first place?

    Personally I think the perception that atheists are antireligious is healthy and the only wedge had to crack the god delusion. What could be inappropriate is the violence that can be volleyed against them by militant believers. It is time to start the world on its weaning period, just as a baby has to be weaned from the nipple to real food on its way to maturity. I think that has more integrity than atheists continue to tiptoe around the religious as they have done for millennia. A Buddhist roshi would not hesitate to throw a pail of cold water in the face of people seeking truth but who have only been used to gentle treatment. It is a no growth situation. If the new atheism places too much stress on the metaphysics, that the traditional religious metaphysics is nonsense, there are no souls, no heaven, etc., which characterizes religion as really what it is, then why call it religion, why not call them those other things: moralists, philanthropists, humanitarians?

  15. My apologies, I may have given a wrong insinuation. To be clear, I meant to write: To give due interrogation to the idea that their beliefs can be questioned such that “religious believers” might have to consider they have been completely wrong and somehow their thinking manipulated their entire religious life…

  16. In my opinion, the only problem with religion is religious people who take moral advices as dogmas and ancient metaphorical histories as if they actually happened.
    Studying religion with a symbolical view actually makes much more sense, and it was probably the original intention in it’s first days, not the manipulative domination the popes used it for in the early days of christianism, for example.
    Maybe what these “horsemen of apocalypse” are (or should be) trying to fighth is not religion itself, but ignorance.

  17. @Mariodemon,
    I fully agree that what the horsemen should be fighting is the literal understanding of these religious “beliefs”, and that it would be far better to understand them as symbolic expressions, perhaps like art-works or cultural traditions. But I guess the problem is that there are great numbers of people – probably the vast majority of religious people – who take them as statements of fact about the world. Ideally, the horsemen and the people who see religion in a more symbolic way should be fighting on the same side. I really don’t think Dawkins or Hitchens see it that way though (I haven’t read Sam Harris). Dennett just might be more sympathetic to what you’re suggesting.

  18. Your four ‘horsemen’ are clearly committed atheists who want to dispel all delusions about God – no mater what the word means to the believer.
    But, for those who are interested in promoting Secularism and Humanism, Hermann Bondi’s advice cannot be ignored.In an interview in 2002, Bondi cautioned against making atheism a central issue: “I think in this country we are too impressed by the concept of God. Many religions, like Buddhism and Confucianism, don’t have a God at all. On the other hand, Communism in its heyday had a ‘sacred text’ which were the writings of Marx and Lenin, and you justified an argument by referring to these writings. So it seems to me that the important thing is not the concept of God – indeed we cannot quarrel with an undefined God, for how can we disagree with a concept that is undefined. No, what makes a religion is a “revelation”. And it is the belief in a revealed truth that is the source of religious problems – that the Koran is the word of God, or the Holy Bible is the judge of everything. So in arguments with Christians, when you come to the word God you have already lost the battle. You must stress the revelation, that’s where the real disagreement lies, because if you are driven to a position where you have to deny the existence of an undefined quantity you are in a logical absurdity.” (Sir Hermann Bondi, talking to BHA News in Spring 2002.)
    Of course, the point about logical absurdity could be usefully considered by proselytising atheists as well.

  19. @ Chris,
    To spend time (and the four horsemen spend an inordinate amount of it) trying to demonstrate that someone else’s ‘truth’ is delusional is to take the stand that you ‘know’ better. If you want to ‘play’ the game as an honest fellow you must accept ‘I don’t know’ absolutely, otherwise you take a ‘leap of faith’ whatever way you go.

    There may be a God (however that is defined) and there may not be a God. In my search for truth (and it’s not a mind game for me, it’s my life’s work) I carry with me only one sure ‘truth’ and it is a very precious one because it is the only one I can know for sure: ‘I think therefore thoughts exist’- that’s it – no, not even ‘I’ has the assurance of absolute truth,(sorry Descartes) – because as any Buddhist or psychiatrist will tell you – ‘I’ is often an illusion. Once I realise that I can only know this one truth – that thoughts exist – everything I think up and that includes even the concept of God is now open season for my scrutiny. My next move is to examine the nature of thoughts within the context of my own reasoning and their apparent property to initiate the creation of ‘things’.

    On what real ‘truth’ have the four horsemen based their claims?

  20. @Louis:
    What you’re telling us is that you’re a full-blown sceptic in the old-fashioned philosophers’ sense. Your invocation of Descartes suggests to me that you think that all your thoughts being the deceptions of an evil genius is just as probable as the external material world being real.
    People like Dennett would say that believing that (e.g.) Jesus rose from the dead takes a much bigger leap of faith than believing in science (many, perhaps, most religious people would say this too). What he’s saying is that making such big leaps of faith is a bad idea. But from your ultra-sceptical position you’d have to say that they’re both equally great leaps of faith. Which is all very well, I suppose, but it means that as far as you’re concerned all bets are off when it comes to decding whether any belief is delusional or not.

  21. @Brian:
    I am a practical philosopher. Here and now. In my search for truth I use possibilities and probabilities to navigate the terrain and yes I give more weight to a scientific argument than say the belief that yellow aliens have landed. However, I stay as open as possible to all ideas of conviction because I am still not certain that it may not be the strength of the conviction that makes ideas true. Jesus may or may not have arisen in ‘reality’ but he certainly did as an idea and that has the same impact on many people as if he did. I am more interested in the exploration of nature, its relationship with our thoughts and the elusive and malleable substance of which it appears to consist. Even though I remain in a constant state of hypothesis, the exploration of this path is far more creative and has far more implications practically, here and now, than the interminable and pointless banter between one dogma and the other. By considering the notion that ideas impact on the material world I can reasonably embrace many possibilities which can even include – dare I say it – the potential for the existence of God – a not uncommon human thought.

    The power of our collective thoughts and choices has changed the direction of evolution forever. We have brought about the ability to consciously adjust, design and direct it. We create anything from Barbie dolls to broadband and now we are changing the shape of the planet on the macro scale and manipulating our genes on the micro. Conscious design is now an evolutionary fact. This stuff of nature is manifesting in forms limited only by our imagination – and yet the four horsemen continue to scrap with the religious about whether evolution is random or not. What for?

    If great thinkers like these could move away from reductionism which has no moral co-ordination, lacks creative choice and is so 20th century! And join with the great minds amongst the religious, they could actually participate in directing the force of evolution by devising a united moral integrity. Instead of asking where did we come from? Is there a God? We now need to ask where are we going to and what would God – even hypothetically – do next? Nothing is more urgent.

  22. @Louis:
    When you say that the strength of conviction makes ideas true, are you saying that if I (or, anyway, enough people) believed that the Moon was made of green cheese, that would cause the moon to be made of green cheese? Because it sounds like you are. There is of course a pefectly ordinary sense in which mental states change the world, namely that they cause people to act, and thus bring about changes in the world. I hardly think that that’s a revolutionary idea, however, since it’s pretty obvious and no-one would deny it.

    I’m afraid I find the word ‘reductionism’ most unhelpful. It is extremely vague, and many people seem to use it just to mean something that they don’t like, much as people use the term ‘political correctness’. Dennett distinguishes two different kinds of reductionism – one that says “x’s can be explained in terms of y’s” [e.g. the activities of living organisms can be explained in terms of physical laws], and one that says “therefore x’s don’t really exist” [e.g. living organisms don’t exist]. He calls the latter “greedy reductionism” and is against it. Personally, I would rather people said what they meant than use the vague and prejudicial word “reductionism”.

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  24. I find the whole atheistic argument to be condescending and repulsive. Men like Dawkins are no better than the Popes they would love to dash to pieces. They trumpet their message of “Their is no God!” from every hillock they can climb never really realizing the absurdity of the statement. How can anyone know if God exists or not? How can anyone prove yea or nay? Precisely as much evidence and support for the existence of God is as extant and evidence of His nonexistence which is exactly NONE. This universe is vast beyond any and all human comprehension. For Dawkins or any of the other so-called Horsemen to stand under a starry sky and declare “God is no where to be found!” implies that they or someone else has been everywhere there is to go and not found a deity. Really? In the history of man we have yet to discover every inch of our planet Earth. Vast expanses lie in the black depths of the oceans and are a complete mystery to all, scientist and layman alike. I say Dawkins, Bennett and their ilk are on a fool’s errand trying to convince anyone to listen to them preach what they want others to believe. In their own way, they are much like the religious evangelicals they so despise. Let us at least slip the bounds of our solar system before we start claiming such absolutes as No God. Until then, we are no better than the ancients who believed thunder was caused by the cavorting of the gods.

  25. Oh dear. Please know that I do know the difference between there, their, and they’re. This is where a “preview” button would be wonderful.

  26. @Brian:
    Re your 2 points:
    1) Apologies my wording was somewhat flippant for what I meant and for the word ‘true’ I should have said ‘real’. I can see that it would be easy to interpret what I wrote the way you have with your green cheese example.
    What I mean is this: I am not certain that what we think we observe in the external world and believe to be ‘real’, even after our investigation within the framework of our physical laws (giving us genuine conviction) is in fact real and is not the result of our own construction including the evidence itself. The more convincing the evidence the more ‘real’ it becomes. In this case ‘believe’ carries genuine conviction. A cheesey moon wouldn’t.
    As an example, I can observe my dreams. I have in some cases been absolutely convinced that they are ‘real’ because I have – in the actual dream – tested their ‘solidity’. I have also recognised in my dream that I have constructed an entire linear and causal narrative based around a sound that I heard in the external world after hearing the sound, where the sound is the climax to the story and comes at the end of the dream’s events as part of the dream’s narrative. This means I have fooled myself about time as well. I have managed to believe that an entire story of events (which I made up in my dream) have, as far as I am concerned, taken place in space and time prior to an event (the sound) even though I could only have created the story after I had heard the sound. So I must accept that it is possible that: a) everything I see as reality could be constructed by me or us and b) none of the laws which I use to measure this reality are outside of this construct.

    2)With regard to the use of the term reductionist – my apologies, I believed that reductionism was an established school of thinking and as far as I am aware reductionists are materialists and have the view that complex systems like living organisms and even consciousness are part of a hierarchy and can be broken down eventually to their physical matter whose behaviour is determined and explained by causal laws. Forgive me if I’m wrong or if this is not the view of Dennett. My problem is that having come to terms with the fact that our brain cannot cope with the concept of no beginning and no end, any explanation which relies on historical causation and leaves no room for the concurrent creative input of the participant, must be lacking. This system of thinking will always need to seek out the first cause in order to maintain itself. I am more interested in what comes next and seeking solutions based on what I do know for sure.

    What solutions do Dennett or the other 3 horsemen offer towards solving the problems concerning our current reality and what are they offering regarding the closure of the gap between religious conviction and their own?

  27. @ Louis:

    1) I’m not sure changing it from ‘true’ to ‘real’ makes any difference. If I believe that pink unicorns are real, does that make them real? It would just be misusing words to say ‘they’re real in my mind’, because that is what most people mean by ‘imaginary’. The distinction between what’s real and what’s imaginary is easy enough to understand, I would have thought. But in your previous post it looked like you were denying this distinction with your claim about conviction making things true. Changing it to conviction making things real doesn’t help.
    But you now say that we might be mistaken about what’s real, and give the very Cartesian example of a vivid dream. (I’ll leave aside the problem of whether it’s a good idea to say ‘I observe my dreams’, rather than just ‘I dream’, but I suspect that the fact that you find it natural to use that way of speaking may be part of the reason why you find Cartesian ideas so compelling.) And you say that you’re ‘not certain’ that what we believe is real rather than the product of our own minds. I’m going to take it that in saying this, you are not just falling back on the blanket scepticism of which I accused you. As it happens, there is a robust philosophical tradition, stemming from Quine, which holds that we shouldn’t regard any of our beliefs about the world as forever unrevisable, a tradition to which Dennett at least professes to belong. But it’s a far cry from this to either (a) blanket scepticism, because just because none of our beliefs are 100% certain it doesn’t follow that they are all equally uncertain; or (b) the idealistic metaphysics that you seem to espouse. It is equivocating to say that our beliefs are joint creations of the world and our own minds, so therefore what’s real is.

    2) You’ve correctly distinguished two different possible meanings of ‘reductionism’, of which Dennett accepts only one. It sounds to me like you reject both, and I’ll just put that down to difference of opinion rather than try to change your mind. I would suggest, though, that the one that Dennett accepts doesn’t have the consequences that you might think it has. As far as I can tell, he does indeed think that ‘complex systems like living organisms and even consciousness are part of a hierarchy and can be broken down eventually to their physical matter whose behaviour is determined and explained by causal laws.’ You were not being unfair to him there. But it doesn’t follow from this that the more complex entities in the hierarchy have no causal power. A rock is made of atoms, and its behavior can be explained by the laws of physics, but it still has the power to break a window.

    I’m very sympathetic to your view that we should never treat any idea as absolutely certain, that we should always keep an open mind (with the caveats expressed above, which hopefully you won’t have any problem with). And the best of scientific and philosophical thinking acknowledges this. What some of the angry atheists fail to see is that the best of religious thinking acknowledges this as well (‘we see through a glass, darkly’ etc.). I’d like to think that Dennett is one of the least bad in this regard. He certainly doesn’t seem as angry as Dawkins or Hitchens. The atheists should learn to read the religious with more charity, I would say. And maybe it’s worth reading Dennett with some charity as well.

  28. Joseph O'Leary

    Slowly it is dawning on these “New Atheists” that their own aggressive dogmatism has harmed their own cause.

    Most people dislike extremism and fanaticism. I suspect that the disinterested reasonable observer sees parallels between the attitudes of religion at its worst, and those of the “New Atheism” at its worst.

    One deeply unattractive feature of the new atheist dogmatism is its vanity. The sheer quantity of self-satisfaction emanating from the cosy back-slapping conferences of these atheists is frightening. Videos showing meetings between the so-called Four Horsemen of atheism reveal alarming quantities of mutual congratulation and pathological smugness.

    One might compare the argument between religious dogmatism and atheist dogmatism to a dispute about whether the outside of the Universe is painted theist blue – or atheist red.

    Those who think it is painted godless red condemn those who think it is painted godly blue on the grounds of their unscientific superstitiousness. If only the religious could be more scientific, more rational, more logical, more empirical, more Darwinist, less dogmatic, less superstitious, then they would surely be able to see that the outside of the Universe is painted blue – and a “natural selection” shade of blue at that.

  29. @Shannon

    While it is true that one does not have to search very long to find an overly smug atheist, the same could be said of the Religious camp.

    A rational atheist would not likely say, “I have proof that there is no god,” but rather “You have no proof that there is a god.” Two very different statements. I have never had an atheist try to threaten/bribe me with eternal damnation/salvation if I did/did not believe as they did. If your argument is that atheism is unseated by the poor arguments of a portion of its members, then you should also consider that your camp has at least as much hubris to answer for.

    I wonder at what point in our exploration of the universe you would be satisfied. Are you expecting us to find God under a rock on some distant planet? Which of the two seems more likely: That God has not been found yet because he is hiding in a deep sea trench, or that he cannot be found because he is immaterial or nonexistent?

  30. @Brian:

    I take your points regarding my ideas about reality and am thinking very carefully about them:) and I’m glad to see that you are one of the open minded camp!

    It was great to hear from such an expert. Thanks

  31. @Simon

    A rational atheist would not likely say, “I have proof that there is no god,” but rather “You have no proof that there is a god.” Two very different statements.

    How are those two different statements? Why are theists burdened with “proof”? I want an atheist to prove to me that God does not exist. It cannot be done. All a debate boils down to is pretty word play. An atheist has no more scientific and less historical proof of the non-existence of God than the theist has for His existence.

    “I wonder at what point in our exploration of the universe you would be satisfied. ”

    Let’s put it this way; we’ll at least, at the VERY least, have to explore beyond our Solar System. We have been NO WHERE in the grand scheme of things.

    I have no problem with atheists. I don’t really care what anyone thinks about my beliefs and I expect others to return the favor, but given human nature, that’s unlikely.

    I think the only definitive proof would require someone returning from the dead. Until we know, and I don’t mean in some “debatable” way, but some empirical way what happens after what we call “death”, the matter is unsolvable.

    Call it misguided belief in Pascal’s wager or just naivete’ but if there are other planes of existence, well . . . I’d much rather be prepared in some way to go there. Keep in mind that 1000 years ago, the most learned people in mainland Europe didn’t know two whole continents lay to their west. What are we likely to know 1000 years from now.

  32. It seems that we’re witnessing the birth here of a new breed of aggressive agnosticism [Shannon and Joseph O’Leary’s posts]. I’m an agnostic myself, but I’m not so quick to brand those who’ve made up their minds one way or the other as “fanatical” etc. I can’t rule out that someone else has given this question more thought than I have and that there may be much stronger arguments on one side or the other that I haven’t thought of. Shannon appears to believe that unless someone has been to every corner of the universe they can’t be justified in believing there’s no God. And Joseph apparently thinks we should be agnostics on the ground that we can’t know what colour the outside of the universe is painted. And they both, despite berating Dennett et al for being “condescending”, “dogmatic”, etc., come across as rather condescending and dogmatic themselves.

    Are we about to witness the appearace of the Four Horsemen of Agnosticism? (Obviously, this will necessitate eight horses …)

  33. @Shannon

    I did not explain because I thought the difference was self-evident. One is true, and the other is false. You have not proved the existence of a Christian God. This is true simply because it has yet to be proven. However the statement that ‘there is no God’ can hardly even be discussed because believers will so often move the goalpost by claiming that he cannot be seen because he doesn’t want to be seen/resides in some unreachable un-viewable dimension.

    The reason that the atheists argument: “You cannot prove He exists”, is sufficient is that it removes the necessity of belief.

    Religion bears the burden of proof in this argument because it makes claims about the way that the universe works. In other words, it’s a theory that attempts to explain existence. For this reason it is subject to the same requirements of any other theory that attempts the same thing.

    In light of Atheism, the consequence of believing in religion is the same as not believing: You live your life according to your own decisions. If only the same could be said of the religious viewpoint. As I have already stated, religion makes claim to fantastic, completely unproven consequences of belief that seem to serve no purpose other than perpetuating said belief, i.e. Heaven/Hell.

    Your claim that atheism has the same or less scientific/historical evidence supporting it is preposterous. Atheism is not a spiritual belief that needs evidence to support it, it is a set of values created with the goal of avoiding belief in ideas that have no evidence. A system that places fact above superstition cannot be factually inferior, as long as the rules of the system itself are followed.

    As for your historical evidence, it wouldn’t take long to find writings detailing the existence of Greek gods, or the Egyptian gods, or numerous other deities. Surely you don’t believe in them, do you?

    It is -extremely- unlikely that mankind will ever explore every corner of the Universe. Not only is it vast beyond our means, but it is constantly expanding, even accelerating! You could travel from one ‘end’ to the other and still have achieved about squat, in your terms of accomplishment.

    Any acceptance of Pascals Wager is bound to be misguided. It is so because it makes one fatal assumption right from the start: That there is either a Christian God, or there is no God. It completely ignores the possibility of another kind of deity which is completely opposed to Christian values. Such that being a Christian not only does not buy you the lottery ticket you were expecting, but actually dooms you to the ‘hell’ of this other supposed religion. Any number of other scenarios could be concocted that fit within Pascals Wager that not only remove the necessity of Christianity, but make it just as dangerous a choice as non-belief.

    It is true that there are many questions to which science does not yet have the answer to. Just as before, now, and perhaps always. However this doesn’t justify the reasoning to replace scientific advancement and inquiry with the assumption of God/superstition. Imagine if all people in those times believed with certainty that the world was flat and to sail off into the Atlantic Ocean was certain death at the claws and tentacles of sea monsters, or worse an eternity of falling through space after going over the edge. Perhaps they would remain undiscovered to this day. That seems less an act of faith, and more an act of patent ignorance.

  34. Weekend accommodationism « Why Evolution Is True - pingback on March 20, 2010 at 5:18 pm
  35. 1. If there is unnecessary suffering, there is no omnipotent, omniscient, omnobenevolent (3O) god (conceptual truth)
    2. There is unnecessary suffering (empirical premise)
    3. So, there is no 3O god

    Suppose you agree with 1. You are then faced with the choice of giving up belief in a 3O god, or explain to yourself in virtue of what all the suffering we see is necessary. Tough task, the latter, it seems to me.

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