Is Daniel Dennett a conspiracy wingnut?
You were raised a good conservative who faithfully listened to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity with your parents. You read all Ann Coulter’s books. You considered Michael Moore and all his ilk to be mealy-mouthed liberals. Then you enrolled in university and attended a public lecture from an articulate political scientist on the state of the economy. It wasn’t what you expected. The speaker challenged not only the Republicans but the Democrats as well. The party system is a “duopoly” she said, one that is controlled by monied private interests.
What do you do? This is challenging some deeply held beliefs. In those moments you’d be wrestling with cognitive dissonance and an overwhelming desire to restore equilibrium. So you return to your dorm room, go on youtube, and begin scrolling through Ann Coulter videos until you find one where she refers to people like your professor. Their politics, she says, is a “pseudo-sophisticated mugging game” and “there’s no reason to learn any of it because we’ve just seem some of the best of it and its full of I think willful obscurity and willful use of ‘deepities’.” You can hear a ripple of self-satisfied tittering roll through the conservative audience. Relief washes over you as you say to yourself: “I better get this link onto my Facebook.”
I hope we are agreed that the reaction of that student to cognitive dissonance is not a good one. And yet, as I lamented in “The sad face of atheistic fundamentalism“ this is basically the reaction when, following my visit to the Society of Edmonton Atheists, a member of the SEA posted the link to a video from Daniel Dennett in which Dennett says fundamentally the same thing. The only difference is that the target for Dennet is philosophical theology.
In response, Daniel (a former member of SEA, not the bearded philosopher) commented with delightful understatement: “Randal, I’m assuming you disagree with Dennett’s assessment.” Um, yes that’s a safe bet. Let’s look at Dennett’s exact words.
Dennett begins by noting that he and Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are often accused of being “philosophical Philistines”. And so Dawkins came to him one day asking whether this was really true. Dennett then shares his reply:
“No I just don’t think it’s true. I don’t think it’s true. I think that theology, and particularly philosophical theology is a pseudo-sophisticated mugging game and there’s no reason to learn any of it because we’ve just seem some of the best of it and its full of I think willful obscurity and willful use of ‘deepities’.”
So after I spoke and presumably stirred up some cognitive dissonance, this was the way the SEA member proposed to restore equilibrium. He suggested that by engaging in “philosophical theology” I was merely participating in a “pseudo-sophisticated mugging game” and engaged in “willful obscurity”. In short, one of the core disciplines on which I’ve focused my academic life is bullshit in the sense defined by Harry Frankfurt. So once again for good measure: yes Daniel, I disagree with that assessment!
What Daniel Dennett has provided for us is a conspiracy theory of philosophical theology:
Conspiracy theory of philosophical theology (CTPT): the discipline of philosophical theology is bullshit and academic professionals who participate in it are bullshitting. That is, they are pretending to be concerned with the truth when in fact they are concerned with something else, e.g. conveying a sense of their intellectual superiority through obfuscation.
There are several problems with this thesis. Let’s note some of them.
First, there is the general problem with all conspiracy theories that they require elaborate and implausible explanations. Consider, for example, 9/11 conspiracy theories. They generally require massive complicity in the conspiracy among multiple individuals and governmental agencies. And that rightly strikes people as enormously implausible. Dennett’s CTPT requires us to accept the enormously implausible thesis that entire university departments (e.g. the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion), academic journals (e.g. Religious Studies, Philosophia Christi, Faith and Philosophy), and individuals (e.g. Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Marilyn Adams, Eleonore Stump) are all complicit in intentionally perpetuating a bullshit enterprise.
Dennett could attempt to lessen the enormous implausibility of his conspiracy thesis by suggesting that at least some of these individuals are caught up unawares in a bullshit enterprise. In that case, these individuals are in fact producing Cohenian bullshit (that defined by G.A. Cohen as hopeless obscurity without malicious intent). But that rear-guard action merely compounds the implausible nature of the conspiracy theory. Think about it: we have now suggested that many professional analytic philosophers, individuals who spend their lives carefully analyzing language, concepts and argument, don’t even know that their entire knowledge discourse is bullshit. Consequently, Dennett is forced back to the intentional conspiracy: all philosophers of religion and philosophical theologians are attempting to deceive others through their use of obscure terms and arguments.
That is a truly idiotic thesis and it belongs in the same recycling bin as 9/11 conspiracies.
Second, many of the greatest philosophers of history have engaged in philosophical theology and philosophy of religion: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Spinoza, Leibniz, Descartes, Locke, Clarke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, and on and on. Were all these individuals bullshitting as well? If not, then when did the discipline(s) of philosophical theology / philosophy of religion become bullshit?
Third, you’ll note the eminent eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume in our list of philosophers who engaged in philosophical theology. That is a reminder that today as well there are many agnostics and atheists who are active in the field of philosophical theology. Many have devoted much of their academic careers to the discipline including Anthony Kenny, J.L. Mackie, Antony Flew, Kai Neilsen, J. Howard Sobel, Graham Oppy, Quentin Smith, Richard Gale, and so on. (In “Three good books by atheists (hint: they’re not ‘new’ atheists)” I recommend some of these philosophers.) Interestingly this places Dennett in a real quandary. If he believes that philosophical theology simpliciter is bullshit, then the agnostics and atheists who participate in this willfully obscure form of pseudo-intellectual discourse are bullshitters as surely as are the theists. Way to go Mr. Dennett: you’ve just accused the most eminent atheological apologists of being bullshitters of the crassest sort.
Fourth, and finally, there is the problem of fuzzy boundaries between various philosophical disciplines. Since Dennett himself is a philosopher, I take it that he doesn’t think philosophy simpliciter is bullshit. For example, he presumably accepts the legitimacy of the debate on modality between Plantingan actualism and Lewisean possibilism. And that means that Plantinga’s book The Nature of Necessity is not all bullshit. But yet we are to believe that as soon as Plantinga applies the mechanics of his analysis of possible worlds to the possibility of a metaphysically necessary being he has entered into bullshit? And when I spoke at the SEA I spent much of my time talking about epistemology and philosophy of science. So I take it that those discussions were also not bullshit except to the extent that they touched upon philosophical theology?
So now we face the Rubicon moment. We must choose between the following:
(1) hundreds of theistic, atheistic and agnostic philosophers and their institutions are engaged in an elaborate pseudo-intellectual ruse.
(2) Dennett made some obviously false, ridiculous comments, perhaps because he was mugging for the crowd.
I have provided four reasons why we ought to go with (2) rather than (1). But I am not saying you have to agree with me. You could instead take the investigative route by taking the time to read the work of philosophical theologians before you draw your own conclusions. That’s fine too. I’m all for people reading more philosophical theology (though I recommend you begin with an introduction to the discipline like Thomas Morris’ Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology (1992) so that you don’t get in over your head and end up calling something pseudo-intellectual just because you don’t understand it). But when all these problems are considered it must be said that anybody who simply takes Dennett at his word is exercising the very worst kind of blind faith.