Is Daniel Dennett a conspiracy wingnut?

Posted on 11/06/11 56 Comments

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.

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  • Grady

    Now that’s more like it, Prof.

    That a brilliant post.

    I hope thats how you knock the Loftus Lies out of the Park. I really do.

    However, I think a good case can be made for number one.

  • Eric

    “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’.”

    Whenever I read something like this, I’m reminded of this quote from David Bentley Hart (who, unlike Dennett and co., actually knows a thing or two about theology as a serious academic discipline):

    “…theology requires a far great scholarly range than does any other humane science. The properly trained Christian theologian, perfectly in command of his materials, should be a proficient linguist, with a mastery of several ancient and modern tongues, should have a complete formation in the subtleties of the whole Christian dogmatic tradition, should possess a considerable knowledge of the texts and arguments produced in every period of the Church, should be a good historian, should be thoroughly trained in philosophy, ancient, medieval and modern, should have a fairly broad grasp of liturgical practice in every culture and age of the Christian world, should (ideally) possess considerable knowedge of literature, music and the plastic arts, should have an intelligent interest in the effects of theological discourse in areas such as law or economics, and so on and so forth. This is not to say that one cannot practice theology without these attainments; but such an education remains the scholarly ideal of the guild…”

    • randal

      Reading David Bentley Hart’s comments remind me of my days in university reading John Milton. By comparison Daniel Dennett looks like the kids I see hanging out at 7-11.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    …academic professionals who participate in it are bullshitting…

    There’s a difference between ‘bullshitting’ and ‘self-delusion’. For example, I think there are a lot of astrologers who genuinely believe in astrology and honestly believe the rationalizations for why it doesn’t work in practice. I know that there are a lot of people who believe in demons and demonic possession. I don’t think there are all that many hucksters among them, but I still think they are mistaken or fooling themselves.

    In other words, it seems to me there’s at least a third option, that:

    (3) hundreds of theistic, atheistic and agnostic philosophers and their institutions are engaged in an elaborate game of self-deception.

    • randal

      Ray, I am glad that you share my incredulity toward Dennett’s ridiculous conspiracy comments. As for your alternate proposal, what do you mean that hundreds of academics are self-deceived? About what are they self-deceived? And what evidence do you have that they are so deceived?

      • http://www.arnizachariassen.com/ithinkibelieve Arni Zachariassen

        The accusation of self-delusion is delightfully unfalsifiable.

        “You’re deluding yourself, mate.”
        “No, I’m not! I honestly believe this stuff!”
        “Yeah, you would say that – you’re deluding yourself!”

        Might as well say I’m in love with my mother and hate my dad for having sex with her.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    I am glad that you share my incredulity toward Dennett’s ridiculous conspiracy comments

    Point of information: I’m not convinced they were ‘conspiracy comments’. I was proposing an alternate interpretation of them that makes them not ‘conspiracy comments’.

    As for your alternate proposal, what do you mean that hundreds of academics are self-deceived?

    I thought the illustrations were fairly clear. I mean, it’s pretty clear that astrology doesn’t work. No double-blind study ever seems to turn up any effect. Given the same birth-date and place data, astrologers come up with wildly different horoscopes and predictions. And yet, astrology professionals sure seem to actually believe they are doing something that makes sense.

    Similarly, it looks to me like at least a lot of theology and philosophy – and definitely metaphysics – is, er, divorced from any meaningful external test or cross-check. Practitioners come to wildly different conclusions; heck, quite often they don’t agree on the starting points.

    As a side note, I will also point out a strong tendency among many theologians to use common words in specialized ways when arguing with fellow theologians, and then turn around and use those words in the common manner when describing their conclusions to non-theologians a if they meant the same thing. (I believe I’ve already objected to the use of the term ‘divine simplicity’ in that respect. That kind of ‘simple’ is, at best, different from how everything else could be ‘simple’.) I don’t think they’re being consciously deceptive; they seem more not to appreciate the very rarefied denotations they habitually use.

    Computer professionals, to take a field which I’m familiar with, also use common words in specialized ways. I can sensibly speak of an ‘atomic bus queue operation’ to my co-workers, for example. But if I were going to explain that to others, I would definitely have to unpack those words to explain what they are actually saying – which is almost certainly different from what a non-computer-scientist would picture.

    • randal

      “Point of information: I’m not convinced they were ‘conspiracy comments’. I was proposing an alternate interpretation of them that makes them not ‘conspiracy comments’.”

      Well the only way you can do that is by ignoring what Dennett actually said. He imputed a motive of “willful obscurity” to the individuals who engage in philosophical theology. In other words, they are intentionally using obscure language and argument to mislead others as to the intellectual status of their discipline.

      Now your comments are interesting because you go much further than Dennett. Not only is philosophical theology bunk but you suggest that metaphysics is as well. Why? Because it is “divorced from any meaningful external test or cross-check”.

      You obviously are not very well read in academic journals where arguments are vigorously vetted through carefully reasoned argument. Your problem seems to be that you assume every form of intellectual enquiry must conform to the same methods of evaluation. That smacks of a form of scientism. Arguments in history, literary studies, philosophical theology, ethics and economics all have different standards of evaluation. To be sure, there are some common virtues that guide each of these, but that hardly means that we say they all have to invoke “double blind tests” or something equally absurd before we’ll consider them legitimate forms of discourse.

      So in sum, you do disagree with Dennett’s imputation of deceptive motive to philosophical theologians, and you provide no reason to think that philosophers generally are engaged in an illegitimate form of discourse because it fails to conform to the standards you believe are obligatory.

      • clamat

        Ray, I am glad that you share my incredulity toward Dennett’s ridiculous conspiracy comments.

        I’m sorry, Randal, but the only one who has made any conspiracy comments is you.

        By most common definitions of the word, a conspiracy requires two or more persons involved in a conscious plot or purpose. Nothing in the Dennett quote suggests either a combination of persons or a particular conscious purpose.
        Other comments of yours tacitly acknowledge part of this:

        He imputed “willful obscurity” to the individuals who engage in philosophical theology.

        (Emphasis added.)

        Yes. But nothing he said suggests he thinks those individuals are acting in concert.

        Nor does anything he said suggest the purpose you assert, namely that theologians are engaging in “willful obscurity” to “to mislead others as to the intellectual status of their discipline.” Ray is spot on: Willful obscurity may equally indicate self-delusion. Perhaps Dennett means to say theologians engage in willful obscurity to convince themselves of the intellectual status of their discipline, or to convince themselves that their academic discipline confirms certain personal beliefs they have regarding religion and faith.

        • randal

          “Yes. But nothing he said suggests he thinks those individuals are acting in concert.”

          Of course it does! Imagine ten philosophers of religion sitting around the table. According to Dennett they’re all being willfully obscure. An uninitiated undergraduate enters the room, and they continue their willful obfuscation. Any one of them could stand up in that moment and say “The emperor has no clothes; we’re all obfuscating.” But nobody does. Instead they continue the ruse while the student thinks they’re being profound. This same scenario supposedly goes on at academic departments, university presses, institutes and in countless classrooms. Everyone’s keeping quiet. They all continue to obfuscate willfully in one giant game.

          And that’s not a conspiracy? Ha ha ha!

          “Perhaps Dennett means to say theologians engage in willful obscurity to convince themselves of the intellectual status of their discipline, or to convince themselves that their academic discipline confirms certain personal beliefs they have regarding religion and faith.”

          I love it! This is like reading a conservative Christian apologist on the “hard sayings of Jesus.” Perhaps Clamat you should write a pamphlet on “The Hard Sayings of Dennett”. Yes, that must be it. Leading atheist and agnostic philosophers like Richard Gale and Howard Sobel have deceived themselves. Right.

          • clamat

            Of course it does! Imagine ten philosophers of religion sitting around the table. According to Dennett they’re all being willfully obscure.

            Ah, the recurring pattern of our exchanges: You quote specific language and immediately proceed to ignore it, and instead analyze words that you provide and elaborate scenarios you imagine. (And you accuse Dennett of having a tendency toward conspiracy theories!) And I keep trying to bring you back to what the person actually said.

            Dennett did not say “all” philosophers of religion are being willfully obscure. He said:

            we’ve just seem some of the best of [philosophical theology] and it’s full of I think willful obscurity and willful use of ‘deepities’.”

            (Emphasis added.)

            Some of the “best” of philosophical theology, not all. Is full of, not “is nothing but” or “is entirely comprised” of. Anticipating that you will willfully (!) read literally a colloquialism used impromptu (I’m assuming, since you don’t link to the quote), would it help if Dennett had said instead “chock full of”?

            Any one of them could stand up in that moment and say “The emperor has no clothes; we’re all obfuscating.”

            And some have, Loftus being just one example.

            Which emphasizes the point, which is that self-delusion is “willful,” to bring it back once again to Dennett’s actual words. Dennett did not say, as your imagined scenario assumes, that all 10 are being consciously obscure.

            Ever read any literature on astrology or homeopathy or acupuncture? (And, like Ray, I have my suspicions about them dang economists, too!) I read some of that stuff and can only think “what in the world are you talking about?” I think virtually all of them are lying, but not necessarily to me. Or are all astrologers, homeopaths, and acupuncturists engaged in conscious conspiracies in your book?

            And self-delusion perpetuates self-delusion. I assume you won’t mind if I borrow and modify your own imagined scenario? The uninitiated undergraduate student of acupuncture enters a room with 10 accomplished practitioners. He says to himself “I don’t understand everything they’re saying, but it’s 4000 years old, they’ve each got a wall full of diplomas and certificates and stuff, and lots of people swear by it. What do I know? I’ll just start by assuming it’s legit and go from there.”

            I suspect many — note, not “all” — theologians are born in a similar manner. “Well, for 3000 years a lot of smart people have devoted a lot of thought to this. Oh sure, it looks like not a single issue has been settled in those 3000 years, but those guys all sound really smart, have tons of expensively-framed vellum, and really sound sincere. So there must be something to it.”

            Further, theology is devoted to a concept that strongly lends itself to self-delusion. “I already personally believe, or really want to. So I’m happy to assume a legitimate area of study, studying actual phenomena, and devote my work to show my initial beliefs are justified.”

            Leading atheist and agnostic philosophers like Richard Gale and Howard Sobel have deceived themselves.

            Are you saying it’s not possible?

            In fact, I’m willing to acknowledge it’s entirely likely some leading atheist and agnostic philosophers are indeed self-deluded regarding the strength of a particular argument they’ve made because it supports their general thesis, i.e., atheism or agnosticism. Are you capable of acknowledging the same with regard to theistic philosophers?

            • randal

              Clamat, thanks for putting your lawyer’s skills on display. It really is a marvelous effort. But it is also a futile one. Dennett said “I think that theology, and particularly philosophical theology is a pseudo-sophisticated mugging game”. No qualification there. Not some philosophical theology. All of it. And so “there’s no reason to learn any of it”. That is the context of Dennett’s statement. He just margialized the whole discipline. And only within that context can you then properly understand the specific examples he provides: “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 irony of ironies, you are the one ignoring the context and content of his comments as you seek a defense that is as hopeless as demonstrating that Bill Clinton did not have relations with that woman.

              • clamat

                Thanks. I definitely take that as a compliment. (And, to be precise, Clinton denied having “sexual relations” with Monica, a significant difference. That said, I think Clinton was a lying S.O.B. on this sordid episode.)

                You can’t even keep the context of our exchange straight. I was commenting on your “10 theologians in a room” scenario, which implies that Dennett’s position is that every individual theologian is willfully deluded. It’s not. As you correctly point out now, his scorn is for theology as a discipline because, by his lights, even the best of it seems to be rife with willful obscurity. He did not, in the main quote, say that every individual theologian is willfully deceptive, much less consciously in active conspiracy with all other theologians (which point you do not address), although it’s reasonable to believe some indeed are (which point you do not address).

                Unlike your scenario, my analogy to acupuncture mirrors Dennett’s actual position. On the whole, however, acupuncture is sheer nonsense, despite the fact that it has a demonstrated placebo effect and there is some evidence that acupuncture may actually alleviate certain types of pain better than placebo. It’s ancient, much-contemplated nonsense, but nonsense nevertheless. As a medical discipline, acupuncture is a pseudo-sophisticated mugging game. To Dennett’s thinking, same with theology.

                • clamat

                  To clarify: When I said “it’s reasonable to believe some indeed are” I meant reasonable to believe some theologians are willfully deluded, not engaged in active conspiracy.

                • randal

                  “To Dennett’s thinking, same with theology.”

                  Dennett didn’t simply say “theology”, he said especially philosophical theology. By doing that he shot himself in the foot like a drunk hillbilly as I illustrated, for he uses criteria that would marginalize most of philosophy, including (especially) naturalism. Once again, you ignore what Dennett actually said. Keep this up and I’ll have to start pulling out some lawyer jokes.

                  • clamat

                    Yes, yes, lawyers suck. I heard you the first time.

                    Considering your analysis in this thread has been about as fair and sophisticated as the typical lawyer joke I suppose an actual joke is your logical next move. Fire away.

                    Looks like Ray Ingles has taken up the Dennett-related arguments over in the other thread, so I’ll join him over there.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    He imputed a motive of “willful obscurity” to the individuals who engage in philosophical theology.

    Well, self-deception does involve the will on some level, discounting disconfirming information and focusing on information that supports one’s favored hypotheses.

    You obviously are not very well read in academic journals where arguments are vigorously vetted through carefully reasoned argument.

    Rocket and spacecraft designs are also vigorously vetted. Hundreds of millions to billions of dollars are on the line, and errors can’t be tolerated. Different people check and recheck. There are strong incentives for finding errors and bugs.

    And yet… fundamental errors get missed. The reliability of purely human conception is… unreliable.

    Your problem seems to be that you assume every form of intellectual enquiry must conform to the same methods of evaluation. That smacks of a form of scientism.

    I don’t demand the same kind of tests for everything… but on the other hand, I definitely want tests that don’t depend solely on human brains.

    Arguments in history, literary studies, philosophical theology, ethics and economics all have different standards of evaluation.

    Yeah, don’t get me started on economics, either. History can at least look at actual physical objects much of the time to test theories – and does. One of the ways we disagree about ethics is precisely about how they get tested in the real world. I plead the fifth on literary studies.

    • randal

      “I definitely want tests that don’t depend solely on human brains.”

      I’m not sure what this means. Does it mean you want a posteriori arguments?

      Whatever it means, I take it that you’re just offering a preference here, i.e. “I like arguments that don’t depend solely on human brains.” Good for you. I like vanilla ice cream (but not before breakfast).

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    I’m not sure what this means. Does it mean you want a posteriori arguments?

    I want a cross-check that doesn’t depend on what any particular person thinks about the issue. If you can’t test it against something that doesn’t depend on human opinion, it is by that very fact uncertain.

    I didn’t say false, note. Just uncertain – an opinion. As the novelist David Gerrold said, “You are not entitled to an opinion. An opinion is what you have when you don’t have any facts. When you have the facts, you don’t need an opinion.”

    I take it that you’re just offering a preference here

    Yes and no. I prefer not to speculate into areas we can’t test… because those areas are in fact uncertain. Even in areas we can test our record is… not great. Why assume we do any better in areas we can’t test?

    • randal

      Ray: “If you can’t test it against something that doesn’t depend on human opinion, it is by that very fact uncertain.”

      Wait a minute. How do I test that claim?! Does that depend on your opinion? If not why not? If so, then to what degree? The fact is that you’ve made a philosophical claim here, just so you’re aware.

      As I pointed out, academic journals as well as conferences, colloquia, etc. are ways that arguments are tested.

      • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

        The fact is that you’ve made a philosophical claim here, just so you’re aware.

        The thought may have crossed my mind, yes..

        As I pointed out, academic journals as well as conferences, colloquia, etc. are ways that arguments are tested.

        …against what other people think. As I pointed out just over three hours before your comment, other humans can – and do – miss major errors, even in areas we can test against. (Rocketry, astrology, economics, etc.) So imagine what boners are still lurking in philosophy and metaphysics!

        • randal

          “So imagine what boners are still lurking in philosophy and metaphysics!”

          Yes, we are fallible. Just so long as we don’t try to deal with that fallibility by advocating a procrustean bed of enquiry on philosophy.

          • clamat

            The properly trained Christian theologian, perfectly in command of his materials, should be a proficient linguist, with a mastery of several ancient and modern tongues…should be thoroughly trained in philosophy, ancient, medieval and modern [etc., etc., etc.]

            Hart could have concluded “Of course, none of this mastery or training will get us anywhere closer to an agreed-upon theological truth than it did Plato.”

            A while ago on Edward Feser’s blog I expressed doubt about the relative explanatory power of philosophy and theology compared to science. Specifically, I suggested that it doesn’t appear that philosophy has made any significant, agreed-upon progress since Plato. There are only a handful – literally – of philosophical problems on which something approaching a consensus has been reached, and even that short list seems up for debate! (Can’t find the link to the list now, but I first saw it on Common Sense Atheism. I’ll keep looking.)

            I was roundly disparaged by the assembled, sometimes more politely, sometimes less. So in conclusion (and genuine humility – I freely admit I’m woefully ignorant, and need people to point me in the right direction) I posed several questions to the assembled. I have yet to receive a single response, so I pose them to you:

            [paraphrasing myself]

            For me, the general topic is whether philosophy/theology has, will, or can make any progress in answering the “God Question.” For me, the God Question is threefold: (1) Is there a God? If so, (2) what is its nature, and (3) what does it want from us, if anything?

            But for present purposes, let’s start with part (1): Is There a God? (aka, the “First Question”).

            My specific questions are:

            1) Have any general philosophic issues that necessarily inform any analysis of the First Question been settled?

            I don’t mean that they have been settled for you personally, I mean that they have been settled as a matter of philosophy or theology generally. I’m not asking for unanimity, there will always be outliers, but what issues do you believe a great majority of philosophers would say “yeah, we’re done with that one.”

            On poster on Feser’s blog posited that it’s settled that empirical evidence is not necessary to hold rational beliefs (or something close). Any others?

            2) If so, which settled issues support an affirmative answer to the First Question? Not a defense, e.g. Free Will, but a settled issue that supports an affirmative answer to the First Question.

            3) If you have time, can you briefly say how you think those settled issues support an affirmative answer to the First Question?

            4) If you have time, can you recommend any further reading that discusses how those specific settled issues support an affirmative answer the First Question? (At this point I’ve read enough to think I’ve got the introductory course in religious philosophy generally, but I’ll take a look at the Morris book you recommend above.)

            • randal

              Clamat, your first question can be rephrased as follows: “Is the ultimate ground of all things an agent or not?” The advances in this discussion since Plato have been tremendous, as they have for other basic questions like “What is the good?” “What is time?” and “How do we know anything?” A tremendous advance in understanding which answers do not work and where a true answer may lie is consistent with recognizing that there is no unanimity among philosophers on how these various questions are answered. As we know, sometimes it is about the journey as much as the destination. And most philosophers realize that when we wrestle seriously with these kinds of fundamental questions we are exercising a very basic aspect of our humanity.

              Incidentally, we can also ask “What is the real world?” And insofar as science is asked the question we also have both a tremendous advance over ancient Greece as well as a great degree of darkness remaining (as dark energy reminds us!).

              By the way, I’m sorry to hear that you were disparaged.

  • Dogmatic Daniel

    Clamat, 10 points. Unpacking Randal’s rhetoric takes way more patience that I have.

    Dennett is in no way suggesting a conspiracy theory. For Randal to argue such proves nothing but Randal’s desperate need for zingers and one-liners in his protest against freethought.

    In Randal’s world sharing a youtube video on Facebook makes one a fundamentalist, and pointing out that theology is much ado about nothing makes you a conspiracy wingnut!

    • randal

      Daniel, this is an outstanding comment. I’m giving you an award later tonight. Way to go!!!

  • clamat

    To be fair to the Feser folks, most were perfectly pleasant when it became clear I wasn’t just some obnoxious atheist out to harass them in their own house. (And despite the sometimes heated rhetoric, I’m really not.) As for the others, I hope I’ve demonstrated here on more than one occasion that I can take it.

    [Y]our first question can be rephrased as follows: “Is the ultimate ground of all things an agent or not?”

    I genuinely apologize if my use of the following word in the following way offends (and for the re-introduction of heated rhetoric!), but I can think of no better interjection:

    Jesus, really? Yes, it may be possible to rephrase it using more words and more esoteric terminology. Thanks for demonstrating Dennett’s point so effectively.

    In any event, I don’t think you’ve actually rephrased the question I asked. Look, I realize asking the question the way I have may be philosophically unsophisticated, but that’s kind of the point. We beginners start with the basic idea of “God” we’ve grown up with,
    roughly: Is there a being who is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful who created capital-E Everything and is the source of capital-M Morality, whom we are obliged to worship? I realize there are a lot of separate elements in that question which may need to be addressed separately.

    But okay, “whether the ultimate ground of all things is an agent” may be of these elements.

    So what’s the consensus on this issue? I may have much to learn, but from what I’ve seen so far it seems this question is still hotly debated – as in “with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns.”

    I agree that we are philosophical animals; asking “why” is indeed, as you put it, “a basic aspect of our humanity.” I’m not anti-philosophy. And I agree that eliminating incorrect answers is important. It just often seems that eliminating the negative is the very most philosophy can do. Which is both enormously frustrating and arouses suspicion whenever somebody endorses the power of philosophy.

    • randal

      Congrats, you’re the runner-up for my bad comment award!

  • 1981cudd

    What every philosophical theologians needs a nine-year-old daughter. Mine has a habit of saying, “Daddy, that is a very silly idea.” She is always right.

    • http://www.arnizachariassen.com/ithinkibelieve Arni Zachariassen

      I’m not sure how your girl would answer this one, but I think taking the advice of a 9 year old girl regarding philosophical theology might be something of a silly idea.

    • randal

      Sorry Cudd, I have to agree with Arni on this one. I have a nine year old daughter as well and I don’t trust her to vet the inherent plausiblity of concepts of which she has little to no understanding.

  • 1981cudd

    Randal Arni
    I think you’ve missed the point, philosophical theology(whether it is research or propaganda is the moot question here) or research in astrology, Tarot divination, proof that the Olympian deities still exist, and the like. The general claims of theology differ not one jot in intellectual respects – or respectability – from these. All are very very silly idea’s ask a 9 year old.

    • randal

      So highly respected atheist philosophers with PhDs who spend much of their professional careers working in philosophical theology are simply engaging with “silly ideas”? That’s the silliest thing I’ve heard all day. It’s almost worthy of a Face-in-Palme nomination.

      • clamat

        What difference does it make if it’s an atheist? Isn’t 1981cudd’s easy response “Yes, atheist philosophers working in philosophical theology are indeed simply engaging with silly ideas?”

        (I don’t think I should have to say I don’t think they’re all silly ideas – I won’t claim that until I can publish my refutation of the ontological argument – but I don’t want to run the risk of stealing cudd’s award from him. Share the glory, is my motto!)

  • 1981cudd

    Atheist philosophers studying Christian theology the nature of God and religious truth? why would Atheist philosophers study bullshit?

    • clamat

      How can you know whether it’s bullshit or not unless you’ve studied it to some degree?

  • 1981cudd

    Yes I agree you do need to know what bullshit smell’s like to recognize it but according to randal, atheist philosophers spend much of their professional careers studying theology. The only atheist philosophers I’ve read only take a glance at the bible to criticize it, A C Graling for example. So I think randal is stretching it a tad you think?

    • randal

      “but according to randal, atheist philosophers spend much of their professional careers studying theology.”

      I never said that Cudd. But you’re within striking distance of a Face-in-Palme award. I simply pointed out that some atheist philosophers spend much of their professional careers working in philosophical theology. Can you really not tell the difference between “some” and “all”? How about this: “Some people prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla” is not the same as “all people prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla”.

      • 1981cudd

        Randal you did not say sum and i did not say all what are you talking about?

        • randal

          This is what I said: “there are many agnostics and atheists who are active in the field of philosophical theology.” And that’s true. I provided evidence of this fact in the article.

  • Frank

    “Look around at those who are participating in this quest for further scientific knowledge and eagerly digesting the new discoveries; they are manifestly not short on optimism, moral conviction, engagement in life, commitment to society. In fact, if you want to find anxiety, despair, and anomie among intellectuals today, look to the recently fashionable trend of post-modernists, who like to claim that modern science is just another in a long line of myths, its institutions and expensive apparatus just the rituals and accoutrements of yet another religion. That intelligent people can take this seriously is a testimony to the power that fearful thinking still has, in spite of our advances in self-knowledge. The postmodernists are right that science is just one of the things we might want to spend our extra calories on. The fact that science has been a major source of the efficiencies that created those extra calories does not entitle it to any particular share of the wealth it has created. But it should still be obvious that the innovations of science – not just its microscopes and computers, but its commitment to reason and evidence – are the new sense organs of our species, enabling us to answer questions, solve mysteries, and anticipate the future in ways no earlier human institutions can approach.”

    — Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves

    Yes, clearly the words of a wingnut…

    • randal

      Frank, in case you didn’t read my comments on Daniel’s ignominious award of the Face-in-Palme, the article is not about Dennett adhering to a conspiracy or literally being a “wingnut”. It is about the fact that Dennett made a stupifyingly stupid comment, probably because he was mugging for his crowd.

  • Frank

    I see. Kind of like, with your post’s title, you were mugging for yours.

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  • piero

    I might be wrong, because I’m not a philosopher , but I’ll submit my humble opinion:

    theo-logy = the study of deity/deities

    As far as I know, any reputable discipline ending in -logy has as its object of study something the existence of which is not in dispute. Could theologists follow the logical path and prove the existence of at least one deity before proceeding to describe them?

    • randal

      Piero, I take it that your real concern is not with disciples that have a suffix ending in “logy” but rather with various forms of public knowledge discourse simpliciter. So let’s take one of them with which I have some familiarity: the philosophy of mind. This is a reputable public knowledge discourse, I assure you. And this is despite the fact that some of the participants in this discourse (and some people who are not) actually doubt there is such a thing as a mind.

      • piero

        Surely there must be people who doubt there is such a thing as a “mind”. After all, we are seven billion, so within us you’ll find every imaginable nutcase.

        But the analogy fails on several counts.

        1. It is obvious that we have a brain.
        2. It is obvious that when the brain dies our “self” dies with it (there is no evidence of a mind surviving the death of the brain).
        3. It is obvious that when the brain is damaged some parts of our “selves” are damaged too (Alzheimer’s disease, for instance)
        4. It is obvious that our brain can enter a state we would describe as “unconsciousness” (sleep, coma)
        5. It is obvious that several chemicals can alter our perception of the world and even of our “selves” (heroin, LSD)
        6. Hence, it is reasonable to assume that “mind” is simply a shortcut for “the firing of synapses within my brain”.

        Besides, what philosophers call “philosophy of mind” is destined to be subsumed within neuroscience. As you should know, philosophers can only occupy the spaces that science leaves open to them. For example, there is no “natural philosophy” anymore: what we currently have is physics, chemistry and biology.

        Nothing intelligible can be said about deities. Phrases such as “the ground of all being” are just syntactic constructs which ignore semantics altogether. Until theistic or deistic philosophers can agree on what they mean by God, the field of theology is barren.

        • randal
          • piero

            I’m truly honoured, as a layman, to be the subject of a whole article by a professional written solely to refute my posts. Unfortunately, is was a bad article, though quite funny, I must admit. In fact, I enjoyed it.

            Now to business:

            1. I said “nothing intelligible can be said about deities”. You claim this is self-refuting, because it constitutes an intelligible statement about deities. Of course, that’s absurd. By the same token, you could claim that if I say “I know nothing about botany”, my statement would be self-refuting, because I actually know that I know nothing about botany; hence, I do know something about botany, namely that I know nothing about it. We can extend the analogy and conclude that anything I say about anything at all constitutes proof of knowledge about that something. How silly can you get?

            2. The mind “as such” does not exist, of course. Excel “as such” does not exist either: it exists when running on a computer. When you turn off your computer, there is no Excel to be grabbed somewhere in cyberlimbo. It simply ceased to exist. So no, Dennett is not a nutcase. He is simply stating what I said in my post: the mind is the activity of the brain, and it is a useful word because it lets us avoid convoluted expressions, in much the same way that “freedom” is a shortcut for an otherwise lengthy and intractable string of words. Of course, neither “mind” nor “freedom” exist as either material or metaphysical objects, but they do exist as descriptions of more complex and detailed phenomena. By your reasoning, no abstract nouns actually exist: philosophy, for example; or theology. Does theology exist? Not in itself, no: it is a convenient descriptor for a complex and detailed body of pseudo-knowledge.

            3. I thank you for your warm congratulations. But in all justice, I think it is you who deserves the award. Maybe next year your reasoning will have improved, and I’ll be indeed worthy of that much coveted accolade.

            • randal

              “you could claim that if I say “I know nothing about botany”, my statement would be self-refuting, because I actually know that I know nothing about botany”.

              There’s nothing self-refuting in saying you know nothing about the discipline of botany because that statement doesn’t include a fact about botany. It only includes a fact about your ignorance of botany. I see what you’re doing here Piero, but I’m not going to give you another Face-in-Palme in the same day. It doesn’t work that way.

              • piero

                Pity! Two accolades on the same day would have been most welcome.

                Anyway, you are obtusely wrong. If I say “I know nothing about botany”, how is that different from “I know nothing about deities”?

                And how is “I know nothing about deities” different from “I can say nothing intelligible about deities”?

                And if you expect me to believe you know something about deities, please tell me a single verifiable fact about them. Just one. A single, little, lonely little fact about them. Then we can have a dialogue. Until then, I refuse to engage you in any discussion, because you are obviously not up to the task.

                • randal

                  Why don’t you try responding to the premises of the ontological argument I presented?

                  • piero

                    Randal, it’s getting increasingly confusing to reply to you on two separate threads. Please post you comments on the face on Palme d’Or thread from now on.

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  • piero

    Oh, and by the way: “Nothing intelligible can be said about deities” is not a statement about deities, but a statement about statements abour deities. I’m surprised you missed a point so obvious even for an amateur.