Chapter 2 of A Manual for Creating Atheists addresses the topic of “Faith”. In this installment I’m going to camp on pages 21-22 as I analyze Boghossian’s use of the concept of “deepity” and his list of alleged paradigm instances of deepitiness as regards faith. I’m camping on this brief section because it highlights effectively the degree of Boghossian’s unparalleled analytic confusion, inexcusable sloppiness, and barbaric hermeneutical presumption.
Boghossian’s definition of deepity
The chapter starts off by presenting the concept of “deepity” which was originally introduced to our lexicons by Daniel Dennett. Boghossian defines it as follows:
“A deepity is a statement that looks profound but is not. Deepities appear true at one level, but on all other levels are meaningless.” (21)
Boghossian’s reference to “levels” is presumably shorthand for “levels of meaning.” Consequently, the deepity is a statement which appears to be profound, and has a true meaning, but does not have more than one meaning (i.e. it is a statement that admits to no other coherent interpretations).
This definition leaves us with a very serious problem. You see, the concept of a deepity is clearly a negative judgment. And yet, Boghossian’s statement of the concept entails that mundane true statements become deepities just in case a person hears them and perceives them to be profound. Given that statements can appear profound if a person is unfamiliar with the words being used in the statement, it follows that the limited vocabulary of an eavesdropper is sufficient to turn the urbane speech of a more learned individual into a deepity. But surely this is wrong, for it isn’t the speaker’s fault that the eavesdropper is unfamiliar with his speech and erroneously interprets it as profound!
Consider for example, the Oxbridge scholar who comments to the waiter:
“My good man, your Irish dry stout is superlative and illimitable!”
This statement is unambiguous (that is, it has one clear meaning). Moreover, while the statement might appear to be profound to those unfamiliar with the vocabulary, the scholar is simply saying he really likes the beer. And that isn’t really profound. Consequently, by overhearing the comment, the man of limited vocabulary mistakenly marvels at perceived profundity, thereby transmogrifying the perfectly fine statement into an ignominious deepity. Indeed, if we accept Boghossian’s definition then the marginally literate have a perverse sort of Midas touch: simply by lending an ear to the speech of the more educated, they can turn that speech into shameful deepities. But surely this is absurd.
A proper definition of deepity … and how it makes things worse
This would seem a good time to set aside Boghossian’s definition for the moment and go straight on back to the original. Here is how Dennett defines the concept in his 2013 book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (please note that this definition does not differ substantially from Dennett’s initial use of the term in a much publicized 2009 address):
“A deepity is a proposition that seems both important and true–and profound but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous.”
Here we see where Boghossian’s statement goes awry. While Boghossian gets Dennett’s first two criteria correct (truth and profundity), instead of correctly listing Dennett’s third criterion — ambiguity — he offers the following summary statement: “Deepities appear true at one level, but on all other levels are meaningless.”
In my analysis above, I interpreted this statement as entailing that, according to Boghossian, deepities are statements which have only one true interpretation, while all other interpretations are quite literally nonsensical. And I interpreted that to mean that deepities are statements which are unambiguous, a conclusion which is, so it turns out, the exact opposite of what Dennett stated.
You might think the blame should be placed on my shoulders. But I plead innocence, for the fact is that “ambiguous” means “open to or having several possible meanings or interpretations”. However, if a statement admits to one sensible meaning (the meaning that yields a true statement) whilst all other interpretations of the statement are quite literally meaningless, then one can conclude that the statement is unambiguous. Consequently, my interpretation of Boghossian’s final statement as being an affirmation of unambiguity is perfectly reasonable.
Let’s say that the Boghossian apologist concedes the point but then retorts that it is also possible to interpret the statement other ways, including as a rather roundabout affirmation of ambiguity (i.e. the exact opposite of the interpretation I defended). Is this an adequate rejoinder?
Hardly. Indeed, this response entails that Boghossian’s statement of the definition is itself ambiguous. And that means that Boghossian’s statement itself qualifies as a deepity. That is, Boghossian’s attempt to define a deepity “seems both important and true–and profound” (at least to his enthusiastic readers) and it “achieves this effect by being ambiguous.”
To recap, by attempting to define “deepity” Boghossian gave us one. The man’s either devilishly clever or incredibly foolish. I know where I’m placing my bets.
How do six deepity sentences support the conclusion that faith is a deepity?
Boghossian then provides a list of six alleged deepities on faith. The list includes single sentence quotations from Hebrews in the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, Paul Tillich, Daniel Migliore, Brian McLaren and a theologian (heretofore unknown to me) named R.L. Kinast.
Let’s grant, for the moment, that these six sentences are indeed deepities according to Dennett’s definition. So what? Would that tell us anything about whether the concept of faith is itself a deepity? Boghossian thinks so.
So what say we take a closer look at that assumption. Imagine that you draw up a list of six candidate deepity sentences that contain the word “love” (or “freedom”, or “memory”, or “person”, or “friendship”, or “hope”). Would it follow that the concept “love” (or “freedom”, or “memory”, or “person”, or “friendship”, or “hope”) was itself a deepity because it appeared in six sentences that are themselves deepities?
Of course not. And to think otherwise is nothing short of incredibly, insufferably stupid. In his 2009 address Dennett provided the following sentence as an example of a deepity: “love is just a word.” But who would conclude from this example (or the addition of a few more like it) that the concept of love is itself a deepity?
Yet, incredibly, Boghossian seems to think that this is a legitimate way to proceed where the concept of faith is concerned. Provide a list of sentences that are alleged deepities as some kind of evidence that the concept of faith is itself a deepity.
By this absurd procedure, just about any concept could be judged meaningless based on a modest set of token sentences which are deepities and contain the word.
Boghossian’s barbaric hermeneutical presumption
We now come to our final point: Boghossian’s barbaric hermeneutical presumption.
While the deepity status of the six sentences Boghossian lists is completely irrelevant to the concept of faith, I’m going to conclude by taking a moment to address the first example Boghossian provides in his list. Here it is:
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:)
According to Dennett’s definition, this statement would qualify as a deepity if it is an ambiguous statement which seems important, true and profound, and this appearance of importance, truth and profundity is due wholly to the ambiguity of the statement.
Boghossian hasn’t attempted to establish that this sentence from Hebrews is a deepity relative to Dennett’s criteria. Instead, he presents a modus operandi that is simply stunning for its extraordinary hermeneutical presumption. It is crucial that we understand just how obscene Boghossian’s interpretive practice is:
Boghossian quotes one sentence from the English translation of a Greek epistle written approximately two millennia ago in the Mediterranean basin, and without any attention to the wider hermeneutical context in which the sentence occurs, he concludes that it is a deepity.
At this point I stand aghast at the unfathomable ignorance and presumption of this fool (fool, n. “a silly or stupid person; a person who lacks judgment or sense”) . You just might expect (and lament) such uncouth behavior from an ignorant jock who was raised reading nothing more challenging than Sports Illustrated. But from a university instructor?