I'm actually a big Dennett fan. His naturalism bugs me sometimes, but he's been a tiger in the fight against the Cartesian conception of the mind. (I know that sounds funny – his naturalism is central to his thought – but you'd be surprised how often it doesn't come up.) In this context, though, he does have a bit of a tin ear, and I'm not at all sure he'll do well in a debate in which the stated topic is "Is God a Human Invention?"
First of all, he just asks for it with his ridiculous self-labelling as a "bright." He tells us we need a word for "a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view." But we've got one already: it's "naturalist." Yes, there's another sense of the word – that in which John Muir is a "naturalist" – but that sense doesn't entail disbelief in "supernatural" entities, as Dennett wants. So how about "philosophical naturalist"? Anything but "bright," which is monumentally stupid, and does indeed sound, no matter how many times Dennett denies the implication, like "brights" are smarter than you.
Also, in responding to D'Souza (about Kant), Dennett strikes me as remarkably unable, given his committed anti-Cartesianism, to see Kant as an ally rather than an opponent. It's disappointing to see him let D'Souza bait him into dismissing Kant as a deluded mystic desperately trying to prove the existence of another world beyond the veil. I guess that's easy for me to say, having grown up with the "one-world" interpretation of Kant advocated by Henry Allison and Graham Bird, among others (not that that's the only issue by any means; but it sure helps). Still, I would have thought that the scorn Kant pours on traditional metaphysics in the Critique would be hard to miss. In reply to D'Souza's Kant, though, Dennett is all snark:
If Dinesh D'Souza knew just a little bit more philosophy, he would realize how silly he appears when he accuses me of committing what he calls "the Fallacy of the Enlightenment." and challenges me to refute Kant's doctrine of the thing-in-itself. I don't need to refute this; it has been lambasted so often and so well by other philosophers that even self-styled Kantians typically find one way or another of excusing themselves from defending it.Ah yes, the famous "doctrine of the thing-in-itself." If you want to make Kant look ridiculous, it is indeed helpful to hang around his neck the "transcendental illusion" he explicitly rejects, together with the insinuation that "self-styled Kantians" (like Allison, presumably) have to resort to sophistry in order to wiggle out of their manifest obligation to attribute sheer virtually unadulterated Platonism to him.
But of course D'Souza has no intention of wiggling out of it. As we saw, he embraces it:
So powerful is Kant's argument here that his critics have been able to answer him only with derision. When I challenged Daniel Dennett to debunk Kant's argument, he posted an angry response on his website in which he said several people had already refuted Kant. But he didn't provide any refutations, and he didn't name any names. Basically Dennett was relying on the argumentum ad ignorantium-the argument that relies on the ignorance of the audience. In fact, there are no such refutations.Now that's chutzpah. Committing the argumentum ad ignorantiam (excuse me, "ignorantium") in the same breath as attributing it to your opponent: priceless. But of course in the context D'Souza has provided, the only thing that would count as a "refutation" is an argument showing not (say) that "noumenalism" (or transcendental realism!) is incoherent, but that the "Enlightenment Fallacy" – that we can know everything – is true. And of course even Hegel (who famously argued against Kant for the possibility of "Absolute Knowledge") didn't believe that. So in that sense D'Souza gets to be right. No such "refutations" exist. But so what.
Let's move on. In his 11/30 post, right before the debate, D'Souza served up some trash-talk for the occasion. He gleefully quotes the late Stephen Jay Gould (who was, as you know, a Prominent Biologist) referring to Dennett as a "Darwinian fundamentalist":
[Gould] suggested that just as religious fundamentalists read Scripture in a literal and pig-headed way, and unimaginatively apply biblical passages to everything, so Dennett has a primitive understanding of evolution and, with the enthusiasm of the fire-breathing acolyte, tries to apply Darwinism to virtually every human social, cultural and religious practice, with disastrous and even comical results.There is indeed a controversy here, and Dennett is indeed more likely to err on the ambitious side w/r/t evolutionary explanation. But D'Souza is being ridiculous. All he does is quote dismissive rhetoric from Gould (and H. Allen Orr) to make Dennett look bad. But as that New York Review exchange with Gould makes embarrassingly clear, Gould never understood Dennett's response, or at least didn't address it, and in fact resorted to personal attacks and name-calling in a most unprofessional manner. But put that aside (after all, that doesn't make Dennett right). Dollars to doughnuts D'Souza doesn't understand it either, and is just looking for another way to hurl abuse.
Let me try to clear it up a bit. No doubt I too will oversimplify; but we can take a few steps in. The issue concerns Dennett's "adaptationism" – his tendency to try to explain a biological phenomenon in terms of its evolutionary advantages. Gould was right to point out that we cannot simply assume that we can do this for every biological phenomenon. In his famous example, which I will not explain, some things are "spandrels": they arise because other things are evolutionarily advantageous and bring the first thing along with them. The "adaptationist" makes it sound like some evolutionary developments are inevitable – as if nature says, hey, wouldn't feathers be a great idea here! Let's evolve some feathers! (Or intelligence, or – more relevant to Gould's rejection of sociobiology – incest taboos, or matriarchy, or whatever.) Such "explanations" can (and in the case of sociobiology, often did) end up sounding like a bunch of ad hoc Just So Stories. In response, Gould emphasizes the radical contingency of the evolutionary path: re-run the tape 20 times and get 20 different results (think "A Sound of Thunder" here).
Fair enough. But Dennett never denied these things. (Gould's original attack was on earlier "adaptationists," but then Gould turned his guns on Dennett later.) Somehow the debate got turned from an interesting one (about which particular sorts of appeals one can make to evolutionary advantage, and which particular such explanations work and which do not) into one about whether one could ever appeal to evolutionary advantage, or whether there could ever be what Dennett calls a "forced move in design space." But surely, even in the case of evolutionary psychology (where the danger of Just So Stories is very real) no such slam dunk is possible. I, at least, am willing to let the Ev Psychers make their case; as the name change indicates, they seem to have learned at least a bit of humility from the sociobiology debacle. Maybe this or that isn't so just-so a story after all.
But that's not the point. Let's abandon Ev Psych entirely, for the sake of argument, and take "adaptationism" in biology alone. Jerry Fodor recently claimed that the very idea of nature "selecting for" a particular trait is incoherent, because nature doesn't have desires that things be one way or another. We can't say that the polar bear's white fur was "selected for" – that it arose because of its evolutionary advantage, as "adaptationists" claim – because given the polar bear's white surroundings, nature can't distinguish between white fur and fur that matches the environment, so it can't "select" for either. Like a lot of what Fodor says, that sounds crazy to me. For one thing, not only would this render explanations in terms of evolutionary advantage necessarily insufficient, it seems to eviscerate the notion entirely, which is nuts. (Interestingly, for what it's worth, it's also reminiscent of Quine's argument for linguistic holism, which Fodor famously rejects.) For more on Fodor, see here and here.
As is their wont, Fodor and Dennett trade incredulous accusations of the other's not getting it at all (links at the previous link, at the bottom of the page). Granted, Dennett is on firmer ground (in this respect, i.e. that of accusing Fodor of not getting it at all) in the philosophy of mind than in biology; so maybe they're both not getting it. (Or I'm not, or nobody is.) But of course D'Souza is keen to set Dennett straight there too. Back in June he had a four-paragraph zinger which was very similar: he found some other authorities willing to dump on Dennett as a dogmatic ignoramus. (Actually, looking again, I see D'Souza brings up Dennett himself; but so do the authors in question, as I happen to know, so, no foul there.) Briefly, the idea is that Dennett is "committing a conceptual mistake" (as is Francis Crick, the original target) in ascribing intentional properties (believing, etc.) to the brain. According to D'Souza, "[b]rains aren't even conscious; the humans who have brains are conscious." How about that: that's my view as well. (I even go farther: in the sense with which we are concerned (though not in another), my brain isn't even alive.)
But again Dennett is perfectly well aware of the danger here, and is guilty at most of some loose talk and/or as yet uncashed promissory notes. Bennett and Hacker (for these are the authorities in question) claim that all such talk is necessarily loose and all such promissory notes knowable a priori to be uncashable. (I know Anton and N.N. disagree with me here, but I think Bennett and Hacker have been misled by Dennett's triumphally naturalist rhetoric into misconstruing his project, which seems to me to be construable (perhaps, I grant, against Dennett himself, at least to some degree) as perfectly acceptable, even (or even especially, qua anti-Cartesian) on Wittgensteinian grounds. But Hacker's Wittgenstein is not my own, as far as I can tell. I owe more explanation here, but this is not the place. See N.N.'s link for an exchange between Dennett and Bennett/Hacker.)
In any case, if the danger is one of misleading locutions, that charge cuts both ways. Bennett and Hacker are careful to deny dualism, but of course for D'Souza misleading locutions are mother's milk; he continues [I bold for emphasis]:
Crick and Dennett are erroneously ascribing qualities to brains that are actually possessed only by people. True, our thoughts occur because of the brain, and we use our brains to think just as we use our hands and rackets to play tennis. How foolish it would be, though, to say that "my arms are playing tennis," or even more absurdly, "My racket is playing tennis." In reality, I am the one who is playing, and arms and rackets are what I play the game with.It's hard to tell, but I think he really thinks he has established dualism as true (I am not identical with my brain = My brain and I are distinct in the dualist sense). Wow. There's another related DD column I want to discuss (an amazing howler, which you may already have seen), but let's leave it for another time. Now let's hear about how the debate went!
Crick and Dennett are guilty of a fallacy that has become quite common among cognitive scientists. This is the Pathetic Fallacy, the fallacy of giving human attributes to nonhuman objects. This practice is quite harmless if we do it in a whimsical, metaphorical way. I might write that "the stem of the oak raised its arms to the sun, searching for its warm embrace." The problem only arises if I actually start to believe that oak branches have intentions. Brains are very useful objects, but they aren't conscious and they don't know how to feel or think.