A few days ago I presented a paper during the Darwin Festival at the University of Cambridge. Although the session was entitled “Theology in Darwinian Context,” the paper was actually a plea for an open and inquiring form of philosophical discourse — for using the best of human reason to address the big questions of the Western philosophical tradition. The paper gave examples of seven major philosophical questions raised by contemporary biology, arguing not for dogmatic answers to them but for the importance of the debate itself. At the end I gave an example of a form of Christian theology that could be a part of such a debate as well.
Toward the end of the session I had a chance to engage Daniel Dennett in a public debate about my paper. I thought it would be more fun to do a back-and-forth discussion than to harangue him from the podium. So I presented several brief arguments and gave him the chance to respond after each one. He was maintaining that we don’t need God-talk in any form, and I was arguing that classical metaphysical topics, including some that include the concept of God, are of continuing relevance and importance for philosophy today.
Here, in the interests of full disclosure, is the blog that Dan posted on Richard Dawkins’ website in response to that discussion:
I am posting my paper in the “web resources” area of my website
You must judge for yourself. I do find it a bit surprising that Dan chose not to mention any of the philosophical questions that we debated. Clearly his rhetoric style here plays to the usual readers of Richard Dawkins’ website who, as one can see, are lapping up his words. But it is a bit of a pity that Dan neglected to mention the call to dialogue, which was the central point of my paper and of our public debate. In fact, isn’t his choice of rhetoric instead of argument an instance of exactly what he is accusing theologians of doing?
One can’t help but see some signs of a philosopher who has rather lost interest in philosophical debate. Contrast that with the pride that many of us found in our discipline when we were undergraduate philosophy majors — the same pride in philosophical inquiry we continue to see in many of our own students. Such students are willing to tackle any conundrum or challenge using the best of human reason. They know that many people will be unwilling to follow “the force of the better argument” — or even to defend their views at all — but (they say) at least philosophers will never shy away from that task. I remember looking up to famous philosophers, including the young Daniel Dennett, as ideals that I sought to emulate.
Readers who follow the link above may not find that the discourse they read quite reaches such high ideals for philosophical discourse. In fact, readers will have a hard time finding any reference at all to the questions and arguments that prompted the Clayton-Dennett debate at the University of Cambridge. Indeed, one might be forgiven for seeing a bit of irony in the situation: it’s the theologian who lays out nuanced philosophical questions and calls to open dialogue, and it seems to be the philosopher who declines the invitation, turning to rhetoric instead.
— Philip Clayton