Dan Dennett as a Model for Philosophy

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Dan Dennett as a Model for Philosophy

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 , so that you can evaluate the paper in light of the criticisms and vice versa.

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


Michael Fugate

July 11, 2009at 1:21 am

I would be interested in the paper, but cannot get link to open. Could you list the questions on your blog?

Eduardo Cruz

July 12, 2009at 9:53 am

What to say? Both sides preach to the convert, one in a sarcastic way, the other in a kind and argumentative manner. Two possible ways out: first, to be able to make the audience laugh at some of their catch phrases, using even catchier ones. I am afraid, however, that this is a rare gift. More democratic, I suppose, is the other alternative: to grab as many convertees as possible. “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

rodney neill

July 12, 2009at 4:53 pm

I glanced at Dan Dennetts letter and the comments – the sneering smug tone is what saddened me but par for the course from new atheists



November 9, 2009at 11:41 am

Reading Dennet’s response frustrated me. It clearly seems that the neo-atheists do not want to dialogue, but instead ridicule and characterize theologians. Ignorance is bliss.

Jheri Cravens

November 16, 2009at 4:16 pm

Reading the paper on Dennet’s page, I couldn’t help thinking about our President and how he kept the high road all through his presidential campaign, no matter what other folks did. Dennet’s comments, laced with ridicule and a lack of respect for the minds and thoughts and ideas of others, certainly do not facilitate communication; rather they are a dead stop. After all, who wants to talk seriously to someone who is making fun of her or him, his or her colleagues and the entire basis of her or his thought?

All day long, every day, I find myself deeply confused by the notion of God and, frankly, I don’t know what to believe. But I think that I won’t find out what to believe by listening to Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and their followers. Having gone to emotional hell and back myself while trying to figure out the God-thing, I can tell you pretty certainly that it does no good to deny that the question exists. I prefer my confusion over telling myself a lie — which is what I would have to do to say either that there is or there is not a God. I just don’t know and it is the deepest question of my life — and, I suspect, of the life of any human whose thoughts go below the surface of things. We know already that things are definitely and absolutely NOT as they appear. It just boggles my mind that anyone has the arrogance to deny the existence of God as though such a denial were an established fact. (I don’t say the same about those who affirm God’s existence because I think they may know something I don’t.) I can’t help believing that folks who deny God do so to avoid the hell I went through trying to figure it out. (It isn’t just whether God is or isn’t; the answer to that question holds a few implications for one’s entire life and existence.)

At first I intended to post this on Dawkins’ page — but in order to do that, I would have to become a “member” — which would officially associate me with Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennet, and others there, and I just couldn’t do it. Besides which, I think I may be writing my own theology here — and those guys would laugh at me.

Philip Clayton

November 16, 2009at 9:32 pm

Eduardo, I’d like to hear more — I can’t tell whether you’re saying that Dan Dennett and I are both just preaching to converts…

Jheri, that’s a beautiful post. You honor the questions like few others do. I would think that the attitude you bring is more deeply philosophical than what one finds in most of the publications of most of the “professional” philosophers. Would that our actual dialogue could correspond to the standards you set!

— Philip

Jheri Cravens

November 17, 2009at 5:09 pm

Thank you, Philip.


Will Ingraham

December 5, 2009at 8:09 am

Jheri’s post reminds me of Paul Tillich and The Courage to Be. In that small book Tillich creates a hallowed space for those of us who doubt. Paraphrasing from memory (because I gave my copy to a friend), Tillich says that it is the faith that we hold in spite of doubt that allows us to transcend the confines of “religion” in our existential condition. This shifts the debate away from philosophy and into the realm of theology, I suppose, but perhaps that is where Jheri is headed anyway.

Philip, thank you for your enlightening work on this subject. I look forward to getting to know it better now that I have discovered this site.

– Will Ingraham

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April 29, 2010at 5:38 am

Just have bookmarked your blog, and waiting for the next interesting post

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