More on the Dennett debate: The 7 Questions

  • 9

More on the Dennett debate: The 7 Questions

People have asked me to post the questions from the paper I presented at the Darwin Festival — the paper to which Dan Dennett responded in his verbal comments and in his blog on Dawkins’ website. Here’s the excerpt from the paper:

Sample Big Questions

It is not difficult to list the “big questions” in the biology-theology discussion over the 150 years since Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Consider just these seven:

• Is there directionality to evolution? If so, is it a sort of directionality that we should speak of as progress and, if so, why?

• Is this directionality (if it exists) purposive? That is, is it a sort of progress that is analogous to cases of intelligent agents bringing about changes in the empirical world?

• Obviously evolution produces emergent structures, functions, and behaviors. Can these emergent properties be fully (sufficiently) explained in terms of laws, properties, and dynamics occurring at lower levels of organization and at earlier stages in cosmic history? To what extent do explanations given at the level of the emergent properties and dynamics themselves constitute an irreducible part of the scientific results?

• Among the corollaries of the recent debates on emergent complexity is the (still unsolved) question: what is the relationship of biology to physics? This question continues to be unresolved, and more turns on it than is often realized.

• Biologists often complain that physicists overestimate the power of their discipline to answer the deepest and most interesting biological questions. Is it possible that we are similarly guilty of overestimating the significance of our results for explaining distinctively human behaviors, cognitions, symbols, and ideas? What is the role of the human sciences (psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology) as special sciences; do they supplement the biological sciences in understanding human thought and behavior? If they do, as I think, how, why, and under what rules does this work?

• In addition to the obvious similarities of Homo sapiens to other animals, what are the distinctive features of our species? How are those features to be understood philosophically? Which features, if any, are qualitatively different from the other species? How did such qualitative differences arise, and what is their significance? In particular, what are the contributions of evolutionary psychology and what are the inherent limitations that it faces?

• Both ethical and religious beliefs have played an important role in cultural evolution and thus, given co-evolution, have had biological effects, sometimes positive and sometimes negative. Can human ethical and religious convictions be fully explained within the framework of evolutionary biology? If not, why not? What are the limits of biological explanation to which this result points? What, exactly, is it that does the limiting here?


What gradually becomes obvious is that these are meta-biological questions. I suggest that they are natural next questions for humans to formulate when one has understood the biological results. It is on this basis (and only so), I think, that one can understand what theological reflection entails.

— Philip Clayton



July 24, 2009at 1:11 am

Philip – I’ve followed this with great interest. First, thank you for taking the time to keep the information up to date and for the link to Dawkins’ website. I have a different disposition to the ‘new atheists’, who (as you and others have argued) aren’t new at all. It’s abundantly clear that they don’t want an open and honest dialogue with anyone about religion or spirituality – it’s all fairy tales and flying spaghetti monsters. Rather than trying to soften the tails of the distribution by drawing the new atheists and creationists into dialogue, would it be more effective to focus on the opportunities that reside in the thoughtful, critically thinking majority?

As a scientist, I’ve started to notice that science is starting to clam up when new findings emerge, particularly in biology, when findings don’t cleanly fit into the old paradigm. Many of us have been waiting for Dawkins to weigh in on the complex information we’ve learned about the human genome in the past 5-10 years, but he insists on talking about God and his quaint selfish gene story. Either he doesn’t know what to say about the new information or knows that questions are accumulating much faster than science can answer them and that just doesn’t fit his worldview. That’s not to say that science can’t or won’t answer the new questions – in fact, science most certainly will. However, you’d think science would be wise enough to realize that on average, the pursuit of answers simply leads to more questions – how many times can we be surprised by this? Indeed, society tends to gravitate towards those claiming to have all the answers, when in fact, it is those with the questions that make the genuine contributions (e.g. Nietzsche and Marx). Let Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens have their tantrum in peace and hopefully (in time) they will emerge with fewer answers and a handful of compelling questions.

russell manning

July 27, 2009at 3:43 pm

Slavoj Zizek and John Milbanks co authored book “The Monstrsity of Christ” makes the Dawkins/Hitchens/Dennett rants seem immature. This carefully argued philosphical book outlines a theological debate, not for the faint hearted. In the end it delves below the surface of any biological argument fro or against God and asks the one fundamnetal question about the origns of the origins. Whilst the reader probably wont avoid verificationism, the quality of the writing takes the debate to a dizzy plane. In the end bot the athiest ZIzek and the theolgian Millbank see the answers lying through/against Hegel not science

Philip Clayton

July 28, 2009at 1:58 am

Matt, our common ground lies in wishing to focus on the questions; as you say, it is they “that make the genuine contributions.” What your post brings home is that the distinction between question-centric and single-fixed-answer-centric is NOT the same as the distinction between science and religion. In our culture, however, the dominant view is still that scientists are the ones who respect and value open questions, whereas religious people are always more dogmatic and adverse to open-ended inquiry.

It’s for this reason that I’m a bit more skeptical than you that “it [would] be more effective to focus on the opportunities that reside in the thoughtful, critically thinking majority.” Those are indeed the ones to whom I appeal in my writing. Still, it remains an urgent task to show that not all scientists are committed to critical thinking — especially when they step outside their scientific areas of expertise — and not all who hold religious positions of one kind or another are dogmatic and dismissive of reason.

Russell, it’s good to hear from you. “The Monstrosity of Christ” by Zizek and Milbank is indeed not for the faint-hearted. Yes, the real complexity of the issues — the sort of complexity that Matt begins to identify — requires a detour through modern philosophy, and esp. Hegel. The trouble is, the New Atheism debate is being played out in the popular press where few are able to follow the full complexity of the issues. How are we to SHOW that the New Atheist books are a “rant” to this broader public? Surely we can’t just give up the cultural battle as lost! But how can one communicate the real issues to an audience that has never read Hegel, Zizek OR Milbank?

— Philip

Steve Hochman

July 31, 2009at 2:55 am

Philip, it’s an interesting battle going on here, though I’m tired of it having to be a contact sport every time out. Frankly, representatives of both sides (as if there are only two side, sheesh) are equally to blame.

In any case, the questions above got me thinking some….

Is there directionality to evolution? Well, there is directionality to that question. And the direction is from the top down. It starts with an assumption that there is even a need to discuss directionality, that there is enough evidence in the effect to postulate cause. But it makes more sense to approach this from the bottom up, starting in essence from a blank slate and bit by bit adding theories and conclusions drawn from …. yes…. evidence.

Regardless, is there directionality? Well, do gravity and electro-magnetism count as directional forces? If so, then sure. Those forces played unquestionable roles in physical and biological evolution. The rise and erosion of mountains are directed by such things. If we took a ton of sand and let it fall one grain at a time through a funnel, the shape of the pile would be directed by these things. Biological entities are vastly more complex “piles” of course. But it is not a huge leap of thought to grasp that as a process that could lead to where we are, with no “purpose” involved, per se.

Now, if you want to add discussion of purpose, of spirituality if you will/must, cool. But if you want to engage the science world in that discussion, approach it in a scientific way. And that means evidence. It means presenting hypotheses that are meant to be tested, scientifically. Or at least initiating a process that is meant to lead to testing and evidence gathering. Even the most out-there theoretical physicists want their notions to be tested — might take many generations to even approach testability. But it’s the goal. Why should we settle for anything less in metaphysical/spiritual matters? The ultimate goal of philosophy, unless I’m way off base, is not just to come up with some cool ideas and internal logic systems, but to figure out as best we can and as much as we can how the universe works. Just as with science.

sorry for the muddled, late-night post… especially given (as is obvious) that it comes from someone who is neither a scientist nor philosopher, and is not even an academic. Just an interested observer.

Philip Clayton

July 31, 2009at 10:45 am


Yes, we agree on the questions and the nature of the discussion. It’s fine for religious believers to present “top down” claims for God directing evolution; there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But we’re interested in what we can learn from “bottom up” studies that don’t start from the presupposition of faith. We want to know what the evidence suggests; and we know that empirical data, scientific theories, and philosophical reflection all play a role in figuring it out.

Your examples are drawn from physics. But I think the important data and theories are those that describe the emergence of new patterns (dynamics) in the biological sciences. Systems biologists, for example, are discovering patterns that cannot be explained using the theories of physics by themselves. I edited a collection of essays by (mostly) scientists — THE RE-EMERGENCE OF EMERGENCE — that describes patterns of emergence at various levels. That might be a good place to start as you attempt to assess the evidence.

Above all, I hope that readers will note the tone of your comments and my response, and the sort of collaborative research that it might lead to. This is the sort of discussion where we might make some real progresss…

— Philip Clayton

Steve Hochman

August 2, 2009at 3:24 am

Thanks so much for the kind and erudite response, Philip…. very interested in the Emergence collection you edited, and certainly recognize that not everything can or ever will be explained by science of any stripe. It is all so big and we are so small….


August 9, 2009at 1:10 am

Philip – thanks for your response. Steve, your interesting perspective motivated me to post a follow up. First, I agree that anything less than a civilized discussion is a waste of time. I’ve grown tired of the internet firebombing back and forth. The only ones getting burned are those in the “middle”. The whole debate has grown tired and while I try to follow it, I lose interest quickly. If it weren’t for people like Philip Clayton (and Borg, Newell, Kauffman, Morowitz, Polkinghorne, d’Espagnat, Smith as well as many others) I’d check out of the discussion entirely.

Steve – I have one issue with your suggestion that metaphysical matters should be subject to empirical study. I don’t entirely disagree, but I do believe that there are limits to what science can and should do. For example, would you love your spouse (or child) any less/more if science could explain the neurochemistry behind the connections we have with other people? What would science have to say about your favorite pieces of art or music? Is any of that testable in the traditional scientific sense? I guess my issue is putting science “up there” (and again, I’m a scientist) where all human questions and expressions should be reduced to a scientific exercise. So, I would contend that there are aspects of the human experience that simply have no need for the scientific stamp of approval and that in no way results in something “less”.

Now, as far as the questions posed by Philip (which is what I think you were addressing anyway) – I do think they can be approached by science. However, I’m not sure science will take it the distance and that’s precisely where philosophy/theology should jump in. Rather than these conflicting worldviews that play out ad nauseam in the media, the critical believer and thoughtful atheist stand in awe at the wonders of the universe revealed by science. The trouble erupts when we then try to go beyond science to explain what we observe. Scientists, just as fundamentalists, love to explain the world around them with tidy stories. Mystery is simply a nuisance and far from something to be embraced.

The seven questions posed by Philip won’t fit into the “how the leopard got its spots” type storybook. For hardened scientists, the answers would probably give up too much ground in this “God debate” (from what I can tell is simply an infinite volley between “God did it” and “It’s all meaningless”). Check the old Gould-Dawkins debates – even the most benign suggestion that Darwin didn’t have it perfect is met full force. We’ve got a long road ahead of us, but hopefully, the debate will soon turn to discussion.

Yi Shen

October 14, 2009at 6:16 pm

Dr. Philip Clayton,
Thank you so much for your work and I agree that there needs to be a serious dialogue between science, theology and philosophy. This also happens to be the subject that I am most passionate about.
My spiritual journey at one point turned me from a Christian fundamentalist to a religious humanist. Studying theology as my major in college caused me to abandon the fundamentalist worldview as a result of exposures to biblical language, textual criticism, history, systematic theology and finally science.
I know that as a person, I am intrinsically religious in nature. When I gave up the idea of traditional theism, I never gave up on spirituality. I continued a journey of this “God/mystery” experience without using the God language.
Somehow during this journey, I have come to place where I am intentionally trying to reconstruct/re-understand the idea of God. I am not entirely sure whether it is due to my intellectual curiosity or emotional attachment to the idea of God.
Regardless, if I hope to resume the God language and culture, I must reconcile my scientific and religious worldview.
Somehow, reading your paper presented at DarwinFest stirred in me a renewed burning passion for theology again.
You mentioned the Kenotic theology in your paper and I know that it is a very brief description of that thought, but I would like to ask a few questions about your exposition. I am not trying to be critical; I am merely trying to understand this idea better.
1. What is the objective of theology in a scientific world? Perhaps, it is to construct a theology compatible with the scientific worldview. If that is the case, theology is passive and reactionary as it is shaped by science. What good can it bring?
2. Scientific worldview rendered God powerless to intervene in the material world, what use is there to even think about God or even have one (be it a self-limiting one)?
3. The moral benefits of having a community that believes this God is unmistakable, but aren’t there humanistic/non-theistic communities that does the same thing without invoking a God whose existence cannot be verified?
4. You mentioned that the new theodicy must be sufficient enough to account for the extinction of 99% of species that ever existed, but by whose standard? What are the moral implications of such a being that asked for no opinions before it individually decided that it was worth all the pain and sacrifice?
5. Isn’t a God who needs to self-limit also suggest that this God was previously more powerful if not omnipotent? If so, then what’s wrong with creating without using evolution as a method? Seems to me that the God you speak of in this model cannot choose a different way because God was not powerful or creative enough to create in a different manner.

I am sure there are other options for I am only a beginning student in theology and by no means an expert in anything. I know it’s a lot of questions, but if you don’t have time to address everything I would appreciate it if you can point out some good reading materials for me to learn on my own.

Thank you so much for your time.

how to hack boom beach

September 21, 2014at 5:38 pm

Good day! Would you mind if I share your blog with my twitter group?

There’s a lot of folks that I think would really enjoy your content.
Please let me know. Cheers

Leave a Reply

EcoCiv’s Tweets