In the aftermath of today’s debate with Dan Dennett, I find myself asking not “Who won?” but “What were we debating about? What was really at stake in this discussion?”
In one sense, it’s enough that it happened. I don’t know of any place on the web where you can see Dan in dialogue with a moderate, reflective, religious person. But that’s only step one. The harder question is how to interpret what happened.
Dennett supporters are already posting on the web to say what they thought it was about. One points out that I do not share the assumptions of most analytic philosophers, and hence fail to pass the test for analytic orthodoxy. Both in the debate and in Mind and Emergence (chap. 4), for example, I use the work of analytic philosophers in ways different from what they intended. But surely that isn’t what was at stake in today’s discussion. Other bloggers may question whether I made any errors in describing evolutionary theory; perhaps they’re arguing that, if I did, that proves that evolution and theism are incompatible. But, again, surely that was not the real topic of the debate.
John Cobb comments, “[Dennett’s] view that worldviews have no practical importance expresses a provincialism that is really inexcusable. Surely comparative cultural studies are not wholly absent from the contemporary university.” That comment comes closer.
What was at stake today was not whether theism and atheism are finally identical; surely that much is beyond dispute. Instead, what most divided Dennett and me was the question whether in the end worldviews make any difference. Dan is prepared to call religion “benign” — which means: not outright malignant — when it supports values that he endorses. (His friend Richard Dawkins would not give as much ground.) Beyond that, however, religion is of little interest to him. For religious believers like me, by contrast, religious belief is never reducible to the moral convictions it supports or the behaviors it produces. It functions as a entire world- and life-view, permeating all that I do, affecting how I see, interpret, and evaluate everything I encounter. It’s that truth that I sought to communicate this afternoon.
Dan Dennett and I will probably never agree on whether it’s probable that God exists. But I hope that those who view today’s debate online will ask themselves why it matters that we were defending different understandings of what ultimately exists. If we can’t even agree on the significant difference between the two speakers, and how that difference is revealed in our different ways of approaching a whole host of philosophical questions, we won’t begin to be able to evaluate the competing arguments for our different positions.