The Dan Dennett Debate: Afterthoughts

  • 37

The Dan Dennett Debate: Afterthoughts

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.

Watch the debate online here.


Benjamin Chicka

February 17, 2010at 4:21 am

Philip, I wonder why you ask the question in terms of difference. Something was “at stake.” But surely the seemingly strong points of agreement between the two of you are more significant. Being in agreement with science seems to be the impulse that started the field of religion and science, and I wonder if you might be exaggerating differences (though real) when it might be significant that Dennett had a moderate debate because he met a religious person who he did not have to denounce after every sentence they uttered.

Claremont School of Theology News – PUBLIC DEBATE

February 17, 2010at 9:26 am

[…] has responded to the debate in writing on his […]

J. R. Hustwit

February 17, 2010at 10:36 am

I appreciate you pushing to tease out the differences. As important as the common ground is (and I was surprised there was as much as there was), disagreement is what advances the inquiry. While agreement is nice, it doesn’t push us toward new knowledge.

For me, the takeaway exchange was the final one about the practical difference made by worldviews. I wish there had been more time. One might argue that the most important practical consequence of worldviews is that when they conflict or compete, individuals are (ideally) pushed to critically examine and revise. And since worldviews inevitably influence values and behavior (another point that I wish Dennett had had a chance to recant), this makes all the practical difference in the world.

Finally, it made me sad that Dennett seemed unaware of the robust diversity within Christianity, especially the active condemnation by progressives of the more fundamentalist / dogmatic / irrational elements. Is this Dennett’s own blind spot, or is that perception shared more widely? That’s what we should be asking ourselves seriously.


February 17, 2010at 11:30 am

I wonder if a transcript of the debate will be available, in order to translate it.


February 17, 2010at 11:34 am

we want to discuse this debate points with and spanish group of believers. It will be great if the transcript of it could be published.

Tim Sluiter

February 17, 2010at 12:49 pm

First off, I would like to thank you, Dr. Clayton, for getting this discussion to happen as well as to make it available on the web. I thoroughly enjoyed the talk and only wish it could have lasted longer.

In response to a few comments that I may feel are misleading, I would like to chim in a bit. I could be wrong (as we know, ascribing motivation and mental states without hard biological science is rather difficult).

The first would be in response to John Cobbs comment that you had quoted in your post. That is misleading. I’ve read a bit of Dennetts work (if that gives any credence to my words) and feel that he would not ascribe to that notion. The point he may have been getting at in the end is this: “Our worldviews are nearly identical. You just add something at the end. I don’t know why.” His question of “what would it take for you to change your mind” gets at the same point, so I believe.

There is little doubt in my mind that a man who has done so much work on consciousness would not adhere to your criticism of his stance of the practicality of world-views. As a reminder, much of the debate was centered on Dr. Clayton trying to tease out differences that he thought existed, when they did not. That may serve as a marker for humility before putting words in someone’s mouth.

As a response to Hustwit’s last comment. I believe many people, including Dr. Dennett, are aware of the active condemnation. He even coined a term for the progressives (benign). However, in the world today, the one’s that get the most attention (and therefore the masses are made more aware of) are the fundamentalists. Whether it Westboro Baptist Church, Pat Robertson or any other nutjob. It’s a sad reflection on a usually very goodhearted community of people (as Dennett is well aware of, I believe).

As a last comment, and I am grateful for the forum to speak, I might take issue with this statement “For religious believers like me, by contrast, religious belief is never reducible to the moral convictions it supports or the behaviors it produces.” For this statement, I believe, you have much work to do. A mental state of belief is directly causal to behavior it produces. Or it would not be a belief. Ideology which supports metaphysical aspects of mental states is false. As a neuroscientist, I’ve seen this belief argued many times. It just is not the truth. The brain is not a black box, and though complex, its nature is not irreducible.

As the chemical structure of a leaf entails its green color, so does the physical nature of the brain entail mental states. There need not be any metaphysical meandering.

Religious belief is reducible to the convictions it supports and the behaviour it produces, for in reality, these are directly cause/effect systems.


February 17, 2010at 3:04 pm

I think the most telling part of the debate was when Dennett asked Clayton how it was he knew they did not agree on the existence of the “mysterious something” that Clayton talked about since Clayton could (or at least did not) offer no positive account of what this something was. Then when Dennett asked what would falsify such a belief in this “something”, Clayton appealed to the subjective experience of a child’s death. Here is the rub: Clayton has willingly placed religion in the ring with science (especially using mental causation as a way to make sense of divine action), once he has allowed this, he has allowed the type of questions that Dennett asked to have a certain sense. By not being able to give an answer that satisfies the essence of the debate in the (broadly speaking) realm of science, Clayton did not show that religious folks are ignorant (as Dennett would like to think) but that religion and science do not operate with the same criteria (or within the same language game if you will). I think what Dennett successfully has shown is that in understanding religion as being a close kin to science, both he (Dennett) and Clayton are mistaken.

John Sobert Sylvest

February 17, 2010at 3:58 pm

I am very sympathetic to Dennett’s conception of consciousness. That is to say that I am inclined to conceive the soul using a physicalist account and I approach the so-called hard problem of consciousness as difficult but maybe not so very hard. Whatever’s going on in human consciousness, in my estimation, will eventually yield to a naturalist explanation.

The hard problem of consciousness stems from our common-sensical notions of wanting to reconcile mental and physical interaction. The eliminativist strategy has been to deny the distinction. The epiphenomenalist strategy has been to deny the interactivity. Both of these stances are a priori positions trying to salvage our a posteriori empirical experiences of an exclusively bottom-up causality. In my view, both the eliminativist and epiphenomenalist positions, at this time, are too strong to defend. While I am not willing to rule either one out, both are “proving too much.”

So, I consider my inclinations to be very much provisional. The problem of consciousness, as I approach it, remains both epistemologically and ontologically open. And these are the necessary and sufficient conditions for any invocation of the heuristic of EMERGENCE. There are insights from both the eliminativist and epiphenomenalist strategies that I find I can reconcile with my own phenomenological perspective, which is inclined toward a nonreductive physicalism. This is not the same thing, though, as reconciling those other positions with each other.

A nonreductive physicalist strategy, to some extent, abstains, or tries to acknowledge both intuitions. In another sense, it seems to suggest, with the eliminativists, that the dynamic constellations of neuronal net physical functionalities, which we might putatively identify as consciousness, are clearly efficacious — thermodynamically, morphodynamically and teleodynamically (which is to recognize a downward causation sans violation of physical causal closure) — and, with the epiphenomenalists, that such efficacies do not otherwise flow from what our common sense suggests is a classical efficient causation but, rather, from minimalist formal and final causations (e.g. tacit dimensions).

In Dennett’s debate with Clayton, as causal layers were explored, Dennett acknowledged the cultural in addition to the mere physical and biological. This acknowledgment is not good enough, however. Because, as is revealed in his and Dawkins’ other writings, they are giving complexity theory a rather short shrift vis a vis genes, memes, symbols, language and coevolutionary dynamics. To equate cognition only with algorithmic or rule-governed computation is the computational fallacy. It is what it is in humans only in relationship to pragmatic and semiotic realities. To characterize genes as active agents or selfish or purposeful is an unhelpful shorthand. They gain their significance only in the context of the same dynamical semiotic and pragmatic realities. To equate memes only with replicators, as if they were analogous to parasites, is to isolate them outside of the dynamical semiotic and pragmatic realities that they should presuppose and is the memetic fallacy. See The trouble with memes (and what to do about it) by Terry Deacon. The practical upshot of Deacon’s critique is that social evolution and human consciousness are much more rich and complex, which is to recognize that they require a more highly nuanced triadic semiotic perspective, which then takes us beyond our classical dyadic formulations, like S –> R in behaviorism.

When we run into problems like the “hard” problem of consciousness, problems that for most philosophers of science would be considered still open, both epistemologically and ontologically, problems that then lend themselves to the heuristic of emergence, we cannot know, a priori, whether our explanatory attempts are being thwarted due only to our methodological constraints, epistemologically, or might otherwise be due to some type of in-principle occulting, ontologically. In the latter instance, the problem would remain irresolute in-principle, while, in the former, the problem might remain rather intractable but could possibly be only temporary, later to be resolved with future technological advances.
A methodological naturalism presumes the former and eschews the latter but only because to a priori adopt a stance that any given aspect of reality is in-principle occulted would lead us down an epistemic cul-de-sac, shutting down our research programs, arbitrarily foreclosing on future investigation. On the other hand, a philosophical naturalism is no more defensible in its a priori stance, which is that we are necessarily being thwarted only in the methodological sense due to technological constraints. We do not know that. We cannot know that a priori. And we most especially do not know that when it comes to unraveling reality’s limit questions vis a vis any initial, boundary and limit conditions of the cosmos. The same thing remains true regarding the problem of consciousness and the philosophical promissory notes that some have issued regarding their so-called “explanations.”

If, in the first half of the debate, Clayton and Dennett established that they were both, in fact, methodological and not, rather, philosophical naturalists, then that is quite illuminating because a methodological naturalist cannot coherently self-describe as an atheist regarding reality’s limit questions. Instead, the methodological naturalist must self-describe either as an agnostic, a nontheist or as some type of believer, who is wagering in faith, though not without a confident assurance, in things the believer hopes is true regarding reality’s limit questions and humanity’s ultimate concerns. Such a believer may believe there is a God or even gods or even that there is no God. But such a believer also knows that there was an epistemic and existential leap involved. This differs from the philosophical naturalist, who has conflated the otherwise autonomous methodologies of science and philosophy, concluding empirically, logically, practically and probabilistically that there is no God, denying any substantial leaps of faith were involved, affirming that others are clearly — how do they say it? oh, yeah – deluded.

The Clayton Dennett Debate : Mormon Metaphysics

February 17, 2010at 4:00 pm

[…] The Clayton/Dennett debate over religion. I’ve not watched the video yet. Clayton’s post-debate thoughts are here. […]

John Sobert Sylvest

February 17, 2010at 4:36 pm

Without characterizing who might have demonstrated what –

that “religion and science do not operate with the same criteria (or within the same language game if you will)” sounds very right-headed. As “methodologies” they are autonomous even if otherwise integrally-related, axiologically, in human value-pursuits. This is to say that good religion goes “beyond” science but does not go “without” it. It is also to recognize that our values do not require religious justification.

that those who understand “religion as being a close kin to science” … “are mistaken” is also spot-on. The only thing I’d clarify is that a Theology of Nature is neither scientific nor philosophic but begins within the religious stance one already inhabits and then draws analogies and elaborates metaphors employing scientific concepts and theories in an interpretive, poetic narrative. A philosophy of nature, like a natural theology, does begin with philosophy but only clarifies concepts and frames questions, like limit questions, but only comes away with, so far anyway, the observation: good question (and without any pretense to having answered same).

Mike L.

February 17, 2010at 6:41 pm

Dr. Clayton,

After watching the debate, I was left with the suspicion that there is no difference between atheism and Christian liberalism. Well, actually I have to admit that’s an opinion I already held, and this debate seemed to confirm my opinion. It’s a biased opinion since I often self identify with the term “Christian Atheist” or “Faithful Agnostic”. I just don’t see the rub, and I think the terms work nicely together. In fact, I see the beautiful Christian myth of incarnation as a definitive rebuttal of theism. This story suggests to me that God is some set of real (incarnate) actions in the world, instead of supernatural superstitions about a existence “out there”.

I found 3 interesting points, which I posted in facebook, I’ll transpose them here and maybe you could respond briefly.

1) Clayton avoided religious language during the discussion. Was that because he is ashamed of it and didn’t feel he could defend it against Dennett? I wonder if we should read anything into what felt like an intentional and at times awkward avoidance of religious terms.

2) Does this debate illustrate that when religious terminology is removed, there is really no difference between atheism and and religious liberalism. Clayton was working hard to manufacture a difference. Religious liberalism (something I self identify with) is a form of atheism/rationalism, but it retains the terminology we inherit from our faith tradition. I don’t think Clayton wanted to admit this point. This is worth digging into more.

3) The best question I heard was Dennett’s charge that if Clayton can’t “know” things beyond the physical world (paraphrased), then why is he so certain he disagrees with Dennett? It thought that brief exchange should have been expanded. I’d love to hear them talk about it at length. What is it that Clayton claims to know that he thinks Dennett will necessarily deny? I’m inclined to agree with Dennett. If you can’t nail down a definition of what it is that you “believe in” then any statement of belief in it is a null statement. You are simply creating a verbal formula that includes an undefined variable rather than a defined constant. The formula may work in an abstract sense, but it doesn’t mean anything without disclosing the value of the constant.

I did enjoy the debate/conversation. Thanks for sharing it with us all and thank in advance for your reply.

max johnson

February 17, 2010at 11:37 pm

Phil, Dan seems to have a much more limited understanding of the categories of “religion” and “theology” than you (or I, or John Cobb) do. After his talk at Scripps he admitted to being one of those “spiritual but not religious types,” which I always find telling. His talk (which I quite enjoyed, actually) was largely about Thomas Nagel’s “blindspots” when it came to a proper appreciation for Darwinism. A friend and I couldn’t help but see the irony when it came to talk of blindspots!

max johnson

February 18, 2010at 12:46 am

A few comments above, Tim S. stated that:


I’m pretty sure Clayton was speaking here not about the neuroscience of “beliefs” as such, but rather about the various attempts in the modern and postmodern philosophical and theological traditions (including the work of thinkers like Kant) to REDUCE “religion” to “ethics,” or to REDUCE “Christianity” to a PARTICULAR set of behaviors (as in, “all TRUE Christians bow their heads and close their eyes when they pray”).

There have been many such attempts, and I think Clayton was sensing that Dennett was making a similar move in respect to his understanding of “what religion (can be) good for.”

Just a point of clarification…


February 18, 2010at 2:56 am


I don’t know anyone who has ever reduced religious language to behaviors such as “all religious folks bow their heads when they pary.” What does that even mean? What is being reduced in that sentence?

Philip Clayton

February 18, 2010at 4:35 am

Just had the chance to read the 14 responses to the last blog and to yesterday’s debate. Nice balance of opponents and allies, positive and negative feedback about the debate — in short, some great posts. We want this to be a forum for open inquiry and well-formulated arguments. You all are doing a great job of living up to those standards.

The biggest question is: did I have to set the debate up in that way? Did I have to try to engage Dan on philosophical issues? Why not just directly defend my theistic worldview, why not just speak of personal faith and conviction? Did I immunize myself from philosophical criticisms, or was it Dan who declined to explore the nuances of how our worldviews might impact our particular answers to different philosophical dilemmas? (It’s interesting that, in his talk an hour later, he publically attacked Thomas Nagel, an atheist, for having too robust a theory of subjective states and mental causes, whereas in our debate he claimed that there were no differences between my defense of “strong emergence” in MIND AND EMERGENCE and his materialist and functionalist account of human mental states.)

Though it felt like pulling teeth, I still believe that the strategy was a necessary one. How else could I make the point that a progressive, non-dogmatic religious stance involves not only moral concerns and commitments, but also a commitment to open-ended philosophical reflection and to a more-than-physicalist view of ultimate reality? To argue over proofs for the existence of God would be a dead end; it would leave the impression that progressive religous thinkers are merely fighting for their own self-interested theologies. I wanted to show that theism has real effects on real philosophical discussions, but also that it can give rise to open-mindedness in philosophy rather than shutting down inquiry.

Above all, I wanted to communicate the message that I was willing to engage in discussion without rhetorical ploys and appeals to authority. If clear, straightforward, non-posturing, two-sided dialogue failed to happen, I didn’t want it to because the religous partner in the debate failed to engage but rather hid behind his faith.

— Philip Clayton

Tim S

February 18, 2010at 11:50 am

Hey Max,

I appreciate the clarification, as I am by no means a philosopher (nor am I adequate in the history of philosophy and theology). But I do enjoy the mental stimulation from such topics, so I really appreciate your willingness to clarify for me.

However, your response causes a state of confusion for me, and hopefully this can be cured as well.

In our minds, we categorize the world based on presumed distinctions. A spoon is different than a fork bask on certain (percieved) characteristics.
If Christianity is not reducible to a specific set of beliefs (or actions), then why have a distinction? Why do we categorize something in which (as you say) can not be reduced to a specific distinction (here, a specific set of beliefs or actions)?

If it is not useful to do so (reduce it), then agnosticism seems like a more appropriate term for the belief system. Maybe I’m a bit off here, which is why it’s rather confusing.

Thom Chittom

February 18, 2010at 4:40 pm

I’m not sure it is appropriate to stick it to a philosophical theologian when he’s being linguistically incarnational. That would be a bit like sticking it to Jesus of Nazareth because he wasn’t being “God enough.” (Which, come to think about it, many did.) It also raises the question of what exactly religious language is (or, as Dr. Clayton says in his post, what is appropriate philosophical language.) The fathers borrowed heavily from the philosophical traditions. It seems to me that there is a core of Dr. Clayton’s religious mission which offends linguistic orthodoxies (fideistic fiefdoms) and thus defends revelation–fundamentally a word coming from outside. (Defends may be too strong a word for it. Makes a space for. Raises the question of. The stubborn refusal to bracket.) And maybe not just revelation but teleology. After all, a worldview is what Dennett has. Clayton, like other Christian theologians, does not have a worldview or a reducible set of a beliefs as much as they (we) have a signpost that says “go that way.”

Phil Clayton Reviews His Debate With Dan Dennett – Science and Religion Today

February 18, 2010at 5:42 pm

[…] and theologian Philip Clayton shares his thoughts on the debate he had with fellow philosopher and “new atheist” Dan Dennett a couple of […]

max johnson

February 18, 2010at 8:43 pm


Many of us more “progressive”/postmodern religious types resist the tendency to “essentialize” religions (another form of reductionism), because each tradition actually has remarkably diverse INTRA-religious beliefs, practices, hermeneutical approaches to scripture, and historical, social, and cultural influences that constitute our worldviews.

Remember, Jerry Fallwell, Glenn Beck, and Philip Clayton are supposed to be practitioners of the “same” religious tradition, though five minutes with each of them will reveal that they are very different types of Christians. Of course there will be SOME overlap, such as believing in the historical centrality of the “Christ-event” (the birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazereth), but even there you will find a multiplicity of views and interpretations of each of those events. These overlaps do create a sort of “family resemblance” that (somewhat) distinguishes one religious tradition from another, but the membranes are permeable, and “cross contamination” often manifests in novel and interesting forms of religious life. And the fact that Christian progressives usually have more in common with, say, Jewish progressives than they do with Christian fundamentalists problematizes the whole question of a Christian “essence.”

In other words, while one can speak, for example, of “Christian worldVIEWS,” we really can’t speak of “THE” Christian Worldview. (and certainly not about the “true” Christian worldview!) It’s THAT type of “reductionism” that’s being rejected. But this is not at all to deny that a PARTICULAR person can and does have a PARTICULAR worldview.

On another note, I think that both Theism and Atheism are beliefs about the ultimate NATURE of reality, while Agnosticism is a belief about the LIMITS of of our knowledge about that reality. If that’s the case, then agnosticism can be perfectly compatible with (at least most forms of) theism AND atheism. Faith and Doubt have a long, long history as theological partners. I myself live perfectly happily with doubt. It’s people who have “certainty on their side” who REALLY scare me!

pax, max


February 18, 2010at 11:00 pm


It seems like the problem is that you do not understand Dennett on consciousness and mental causation (at least that would explain why you cannot seem to reconcile his agreement with you with his disagreements with Nagal and Fodor).

Philip Clayton

February 19, 2010at 1:20 am

Max, beautifully, and powerfully, put!

phillipptb, I suggest that Dennett spoke his true views in the Scripps presentation when he sharply criticized Nagel’s view (did you hear it?). But since my view, strong emergence, makes MORE robust claims about consciousness and mental causation than Nagel does (see Mind and Emergence, chapter 5), one can only conclude that (at least some of) his comments in our debate reflected a refusal to engage rather than sincere philosophical disagreement.

When you have read my presentation and critique of Dennett in chapter 1 of In Quest of Freedom, and contrasted it with my view of human persons in the fourth chapter, you can try to make the case that I have misinterpreted Dennett. Until you have read and responded to what I have actually written, it is not impressive to post comments about what I have and have not understood.

— Philip

Daniel T.

February 19, 2010at 7:03 pm

I found the discussion interesting if a little odd. Philip Clayton seemed to be making every attempt at being perfectly rational and reasonable, even applauding himself for accepting evolution and other basic tenants of science, all the while he kept trying to push Dennett out of the realm of rational realism, but what he kept getting back from Dennett was “I agree with that completely.”

The few times that Clayton strayed from reason, Dennett simply pointed out Clayton’s error by asking how Clayton’s comments related to reason, using Karl Popper’s falsifiability criterion. What does it mean to say X is true and Y is false, if no difference between X and Y can be found? Clayton’s response was specious at best.


February 20, 2010at 6:33 pm

What is not impressive is when you show in publications (and now in public) that you do not grasp certain concepts that are part and parcel of the philosophy of mind discussion. I thought Moreland already pointed this out in his discussion of your position in his recent book. I think it is downright embarrasing to be told time and again (by Dennett in person, Moreland and others in print) that you do not understand a debate that you seem to think that you are on cutting edge of. You are a good Theologian who wants to be a good philosopher, but until you quit misunderstanding what the philosophers of mind are up to, I do not see how this can be accomplished. You may also want to look at the review of M and E by Smedes.

max johnson

February 20, 2010at 9:03 pm


Having read quite extensively in both the “philosophy of mind” discussion, and in the “science & religion” dialogue, I’d be quite interested if you could provide some SPECIFIC examples from any of Clayton’s books that he “doesn’t grasp certain concepts that are part and parcel of the philosophy of mind discussion.”

Surely you know that scholars disagree with each other all the time. Sometimes this disagreement does indeed stem from misunderstanding, but just as often it stems from the acceptance or rejection of certain premises or presuppositions, which can lead to very different opinions on a topic. Since Moreland is an Evangelical with supernatualist predispositions and his own position, for example, it’s not at all surprising that he would disagree with Clayton’s defense of his particular type of “Panentheistic Emergent Monism.” This is NOT “evidence” that Clayton “doesn’t understand,” only that he (Moreland) simply doesn’t agree with Clayton’s position. The same is true of reviewers like Smedes, who, again, often have their OWN agendas or pet theories to defend.

David Chalmers and Paul Churchland, for example, are about as far apart as you can get on the subject of consciousness. Does this mean that Chalmers simply doesn’t “understand” Churhland, as though “understanding” and “agreement” were the same thing?

And Dennett, whose view on the ontological status of the mind really has been much more epiphenomenological-sounding in past discussions, was simply not playing ball at the discussion the other night when it came to his own position. I don’t, however, remember any discussion about Clayton’s “competence of certain concepts,” so I’m really not sure what you’re referring to there.

Clayton has worked on essays and anthologies with highly respected scientists like physicist Paul Davies and complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman, both of whom I have met, and I don’t recall either of them saying that Phil “just didn’t get it.” I’m sure you can find plenty of people who disagree with both Davies’ cosmological “fine-tuning” argument (“The Goldilocks Enigma”) and Kauffman’s defense of “religious naturalism” (“Reinventing the Sacred”), but that wouldn’t in itself “prove” that they were both “misguided.”

Finally, if you know of thinkers doing work SPECIFICALLY on “the theological implications and applications of emergence theory” who are “more cutting edge” than Clayton (whatever that means to you), please let me know, because I thought I was familiar with most of the players in that field, and as far I know they all have great respect for Clayton’s work, even when they disagree with him.

pax, max

Daniel T.

February 20, 2010at 9:41 pm

max johnson,

Your assertion that Dennett was “not playing ball” at the discussion seems all wrong to me. Yes Dennett gave Clayton full control of what topics would be discussed, but that doesn’t count as “not playing ball” in my book. The fact that Clayton was bending over backwards to *not* assert his belief in incoherent concepts (i.e., God and souls,) sounds more like “not playing ball” when it comes to his own position.


February 21, 2010at 5:14 pm


I have a paper forthcoming (hopefully, if it is accepted for publication) that will outline some of the ways I think Clayton gets certain things in philosophy of mind confused, so when that comes out I encourage you (and Phil) to respond. One quixk example would be Clayton attempting to downplay Dennett’s committment to folk Psychology and Dennett insisting not only that he does not believe such language is useful but that he was instrumental in coining the term. There were times in the Dennett discussion were I thought that Clyton may have mistaken Dennett for Churchland. For one of the best papers on Denett’s view of consciousness see “Consciousness: How Much is that in Real Money?” Also, I do not think Clayton and Dennett simply disagreed on what Davidson’s view was, it was clear that Dennett (who has dialogued with Davidson for years) simply thought that Clayton was misunderstanding Davidson’s anamoulous monisn

max johnson

February 23, 2010at 1:51 am


Thanks, I look forward to reading your paper.

all I meant by “not playing ball” is that Dennett has in other settings expressed views that were more in CONFLICT with Clayton’s than Dennett made it seem the other night.

As far as Clayton not being “up front” about his theological position is concerned, he’s actually laid it quite bare in a series of thoughtful journal essays and books (including “Adventures in the Spirit,” “In Whom We Live, Move, and Have Our Meaning,” and the Templeton-Award winning “God and Contemporary Science”). Plus, the fact that he’s the “Ingraham Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology” might give people a hint…

BTW, Clayton’s not exactly a “deadly serious” kind of guy. He’s got a great sense of humor and he enjoys a stimulating debate. If he DID accuse Dennet of holding some Hitchens-like or Churchland-like positions (I have to go back and listen to be sure), it was just as likely to deliberately get a rise out of Dennett (and his followers, apparently!); again, it doesn’t by itself mean he actually “misunderstands” Dennett. To show that, you’d have to pull a (mis)quote from one of his academic writings.

Also (as Keith Ward brilliantly argues in his new short book, “God & the Philosophers”), unless MOST of the great works of Eastern and Western philosophy are “incoherent” (from Plato & Plotinus to Aquinas to Descartes to Kant to Hegel to D.Z. Phillips), I’m not sure that it’s ever been shown that “God” and the “Soul” are a priori “incoherent concepts!”

ep 140 – » The Nick & Josh Podcast

February 23, 2010at 10:07 am

[…] Society . The two also talk about the upcoming Theology After Google event and Clayton’s then pre-debate with Daniel Dennet. […]

Daniel T.

February 23, 2010at 12:38 pm


I realize what you meant by not playing ball and I disagree. It seemed to me that it was Clayton that wasn’t expressing the ideas that he holds which he knew were in conflict with Dennett’s. At the beginning of the discussion, Clayton made it clear that he didn’t want to discuss the conflicting ideas in any case. The discussion was of the character:

Clayton: You believe X and I think that is wrong.
Dennett: I don’t believe X, I believe Y.
Clayton: But don’t you believe X1?
Dennett: No, I believe Y1.
and so on…

At 22:15, even the moderator was asking what any of this has to do with Clayton’s metaphysical views. The moderater had to ask Clayton again at 29:48. Clayton my have strong supernatural views, but he seemed very reticent in bringing them up during this discussion.

And finally, yes I am agreeing with what Dennett said in the discussion, that most of the “great works” about souls and gods are “like playing tennis without the net.”


February 23, 2010at 5:16 pm

Max –

Am I reading what you wrote correctly? Dennett claimed he is “spiritual but not religious” or was that in reference to someone else?


Philip Clayton

February 27, 2010at 2:10 pm

Thanks for the great posts — not only those agreeing with me, but also those arguing against my position. Whatever disappointment I may have that Dan and I weren’t able to go deeper with direct arguments, it was noticable that there were no ad hominem attacks — neither of us attacked the other as a person.

What was ultimately at stake for me was (and is) the possibility of a moderate theism — a form of belief in God that avoids extremism, celebrates rather than attacks advances in science, and remains engaged in critical discussion.

One correction: I was not hiding my belief in souls — substantive entities or immaterial substances that make thought or consciousness possible. I don’t believe one needs to postulate a soul to make sense of human mental experience, thought, or qualia.

Yet as a “strong emergentist” I also don’t accept Dennett’s account of mind:

“What would it be like (if anything) to be such an entity? At first glance the answer seems to be: not like anything. The whole system has been designed to operate in the dark, as it were, with the various components accomplishing their tasks unperceived and unperceiving. In particular, we have not supposed any inner introspecting eye… [I]nside it is all darkness, a hoax. Or so it seems. Inside your skull it is also all darkness, and whatever processes occur in your gray matter occur unperceived and unperceiving” (Brainstorms, 164f.).

“You enter the brain through the eye, march up the optic nerve, round and round the cortex, looking behind every neuron, and then, before you know it, you emerge into daylight on the spike of a motor nerve impulse, scratching your head and wondering where the self is” (Elbow Room, 75).

John King

February 27, 2010at 5:19 pm

Yes, it is good that the conversation was polite. I think the amount of time allotted really limited the discussion.

While I am not an academic philosopher or theologian, it seems to me that Dennett’s question of “what difference does it make?” is right on point.

Every Christian, particularly thoughtful ones, should be able to give a short, clear account of her faith in God and why it matters to her without sounding like we are out of touch with our day-to-day world. The discussion has focused my thought. It may be that we never stop seeking until we are “found” at home in the world.

max johnson

March 1, 2010at 1:37 am

Hey, Matt.

Yes, at the Lecture Dennet gave after the the debate, he was asked during the Q & A session if he considered himself to be a “spiritual” person. He said something like, “Yes, I suppose I do…[elaboration]…though of course it has nothing to do with organized religion…”

pax, max


March 1, 2010at 7:06 pm

Thanks Max – that’s interesting and in many ways encouraging. I’ve always appreciated Dennett’s contributions to a variety of areas and have thought on occasion that he might be adhering to shades of gray rather than his more public “everything’s black or white” persona.

I’m not in the Claremont area, so I couldn’t attend this and to be honest, I’m an armchair (at best) philosophy and theology observer working in biomedical research. I’m starting to buy in to the quantum brain hypothesis and hope that Dennett will able to address this in more detail given new scientific insights. No convincing direct evidence as of yet, however, there IS mounting evidence that quantum processes are at work in photosynthesis – even at “normal” temperatures. I find it hard to believe that plant life evolved to incorporate exceedingly efficient quantum mechanisms but somehow, resource-intense central nervous systems adopted a less-efficient process.

It’s an exciting time to stand witness to all of this. Thanks to all.


March 3, 2010at 4:20 pm

This is in response to “max johnson’s” post to “Tim:”

Max, for me, you really hit the nail on the head in your explanation of “essentializing” or “reducing” one’s religious convictions in light of the myriad of responses within, for instance, the Christian community. As you’ve implied, we theists have very few essentials and even those are oftentimes nuanced; the very reason we “progressives” fight against a reductionistic model. I think this is why when Dr. Clayton would try to move beyond reductionism, the conversation seemed to stall. Maybe I’m reading too much into this…
Nonetheless, in your last line you say that, “I myself live perfectly happily with doubt. It’s people who have “certainty on their side” who REALLY scare me!” Would you agree that, “truth is subjectivity?” Your response sounds very much like Kierkegaard’s description of truth, which in some ways I can admire.

max johnson

March 5, 2010at 1:07 am

Hey, Mike.

Actually I was probably thinking more of someone like (Zen Master) Dogen than Kierkegaard (who I’m not usually a huge fan of), but I’ll have to think about that; maybe a bit of the Dane HAS rubbed off on me!

pax, max


March 11, 2010at 11:26 am

Thanks for clarifying max!

Leave a Reply

EcoCiv’s Tweets