The Dan Dennett Debate: Thoughts Beforehand

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The Dan Dennett Debate: Thoughts Beforehand

So it’s official: Dan Dennett has agreed to do a debate when he’s at Claremont this coming Tuesday, February 16, from 2-3pm. It will take place in Albrecht Auditorium, at 10th St. and Dartmouth Ave. on the campus of Claremont Graduate University. Should be a good audience…

I saw a student flyer that began “Okay, so a New Atheist and a Christian Theologian walk into a bar…”

This will be an open-ended conversation. The flyer says simply “Science, Philosophy, Theism.” Here’s a face-to-face meeting of a Christian philosopher and theologian, one who endorses evolution and works extensively on science-religion isses, with the leading philosopher among the New Atheists — one who proudly describes himself as “one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.” We’ll take on the question: is there any real (argumentative) common ground between our two positions?

What do you think will happen? Will we really connect as philosophers? Will we even be able to formulate arguments that the other can respond to? Or will it just be two ships passing in the night, shooting rhetorical salvos in each other’s direction as they steam in their different directions? In his post on Richard Dawkins’ website, Dan responded to my talk on theology and evolution at the Cambridge Darwin Festival by simply concluding, “in short Clayton is an atheist who won’t admit it.” When we meet this week in Claremont, will we get any further in exploring forms of theism that are not anti-philosophical and anti-scientific?

If all goes well, we will be able to post the videotape of the meeting, so that you can decide for yourself what actually happened … and what is its significance. Place your bets in advance, though: what do you expect?

— Philip


Ekaputra Tupamahu

February 14, 2010at 11:32 pm

Dr. Clayton, I’m looking forward to watching this historic debate.

John Sobert Sylvest

February 15, 2010at 1:01 am

Emerson said that God arrives when the half-gods depart. Dennett has spent recent years tilting at the windmills of half-gods and imagines himself as Don Quixote. The fact of the matter is that I am largely in agreement with Dennett in that ALL of the gods he’s been dispatching are not worthy of anyone’s belief.

To some extent, it is a matter of two ships passing in the night. We all inhabit elaborate tautologies wherein our syllogistic conclusions are often hidden in the very terms we employ in our premises. So, the first problem will always be the proper disambiguation of terms.

If we do employ the same terms, then I think believers must concede that science, philosophy and culture, without religion, can realize truth, beauty and goodness in abundance, even. (At least this is a fundamental premise of anyone who holds a radically incarnational view. Life is good. Living a good and moral life is transparent to human reason.) So, it is not like religion even introduces a new horizon of concern vis a vis values. Values are already in place. Science, then, is descriptive. Philosophy is normative. Culture is evaluative.

Religion introduces a question re: truth, beauty and goodness. Even abundance. That question is: Might there be more? Might there be superabundance? Then, in an effort to augment these values, it amplifies the epistemic and existential risks we have already taken by venturing forth, wagering, with faith, hope and love. We then cash out the pragmatic value of these wagers by seeing if we have indeed fostered human growth: intellectually, affectively, morally, socio-politically and religiously.

There is no question that the life of religious faith, hope and love is riskier. That’s why it is called FAITH and HOPE. No one is being intellectually dishonest, here. No one is claiming that the Object of our worship can be empirically measured, logically demonstrated or practically proved. We are not saying that our cosmology of descriptive science, normative philosophy or evaluative culture differs one iota from Dennett’s such that WHAT we see when we engage reality is going to be any different. (If someone put a gun to my head, I’d say consciousness is an emergent phenomenon vis a vis a nonreductive physicalism. But I wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep if it were wholly reductive. My bets are on a physicalist account of the soul but, if it ended up being a radically Cartesian dualism, it wouldn’t bother me a bit.)

We do say that HOW we see this cosmology through an axiology, or via our religious interpretive axis, does differ when we imagine that reality has more in store than meets the eye and when we participate together with others in this imaginative vision. While we don’t adjudicate our claims, finally, evidentially, it doesn’t mean there is no evidence. While we do not demonstrate them conclusively, rationally, it doesn’t mean that we have no good reasons.

Dennett will point out that all of this behavior has adaptive significance. Who would not disagree with this rather trivial grasp of the obvious?

His tautology quits processing reality at this point. No problem.

Ours does not.

He might invoke Occam’s Razor. But one can only wield that weapon when one has already achieved explanatory adequacy and is choosing between two equally good explanations. Last time I checked, we have no Theory of Everything and, furthermore, it has just recently dawned on Hawking what others of us have known for decades, which is that Godel-like constraints (incompleteness theorems) will apply to any and all closed formal symbol systems aspiring to a TOE. It is, ergo, a stalemate.

The only enduring question where the 4 Horsemen are concerned is whether or not they are familiar with the work of Judith Martin:

Benjamin Chicka

February 15, 2010at 3:10 am

Philip, I would really love to know why the new atheists reject the notion that religion can change. They dismiss modern theology because it does not fall within their critiques, though they give no reasons (other than themselves taking on the fundamentalist attitude and rejecting everything that does not agree with Rick Warren). I would also like to know why they think ALL religion is false when they really only fight against Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions. I don’t believe any of their arguments immediately refute Hindu (especially Sankara), Buddhist, or certain Native American religions.

Jacob Baker

February 15, 2010at 1:40 pm

I have many of the same questions as Benjamin. I am not an atheist myself, but additionally, I wonder if they are familiar with much more sophisticated and rigorous philosophical atheists like Michael Martin, who rigorously defend atheism without, in my opinion, disrespecting, with attendant ad hominems, persons with religious beliefs. Terry Eagleton said it well when he observed that reading Dawkins on theology is like reading someone on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the British Book of Birds. Dennett’s in a better position to engage philosophies of religion than the other “Horsemen” but even he doesn’t demonstrate adequate knowledge of the subject and the discourse. The New Atheists, on the other hand, embrace the same basic methodology of certain varieties of Protestant Evangelicals, that of conversion. Theirs is an evangelical atheism, believing religion not just to be epistemically impossible but also dangerous and abusive.

So it seems like theists are in the conundrum of being forced to debate the philosophically weak New Atheists because of their public presence and popularity (a popularity that would seem to forever preclude serious dialogue because it would be at the expense of that which has made them famous) instead of making sure that the focus remains singularly on exacting and scrupulous philosophical discussion between and among scholars who take the stringent methodology of their disciplines seriously. I think, in the end, Dennett has the mind for it, but not the heart.

Philip Clayton

February 15, 2010at 1:54 pm

John, Benjamin, Jacob —

great comments — I wish I could debate the three of you instead; perhaps we’d get further. I’m taking notes and will do my best to express these concerns tomorrow…

— Philip

Brian Henning

February 15, 2010at 6:16 pm

Copleston vs. Russell part two?

Thomas Jay Oord

February 15, 2010at 11:26 pm

Superb! I’ll look forward to hearing the reports!


February 16, 2010at 1:20 am

Will this be broadcast live on the net?


February 16, 2010at 1:26 am

The oddity is that Clayton and others who want to make religion look scientific (or do the work of science) have brought the like of Dennett upon themselves. By trying to show how science can play the theological game you have allowed them to criticize theology from a scientific perspective, and in that game theology cannot win. Not of course because theology is found wanting, but because it is simply not playing the same game in the first place. I think if Clayton and Dennett can agree on terms, Dennett wins by default since Clayton is forcing theology and science together in an unnatural way.

Phil Clayton and Dan Dennett to Debate Today! – Science and Religion Today

February 16, 2010at 9:50 am

[…] in Albrecht Auditorium at Claremont Graduate University in California from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. EST. As Clayton sets it up: This will be an open-ended conversation. The flyer says simply “Science, Philosophy, Theism.” […]

Thom Chittom

February 16, 2010at 2:58 pm

I’d give a vestigial tail to be there today. Stick it to him, Dr. Clayton! (Indeed, Dennet’s dismissal, “What can theology contribute that science isn’t already doing?” sounds like a line straight out of a character from Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland or Jonathan Swift’s flying island of philosophes.)


February 16, 2010at 11:06 pm

I think Dennett showed what I have know all along (in fact I wrote a dissertation chapter on it), and that is that Clayton fails to understand 20th century analytic philosophy. What he does is learn terms without learning the history of their use. That is why Dennett could point out the fact that he simply misunderstood Davidson. I briefly sat in on a class of his until I realized that he had no idea what the “Grue paradox” was (which he tried to teach on), and that he had no understanding of Quine. He simply needs to do more work in logic and study a bit of analytic philosophy (doe he know who Frege is?). See you when you develop into a big boy philosopher Phil.

John Sobert Sylvest

February 17, 2010at 2:11 am

A little something I put together in Feb 2004 re: Dennett

Skinnerian Neuromythology: Consciousness Explained

What One Will NOT Find in Consciousness Explained:
1) any theses or arguments intended to state the literal truth [1]
2) discrimination between conscious and non-conscious events [2]
3) a satisfactory answer to how physical processes in the brain cause consciousness [8]
4) an empirical theory of consciousness — as Dennett himself somewhat rashly claims [14]
5) an explanation of what it is to adopt the Intentional Stance [35]
6) consciousness explained away [38]
7) attention to the role of emotions
8) an account of consciousness that considers the autonomic and peripheral nervous
systems, the neuroendocrine system and axis, the endocrine and immune systems
9) an explanation for how the ‘Joycean machine’ ( as stream-of-consciousness virtual
machine) works
10) analysis of noumenon [46]

What One Will Find in Consciousness Explained:

1) a family of metaphors [1]
2) metaphors, which, as a set of tools, have serious design faults [2]
3) Joycean Machine metaphor ( that does not add up to a theory of consciousnes) [2]
4) Probing and narrative-precipitation ( that fail to mark off conscious from nonconscious events) [2]
5) Consciousness ignored [3]
6) An undercutting of the database for the empirical study of CSC by restricting analysis to inputs and to output “texts” (i.e., stimulus and response). Such practices as nearly killed off CSC research earlier in this century. [4]
7) An erroneous assertion that the difference between misremembering(Orwellian) and misrepresentation (Stalinesque) models of consciousness cannot be differentiated [5]
8) Philosophical misuse of an important neuropsychological phenomenon, known as blindsight [6]
9) A hampering of scientific and philosophical understanding of the phenomenon and of consciousness through a misrepresentation of blindsight [6]
10) A mistaken account of visual filling-in (described as results of the brain’s “ignoring an absence” or “jumping to a conclusion”) insofar as it actually comprises a multitude of different perceptual completion phenomena involving spatially propagating neural activity (neural filling-in). [7]
11) Ignorance of the importance of a consideration of qualia to imagery and cognition [9]
12) A failed argument (however true its conclusion) against the Cartesian Screen [10]
13) A use of the concept of phenomenology in almost complete disregard of the work of Husserl and his successors in German and French philosophy [11]
14) A textual relativism that undermines materialism [12]
15) A mistaken belief that qualia, and therefore their causes, can be temporally point- like, but qualia theorists are committed to no such view; and without this commitment, the argument from Orwellian/ Stalinesque indeterminacy does not succeed against qualia [13]
16) a fully naturalized account of consciousness that manages to leave out the very consciousness he purports to explain [15]
17) an argument that Dennet does not need to play the philosopher’s game of saying whether he is a behaviorist, a functionalist, an eliminativist [16]
18) Dennett as a behaviorist, a functionalist, and eliminativist [16]
19) verificationist attacks on qualia that are too radical to carry conviction [17]
20) accounts of pains, dreams, and images that in no case earn the eliminative conclusions of his arguments [20]
21) an equation of reportability with consciousness, which completely leaves out the qualitative content of conscious states [21]
22) an erroneous account of the blindspot and scotomas [22]
23) a Cartesian first-person operationalism [24]
24) fundamental eliminativism about phenomenology [29]
25) arguments that rely on a question-begging third-person absolutism [30]
26) question begging verificationism [31]
27) a failure of representationalism [37]
28) a pervasive neuromythology that is misleading about the scope and limits of science and, hence, a ‘scientism’ that could give science a bad name [40]
29) fundamentalism on the scientific side of the fence [41]
30) a series of strawmen arguments [42]
31) cheap rhetorical shots, shellgames [43]
32) promising title, nowhere fulfilled [44]
33) determination by fiat, which phenomena are to be called conscious “scientifically” followed by failed attempts to explain even them [44]
34) an analysis of phenomena [46]
35) a spiffy, up-to-date methodology of– get this — Skinnerian behaviorism [47]
36) a confounding of two distinct projects through a close interweaving of empirical speculations into how intentional systems are built with a philosophical inquiry into what intentional systems and intentional states are. [49]
37) a Skinnerian polemic which, by a series of slightly questionable steps, the reader is lead to embrace an outrageous conclusion [50]
38) a jumbled mixture of neurophysiology, higher cognitive functions, current experience and brute, all eminently suited to ‘decomposing’ a composite reification of those processes into what the the “thinking thing” is.[51]
39) strawman arguments that undermine Cartesian materialism while carrying no weight against a Phenomenal Realism [52]
40) denial of aspect to experience,the existence of which is both entirely compatible with both functionalism and physicalism; hence, an account of consciousness that, in its attempt to deny same, runs the risk of being seen to eliminate what it purports to explain. [53]

References Cited:

1) McGinn, Colin. Consciousness Evaded: Comments on Dennett, Philosophical Perspectives,
Vol. 9, AI, Connectionism and Philosophical Psychology. (1995), pp. 241-249.

2) `The Best Set of Tools’? Dennett’s Metaphors and the Mind-Body Problem
(in Discussions) Kirk, Robert, The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 172. (Jul., 1993), pp.

3) Block, Ned. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 90, No. 4. (Apr., 1993), pp. 181-193.

4) Dennett, consciousness, and the sorrows of functionalism. Mangan, Bruce, U California, Inst of Cognitive Studies, Berkeley, US

5) Christie J; Barresi J, Department of Psychology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, Consciousness and cognition, 2002 Jun, 11(2):347-65

6) Blindsight in hindsight, Consciousness and cognition, 1997 Mar, 6(1):67-74

7) Finding out about filling-in: a guide to perceptual completion for visual science and the philosophy of perception.Pessoa L; Thompson E; Noe A; The Behavioral and brain sciences, 1998 Dec, 21(6):723-48; discussion 748-802

8) What is consciousness? Solms M, Academic Department of Neurosurgery, Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel, England. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 1997, 45(3):681-703; discussion 704-78

9) The importance of a consideration of qualia to imagery and cognition. Hubbard TL, Department of Psychology, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Conscious Cogn. 1996 Sep;5(3):359-67

10) Dennett’s Misrememberings,Bloomfield,-Paul, Philosophia-. Mr 98; 26(1-2): 207-218

11) Phenomenology and Fiction in Dennett, Carr,-David, International-Journal-of-Philosophical-Studies. O 98; 6(3): 331-344, International-Journal-of-Philosophical-Studies

12) Dennett’s Fictional Selves, Cooney,-Brian, Southwest-Philosophy-Review. Ja 94; 10(1): 117-124

13) Orwell, Stalin, and Determinate Qualia, Robinson,-William-S, Pacific-Philosophical-Quarterly. Je 94; 75(2): 151-164

14) Dennett’s Conceptual Reform, Ross,-Don, Behavior-and-Philosophy. Spr-Sum 94; 22(1): 41-52

15) Minds, Memes, and Rhetoric, Clark,-Stephen-R-L, Inquiry-. Mr 93; 36(1-2): 3-16,Inquiry:-An-Interdisciplinary-Journal-of-Philosophy

16) Appendix A (For Philosophers), Jackson,-Frank, Philosophy-and-Phenomenological-Research. D 93; 53(4): 899-903

17) The Elimination of Experience, Seager,-William, Philosophy-and-Phenomenological-Research. Je 93; 53(2): 345-365

18) Rorty, Richard. “Blunder Around for a While.” London Review of
Books (November 21, 1991), 13(22):3, 5-6.

19) Block, N. 1995. What is Dennett’s theory a theory of? Philosophical
Topics 22:23-40.

20) Bricke, J. 1984. Dennett’s eliminative arguments. Philosophical Studies

21) Bricke, J. 1985. Consciousness and Dennett’s intentionalist net.
Philosophical Studies 48:249-56.

22) Churchland, P. S. & Ramachandran, V. S. 1993. Filling in: Why Dennett
is wrong. In (B. Dahlbom, ed) Dennett and His Critics. Blackwell.

23) Clark, S. R. L. 1993. Minds, memes, and rhetoric. Inquiry 36:3-16.

24) Dretske, F. 1995. Differences that make no difference. Philosophical
Topics 22:41-57.

25) Fellows, R. & O’Hear, A. 1993. Consciousness avoided. Inquiry 36:

26) Marbach, E. 1994. Troubles with heterophenomenology. In (R. Casati, B.
Smith, & S. White, eds) Philosophy and the Cognitive Sciences.

27) McCauley, R. N. 1993. Why the blind can’t lead the blind: Dennett on
The blind spot, blindsight, and sensory qualia. Consciousness and Cognition

28) McGinn, C. 1995. Consciousness evaded: Comments on Dennett.
Philosophical Perspectives 9:241-49.

29) Seager, W. E. 1993. Verification, skepticism, and consciousness.

30) Siewert, C. 1993. What Dennett can’t imagine and why. Inquiry.

31) Tye, M. 1993. Reflections on Dennett and consciousness. Philosophy and
Phenomenological Research 53:891-6.

32) Fodor, Jerry. “Deconstructing Dennett’s Darwin.” Mind &
Language (September 1996), 11(3):246-262.

33) McGinn, Colin. “Consciousness Evaded: Comments on Dennett.”
In James E. Tomberlin, ed., AI, Connectionism and Philosophical
Psychology. Philosophical Perspectives, 9. Ridgeview: Atascadero, 1995.

34) Nagel, Thomas. Other Minds: Critical Essays 1969-1994. New
York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Includes “7. Dennett: Content and Consciousness”; “8. Dennett: Consciousness Dissolved.”

35) Slors, Marc. “Why Dennett Cannot Explain What It is to Adopt the Intentional Stance.” Philosophical Quarterly (January 1996), 46(182):93-98.

36) Tye, Michael. “Reflections on Dennett and Consciousness.”Philosophy and
Phenomenological Research (December 1993), 53(4):893-898.

37) Ward, Andrew. “The Failure of Dennett’s Representationalism: A Wittgensteinian Resolution.” Journal of Philosophical Research (1993), 18:285-307.

38) Wuketits, Franz. “Consciousness Explained–or Explained Away?”
Acta Analytica (1994): 55-64.

39) Yu, Paul and Gary Fuller. “A Critique of Dennett.” Synthese (March
1986), 66(3):453-476.

40) Brains and minds: a brief history of neuromythology, R C Tallis, Fitzpatrick Lecture, given at the Royal College of Physicians on 21 July 1999, J R Coll Physicians Lond 2000;34:563-7

41) Bernard Haisch, Freeing the Scientific Imagination, IONS Review #57, Sept. – Nov. 2001

42 –52) Excerpts from informal Reviews at

53) Shoemaker, Sydney, Lovely and Suspect Ideas ,Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 53, No. 4. (Dec., 1993), pp. 905-910.

See: New Atheists: I really feel sorry for their poor horses; 4 Horsemen of Apocalypse are giving horse manure a bad name

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