Friday, July 20, 2012

In defense of Daniel Dennett

I just finished reading this post that discussed Daniel Dennett's impromptu response to a lecture by William Lane Craig (WLC):

WLC goes first with a 45 minute presentation including three primary arguments:
  • the contingency argument
  • the kalam cosmological argument
  • the teleological argument
After that, Dennett was given about 10-12 minutes to respond completely off the cuff and impromptu (starts at around 45:00 mark.  Wintery Knight wrote a point by point summary of Dennett's talk that was, in his own words, snarky.  I recommend you watch the video (at least Dan Dennett's part) before continuing.

I'll respond to each point individually

  • Craig’s three arguments are bulletproof, the premises are plausible, and grounded by the best cutting edge science we know today.
     -Wintery Knight Post 
What Dennett actually pointed out was that plausible sounding premises is not enough to support an argument.  As Philip Morrison said, "Perhaps we are alone in the universe, or perhaps that's not true.  Both alternatives are mind boggling."  Craig's arguments push our intuitions into realms where they haven't been tested or have been known to fail.  A premise that is intuitive at this point is no more helpful.

Consider my own favorite example: the speed of light.  It's completely intuitive and obvious that when you push something hard enough it will move faster.  But when you approach the speed of light, that intuition that we rely on every day to interact with our world completely breaks down.  Dennett makes the exact same point with quantum mechanics.
  • I cannot find anything wrong with his arguments right now, but maybe later when I go home it will come to me what’s wrong with them.
     -Wintery Knight Post 
Dennett tentatively conceded the validity of the arguments structure and the development of conclusions from the premises.  But as I said before his argument was that the premises are probably not true, so Dennett was always attacking the soundness of the argument.  When he said, "I can't pin a formal reductio on them, at least I can't do it impromptu.  There was an awful lot going on in that talk" that's completely understandable.  Craig gave 45 minutes worth of arguments and developments and you expect Dennett to formally rebut them all in 2?  Besides, the very next thing Dennett says is I can point to some areas of suspicion.
  • But atheism is true even if all the evidence is against it today. I know it’s true by my blind faith. 
     -Wintery Knight Post 
I don't know where WK got this from.  I couldn't find anything like this in Dennett's talk.  Perhaps WK thinks Craig has presented solid evidence and since Dennett disagrees with that assessment he must be dogmatically defending a faith position against all evidence to the contrary.  Define Irony.
  • The world is so mysterious, and all the science of today will be overturned tomorrow so that atheism will be rational again. I have blind faith that this new evidence will be discovered any minute.
     -Wintery Knight Post 
Dennett talked about the cutting edge of cosmology and quantum mechanics being counter-intuitive and in large parts mysterious.  He also said that cosmology is in "a wonderful snarl" with no clear consensus over origins, string theory, multi-verse theory, etc.  The gusto with which Craig jumps into this fray, picks sides, and only presents the critiques offered by his preferred outcome is something Dennett says he does not share.
  • Just because the cause of the beginning of time is eternal and the cause of the beginning of space is non-physical, the cause doesn’t have to be God.
  • “Maybe the cause of the universe is the idea of an apple, or the square root of 7″. (HE LITERALLY SAID THAT!) 
  • The principle of triangulation might have brought the entire physical universe into being out of nothing. 
  • I don’t understand anything about non-physical causation, even though I cannot even speak meaningful sentences unless I have a non-physical mind that is causing my body to emit the meaningful sentences in a non-determined manner.
     -Wintery Knight Post 
Yes, he's a philosopher, we've established that already. Clearly from the context Dennett is not endorsing the view that the principle of triangulation or the square root of seven created the universe.  He's not a creationist.  He's trying to address the assumption by Craig that non-physical causation only makes sense with a personal God.  His analogy of triangulation "seems causal."  You say, "but that's not really causation; well it's something like creation."  And as Dr. Craig said earlier "It's not really like causation when God created the universe because it's not physical causation!"  What do we understand about non-physical causation?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  We're guessing here and our intuitions fail.

Finally WK is superimposing his own dualistic view of mind onto Dennett by assuming it's contradictory to deny non-physical causation while your mind is non-physically causing things.  It is as much as Dennett's life work to show that the mind is not like that at all.  This is probably the most egregious misrepresentation so far.
  • Alexander Vilenkin is much smarter than Craig and if he were here he would beat him up good with phantom arguments.
  • Alan Guth is much smarter than Craig and if he were here he would beat him up good with phantom arguments.
  • This science stuff is so complicated to me – so Craig can’t be right about it even though he’s published about it and debated it all with the best atheists on the planet.
     -Wintery Knight Post 
Craig frequently mentions Vilenkin and Guth because they were authors of the BGV Singularity Theorem.  The theorem, as described by Craig, proves that the universe had a beginning.  Here's how Vilenkin described it in an interview with Victor Stenger

[Stenger] “Does your theorem prove that the universe must have had a beginning?” He immediately replied,

[Vilenkin] 'No. But it proves that the expansion of the universe must have had a beginning. You can evade the theorem by postulating that the universe was contracting prior to some time.':

Also, Caltech Cosmologist Sean Carroll weighed in on the issue:
'I think my answer would be fairly concise: no result derived on the basis of classical spacetime can be used to derive anything truly fundamental, since classical general relativity isn't right. You need to quantize gravity. The BGV [Borde, Guth, Vilenkin] singularity theorem is certainly interesting and important, because it helps us understand where classical GR breaks down, but it doesn't help us decide what to do when it breaks down. Surely there's no need to throw up our hands and declare that this puzzle can't be resolved within a materialist framework. Invoking God to fill this particular gap is just as premature and unwarranted as all the other gaps.'
Dennett only said that if they were here, they would disagree. Clearly, he was right.
  • If God is outside of time, then this is just deism, not theism. (This part is correct, but Craig believes that God enters into time at the moment of creation – so that it is not a deistic God)
     -Wintery Knight Post 
 This is only slightly incorrect.  Dennett referred to the changeless property of God, not the timeless  property.  A changeless God is a deist God at best.  Dennett's point is not that Craig has only thus far proven a deistic God and has more work to get to Theism; his point is that changelessness precludes the entity in question from ever being Theistic.  Even Craig's response that God entered into time at the moment of creation shows God making a radical change. 
  • If deism is true, then I can still be an atheist, because a Creator and Designer of the universe is compatible with atheism.
     -Wintery Knight Post 
Deism is not compatible with atheism and Dennett never said such a thing.  What he said was in essence: if a deist God were to exist, I wouldn't care-it would make no impact on how I live my life or view the world.
  • I’m pretty sure that Craig doesn’t have any good arguments that can argue for Christianity – certainly not an historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus based on minimal facts, that he’s defended against the most prominent historians on the planet in public debates and in prestigous books and research journals.
     -Wintery Knight Post 
Craig's "facts" of the resurrection argument is far from accepted by prominent historians.  Here's a couple starting points on the subject: Link Link Link

So in summary, Dennett's argument is not nearly as weak or ridiculous as WK thinks.  Dennett did an admirable job of questioning Craig's philosophical assumptions as one who does not share many of them.  Moreover he did it in 10 minutes which is equally impressive.  Craig can put out so many arguments in 5 minutes that it takes 5 hours to unpack and adequately address them all.  He's a tight speaker and his script is well rehearsed.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, nice run down. I saw that post a long while back too, and thought it was pretty specious. I think it's interesting that WLC has become something of a hero to all anti-atheist debate fans. I read a comment on YouTube declaring that he must be right because he seems to win so many debates. Setting aside the fact that many of us think he's a better presenter than actual logician and referencer of scientific work, I'd still be more worried that only one theist is gathering any sort of acclaim as a debater.