Daniel Dennett Presents: An Argument Against Naturalism

I was recently stunned to find, in an interview with Daniel Dennett published in Third Way (July/August 2013, p. 14), the following exchange:

Interviewer:  What might constitute an insuperable problem for naturalism, then?

Dennett:  Well, I thought of one thing in a little reverie just yesterday.  If you take all the integers – one, two, three, four – starting with zero and you arrange them in a sort of a square spiral and you put a red circle, say, around each prime number, you discover that there are some interesting patterns – it’s a very tantalizing fact about prime numbers.  Well, suppose someone said, ‘I’m going to arrange the number in a slightly different way and just see what happens,’ and they did it and, after a while, when they’d [arranged] enough millions of numbers, we saw that [the pattern that had emerged] was a crucifix… If something like that was embedded in the number system, my timbers would be shivered, no doubt about it – because you can’t fake the number system.

I must confess to being utterly baffled by this argument.  I have my doubts as to whether such an occurrence (or something analogous) actually would convince Dennett, should it turn out to be true, but one thing of which I am fairly certain is that it would not convince me nor the vast majority of professional theologians and philosophers I know and/or read.  It is a mere magic trick.  And if it proved the existence of anything, it would not be the God of Jesus Christ, but of simply one more thing among other things, albeit a thing of great power and, it would seem, whimsy.

(As an aside, the idea of a crucifix being the symbol for God in the number system is an interesting one.  It highlights something many have noted, namely that atheism does not emerge independently of religion.  It is utterly dependent upon religion.  Dennett isn’t interested in disproving the God of philosophy, but the God of the Bible.  In other words, for all the blustery appeal to ‘evidence’ and ‘common-sense,’ the new atheist project remains, in its essence, reactionary.  Furthermore, it is worth noting that it is precisely the God of the Bible, that One who has done more than any atheist philosopher in history to unmask the idols of this world and demonstrate that what we thought were the gods, were, in fact, nothing of the kind – it is this God who makes atheism possible by a relentless demythologization of the cosmos.)

All of my professional training, and indeed even my temperament, inclines me to put the best possible read on the comments of those with whom I disagree.  And I know, theoretically, at least, that Dennett is a bright guy.  But how does a bright guy find no trouble for his worldview whatsoever in the indisputable fact that there is something rather than nothing, and yet confess that a curious plant in the number system would shiver his timbers?
Oh, and in the same interview, Dennett refers to Jesus as “probably a mythical character.”  (p. 16)  Seriously?  It’s like arguing with a young-earth creationist.

Brett Salkeld is the incoming Archdiocesan Theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan. He is a father of four (so far) and husband of one.

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