Dennett’s Whirlwind Tour through Apologetics

Dennett’s Whirlwind Tour through Apologetics November 8, 2012

This post is part of a series discussing Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.

As I said yesterday, most of Dennett’s book isn’t directed to the question of whether religious claims are true.  But in the final chapters, he takes a crack at the question.  Dennett warns the reader that his discussion is going to be cursory; he’ll lay out his objections and give the reader the citations they need to examine the arguments in detail.

From beginning to end, this section spans a little more than six pages.

Like the so vague as to be meaningless discussion of Dennett’s moral philosophy, this section frustrates more than it educates, and probably should have been dropped from the book.  I assume Dennett knows some of the religious arguments in more detail than he discusses, (Aquinas’s first cause argument is dealt with in a paragraph), but his brief discussion is doing his reader a disservice.

Dennett may be so fluent in apologetics that he can deal with them in shorthand, but his readers are not.  As Yvain pointed out, Christians in the scholastic tradition sound like they’re using everyday English when they’re actually using technical jargon (“image” “cause” “necessary” etc).  This is confusing!

For Dennett’s lay readers to follow his rebuttal, they’d need a glossary and a quick introduction to what the apologetics are actually saying.  Dennett doesn’t give them this resource or warn them that this argument is in a foreign language that looks deceptively like English.  So Dennett’s atheist readers wind up with an inflated sense of their own understanding of this debate and confidence in Dennett’s conclusion.  That’s authorial malpractice, especially for a skeptic who wants to teach you to think, not just what to believe.

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  • Mitchell Porter

    This post is itself rather brief. It would be more convincing if you went over the items that Dennett goes over, and indicated for each what’s missing in his account and where you can find the technical details.

    • leahlibresco

      That would be longer than Dennett’s piece, and I’m not fluent in some of the arguments he drive-bys, nor do I think some others are worth defending. I’ll just recommend Feser’s Aquinas and leave it there.

      • Ismael

        The problem with Dennett… is the problem with modern philosophy…. good logic, compelling epistemological research, confusing and muddled metaphysics…

        Dennett rushes through the arguments of theism and this is really shameful for him. I mean… even Dawkins spent more time on it in ‘The God Delusion’ (he did a horrible job, but at least he tried!).

        Dennett just seems to sweep everything under the rug only to exalt in other parts of his work how awesome the meme theory is (while most biologists I know and in I think most biologists in general think it’s totally crap… I am a physicist and biochemist… and I do not really see the point Dawkins work either at a scientific level… but then maybe Dennett genius is seeing something I don’t)

  • Ashley

    It’s “authorial malpractice” to “warn(s) the reader that his discussion is going to be cursory; he’ll lay out his objections and give the reader the citations they need to examine the arguments in detail.”, and then do exactly that?

    • Eli

      Indeed – and if a whirlwind tour counts as authorial malpractice when it’s explicitly identified as such ahead of time, so much the worse for Leah’s not-explicitly-announced whirlwind tour through Dennett’s whirlwind tour through apologetics.

      • leahlibresco

        There is not enough there to rebut. Here’s what Dennett has to say about the argument from first causes:

        That leaves us with the traditional arguments discusses at great length by the philosophers and theologians over the centurie, some empirical–such as the Argument from Design–and some purely a priori or logical–such as the Ontological Argument and the Cosmological Argument for the necessity of the First Cause.

        The logical arguments are regarded by many thinkers, including many philosophers who have looked at them carefully for years, to be intellectual conjuring tricks or puzzles rather than serious scientific proposals.

        He only returns to the First Cause argument in terms of what preceded the Big Bang, which is one tack apologists take, but he is only discussing it in the contest of efficient causes (not using that phrase) which misses a lot of the substance of the argument. I can’t rebut such a scanty rebuttal, but I can say that it’s too shallow to be a strong rebuttal, which is exactly what I did in this post.

        • Eli

          That doesn’t even sound like a rebuttal, at least to me, which makes me think that you might be missing the point. “X people think this” is not a demonstration of “this,” is it? If anything, especially in the context of the caveat that evidently starts the section, it’s a recommendation of which rebuttal to use if you care enough to go and track it down, a pointer rather than a dereferenced variable.

          I guess you could try to rebut his recommendation, but to frame a recommendation as a counterargument seems…well…negligent.

          • Alan

            Yes, I think this is basically the point. Leah wanted this book to provide an argument in the context of her struggle since emotionally deciding Catholicism made it easier for her to maintain the virtue ethics she really want to maintain and Dennett didn’t care about her particular struggle so didn’t write a book about it.

        • Laurence

          Sounds like that’s exactly what you should do if you are going to do only a cursory examination. If people are really interested in exploring these arguments further, they can go look for themselves. Seems like you are holding Dennett up to an unreasonable standard to me. Also, he’s not saying anything that isn’t true. Most thinker, especially philosophers, have looked at these arguments and decided exactly what Dennett says. They’re only really considered serious arguments these days because of the volume of believers rather than any intellectual merit. They arguments have been examined, dissected, and found to be wanting over and over again. And no matter how much Edward Feser complains that they haven’t been seriously tacked will change this truth.

          • So where have they been seriously tackled? This is the classic phantom argument fallacy. I am sure there is a great argument somewhere. Never mind where. Trust me.

          • @Randy,

            I also love the weird justification that amounts to, ‘these arguments are only taken seriously because so many people think they’re successful. But a lot of people don’t think they’re successful, so clearly they must be wrong.’

            Most philosophers don’t bother to give more than a passing glance to a lot of philosophical arguments – they’re a pretty specialized group nowadays. Of the people who try to engage the arguments, often they actually engage bastardized versions of them and end up confused. Hence you see ‘Everything that exists has a caused’ being offered up as the premiere cosmological argument – sometimes even by philosophers who should know better.

          • Eli

            Yo, seriously? After reading this whole exchange, that’s your answer? Stop trolling.

        • LeRoi

          At Randy and others: Want real discussion of these arguments? I’m pretty sure Kant is thought to have done the definitive takedown. Go here for a start:

          From what little I’ve read of Feser, he sounded like he knew what he was talking about.

          Also, a delightful (and regrettably short) novel, “36 Arguments for the Existence of God”, has a fun little appendix at the end, which consists of, well, 36 arguments for the existence of God, and why the author (doctorate in philosophy, married to Steven Pinker) doesn’t buy them.

          • From what little I’ve read of Feser, he sounded like he knew what he was talking about.

            Feser does know what he’s talking about. For instance, he gives a nice explanation in The Last Superstition of why Kant’s criticisms don’t work out quite as intended for atheists.

            I don’t think anyone is maintaining that no one, even no philosopher, has tried to tackle these arguments. It’s that asserting ‘oh well I’m sure someone has dealt with them and shown them to be totally wrong!’ or even ‘Well I know a philosopher and they reject these arguments’ isn’t all that compelling. Unless being able to point at various philosophers who endorse those arguments is taken as compelling in turn – in which case we have a nice little standoff.

          • LeRoi,

            Thanks for the link. It does tell us about Kant’s opinions. It says he did find Aquinas’s arguments unconvincing. It does not really sketch out why. I already knew Kant thought this so I was hoping for more.

            Thomistic philosophers are able to make their arguments accessible, with a bit of effort, to those who don’t have a degree in philosophy. Quite frankly, it makes their arguments a lot more convincing. They seem like they have such a deep well of wisdom that leaves me in awe.

            I have not encountered any secular philosophers like that. Maybe there are some, I don’t know.

    • It requires no highly sophisticated reading skills to see that “authorial malpractice” applies to “So Dennett’s atheist readers wind up with an inflated sense of their own understanding of this debate and confidence in Dennett’s conclusion.” That’s the immediately previous sentence, it is directly referred to by the demonstrative with which the “authorial malpractice” sentence starts, and it is precisely this that Leah’s post has been arguing about in the previous paragraphs with regard to the failure to take steps to avoid misunderstanding of the terminology. There’s not really much excuse for misinterpretation here; correct interpretation requires no more than being able to grasp the basic structure of a short discussion without mangling it completely, of the sort you’d get in a basic reading comprehension exercise.

      • Eli

        Au contraire: malpractice is not and has never been a matter of the outcome. Per wiki, “malpractice is a type of negligence in which the professional under a duty to act fails to follow generally accepted professional standards, and that breach of duty is the proximate cause of injury to a plaintiff who suffers harm”; per Mirriam-Webster, it’s “a dereliction of professional duty or a failure to exercise an ordinary degree of professional skill or learning by one (as a physician) rendering professional services which results in injury, loss, or damage.” The fact – if it is a fact – that Dennett’s readers suffer a specific type of harm is not sufficient to demonstrate malpractice.

        To borrow your phrasing, Brandon, there’s not really much excuse for misinterpretation of the idea of malpractice; correct interpretation requires no more than a three-second excursion to google. So I dunno how both you and Leah have managed to botch it so badly, but maybe you need to pause for a moment and reconsider your basic debating strategy.

        • LeRoi

          To prove, say, ineffective assistance of counsel, one must prove (1) the lawyer made a mistake beyond the pale of professional practice, and (2) this mistake may have made a difference in the case. So outcome is relevant to proving ineffective assistance of counsel; sometimes one has a malpractice claim as well.
          For malpractice in general, outcome is also a relevant consideration, in addition to whether the actor has breached a duty in some respect.
          Libresco appears to have used both concepts – breach of duty of care/fiduciary responsibility/whatever, and outcome – in her brief analysis. And anyway it’s a figure of speech. This is a silly argument.

          • Eli

            So you’re either saying that Dennett’s writing was “beyond the pale of professional practice” or else, like Elliott, you’re saying that bloggers (just by virtue of the medium) can get away with saying misleading things and making imprecise accusations that they can’t back up or even sufficiently explain. Pardon me for having high standards, but I think either of those would be the silly argument.

  • Everyone seems to be criticizing this post, but I find it worthwhile. You’re writing in a different genre than Dennet. This is a blog, not an academic journal or a book, so I don’t think you fall victim to your own critique. You have inspired me to pick up Dennet’s book the next time I see a copy and read what he says about natural theology. Thank you.

  • jose

    Wouldn’t it be more useful to just discuss the first cause argument? He says there is no known case (and that it will be impossible to find) of an event that caused itself, or, in today’s style, an uncaused event. But radioactive decay is exactly that. Then he says you can’t go on to infinity in a chain of causes following in order so there must be a first one. But this assumes time is unchanging and linear, something physics would have something to say about.

    Reminds me of how Paley proposed natural theology because he just couldn’t think of any explanation that was better. He thought a lot about possible objections and alternatives to his ideas, but natural selection never occurred to him. We can’t blame people from centuries ago for not taking into account modern physics, but if we in this day still don’t stop to consider how new knowledge affects old ideas, that’s on us.

    • Erick


      But isn’t this exactly the kind of terminology definitions that go over people’s heads that Leah talks about? When Aquinas talks of an uncaused event or existence, he is talking about going from absolutely nothing to something (anything). Radioactive decay is not that; it is going from something to something else. Similarly, CTCs already assume the existence of a series within. They don’t start from nothing. Aquinas would simply ask, what caused the CTC?

      • jose

        He’s talking about events that cause themselves, or in other words, events with no cause, which is what I responded to. If apart from that, he wants to bring up nothing and something, that’s another, different argument with another response. Let’s not accuse Dennett of being too diffuse to be refuted and then use words whose meaning keeps morphing like The Thing at our leisure.

        What caused the CTC? What is the starting point of a wheel?

        • Erick


          You seem to have missed my point. I was stating that you have misunderstood Aquinas, and neither of your proofs work with his definition of terms. Aquinas’ definition of “having no cause” is “going from nothing to something”. They are not your stated definition of “something before something else”. So you cannot dismiss nothing and something.

          As I said, to Aquinas it wouldn’t matter if we could not determine the starting point to a wheel. The fact that there is a wheel means you are not addressing his problem.

          A more accurate proof against Aquinas’ definition is something like spontaneous combustion or conjuring by magic. Science has already proven that spontaneous combustion that does not actually result from nothing. And magic is still just either illusion or fiction.

    • Ted Seeber

      Has there been some revolution in the understanding of radioactive decay I’m not aware of? I thought that radioactive decay was caused by an atom being hit by a particle from another atom decaying (thus the entire concept of how to build a fission reactor). Obviously some atoms are more prone to damage than other atoms, and sure, something had to be the first atom, but I’d think Fr. Georges Lemaitre’s Big Bang theory kind of explains how God pulled that trick off.

      • ACN

        No, but the problem isn’t that everyone else is confused, the problem seems to be that you’re using ‘nuclear fission’ and ‘radioactive decay’ more or less interchangeably without understanding that the phrases are used to denote different processes.

        Put a sample of U-238 in an isolated box. It decays into Th-234 + an alpha particle w/ a well known half-life. A large class of isotopes (and indeed, for some elements, nearly all isotopes) are not stable and will undergo nuclear decays with or without the presence of other things. This also happens for so-called elementary particles like most mesons, the heavy leptons, all of the interesting flavors of quarks etc.

        Nuclear Fission is a much trickier game than simple radioactive decay because in a nuclear fission reaction, the products of a fission reaction are used to stimulate the fission of fresh atoms and if calibrated correctly, the process can be a self-sustaining critical reaction which can be harnessed for a power plant or a bomb. In radioactive decay, the decay products need not (and in general, don’t) have anything to do with triggering the decay of other atoms. Not every radioactive is capable of self-sustaining fission.

  • Emily

    My critique is slightly different – I think it watered down his credibility on this project, since he’s presenting himself as the Voice of Science, and then engaging in pretty obvious, yet unconvincing, polemics. Agreed that he should’ve just left it out.

  • Ted Seeber

    And here’s something worse- I find most Christian Apologetic, even the Catholic arguments, to be largely tuned to the lowest common denominator for an American audience whose religious education pretty much stopped with arts and crafts in the 6th grade back in the 1970s when it was all superficial “Jesus Loves You Rah Rah Rah”.

    And we wonder why 98% of American Catholic voters were perfectly willing to vote for either formal cooperation with evil or material cooperation with evil, just so the one they saw as the more evil lizard did not get elected.

    I think that’s what bothers me so much about Bob S.’s “three types of Atheists” theory- because I see a MAJOR cause of atheism being weak, Bible-based arguments for Christianity (especially once the kid grows up enough to notice that if you take the Bible literally, God comes out to be a self-contradictory raving maniac who hates fun, but before that kid has grown up enough to understand non-scientific empirical research). And a crop of clergy who thinks that child abuse isn’t a sin (or anything else, some of what I’ve heard in the confessional makes me think I could confess to being Hitler and still be told that absolution isn’t necessary because what I did isn’t a sin) doesn’t help.

    It’s bad enough that some people think that suffering is evil rather than a necessary path to good. It’s much worse that large numbers of Catholics seem to think that evil isn’t evil.

  • Brandon

    I assume Dennett knows some of the religious arguments in more detail than he discusses, (Aquinas’s first cause argument is dealt with in a paragraph)

    I don’t really see any great reason to give awful arguments a great deal of space.

    • I suppose that’s fair. Dennett’s arguments for atheism shouldn’t take up much space at all!

  • What confuses me is that the whirlwind tour/rebuttal of apologetics is such a popular genre. Dawkins does it, many blogs do it, and so on. Why don’t they just direct readers to the places where it’s already been done? Here’s my best guess: They aren’t actually trying to convince anyone who already holds strongly to those apologetics. The assumed audience is people who have heard the apologetics and feel powerless against them. The arguments feel off, but they don’t have the reasoning/rhetorical skills to find what’s wrong. Dennet, Dawkins et al. are trying to show these readers that apologetics can be dismantled after all and then indicate broad outlines about how to do that dismantling. And, hopefully, point them towards some helpful resources. (It’s been years since I’ve read a Horseman’s book, but I think I remember Dawkins writing explicitly that this was his goal.)
    So I would say that Dennet ought to be up front about this, if that’s what he’s doing, or just stick to sending them to more involved resources.