About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, June 06, 2008

A conversation with Dan Dennett

A few days ago I had the opportunity of moderating a conversation with philosopher Daniel Dennett, hosted by the New York Society for Ethical Culture as part of their presentation of two of the “Atheists Tapes” produced by Alive Mind. It was a pleasant and intellectually stimulating afternoon, which reminded me both of why I admire Dennett, and also of the points of disagreement we have on substantial issues in philosophy and humanism.

For instance, we certainly agree that religion is, as Dennett puts it in his book, a natural phenomenon. How exactly it came about, and what the relative contribution of biological and cultural evolution was to its shaping remains a matter of debate and a fertile field of inquiry, but religion in that respect is no different from other peculiar human habits, such as producing music, or engaging in team sports (or war, for that matter).

Dennett is also right on target, I think, on the idea that so-called “free will” is a rather fuzzy concept, and that it certainly does not imply any threat to a mechanistic view of the world. Neither he nor I are in the least impressed by quantum mechanical “explanations” of free will, which don’t explain anything, and which at best would gain us random, not free, will. I highly recommend his Elbow Room for a serious treatment of the matter.

Dan and I begin to diverge on how we see evolutionary theory. His Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is one of the best and most provocative books on the subject, and a must read. But it does give a rather too harsh treatment to the ideas of Stephen Jay Gould and his insistence that natural selection is not the only major mechanism in evolution. Indeed, Dennett from this perspective appears to be a strict classical Darwinist, downplaying or dismissing also some ideas about group selection as proposed most recently by David Sloan Wilson. I tend to be more of a pluralist on both enlarging the scope of selection at multiple levels of biological organization, and in welcoming multiple causal explanations, including non-selective ones, for the bewildering variety of biological phenomena.

Another point of disagreement that emerged during our discussion at the Ethical Culture concerns the so-called New Atheism, which I welcome as a needed vehicle for bringing atheism back to the center of social discourse, but which I also find has a tendency of being a bit too abrasive -- especially in the versions of the British New Atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (the very fact that these two, plus Dennett and Sam Harris, welcome the label “the Four Horsemen” is a sign of how openly confrontational their attitude is).

In response to a direct question I posed about the New Atheism, Dennett said that he used to think that Dawkins was too far out in his positions, but that recently he (Dennett) has begun to come around to the need for a more aggressive and militant atheism. I don’t buy it, which is why -- again contrary to both Dennett and Dawkins -- I changed my mind about, for example, the wisdom of calling myself a “Bright.” It isn’t that I’m afraid of confrontations (if you have ever seen me debating a creationist, in person or on YouTube, you know what I mean). And I do think that one needs to be, as Dawkins often puts it, intellectually honest and call a spade a spade. But there are different ways of doing it, as a matter of style, not content. In this respect, I think the gentleness of a Carl Sagan, or the empathic frankness of a Robert Ingersoll, are far more effective than the direct charge of stupidity that Dawkins hurls at 90% of the planet.

Regardless, as the public chat with Dennett clearly showed the other day, we all need and can nicely enjoy a conversation on philosophy, science and religion, possibly followed by a good dinner and decent wine. What better way to spend a rainy afternoon in New York City?


  1. Is there a recording of this conversation?

  2. As far as I know nobody did a recording of it, but I'll check with the people at the Ethical Culture.

  3. Damn, I wish I had been there!

    Anyway I believe in confronting the confrontational. That is the extremist, lunatic fringe, theocratic, bullying, fundamentalist, of the confrontational. For they are too dangerous and obnoxious to treat kindly,the only to respond is through our own confrontational methods. For in the end they are like are all bullies, they can't stand up to a vigorous fair fight. However this confrontation should be focused on this small group. After all they ask for it! For the other 90% I agree with the Carl Sagan approach. He sure was great one! I still miss him very much(and Gould and Feynman too).

  4. I've exchanged only a few cordial emails with Prof. Dennett, and would love to see him give a presentation sometime.

    BTW, the free will exchange was interesting. Dennett is also right on target, I think, on the idea that so-called “free will” is a rather fuzzy concept, and that it certainly does not imply any threat to a mechanistic view of the world.

    I've been reading Herbert McCabe's 'On Aquinas' and was startled to see that Aquinas did not support the existence of free will either, finding the concept unnecessary (the free choice of individuals being enough).

  5. The problem with direct confrontation is that it is sometimes counterproductive. People tend to entrench themselves in their dogma if they have to defend it too vigorously. The most important thought to instill is that other people can have different beliefs without being bad people. The best way to convey that concept is to concentrate on shared convictions and allow mutual respect to develop.

    For instance, can we agree that evidence is important as means to the truth? If so, we can talk about CSI, about forensic methodology and how the science was developed. We can talk about comparative anatomy. We can talk about a hundred subjects that don't violate anyone's peculiar dogmas. We can, in general, elevate the quality of discourse that people are accustomed to.

    Dangerous Idea is just a wonderful book. I have no end of respect for Dennett. Here is a video posted as the Four Horseman of Dennett with Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens taking about atheism that, in the course of a natural seeming conversation, covered some of the most profound ideas with erudition and subtlety. I'm tempted to go back to college, but I can't ever remember experiencing that kind of academic intensity when I was there.

  6. Max, I disagree with you. In-your-face confrontationalism is exactly what we need. (And what's so confrontational about the word "bright", anyway?)
    I would very much like to hear/see/worship this discussion, anyway.
    BTW, where exactly are you on YouTube? I've heard your radio debate with convicted felon Kent (deluded Mr. Dino) Hovind, but I didn't know you had video of similar encounters as well.

  7. Kimpatsu,

    we'll have to agree to disagree on being-in-your-face. Here is a link to one of the Pigliucci-Hovind debate videos on YouTube:


    Just search for "pigliucci hovind" and you'll find the rest.

  8. I would agree that it's unnecessary (and perhaps even self-defeating) to be "in your face" about one's atheism. But then I also accept from Dennett that the term "bright" is about as "in your face" as the term "gay" initially was for homosexuals (although that's since taken on a negative connotation in some contexts; like "That's so gay!").

    In other words, it's normal for a group of any kind to adopt a label that has a positive ring to it (inasmuch as one need self-label at all), as opposed to conceding to the negative label assigned by one's critics.

    I'm not sure that "bright" is anymore meaningful than "gay" was, but it certainly has a nicer ring to it than the literally negative term "atheist", and I have yet to come up with a better label (let alone one that others would recognize).


  9. I'm quite divided on this "confrontation" issue... Depending on the mood of the day, I tend to go one way or another.

    I see what Laneman says, and agree. The problem is other people's perception: they won't see you as just reacting to a bully. Because of the unfair way things are, when the crazy religious are doing their thing people see that as faithfulness, exercising one's religious rights, whatever. If we are to be confrontational about our point of view that same way, it will be seen as being hysterical, hate, etc. Can never win either way. So, either I say "to hell (sic) with it, let's confront the loonies" or "OK, let's try to be as amiable as possible to at least talk to the reasonable ones"...

    Now, the Bright thing. I too was enthusiastic about it and registered on their website. Wish them all the best, and am still on their email list. But that enthusiasm didn't last much. I immediately saw the problem, but chose to ignore it in the beginning, but after a few days gave up calling myself a Bright. The term is TOO unfortunate. Good friends of mine who are totally sympathetic to our "cause", let's say, had the immediate, automatic reaction of making fun of me when I explained the "Bright's movement", even if I started already stressing that I did not use the term myself, and saw the confusion it would cause. Every time I do something seen as "smart", I hear "what a bright boy", with a smile. It's all in good fun between friends, but illustrates the problem. Now imagine the sentiment of the "enemies" when they hear this...

    People particularly hate the suggestion that they are less smart then others, specially others they hate (which are "us atheists" and the like, in this case). I think that's a big distinction from the situation of the "gay" term. It does not mess with people's intellectual pride. And by the way, wasn't "gay" a term given to homosexuals by their haters, and then later embraced as their "name"? For some reason I seem to recall that, but could be wrong. You know, like the story that rock'n'roll was a pejorative title given to a certain musical style, obviously by people who did not exactly appreciate it. As any victim of bullying must know, nothing removes the joy from a pejorative nickname quicker than the victim's acceptance and enjoyment of it, no?

    That's why one of the first decisions of our "atheist and the like" group here was to change the name from "Richmond Brights" to "Richmond Reason and Naturalism Association" (which also has the biological advantage of abbreviating to RRNA). :-)

    I once thought of another word that would have been better (it seemed to me, at least) than "bright", but have forgotten! Have to think it up again.

  10. Didn't some of the French philosophes call themselves luminés? That's pretty close to "brights". So the expression is not so modern after all. I wonder if those old-time philosophers had any qualms about using the term they applied to themselves?


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