Saturday, July 15, 2006

A first word on Dennett's last words: Growing up

Last night concluded our discussion of Darwin's Dangerous Idea, a book I've been mentioning, off and on, throughout the summer here. Showing either a) a sophistication notably lacking in the readerships of many other blogs or b) admirable restraint, none of my readers has told me to shut up already and start blogging about, say, French maids; indeed, in my earlier posts on Dennett, here, here, and here, some of you have graciously left thoughtful commentary from a range of perspectives that has been thought-provoking to me and, perhaps, to others among you. Thank you, most sincerely.

What follows below the fold will be a rather blunt-instrument response to where (I think) Dennett leaves me as I stumble and bumble my way toward thinking about God. I make no claims as to its originality, least of all to its adequacy. It's a first word, as the title of this post indicates. I'm sure I'll be revisiting it from time to time.

You lucky people.

If someone were to make the argument that this cartoon depicts the place Dennett leads us to (and some in our discussion last night were making that argument even after having read the conclusion), I would have to say that that's absurd. I think Dennett himself would agree and could easily point to the passage I quoted in my previous post--in particular the sentence I put in boldface--Darwin-worship or, by extension, science-worship as confirmation. Having said that, though, he makes equally clear in the same sentence that he has no patience for a literal reading of Genesis. He's clearly a materialist who declares early in his book that evolutionary theory is abundantly confirmed by biological and geological evidence; nothing preceded it or has come along in the intervening years since Darwin that seriously challenges it. But neither is he an enemy per se of the notion of religion as a foundation of culture or, more precisely, a source of ideas that produce not only valuable codes of behavior but many (most?) of the aesthetic products of the world's civilizations.

Okay, fine. As I've come to understand Dennett's underlying thesis in that paragraph and throughout that final chapter, it is that the choices we make as individuals and as cultures are ultimately ours to make as we weigh both inescapable material realities and ethical/moral codes we (say we) value as culturally-shaped and -informed human beings. This is the source of his admonition that we "grow up": that we don't naïvely or feebly cling solely (or even mostly) to science or to religion (my readers who are not believers in God are welcome to substitute in "religion"'s place the term you'd use to describe your worldview) to explain everything for us in absolutist terms. Neither should we try to force, say, the square peg of science into the round hole of religion (or vice versa).

This last bit is going to be rushed, but it's something I want to develop later. Last night, late into the night, as I was thinking about all this, it occurred to me that what Dennett seems to be advocating is a kind of existentialism. Once I realized that, I knew that as a Christian I was in pretty good company: Kierkegaard, Tillich . . . and, by sheer coincidence, given our recent discussion here, Flannery O'Connor's grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."

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Ariel said...

I would be among the first to jump on the existentialist Christian bandwagon, since an experiential relevance is vital to a live relationship with Christ.

I don't think the dichotomy between origins and faith is as sharp as Dennett seems to be making it, though. Realistically, Darwinist evolution is a founding premise for plenty of atheists. And inversely, if I was convinced that macroevolution was a valid theory (I'm not), I would feel obligated to reevaluate my perspective on Christ the creator.

Existential truth and objective (in this case, "scientific") understanding are two strands of truth that can't be pulled apart.

Andrew Simone said...

I like you conclusion and it is exactly what I thought when I read your last post on this.

Dennett's point (if your quote is at all indicative of his thesis) is that life can't really be quantified or codified.

These things are not a matter of mere calculation (moral algorithms, etc.) but are a matter of wisdom.

I am interested in seeing how you will unfold your existentialist observations.

R. Sherman said...

I'm struggling along in the back here, but I still have a problem with dividing "Truth" into it's component parts, i.e. "science" and everything that doesn't constitute "science."

It seems, the moment we do that, that is, the moment we eliminate the possibility of a "Grand Unifying Theory," is the moment we're doomed to never know the truth.

I need to think about this some more. However, I've got to get back to my day job as a "sophist bastard."



Winston said...

I too am looking forward to your further exploration and sharing.

John, this has been a tremendous mini-series of posts and comments. This is perhaps one of the most valuable uses of blogs -- the sharing, nurturing, and growth of ideas.