Dennett Withdraws from Templeton-Sponsored Event


Daniel Dennett (Tufts) has withdrawn from the popular World Science Festival upon learning of its funding from the John Templeton Foundation. Dennett, whose opposition to Templeton has been discussed here before, is reported by The Washington Post as saying:

“I would be very happy to have the Templeton Foundation sponsor research on religion and science,” he said in a phone interview from Spain, where he is lecturing. “But what they are doing now is sponsoring some very fine science with no strings attached and then using their sponsorship of that to try and win prestige for other projects that are not in the same league.” He pointed specifically to the Darwin Festival held in Cambridge, England, in 2009, which was also funded in part by Templeton. He wrote that some of the presentations there were “full of earnest gobbledegook.” 

“I compare it to an art collector who spends a lot of money on excellent art and then has a show with a few pieces by his brother,” Dennett said this week. “It’s trying to elevate the prestige of his brother by having them in the same room with a Cezanne and a Monet.”

The Washington Post article is here.

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Joe
Joe
5 years ago

I am glad that courageous intellectuals like Dennett are finally standing up for what is right.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to buy lunch with my graduate stipend–provided by a private corporation whose income stream is significantly fattened by investments in the oil and military technology industries–and later on I’ll be attending a talk sponsored by a billionaire who made his fortune as a part-owner of a major American bank.Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

If he is opposed to shoddy thinking that tries to insinuate itself into areas of which it is completely ignorant, why does he hang around with the New Atheists?Report

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
5 years ago

Not taking a stand on Dennett and Templeton, but one thing #2 might be talking about is Sam Harris’s work in metaethics and free will. I’m not sufficiently familiar with the free will book, but the metaethics book is trash. Maybe #2’s also thinking of that Lawrence Krauss that David Albert reviewed in the NYT; if Albert’s review is at all accurate, the book seems to pretty badly miss the point.Report

Plato
Plato
5 years ago

Hear, hear! Harris’s book on free will is also trash. It engages with *none* of the relevant philosophical literature, considers no objections or counter examples, and, pretty much, asserts his thesis without argument.Report

JDRox
JDRox
5 years ago

Harris’s book on faith also contains many mistakes (e.g., non-literal interpretations of religious texts only arise when advancements in science force religious people to retreat to them) that someone minimally informed about religion would never have made.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
5 years ago

Justin: for what it’s worth, my impression is that “religious ignorance” criticisms of the New Atheists (of whom I’ve read Dennett extensively and Dawkins a bit, not so much others) don’t really engage with a central theme of the New Atheist agenda: that they’re engaging with religion identified by what religious people in general, and politically relevant and active religious people, state and believe – not what we might identify as “religion” if we look deep into academic theology. So Dawkins’ or Dennett’s conception of God is a pretty bad fit to the very subtle idea of God we might get from the more abstract parts of theology – but they don’t claim otherwise. They claim they’re characterising the sort of God that’s being appealed to in politically relevant contexts (e.g., Islamic extremism; the creationism debate; right-to-die and abortion-rights discussions). I don’t think they’re especially interested in theologians’ conception of God, and in terms of their project, they’re right not to be. (And Dawkins, at least, was at one point on rather good terms with several Church of England bishops, as I recall.)Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
5 years ago

David Wallace: I suspect they’re also not engaged very deeply with the social sciences that study “what religious people in general, and politically relevant and active religious people, state and believe” either. That’s certainly the case with Sam Harris, who is content to let the most extreme representatives of Islam define that religion, despite the stated beliefs to the contrary of many peaceful Muslims.Report

Plouffe
Plouffe
5 years ago

“I don’t think they’re especially interested in theologians’ conception of God, and in terms of their project, they’re right not to be.”

Dawkins, in *The God Delusion*, purports to explain and criticize Aquinas’s Five Ways. Yet in the process, he manages to misunderstand them in ways that are at once embarrassingly reckless and thoroughly sophomoric. It would be one thing if Dawkins and company were only professing to criticize what they talk to be folk conceptions of God. But that is not what they take themselves to be doing. They truly think they are rejecting the best that theists have to offer. This is why, for example, Michael Ruse was right to have given Dennett so much grief for that mess of a book, *Breaking the Spell.*Report

John Basl
5 years ago

Justin and David: I think if you look at “The God Delusion” you’ll see an excellent example of the kinds of bad arguments and ignorance of religion that are common in New Atheist arguments. And, there, Dawkins is not aiming only at prominent/public versions of religion. At one point, for example, he is objecting to the ontological argument and dismisses the modal version of that argument on grounds that his objectors “had to appeal to modal logic” as if that were sufficient grounds for thinking the argument unworthy of discussion. It is his general strategy to engage with public versions of religion and then dismiss with a quick comment any more sophisticated attempts to defend religious views. As an atheist, I would have been much happier had Dawkins stuck to taking on popularized religion without being so dismissive of more sophisticated and nuanced views. Instead, I find that book infuriating and have met many New Athesists that endorse Dawkins’ views and arguments in the form he presents them.Report

Shea
Shea
5 years ago

David Wallace… presumably the “New Atheists” are interested in arguing for atheism. In which case it would probably be best for them to deal with arguments put forth by theologians. If their point is simply “the common conception of God is muddled” then their position is compatible with a multitude of subtle versions of theism, which would make the moniker “New Atheists” a gross misnomer. But I haven’t read their stuff. Maybe Dawkins thinks Meister Eckhart is just dandy…Report

JDRox
JDRox
5 years ago

David Wallace: If a theist attacked atheism by arguing that the views of typical atheists in rural Ohio are hopelessly muddled and/or pernicious, they would be ridiculed, would they not? True, the role of atheism in US politics is a little less clear than the role of theism, but even there it seems obviously irresponsible and misguided to characterize “atheism” as the cluster of views held by politically influential atheists. If the main thesis the “New Atheists” are arguing for is that the beliefs of most ordinary american theists, and many politicians who are theists, are hopelessly muddles and/or pernicious, then who (worth listening to) would disagree with them?Report

Shea
Shea
5 years ago

The New Atheists often claim religion is a result of the fear of death. This is pretty obtuse from a sociological/psychological standpoint. First of all, not all religions have an afterlife. When religious traditions do develop a conception of the afterlife the driving impetus often appears to be the insurance of moral desert as much as the alleviation of the fear of death. Second, people already have a great coping mechanism for the fear of death: they just don’t think about it. People tend to turn to religious belief as a way of dealing with hardship and loss rather than a fear of death. Remember the old saying: “there are no atheists in foxholes”. The telling thing is that the people in the foxholes usually aren’t praying to get into heaven because they know they are going to die: they are bargaining with god to let them live through the battle. If you want to know what psychological role the idea of the Christian god plays, you should look at what events are attributed to the Christian god. When people’s lives are saved or when some hardship is lifted it is attributed to the Christian god. The only time people seek refuge in the idea of an afterlife is when they are very old and know their death is immanent, or when they are faced with the death of a loved one. Otherwise they just don’t think about it. The fear of dearh simply is not enough to explain the existence of religious belief.

But the New Atheists are obviously invested in relegating the psychological and sociological role of religious belief to something that can be done away with or replaced easily. Acknowledging that one of the major roles of religious belief is the insurance of moral desert would hurt their position insofar as they really have no way of claiming that people will get what they deserve. Though to be perfectly fair, analytic metaethicists have gotten so carried away with the semantics of moral discourse that they also seem to have totally lost track of the fact that the insurance of moral desert is a predominant part of what ordinary people take to be the necessary for objective morality.Report

Avi
Avi
5 years ago

As someone who is a godless, but has read here and there in sophisticated theological scholarship (SThS), I think a few points might be worth considering. First, it might be right that Dawkins et al. don’t appreciate SThS, and that they should refrain from engaging with it. Second, once you retreat from the transcendent claims of religion (which is what SThS often does to accommodate a scientific worldview), you are left with beliefs and practices drained of their original intention, which was to reach the transcendent. Third, I’m pretty sure there are very sophisticated versions of astrology and alchemy with expert practitioners who think that criticisms of the folk versions of these belief systems don’t apply to them.Report

MA-Student
MA-Student
5 years ago

To have a “scientific worldview” is it necessary that one “retreat from the transcendent”? It isn’t clear to me why it should.Report

Breaking the spell?
Breaking the spell?
5 years ago

‘He wrote that some of the presentations there were “full of earnest gobbledegook”.’ So very unlike academic conferences in general!Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
5 years ago

Responding to Shea (partly as representative of broader observations): I don’t actually think the New Atheists (or Dennett, at any rate) are that interested in arguing for atheism. I think Dennett regards the case for atheism as pretty conclusive and not very interesting; he says as much in Breaking the Spell. I think they’re interested in arguing against the sort of religion that is influential on public policy.

Responding to JDRox: “the role of atheism in US politics is a little less clear than the role of theism” is, if not in bad faith, rather a radical understatement…Report

Gray
Gray
5 years ago

Not sure about the astrology/alchemy analogy. All variations of astrology and alchemy make testable claims that, when tested, are continually found wanting. That’s why we can generalise about them and dismiss them. A lot of theology doesn’t do that. It rests on particular arguments. Arguments that are nuanced and require careful attention. I think people get frustrated at New Atheist’s because they prop up poorly defined folk conceptions of religion and take pot shots at it in toto, while ignoring, or caricaturing, the more sophisticated and nuanced theology to which those criticisms don’t necessarily apply. Even as an atheist I find it pretty disingenuous and distasteful. It seems to me they have a political mission, not an intellectual one.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
5 years ago

Gray’s knee-jerk dismissal of astrology is typical of the so-called “New Anti-astrologers”. They take a poorly defined folk conception of astrology, characterised by something like the Daily Mail horoscope, and take potshots at it, while ignoring or caricaturing the more nuanced and sophisticated astrologianism to which these criticisms don’t necessarily apply. Terms like “influence”, “horoscope” or “star” are subtle and sophisticated concepts, with many options available to understand them beyond the literalist reading that the New Anti-astrologers attack. No serious critique of astrology can proceed without an in-depth engagement with the thousands of years of astrological history and philosophical development, nor without a recognition of astrology as a social practice and not simply a collection of metaphysical claims.Report

Plouffe
Plouffe
5 years ago

If I was interested in writing a serious academic book aimed at criticizing astrology, then yes, I should do all those things. But that is exactly the point. Dawkins and Dennett don’t. So either Dawkins and Dennett aren’t serious to begin with, or they haven’t done their homework. Your example helps to make the point.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
5 years ago

If you seriously think no-one is entitled to criticise astrology without doing those things, then I rest my case.Report

Shea
Shea
5 years ago

David, if that is true then things are little better. For it is irrational to attempt to engage people who you know are hopelessly irrational in a rational discourse. They know they aren’t going to convince enough creationists to make any sort of social change. It’s fairly obvious that they are writing for atheists, not theists. They are selling atheists a form of low brow self-congratulation, and are making a tidy profit off of it. I think we should call out intellectually shallow rabble-rousing for what it is. There’s no way that they deserve to be put in the same category of cultural critics as Nietzsche or Voltaire.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
5 years ago

To Shea: they (or at least Dawkins; Dennett has slightly different goals and I don’t know the others’ writings) aren’t really writing to convert the already-convinced. As you say: not much point. Dawkins is addressing the unsure, and those who don’t really believe but didn’t really feel empowered to say so. And so far as I can see, that’s had substantial, and substantially positive, effects. Inside the echo chamber of academia it’s long been okay to self -define as atheist. Outside, not so much; Dawkins (and others) has done quite a lot to change that. Good for him, I say.

(If you want a political-science metaphor: the New Atheists have done quite a lot to shift the Overton window vis-a-vis public discussion of faith and atheism.)Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

I’m more bothered by the New Atheists ignorance about philosophical atheism than their ignorance of religion. Where is there acknowledgement of the complex questions about religion raised by philosophers like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Marx, Feuerbach, or even Comte?

I’m especially bothered by their failure to answer Nietzsche’s specific charge that modern philosophical ethics (specifically utilitarianism and Kantianism) is not essentially that different from, much less opposed to, Christian morality.

And since their atheism tends to be of a rather naive, enlightenment variety, how can they ignore the long atheist tradition beginning with Schopenhauer and continues through Adorno and Horkheimer that calls into question the enlightnement’s overconfidence in the role and value of reason?Report

Gray
Gray
5 years ago

Wallace
So what do all astrologers do? Make predictions based on astrological charts, right? Great, we can test that. We have and it has been shown that astrology’s ‘predictions’ are no better (sometimes worse) than chance. All astrology. Done. What about God? The prime mover from which all cause and effects flows? A transcendental omniscient being who permeates all and is revealed through the wonder of nature? A state of mind accessible through divine revelation and meditation? Not testable. Astrology makes tangible claims that we can assess and measure. New Atheists don’t bother with sophisticated theology precisely because it doesn’t make those claims, in fact it often makes a rather big deal of trying to avoid them (resorts to faith, divine revelation, etc) and they see such speculations as a waste of time. That’s fine, we all love us some Ockham’s Razor, but ignoring those more nuanced arguments in favour of poorly constructed straw men, and then implying we should generalise to all religion, strikes me as an ideological leap that the so called bastions of rationality and reason aren’t entitled to make.Report

Shea
Shea
5 years ago

David, I’m not sure why you think they’ve had a large positive effect on society. That seems like a rather dubious causal claim to say the very least. First of all, atheism was dirt common in Europe long before Dawkins published anything. In America atheists are still reviled. Whatever lessening in negative attitudes toward atheism that there has been is far better attributed to the general social trend toward more liberal and tolerant attitudes than it is to anything Dawkins or Dennett have published. And if they were really interested in converting people on the fence then they would have all the more reason to deal with the more intelligent forms of theism. Those are precisely the forms of theism that people who are on the fence lean toward. Virtually no one is just trying to decide between biblical literalism and atheism. If anyone has had a sort of positive effect, it’s someone like Michael Ruse: an expert who can actually testify about evolutionary science at a court hearing.

As far as empowering atheists, I hardly see why the work of Dawkins and Dennett would do a better job than the work of, say, Nietzsche, Voltaire, Bertrand Russell, etc. Their work only seems to empower the people who are ignorant of people like Nietzsche, Voltaire, Russell, etc. That is, the same people who rant and rave about how the humanities are a waste of time, and that philosophy is dumb because Science. This may just be self-interest talking, but I’d really prefer it if those sorts of people were slightly less empowered than they currently are.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
5 years ago

@Gray: such a narrowly literalist interpretation of astrology! Sophisticated astrologians believe no such things! They see the stars and planets as the immanent cause of all significance in our lives; through inner calm and meditation I can come to terms with the inner House-of-Jupiter-ness of my destiny, and see how all that is apparently random can be understood as having House-of-Jupiter-esque purpose. (And of course living by the horoscopes is best seen, for many purposes, not as a narrow metaphysical thesis but as a way of life.) All of our lives can be seen, from the perspective of a sophisticated astrologian, as the playing out of the planets’ wills, but of course to test that by looking at the predictive accuracy of horoscopes is as unfair as to test sophisticated theology by double-blind tests of the power of intercessionary prayer.

@Shea: the minimal answer as to why Dawkins and Dennett are more effective empowerers of atheism than Nietzsche and Russell is that Nietzsche and Russell aren’t available to star in documentary series or appear on late night TV. (And, really: Dawkins and Dennett as ranters against the humanities?) Beyond that, we’re both making causal claims without really robust evidence, and so I think I’ll bow out of this bit of the discussion before it collapses into an exchange of competing anecdotes.Report

C
C
5 years ago

In fairness, I think a lot of the arguments of the ‘big guns’ in philosophy of religion could fairly be described as “embarrassingly reckless and thoroughly sophomoric”. (Is this a fair example? http://www.calvin.edu/academic/philosophy/virtual_library/articles/plantinga_alvin/two_dozen_or_so_theistic_arguments.pdf.) Maybe we’re all better off just letting Dawkins and his opponents fling as much poo at each other as they can get their hands on.Report

Mike
Mike
5 years ago

Justin, I’m not sure where to look to get their specifically religious views. But to get a sense of how bad the arguments can be, a good place to start is the Plantinga review here. http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2007/marapr/1.21.htmlReport

Gray
Gray
5 years ago

Wallace:
Do the astrologers you’re caricaturing actually exist? As far as I’m aware one of the central tenets of any astrologer is that they claim to actually be able to provide concrete predictions or accurate assessment of personality. Or what’s the point of it as a field of endeavour? Both of which have been found wanting when tested against mere probability by the way. The kind of abstract claim of, “But our lives are a playing out of the planets’ wills”, without a claim to predictive prowess, may be a shared underpinning of all astrologers, but it is not the practice of astrology. If this were the simple claim of many astrologers, without the claim to prediction, then I would be forced to say the same thing. Untestable. As far as beliefs go, you’re free to it, don’t over-extend it. It would be just as unfair, in that situation (which is one that I suspect doesn’t exist outside of your sarcasm), to take potshots at the predictive failures of the other kind of astrologer, and imply that this was a knockdown argument against the more simple and abstract astrologer.

It was a poor analogy.Report

Shea
Shea
5 years ago

David, my point was that Dawkins and Dennett tend to be read by the science-worshipping subsection of atheists who seem to scoff at the humanities and haven’t bothered to read Nietzsche, Russell, etc. Not that Dawkins or Dennett themselves hate the humanities. I have little to offer as evidence for that aside from my own constant personal experience. But if we put aside the causal effects of what they say that only leaves us with the task of criticizing the content of what they say, and we are back at square one. You’re the one that brought up the supposed positive effects of their writings as a way of apologizing for their lack of intellectual rigor.

Fyi, I’m an atheist and I never needed Dawkins to be empowered. In fact one of my earliest memories was laughing at my friend when she told me that she believed god until she started to cry. I had never heard someone explain their belief in god before and it struck me as totally absurd. I thought she was kidding at first. Atheists are generally empowered by the fact that the evidence is overwhelmingly on their side and because theists bear the burden of proof, given that they are the ones making an existential claim. The atheists who need “empowering” must either be intellectually lazy or simply driven by a desire to avoid upsetting their loved-ones. Dawkins and Dennett are of no help to the people in the latter category. Now, I could understand if Dawkins and the like just stuck to debunking various forms of creationism wrt evolutionary science. That would provide a valueable service. But that is not what they do. Instead they go on to make positive claims about the causal origins of religious belief or say that all theistic arguments are rubbish and then refuse to deal with the more subtle ones. I’m sorry, but as far as I’m concerned intellectual honesty counts more than winning points in the cultural war against Christians. Indeed, I take the war to essentially be one of intellectual honesty against intellectual dishonesty. Dawkins offers us a Phyrric victory, at best. As other people have already pointed out, the New Atheists also do a rather piss-poor job of acknowledging how Christianity has shaped Western values. Why in the world should we value equality if we are simply taking nature as a guide to truth? Life functions through inequality. The well-adapted survive and pass on their genes and the poorly adapted perish. As Nietzsche put it, life itself is appropriation. I suspect that Hell will freeze over before Dawkins and company attempt to give an honest answer to that question. Not if Sam Harris’ work is any indication.Report

Shea
Shea
5 years ago

Though to be perfectly clear, I don’t really want to lump Dennett together with Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. He is typically a lot more careful in his claims. At worst, he seems to be guilty of the same sort of mild rhetorical misdirections that are common throughout academic philosophy. (I’m looking at you, “Consciousness Explained”.) Though I’m not familiar with Breaking the Spell, from what I can tell via non-biased reviews it is a step in the right direction. It may be that his particular theory about how religion evolves is incorrect, but at least Dennett is attempting to put forth a theory that he openly acknowledges might be imperfect and in need of correction, and he at least attempts to deal with the sociological and psychological literature on the topic.

Compare that with Harris’ declaration that the words “metaethics” and “deontology” cause him to be bored before he assumes the truth of hedonistic utilitarianism in “The Moral Landscape”. This is Harris’ response to the objection that he violates the is-ought distinction: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/clarifying-the-landscape
It is one of the most astoundingly confused things I’ve ever read. His response is basically that he rejects the notion of obligation altogether and doesn’t see how it is relevant to the existence of objective moral truths… An excerpt:

“There need be no imperative to be good—just as there’s no imperative to be smart or even sane. A person may be wrong about what’s good for him (and for everyone else), but he’s under no obligation to correct his error—any more than he is required to understand that π is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. A person may be mistaken about how to get what he wants out of life, and he may want the wrong things (i.e., things that will reliably make him miserable), just as he may fail to form true/useful beliefs in any other area. I am simply arguing that we live in a universe in which certain conscious states are possible, some better than others, and that movement in this space will depend on the laws of nature. Ryan, Russell, and many of my other critics think that I must add an extra term of obligation—a person shouldbe committed to maximizing the well-being of all conscious creatures. But I see no need for this.”

He appears to be some sort of unwitting non-cognitivist whose primary concern is to establish the rather trivial claim that we can use scientific methods to identify what will maximize pleasurable mental states, though we can do whatever we want with that information. And this is putting aside myriad specific confusions. For instance, he fails to understand what consequentialism is on the most rudimentary level. Specifically, he fails to recognize that consequentialism is the claim that it is the consequences of an ACT that determines the moral properties of that ACT. Instead, he suggests that the moral properties of an act can be determined not only by the consequences of the act itself but also indirectly by the (merely?!) possible further consequences of the psychological faculties that caused the agent to form the intention to act:

“Traditional moral philosophy also tends to set arbitrary limits on what counts as a consequence. Imagine, for instance, that a reckless driver is about to run over a puppy, and I, at great risk to myself, kick the puppy out of the car’s path, thereby saving its life. The consequences of my actions seem unambiguously good, and I will be a hero to animal lovers everywhere. However, let’s say that I didn’t actually see the car approaching and simply kicked the puppy because I wanted to cause it pain. Are my actions still good? Students of philosophy have been led to imagine that scenarios of this kind pose serious challenges to consequentialism.

But why should we ignore the consequences of a person’s mental states? If I am the kind of man who prefers kicking puppies to petting them, I have a mind that will reliably produce negative experiences—for both myself and others. Whatever is bad about being an abuser of puppies can be explained in terms of the consequences of living as such a person in the world. Yes, being deranged, I might get a momentary thrill from being cruel to a defenseless animal, but at what price? Do my kids love me? Am I even capable of loving them? What rewarding experiences in life am I missing? Intentions matter because they color our minds in every moment. They also determine much of our behavior, and thereby affect the lives of other people. As our minds are, so our lives (largely) become.”Report

Eric Silverman
5 years ago

Here is a classic New Atheist diatribe against religion (and a good example of ridiculous New Atheist reasoning) : “…the most monstrous crimes against humanity have invariable been inspired by unjustified [religious] belief. This is nearly a truism. Genocidal projects tend not to reflect the rationality of their perpetrators simply because there are no good reasons to kill peaceful people indiscriminately…Consider the millions of people killed by Stalin or Mao: although these tyrants paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion. At the heart of its apparatus of repression and terror lurked a rigid ideology, to which generations of men and women were sacrificed.” (Sam Harris, The End of Faith, pp. 78-79). So according to Harris the atrocities of atheist communism are somehow evidence against religion. How do you even have a conversation with someone who indulges in such Orwellian double-speak? If atheistic communism = religion, then is there any movement that we couldn’t describe as a type of religion?Report