Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Just shoot me

Computer problems ate my post.

I think I'll start drinking heavily this morning.

Had a lengthy post prepared concluding my unscientific postcript on Shulevitz review of Daniel Dennett's book. My computer has apparently eaten it (I'm on the other computer in the house, and just realized that post apparently didn't get saved before I was forced to shut down).

Allright, in a nutshell (if I can): Dennett's entire approach to religion fails on the ground Shulevtiz identifies but doesn't, to my mind, adequately describe: he is attempting to analyze a synthetic statement without adequately defining the terms under consideration (the very problem, as Boreas pointed out, that synthetic statements are subject to).

This problem has something of a pedigree, as I had carefully pointed out in words of genius now lost forever (no, of course not! But how will you ever know, eh?). It was the spark (the problem of definition) for Russell's pursuit of logical positivism, which gave rise to Rusell and Whitehead's brave attempt to map language onto mathematics, thus creating linquistic precision in philosophy, and eliminating ambiguity; and which produced one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, and Russell's greatest disciple, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Except that by the end of Wittgenstein's first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he had eliminated logical positivism from his thinking (and for a time left all philosophy behind, only to return and examine the problem of language in philosophy, but to explore its ambiguities and exploit them, not eliminate them), and then Kurt Godel gutted the main contentions of the Principia. Russell was reduced to being largely an anti-war activist and something of an anti-religion crank, and Whitehead followed Wittgenstein into seeming mysticism, and wrote a book now largely notable for giving rise to process theology.

Ironies abound.

But here's the problem for Dennett, and Shulevitz put her finger on it: how can you validly assess a synthetic statement, if you cannot establish the terms of the discussion?

Any serious philosopher of religion would examine the question of religion before attempting to examine its evolutionary relevance (if any). After all, if you cannot define "love" within the limits of scientific discourse, can you examine its relationship to human evolution, or even biology? (And if you do define love within the limits of scientific discourse, tell me how that works out for your Valentine's Day card, okay?). Is there, in fact, "love" as you might define it for science, and "love" as you might whisper it to your beloved? And what's the difference? And why?

You see where this ends up, of course. You end up talking about two different things, and just using the same phonemes for them. The confusion originates in your language. If you can clear that up, maybe you can solve the problem. But you'll be Ludwig Wittgenstein if you do. Or near to him.

Dennett is not Wittgenstein (but then, who of us is?). But thre's a stil more fundamental problem with Dennett's work: it's not a serious work of philosophy, nor of science.

He fails to provide a scientific definition of the terms under discussion. This is a major failing for a scientist, of course. But he also fails to provide an adequate definition of his terms for purposes of philosophy of religion, or even philosophy in general. This, too, is a major failing, and it renders his entire enterprise both pointless, and poorly considered.

Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is detailed and complex precisely because the issues involved are subtle and require careful delineation. Heidegger devotes much of Being and Time just to elucidating that being and Dasein are. Kierkegaard's output struggled with the questions raised by faith, and the response of reason to those questions, as well as the response of the faithful. His entire prolific output is a careful examination of only a few issues.

Dennett purports to solve all of that in one volume, written for a general audience. The only way to do that is to reduce the issues to a few straw men, and then proceed to knock them over. He can't even do the groundwork of learning about the philosophy of religion, nor the details of Christian, or Muslim, theology, or Jewish teachings; not to mention the other major world religions. All are subsumed in his assumptions, which he is quite free with.

Kierkegaard took on Hegel, on Hegel's terms and Hegel's issues. Kant took on Hume, beginning with Hume's terms and Hume's issues. Godel' s theorem is formally titled: "On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems." Dennett writes about: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. The title itself is a silly and sophomoric conflation of religion and magic. And "religion" is a formally undefined term in his study.

How can anyone take seriously what Dennett has to say?

No comments:

Post a Comment