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3.0 out of 5 stars Daniel Dennett's contribution is a catastrophic failure, 15 Aug. 2012
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This review is from: The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue (Paperback)
I have just had a most depressing experience. I have read the views of Daniel Dennett in the exchange between him and Alister McGrath (The Future of Atheism: A Dialogue, pages 17-49) which forms the first part of the book The Future of Atheism.

(I must ask for the indulgence of the reader, if I limit myself now to reviewing, not yet the whole of the book, but only the first part, which defines the purpose of the book. I shall add comment on the other parts of the book, and possibly modify my rating, in due course.)

The opening contribution, by Dennett, is surely the most irrelevant, rambling, nonsensical set of foolish statements that I have ever read. And this is from a writer who has an international reputation as a philosopher. The opening film clip which he refers to sets the tone for the rubbish which follows. Absolutely nothing that Dennett says does anything to establish a case for atheism, or to describe or seriously discuss the case for or against religion. Visitors from Mars are just another example of the trivialities which pour from Dennett's mouth. Again, "Here's a riddle: How are spoken words and folk songs like squirrels, rats, pigeons, and barn swallows? The answer is: these species are not domesticated species, but they have evolved to fit the human environment ... They've evolved to co-exist with us. ... Some of our ideas are like that too ... similarly the wild memes of religion were fortunate to get themselves domesticated because they acquired stewards ... Religions are brilliantly designed" (p. 25). And (p. 21) "We can reverse-engineer religion the same way we can reverse-engineer cows and television sets and just about any complex thing you see".

All of the above are simply ludicrous comments which should be laughed out of court.

But even worse is that Dennett goes on to base his (totally foundationless and unproven) nonsense explicitly on the idea of the Dawkins-invented MEMES. I cannot understand how any intelligent person can give one second's adherence to the total nonsense of the idea of MEMES. Dennett says on page 24: "It's ideas ... that hijack our brains - replicating ideas. Ideas that we rehearse and think about, and decide that we like, pass them on to somebody else, who pass them on to somebody else. These themes are what Richard Dawkins call MEMES. Dawkins, who wrote `The Selfish Gene' in 1976, introduced the idea that cultural items had an evolutionary history too. ... it [a meme] has got a shape that permits it, when it gets in the right place [we are not told where or what that right place is] to provoke its own reproduction by the replicating machinery of a cell. And Dawkins's brilliant idea was that ideas can do that too ... Independent of whether they are good for us, whether they are true, whether they are false, they [MEMES, I think Dennett is talking about] are fit in the biological sense because they have lots of offspring that have lots of offspring that have lots of offspring". I protest against this corruption of language and logic and science. All that Dennett says here, and Dawkins before him, is complete bunkum, piffle, rubbish etc. ad infinitum

Dennett goes on to repeat this nonsense in his second contribution, after Alister McGrath made his first contribution. I really cannot believe that Dennett can be serious, or, even harder to believe, that he is or why he is taken seriously by the academic community. On pages 36 and 37 Dennett goes on and on making unbelievably foolish statements about memes. I can't quote them all. But, for example, "WORDS ARE MEMES (italics in text). Words are memes that can be pronounced. They're passed on by copying, they spread; they have histories; and they've evolved ... Words are memes. If you're baffled about whether memes exist, just ask yourself if words exist. If you think words exist, then the case for memes is pretty clear". This is ludicrous, shameful, a carbuncle on human intelligence. Gentle reader, following this rambling from Dennett, have you gained any idea of what or where a MEME is? Is it purely immaterial? Is it a collection of atoms? In what shape or form does it exist in the `mind' before it `replicates'? How does it `replicate? Is anything whatsoever explained about the MEME?

For Dennett and Dawkins, atheism, religion, belief in God, morality, culture, anything that material atoms can't explain, is a MEME. The religious believer is often accused of inventing a GOD OF THE GAPS to explain any reality in science which seems to the believer to be beyond cosmology or biology to explain. Without going into the details of this very interesting question, what is abundantly clear is that Dawkins and Dennett invent a MEME OF THE GAPS for whatever their crass materialism cannot explain.

I also want to add a point about which I feel very strongly. In the present Dennett/McGrath debate, the word `religion' occurs very frequently. In spite of the difficulty of giving a comprehensive and universally-accepted definition of religion, in this debate, and quite generally, this difficulty leads to the abandonment of any attempt at all to provide some idea of this key human belief and activity. I think that that is a crippling mistake. I develop this point in my review of the book `An Introduction to the Philosophy of religion', by Brian Davies, to which I respectfully refer the reader. I quote a passage from my review. In answer to my own question as to whether we should hesitate to say anything detailed about what a religion is, I say: "No, and no [to such hesitation]. St Thomas Aquinas identified Aristotle simply as `The Philosopher', so we know what a philosopher is: Aristotle, or someone who shares something of the qualities of Aristotle (thus for example Aquinas himself). In exactly the same way, we know what religion is: we have an outstanding example in the Christian religion founded by Jesus Christ (and for me it is in fact Roman Catholic Christianity), and secondarily, other movements that share more or less fully in the qualities manifested in the Christian religion and its founder. In other words, we have a perfect paradigm of what religion is: its sources, its personalities, its beliefs, its historical context". I go on to say that even Davies, regrettably, "never even begins to introduce this point". I fault McGrath, therefore, equally with Dennett on this point, that there is no SERIOUS discussion of `religion' in their debate.

Let me close for now by saying that although I approve in general of Alister McGrath's contribution, and his politely expressed disbelief in MEMES, I must fault him for being so tolerant of Dennett, and for saying so often that of course what Dennett has to say is interesting, serious, and worth considering. I say: Nonsense. (Later: perhaps I should modify this, and say that though of course Dennett refers to the main issues,his proposed solutions are always nonsensical.) It is high time for sensible people to call the rubbish of the `New Atheists' by its right name, which is, rubbish. It is one thing to concede to the New Atheists the right to believe what they want; but they should never be allowed to talk their nonsense without sensible people being allowed to exercise their right in turn to clearly tell the New Atheists that their New Atheism is, intellectually, rubbish.

If the debate was put to a vote, did anyone at all support Dennett's abject and pathetic case?
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Initial post: 16 Aug 2012 23:50:34 BDT
Last edited by the author on 19 Aug 2012 17:02:56 BDT
trini says:
Further to my review of 15th August 2012:

Addendum
As I've read on in the book The Future of Atheism, the awfulness of Dennett's case emerges ever more clearly. Replying to McGrath who had asked `What is the essence of religion?, Dennett says (page 35): "What Darwin showed is that essentialism is a mistake. Don't ever ask for the essence of something, because essence is something that's just pre-Darwinian thinking". This is appalling. First of all, though on this issue I am as one less wise, I very much doubt that Darwin showed any such thing. However that may be, it is clear that DENNETT thinks that `essentialism is a mistake'. I take that to mean that there is no such thing as a defining `nature', that there is no such thing as human nature. This is the core error of `modern philosophy' and the New Atheism, as Edward Feser identifies it and tears it to pieces in his book `The Last Superstition - A Refutation of the New Atheism', and as Robert Spitzer equally does, in `New Proofs for the Existence of God'. The rejection of Aristotle's and Aquinas's `four causes' is identified by Feser as the most calamitous error in the whole of Western thought (page 225).

Let me produce an immediate proof of the absurdity and harmfulness of this denial of `essence'. On page 56 in this very same book `The Future of Atheism', Keith M Parsons, whose essay is entirely a hostile review of McGrath's book `The Twilight of Atheism', quotes a 1986 essay by Roger Scruton which claims that the new atheists "have been most influential in creating a new image of man as an accident of nature, to whom nothing is either forbidden or permitted by any power beyond himself. God [on this view?] is an illusion; so too is the divine spark in man". Parsons approves of this view which Scruton rejects, saying approvingly (and I equate here the `divine spark' to the `essence' which Dennett also rejects ): "But respect for other persons does not arise from detection of some `divine spark', whatever that might be, but from the experience of shared humanity".

I disagree totally with this opinion of Parsons. It reduces human life and human society to WHATEVER THE LEGISLATURE IN ANY COUNTRY AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT considers to be `shared humanity'. I quote against Parsons that since Roe versus Wade in 1973 in the USA the number of legal killings of unborn human beings in whom the medical profession does not recognize a `divine spark' or a `shared humanity' or an `essence' is now approaching 55 million. In the United Kingdom there are about two hundred thousand abortion killings every year. And every abortion involves the complicity of the mother and usually other relatives, plus doctors and nursing staff. So we are talking about tens of millions of involved people. The very mother of the unborn infant, and the caring professions, now think nothing of killing unborn human beings. Yet up to thirty or forty years ago every country in the world, and the medical profession overwhelmingly, would have consdered abortion to be murder. And same-sex 'marriage'? And euthanasia?

Here is an absolutely up-to-date contribution to this 'divine spark/essence' debate, which I picked up from an internet news source.

Immediately following the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's Vice-Presidential running-mate in mid-August 2012, Ryan's (Roman Catholic) bishop, the news item states, issued a statement. """His Excellency Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, has published a letter to clarify once again that ALL Catholics are bound to defend and uphold the dignity of every human life, marriage between one man and one woman, and the right to religious liberty -- because these issues involve intrinsic evils that can never be justified.

"But he also explains (this is important!) that on issues such as how to best care for the poor, create jobs, or how to best reduce the deficit, people of good will can disagree! Specific policy solutions in these areas involve prudence, where good people that share a common goal may disagree on how to best achieve those goals."""

Wise words.
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