Disagree to Agree: Philip Clayton and Daniel Dennett

On February 16th, 2010, before a standing-room-only crowd on the campus of Claremont Graduate University, Philip Clayton and Daniel Dennett debated issues in philosophy, religion, and science. The event was momentous for its awkward proceedings.

Clayton is a well known theist and Dennett an atheist, but the two thinkers did not merely decry each other’s positions for an hour. Rather, Clayton proposed that moderate theists such as him betray popular opinions about the war between religion and science because they agree with many of Dennett’s scientific, philosophical, and religious critiques. Given these agreements, atheists and moderate theists should be able to engage in rational philosophical discussion about their positions instead of angry polemics. Dennett agreed that such a result would be interesting.

The first half of the debate dealt with what counts as an acceptable explanation for natural phenomena like human intentions. Do we make free choices as it seems or do physical processes determine all we do? Both men espoused a position Clayton referred to as “broad naturalism.” This is the belief that many natural explanations, including those from human sciences, can be given for the different areas of inquiry in the world. So the creation of human cells is explained by chemistry and biology, but human agency is best explained in terms of genuinely free choices. Mutual assent to this position created the debate’s first odd moment because Clayton continually insisted Dennett affirms the “hegemony of the physical” in his explanations. This would mean Dennett is not a realist concerning the example of mental causation. Free choices only seem free. They are actually fully determined by physical processes scientists can investigate. However, Dennett and Clayton both claimed that human agency is a real phenomenon. Had Clayton misread or even not read Dennett’s work? Not likely.

The direction of Clayton’s explanations is upward toward more complex levels of reality while Dennett’s explanations always face toward their physical base. For Dennett, complex levels of reality are always dependent on proper physical functioning. For example, Dennett pointed out that when certain areas in the front of the brain are damaged humans do not make rational choices but behave more like broken machines. He thinks explaining how someone chose to perform an action is a nice ideal, but only makes sense if physical processes are properly functioning. Clayton, on the other hand, emphasizes the independence of complex levels of reality from agency all the way to religion. Once either appears in the world there is no way to reduce it to scientific explanations in terms of physical processes alone. Clayton is well-known for his defense of “emergence” theory, of which this talk of agency is an example. Freedom did not appear from nowhere. Certain biological combinations in the brain made it possible. However, once freedom emerged from that biological basis it became irreducible to its physical basis. The whole really is greater than the parts.
It is odd that Dennett would not discuss a possible misunderstanding of his work concerning the possible reduction of all phenomena to physical processes. But the fact that theologians like Clayton engage science indicates bringing theology into agreement, or at least away from conflict, with scientific knowledge is desirable. So it is more peculiar that Clayton emphasized points of difference when Dennett was willing to publically agree over the issue of freedom even if deeper differences may have been lurking. Differences can certainly lead to an illuminating discussion, but it is shocking that a popular atheist verbally agreed with a theist and the theist was the one insisting on language of disagreement. As a result, the important aspect of this debate could come from Dennett’s perspective. He had a calm discussion with a religious person whom he did not have to denounce after every sentence uttered.

Setting aside the possible disagreement over whether all phenomena can be reduced to science, the second half of the debate focused on religion and revealed that two different directions of explanation were present in the discussion. Clayton’s upward looking view leads him to at least attempt and give reasons for religious belief while Dennett’s constant consideration of physical bases stops his inquiry earlier than that. Those different directions of explanation then result in very different worldviews.

Philip Clayton accepts three dimensions to the religious quest that exist on a continuum: searching for altruistic community, philosophically questioning truth claims, and overall worldview. So religions foster a sense of community and cooperation and those communities should do their best to deliberate over whether their beliefs are true. But religious explanations are most interesting when those communal attachments and philosophical questions can be linked to an overall worldview and thus taken as religious accounts of reality. Since these dimensions are part of one epistemic continuum from natural science to philosophical questions and eventually religion, Dennett should at least consider whether Clayton has good reasons for religious belief and debate the matter. Clayton will not even accept dogmatic religious claims to know the nature of God because they betray his dimension of philosophically questioning truth claims and prevent rational discussion with non-believers. Dennett actually accepts such open-ended inquiry. He referred to philosophy as that done until it is known what the right questions are. In other words, exploring even when answers are not known is a good thing. He just sees no relation between this quest and theology.

The lack of connection with theology seems due to Dennett stopping at the level of altruistic communities in Clayton’s continuum. Dennett only disapproves of fundamentalist dogmatism leading to violence in the name of God. This makes him different than Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who refuse to acknowledge liberal Christians as Christians (or that other non-theistic religions even matter) amidst their attacks on fundamentalists. Dennett, on the other hand, calls liberal Christians “benign” compared to their dangerous, in his view, conservative counterparts. Like a benign tumor their existence is unnatural but not harmful. Religion is a fine phenomenon if it fosters a cooperative moral society.
Believers may not enjoy being an unnecessary social function that just happens not to interfere with society. Still, it is remarkable that Dennett was open to discussing something besides fundamentalist religious groups. He explained that his own work has not addressed liberal Christians because they do not curtail the dangerous elements within their religion. They are like a nice restaurant covering up mafia activities. If Dennett praised the benign Christians instead of debating the fundamentalists, people would get hurt. Clayton clearly state this view is empirically false. He and other moderate theists join Dennett in criticizing extremist forms of theism and are proactive in fostering more moderate claims. For example, the science of evolution is being taught in many churches together with forms of theism that are compatible with it. Dennett’s expression of pleasant surprise over these facts is quite an achievement, given that he and other popular atheists have mostly engaged extremist and politically conservative forms of Christianity, largely ignoring the beliefs and practices of more moderate religious communities. Perhaps the stage has been set for further dialogue in the future.

Still, beyond admitting that altruistic communities are a good thing, Dennett questioned whether he and Clayton have real material to discuss. If the ultimate goal of Clayton’s quest remains a mystery beyond the reach of science and reason, Dennett believes their discussion becomes “intellectual tennis without a net.” Without a standard for measuring different positions, it seems unnecessary to spend great time and energy pursuing the hard questions of religious worldviews. What difference does God make?

In the end, this passing of two intellectual ships may be its own profound conclusion. Clayton interprets grappling with questions of ultimate importance and following where they lead as the heart of religious life. Secularists, Dennett says, also inquire into an ultimate reality … the universe and laws of nature … while living full moral lives and pursuing interesting questions about the universe. So Dennett does not need God. And since Clayton will not play the “faith card” to claim absolute truth and end the debate, Dennett interprets Clayton as a secular humanist who is trying to learn the most about reality and live as morally as possible. Is the internal logic of Clayton’s religious position and Dennett’s secularism really the same in the end? The theist views the atheist as pursuing a quest that is deeply religious, while the theist comes off as secular to the atheist. How odd.  But if Dennett is not right that secular humanists capture all that is meaningful in Clayton’s position, Paul Tillich might provide a useful mediating approach.

Tillich famously stated that every human has an ultimate concern … be it money, the entire natural universe, or God. Is that the real moral of this story? The religious person might be concerned with the ultimate ground of existence and try to understand it, while the secular person is content to view the universe otherwise. Still, agreeing to disagree may not be the final word. Given different ultimate concerns, Clayton would be right to insist on rational discussion regarding his movement through levels of questioning toward a religious worldview. Dennett would still be free to reject that view, but only after considering Clayton’s steps to get there. If Dennett still sees no reason to engage in metaphysical pondering where Clayton cannot help but try, a clear difference has emerged. Indeed, such grasping at the ungraspable may be the beauty and irony of the religiously committed person.

* Thanks to my friend and brilliant friend Ben Chicka for writing this up!

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16 comments
Benjamin Chicka
Benjamin Chicka

John, your summary of me is great. It sounds a lot like my dissertation proposal which I turned in yesterday. Impressive, given that we have not met.

John Sobert Sylvest
John Sobert Sylvest

BTW, and that's also why I characterize Dennett's confessional stance as a(n) (a)theology of nature, also ;) Someone is saying more than one can possibly know, proving too much, taking a leap but not looking over one's shoulder at the leap and considering its distance and nature.

John Sobert Sylvest
John Sobert Sylvest

Ben, I better understand our convergence, now. I am an autodidact w/no academic background in philosophy, religion or theology, plus I lead an almost eremitic life, and this might make my prose a tad dense and my wordings somewhat idiosyncratic. Below is my defense of what I think you are saying using Peircean categories as I understand them. I think this sets forth how our views resonate. I do not want to presume upon your time. Also, I do not want to suck the oxygen out of this thread with an off-topic consideration so I am inviting Tripp to delete it and send it to you by e-mail for your disposal at your convenience. Whatever protocol dictates. I do not have the luxury of classroom exchanges, seminar discussions and grad dept coffee klatches, so I don't want to presume upon your generosity, which might be easy for me to do. In my approach to Peirce, I distinguish between 1ns and 3ns in terms of the in/determinate and un/specifiable, respectively. The indeterminacy is epistemic in nature and results from methodological constraints. Any unspecifiability is ontological, or modal, in nature and results from a putative in-principle ontological occulting. One way these would differ is that any ignorance due to unspecifiability would be invincible, while that due to indeterminacy is potentially temporary and could be conquered with future methodological improvements (e.g. technological) or epistemic insights (e.g. aha moments, abductions, paradigm shifts). Our semantical vagueness thus treats the modal possibilities of 1ns such that excluded middle holds while noncontradiction folds (in epistemic indeterminacy) and the modal probabilities of 3ns such that excluded middle folds while noncontradiction holds (in ontological vagueness). Which modal realities will later present as the actualities of 2ns, where EM & NC both hold, remains to be seen because we cannot a priori know when it is that our ignorance is invincible due to an in-principle ontological occulting and when it might otherwise be conquered due to our overcoming of methodological constraints. Of course, we adopt a methodological naturalism precisely because to otherwise presuppose that our ignorance results from an ontological occulting would be to drive into an epistemic cul-de-sac. A philosophical naturalism a priori presupposes that all ignorance results from what is temporarily indeterminable, epistemically speaking, and issues a metaphysical promissory note for future ontological specificity. I say all of this to provide me a framework for grappling with your directionality distinctions. Stipulating to the indexical nature of human knowledge, it would seem that any intentionality that moves from humans in the world reaching toward what is unknown, which we cannot a priori presuppose as either temporarily indeterminate or invincibly unspecifiable, would entail a fallibilist, speculative metaphysic, which necessarily employs both positivist and philosophic methodologies. And it would seem that any reversal of that claim in Dewey's notions of intending symbols mediating the world back to humans is also an integral part of the same triadic inferential process as 3ns play its mediating role in an ongoing recursive interplay with 1ns and 2ns. This would thus correspond to the Peircean rubric that the normative sciences (3ns) mediate between phenomenology (2ns or science) and metaphysics (1ns, incl speculative cosmology and highly theoretical physics). This is to say that it seems that Neville is talking about Peircean 1ns and you are talking about 3ns (vis a vis your reversal). And it is also to suggest that, while your insights are indispensable that they are supplemental and not wholly over against Neville's account, which would be incomplete per your description. You appear to be making an additional move, as I see it. I appreciate that the context of Neville's work hereinabove was theological, but my treatment above prescinded from that theological take to the strictly phenomenological, philosophical and metaphysical. In your treatment of 3ns, you are taking an essentially phenomenological category and coloring it with a theological hue, analogically imagining that the world is mediating to us not only our local environs but also expressions of primal reality (reality's initial, boundary & limit conditions). Thus you are making a distinctly theological turn and have segued from a natural theology to a theology of nature. The reason I thus characterize your thrust as a theology of nature is because our natural theology is confronted with what is very likely an immeasurable amount of information erasure due to entropic processes. The deeper we go into the structures of matter and the closer we get to t=0 near the Big Bang, the less information available re: our initial, boundary and limit conditions, much less ultimate reality. The world certainly mediates info to us re: our own horizons but any temporal critical realism looks like it will indeed be methodologically constrained if for no other reason than temporality, itself, collapses, a spatiotemporal reality on which we rely in our common sense notions of causation. The human experience of ultimacy remains fraught with mystery as reality appears terribly ambivalent toward us and incredibly ambiguous to us in the symbols it has intended for us. Thus, if with Blake we do see the world in a grain of sand, heaven in a wildflower, holding Infinity in the palm of our hand and Eternity in an hour, we are doing a theology of nature. And so it is that I call my own theology of nature a pan-semio-entheism. I make that theological turn with you and take that existential leap even while suggesting THAT Ultimacy is mediating Herself back to me through manifold and multiform symbols (physical signs at that) even if I cannot give a robust account of just HOW that may be so. On that front, I prefer to remain ontologically vague, if only to return the favor to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. This indeed supports a robustly pluralistic approach to the world's Great Traditions and indigenous religions.

Benjamin Chicka
Benjamin Chicka

John, that we come at the issue from different directions was really just a stab in the dark. After our back and forth on here and what I have read from your blog I do believe we mostly agree. I also know Amos, by the way. Obviously you know he studied with Neville. I did as well (wrote my Master's thesis on science and religion with Neville). Amos also moderated a panel I spoke on at last year's AAR in Montreal. Regarding Lonergan, at the end of the paper I linked you to I talk about the directionality of interpretations and that I am not making a Freudian point. There is no explicit point that is meant to reject, but it is implicitly a reaction to a certain way of taking Lonergan's work on theology and psychology. No other students are pragmatists, that I know of, here at Claremont. Philip Clayton uses Peirce heavily and has summarized the differences between him and I as two different ways of interpreting Peirce.

John Sobert Sylvest
John Sobert Sylvest

Well, as Radical Orthodoxy might say, Dennett does have a few rather confessional stances, himself. One way to bust the religious move is to avoid getting so apophatic that one imagines that what is wholly incomprehensible is not, at the same time, partly apprehendable or thinks that a failure to successfully describe a reality necessarily forecloses on one's ability to successfully refer to it. Each stance has risks and rewards. Perhaps one measure of the amount irony that will attend to any given stance is its risk:reward ratio vis a vis what Lonergan has described in terms of a growth in human authenticity through various conversions?

Jesse Turri
Jesse Turri

"Indeed, such grasping at the ungraspable may be the beauty and irony of the religiously committed person." Love it.

John Sobert Sylvest
John Sobert Sylvest

Ben, that was a delightful read. It is something I will keep in my pdf library. As for us getting there from opposite directions, your suspicion may be suspect because my philosophical project is called a Peircean-Nevillean Integral Axiological Epistemology [PNIAE] and my theology of nature is called Pan-semio-entheism. If I grasped the import of your own thrust correctly, we may be hermeneutical blood-brothers. I am mighty pleased to thus make your cyber-acquaintence. I am precisely interested in the application of my PNIAE in the interreligious realm, employing a concept that Amos Yong (my collaborator) calls the pneumatological imagination. Our collaboration remains a work-in-progress. If you scroll down to the bottom of this page , where it reads NOTES, there you will find some summary materials. BTW, I reject the transcendental thomism of Rahner b/c its kantian notions are too a prioristic and rationalistic. I do look to Lonergan but similarly qualify his stuff. Stay in touch! Are there others of you at Claremont with pragmatist leanings? Jo Ann, I am about at the same place Phil Clayton is with all of this. I just finished archiving all of the stuff I've been scribbling over the past 10 years post-retirement and have basically given up new investigations of this nature. They have reached a point of diminishing returns for me. You know: So much straw. They reached that point for others much earlier, I know. I suppose I get on discussion forums like this one at National Public Radio only to avoid going cold turkey with my pomotheo process addiction. Still, at times, we must engage others like Dennett and Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens on their own terms and with their jargon in order to better subvert their systems from within. At other times, such jargon represents a lapse because it is not audience-appropriate and thus offends charity by excluding people. Then again, on the other hand, it can be a shortcut and will take less time and less space than a more accessible version in an exchange such as the one above. My time and this space is limited but I will gladly address any specific questions as I can, when I can.

Benjamin Chicka
Benjamin Chicka

John, 1. I am in pleasant agreement with paragraph one, though I suspect we get there from opposite directions. 2. I hope the "analogical imagination" reference in paragraph two refers to David Tracy who has been unfortunately neglected after his retirement. It could also be about Aquinas, though. 3. You might be interested in this given that Bracken and others engage the issue of pluralism through science: http://www.springerlink.com/content/n34m83jxh3j1um43/ or https://commerce.metapress.com/content/n34m83jxh3j1um43/resource-secured/?target=fulltext.pdf&sid=ochrv455ukdxa4454k3klhmd&sh=www.springerlink.com

Jo Ann W. Goodson
Jo Ann W. Goodson

John, for me to understand what you just wrote I would need to do a ton of research and look some words up in the dictionary. I have no clue as to what you just wrote. That is not your fault I just do not have the education or back ground to tackle the meaning of all you wrote.

John Sobert Sylvest
John Sobert Sylvest

Ben, another distinction: I tend to lump metaphysics into the same category as natural theology and natural philosophy, where it is useful in framing up our ultimate concerns, disambiguating our concepts, clarifying reality's putative initial, boundary & limit conditions, maybe even formulating our arguments thru abductive inference but going no further, chastized by past overreaches, attempts to prove too much or to say more than we can possibly know. With a contrite fallibilism, we explore the nature of our questions and the form of our meta-talk. This critique is not the radical apophaticism that's exhibited by some of those with overly dialectical imaginations; rather, it affirms metaphysical realism but suggests that our deontologies should then be considered as tentative as our ontologies are speculative. IOW, we might severely question how much normative impetus our metaphysics can claim as we move from what we think IS to what we think OUGHT to be. What I whole-heartedly affirm is the robust engagement of our analogical imaginations, employing analogies and metaphors in what is a essentially poetic rhetoric that has its starting place within the faith and is thus a Theology of Nature. This is how I receive most of the work of Clayton, Bracken, Haught et al. These are elaborate tautologies filled with nature references and even technical scientific jargon that are nevertheless on par with the psalms, St. Francis' Hymns to nature and such but brought up to date for our postmodern milieu. They have a tremendous amount of interpretive and evaluative significance and the more consonant with what we already know from descriptive science and normative philosophy, the more taut will be the tautology, which means that, while all metaphors eventually collapse, our metaphors can be rather resilient and versatile. IOW, such theologies of nature find their usefulness among those who have already taken the leap of faith, not unaided by reason and not inconsistent with science, but not so much as argumentation for faith, like the classical proofs which were metaphysical. Such a theology of nature-enlivened imagination can, indeed, recursively help further illuminate our understanding of life, in general, as we believe in order to know. Anyway, that's my parsing. As for competing metaphysical tautologies, the way I would adjudicate between those is by asking which one might best foster the normalization of gravity and quantum mechanics. Otherwise, they aren't terribly interesting are helpful. We know that religion as a value-realization approach enjoys epistemic virtue, just like science. But we can't deny that they otherwise differ in the amount of epistemic risk; we can only suggest that the increased risks has commensurate rewards.

Benjamin Chicka
Benjamin Chicka

John, yes. Fallibility in metaphysics is at the heart of Clayton's approach as well as my own (though my approach differs from Clayton's in significant ways). The alternative method is to set up an entire system to be rejected the moment knowledge about the world impinges on the claims of the system. That is why, in my opinion, so many people are engaging in desperate attempts to save beloved religious claims by rejecting scientific claims.

John Sobert Sylvest
John Sobert Sylvest

Ben, this is an excellent recap and faithful to the way I experienced that particular Mardi Gras afternoon (the ONLY person in New Orleans virtually at Claremont and not actually on Bourbon Street; forgive me, Lord.). I would say that we all need philosophical norms to provide a meta-metaphysical perspective but that essential Christian dogma are not inescapably loaded with any particular scientific, philosophical or metaphysical presuppositions, including such as a soul, metaphysical self or even a wholly autonomous free will. There is a probabilistic middle ground, for example, between absolutely free choices and seemingly free choices that can be established even within a so-called hegemony of the physical. I have imported some of my own reflections on the Clayton-Dennett debate into another discussion we've been having at National Public Radio about related matters re: philosophy of mind, where I offer an expanded critique of Dennett that keeps his baby but cleans up his bathwater. Should one go metaphysical, that's fine as long as it is fallibilist.

Benjamin Chicka
Benjamin Chicka

Wesley, it may not be necessary for all religious people to have metaphysics. The last 20 years of theology has plenty of deconstructionist and post-modern offerings in that regard. However, Clayton has offered up an example of metaphysics in the form of humble questioning (remember he will not play the "faith card" to end the questioning process) that does not necessarily offend naturalism. That is, Clayton knows his metaphysical approach can be proven wrong and welcomes a conversation about the matter. Furthermore, the questioning is built from all that is known about the world. It is not a settled ontological picture preceding experience in the world. So, to return to my first sentence, maybe Clayton's metaphysics are necessary after all. That is, Dennett gave examples of how science is explaining more and more about the physical world and culture as well. Such approaches will likely progress in the future, meaning that a religious realist who does not want to understand her religion as only a sociological phenomenon might just need some metaphysics.

Wesley Menke
Wesley Menke

Great summary Ben. I watched the debate, and for someone who is not privy to these kinds of debates you helped clarify and interpret all of the jockeying for position that was going on. Thank you! I do have one question. At the end of your article you said that Clayton cannot help but try to establish a metaphysical understanding, while Dennett rejects this effort. Do you think that all religious persons do have to appeal to some sort of a metaphysics? Is this an essential task for the religious person who wants to think and talk rationally about their faith?

Brother Fuller
Brother Fuller

I like your summary/questions at the end of the post. It seems that Clayton and Dennet can accept that each others' position makes sense for the other,while not being threatened by them. Therefore it is unnecessary that either one make a significant change in his own position. The way they seem to mis- or re-identify the other is ironic. In response: Yes, Christians with an open view of creation can also maintain a scientifically valid world picture...But they cannot be open to such things and hold onto the "faith card" that trumps atheist arguments at the same time. Therefore, they can have conversations with no end....As Clayton has pointed out before, any amount of progress requires a lot of waste, any amount of biological evolution requires a lot of death, and any conversation between persons with different positions from the beginning will require a lot of "I see your point, but no." So, without the "faith card,"when unable to find a "rational" way to invalidate alternative perspectives, Christians must rely on the power of their perspective, the attractiveness of their alternative...or...more to the point, they rely on an encounter with Christ that will effect change in the their self and the other. When the other does not see the world from your perspective, creating an impasse, your next hope is that someone will come along and change the perspective from which s/he sees the world. For Christians, that other is Christ.

Jo Ann W. Goodson
Jo Ann W. Goodson

Wow, would have loved to have been there. Even though my knowledge is very limited concerning the work of Dennett, I find this article thought provoking. Both sides present good arguments. I believe that people who use the bible as the source of beginning for the learning about God and then experience as well as things written throughout history and today, should include many of the sciences to see the complete picture of creation. For me they should all come together in some manner. What psychology teaches truly adds a demention for me to more completely understand God and the teachings of Jesus, for example. The artcle seems to present what happened as each being very respectful to the other. I think this is the way we should present our differences and try and see what the "other" is bringing to the table. For me it is a much better platform than heated debate, where often the opponents are trying to prove the "other" wrong. They seem to have done well without a "judge" setting forth rules of contact. Mutual respect for the "other" is part of being a Christian.

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