My point in posting notes on Dennett was just to post notes on Dennett, not to start a whole thing, but the discussion there got so critical so quickly that I felt the need to defend at length why I think he’s worth reading (to me, at least).
Our friend Burl has posted a video of Dennett speaking in response that I thought was worth its own post:
Watch on youtube.
I think this is a great example of Dennett being jerky, though I think in a pleasant enough way, essentially formalizing name-calling in a way that has no hope of catching on (i.e. that atheists are “brights”). I think his amusement and fascination with how names are used is laudable enough, but I think in particular his attack here on “murkies,” is misguided. He singles out Thomas Nagel as a “murkie,” as one who likes mystery.
I think Nagel (and Colin McGinn is an even clearer example of this) states very cogent reasons about the limits of knowledge, i.e. the very Kantian reasons Wes so often tells us about. Dennett’s characterization of them as not being clear about why we have to keep things murky, and even the characterization about keeping things murky, is just plain wrong.
However, I find equally infuriating the charge of “scientism” against projects like what Dennett is doing in “Breaking the Spell,” because:
1. I don’t think engaging in scientific modeling necessitates an ontological claim that what you’re explaining is being reduced to the model (e.g. that the mind itself isn’t real or that people don’t have free will in some phenomenologically real sense because we’re looking at the psychological/cultural/evolutionary causes of their behavior).
2. In most cases, there’s no harm in the scientist going ahead and trying to do whatever he’s after and just see what that gets. It’s almost always premature to say, on Kantian grounds, “that kind of research will give us no headway in discovering anything interesting.”*
3. I don’t think science’s pretensions are scary enough at this point in history (given its many failures since the Enlightenment) that humanities fans need be all defensive about their territory being encroached. Doing a music theory analysis doesn’t diminish the joy of listening to music or remove the value of other types of explanations about the music (e.g. what the composer was trying to express, or more metaphorically what the music brings out in your soul).
In conclusion, I think these counter-charges of “murkie!” and “scientism!” are as clueless as the traditional analytic/continental fights in philosophy departments: they’re both a matter of one side being uncharitable and not listening to the other.
*Re. point 2, an important and relevant exception is Hubert Dreyfus’s Heideggerian critique of the attempt at M.I.T. to get a computer program to imitate human behavior by creating a database of its “beliefs,” i.e. rules for how to respond when asked a certain question. Dreyfus held that this is a faulty model of how we react, namely because a set of rules doesn’t tell you how to use the rules; you need meta-rules, and meta-rules for the meta-rules. So Dreyfus correctly predicted that the project would fail. This, however, I don’t see as an objection on mysterion grounds, but rather an actual scientific insight by Heidegger in a way that divisions between the scientific and metaphysical/religious realms are not.