Dennetian Theology

Daniel Dennett has argued for a position  half-way between realism and irrealism on intentionality.  When we say “Bob believes bread is nourishing” our ascription of belief to Bob is a consequence of adopting the intentional stance.  This statement “Bob believes bread is nourishing”  is a short hand for broader functional descriptions of Bob as a physical system — for example when Bob is hungry and in need of nourishment and he sees bread and there are no tigers about, Bob will eat it.  The intentional stance description “Bob believes bread is nourishing” is not the most fundamental description of Bob — that would be the description that predicts his behavior.    Relative to the intentional stance it’s not untrue though — Bob does believe bread is nourishing.

Dennett is an atheist after the fashion of David Hume — he thinks belief in God and gods is a monstrous illusion, a hold-over from our brain’s over-active pattern recognition system.  But the theist could take the same position regarding God as Dennett does regarding intentionality.  Seventeen billion years ago and change the universe came into being.  Why?  For the theist the reason is that God willed a universe to exist because God believed it was good.   Just as the psychologist using the intentional stance explains Bob’s pursuit of a piece of bread with the statement “Bob believes bread is nourishing” so the theologian using his stance explains the Big Bang with the statement “God thought the universe was good and willed it into being.”

Does God actually have a will?  For theists like Thomas Aquinas and Maimonides the answer is the same as Dennett’s to the question “Does Bob actually believe bread is nourishing.”  Yes and no.  If we apply human predicates to God then yes, but from a more fundamental point of view, no.   Relative to our human stance it’s not untrue though that the existence of the world is to be explained by an act of divine will.

What do we want to do about things that exist or don’t depending upon what sort of stance we take?  Obviously, decide what stance to take.   Once we know what stance to take we will know what exists.  How should we decide what stance to take?  That depends upon a lot of things, what stance we feel forced to take, what sort of people we are or want to be,  what stances have worked for us, what stances other people we love and respect take, and last but not least, what stance the things we encounter draws out of us.

Does that mean what things exist depend upon what stance we take and what stance we take depends upon what things exist?  Yes.  Both depend upon who we are and what we are after too.  Also who we are, and what we are after depend upon the things and people we encounter and how we encounter them.

Does who I am really depend upon what stance I take?  Of course.  If the stance I take is defensive, I am a defensive person. If the stance I take is open and welcoming, I am an open and welcoming person.  If the stance I take is confused, puzzled, and ambivalent, I am a confused, puzzled and ambivalent person.  Thank God we are able to change stance, subtly adjusting how we hold ourselves every moment of the waking day.



6 thoughts on “Dennetian Theology

  1. I don’t get your point? So I’ll ramble. These philosophical investigations always remind me of something like someone trying to understand a computer by looking at the icons on the monitor. As if those icons actually, truly represent what is going on inside the computer. Cam you imagine a whole scholastic discipline in regards to how a computer works, from reading UI icons as being true representations of the computers inner contents?

    • If you want to understand a computer you do need to look at the icons on the monitor.
      Take a simple case. Right now if you are reading this you are looking at a computer monitor.
      And you are seeing this
      That’s an icon which means a smiley face. You could take the computer apart and see how exactly the computer is able to read off the ASCII codes for those two characters and send the signal to the monitor to project exactly that pattern of light.
      But you would not understand why the computer was built or why the human being (in this case me) typed those characters, or why they mean happy (that they look sort of like a smiling human face).
      From one perspective the mechanism of the computer is fundamental and the icons are secondary.
      But from another perspective the whole reason the computer was built was so human beings could use it, and the icons are part of that story, so they are not secondary at all.

      • What’s the term you’ve used? A ‘dodge’?

        If you touch a computer then I don’t know why you touched it, therefore I don’t know a computer even if I pull it apart and know the mechanics in detail? Please!

        If you’re inclined to dualism, I at least understand the model you’re coming from. You think the brain is something you are using, and so is analogous to you using a computer.

        But an alternative to consider is: a computer that is using a computer – where the first computer is unable to detect what it is (it can’t detect itself AND think at the same time). And so the first computer, unable to detect itself, thinks itself something different from the second computer that it uses. Dualism.

        And this computer using a computer just keeps reading icons as being its true self – and builds a whole scholastic tradition out of it.

        I mean, you might dismiss all that, but just imagine the story potential of a computer that lies to itself, for an incapacity to gather the information it needs to tell itself the truth. How could a computer ever get so wayward? So drunken in its processing? It’s a fascinating idea, at the very least.

        The strange thing is, I think people would want to resist the story of a computer/AI ever being able to loose track of itself and start inventing absolute falsifications about itself as a result. I wonder why?

  2. Kburt says:

    Yes, just like looking at icons on a computer and it is amazing because people dedicate their lives to understanding those icons. In fact generations of people are inspired and they debate and they argue about those icons, what they are, why they are there, and why do they look the way they are. People think carefully about these things and they don’t just start a scholastic discipline they start many. And they change how people think about themselves. It leads to revolutions and discoveries that the first folks could never imagine. And that is just the beginning because then people start to rethink everything about everything and wonder what it means to see and experience an icon or hell maybe we are all just icons. Sometimes it seems like the discussions and the debate will go on and yet we seem to understand more about how we should live and act and interact, in fact our governments and laws are shaped by the ideas that these thinkers thought. Some people start taking apart the computers to figure it out. When they open the computers up they get excited because they think that maybe they have found it but really they are just staring at a bunch of computer parts and those damn icons are still there and the parts didn’t really explain anything. So this goes on for thousands of years and this guy named Eric thinks a lot about these things and also happens to be funny and has this really thoughtful response to a popular thinker then this other guy says “I don’t get it” I think this is a waste of time.

    • People think carefully about these things and they don’t just start a scholastic discipline they start many.

      Aye, because they can’t agree on anything there is no consensus. Everyone keeps making up theories but thinks they are onto the one true truth and it’s just everyone else making up theories. Of course they splinter into many schools of ‘I’ve got it right, if only those other guys would realise’. That lack of consensus isn’t a badge of honor.

      Doesn’t that seem a waste of time? Or have you gotten it right and if only those other guys would realise that?

      Meanwhile cognitive science looms. But it’s okay, because science has never made any practical objects…well, it could never make any practical manipulation of the human mind and all the millions money corporations and governments are putting into cog science research is really just a waste. It couldn’t be anything else, o/c.

      It’s sad when ‘I don’t get it’ doesn’t seem an act of humility, but a target for humiliation.

  3. I think the argument is this. You are saying that human beings experience a superficial level of reality — the icons of the computer. This superficial level of reality is a lie or an illusion or an error. Science shows up the Darwinian story that explains why we see things the way they do. That’s like opening up the computer. People looking at life in human terms — philosophers, religious people, literary people — are wasting their time. They are like people arguing about the superficial appearance of icons on a computer screen. They are ignoring the true explanation which you get by doing science. Doing science is like ignoring the screen and looking at the CPU. It lets you know what is really going on.

    My counter example is the 🙂 emoji. Why does it have two dots instead of three dots? There is a reason — it has two dots not three because those look like human eyes.

    There are two explanations of why the 🙂 looks like it does.

    1)computer explanation. This corresponds to physics. It looks like it does b/c of the computer architecture.

    2)Human explanation. It looks like it does because the dots look like eyes.

    Both are true, in my view. It’s not an illusion or a story we tell ourselves or a lie that the 🙂 has two dots rather than three because humans have two eyes. It’s true. It’s also true that it looks the way it does b/c of the computer’s architecture.

    Does that make me a dualist? I don’t think so!

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