Saturday, February 25, 2006

hell freezes over

Impossible! Dr. Vallicella and I find ourselves in agreement about something (actually, we're in agreement about a few somethings, but we're fundamentally opposed when it comes to other somethings)!

In a recent post titled "Dennett on the Deformation of the God Concept," Dr. V wrote:

One of the striking features of Dennett's Breaking the Spell is that he seems bent on having a straw man to attack. This is illustrated by his talk of the "deformation" of the concept of God: "I can think of no other concept that has undergone so dramatic a deformation." (206) He speaks of "the migration of the concept of God in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) away from concrete anthropomorphism to ever more abstract and depersonalized concepts." (205)


What Dennett is implying is that the orginal monotheistic conception of God had a definite content, but that this conception was deformed and rendered abstract to the point of being emptied of all content. Dennett is of course assuming that the only way the concept of God could have content is for it to have a materialistic, anthropomorphic content. Thus it is not possible on Dennett's scheme to interpret the anthropomorphic language of the Old Testament in a figurative way as pointing to a purely spiritual reality which, as purely spiritual, is neither physical nor human.

Dennett seems in effect to be confronting the theist with a dilemma. Either your God is nothing but an anthropomorphic projection or it is is so devoid of recognizable attributes as to be meaningless. Either way, your God does not exist. Surely there is no Big Guy in the Sky, and if your God is just some Higher Power, some unknowable X, about which nothing can be said, then what exactly are you affirming when you affirm that this X exists? Theism is either the crude positing of something as unbelievable as Santa Claus or Wonder Woman, or else it says nothing at all.

Either crude anthropomorphism or utter vacuity.


Dennett needs to give up the question-begging and the straw-man argumentation. His talk of the "deformation" of the God concept shows that he is unwilling to allow what he would surely allow with subject-matters, namely, the elaboration of a more adequate concept of the subject-matter in question. Instead, he thinks the theist must be stuck with the crudest conceptions imaginable.

I agree with Dr. V's critique, and this is the comment I wrote in response:

As much as I like Dennett, I'm forced to agree with you here. What Dennett is saying flies in the face of what we know through a study of the history of religions. The move from "concrete/literal" to "abstract/mystical" (or as some people put it, from exoteric to esoteric) is quite common in all religious traditions and not a deformation at all.

The Hindu notion of yajna, sacrifice, moved from the externalized, concrete ritual to something a Hindu practices daily-- every moment-- in his or her quotidian existence.

Magico-religious Taoism took several centuries to catch on to the fact that literally imbibing the products of alchemy could be a deadly business. Taoist internal alchemy came to replace external alchemy: there's no need to ingest real cinnabar when your body already has "fields of cinnabar."

In Islam, it was only a matter of time before a mystical movement like Sufism would arise. The other monotheisms evince the same sort of evolution.

External forms of kung fu gave birth to internal forms; other martial arts sired martial "ways" (the famous move from "-jutsu" to "-do").

This move from exo- to endo/eso- is so common that it boggles my mind to think Dennett is trying to attack religion here, at a spot where there are no chinks in the armor.

Read Dr. V's post here.


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