Biologist Richard Dawkins, Physicist Lawrence Krauss, and Philosopher Daniel Dennett at the Atheist Alliance International Annual Convention in Burbank, Ca., October 3, 2009

This photograph was taken a few minutes before Daniel Dennett started his Saturday afternoon talk. Dennett, by the way, is a tall dude (like basketball player tall):

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Dennett, in his lecture, coined a mildly amusing term (or, more accurately, one of his friend’s daughters coined the term, and Dennett says he has been using it for awhile now). The term is “deepity” (as in, “Ooh, dad said a deepity”). A “deepity” is a statement that appears to have content, but actually says little or nothing (as in, say, “The ground beneath the ground of being sounds forth in silence”).

I understand Dennett’s insistence on the demystification of language (for purposes of analytical debate), and clearly defining terms, and using them without subtle shifts in meaning, but it does strike me as a potential blow for poetry to insist on language use purged of “deepities.” To be dismissive of “deepities” is almost to express contempt for poetry (and the paradoxical nature of the ontological mystery itself). Here, for example, are some lines from a poem by A.R. Ammons: “The universe has no floor / but we walk the floor.” That strikes me as deep, and not just a “deepity.” But maybe Dennett would see it differently, and has little patience for such “woo.”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to Biologist Richard Dawkins, Physicist Lawrence Krauss, and Philosopher Daniel Dennett at the Atheist Alliance International Annual Convention in Burbank, Ca., October 3, 2009

  1. Heuristics says:

    It sounds like the game the verificationists tried to play during the 1940s, ie try to find a way to show that religious language is devoid of meaning so that you can safely ignore it. That project failed misserably… But Dennet must be aware of that so I wonder what changes he has made. It would be right in line with his quasi-materialistic reductionistic emilinativism to try something like that.

  2. People like Dennett live in a delusional fantasy world in which Verficationism, Comtism, Logical Positivism, Behaviorism, etc, were all smashing successes.

    Language itself is inherently ambiguous. That’s because the basic function of language is the expression of subject inner states, not the communication of objective external “facts”.

    Apes, after many years of training in captivity, can be taught to communicate using symbolic systems, but no matter how much exposure they have to “language” Apes do not ask each other “how are you today?”

    Language without poetry is not language – it’s just a message passing system. And the native language of religion is poetry not prose. See for example James P. Carse’s “The Religious Case Against Belief” — although by all means do not buy the book. Carse’s entire thesis is easily summarized in a paragraph or two. See for example the Salon.com article on the book:
    http://mobile.salon.com/books/atoms_eden/2008/07/21/james_carse/index.html

    Apuleius

  3. santitafarella says:

    Heuristics and Apuleius:

    Dennett was definitely, in his talk, down on theological language, and that was his target. One of the things that he told the conference is his advice to Dawkins. He told Dawkins, when Dawkins was being attacked for not knowing theology, that he could safely ignore theology—there were no books written by theologians that Dennett felt Dawkins should read. In other words, Dawkins had asked Dennett for book recommendations to get him up to speed, and Dennett told him it was not necessary to read any of them. Here was Dennett’s caustic retort: “If it’s not worth doing, it’s not worth doing well.” He also summed up theology on one of his slides this way: “It has to relieve skepticism without arousing curiosity.” That sounds to me more like didactic fundamentalist apologetics, not the moves of liberal and moderate intellectual theologians (like, say, Niebuhr). But that was the game Dennett played yesterday afternoon (to the entertainment of the sympathetic crowd).

    I asked him, by the way, a question: “Does qualia exist?” His answer (predictably) was: “Define qualia.” He thinks qualia is a slippery term, like God. I also asked him why a chemical like DMT (a hallucinogen), by it’s very encounter with the pineal gland and the brain generally, generates such a vivid “more real than real” experience of freaky qualia (vivid colors, aliens, angels, monsters, feelings of love and union with the universe). How did a single blind chemical compound get such a hippie-groovy and surprising relationship going with a slab of neural meat (the human brain)? In other words, why would this weird jelly and peanut butter sandwich make so vivid and distinctive a “taste” in the mind? His response to this was: “My theory of hallucinations can be found in the introduction to my book, Consciousness Explained.” Anyway, I’ll dig my copy of the book out of my garage and see what he’s referring to (as I can’t remember after reading the book more than a decade ago).

    Oh, and I did not ask him these questions at the mic. I asked him these questions before his talk, at lunch time, when he was sitting waiting for his lunch at the conference. As you might expect, he’s very nice in person, and happy to think on his feet, and patiently explain his views (he is a teacher afterall, and gets questions from students all the time). I just couldn’t get him very far on his views of qualia. We stalled at definition and the issue’s complexity. I didn’t get the impression he was blowing off my questions or being dismissive of them.

    —Santi

  4. The Old Atheists, like Voltaire, were intimately familiar with Christian theology. For them it was a labor of love to demolish Christianity with the words of it’s own scriptures and the historically documented acts of it’s own “saints”.

    Also, it is impossible to claim to be able to generalize about “all religions” unless one has gathered data from many different religions traditions – not just from the violent monotheistic ones. Here there is the additional problem of ethnocentrism. The new atheists are blatantly eurocentric in their approach to the religious traditions of Asia, Africa and also the indigenous religious traditions of the western hemisphere. For that matter they also have zero knowledge of the pre-Christian religions even of the West itself.

    Those, like Dennett and Dawkins, who openly brag about their ignorance and their lack of intellectual curiosity should be taken at their word.

    Apuleius

  5. Marilyn says:

    I doubted if Dennetts’ daughters friend “coined” the term deepity. It is the title of a 2006 track in Discemi records’ “Tango or Cash’; also it was shown in a strip of Pogo in pandemonia blog this year and by Mystery blogger,this year. It makes me wonder if DD checks his sources.

    • PhysicsGuerrilla says:

      Daniel Dennett DID NOT say his associates daughter “coined” the word, as he only said that she used it in her comment to her father.
      Daniel said he then created a “definition” to the word.

      • Marilyn says:

        You obviously were present at the talk? it doesnt matter who said what when. I was pointing to the lack of correct attribution exercised by DD. Being the expert mouth twister Dr DD {herein DDD or D cubed)knows when a catchy word is worth being mouthed. It can be a mouth full.I would ask for a public retraction.

      • PhysicsGuerrilla says:

        Marilyn,
        It seems I am in error, as DD did say he coined the word. I did not attend this lecture. However, I just viewed this lecture on video and he did say he coined the word.
        Best Regards.

  6. Matt says:

    I don’t think it was intended to be contemptuous of poetry; merely to point out that poetry should not be used as part of analytical discussion.
    For example, the book of Genesis is not an appropriate source for information on the origins of the universe.

    • The ultimate nature of the universe can only be understood by way of poetry.

      And what makes you think the universe has an “origin”? If you think there was nothing before there was something, that’s Christianity (specifically the doctrine of creation out of nothing). Which is some bad poetry. Bad as in, well, bad.

      • Paul Murray says:

        Really? That’s amazing! To bee so sure of this, clearly you do in fact understand that ulimate nature already. Do tell!

        For myself, I’m not entirely sure what a “nature” even *is* (as opposed to “nature” – I know what that is: it’s the stuff outside my window). The way the word is used, it seems to be a thing tht something can (or does) *have*, or it is a thing itself, as distinct from everything about it (it’s “accidents”, I belive). I’m so confused by this, I don’t know where to start.

        And not knowing what a “nature” is, I’m pretty much clueless on what an ultimate one might be. Or the connection between this and poetry, which as far as I can see is mainly about language giving you fuzzy good feelings. I mean … language is communication between people, poetry is us attempting to convey ineffables. What could this possibly have to do with the “nature” of the universe – as if “all that is” (which is what “universe” means) might have something that you can identify as a nature? (Now then, kiddies. In this cardboard box we have the universe, and in this other box we have the nature of the universe. Try not to get fingermarks on either of them.)

        Feh. QM makes more sense, and you can make lasers with it. Lasers are cool.

  7. santitafarella says:

    Apuleius:

    Your poetry observation certainly won’t get any disagreements from me!

    —Santi

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