The Daniel Dennett deepity slide that Jerry Coyne took a picture of here is one that I wrote into my notebook (I was at the same conference). A deepity, according to Dennett, “is a proposition that seems to be profound because it is actually logically ill-formed.”
My question: Doesn’t Dennett’s deepity construction render just about all symbolic or paradoxical language suspect? In other words, is it really a good idea for atheists to set upon the poetic in such a dismissive fashion—and show impatience for it? For example, wouldn’t these famous sayings be rendered “deepities” under such a definition?:
“I measured out my life in coffee spoons.” (T.S. Eliot)
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.” (attributed to Jesus)
“The arc is long, but it bends toward justice.” (Martin Luther King)
“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” (Zen koan)
Paradox and symbol exercise the mind in ways that might bring forward deep structures, or evoke the human spirit to a hopeful cause, or drive the imagination into an encounter with the sublime, or help us intuit the ontological mystery (the mystery of being). Do atheists really want to be the dismissers of such poetics? If a trope doesn’t have a readily obvious or available analog or target (as in Eliot’s “I measured out my life in coffee spoons”), shall it safely be ignored as nonsense?
In short, will you destroy the metaphorical villages to save them from religion?
And isn’t the universe already a huge deepity? Isn’t Dennett, well, late to the game? Atheists, for example, believe that the mind reduces to matter. This idea is almost certainly a deepity that appears to connect two things that are utterly ill understood, mysterious, and different from one another, even as it actually tells us very little. The explanation offered by atheists (such as it is) to the connection between mind and matter breaks down rather quickly when put under scrutiny. Atheists also believe that matter reduces to, well, nothing. Matter has always been, or it leaped into existence from physical laws that were just there (for no apparent reason). That too is a deepity. Looked at too closely and such atheist assertions start to haze into improbability, paradox, and nonsense too.
Talking about matter as an endpoint to explanation ends up driving us into the same deepity territory that theists drive into when they start talking about God. “There is no floor to the universe / but we walk the floor” (the poet AR Ammons).
Is the wise atheist move Wittgenstein’s: silence?
In any case, people living in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
Oh, and what does one make of particle physics in such a Dennett scheme? Is the particle/wave function of light a deepity? Must there be some reductive logical primacy that renders the paradox only apparent? Is that part of the atheist faith too, to deny the deepity qualities in quantum physics, and the mysteries at the heart of being? And if not, why does physics get to keep its deepities, even as human language must surrender its deepities for Dennett’s tidy formulations of what constitutes the permissable and rational in thought?
And one more thought: maybe humans use “deepities” in language precisely in the effort to speak to the ontological mystery itself. To not address the ontological mystery with deepities is to fundamentally mispeak to it. In other words, to pretend that the universe is not itself an ontological deepity is to miss its strangeness. It is akin to trying to send the perfect love letter that sets into words all that is contained by your love. Nothing quite works, so you write it again and again.
The universe is the veiled lover that we are trying to speak, write, and sing to.
I know, that’s a deepity too. It appears to say something about the universe, but when you look closely at the logic of it, it turns to jello, right?
Welcome to the jello factory:
Oh, and just one more thought (this time, I promise!): could somebody offer me just one example of symbol usage in literature, or some sublime lines of poetry (or poetic language of any sort) that doesn’t function as a deepity (by Dennett’s definition)? Is, for example, this William Blake poem a deepity? (Forgive the line break mistakes, I’m quoting from memory.):
“O rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm that
flies through the night
in the howling storm
has found out thy bed
of crimson joy and
his dark secret love
does thy life destroy.”
What’s the rose, what’s the worm, what’s the night, what’s the storm, what’s the bed, what’s the love, what’s the life? Dawkins once called Blake an “obscurantist.” Is he right? Shall we show Blake to the door?