Sunday, November 1, 2009

To what extent should the indiv. as indiv. be held accountable to the universal, or have its decisions held to some kind of justification standard?

I recently stumbled across this long interview with American philosopher Daniel Dennett, who is still alive, about his book "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon." As you can probably surmise from the title, Dennett is an atheist/agnostic and is quite critical of religion/faith in general, particularly with regard to how, he says, our belief in religion--he mainly focuses on Christianity and Islam--often has nefarious consequences in politics and other spheres of human action.

Be forewarned, Dennett likes to frequently express his points in very colorful and rhetorical way--he's kind of similar to Nietzsche in this regard --which, on the one hand, is good because it keeps the discussion interesting; on the other hand, it's sometimes bad, because one sort of has to read between the lines of his provocative, offensive sounding statements and interpret that particular colorful point within the context of the rest of his discussion, as opposed to just looking at it in isolation. For that reason, I've posted the whole interview below.

I'm not sure how much I agree with many of Dennett's arguments in the entire interview, especially the ones that seem to rely on his verificationist construction of science as the final, end all be all, word. Nevertheless, I found the interview challenging and thought-provoking. It's definitely worth watching, if you have a spare hour or so to burn, and are in a religious or philosophical mood.

Moving on to my title's question, while Dennett definitely doesn't express himself in existentialist style terms in this interview, one of the things that leaped out to me is Dennett's prescriptive stance toward how our religious faith should impact our decision-making process, when our decisions involve other freedoms. That is, we ought to be very cautious when our individual relationship/experience with an absolute, that we can only truly "know" or experience through faith, encourages us that take actions that affect other human beings/free agents. IOW, one's faith alone shouldn't be sufficient to justify a decision about something like taking a stance on abortion or deciding whether or not to go to war. Or probably, for that matter, Abraham's agonized decision to take his son Isaac up to the top of the mountain and kill him.

To me, this seems like a critique of the individualist orientation of a lot of the existentialist thinkers that we've read. While what Dennett seems to be be saying doesn't have to necessarily be pro-"herd", it does seem like what Dennett is saying is if you break from the herd (or, in some cases, go along with it) you damn well better have some sort of reason or explanation for that choice. Reasons or explanations that admit themselves to a open discourse of justification (i.e. pulling your decision somewhat back into the universal realm). Thus, if we take Unamuno’s principle seriously that should act as if “to survive and become eternal , Dennet seems to say, we need to factor others into this equation in a way that is more significant than the way a table or chair might factor into my decision as an object with a particular coefficient of diversity. IOW, it seems like when considering something like whether or not you would want to make the exact same choices again and again you should also consider whether you would want to justify those choices to other freedoms the same way again and again. What do you think of this type of criticism? Is he simply yelling at the individual & absolute realms from the universal/ethical realm, or does he have a legitimate point?

1 comment:

  1. I haven't looked at the interview, but from what you've said it seems like he's removing faith (or an absolute relation to the absolute) as a justification for decision-making. But why do this? It would only make sense if there wasn't a rational or real object or person to place faith in. Like Kierkegaard says, ethical or universal judgments cannot be made about the knight of faith. Those without that relationship cannot make value judgments regarding it. To say to a person in relation to the absolute that such a relation is not grounds for decision-making is missing the point.

    Notice also that faith alone would only be insufficient if Dennett's claims about the nonexistence of God or the absolute were true. If the absolute charges you with a task, and the absolute really is doing it, you have all the justification you need.


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