Almost-live report: Daniel Dennett at the Cambridge Darwin-and-faith bash

July 9, 2009 • 5:28 am

Daniel Dennett is attending the Darwin celebration at Cambridge University, and sent us this report from the two symposia on faith and religion — symposia that were, as I reported earlier, sponsored by The John Templeton Foundation.  On to Dan’s report, which he kindly gave permission to post:


I am attending and participating in the big Cambridge University Darwin Week bash, and I noticed that one of the two concurrent sessions the first day was on evolution and theology, and was ‘supported by the Templeton Foundation’ (though the list of Festival Donors and Sponsors does not include any mention of Templeton). I dragged myself away from a promising session on speciation, and attended. Good thing I did. It was wonderfully awful. We heard about the Big Questions, a phrase used often, and it was opined that the new atheists naively endorse the proposition that “There are no meaningful questions that science cannot answer.” Richard Dawkins’ wonderful sentence about how nasty the God of the  Old Testament is was read with relish by Philip Clayton, Professor at Claremont School of Theology in California, and the point apparently was to illustrate just how philistine these atheists were—though I noticed that he didn’t say he disagreed with Richard’s evaluation of Yahweh. We were left to surmise, I guess, that it was tacky of Richard to draw attention to these embarrassing blemishes in an otherwise august tradition worthy of tremendous respect.  The larger point was the complaint that the atheists have a “dismissive attitude toward the Big Questions” and Dawkins, in particular, didn’t consult theologians. (H. Allen Orr, they were singing your song.) Clayton astonished me by listing God’s attributes: according to his handsomely naturalistic theology, God is not omnipotent,  not even supernatural, and . . . . in short Clayton is an atheist who won’t admit it.

The second talk was by J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, a Professor of  Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, and it was an instance of  “theological anthropology,” full of earnest gobbledygook about embodied minds and larded with evolutionary tidbits drawn from Frans de Waal, Steven Mithen and others.  In the discussion period I couldn’t stand it any more and challenged the speakers: “I’m Dan Dennett, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and we are forever being told that we should do our homework and consult with the best theologians. I’ve heard two of you talk now, and you keep saying this is an interdisciplinary effort—evolutionary theology—but I am still waiting to be told what theology has to contribute to the effort. You’ve clearly adjusted your theology considerably in the wake of Darwin, which I applaud, but what traffic, if any, goes in the other direction? Is there something I’m missing? What questions does theology ask or answer that aren’t already being dealt with by science or secular philosophy? What can you clarify for this interdisciplinary project?” (Words to that effect)  Neither speaker had anything to offer, but van Huyssteen  blathered on for a bit without, however,  offering any instances of theological wisdom that every scientist interested in the Big Questions should have in his kit.

But I learned a new word: “kenotic” as in kenotic theology. It comes from the Greek word kenosis meaning ‘self-emptying.’ Honest to God. This new kenotic theology is all the rage in some quarters, one gathers, and it is “more deeply Christian for being more adapted to Darwinism.” (I’m not making this up.) I said that I was glad to learn this new word and had to say that I was tempted by the idea that kenotic theology indeed lived up to its name.

At the coffee break, some folks told me my question had redeemed the session for them, but I would guess I irritated others with my persistent request for something of substance to chew on.

After the second set of two talks, which I was obliged to listen to since the moderator promised more responses to my “challenge” and I had to stay around to hear them out, there was another half hour of discussion. I did my duty: I listened attentively, I asked questions, and the theologians were embarrassingly short on answers, though one recommended David Chalmers on panpsychism—a philosopher, not a theologian, and second, nobody, not even Chalmers, takes panpsychism seriously, to the best of my knowledge. Do theologians?

The third speaker was Dr. Denis Alexander of Cambridge University, and he had some interesting historical scholarship on the varying positions on progress and purpose offered by thinkers from Erasmus Darwin–who had surmised that all life began from a single “living filament” (nice guess!)–through Darwin and Spencer and the Huxleys and on to Gould and Dawkins (and me).  Particularly useful was a late quote from Gould’s last book (p468 if you want to run it down) in which he allowed, contrary to his long-held line on contingency, that evolution did exhibit “directional properties” that could not be ignored.  The conclusion of Alexander’s talk was that it is nowadays a little “more plausible that it isn’t necessarily the case that the evolutionary process doesn’t have a larger purpose.”  That is certainly a circumspect and modest conclusion.

The fourth speaker was the Catholic Father Fraser Watt (of Cambridge University School of Divinity, and a big Templeton grantsman, as noted by the chair).  He introduced us to “evolutionary Christology.” Again, I’m not making this up. Evolution, it turns out, was planned by an intelligent God to create a species “capable of receiving the incarnation”—though this particular competence of our species might be, in Watts’ opinion, a “spandrel.” Jesus was “a spiritual mutation, ” and “the culmination of the evolutionary process,” marking a turning point in world history. A member of the audience cheekily asked if Father Watt was saying that Jesus’s parents were both normal human beings then? (I was going to press the point: perhaps Jesus’s madumnal genes from Mary were the product of natural selection but his padumnal genes were hand crafted by the Holy Spirit!—but Father Watt forestalled the inquiry by declaring that he had no knowledge or opinion about Jesus’ parentage—something that his Catholic colleagues will presumably not appreciate.)

Afterwards I was asked if I had enjoyed the session, and learned anything, and I allowed as how I had. I would not have dared use the phrase “evolutionary Christology” for fear of being condemned as a vicious caricaturist of worthy, sophisticated theologians, but now I had heard the term used numerous times, and would be quoting it in the future, as an example of the sort of wisdom that sophisticated theology has to offer to evolutionary biology.
I had an epiphany at the end of the session, but I kept it to myself: The Eucharist is actually a Recapitulation of the Eukaryotic Revolution. When Christians ingest the Body of Christ, without digesting it, but keep it whole (holistier-than-thou whole), they are re-enacting the miracle of endosymbiosis that paved the way for eventual multi-cellularity. And so, dearly beloved brethren, we can see that by keeping Christ intact in our bodies we are keeping His Power intact in our embodied Minds, or Souls, just the way the first Eukaryote was vouchsafed a double blessing of earthly competence that enabled its descendants to join forces in Higher Organizations. Evolutionary theology. . . . I think I get it! I can do it! It truly is intellectual tennis without a net.

There is another Templeton session on The Evolution of Religion, with Pascal Boyer, David Sloan Wilson, Michael Ruse and Harvey Whitehouse. Dr. Fraser Watt, our evolutionary Christologist, will be chairing the session. It will be interesting to see how docile these mammals are in the feeding trough.


The second Templeton-sponsored session (at the Cambridge Darwin Festival) was more presentable.  On the evolution of religion, it featured clear, fact-filled presentations by Pascal Boyer and Harvey Whitehouse, a typical David Sloan Wilson advertisement for his multi-level selection approach, and an even more typical meandering and personal harangue from Michael Ruse.  The session was chaired, urbanely and without any contentful intervention, by Fraser Watt, our evolutionary christologist. (I wonder: should “christology” be capitalized?   Ian McEwan asked me if there was, perhaps, a field of X-ray christology.  I’ve been having fun fantasizing about how that might revolutionize science and open up a path for the Crick and Watson of theology!)

I learned something at the session. Boyer presented a persuasive case that the “packaging” of the stew of separable and largely independent items as “religion” is itself ideology generated by the institutions, a sort of advertising that has the effect of turning religions into “brands” in competition. Whitehouse gave a fascinating short account of the Kivung cargo cult in a remote part of Papua New Guinea that he studied as an anthropologist, living with them for several years.  A problem: the Kivung cult has the curious belief that their gods (departed ancestors) will return, transformed into white men, and bearing high technology and plenty for all.  This does present a challenge for a lone white anthropologist coming to live with them for awhile, camera gear in hand, and wishing to be as unobtrusive as possible.

Wilson offered very interesting data from a new study by his group on a large cohort of American teenagers, half Pentecostals and half Episcopalians (in other words, maximally conservative and maximally liberal), finding that on many different scales of self-assessment, these young people are so different that they would look to a biologist like “different species.”

Ruse declared that while he is an atheist, he wishes that those wanting to explain religion wouldn’t start with the assumption that religious beliefs are false.  He doesn’t seem to appreciate the role of the null hypothesis or the presumption of innocence in trials.  We also learned tidbits about his life and his preference–as an atheist–for the Calvinist God.

Many thanks to Dan for the report, and for permission to make it public.

Robert Hinde refuses to speak at Templeton-sponsored event

July 7, 2009 • 8:02 am

Well, I’m no longer alone in having refused to speak at an event sponsored by the insidious John Templeton Foundation.  Several of us got a report from Richard Dawkins this morning, who is at the Darwin bicentenary celebration at Cambridge University:

Robert Hinde is the elder statesman of the science of Ethology and one one of the most respected figures in British biology. I just met him at the big Cambridge Darwin Festival. Robert had agreed to speak in one of the sessions on ‘Religion and Science’ but withdrew on learning that it was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. He is now even more respected among British biologists.

Hinde is indeed a famous guy, author of several well respected books on animal behavior, and well known to me as the guy who, with J. Fisher,  first described how British tits learned to open milk bottles, and how that behavior spread through learning.

Yes, those religion symposia (there were two, one for scientists, the other for theology types) sounded a bit fishy to me, peopled as they were with accommodationists. You can bet your bippy that while there were several talks adumbrating compatibility between Darwinism and faith, there were none saying the opposite.  Thanks, Templeton — you’ve done it again.
The curious thing, as P. Z. Myers reports on Pharyngula, is that while the sponsorship of this symposium by Templeton was well known, it wasn’t advertised on the Cambridge University conference site.  Is this “stealth sponsorship”? Does Templeton have something to be ashamed of?

The Hall of Shame: God, evolution, and quantum mechanics

July 5, 2009 • 8:28 am

For those who claim that no religious scientists allow their scientific statements and beliefs to be infected with religion, here’s a counterexample.  It’s from Francis Collins’s BioLogos website (funded by our friends at The John Templeton Foundation) and is a statement about how God may influence the world through quantum mechanics:

The mechanical worldview of the scientific revolution is now a relic. Modern physics has replaced it with a very different picture of the world. With quantum mechanical uncertainty and the chaotic unpredictability of complex systems, the world is now understood to have a certain freedom in its future development. Of course, the question remains whether this openness is a result of nature’s true intrinsic chanciness or the inevitable limit to humans’ understanding. Either way, one thing is clear: a complete and detailed explanation or prediction for nature’s behavior cannot be provided. This was already a problem for Newtonian mechanics; however, it was assumed that in principle, science might eventually provide a complete explanation of any natural event. Now, though, we see that the laws of nature are such that scientific prediction and explanation are ultimately limited.

It is thus perfectly possible that God might influence the creation in subtle ways that are unrecognizable to scientific observation. In this way, modern science opens the door to divine action without the need for law breaking miracles. Given the impossibility of absolute prediction or explanation, the laws of nature no longer preclude God’s action in the world. Our perception of the world opens once again to the possibility of divine interaction.

This view is nearly identical to that of Kenneth Miller in his book Finding Darwin’s God.  What this means, of course, is that what appear to us to be random and unpredictable events on the subatomic level (for example, the decay of atoms) can really reflect God’s manipulation of those particles, and that this is the way a theistic God might intervene in the world.  And of course these interventions are said to be “subtle” and “unrecognizable.” (Theologians are always making a virtue of necessity.  They never explain why, if God wanted to answer a prayer, he would do it by tweaking electrons rather than, say,  directly killing cancer cells with his omnipotence. After all, a miracle is a miracle.  Theology might, in fact, be defined as the art of making religious virtues out of scientific necessities.)  And why did these interventions used to involve more blatant manipulations of nature (several thousand years ago, virgin human females gave birth to offspring, were taken bodily to heaven, and their offspring brought back to life after dying), while  in more recent years the manipulations have been confined to the subatomic level?

And think about how ludicrous this theology really is.  God:  “Well, let’s see.  Johnny’s parents have prayed for a cure for his leukemia.  They’re good people, so I’ll do it.   Now how to do the trick?.  If I can just change the position of this electron here, and that one over there, I can cause a mutation in gene X that will beef up his immune system and allow the chemotherapy to work.”  Why can’t God just say “Cancer, begone!”?  (He apparently did that in Baltimore.) I already how the theists will respond:  “That’s not the way God works, because we know how he works and it’s not that way!”

The BioLogos statement appears as part of the answer to the question, “What role could God have in evolution?”  I submit that the statement is a scientific one that is deeply infected with religious views.  The statement is this:  “God acts by tweaking electrons and other subatomic particles, constantly causing non-deterministic changes in the universe according to his desires.” Further, the clear implication is this:  “God intervened in the evolutionary process, tweaking some electrons to eventually ‘evolve’ a creature made in his image”.  That is a religious statement masquerading as science. And that appears to be the view of some religious theists, especially those Catholics who adhere to the Church’s position that God intervened in human evolution.

Well, what happens if we find out some day that the subatomic “nondeterministic” changes really turn out to be deterministic?  After all, quantum mechanics and its indeterminacy are provisional scientific theories; we might eventually find out that what appear to be totally unpredictable events really do have a deterministic causation.  Where does Collins’s deity go then?  Do you suppose for a minute that Collins and his fellow theistic evolutionists would say, “Right. Everything is in principle predictable after all.  Obviously, there’s no room for God to intervene in nature, so theism is wrong.”  I wouldn’t count on it.

Making quantum mechanics the bailiwick for celestial intervention is a God-of-the-gaps argument, no different in kind from many arguments for intelligent design. Do theistic evolutionists really want to make quantum mechanics God’s playground?  Remember the words of the martyred theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer about the dangers of mixing science and faith:

If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed farther and farther back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat.


Note:  Someone once asked me what the “H.” in the expression “Jesus H. Christ!” came from.  I used to reply, “haploid,” since he came from an unfertilized egg.  But now I am starting to wonder if it might be “Heisenberg.”

Fighting back against Templeton

June 21, 2009 • 9:36 am

Standing behind much of the accommodationism in America is the John Templeton Foundation. This organization is loaded to the gunwales with cash, thanks to the investing activities of the late John Templeton, and it regularly uses its ample coffers to lure scientists into discussing “the big questions” in support of its aim to unify science and faith. (n.b.: whenever you hear the words “bigger questions” or “deeper questions” in this debate, rest assured that they really mean “unanswerable questions” or even “meaningless questions.” And you can also be sure that the answer to these big, deep questions involves religion.) Templeton likes having big-name scientists and secular academics on its panels and in its published discussions, for their presence lends an air of versimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing enterprise.

Some of us have begun fighting back, refusing to participate in Templeton’s ventures or to lend our name to their discussions. The latest refusal involves science writer Edwin Cartlidge, who emailed several neo-materialist fundamentalist militant atheists, asking their cooperation in a Templeton-funded project. So far Daniel Dennett and Anthony Grayling have responded (all of these emails are reproduced with permission of the writers):

From: Edwin Cartlidge
Sent: Saturday, June 20, 2009 9:55 AM
To: Dennett, Daniel C.
Subject: Questions on materialism

Dear Prof Dennett, I am a science journalist currently taking part in the Templeton Cambridge journalism fellowship programme in science and religion. As part of the programme each fellow takes an indepth look at one particular topic, and mine is “materialism”. In the first place I want to understand simply what is meant by the term (as it seems to have various forms) and then to understand how a materialistic viewpoint can or cannot be reconciled with the world around us (particularly as regards human nature).. For this I will be speaking to a number of different experts, including scientists, philosophers and theologians. Since you have written extensively on the philosophy of mind and related areas I thought that you would be a good person to talk to, and wondered whether you might be free at some point in the next three weeks to speak over the phone. I imagine the conversation would last around 20 to 30 minutes.

If you would like to speak to me I would be grateful if you could tell me when would be a good time for me to call and what number I should use.

best regards,

Edwin Cartlidge.

Dennett’s response:

From: “Dennett, Daniel C.”
To: Edwin Cartlidge
Sent: Saturday, June 20, 2009 11:53:16 PM
Subject: RE: Questions on materialism

Dear Mr Cartlidge,

I have had my say about materialism and the persistent attempt by religious spokespeople to muddy the waters by claiming, without a shred of support, that materialism (in the sense I have defended for my entire career) is any obstacle to meaning, or to an ethical life—see, e.g., BREAKING THE SPELL, pp302-307.

I see no reason to go over that ground again, and I particularly don’t want to convey the impression, by participating in an interview with you, that this is, for me, a live issue. It is not. If you had said that you were studying the views of scientists, philosophers and, say, choreographers on this topic, I would at least be curious about what expertise choreographers could bring to it. If you had said scientists, philosophers, and astrologers, I would not even have replied to your invitation. The only reason I am replying is to let you know that I disapprove of the Templeton Foundation’s attempt to tie theologians to the coat tails of scientists and philosophers who actually do have expertise on this topic.

Many years ago I made the mistake of participating, with some very good scientists, in a conference that pitted us against astrologers and other new age fakes. I learned to my dismay that even though we thoroughly dismantled the opposition, many in the audience ended up, paradoxically, with an increased esteem for astrologers! As one person explained to me “I figured that if you scientists were willing to work this hard to refute it, there must be something to it!” Isn’t it obvious to you that the Templeton Foundation is eager to create the very same response in its readers? Do you really feel comfortable being complicit with that project?

Best wishes,

Daniel Dennett

The response of philosopher Anthony Grayling, who received the same request from Cartlidge:

Dear Mr Cartlidge
Thank you for your message. I hope you will understand that this is by no means
directed at you personally, but I don't engage in Templeton-associated matters.
I cannot agree with the Templeton Foundation's project of trying to make
religion respectable by conflating it with science; this is like mixing
astrology with astronomy or voodoo with medical research, and I disapprove of
Templeton's use of its great wealth to bribe compliance with this project.
Templeton is to all intents and purposes a propaganda organisation for religious
outlooks; it should honestly say so and equally honestly devote its money to
prop up the antique superstitions it favours, and not pretend that questions of
religion are of the same kind and on the same level as those of science - by
which means it persistently seeks to muddy the waters and keep religion credible
in lay eyes. It is for this reason I don't take part in Templeton-associated
matters. My good wishes to you -
Anthony Grayling

Professor A. C. Grayling
School of Philosophy
Birkbeck, University of London

By the way, does anybody find these responses “uncivil”???

A description of the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science & Religion (one of which Mr. Cartlidge received) is here. Note the description of their purpose:

The John Templeton Foundation inaugurated the fellowship in 2006 to offer a small group of print, broadcast, or online journlists annually the opportunity to examine the dynamic and creative interface of science and religion.

Creative interface only? What about those who want to write about the destructive interface?

Thanks to Richard Dawkins, who secured permission to quote these emails, and who also has a commentary about Templeton on his website. There’s a new post at Pharyngula, too.