Friday, January 8, 2010
Great moments in New Atheist hypocrisy, Part 2,526
In his 1993 review of John Searle’s The Rediscovery of the Mind, Daniel Dennett complains about Searle’s condescending attitude toward cognitive science:
Attacking such a well-fortified tower of prevailing wisdom is not a job for the faint-hearted, but Searle has never lacked for confidence in the clarity and truth of his own vision. Indeed, his supreme self-confidence is the one fixed point that emerges from the shifting interpretations of his intentions that are suggested by what he has written, as we shall see.
People are not, in general, daft. This obvious fact gives Searle pause. He frequently expresses his astonishment that the other side could endorse such monumentally silly doctrines, but that is just what his analyses tell him, so he calls them as he sees them. "If I am right, we have been making some stunning mistakes." (p.246) He used to stop there, but in this book there has been a subtle but important change in his meta-opinion: "How is it that so many philosophers and cognitive scientists can say so many things that, to me at least [my emphasis], seem obviously false?" (p.3) Searle may find it a bizarre sociological fact that his common sense is not everybody's, but now he bows to that fact and thus accepts the burden of proof (however misplaced in the eyes of eternity) of showing that his "obvious facts" are so much as true. This is progress.
A “supreme self-confidence” that condescendingly treats serious thinkers as “daft” and their views as “monumentally silly” and “obviously false” – why, one would almost think Dennett was describing the author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon!
In fairness, though, there are some crucial differences between Searle and Dennett. Searle knows what he is talking about when he criticizes cognitive science. Dennett demonstrably does not know what he is talking about when he criticizes the traditional arguments for the existence of God. By Dennett’s own account, Searle has made “progress” by providing a book-length argument in defense of his objections to cognitive science. Dennett, by contrast, never progresses beyond a couple of pages of sophomoric objections aimed at straw men. Also, Searle’s funnier.