My response to Dan Dennett’s talk

Yesterday Guy Kawasaki posted a link to some talk given at the TED Talks. I went and downloaded a few because I like or knew the speakers. Specifically I wanted Rick Warren’s and Tony Robbin’s. I noticed that there was a response to Rick Warren by a philosopher, Dan Dennett. I downloaded it too because I listen to a lot of Ravi Zacharias’ podcast and wanted to hear a rigorous philosophy look at Purpose Driven Life.

I was disappointed.

Here’s the description of the talk: “Dan Dennett is a Tufts philosophy professor and cognitive scientist, most famous for his books, Consciousness Explained (1991) and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995). In this talk, he responds to the presentation by Pastor Rick Warren, taking issue with claims in his book, The Purpose-Driven Life. (Recorded February 2006 in Monterey, CA. Duration: 25:29)”

At first it was pretty good. The guy is an evolutionist. You know the old saying, if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail? Well that applies here.

(A quick aside to let you know my bias up front. For me the jury is still out on evolution as a theory of origin. I don’t have enough knowledge to really evaluate the forensic science that points to the evolution of man from raw matter. I do believe in evolution as a theory of biology. Natural selection does fine tune species.)

I like the discussion of how religion has evolved. How it is a natural phenomenon that is worthy of study. I though his idea of factual study of world religions in school was interesting. I thought his idea that a catholic newspaper shouldn’t refer to the idea as totalitarian was strange, and to describe a mandated curriculum as Libertarian showed a lack of understanding of Libertarianism.

But where he went of the rails was when he started in on Rick’s book. Or rather where he said he was starting in on Rick’s book and then attacked something else. He was really going after Christianity as he wanted it to be.

He first disagrees with the idea that life would have no meaning or purpose if man evolved over time without the existence of God. He says someone made a movie that explained why it wasn’t so. And that that’s just a difference of opinion. I’ll just say, other people have shown life is meaningless and there is no basis for right and wrong and leave it at that.

Quoted Rick as saying that God created our environment so that we could live in it. And Dan feels that means to “a lot of people” that we shouldn’t listen to Al Gore – which is to him a bad thing. OK, I’m being a little factious. He is right in saying that some Christian’s don’t care about the environment because they think God will take care of it. But many Christians feel they need to be good stewards – a word Dan uses alot – of the environment precisely because it is God’s creation.

Then he REALLY pissed me off. He quotes another long passage. But it isn’t from Rick’s book. It isn’t even Rick. It’s some other guy who is a creationist. Then he attacks the quote to show how wrong Rick is. That’s just stupid. If you want to disagree with Rick, disagree with Rick. Don’t attribute to him ideas not in his book.

He also disagrees that God “carefully mixed the DNA cocktail that made you unique”. OK, enough. I’m not going to go on in a step by step manner. Here’s the deal. Dan thinks Rick doesn’t believe in evolution. That he doesn’t believe man evolved to where he is. But that isn’t said in the book. The means by which God worked isn’t discussed. God could have worked over billions of years to make us what we are. To me that would be a bigger miracle that having him do it by divine power in 7 days.

Also there isn’t anything that says God – a force outside of the natural – isn’t active in shaping mankind and even individual men. Weather via the process of evolution or not.

One last thing, since I wrote it first.

“Surrendered people follow God’s word even when it doesn’t make sense.” This bothered Dan, and I can understand why. But that is his interpretation of how this is worked out. He says it is the way a church controls its people, but saying they can’t question it. And that could be true. But it also means I as a Christian, able to study the Bible for myself, could come to conclusions that differ from the church. And I would be obligated as surrendered to GOD – not religion – to follow my conscience and the Bible and go against the church. The most famous of these instance is of course Martin Luther, but there are many many instances of people more committed to God than organized religion.

The thing that most bothered me about the whole talk was Dan seemed to have the idea he was smart and Rick wasn’t. Because he was smart, his ideas were right. I would LOVE to see Dan in a debate. To have someone poke holes in his strawmen. I think Rick Warren could probably do that, but I know Ravi would eat him for lunch.

My personal philosophy of Christianity is that in a marketplace of ideas, it will be shown to be true. That if you are really seeking Truth you will find it. To quote Jesus “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

UPDATE: I’ve now listened to Rick Warren’s talk as well. Had nothing to do with the stuff Dan talked about. I have a challenge for you. Go listen to Rick’s talk and to Dan’s talk and then decide who’s message is more useful for your life. More useful for all of humanity.


  1. Justin says:

    Hi! I’ve listened to both talks and thought both were good. However I quite disagree with your conclusions.
    Dan seems like a nice guy and I think his message is important; you should take all reasoned criticism of your beliefs seriously, and if anyone tells you not to do that It’s anti intellectual and dishonest.
    Also, what is useful is not always true, and I guess you like the useful bit, I like truth.

    Best regards!

  2. Ron says:

    Justin, this is an old one, so I had to reread what I wrote. That said I don’t understand your comment.

    Both of them may be nice guys, that doesn’t make either right. Second I take all criticism of my beliefs seriously, I just found Dan’s weak at best and just plain wrong at worst. It is anti-intellectual to accept things just because the guy already agrees with you.

    “Useful” means that it works in reality. That is a pretty good definition of truth, certainly a good enough one for science. I’m not sure how something could work in reality and still be false.

    And it is very not truthful to attribute something to a person you are attacking that they didn’t say and then to make your whole case against them based on that falsehood. Which is what Dan did. Not to mention setting up other straw men and attacking them.

  3. Ryan says:

    Ron, I think your response in general was good. very good point in parragraphes 7-11, especially in parragraph 9 where he cites another person to atack warren. Only a couple of comments:
    1. I dont undersand how you can interpret the passage of following god even when it does not make sense as following god when what you think god says is contrary to the the church. It seems clear to me that the conflict has to do with HAVING to follow what does not make sense to you (god) and not with following what does make sense and regect what doesnt (the church in your example). in your example of martin luther, he never followed what didnt make sense to him.
    2. i dont think that your argument regarding dan thinking that he is smart and rick isnt is well funded. never in the talk he suggests this. he actually says that ricks work is brilliant but mistaken.

  4. Kurt says:

    As I listened to Dan speak about “doing what the Bible says even if it doesn’t make sense” I realized he didn’t know enough about the Bible to understand Rick’s meaning. It doesn’t make sense to love your enemies, yet God asks us to. It doesn’t make sense to give someone asking for your shirt your coat as well, but God asks us to. It doesn’t make sense to to forgive those who are literally killing you as did Stephen while he was being stoned to death, but God asks us to.

    Even Dan understands, whether he would admit it or not, that we are not basically good at heart, we don’t have to be taught to be evil, we have to be taught to be good. Yes, we can do good things without God, but good to what extent and to what end?

  5. Dan says:

    I had been raised Christian, and until the last few months on a search for truth and meaning, I decided that I would be willing to follow the truth anywhere, even if it meant questioning the God I was taught to believe in. For me personally the biggest deal-breaker for me was when I actually decided to start reading the bible myself, front to back, instead of just relying on the excerpts and interpretations that Authors like Rick Warren and my pastor’s have decided to show us.
    Upon taking the time to actually read the bible, I was surprised at many of the things that I have actually found. God commanding the genocide of men, women and children several times, several guidelines on the practice of animal sacrifice, God commanding child sacrifice to Jephthah, God giving guidelines for slavery, without ever prohibiting it (the South’s slavery would be morally acceptable by these guidelines), God sending a bear to kill 42 children for insulting a prophets baldness, God’s cruel, non-sensical bet over the life of Job, God commanding the required marriage of a rape victim to her rapist for the cost of 50 shekels to her father, as well as many others. With that said I don’t think he was talking about things that don’t make sense, such as loving your neighbor as an above commenter stated. If you can justify that an all-powerful, all-loving God found this part of his necessary plan, I would think you’d suffer much cognitive dissonance with your own morals.
    Anyway, in my search to explain these things and figure out what was going on, I found several videos on youtube by a guy that relates these events to modern day ethics in entertaining cartoons called NonStampCollector, which have really shown me Christianity in a new light. He is to the dark side of the Bible, what Rick Warren is to the nice inspiring verses.
    Also, my belief in Christianity began to waver because I am studying biology and evolution, and the evidence is so overwhelming that there is no dispute that it is a fact of life. The best introductions I’ve found for people who haven’t studied evolution extensively are by another youtube channel poster called qualiasoup who has 2 excellent videos called evolution and irreducible complexity cut down to size, in case you were curious to learning more as to what evolution is all about, although, I see this post is 7 years old and you may have already checked it out more by now.

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