Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Dennett’

Philosopher Daniel Dennett

Philosopher Daniel Dennett

Atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett recently published “Seven Tools for Thinking” in The Guardian. An excerpt from his new book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Dennett’s seven tools make up a useful set of guidelines for some aspects of rhetorical arguments.

However, I was particularly struck by a seeming irony that shows up between tool number 4 (“Answer Rhetorical Questions”) and tool number 5 (“Employ Occam’s Razor”). In his section on rhetorical questions, he has just encouraged the reader to check his baloney meter any time he hears the word “surely,” saying that “often the word “surely” is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument.” Then he makes a similar point about rhetorical questions:

Just as you should keep a sharp eye out for “surely”, you should develop a sensitivity for rhetorical questions in any argument or polemic. Why? Because, like the use of “surely”, they represent an author’s eagerness to take a short cut…

This seems like a useful piece of advice for evaluating arguments. But what struck me was what he writes in the very next section on Occam’s Razor (“don’t concoct a complicated, extravagant theory if you’ve got a simpler one (containing fewer ingredients, fewer entities) that handles the phenomenon just as well”):

One of the least impressive attempts to apply Occam’s razor to a gnarly problem is the claim (and provoked counterclaims) that postulating a God as creator of the universe is simpler, more parsimonious, than the alternatives. How could postulating something supernatural and incomprehensible be parsimonious?

Did you notice his rhetorical question? Dang, I almost wonder whether this is calculated to somehow entrap the unwary theist into a debate, because I would say Dennett’s use of a rhetorical question at that point represents the “author’s eagerness to take a short cut” and spotlights “a weak point in the argument.” Having in the previous section been sensitized to rhetorical questions, I find myself reflecting on Dennett’s linking of the four key words: postulate, supernatural, incomprehensible, parsimonious. What does his selection of these words indicate about his thinking, his biases, his rhetorical purpose, and the weakness of the argument implied in his question?

In his section on rhetorical questions, Dennett makes a useful suggestion:

Here is a good habit to develop: whenever you see a rhetorical question, try – silently, to yourself – to give it an unobvious answer. If you find a good one, surprise your interlocutor by answering the question.

I like that idea. If I were to answer the rhetorical question, “How could postulating something supernatural and incomprehensible be parsimonious?,” how would I do so? An interesting exercise.

One answer might be to focus on the weakness inherent in that question, the assumption that a supernatural being is incomprehensible.

Another answer might be that evoking God as as creator of the universe is parsimonious if it happens to be true.

In any case, hats off to Dr. Dennett for putting together a thought-provoking set of rhetorical guidelines.

ARK — 24 May 2014

Advertisements

Read Full Post »