The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

The Postmodern Solvent

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In order to complete our trilogy of homage to the New Atheists for their wholesale dismantling of postmodernism, we need to consider the philosophical Zen-master of materialism, Daniel C. Dennett. His influential book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, described Darwinism as a “universal solvent, capable of cutting right to the heart of everything in sight.”[1] Dennett realizes the universal nature of pure materialism; he understands that if Darwin is right about biology, this has major implications for sociology, anthropology, and technology. Having gleaned this from his own absolute belief in blind, mechanistic, random chance processes, he still can’t resist making dogmatic statements about the way things “should be.” He writes, “Some recent writers recommend a policy in which parents would be able to ‘opt-out’ of materials they didn’t want their children to be taught. Should evolution be taught in the schools? Should arithmetic be taught? Should history? Misinforming a child is a terrible offense.”[2] I agree, but who gets to make the determination of what is true or not? Dennett wants to equate math with evolution. 2+2 equals 4; and man evolved from a cosmic mud-puddle over the course of billions of years. In Dennett’s mind these are equally true statements and anyone who tries to teach otherwise is “misinforming children.” He continues:

A faith, like a species, must evolve or go extinct when the environment changes. It is not a gentle process in either case. We see in every Christian subspecies the battle of memes—should women be ordained? should we go back to the Latin liturgy?—and the same can be observed in the varieties of Judaism and Islam. We must have a similar mixture of respect and self-protective caution about memes. This is already accepted practice, but we tend to avert our attention from its implications. We preach freedom of religion, but only so far. If your religion advocates slavery, or mutilation of women, or infanticide, or puts a price on Salman Rushdie’s head because he has insulted it, then your religion has a feature that cannot be respected. It endangers us all.[3]

It is here that Dennett has left the world of Darwin and his “universal solvent.” No longer content to live within the paradigm of Darwin’s making, Dennett elevates himself as the new sovereign, able to tame the randomness of chance and call certain things “good” and other things “bad.” He extols the virtues of a scientific community that is “self-correcting” through internal debate and scientific trial and error, yet lambastes the Christian community for the very same thing. His “meme-battling” in the church over ordination and liturgy is held high as an excellent reason for disregarding the whole institution; yet when Christians point out that even scientists themselves disagree over the process of evolution they are ridiculed by the information cartel as ignorant and uneducated. Like Harris and Dawkins, Dennett just can’t bring himself to terms with the postmodern “any truth goes” mindset. He makes bold claims about things that “endanger us all.” The only problem is that he can’t identify these things in terms of his “universal solvent.” The very Darwinism that he claims has brought us “survival of the fittest” is now expected to lie down and be a good dog and not allow “wrongs” like slavery, infanticide, mutilation of women, and theological dogmatism. The cold, hard reality of the laboratory of materialism is too much for Dennett to take. He can’t resist making value judgments that can’t be made within the confines of his own materialistic assumptions.

On his home page, he has a picture of a robotic dog that he purchased in an antique shop in Paris. He asks if anyone has information on this dog, which he named Tati. He says,” I do not know who made Tati, or why, and would be pleased to receive any substantiated information about its provenance.”[4] Who made Tati? How in the world of evolution can he claim that this jumbled mess of electronics and mechanics was the product of design? How can he know that Tati didn’t just appear one evening on the antique store shelf? The universal solvent doesn’t apply to antique robotic dogs? In another article Dennett dismisses the notion of postmodern thought, essentially concluding that ideas, like solvents, have consequences, and “wrong” ideas can have really bad consequences. He describes his long-standing disagreement with fellow-philosopher Richard Rorty over the nature of objectivity. Rorty makes the observation that inquiry is never pure in the sense of attaining what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth.” Rorty, in effect, claims that all inquiry is skewed by the biases of the inquirer. Dennett dismisses this in an article entitled “Postmodernism and Truth” when he says:

When philosophers argue about truth, they are arguing about how not to inflate the truth about truth into the Truth about Truth, some absolutistic doctrine that makes indefensible demands on our systems of thought. It is in this regard similar to debates about, say, the reality of time, or the reality of the past. There are some deep, sophisticated, worthy philosophical investigations into whether, properly speaking, the past is real. Opinion is divided, but you entirely misunderstand the point of these disagreements if you suppose that they undercut claims such as the following:

Life first emerged on this planet more than three thousand million years ago. The Holocaust happened during World War II. Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald at 11:21 am, Dallas time, November 24, 1963.

These are truths about events that really happened. Their denials are falsehoods. No sane philosopher has ever thought otherwise, though in the heat of battle, they have sometimes made claims that could be so interpreted.[5]

Despite his best attempt to appear neutral, Dennett just can’t bring himself to live in terms of his own worldview. He can’t live in a world of randomness, for his own sanity, he must believe that there is order, or Truth, somewhere to be found. A random world could logically hold an infinite number of contradictions, but, unlike Rorty, Dennett cannot accept this. By arguing against postmodernism, Dennett cuts the very limb of the tree on which he is standing. He chooses his own “truth” which runs counter to the very philosophy which he holds so dear, yet embraces the logical contradiction, because the opposite, i.e. a world of design and order, would mean a Designer. As he says, “My own spirit recoils from God Who is He or She in the same way my heart sinks when I see a lion pacing neurotically back and forth in a small zoo cage.” Dennett realizes why the cage is necessary for the lion, and makes the same argument for the God which he so blindly rejects. God must be kept in a cage because He too is dangerous and frightful, and this is one Truth that Dennett cannot bring himself to face.

Footnotes:
[1]
. Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 521.
[2]
. Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 516.
[3]
. Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 516.
[4]
. http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/~ddennett.htm
[5]
. Daniel C. Dennett, “Postmodernism and Truth,” Butterflies and Wheels. (http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=13 )

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