It is surely not Dinesh D’Souza’s fault that the debate of November 30, contrasted with his encounter with Christopher Hitchens, was less like the World Series than a slow week during Spring training. Hitchens was at the top of his game, which made D’Souza’s success especially vivid and memorable. Dennett, whose populist Philosophy has come to enjoy unusual attention in quarters otherwise quite demanding, spent the evening trying to get his curve ball to break, his sinker to drop, his control sharper. Nothing seemed to work, and the entire encounter seemed rather like a six-inning game. Still, it was all worth the price of admission, for there is something about the game itself that repays the faithful.
And the game? The metaphor may seem ill-chosen, but recall what Schiller had to say in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man: “Man is never so authentically himself as when at play”. The play of ideas on fields of uncertainty and even danger is a tribute to a rational being who, apart from considerations of survival and prosperity, yearns for self-understanding and evidence – compelling if not convincing – that life has a meaning beyond the moment, beyond time itself.
Readers of any of Dennett’s many books (the choice is not decisive, for the messages are pretty much the same in all of them) will find nothing new in his remarks at Tufts. Design without a designer; the ‘beauty’ of evolution; God as a human invention; the development of moral sensibility over time by way of rational problem-solving, etc. Indeed, it is just this power of problem-solving that explains, on Dennett’s reckoning, the worldwide decline of religion. The religionists, he notes, form a community of believers in such diverse and weird propositions as to find little by way of common ground, little by way of shared understanding. As Dennett summarized the tenets of major and minor and nearly unknown sects, he found support for his contention that all of them come from the same shop; viz., human needs served by human tools. Nonetheless, religion has formidable powers and should be studied. Dennett would require children to be instructed in the world’s religions, but with what he called “the toxic stuff” removed. Though he offered his proposal with seeming sincerity, it is clear that the course of study he would require might appear in the curriculum as Rubbish-101.
This, of course, was a curve ball with too little movement to disarm a major league hitter. D’Souza has seen its like before, hundreds of times in different stadiums. Thus, in his first appearance at the plate he made clear that the truth of a set of propositions is finally indifferent to the number of persons aware of that truth and, in any case, Christianity’s losses in the Anglo-European world are more than made up in Asia, Africa and the Orient. As for “the toxic stuff”, D’Souza reminded the audience that it was godless Communism, and the Nazi combination of Nietzsche and Darwin that produced body counts of such grotesque proportions.
Again, as with Hitchens, Dennett hoped to pit religion against science, assuming that this was akin to pitting superstition against rationality. Ah, if matters were only so simple! What greater advance was made in astronomy than that produced by Kepler? But Kepler’s calculation of planetary motion, his deduction of the laws of this motion, and his estimation of inter-planetary distances were all predicated on the assumption that the five perfect solids of Plato’s Timaeus were God’s chosen units for the creation of the cosmos. Now, one might be tempted at this point to urge us to keep Keplerian science and get rid of the ‘toxic’ platonic stuff, but this would be rash. Instead, we might accept (with good reason) that Kepler was superior to most of us in his scientific insights, his genius, and ask how this revealed itself, in this case, in his attachment to the Timaeus. The answer is ready to hand: Only by assuming that the observable order of the heavens is evidence of a universal, deep ordering well beyond the ambit of human observation, is the larger project of science itself intelligible.
Dinesh D’Souza employed this same rationale in challenging Dennett’s scientism. The two disagreed on how to interpret what is called the “anthropic cosmological principle.” It should be noted that the principle itself is not immune to criticism. Nonetheless, calculations at the ultra-micro level of analysis demonstrate the degree to which the very possibility of human life depends on physical constants in the cosmos at large. It surely seems as if the entire affair was brought about so that we would have shelter in an otherwise mindless universe. In response to Dennett’s rejection of any such interpretation, D’Souza – in what may have been the most memorable statement of the evening — . concluded, “We are both reasoning in the dark; the only difference is he won’t admit it”.
At one point, insisting that he can’t “thank God”, Dennett was content to “thank goodness”. That very goodness — expressed in the development of a more caring and generous solicitude toward others, in the growth of our powers of sympathy, our recognition of the dignity of the person – is perhaps what we should be most thankful for. And its source? Christianity! This was D’Souza’s bases loaded home run, perhaps undervalued owing to the already lopsided score. How easy it is to take for granted that our notion of universal human rights, our attitudes toward the handicapped and the defenseless, our recognition of charity as a virtue, our understanding of mercy as “the perfection of justice” are Christian teachings. It is all this and more that found Evelyn Waugh declaring Western Civilization itself to be creation of Christianity and unimaginable in its absence. So if Dennett is sincere in being thankful for goodness, he might express this gratitude next time in, say, St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It’s not that far from Tufts, at least in mileage.