Saturday, May 31, 2008

Dennett Q&A

Today Daniel Dennett gave a Q&A session after the screening of a couple segments from The Atheism Tapes. I've seen the video before, but one of the segments was my favorite one with Colin McGinn. The other was, of course, the interview with Dennett.

The Q&A session was done by collecting written questions from the audience which were read by the moderator Massimo Pigliucci. You can read his account of the event at his blog.

I took horrible notes, but here is my record of the questions asked:

1. What's the basis for atheistic morality? I think his answer was similar to Dawkins' "cultural zeitgeist" ideas. I'm pretty tired of that topic.

2. Why don't students read more Plato? Dennett laments the fact that curricula don't make time for the Euthyphro.

3. What's the deal with free will? Yes, we have souls, but they are made of little machines. I'm not sure I understand Dennett completely, but you can find a summary at Wikipedia.

4. Is religion adaptive? Dennett suspects religion is like an infections meme. It does what's good for itself like the common cold. There are many documented cases of biological parasites influencing the behavior of their hosts. Dennett wonders if it's possible that an STD could make the infected "hornier" to encourage it's spread. (He knows of no research looking into that idea.)

5. The questioner says he is still an agnostic because of the existence and mystery of qualia. Dennett is famous for saying qualia are illusions. I still don't get it, and I'm not satisfied with his answers but I haven't read about them deeply enough.

6. How many unbelievers are there? (Incomplete notes here.) I think Dennett made another plug for the term "Bright" here. He almost convinced me but I'm still leery.

7. Does there have to be a conflict between science and religion. Dennett says yes. I agree in so far as religions making truth claims about the natural world.

8. Was Colin McGinn right about the exact weakness of the ontological argument being undecided? (Incomplete notes here, but I think Dennett says that although no all philosophers disagree he thinks the argument is worthless.)

9. Is there progress in philosophy? Dennett says yes, and talks about how fields like physics and psychology used to be part of philosophy in the past. I wrote down this quote he said which I liked, "Philosophy is what you do until you know what the right questions are."

10. Why don't people understand what Dennett calls the "simple" idea of evolution? I don't have complete notes here, but he mentions giving his students a short quiz on evolution and how nobody scores over 50% despite the fact that many of them think they understand the concepts quite well. I want to see that quiz!

Afterwards Dennett was very accessible and many folks crowded around him asking additional questions and getting books signed. He was very patient with the inevitable atheist weirdos and kooks. One guy particularly annoyed me by talking loudly across the entire crowd to someone else drowning out what Dennett was saying. But I suppose he can't help it, being a walking zombie of churning chemicals.