Daniel Dennett on Writing Criticism

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 3, 2010 in Quotes

Daniel Dennett writes:

Anatol Rapoport… once promulgated a list of rules for how to write a successful critical commentary on an opponent’s work. First, he said, you must attempt to re-express your opponent’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your opponent says “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” Then, you should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement), and third, you should mention anything you have learned from your opponent. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism. I have found this a salutary discipline to follow– or, since it is challenging, to attempt to follow. When it succeeds, the results are gratifying: your opponent is in a mood to be enlightened and eagerly attentive.

This probably works best in books, where the writer has more space than a blog post, but it could be a great strategy.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

John D May 3, 2010 at 2:50 am

Funny coming from Dennett, who has probably written some of the better caustic philosophy book reviews.

My personal favourite being his review of Colin McGinn’s book The Problem of Consciousness.

A choice quote therefrom:

“McGinn relies on Fodor to provide the entering wedge of his argument: what Fodor calls epistemic boundedness and McGinn calls cognitive closure. “A type of mind M is cognitively closed with respect to a property P (or theory T) if and only if the concept-forming procedures at M’s disposal cannot extend to a grasp of P (or an understanding of T).” (p.3) (Don’t be misled about the apparent rigor of this definition; the author A never puts it to any use U in any formal derivation D.)”

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Jeffrey Shallit May 3, 2010 at 4:04 am

Unless your opponent is ignorant and unscrupulous, in which case he will certainly take your limited points of agreement as evidence that he has won, and your listing of what you have learned as confirmation that he has something to say.

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Reginald Selkirk May 3, 2010 at 5:22 am

There is an unfortunate tradition in certain scientific newsletters to which I subscribe, in which a book comes in covering a certain swath of scientific history, and they get a scientist who was a key figure in that field at that time, but who is now retired or nearly so, to ‘review’ the book. Usually, this consists of the scientist reminiscing over the events of the time from his own point of view, which is all well and good, but frequently the scientist never gets around to actually reviewing the book.

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Eric May 3, 2010 at 6:43 am

“First, he said, you must attempt to re-express your opponent’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your opponent says “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.””

Dennett should follow his own advice more often:

“The Cosmological Argument, which in its simplest form states that since everything must have a cause the universe must have a cause—namely, God—doesn’t stay simple for long. Some deny the premise, since quantum physics teaches us (doesn’t it?) that not everything that happens needs to have a cause. Others prefer to accept the premise and then ask: What caused God? The reply that God is self-caused (somehow) then raises the rebuttal: If something can be self-caused, why can’t the universe as a whole be the thing that is self-caused.” (Breaking the Spell, pg. 242)

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lukeprog May 3, 2010 at 8:29 am

Jeffrey,

Yeah, that’s tough stuff.

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Bill Maher May 3, 2010 at 10:38 am

Eric, say what you want about Dennett, but his books are very well written. If all philosophers wrote like him (and Blackburn & Frankfurt), the discipline would be much more popular.

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Eric May 3, 2010 at 10:50 am

Bill Maher, I certainly agree up to a point. Dennett does write well, but not always clearly; in his books it’s often difficult to understand precisely what the argument is. (This isn’t a problem with him alone, of course.) But that aside, I suspect that many more people own, say, ‘Consciousness Explained’ or ‘Breaking the Spell,’ than have actually read them.

Anyway, my point in the previous post only was that Dennett’s formulation of the cosmological argument obviously won’t receive any, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way,” responses from anyone who advocates it!

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Lorkas May 3, 2010 at 2:40 pm

But that aside, I suspect that many more people own, say, ‘Consciousness Explained’ or ‘Breaking the Spell,’ than have actually read them.

That would be remarkable, given the large number of people who read the book without actually buying it. It’s my understanding that nearly every book gets a lot more reads than it does sales, what with all the people who borrow books from friends or libraries.

Personally, I’ve read both but own neither.

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Erika May 3, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Eric, you can find something that contradicts someone’s opinions on how they should ideally act. No one is perfect. The fact that Dennett sometimes fails to meet his own standards does not detract from the value of the sentiment.

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Eric May 3, 2010 at 4:08 pm

“It’s my understanding that nearly every book gets a lot more reads than it does sales, what with all the people who borrow books from friends or libraries.”

Lorkas, you’re probably correct. But I had read or heard somewhere that fewer than 10% of those who purchase a book read past its first chapter, and I suspect that the percentage is even lower with complicated and, frankly, rather long winded books like ‘Breaking the Spell.’

“The fact that Dennett sometimes fails to meet his own standards does not detract from the value of the sentiment.”

Ericka, I agree. I wasn’t criticizing the principle itself, but Dennett’s inconsistent application of it. And of course you’re right, we’re not all perfect.

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Justfinethanks May 3, 2010 at 5:12 pm

I wasn’t criticizing the principle itself, but Dennett’s inconsistent application of it.

I’m pretty sure Dennett isn’t attempting to rebut the cosmological argument in that quote. He is simply showing how a seemingly simple argument can get very complex, and how a conversation about the cosmological argument usually goes. This is evidenced b the fact that he doesn’t even take ownership of the counter points (“Some deny” “Others prefer”).

So I think the charge of hypocrisy is unwarranted here.

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Eric May 3, 2010 at 5:28 pm

“I’m pretty sure Dennett isn’t attempting to rebut the cosmological argument in that quote. He is simply showing how a seemingly simple argument can get very complex”

Justfinethanks, my problem wasn’t with Dennett’s not properly rebutting the cosmological argument(s), but with his mischaracterization of it (them). Dennett says that the cosmological argument, in its simplest form, states that since everything must have a cause, the universe must have a cause. Can you name a single philosopher who has defended a version of the cosmological argument that makes any use of the premise, “everything must have a cause”? I can’t. And that’s the point. No proponent of the cosmological argument, after reading Dennett’s very general formulation of it, would say, “Gee, thanks! I couldn’t have put it better.” Rather, they’d say (and have said) what I just said: “Who in the world has ever said that?” It’s one thing to state a complex family of arguments generally, and another to do so using a premise none of the particular versions make use of.

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Justfinethanks May 3, 2010 at 5:50 pm

My problem wasn’t with Dennett’s not properly rebutting the cosmological argument(s), but with his mischaracterization of it (them).

No, I can’t name a single philosopher who defends that version of the argument, but I don’t think he was trying to present a sophisticated argument. He is presenting the argument as most people (perhaps unfortunately) think about it. It is not inaccurate to say that his presentation of the argument is the “simplest” version of it. It’s so simple, in fact, it’s the version discussed entirely by lay people and not at all by philosophers.

In the quote in the main post, he is talking about how to offer a serious critique of a serious argument. In the quote you offer, he isn’t offering a serious argument and then proceeding to offer serious critique of it, so the two quotes don’t overlap. I think it’s a terribly uncharitable interpretation to say he had any intention of offering the cosmological argument in its strongest form, or even saying he is setting up a straw man to easily knock down. He is making a sociological point about how people talk about the argument, not a philosophical point about how philosophers present and critique the argument.

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Eric May 3, 2010 at 6:15 pm

“He is making a sociological point about how people talk about the argument, not a philosophical point about how philosophers present and critique the argument.”

Justfinthanks, have you actually read chapter 8 section 7 of ‘Breaking the Spell’? Section 7 begins with,

“At long last I turn to the promised consideration of arguments for the existence of God. And, having reviewed the obstacles — diplomatic, logical, psychological, and tactical — facing anybody who wants to do this constructively, I will give just a brief bird’s eye view of the domain of inquiry, expressing my own verdicts but not the reasoning that has gone into them, and providing references to a few pieces that may not be familiar to many.”

He’s clearly not “making a sociological point about how people talk about the argument[s],” but is providing an introduction to the arguments complete with his verdicts on them, in addition to references to other works in which he’s addressed them more fully.

Now my problem isn’t with his not rebutting the arguments in detail, and it’s not with his presenting generalized versions of what are in fact complex families of arguments, but is rather with his use in his generalized formulation of the cosmological argument of a premise no proponent of the cosmological argument would accept.

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Hermes May 4, 2010 at 3:58 am

Anyway, my point in the previous post only was that Dennett’s formulation of the cosmological argument obviously won’t receive any, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way,” responses from anyone who advocates it!  

Yet, even in the part you cited Dennett said it was a ‘summary in simplest form’. Do you think you could provide a better simple summary — your own or someone else’s?

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Eric May 4, 2010 at 12:50 pm

“Do you think you could provide a better simple summary — your own or someone else’s?”

Certainly. The SEP provides a fine, three sentence summary:

“[The cosmological argument] uses a general pattern of argumentation (logos) that makes an inference from certain alleged facts about the world (cosmos) to the existence of a unique being, generally identified with or referred to as God. Among these initial facts are that the world came into being, that the world is contingent in that it could have been other than it is, or that certain beings or events in the world are causally dependent or contingent. From these facts philosophers infer either deductively or inductively that a first cause, a necessary being, an unmoved mover, or a personal being (God) exists.”

Or, if you want still more concision, compare Dennett’s one sentence formulation with the SEP’s first sentence:

Dennett: “The Cosmological Argument, which in its simplest form states that since everything must have a cause the universe must have a cause—namely, God…”

SEP: “[The cosmological argument] uses a general pattern of argumentation (logos) that makes an inference from certain alleged facts about the world (cosmos) to the existence of a unique being, generally identified with or referred to as God.”

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Jacopo May 4, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Eric your own quotation refutes yourself – that chapter is not philosophy of religion 101, it’s just an overview of his impressions of it. It is very peripheral to his project, the study of religions as natural phenomena. This is not an unprecedented move, philosophers fairly often say ‘well here’s my position but I just don’t have the space to go into any detail’.

Talk to most people about why God might exist and a fair few of them will offer something like ‘well, what caused the Big Bang’? Exactly the kind of argument Dennett offers. If you ever talk to someone who is not a philosophy student who starts instead talking about logos and cosmos, I’ll eat my hat. And my shoes. Dennett states he is not interested in philosophical wrangling because:

1) There are no knock-down arguments or signs of real progress in the debate anymore. It’s not like a tightly defined rival scientific theory, you won’t be able to give a smackdown demonstration that shows your opponent has erred.
2) These arguments aren’t of interest to most religious believers, who are the people Dennett wants to study.

The success or failure of the arguments in the submicrodiscipline of natural theology are not going to make much difference to Dennett’s project. He also endorses the Miracle of Theism for people lusting after some more substantive skeptical argumentation which engages with theistic work in the submicrodiscipline.

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Eric May 5, 2010 at 3:21 am

“Eric your own quotation refutes yourself – that chapter is not philosophy of religion 101, it’s just an overview of his impressions of it. It is very peripheral to his project, the study of religions as natural phenomena. This is not an unprecedented move, philosophers fairly often say ‘well here’s my position but I just don’t have the space to go into any detail’.”

Jacopo, for the umpteenth time, I’m not criticizing his lack of engagement with the arguments, but his blatant mischaracterization of the cosmological argument.

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Jacopo May 5, 2010 at 4:49 am

“Eric your own quotation refutes yourself – that chapter is not philosophy of religion 101, it’s just an overview of his impressions of it. It is very peripheral to his project, the study of religions as natural phenomena. This is not an unprecedented move, philosophers fairly often say ‘well here’s my position but I just don’t have the space to go into any detail’.”Jacopo, for the umpteenth time, I’m not criticizing his lack of engagement with the arguments, but his blatant mischaracterization of the cosmological argument.  

I think everything justfinethanks said still stands: “I don’t think he was trying to present a sophisticated argument. [...] He is making a sociological point about how people talk about the argument, not a philosophical point about how philosophers present and critique the argument.”

Given as Dennett does go into more detail when he wants to provide a decent critique of something it seems pretty clear that justfinethanks’ interpretation of Dennett casually discussing everyday examples is more plausible. He alludes to the more complicated formulations later with his comment that cosmological arguments go off in the direction of wrangling over the meaning of ’cause’ on one hand and the niceties of cosmogony on the other. He says why they’re not relevant to his project. He moves on.

When Dennett is responding to actual cosmological arguments from the submicrodiscipline of philosophical theology he sounds like this:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wb10QvaHpS4&playnext_from=TL&videos=e7VjmGubdEs

Given as I don’t think there’s any chance of either of us changing our mind on this I will leave it there.

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Hermes May 5, 2010 at 9:54 am

Jacopo, I agree and see nothing more to add. Thanks.

Eric, is your take on this altered or changed even a bit?

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Eric May 5, 2010 at 1:44 pm

“Eric, is your take on this altered or changed even a bit?”

No. If I began a summary of evolution with, “Now the argument for evolution, in its simplest form, is that since we see progress in species over time…” I would not be accurately representing anything that any serious advocate of evolution has ever said, but would instead be presenting a cheap caricature of it. “Progress” plays no role in evolution, and anyone who sets up the argument this way will never hear, “Gee, thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way!” Now, Dennett’s summary of the cosmological argument is even worse than my evolution example.

As for the, “He is making a sociological point about how people talk about the argument, not a philosophical point about how philosophers present and critique the argument,” response, all I can say is read section 7 of chapter 8. He doesn’t say he’s going to look at how people talk about the arguments from a sociological point of view, but that he’s going to provide “a consideration of the arguments for God’s existence,” and not he’s not going to focus on just any old arguments, but on “the traditional arguments discussed at great length by the philosophers and theologians over the centuries…” He doesn’t treat the ontological argument or the design argument as providing opportunities for gaining sociological insights.

For example, he writes: “I have covered [design arguments] quite extensively in ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,’ so I will not repeat my counterarguments but only my summary of the retreat that Darwin’s dangerous idea has propelled during the last century and a half.” Note, He didn’t say, “I’m not going to provide my counterarguments here because I’m making a sociological point, not a philosophical point,” but that he’s not going to provide his counterarguments here because he’s treated the issue extensively elsewhere

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Hermes May 5, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Eric, your 3 sentence summary wasn’t as or more lucid than what Mr. Dennett wrote. Additionally, taking your example of ‘progress’ being inappropriate to the evolution quote you gave, where does he make a similar level error in his summary statements. Note that on p.240 (paperback edition) he introduces the section you quoted from — title: “7. Does God exist?” — with these words [comments in blocks];

If God did not exist, it would be necessary for us to invent Him. –Voltaire

“At long last I turn to the promised consideration of arguments for the existence of God [previously defined much earlier in the book in quite a bit of detail]. And, having reviewed the obstacles — diplomatic, logical, philosophical, and tactical — facing anyone who wants to do this constructively, I will give just a brief bird’s-eye view of the domain of inquiry, expressing my own verdicts but not the reasoning that has gone into them, and providing references to a few pieces that may not be familiar to many.”

He then, in the quote you provided, noted that he was dealing with the “simplest form” of the KCA, emphasising his comments that introduced this section. His less than one sentence summary — “everything must have a cause the universe must have a cause—namely, God” — is in line with what I see here;

http://www.philosophyofreligion.info/theistic-proofs/the-cosmological-argument/the-kalam-cosmological-argument

Excerpt;

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

(1) Everything that has a beginning of its existence has a cause of its existence.
(2) The universe has a beginning of its existence.
Therefore:
(3) The universe has a cause of its existence.
(4) If the universe has a cause of its existence then that cause is God.
Therefore:
(5) God exists.

So, I ask again if you can do as well if not better and also where you see a grievous mistake in what he actually wrote?

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Eric May 5, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Heremes, don’t you see a world of difference between,
(1) “Everything must have a cause,” and (1′) “Everything that has a beginning of its existence has a cause of its existence”? No theist has ever used (1) in any version of the cosmological argument because it raises the problem Dennett goes on to mention in his critique, viz. “then what caused god?” That’s the analgous error in Dennett’s formulation of the cosmological argument.

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