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"Cheeseburger" is just a word.
May 19, 2013 5:56 PM   Subscribe

Daniel Dennett's seven rules for thinking. "A deepity (a term coined by the daughter of my late friend, computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum) is a proposition that seems both important and true – and profound – but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous. On one reading, it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading, it is true but trivial. The unwary listener picks up the glimmer of truth from the second reading, and the devastating importance from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! That's a deepity."
posted by Sebmojo (148 comments total) 71 users marked this as a favorite

 
A good moral to draw from this observation is that when you want to criticise a field, a genre, a discipline, an art form …don't waste your time and ours hooting at the crap!

You know, it strikes me upon reading this sentence that the foundational principle of trolling is that people are largely unable to do this.
posted by invitapriore at 6:01 PM on May 19, 2013 [10 favorites]


The really alarming thing is how often anyone doing one of these things is shot down as a "hater".

Humans prefer comfy, familiar nonsense.
posted by DU at 6:09 PM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


This has a certain ring of truthiness to it.
posted by spitbull at 6:10 PM on May 19, 2013 [12 favorites]


I've had an observation that was fairly close to that thought about deepities before, and we all know what a deepity looks like, aesthetically. I think the way to go about taking truth from that would be to think about the truths that the deepity would necessarily eliminate, and ask hard questions based upon that.

"Earth has 4 corner simultaneous 4-day TIME CUBE within single rotation. 4 corner days proves 1 day 1 god is taught evil."

Well, it seems that Time Cube Guy does not like monotheism, and taking his statement at face value would indicate that the Earth has corners. Well, where are the corners?



This is the pure essence of being a "hater", of course.
posted by curuinor at 6:12 PM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Age is nothing but a number" - yes, the number that counts how many years old you are
posted by thelonius at 6:12 PM on May 19, 2013 [22 favorites]


By pure chance I picked up this book today. I've avoided Dennet because he was too wrapped up in the God stuff, which really seemed like a colossal waste of time, but this book so far is light, agreeable, and fun, if a bit heavy on the name- and encounter dropping (I was shopping for flip flops with Noam Chomsky when he brought up the intentionality of Shoe and whether.. Blah blah and boy did I show him!)

So far it seems to be a guide for how to be intellectually honest and how to get the most out of your discussions. I'd highly recommend it for casual reading and light thinkers like me who like to pretend they're reading philosophy.

Also, the savaging of Gould (here's three logical/rhetorical traps the Stepehn Gould uses throughout his entire body of work, dont do that) seems to go directly against some of his other advice, but is entertaining nonetheless.
posted by Llama-Lime at 6:18 PM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Clearly" and "obviously" need to accompany "surely" as DANGER WILL ROBINSON DANGER signs.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:21 PM on May 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


My favorite "deepity": God is a verb. This was carved into the marble wall between two toilet stalls in my freshman year dorm bathroom (2nd floor South,Yates Hall, College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA). No quotes around "God," which if they had been there would have made the statement demonstrably false; but this clever undergrad left off the quotes and made himself immortal by that choice.

(Dennett is a great analytic thinker, and I look forward to reading this book.)
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 6:28 PM on May 19, 2013


"Clearly" and "obviously" need to accompany "surely" as DANGER WILL ROBINSON DANGER signs.

...along with "logically".
posted by rocket88 at 6:33 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Cheeseburger" is just a word. But "Cheezburger" is a meme and a trademark. (And "Double Double" is a Religious Icon. )
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:39 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Certainly.
posted by Divine_Wino at 6:39 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


My favorite "deepity": God is a verb. This was carved into the marble wall between two toilet stalls in my freshman year dorm bathroom (2nd floor South,Yates Hall, College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA). No quotes around "God," which if they had been there would have made the statement demonstrably false; but this clever undergrad left off the quotes and made himself immortal by that choice.

That sneaky devil also left off the attribution to Buckminster Fuller.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 6:41 PM on May 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


How to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. Attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way."

2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.


Q: How annoying will I be if I just start linking to this in threads?
posted by shakespeherian at 6:45 PM on May 19, 2013 [48 favorites]


"I leave the analysis of this as an exercise for you."

Surely this is just a rhetorical question.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:45 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


DaDaDaDAve: The dorm in question opened in 1962; Buckminster Fuller published his quote in 1963. Just sayin' [ =^) ]
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 6:49 PM on May 19, 2013


I mean, Bucky Fuller could be a pretty deepitous dude. Smart as hell, did some awesome shit, also emitted a whole lot of woo.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 6:59 PM on May 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


This FPP cost me $17.67 for the hardcover.

Excellent.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:01 PM on May 19, 2013


At risk of totally derailing this, in 2001, I saw a one-man-show Buckminster Fuller biopic play at the Mercury Theater in Chicago, and the play definitely portrayed him as full of woo. After that, I tried to read one of his books, and I found it so full of woo as to be unreadable. Lots of folks with smarts in one thing don't have it in others, but might feel pressured to seem profound in all areas, and the unfortunate result is a bunch of deepities getting published in books written by "experts."
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 7:05 PM on May 19, 2013


Geese can be troublesome.
posted by eugenen at 7:31 PM on May 19, 2013


The later work of Dr. Fuller somewhat resembles the later work of Dr. Bronner.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:35 PM on May 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


I've avoided Dennet because he was too wrapped up in the God stuff

I can understand why you'd say such a thing, but I was quite pleasantly surprised by Dennett's Breaking the Spell, which was perhaps the first book I'd read since age twelve to successfully change the way I thought about religion. Although Dennett is certainly critical of religion, the thesis of the book is much more interesting than "religious believers are bad and they should feel bad". YMMV.
posted by lambdaphage at 7:52 PM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


After that, I tried to read one of his books, and I found it so full of woo as to be unreadable.

Most of the Fuller stuff I've read was published in the psychedelic 60s. He seemed to have just the right amount of almost in what he was saying for that era. Kind of like music that blows your mind when you're tripping on psychedelics, but then you listen to it again straight and realize that your accentuated chemicals were being creative, filling in blanks. Which isn't to say the music was shit; just incomplete to a non-psychedelicized consciousness.
posted by philip-random at 7:59 PM on May 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Uhm, "God is a verb" is not a deepity.

The full quote is:

"God, to me, it seems
is a verb,
not a noun,
proper or improper."

And it is explained by another quote:

“I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe.” — Buckminster Fuller

It's basically saying that we are not static, we are dynamic. Which is very true in my opinion.
posted by I-baLL at 8:06 PM on May 19, 2013 [18 favorites]


RE: deepities: "I don't like figurative language! It isn't literal and therefore doesn't REALLY say anything! I also like this name for a common form of figurative language which I especially dislike!"

Sorry, no.
posted by edheil at 8:16 PM on May 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


It's basically saying that we are not static, we are dynamic. Which is very true in my opinion.

That's also a deepity.
posted by painquale at 8:16 PM on May 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


Huh. I don't think I'd really realized, until reading this article, just how useless Occam's Razor is, as a concept. "Simpler" and more "complex" are massively subjective terms.

The idea is straightforward: 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. If exposure to extremely cold air can account for all the symptoms of frostbite, don't postulate unobserved "snow germs" or "Arctic microbes".

But, like, we didn't know about microbes, once. And isn't it "simpler" to suggest that illness comes from an imbalance of bodily fluids (which we can see) than from a bunch of invisible living creatures that hide in our bodies?

I don't want to argue about it

Ah, well, nice save, then.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:17 PM on May 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Besides all that arguing stuff, I learned that he is a compatibilist, that being a libertarian means you believe in free will, and that wikipedia has a chart of how much free will exists vs how much the universe is deterministic.
posted by Phredward at 8:26 PM on May 19, 2013


A deepity is a hipster.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:31 PM on May 19, 2013


But, like, we didn't know about microbes, once. And isn't it "simpler" to suggest that illness comes from an imbalance of bodily fluids (which we can see) than from a bunch of invisible living creatures that hide in our bodies?

But you're missing the point of Occam's razor. It's not "this is an infallible guide to finding the right answer" it is "don't posit needlessly complicated explanations until you are forced by the evidence to do so." Believing in microbes was not a "rational" position until the evidence for them was compelling. In the absence of a great deal of scientific inquiry and examination, some guy saying to you "hey, I know how disease gets transmitted, we're constantly being preyed on by tiny little animals that no one has ever seen!" is just a lunatic who happens to be right by sheer luck. The sheer luck of being right doesn't make his claim inherently interesting or worthy of credit.

This is, of course, one of the central insights in Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but in some ways seen from the other side of the coin (the people who continue to believe in the "old" paradigm after the "new" paradigm first emerges are not, usually, irrational reactionaries; they have plausible reasons to resist what is, as yet, an unproven framework of understanding.
posted by yoink at 8:39 PM on May 19, 2013 [33 favorites]


Yeah, f'rex quantum physics is not something you'd get from Occam's Razor.

It's really just rhetorical shorthand for saying 'you're assuming more things than I am, so I have a higher chance of being right'.
posted by Sebmojo at 8:51 PM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


My personal favorite marginalia to Occam's Razor is Hickam's Dictum:

"The patient can have as many diseases as they damn well please" - John Hickam, MD
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 9:10 PM on May 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's basically saying that we are not static, we are dynamic. Which is very true in my opinion.

That's also a deepity.


Not for me, when I first heard it. The notion that there were no static entities anywhere, no discrete-noun-things (because, of course, atoms and neutrons were always buzzing away regardless of how static something might seem) was a biggity; got my head out of my smug early adult ass in terms of thinking I had a grand handle on what constituted reality. I didn't and it was causing me all kinds of turmoil.
posted by philip-random at 9:12 PM on May 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, the whole "deepity" one really shouldn't be on the list; it's one of those "ain't I smart" gotcha things which almost always badly fails the "respect your opponent" rules. Essentially all forms of figurative language will be "deepities" according to his definition: statements which are trivially false (or trivially true) and yet carry with them implications that are potentially profound. "No man is an island," "Am I not a man, and a brother?," "If you prick me, do I not bleed?," "Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains," etc. etc. To respond to these with a "haw haw, that's not literally true!" or a "well, yeah, duh, of course men aren't islands" is just to prove yourself incapable of one of the most powerful forms of human thought.
posted by yoink at 9:29 PM on May 19, 2013 [14 favorites]


yoink:

I don't think any of your examples fit the definition:

"On one reading, it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading, it is true but trivial."
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:47 PM on May 19, 2013


Yeah, the whole "deepity" one really shouldn't be on the list; it's one of those "ain't I smart" gotcha things which almost always badly fails the "respect your opponent" rules

Uh huh. There's something to the notion; plenty of aphoristic, poetic, and mystical language is built to posture as profound without actually communicating much of an idea, and plenty of things that people are overfond of repeating have that sort of true-and-not-true kick to them. But then the Dawkins-provided example immediately struck me as sort of a pointless cheap shot.
posted by brennen at 9:48 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the notion of a deepity is kind of initially appealing but on reflection not too useful. My first thought on reading it was a post on "I f**ing love science" that boiled down to how people are immortal because we're all made of stardust. So yes, that's true in one sense, that the matter we are made of continues endlessly, but our individual selves still decompose, and that's what death is. If people followed through on where these thoughts would lead, they'd reach these realizations, but some people are excited by potential outcomes and less interested in the details... And there were lots of people commenting about how this made them feel better about their loved one's death or how now their people were with the stars or whatever.

The example in the article didn't seem fitting to me at all - I don't really understand what the insight "love is just a word" is meant to convey, but it seems neither trivially true nor earth-shattering but false. My guess is that it's meant to be saying something about how not all forms of love are identical, that something is only "love" when we decide to call it that. But in a different context it could mean, don't trust him until he buys you a ring. I have no idea what version the author has in mind though...

What it comes down to is that people interpret things differently, and if you want to communicate something specific, you have to be specific about it. It's not usually as simple as there being two ways to look at something, or to things being obviously false or obviously trivial. But if you are going to be ambiguous, it's worth remembering that some portion of your audience will interpret things in whatever way produces the results they want or expect, and won't mind contradictions.

they have plausible reasons to resist what is, as yet, an unproven framework of understanding.

I think the point is that they don't, particularly, but Occam's razor recommends conservatism as a rule. It's not because conservatism is right, but just because it's generally speaking safer.
posted by mdn at 9:58 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


A deepity (a term coined by the daughter of my late friend, computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum)

This is so ridiculously sexist it made me laugh out loud. Unless she's, like, three years old, I guess.
posted by threeants at 10:04 PM on May 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


I didn't get the idea that deepities are bad in themselves from the article. Rather, they were listed as something to beware when thinking about things carefully or trying to frame an argument. At least, you should be willing to explain in detail what are you saying when you employ seemingly ambiguous statements that you are claiming have profound implications. That is, unless you are OK with other people finding different profound implications from them, or perhaps none at all.
posted by tykky at 10:23 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is so ridiculously sexist it made me laugh out loud. Unless she's, like, three years old, I guess.

Your sexism meter is calibrated way too sensitive then. Joseph Weizenbaum is famous, and in other circumstances the sentence would have been formulated as "...the son of...". The point is the name-dropping, not the gender.

(Just checked Google. "the son of my friend": 9,430,000 results. "the daughter of my friend": 6,290,000 results. Make of that what you will.)

It's basically saying that we are not static, we are dynamic. Which is very true in my opinion.

That's also a deepity.


Sounds like complex systems thinking to me.
posted by Leon at 10:26 PM on May 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


I have a specific experience -- actually, a recurring experience -- with a particular type of deepity. I call it "the fog of art." There are a lot of people in the arts who will use the profound language of art as a way of avoiding any specifics, or any accountability, or even any thought. I mean, we make fun of artists' statements a lot, but at their core they are often an effort to find some precision in describing something that sometimes defies description (they can, of course, be part of this smokescreen.)

There are a lot of buzz phrases in the arts -- especially when you get into the fundraising side of things, which has borrowed unconscionably from social services. So sometimes you find yourself face to face with people who will talk about the vibrancy of the human desire for storytelling, and the community building experience of shared artistic experience, and on and on. And it sounds meaningful, and it sounds profound, but when you press them for details, you get a sort of huffy "arts cannot be quantified like business," as though that were what you were asking for. Whatever specificity you ask for -- how will this be done? How will you attract an audience? How, specifically, does this foster discussion? -- they retreat behind more hand-wavy platitudes, hoping to disappear into the fog of art.

Sometimes they are just people in the arts who have no communication skills. But sometimes they are incompetents, or con artists, or just do bad work and want to deflect criticism. And so I am very suspicious when I see the fog of art being thrown up. Art exists in the real world. It is made of real stuff and is seen by real people. If you cannot discuss that aspect of it, but instead just exist in a world of profound-sounding platitudes, there is a good chance you are doing bad work.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:31 PM on May 19, 2013 [28 favorites]


spitbull: "This has a certain ring of truthiness to it."

Most of Dennett's writing does. At least this time it has some entertaining irony tossed in for good measure.
posted by koeselitz at 10:55 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't agree with his point about only engaging with the very best work. I mean, yes, I do agree with it, but at the same time someone has to extend a hand back down the ladder to help hoist other people up. I think trying to cordon yourself off from all of the things that "aren't worthy" of your time is kind of selfish. Or maybe I think that we need both kinds of thinker, purists who only concern themselves with the best stuff and interpreters who have a foot the world of commonplace things most people inhabit.
posted by subdee at 11:15 PM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


purists who only concern themselves with the best stuff and interpreters who have a foot the world of commonplace things most people inhabit.

except the purists operate from the dubious assumption that they are actually even capable of identifying the "best" stuff. The early days of punk rock sure saw a pile of purists crying foul. Rock and roll too. And cinema. And likely theater, opera, poetry, everything ... when they were new. The best stuff always comes out of the weeds.
posted by philip-random at 11:27 PM on May 19, 2013


This article is deepity.
posted by blue shadows at 11:51 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


incomplete to a non-psychedelicized consciousness

The fundamental problem with the vast bulk of human culture, and what makes the animated shorts from 1970s Sesame Street so special and important.
posted by Meatbomb at 1:44 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've always thought that Mefi's own "if you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold" was a classic example of a deepity.
posted by Decani at 1:45 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I don't like figurative language! It isn't literal and therefore doesn't REALLY say anything! I also like this name for a common form of figurative language which I especially dislike!"

Somebody forgot step 1 already.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:49 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've expressed an aspect of the "don't waste your time on rubbish" point before like this:
Arguing with idiots proves nothing. Anything, even the truth, can be believed for bad reasons, and consequently, idiots can be found on every side of every issue. You're probably more aware of the idiots who disagree with you, but that's because you don't bother to argue with the ones who agree with you and thus don't get to see what idiots they are.
posted by baf at 2:00 AM on May 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


I don't think his "don't waste your time on rubbish" is meant as general advice for life. He's saying if you're arguing against a position, argue against the best statement of that position, rather than knocking down straw men other people have set up.
posted by wilberforce at 2:36 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, f'rex quantum physics is not something you'd get from Occam's Razor.

It is, though, remarkably, once you are in possession of all the facts. It actually is the simplest explanation we can find of the results of our experiments.
posted by empath at 4:07 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Why should you waste your time listening to a guy who presents opinions with no empirical evidence that they work and who has no qualifications as a psychologist?

No, really.

Is it because he shares some belief you have, so he must be a bro?

Is it because you feel that by supporting him in this, you support him generally of an advocate of positions you like?

Is it because you believe his work as a philosopher is transferable to improving your cognition? Where's the proof for that?

Is it because you believe yourself to have one or more of these habits already, and appreciate implicit praise from a famous intellectual?

Is it because you feel that you can use these rules to defend yourself from an accusation of lazy thinking, by, for example, refusing to learn the ins and outs of "rubbish," you'd like to make a claim about?
posted by mobunited at 4:59 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


F: All of the above.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 5:03 AM on May 20, 2013


Why should you waste your time listening to a guy who presents opinions with no empirical evidence that they work and who has no qualifications as a psychologist?

As if psychology has anything to do with empirical evidence.
posted by empath at 5:21 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't think his "don't waste your time on rubbish" is meant as general advice for life. He's saying if you're arguing against a position, argue against the best statement of that position, rather than knocking down straw men other people have set up.

Or for example, if all you've seen is three episodes of "Naruto", don't go around smirking about how stupid anime is. Come back when you've watched "Cowboy Bebop" and "Millennium Actress". If you still want to argue that it's stupid after that, you'll have a real position to defend, rather than arguing from little experience with nothing of interest to say.

Bitter? Me? Noooo.
posted by rifflesby at 5:25 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


As if psychology has anything to do with empirical evidence.

In case you're not joking, I should note that there exist psychology labs in which actual evidence is collected about actual people (like, measuring them do things instead of just asking them to fill out questionnaires). I have worked in two of them, so to the extent that you believe that I am accurately reporting my experiences, you should believe that these labs exist.

If would like to know what a real criticism of psychology looks like, read Paul Meehl, who headed the APA for a time, and whose warnings some 40 years ago have remained largely unheeded by the psychology research community.
posted by Jpfed at 6:09 AM on May 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


I don't think people have been attending carefully to the definition of 'deepity':

"A deepity (a term coined by the daughter of my late friend, computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum) is a proposition that seems both important and true – and profound – but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous. On one reading, it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading, it is true but trivial. The unwary listener picks up the glimmer of truth from the second reading, and the devastating importance from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! That's a deepity."

So it's not just any old profound-sounding BS. This is an old kind of point in philosophy, though the cutesy name is new. In grad school everyone hears of one of the luminaries of 20th-century philosophy (though I've heard this variously attributed) saying: "This view is both true and interesting, but the interesting bits aren't true, and the true bits aren't interesting."

Anyway, Dennet seems to be talking about things like, e.g., "morality is relative," which is either true and boring because it just means "people sometimes disagree about what is right," or astonishing and Earth-shaking but bullshit, meaning something like "It is obligatory for you to do whatever the majority of your group thinks you should do."

"x is socially constructed" is the same for, so far as I can tell, any value of 'x'--there are the amazing and kooky interpretations, and the true and boring interpretations, but it's virtually impossible to find any amazing and true interpretations.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 6:11 AM on May 20, 2013 [9 favorites]


Why should you waste your time listening to a guy who presents opinions with no empirical evidence that they work and who has no qualifications as a psychologist?

There's still very limited empirical evidence in cognitive psychology on critical thinking techniques, and the one serious metastudy I'm familiar with basically supports the null hypothesis. So whatever is true about critical thinking, the data is still yet to be gathered. Then too, without critical thinking like what he's describing, we are likely to misinterpret the data.

That said, I'm not sure what the evidence could or would be for something like modus ponens. Logic and mathematics are pre-empirical; you need them to do the empirical work.

Is it because he shares some belief you have, so he must be a bro?

No, not really. It helps that he is a respected philosopher who generally does good work ("Quining Qualia" is rightly a classic.) But if anything, his associations with new atheism taint him as an ideologue and I was pleasantly surprised by what I've read here.

Is it because you feel that by supporting him in this, you support him generally of an advocate of positions you like?

I'm not sure I feel any general solidarity with Dennett, no. What would that even mean? Like, because I agree with him about qualia, I agree with him about deepities?

Is it because you believe his work as a philosopher is transferable to improving your cognition? Where's the proof for that?

As I said, the aggregated data supports the null hypothesis (no effect) but anecdotally I find that some such techniques help. Perhaps this is motivated reasoning? But the problem with the evidence for motivated reasoning was that it was only developed in response to persistent claims by philosophers that such things occurred. So it seems like we have to start with the lay knowledge of folks like Dennett and then develop the evidence second. Sometimes it will be falsified. Also, it's interesting.

Is it because you believe yourself to have one or more of these habits already, and appreciate implicit praise from a famous intellectual?

Yeah, maybe. A lot of what he says are actually pretty much common sense within the profession. He says it well, though, so it's worth sharing and discussing. It does seem like a good rule of thumb that you should take the advice if a careful and talented professional thinker says to you: "You already have some of these skills, but you need to develop some others. Let me explain what I mean." So, for instance, if a golf pro told you you had a good swing but need to work on your follow-through, that would be the kind of advice worth taking.

Is it because you feel that you can use these rules to defend yourself from an accusation of lazy thinking, by, for example, refusing to learn the ins and outs of "rubbish," you'd like to make a claim about?

Err.. no? I'm not sure you're reading him correctly on that point. What he says is "Go after the good stuff or leave it alone." He doesn't say: "Call things rubbish you don't understand." That's basically the opposite of what he says when he describes when you should attack something.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:18 AM on May 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


Why should you waste your time listening to a guy who presents opinions with no empirical evidence that they work and who has no qualifications as a psychologist?

Yeah, basically what anotherpanacea said.

The kinds of issues that Dennett is addressing aren't empirical psychological questions, they're more like low-grade logical or methodological questions--and such normative questions aren't typically answered empirically. As anotherpanacea noted, we'd generally not know how to test them--we certainly couldn't do so psychologically, because it doesn't matter, e.g., whether most people accept modus ponens or not--it's deductively valid. No amount of psychological data could show that you should (or should not) respect your opponent.

(though I'll see your "Quining Qualia" with _The Intentionally Stance_; that is a really, really bad book.)
posted by Fists O'Fury at 6:28 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


On one reading, it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading, it is true but trivial. The unwary listener picks up the glimmer of truth from the second reading, and the devastating importance from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! That's a deepity.

Has anyone read René Daumal's essay Pataphysics and the Revelation of Laughter?

I was struck by the similarity of the "deepity" to this bit from his 1929 monograph:

"The reality of thought moves along a string of absurdities, which is true to the great principle that evidence cloaks itself in absurdity as its only means of being perceived. Whence the humorous appearance of pataphysical reasoning, which at first glance seems ridiculous, then on closer examination seems to contain a hidden meaning, then at even closer range indubitably ridiculous, then again even more profoundly true, and so on, as the evidence and the ludicrousness of the proposition go on growing and mutually reinforcing each other indefinitely."

Just an observation.

Also, long-time reader, first-time poster. Been scanning Metafilter for years. Finally coughed up the $5 to comment. Nice to meet you all. :)
posted by Faeland at 6:34 AM on May 20, 2013 [14 favorites]


I like Dennett and I'm reading the book, but I could get by without more cutesy new little words like deepity (you meme-mongering old bright).
posted by Segundus at 6:37 AM on May 20, 2013


This is an old kind of point in philosophy, though the cutesy name is new.

Ooh, now that you mention it, there's a very old and perfectly lovely example in Heraclitus. Understand that all we know of Heraclitus's philosophy comes from fragmentary quotations in other sources. One of these fragments can be translated as "Hot becomes cold, and cold becomes hot". Some people encountering this, probably primed by expectations about his unity-of-opposites mysticism, find this difficult to understand: the quality that we call "hotness" treated as an abstraction... turns into the quality that we call "coldness"? What does that even mean? It's like saying that the number three sometimes swaps places with the number four.

But he probably just meant that hot things cool down and cold things warm up.
posted by baf at 6:57 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Reminds me of a sentence by lanza Del Vasto : "obviousness is what you can only learn from yourself". BTW, I've just found out that Dennett worked with Douglas Hofstadter. Another interesting post, thanks !
posted by nicolin at 7:08 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


1. Attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way."

I would be astonished if Dennett has ever said or written anything about religion that got that response from a religious believer.

"Clearly" and "obviously" need to accompany "surely" as DANGER WILL ROBINSON DANGER signs.


Whereas "doubtless" just simply and straightforwardly means the opposite of what it says.
posted by straight at 7:11 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


For instance, "deepity," if it has any real use as a concept (which I doubt), only applies to statements that are claims. The statement about faith that Dennett ridicules is clearly just trying to express how the bishop feels about his faith. Trying to pick apart attempts to describe someone's experience with his whole "false or trivially true" rubric is just a category error, and a pretty stupid one.

I can't tell whether Dennett is too dense to understand this or too uncharitable toward religious believers to stick to his first rule.
posted by straight at 7:20 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's Dennett on belief, trying to do what he says:

From a sincere theist’s point of view, "God is the greatest thing that could ever enter our lives. It isn’t like accepting a conclusion; it’s like falling in love.” (Breaking the Spell, 250)

That's Dennett trying to fulfill the argumentative challenge he presents to us. Does he really sound so uncharitable as you claim?
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:24 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


That one sentence out of context might be something a believer would be satisfied with, but I'll bet the paragraph it comes from doesn't satisfy his first rule. That book is pretty much constantly breaking his first rule.
posted by straight at 7:28 AM on May 20, 2013


I'll bet the paragraph it comes from doesn't satisfy his first rule.

Here is where I start asking for some evidence. You've made several bets, and it's time for you to settle up. It's time to either "be astonished" or demonstrate what you've claimed.

I don't know Dennett personally, but he doesn't seem to have the same assholishness of the other New Atheists. Perhaps you are unfairly generalizing from your experience of the Sam Harris-types?
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:31 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't have a copy of the book, and Amazon doesn't have page 250 available in Search Inside, so unless you can quote the whole paragraph, I'll have to get back to you on my astonishment or lack thereof.
posted by straight at 7:38 AM on May 20, 2013


Here is the paragraph it comes from. Does it violate the rule?
You insist on treating the question of religion as if it were like whether or not to switch jobs, or buy a car, or have an operation—a matter that ought to be settled by calmly and objectively considering the pros and cons, and then drawing a conclusion about the best course, “all things considered.” That’s not how we see it at all. It isn't that belief in the belief in God is our settled conviction, a matter of the best overall life policy we have been able to discover. It goes way beyond that! In the previous chapter you talked about “fake it until you make it,” but you never got around to describing the wonderful state of those who do “make it,” whose honest attempts to imbue themselves with the spirit of God succeed in a burst of glory. Those of us who know the experience know that it is unlike any other experience, a joy warmer than the joy of motherhood, deeper than the joy of victory in sports, more ecstatic than the joys of playing or singing great music. When we see the light, it isn't just an “Aha!” experience, like figuring out a puzzle or suddenly seeing the hidden figure in a drawing. or getting a joke, or being persuaded by an argument. It isn't arriving at a belief at all. We know, then, that God is the greatest thing that could ever enter our lives. It isn't like accepting a conclusion; it’s like falling in love.
This honestly doesn't sound uncharitable to me.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:39 AM on May 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


how useless Occam's Razor is, as a concept. "Simpler" and more "complex" are massively subjective terms.

Occam's Razor is actually "Do not multiply entities beyond necessity," so it's really just counting how many hypothetical entities are in each competing explanation, not something as subjective as "complex" or "simple." But I think you're right that sometimes people slip into a more subjective version of Occam's Razor, like Dennett here saying, "How could postulating something supernatural and incomprehensible be parsimonious?" To be fair, he's just responding to religious people misusing Occam's Razor. His last paragraph is better. Religious people may be technically using the Razor correctly, but it's just a guide, not some kind of law, and it just doesn't seem applicable that that sort of question.
posted by straight at 7:53 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Everything happens for a REASON!
posted by lordaych at 7:56 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is 'multiple drafts' the ultimate deepity?
posted by Golden Eternity at 8:58 AM on May 20, 2013


but it's just a guide, not some kind of law,

Yes, Occam's Razor does not claim that the simplest explanation is always correct, it suggests that the simplest explanation is a good place to start evaluating something.

Thinking about the definition of the word Heuristic, (using simple methods in the first steps to begin approaching complex problems) and Occam's Razor is a good example of a heuristic tool.

(Remember James Woods arguing with Jodie Foster in the movie 'Contact'? He was actually using it as a rhetorical tool.)
posted by ovvl at 9:04 AM on May 20, 2013


Yeah, the whole "deepity" one really shouldn't be on the list; it's one of those "ain't I smart" gotcha things which almost always badly fails the "respect your opponent" rules.

Hey man, it is what it is.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 9:06 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Re: "deepities."

My communications prof was fond of the phrase 'obscurity does not equal profundity.'

OK, I suppose that could be considered a "deepity" but I think it pretty well conveys Dennet's thoughts on deepities from the article.

Christ, I never want to type "deepity" ever again.
posted by Tevin at 9:42 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


...Sometimes they are just people in the arts who have no communication skills. But sometimes they are incompetents, or con artists, or just do bad work and want to deflect criticism. And so I am very suspicious when I see the fog of art being thrown up. Art exists in the real world. It is made of real stuff and is seen by real people. If you cannot discuss that aspect of it, but instead just exist in a world of profound-sounding platitudes, there is a good chance you are doing bad work.

If you say that artists doing a style of work that you don't personally like are just a bunch of elitist parasites, then you'll always have an agreeable audience for your views, but I think that the whole art-ecosystem is a bit more complex than that.

Many artists would prefer the audience to engage their work on it's own rather than talk about it, but like it or not, a dialogue is part of the process. Art exists in the real world, but it doesn't only exist in the real world, it also exists amidst a mercurial web of assumptions, anticipations and cultural resonances, which are evoked (sometimes awkwardly) in a swarm of critiques, reviews, press-releases, and those pesky didactic panels. Yes, this dialogue can seem foggy because the text isn't purely technical, it also contains bits of poetry, speculation, theory, advertising, and sure some bullshit too. But I wouldn't define this dialogue purely by the latter element.
posted by ovvl at 9:57 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


This honestly doesn't sound uncharitable to me.

I'm not what I'd call a believer (not really a disbeliever either, just undecided), but I have discussed (and in depth) faith, conversions etc with a few friends who have found something. Limited data no doubt, but what the hell, I'm an artist, not a scientist.

I've gotta say that I find that paragraph hyperbolic, and thus kind of condescending. By which I mean (and I'm thinking of two friends in particular here), their embracing of faith was expressed in far subtler terms. More along the lines of an almost invisible moment where they just stopped wrestling with all the BIG questions that the universe wasn't answering and simply accepted that, in some way they'd perhaps never fully grasp (possibly even involving sky fairies), their life, existence, pain, suffering, sorrow, sacrifice fell into a certain beneficent metaphysical design.

And here's the key point. It's not that this "moment" triggered hallelujah choruses and visions of angels, it was more a case of looking back and seeing that it defined the spot on their lives' long and convoluted paths that things turned around for them. They became "better" people as a result of it.
posted by philip-random at 10:09 AM on May 20, 2013


A metafoo (a term coined by the third cousin of my dear buddy, physicist Albert Einstein) is a proposition that seems to be meaningful and/or beautiful because it compares unlike things, but that actually achieves this effect by being ambiguous. And if there's one thing I hate, it's ambiguity! On one reading, the two things aren't alike at all, and it would be earth-shaking if they were; on the other reading, they are alike in an obvious way. The unwary listener picks up the glimmer of a similarity from the second reading, and a dissimilarity from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! — while the wary listener, too smart to be fooled by such obvious trickery, shuts the book immediately, just pausing to yell "You're a fraud, Burns, your love is nothing like a red, red rose! Your English fails to be literally translatable into propositional logic, and therefore is utter nonsense!" That's a metafoo.

I think it works for all the tropes, yeah
posted by RogerB at 10:16 AM on May 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


There's also the problem that visual and musical communication often develops faster than our verbal and written vocabulary for describing them. Alternately, attempts to describe exactly what a work really is or does turn out to be more cumbersome than the work itself. I've largely considered visual and musical art to be somewhere between explicit and tacit knowledge (with apologies to Polanyi). Visual, musical, and performance art can be communicated (and thus is intersubjective) but can't be easily explained, at least not without adopting language, formalisms, and prerequisite knowledge that demand professional-level competency.

Something like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony explains itself in one way through audio performance, and another way by participating in performance. Fully explaining it in the English language demands a technical jargon that's mostly incomprehensible to me as a non-musicologist. But then again, my method for comparing Beethoven with those who followed him is just putting them on the same playlist.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:27 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


empath: "It is, though, remarkably, once you are in possession of all the facts. It actually is the simplest explanation we can find of the results of our experiments."

I knew somebody would bring this up.

At its core, Quantum Mechanics is profoundly unintuitive, but actually quite simple on a conceptual and mathematical level. It also unified and refined a number of existing theories, which leads me to believe that QM actually supports Occam's Razor.

Unfortunately, it's rather difficult to derive useful results or equations from that simple core. Once you start (necessarily) making a few approximations to achieve a useful result, you end up deriving the same old formulas that were used in classical physics. Even though we know that the Bohr model is wrong, we continue to use it, because those approximations are good enough for most purposes, and give our feeble human brains a more intuitive (albeit simplified) perspective on how matter behaves.

Special Relativity is arguably a better refutation of Occam's Razor, because it expanded on our existing theories, rather than providing a simpler unifying theory (most classical mechanics weren't wrong -- we were just forgetting to account for relativistic effects). On the other hand, it also did away with the ridiculous aether theories (which we're still testing to insane levels of precision), so relativity might be a draw over whether it made physics more or less complicated...
posted by schmod at 10:56 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


JimInLoganSquare: "My favorite "deepity": God is a verb. This was carved into the marble wall between two toilet stalls in my freshman year dorm bathroom (2nd floor South,Yates Hall, College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA)"

These days, it's mostly just grout puns. "Groutcho Marx" was my favorite.

posted by schmod at 10:59 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


My fundamental objection to the term is that it reminds me of Carlos Mencia mocking the disabled.
posted by lordaych at 11:07 AM on May 20, 2013


Special Relativity is arguably a better refutation of Occam's Razor, because it expanded on our existing theories, rather than providing a simpler unifying theory (most classical mechanics weren't wrong -- we were just forgetting to account for relativistic effects). On the other hand, it also did away with the ridiculous aether theories (which we're still testing to insane levels of precision), so relativity might be a draw over whether it made physics more or less complicated...

Occam's Razor is a practical tool for human beings to use to decide what to believe who have a limited amount of information about the universe. It isn't a flawless oracle for truth, and doesn't imply that the universe should be simple at all. There was a time when those who used Occam's Razor would have dismissed special relativity and quantum mechanics out of hand, and rightfully so. It would have been useless complication of newtonian mechanics which worked perfectly well according to all of our experiments. It only became important to know about QM when Newtonian physics' explanatory power reached its limits, and until then, there would have been no way of knowing whether the theory was true or false.

Without it, there are an infinite number of possible beliefs that could explain absolutely everything.
posted by empath at 11:20 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Why should you waste your time listening to a guy who presents opinions with no empirical evidence that they work and who has no qualifications as a psychologist?

Be careful how you criticize Dennett. He may seem like a kindly cross between Socrates and Santa Claus, but it's known in certain circles that he keeps a modest horde of highly trained digger wasps which respond to his every command, and which he sends to attack his detractors when they push him too far. Be wary of any man who keeps a digger wasp nest.
posted by homunculus at 11:40 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Something like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony explains itself in one way through audio performance, and another way by participating in performance. Fully explaining it in the English language demands a technical jargon that's mostly incomprehensible to me as a non-musicologist. But then again, my method for comparing Beethoven with those who followed him is just putting them on the same playlist.

This is a sincerely stated and makes an excellent point. One of the pitfalls in being a professional in any given field is when arguing with the less-informed, one is usually on the verge, if not the explicit instinctual temptation or inevitability, to identify one's credentials, which often brings on a negative response in the listener, even if unstated or just subconscious.

Art (or music) being most often entirely subjective, makes this type of discussion most difficult. (the old "I don't really know music. but I know what I like" argument). There have been certain apologists for music such as Schoenberg or Leonard Bernstein or in a more modern context, Cameron Crowe or Lester Bands -- guys who were able to get away with it, more often because their accomplishments and knowledge was basically unquestioned. But the rest of us, highly informed and/or educated in a particular art form, still have a problem, for we are trying to explain particular aesthetics to someone perhaps less informed, and for those with that less-informed opinion are likely to give up any ground, thus friendships can even become questioned or even destroyed. (I once lost a girlfriend over an argument about early Neil Young)

For example, as an art enthusiast (but nothing more than that)if I was interested in discussing DeKooning or Rothko, I would certainly respect the opinions of an art lover or collector, rather than that of a physicist or a policeman. The same does not hold true for educated musicians, probably since music is the most ubiquitous of all the arts, and all "lay persons", if you will, have their own strong opinions. That doesn't make their opinions more valid, just far less informed. Is there a right or wrong here? sometimes yes, sometimes no. I've always found it best to leave well enough alone, with those who haven't studied music or are professionals, if they're trying to explain how Kanye West is a genius, for example. It is just easier to change the subject, or walk away, if one is that provoked.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 11:46 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


what? you're saying Kanye West isn't a genius?
posted by philip-random at 11:48 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Addendum: Sometimes, you can justify the fight, otherwise one just might need to take the high road.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 11:55 AM on May 20, 2013


For example, as an art enthusiast (but nothing more than that)if I was interested in discussing DeKooning or Rothko, I would certainly respect the opinions of an art lover or collector, rather than that of a physicist or a policeman. The same does not hold true for educated musicians, probably since music is the most ubiquitous of all the arts, and all "lay persons", if you will, have their own strong opinions. That doesn't make their opinions more valid, just far less informed. Is there a right or wrong here? sometimes yes, sometimes no. I've always found it best to leave well enough alone, with those who haven't studied music or are professionals, if they're trying to explain how Kanye West is a genius, for example. It is just easier to change the subject, or walk away, if one is that provoked.

There's another problem here that you're missing, which is that art education, for all of its problems, tends to instill an appreciation for stylistic breadth by virtue of the wide variety of styles and traditions it treats and therefore students tend to come out of it with a decently flexible analytical framework in my experience. This isn't true of music school grads, who are inculcated with a very narrow stylistic definition of what constitutes serious music and a comparably narrow means for evaluating it that utterly misses various subtleties of (for example) timbre, or cultural meaning, that the music school emphasis on abstract music tends to condition its graduates to ignore.* So, no, if anything, such musical "professionals" tend to be less credible on average than a layperson with an attentive ear, in light of the professional being afflicted with a selective blindness.

* It's not clear to me, though, in which direction the causative arrow points here. I'm pretty sure all the smarmy, buttoned-down rule-obsessives in my theory classes came there that way. I remember when we talked about harmonic retrogression, wherein you reverse the typical order of a functional (usually cadential) progression, and one such wide-eyed naif just blurted out in pure incredulity, "but why would you do that?" Ugh. Bad memories.
posted by invitapriore at 12:15 PM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


... for we are trying to explain particular aesthetics to someone perhaps less informed, and for those with that less-informed opinion are likely to give up any ground, thus friendships can even become questioned or even destroyed. (I once lost a girlfriend over an argument about early Neil Young) ... It is just easier to change the subject, or walk away, if one is that provoked.


This is only a problem if your goal (or unstoppable urge) is to rank aesthetic judgements. I realize that many people like to do just that (or feel compelled to do it, or do it without thinking), and I'm not criticizing them; I'm merely suggesting there's another option besides ranking or walking away.

In the Sciences, it makes sense to rank ideas, because there are generally clear metrics for right and wrong. And you can even talk about the assumptions behind those methods, e.g. "If you accept the Scientific Method and the steps I took in this particular use of it, you'll have to conclude as I did, because ..."

Whereas aesthetic judgements generally depend on appeals to authority, appeals to tradition, or appeals to gut feeling. Which is fine, except there's no rational way to push such appeals on another person. Why should I accept your gut feelings or respect the same authorities that you do?

Added to that, I'm simply going to have certain reactions to works of art. If I love a work and you "prove" to me that it's bad, I may still like it. So what does it even mean then -- to me -- to say that it's bad? Does bad simply mean "lacking certain formal properties" or "unpopular (e.g. with scholars"? People usually express that by saying things like, "I know it's not considered great art, but it's a guilty pleasure of mine..." Okay. I guess if your goal is to get agreement on what we labels "great art" or "bad art," you might be able to use rhetoric to achieve it. But, in the end, I'm still going to like what I like.

(I'm always confused by people's desire to win with labels. Like many atheists, I've often been told that I'm actually agnostic by someone who really, really wants me to admit that I'm not an atheist. It's so tiring. If I "give in" and say, "okay, I'm an agnostic," nothing has changed. I still have the same beliefs and disbeliefs that I had when I labeled myself an atheist. Over the years, I've stopped fighting that battle. I now generally say, "I'm fine with being called an agnostic or whatever you want to call me. Regardless of the label, what I am is someone who doesn't believe in gods."

When someone hears that and is really happy that I capitulated, I realize he was never interested in discussing atheism. He was interesting in labeling or winning debate points or whatever. Often, I think, when people want to prove to me that my favorite band sucks, they are not really interested in making me hate that band. I mean, surely they know I'm still going enjoy it, since it's probably hitting me on some sort of primal level. Rather, they want me to acknowledge some sort of authoritative group or tradition. Or they simply want to win. Which is boring.)

It's odd to me to hear someone say, "I know this is bad coffee, but I like it." Presumably, he means something like, "I can detect the aspects of it that would turn off coffee connoisseurs, but not being a connoisseur, I am not turned off by it." In other words, "I understand that the authorities don't like it, but I do." As opposed to Science's "that's simply wrong" and "that's simply right." If you accept the premises of the Scientific Method and the findings of Biologists, there's no rational way to say, "I know bacteria exist, but to me they don't," unless you just mean, "I don't think about them."

But even if there is some kind of objective set of aesthetics, what do we gain by ranking? And what do we gain by walking away -- by refusing to discuss something that is so important to so many people? If you spend hours proving to someone that Disco sucks, what do you gain -- besides winning -- if you win? Maybe your opponent will have learned a little bit about music theory or whatever, but probably not much. On the other hand, what do you gain by refusing to talk about it? Nothing. But if the only choices are avoidance or fighting, I can see why you'd choose the former.

I've been discussing art for years. I've been doing it rigorously, and I've been doing it without ranking, because ranking bores me to tears. I don't care if my aesthetics are right or wrong (whatever that means); what I care about is their ramifications and causes. Why do I have the aesthetics I do? Can I explain them? Can I list them? Are my explanations of them incomplete, in that I find myself saying things like, "I generally don't like slow songs, but I really love this one?" Okay, that's interesting! Why is that one song an exception? And given that an exception exists, do I need to rethink my explanation of my aesthetics?

And I feel the same way about your aesthetics. You hate "Catcher in the Rye" while I love it? Great. Now, there are way more interesting things we can do than get into a "your favorite band sucks" argument it. Even if I somehow prove to you that the novel has artistic merit, is that likely to make you want to read it? Or are you, at best, just going to say, "Okay, I can see it has worth, but I still don't want to read it." And if you say that, what do either of us gain, besides debate points (snore).

What I want to know is why you hate it. Not because I want to argue with you, but because I want to understand -- really deeply understand -- why this particular sequence of printed words had the effect it had on you. If I can get to the bottom of that, I'll have learned something about both the book and you, just as if I learn why you hate mustard, I'll have learned something about the makeup of mustard and the makeup of your taste buds.

I want to know what baggage you brought with you to the book, what baggage you didn't bring, your underlying aesthetic assumptions, etc. And I want to know how the book's prose and plot pushed your buttons. I want to muse about how it could be rewritten, so that it would push your buttons in a more pleasurable way. And if it was changed to do that, would it no longer please me? Or could Salinger have pleased of both if he's just made such-and-such tweaks?

Ranking seems to be a core human urge and activity, so I won't pretend to be above it. Some cultures are more prone to it than others, but all engage in it. I only get sad when it becomes an unflappable response, when it's simply the default and no one consideres alternatives.

Notice how, in your post, you use combative language like "get away with it," "pitfalls," "arguing," "less-informed," "apologists," "give up any ground," etc. Sorry, I'm not trying to get on your case. You're doing what most people do -- especially people who have been tossed through America's education system, which pushes a combative approach to art. (And if there's a breakup over Neil Young, my guess is that it's not really over Neill Young.) I'm just trying to point out that there's a whole other way to discuss this stuff. And it saddens me that anyone would list the options as fight or flee -- and nothing else. I also often hear them listed as debate or "have a hippy-dippy, round-robin, cringe-worthy sharing of ideas," as if the only way to rigor was the battlefield.

I understand why so many people think those are the only options. We are taught how to make pleasantries and we're taught how to fight. We're not taught how to discuss with rigor. But it's possible nonetheless!
posted by grumblebee at 1:26 PM on May 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


So what does it even mean then -- to me -- to say that it's bad? Does bad simply mean "lacking certain formal properties" or "unpopular (e.g. with scholars"?

Actually, I solved this problem a few months ago. Under the assumption that an object only has subjective aesthetic value when viewed through the lens of a particular aesthetic framework, an object may be deemed objectively bad if there exists no internally consistent aesthetic framework that would generate a judgment of "good" if given that object as input.

Needless to say, philosophy departments everywhere will soon be groveling at my feet, begging for even the smallest crumb of wisdom.
posted by invitapriore at 1:41 PM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Seekerofsplendor: Art (or music) being most often entirely subjective, makes this type of discussion most difficult. (the old "I don't really know music. but I know what I like" argument).

Tacit knowledge isn't necessary subjective or relativistic. Take Polanyi's example of riding a bicycle. Although the knowledge of how to efficiently ride a bike is tacit--the best way to learn it is to do it--there's little question that a Tour de France rider gets more power and efficiency from his technique than I do on my short daily commute. You can certainly rank cyclists via competition, and tacit technique is certainly a part of that.

Similarly if you spread out a 50 photographs on a table in front of the photography faculty (that I'm currently working with), I'm willing to bet that they'd come to a consensus on which ones are garbage and which ones merit further development.

Opinionated wanks that music died about 1900-ish are notable because they're clearly example of rationalizing the aesthetics around a political bias.

grumblebee: Whereas aesthetic judgements generally depend on appeals to authority, appeals to tradition, or appeals to gut feeling.

I'd say that aesthetic judgements when done properly usually involve appeals to concepts like consistency, unity, mastery of technique, and innovation. This actually isn't that much different from how initial work is evaluated in the sciences. A peer reviewer probably doesn't have the budget to replicate findings, but they can certainly judge whether the background research, thesis construction, methods, and conclusions are consistent and provide new data in a particular domain.

I don't enjoy and I don't fully understand Bela Bartok, but I have to admit that Bartok was exploring a particular theory or theme, and the artists performing him are at the top of their game. An individual photographer may hate everything that Group f/64 stood for, their bullying of other schools, or their historical over-exposure, but can still respect that Group f/64 were masters of technique, knew how to capture light and contrast, and created great works that were consistent with their theory of photographic art.

"Gut feeling" isn't an aesthetic argument, it's an emotional one and good critics need to learn to make that distinction. Pop music probably isn't the best place to wrestle with this distinction because of the high level of filtering and refining that goes into any given pop song.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:09 PM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


grumblebee: So what does it even mean then -- to me -- to say that it's bad?

I know that I'm something of a broken record on this, but the point of criticism ideally isn't to say "this is bad" but to say "this is interesting, let's talk about it" or since I work at a college, "here are the elements of the work that need to be improved in order to reach professional competency," or since I am a design professional, "here are some things that need to be changed before we publish this."

Aesthetics become much less subjective when you're looking at student work, a work-in-progress, or from the inside-out during rehearsal.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:30 PM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've always thought that Mefi's own "if you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold" was a classic example of a deepity.

Not really, because the metaphor is a pretty good metaphor for the true reading, which looks considerably more ungainly written out literally (“if you don't pay a provider for a service, it's highly likely that the service you get is provided with someone else's interests at heart, which may not line up with yours”).
posted by acb at 5:03 PM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd say that aesthetic judgements when done properly usually involve appeals to concepts like consistency, unity, mastery of technique, and innovation.

Sure, but those are just descriptions of traits, e.g. "that work is inconsistent" is similar to saying "that book is 204-pages long." Most discussions of aesthetics go beyond that to value jugements, e.g. "that work is inconsistent; therefor it's flawed."

My guess is most people would be confused by "that work is 204 pages; therefor it's flawed" (unless the whole point of the work was, say, to be the script for a three-minute cartoon). So how is "it's inconsistant so it's flawed" different? I'm not saying it's not different; I'm asking a question.

If consistency is important to all people -- e.g. it's a genetic endowment to be disturbed by inconsistencies -- then it makes sense to call inconsistency a flaw, and to not qualify that statement in any way.

You could also say something like, "according to traditional forms of storytelling, inconsistency is a flaw, and so, by the rules of those forms, this inconsistent story is flawed" or "many critics dislike inconsistencies, and so, to them, this story, being inconsistent, is flawed." Such statements don't run into contradictions when Bob says he loves the story and doesn't care if it's inconsistent or when Sally says she loves the story because it's inconsistent.

People then sometimes want to move the ranking to another level, saying that Ben and Sally are stupid or don't have the right sort of education or background. Right for what? Right for turning them into the kinds of people who would be bothered by the story's inconsistencies? That's circular.

There's a value judgement in "if you had the right sort of background..." which is fine. The only dishonest move is to pretend that it's valueless.

In almost all discussions of aesthetics I've heard, there's at least some hint, when you pare away outer levels of discourse, of "this work is bad, because..." -- usually without a clear explanation of what "bad" means.

Does it mean "you won't like it, because..."? Okay, but then the edifice crumbles if, in fact, I do like it. Does it mean, "if you had the right sort of background, you wouldn't like it, because..."? Okay, but ... "right sort of background" according to whom? Who made them the boss of us? Does it mean "bad in the sense that it doesn't adhere to rules X, Y or Z"? Okay, but why should we care about those rules? How are they different from the 204-pages rule?

The closest people tend to get to answering these questions in a rational way is "these rules have been honed for centuries, going back to Aristotle (or whatever)." That's fine. Then the unstated assumption is, "if you accept or care about those rules, you'll agree with me."

What about someone who doesn't care about (or agree with) those rules? Do we tell him, "No, you're lying or mistaken. You do agree with them. They are in your genes or enculurated into you in away no person can possibly resist." If so, what's our evidence for that?

Do we tell him, "That's fine. You're just not our audience. We're having a conversation with people who accept those rules. They are part of a system, and we're just trying to say that according to a system they've accepted, the work is flawed." We can do that, but then we must give up your favorite band sucks and replace it with your favorite band sucks assuming you've agreed to accept rules X, Y, and Z of suckiness.

If people want to just say, in casual conversation, "that movie sucks," as if it's an objective statement, that's generally fine, because they're really just using hyperbole to express how they feel.

But people seem to want to have that cake and eat intellectual rigor, too. They want to say, "No, there simply are objective aesthetics!" Well, that's just a naked claim. Prove it.

Since all human brains are similar, there are some aesthetic universals, and this is even being explored by neuroscientists. But the studies are in their infancy. I'm guessing that when we discover these universals, they'll be pretty basic. They'll be things like "humans naturally respond in manner X when presented with a curved red line." It's a stretch to assume we're one day have proof that people are born preferring three-act plays to five-act-plays or some high-level aesthetic like that.

My guess is we'll one day be able to make strong claims like, "Assuming you're born in culture A, have upbringing of type B, exposure to items like C, D, and E, and education of type F, there's a 70% chance you'll find this work flawed."

But unless you're going with the genetic argument, I don't see how you can claim there are aesthetic universals, unless, as I said up top, all "aesthetics" means is a description of traits, such as page length. If it contains no value judgements, it can, perhaps, be objective. But that doesn't sound like the sort of aesthetics most people want.

Aesthetics become much less subjective when you're looking at student work, a work-in-progress, or from the inside-out during rehearsal.

I'm confused by what you mean. I'm a theatre director, and so I spend most of my time in rehearsal, looking at works-in-progress. To me, what goes on seems to be all about subjectivity.
posted by grumblebee at 5:05 PM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


From a sincere theist’s point of view, "God is the greatest thing that could ever enter our lives. It isn’t like accepting a conclusion; it’s like falling in love.” (Breaking the Spell, 250)

This goes both ways; listening to the lyrics of pop songs, one soon realises that Love is a secular god, a theological entity as all-encompassing and miraculous as it is nebulous, whose praises are sung everywhere. Sometimes a cruel, capricious god like the Old Testament Yahweh, but one universally praised, possibly out of a deeply sublimated fear of its wrath.
posted by acb at 5:12 PM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


There was a time when those who used Occam's Razor would have dismissed special relativity and quantum mechanics out of hand, and rightfully so. It would have been useless complication of newtonian mechanics which worked perfectly well according to all of our experiments. It only became important to know about QM when Newtonian physics' explanatory power reached its limits, and until then, there would have been no way of knowing whether the theory was true or false.

This was actually my point - it's only when you've done the Holmes thing and excluded the possible that the unlikely starts to become a possible solution.
posted by Sebmojo at 5:30 PM on May 20, 2013


anotherpanacea: "This honestly doesn't sound uncharitable to me."

Thanks for quoting that paragraph, anotherpanacea. It made me realize I had to go look at a copy of the book to make my point fairly.

I agree, that paragraph is a pretty good characterization of the way some thoughtful people talk about their faith. The problem is that Dennett presents that paragraph in order to say, "See I understand why you, the religious reader, probably feel shocked and offended by what I'm saying here."

But no. No religious person thoughtful enough to bother reading his book is going to go from the admission that they have a personal, non-objective starting place for their faith, to feeling "outrage" (Dennett's words in the next paragraph) that he wants the reader to consider that faith with him from a more objective point of view.

Most egregious is how he presumes that he's saying things that the religious reader has never thought of before--and is probably not emotionally prepared to deal with!--when in fact he's not saying anything that an educated religious person hasn't already heard many times before.

He's barging into a conversation that's been going on for a long time, without any awareness of that conversation. It's like if I, a philosophical layman, were to start lecturing him about free will without even being aware of things like the distinction between compatibilism and incompatibilsm. If he wants to argue with Christians, he needs to read some Christian theology and then if he has something to say that hasn't already been said many times before, I'd be willing to listen to him.
posted by straight at 5:52 PM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


grumblebee: In most cases, I'd say that unintentional incongruity is a flaw, because it distracts the audience from the focus of the work.

Now whether I, you, or anyone else likes or loves a given work strikes me as utterly irrelevant. It's like asking whether I love my ethics, or whether I love the Pythagorean theorem.

I have a nude painting at the center of what I call my ancestor shrine of a tough old bird of a great aunt (it was painted while she was tough young bird). But, it was the work of an amateur and her left foot is fucking huge. It's not a matter of cubist perspective, it's certainly inconsistent with the post-impressionist style of the work as a whole. My aesthetic judgement that it's a rather amateurish painting is entirely separate from my sentimental attachment to it.

I take it as given that if you're choosing to critique a work. You're going to demonstrate:

1) at least a familiarity with the theory behind the body/bodies of prior art from which that work is derived
2) talk about the new work in terms of those theories.

"This sucks," rarely is criticism, and probably isn't an aesthetic position.

I'm confused by what you mean. I'm a theatre director, and so I spend most of my time in rehearsal, looking at works-in-progress. To me, what goes on seems to be all about subjectivity.

I disagree, because the work I have to wrestle with falls so far outside of the acceptable range of quality, that there's usually no problem in stating exactly what needs to happen.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:12 PM on May 20, 2013


If he wants to argue with Christians, he needs to read some Christian theology...

Well, some Christians have read a lot of theology and engaged with these arguments before. But millions haven't, probably the majority, and Dennett's position will be new to them. Do they need to take a course in theology too?

I tend to think that a god worth worshipping would be evident to anyone and everyone, not just those with the ability to engage in a period of study so they can answer basic charges like lack of evidence, illogical premises, etc. This isn't quantum physics, after all.
posted by harriet vane at 12:42 AM on May 21, 2013


Well, some Christians have read a lot of theology and engaged with these arguments before. But millions haven't, probably the majority, and Dennett's position will be new to them. Do they need to take a course in theology too?
Theology and texts have far less power over shaping a religion’s lived experience than intellectuals would like to credit. This is a difficult issue to approach, because even believers who are vague on peculiarities of the details of theology (i.e., nearly all of them!) nevertheless espouse that theology as true. Very few Christians that I have spoken to actually understand the substance of the elements of the Athanasian Creed, though they accept it on faith. Similarly, very few Sunni Muslims could explain with any level of coherency why al-Ghazali‘s refutation of the Hellenistic tendency within early Islam shaped their own theology (if they are Sunni it by definition does!). Conversely, very few Shia could explain why their own tradition retains within its intellectual toolkit the esoteric Hellenistic philosophy which the Sunni have rejected. That’s because almost no believers actually make recourse to their own religion’s intellectual toolkit.
Having been raised Catholic, I think maybe half of them could give you a relatively ungarbled summary of the catechism, or at least the Nicene Creed. A much smaller percentage could intelligently discuss the philosophical underpinnings of something like transubstantiation or the trinity, though. Even fewer have read Augustine, Thomas Acquinas or even CS Lewis.

I doubt that has much if any difference on how important the religion feels to them, though. Most religious people neither understand the creed they profess to follow nor do they want to, and I don't think poking holes in it is an effective way of moving people away from religion. People are religious because of community and habit and because it works for them. The only way to loosen religion's hold on many people, if that is what one wants to do, is to convince them that it doesn't work or is harming them or people they care about. The abuse scandals in the catholic church are probably doing more damage for this reason than 3 centuries of scientific advancement did.
posted by empath at 1:09 AM on May 21, 2013


I agree, especially with your last paragraph. If someone wants to critique Augustine, then they'd best be familiar with Augustine's writings. But if they want to critique a faith as it's lived day to day by an average person, then I don't see why straight insists they must first be familiar with the whole intellectual toolkit. Because that's not the best version of what their opponent is talking about, it's the best version of what intellectuals are talking about, and there's only a limited amount of overlap between those conversations.

Discussing the actual reasons someone says they believe in a god is fair game, and that's what Dennett does, to the best of my knowledge.
posted by harriet vane at 1:24 AM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sorry, I meant to say that sometimes the actual reasons someone believes are not the reasons they give to others or to themselves, but both are fair game for discussion.
posted by harriet vane at 1:27 AM on May 21, 2013


grumblebee: In most cases, I'd say that unintentional incongruity is a flaw, because it distracts the audience from the focus of the work.

I assume "a flaw" is bad. Why is it bad for people to be distracted from the focus of the work? Bad according to whom? And if there's any answer to that last question -- "according to whom?" -- then aren't be back in subjectivity-land?

I disagree, because the work I have to wrestle with falls so far outside of the acceptable range of quality, that there's usually no problem in stating exactly what needs to happen.

Outside whose acceptable range of quality?

Do you mean it's physically impossible for anyone to like the work or find it of high quality?
posted by grumblebee at 4:35 AM on May 21, 2013


I assume "a flaw" is bad. Why is it bad for people to be distracted from the focus of the work? Bad according to whom? And if there's any answer to that last question -- "according to whom?" -- then aren't be back in subjectivity-land?

One can chose criteria arbitrarily and then still objectively judge works based on those criteria. No set of criteria is better than any other, but one can certainly more-or-less objectively make statements like: "If the purpose of this work was x or the intended audience is y, then it's not very good."
posted by empath at 4:55 AM on May 21, 2013


One can chose criteria arbitrarily and then still objectively judge works based on those criteria.

Absolutely. That just moves the locus of the subjectivity.

Bob: X is a bad movie.

Fred: That's a subjective judgement.

Bob: No, I'm judging it according to criterion Y. Do you see how, if judged that way, X is bad?

Fred: Yes, but why is criterion Y a good criterion?
posted by grumblebee at 5:12 AM on May 21, 2013


And it's perfectly fine -- and useful -- to judge are by specific criteria. What's less fine, in my opinion, is to do that implicitly while acting as if you're judging it via a universal criteria.
posted by grumblebee at 5:15 AM on May 21, 2013


For you, grumblebee: “The problem of the criterion” seems to me to be one of the most important and one of the most difficult of all the problems of philosophy. I am tempted to say that one has not begun to philosophize until one has faced this problem and has recognized how unappealing, in the end, each of the possible solutions is....

You're aces, Charles.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:58 AM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


grumblebee: I assume "a flaw" is bad. Why is it bad for people to be distracted from the focus of the work? Bad according to whom?

Well, I'd say an explicitly stated assumption behind art criticism is that art is a purposeful construction intended to mediate some form of interaction with the audience. That's not a universal theory, it's a conventional one that's descriptive of almost all art out there in the world.

Therefore, I'd say that it's not objective or subjective, but inter-subjective, in the same way that linguistic grammars are. And as I said, if you're going to engage in a meaningful critique of a specific work of art, you probably should learn the grammars used to build the work and be able to deconstruct those relations.

Outside whose acceptable range of quality?

The technical demands of the theories you're trying to expand from or engage in.

What's less fine, in my opinion, is to do that implicitly while acting as if you're judging it via a universal criteria.

I don't know who is arguing that.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:02 AM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


And my original point was that visual, musical, and performance arts evolve faster than the language used to analyze them, therefore, the failure to provide an analytical account of a work sometimes says very little about the work in question. How that translates into "universal criteria" is baffling to me.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:13 AM on May 21, 2013


Well, I'm not a fan of arguing in general. I'm not sure anyone is arguing anything. I'm mostly trying to understand a few things and articulate some others.

It sounds like we're in agreement that it's rational to say (or imply) "Here is the criteria I'm using, and here is how, according to that criteria, this work is flawed, and if you both agree to use that criteria and agree with the conclusions I came to by using it, you'll have to conclude the work is flawed, too."

Is that a fair summary of your views? I 100% agree with that and always have. So if that's what you're saying, I have nothing to add. If you're saying there's some sort of objectivity beyond that, I may have something to say about it.

"Well, I'd say an explicitly stated assumption behind art criticism is that art is a purposeful construction intended to mediate some form of interaction with the audience. That's not a universal theory, it's a conventional one that's descriptive of almost all art out there in the world."

I find passive constructions confusing. When you say there's "a purposeful construction intended to mediate some form of interaction with the audience," who is the person doing the intending. I'm guessing it's the artist. If so, what do we count has his intention? Do we try to mine it from "the text." Do we day, "I know Shakespeare's intention was X, because I can read between the lines, that..." That seem very subjective to me. Do we go by interviews with the author in which he stated his intention? As you probably know, they whole idea of authorial intent is thorny in philosophical and critical circles.

When you say "it's a conventional one that's descriptive of almost all art out there..." who is doing the describing? I don't mean to be annoying, but can you rewrite that so there's an active agent in the sentence? Do you mean "it's a conventional one that academics and critics use to describe almost all art..."? If so, why should anyone care what those academics and critics have to say? Why play their game? (Why avoid playing their game?)
posted by grumblebee at 7:30 AM on May 21, 2013


Interestingly this came across my desk this morning, Earning a PhD by studying a theory that we know is wrong.
... Theoretical physics, on the other hand, often uses a different comparison; like general relativity, a theory in theoretical physics is a mathematical framework, a set of rules that describe the behavior of some system. Unlike general relativity, these systems don’t need to be grounded in experiment and they usually aren't even meant to describe the real world. N=4 super Yang-Mills isn't alone; check out Chern-Simons theory, Topological Quantum Field theories, or N=2 Superconformal Field theories.

What these theories do share is a certain level of rigor. Rather than being arbitrary, they involve precisely defined conditions that collectively give rise to interesting properties. While a theory in the theoretical physics sense isn't “true” in that it doesn’t describe the real world, it is “true” in that two researchers will agree on the theory’s properties. This allows interested parties to build off each other’s work.

While this sort of definition is perhaps most jarring in physics, other fields also define "theory" in a similar way. Essentially, every theory in mathematics is a theory in this sense (see Group theory and Category theory). The same is often true in closely related fields like computer science (Type theory, anyone?).
My argument is that "theories" in the arts work in much the same way, an agreement to play by a set of rules and see how the work or theory evolves or changes as a result. Whether those results say anything about the thorny problem of objective beauty is secondary.

Do we try to mine it from "the text."

I don't read "Death of the Author" as forbidding any interpretation of purpose and meaning in a work, just claims that a given interpretation is authoritative based on inferences from the biography of the author. A Chippendale chair is not a bathtub, and it's reasonable to interpret a Chippendale chair as a chair, a piece of furniture, something to sit on, and look at the relations it might have shared with other works from the same period, or as part of a collection of furniture in an art museum, or placed out of context in a science fiction film.

On the other hand, I'm also coming at this from the perspective of constructive criticism. When I share a work with my peers, I'm certainly going to pay attention to their interpretations, and revise if I think the work is headed in the wrong direction. Similarly, when I'm asked to provide feedback on works in progress, I might consider what I know of the intended meaning and audience of the work in question.

who is doing the describing?

The communities of practice for most of those styles or traditions of art. A photographer, a painter, and a level designer might have a different ideas about what the relations between artist, work, and audience might entail. But as far as I can tell, there's a general consensus that there's some relationship where the artist does something, the audience does something, and the work mediates that doing.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:51 AM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


But as far as I can tell, there's a general consensus that there's some relationship where the artist does something, the audience does something, and the work mediates that doing.

Okay, but how do we agree on what that something (that the artist is doing) is?
posted by grumblebee at 1:09 PM on May 21, 2013


Okay, but how do we agree on what that something (that the artist is doing) is?

It sounds to me like you're still fishing for some kind of objective or universal statement, when I've clearly stated that these things are intersubjective and culturally negotiated. How that negotiation happens within a community of practice is the subject of entire libraries of work in sociology.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:31 PM on May 21, 2013


It's possible we're in agreement, then. If we differ, I'm not sure how.
posted by grumblebee at 4:30 PM on May 21, 2013


Grumblebee, I learned a lot from your comments and all the ensuing ones from my original comment. I think the set of criteria established is probably the most effective and honestly critical (i don't mean negative criticism, necessarily, just "important") that can reasonably be agreed upon between two people( l I don't recall after reading this if you said this or someone else did) Nonetheless, it more rare that two people on roughly the same intellectual plane can engage in such rewarding banter or even badinage, ("My Dinner With Andre") but one finds oneself to often be involved in such a discussion with rather blundering fools much of the time, which was the main thrust of what I was saying when I concluded "just walk away".

But I did find your reasoning sound on the issues involved for the most part, and your claims about aesthetics to be quite reasonable and enlightened as well. and I thank you for posting them. We agree on some very important things here.

THIS is the stuff I come to Metafilter for. It makes wading through the junk here worth the time.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 7:18 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, some Christians have read a lot of theology and engaged with these arguments before. But millions haven't, probably the majority, and Dennett's position will be new to them. Do they need to take a course in theology too?

But if they want to critique a faith as it's lived day to day by an average person, then I don't see why straight insists they must first be familiar with the whole intellectual toolkit.


Because you don't need to know a lot of theology to practice your faith, but you ought to know some theology if you're going to tell someone their faith is bullshit.

If I'm a layman who can't really follow the scientific evidence about climate change but wants to participate in political action to cut back on burning fossil fuels, and some philosopher who barely knows more than I do writes a book "demonstrating" that climate change is bullshit, and an actual scientist calls him on it, it's not sufficient for him to say, "I'm just writing for lay people who don't understand all that science stuff. They don't know that technical stuff you're talking about any better than I do."
posted by straight at 8:53 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Because you don't need to know a lot of theology to practice your faith, but you ought to know some theology if you're going to tell someone their faith is bullshit.

But their faith isn't based on theology.
posted by empath at 9:01 PM on May 21, 2013


Or maybe a better analogy: If I write a book trying to convince people that science proves that free will is an illusion, and a philosopher asks, "What do you mean by free will? Are you talking about the ability to do otherwise? Sourcehood? Unpredictability?" and my response is "I'm not getting into that academic stuff, I'm just talking about free will," then I think the philosopher is justified in telling people, "This guy doesn't know what he's talking about."
posted by straight at 9:02 PM on May 21, 2013


But their faith isn't based on theology.

Yeah, that's the kind of sloppy statement Dennet makes too many of. Whose faith? What do you mean by theology? What do you mean by "based on"? I'm sure many of the people you're referring to would claim that their faith is based on theology.
posted by straight at 9:09 PM on May 21, 2013


I'll just use the example of Catholics. Roughly half even know the very basic doctrines of the faith. I'm sure if they got into stuff like the chuch's stance on emanationism, or the doctrine of the trinity or the immaculate conception you'd get even lower percentages.
posted by empath at 9:15 PM on May 21, 2013


Atheists and agnostics know more about religion than religious people do, in general.

What you are essentially demanding is that people who don't adhere to the faith have to know more about it and understand it better than the people who profess to believe it do.
posted by empath at 9:17 PM on May 21, 2013


I think the set of criteria established is probably the most effective and honestly critical (i don't mean negative criticism, necessarily, just "important") that can reasonably be agreed upon between two people

I agree with this. And I'd add that you don't even have to accept someone else's criteria to have a meaningful discussion with him. You just need to understand it and be able to think within its parameters, e.g. "if I believed as you do, then if follows I'd also believe..." It's like reasoning within a fictional world: "I don't believe King Lear actually exists, but if he did..."

I'm an atheist and one of my best friends is a devout Christian. We enjoy theological discussions. We rarely debate God's existence. That's boring. He believes. I don't. And there's nothing we could say re that debate that hasn't been said for centuries (we're both fairly well-read in both atheist literature and religious apologetics). Sometimes he'll bring up a problem that only exists within a religious framework. It's a meaningless problem if you don't believe in God. But I can instantly make it meaningful by simply starting with "If I believed in God, then..."

I'm a theatre director and there are certain aesthetics that are antithetical to mine. For instance, I loath didactic plays. However, I've often worked as an assistant director, and when I do that, my job is to help the director realize his vision. And sometimes that vision is didactic. All I need to do, in order to be helpful, is to think, "If I wanted to direct a didactic play..."

This habit of putting oneself inside an alien context is crucial. It should be (and alas isn't) a major part of education. It used to be, back when kids studied rhetoric, and it's part of the reason Shakespeare was about to express the ideas of so many characters with so many varied points of view, as if he held all those points of view, even though many contradicted each other.

I champion that aspect of Dennett's technique -- the part where he labors to express someone else's point-of-view. Even if he's doing that so that he can argue against it, it's worthwhile. It's also worthwhile (maybe more worthwhile) doing it so that you can understand it rather than fight it. And by "understand it," I mean go delve inside it beyond what they person you're talking to said: really explore its ramifications. Really swim in it!
posted by grumblebee at 5:10 AM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


What you are essentially demanding is that people who don't adhere to the faith have to know more about it and understand it better than the people who profess to believe it do.

Only if they presume to explain to those people what's wrong with their faith and the "true" origins of it.
posted by straight at 7:31 AM on May 22, 2013


But how can they be said to have faith in something they don't know about? You can only argue with what they tell you they believe. If they tell you they believe what the church says because they have faith in the church, you don't need to argue the church's theology, you can just argue that their faith in the church is misplaced. If they tell you they have some specific belief, you can argue the merits if that, but if you're suggesting that someone needs to have a deep understanding of Christian theology to argue with a Christian who almost certainly doesn't, that's absurd.
posted by empath at 7:35 AM on May 22, 2013


If a specific person comes up to you and says, "I believe X," then sure, you can have a conversation with that person about why they believe X and whether that particular belief is warranted.

But if you want to write a book making sweeping generalizations about the religious faith, lumping together huge numbers of diverse religious beliefs, you need to do a little more homework than that.

If they tell you they believe what the church says because they have faith in the church, you don't need to argue the church's theology, you can just argue that their faith in the church is misplaced.


But if more informed members of that church respond saying your criticisms are ignorant, you've got to do better than say, "Oh, but I'm just talking to lay people here. They don't pay attention to that technical stuff."

But how can they be said to have faith in something they don't know about?

You don't need to be a biologist to roll your eyes at the anti-vaccination crowd and go on with taking your kids to get their shots.
posted by straight at 8:05 AM on May 22, 2013


I champion that aspect of Dennett's technique -- the part where he labors to express someone else's point-of-view.

Isn't this what all good philosophers strive to do, and many probably do far better than Dennett? How did this become "Dennett's technique?"
posted by Golden Eternity at 8:44 AM on May 22, 2013


Of course he didn't invent the idea of expression someone else's point-of-view. I just meant the technique Dennett is advocating. Sorry about the confusion.
posted by grumblebee at 10:11 AM on May 22, 2013


empath: “But how can they be said to have faith in something they don't know about?”

There's some diversity on many issues in the church, but as far as I know there's no Christian church anywhere that's ever taught that faith is merely a collection of intellectual propositions one holds to. And even if it were, the names of Martin Luther and Maimonides and random details about Biblical texts sure as hell aren't "core teachings," so that Pew survey is pretty spurious.

Knowledge about religion is not an easily-quantifiable thing. Probably more to the point: faith is supposed to be an experiential thing. The point isn't knowing details; the point is an experience of something ineffable. So, as frustrating as it might be, both to atheists and religious people, faith is a thing that you aren't supposed to be able to understand unless you have it.
posted by koeselitz at 2:46 PM on May 22, 2013


The point isn't knowing details; the point is an experience of something ineffable.

And, of course, there are a significant chunk of religious people (including some parts of Christianity) who would say that having an ineffable experience isn't the point of their religion at all.
posted by straight at 8:59 PM on May 22, 2013


Sounds like an interesting book, like most of his, but the one thing that rankles is starting with a tiresomely familiar "importance pump": bashing lower beings so that he can claim not just that X is important, but X is an essential quality that makes us human and better than the lower things:

I know of no evidence to suggest that any other species on the planet can actually think this thought. If they could, they would be almost as smart as we are... This, by the way, is another reason why we humans are so much smarter than every other species. It is not so much that our brains are bigger or more powerful, or even that we have the knack of reflecting on our own past errors, but that we share the benefits our individual brains have won by their individual histories of trial and error.

As science steadily whittles away at such conceits, I suspect this sort of thing will be as off-putting to readers decades hence as essays from a century ago that start off with a little this-is-what-distinguishes-us-from-the-savages (or women) in order to prime the importance pump.
posted by chortly at 10:35 PM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


straight: "And, of course, there are a significant chunk of religious people (including some parts of Christianity) who would say that having an ineffable experience isn't the point of their religion at all."

Huh. Really? Like who? Honestly, I've never met or even heard of any Christian at least who says this, so I'm intrigued by your suggestion that there are a significant chunk who do.
posted by koeselitz at 11:14 PM on May 22, 2013


Honestly, I've never met or even heard of any Christian at least who says this, so I'm intrigued by your suggestion that there are a significant chunk who do.

Having an experience has nothing to do with mainstream christianity at all. It's about salvation through faith in christ (and/or good works). Hell, there's a whole genre of religious writing by people who fail to have any experience of god or the divine at all and yet persist with faith despite that.
posted by empath at 11:25 PM on May 22, 2013


"Salvation through faith in Christ" is an experience. And failing to have an experience with god or the divine is not the same thing as failing to have any experience at all.
posted by koeselitz at 11:34 PM on May 22, 2013


There's some diversity on many issues in the church, but as far as I know there's no Christian church anywhere that's ever taught that faith is merely a collection of intellectual propositions one holds to.

It's not merely that, but it's at least that. The whole basis for faith in at least the Christian God is the nicene creed and the gospels and so on. If those things are not true, the whole thing falls apart.
posted by empath at 11:35 PM on May 22, 2013


I agree, although frankly as a Christian I feel as though even the tenets of the Nicene Creed are neither simple nor basic, and can have multiple shades of meaning. But I know that at some point in this conversation we'll run up against the perennial problem one has in discussing one's faith with those who don't hold it - namely, that I naturally see it at a unitary thing, a coherent thing, whereas to you it seems like a jumble, a mishmash with only the slightest threads holding it together and even those misunderstood or misread. To me it really is a community of faith centered around an actual thing that exists. I appreciate that others are not likely to feel that way, so I will probably end up accepting that it's just a chaotic mess to others' eyes and leave it at that.

I guess all I can say is this: a community of faith struggles with these things. Some people don't know all the details. It is my firm conviction that often those who don't know the details are in fact the wisest and most religious among us. That may seem odd, but the fact is that the founder of my religion had a thing for emphasizing that details ultimately aren't important.
posted by koeselitz at 11:44 PM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I agree that religion as practiced has nothing to do with theology for most people. I said that above, when I said one doesn't need to know the theology to discuss religion with most religious people since most religious people don't know it either -- though they do have at least some beliefs that their faith rests on, which can be argued with, if you like. But for some people, and certainly for much of the church organization and intellectuals, the theology is the important thing, and the experiential stuff is secondary.
posted by empath at 11:52 PM on May 22, 2013


Well, I would say that for us intellectuals who care about theology, it's a different way of getting at the same thing. There are Bhakti and there are Jnani, but both paths lead to the same place, if that makes sense.
posted by koeselitz at 12:37 AM on May 23, 2013


But I know that at some point in this conversation we'll run up against the perennial problem one has in discussing one's faith with those who don't hold it - namely, that I naturally see it at a unitary thing, a coherent thing, whereas to you it seems like a jumble, a mishmash with only the slightest threads holding it together and even those misunderstood or misread.

I'm very interested in hearing more about this. I've been discussing (not arguing) religion for about 40 years, but this is new to me. I have a feeling it's not new (since you say it's perennial). I've probably encountered the same idea under other guises, using different vocabularies. But I can't quite connect your classifications of faith with anything I understand.

If you'd rather not discuss it here, I'd be grateful for a PM. (I wrote up my own taxonomy of faith, here. But you may be saying something more profound.)
posted by grumblebee at 6:51 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


But I know that at some point in this conversation we'll run up against the perennial problem one has in discussing one's faith with those who don't hold it - namely, that I naturally see it at a unitary thing, a coherent thing, whereas to you it seems like a jumble, a mishmash with only the slightest threads holding it together and even those misunderstood or misread.

I think you presume a bit too much.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:17 AM on May 23, 2013


Dennett in The Guardian.
posted by painquale at 7:26 AM on May 23, 2013


CBrachyrhynchos: “I think you presume a bit too much.”

Sorry, I wasn't trying to be presumptuous. Honestly, if I were not religious, religion would seem like a mess to me. The difference isn't one of knowledge, either; it's just whether or not one believes that there's a referrent for religion, if that makes sense. If one believes there really is a communion of Saints and a resurrection and a Holy Trinity and all that, then one believes that the jumble that is the Christian religion is a representation of something real, and all that's left for an active faith is to sort out that jumble to ascend to connection with the Divine. But if one doesn't start from that premise, there's not really any reason to assume it. The mess is really just a mess until something comes along demonstrating otherwise.
posted by koeselitz at 8:41 AM on May 23, 2013


I think it's a bit of a false dichotomy to say that the only two choices are to see a religion or belief system as coherent from an emic perspective or just a mess from a non-emic perspective. Of course, I have something of a cognitive bias against most such dichotomies since most people in my view end up in the spaces between.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:38 AM on May 23, 2013


koeselitz, some Christians would say, for instance, that salvation is a life-long process that began when they were baptized as an infant and that there is not necessarily any aspect of that process that they would describe as a "religious experience" that can be distinguished from non-religious experiences by how it feels (some of them would say that God is present in all experiences and that there is no such thing as a non-religious experience). Certainly they wouldn't describe their religious practices (prayer, confession, almsgiving, eucharist) as an "ineffable experience" as you did.

Many of them would acknowledge that some people have ineffable experiences of God, but they wouldn't consider those experiences as normative for Christian faith.
posted by straight at 10:53 AM on May 23, 2013


Well, that's why I specified that I didn't mean Christian faith is necessarily an ineffable experience of the Divine. It's just an ineffable experience; and I think all Christians who I know of would agree, as long as they understood what I mean by that. I certainly wouldn't say that it's regular for Christians to have some direct perception of Divinity.

straight: “Certainly they wouldn't describe their religious practices (prayer, confession, almsgiving, eucharist) as an 'ineffable experience' as you did.”

No, they wouldn't describe their religious practices that way, because they don't generally understand what the word "ineffable" means. They might say instead that their religious practice is just them taking part in something larger than themselves, by faith, that is beyond their understanding, and that even if they don't directly experience anything superlative or supernatural whatsoever they trust that they are involved in something that transcends human comprehension. Or they might say that they don't pretend to understand it, they just do it because God said so. Or "God said it, I believe it, that does it!" All of these are just ways of saying "ineffable experience."

My general point was that faith, as faith, can only really be truly understood from the inside, if at all.
posted by koeselitz at 11:55 AM on May 23, 2013


Well, that's why I specified that I didn't mean Christian faith is necessarily an ineffable experience of the Divine. It's just an ineffable experience; and I think all Christians who I know of would agree, as long as they understood what I mean by that.

It's interesting to move discussions of religious belief to discussions of religious experience, but I'm curious about the relation you think there is between the belief and the experience. Do you think that it's possible to have this sort of religious experience and yet believe that God does not exist?
posted by painquale at 1:49 PM on May 23, 2013


I have had, more than once, a sort of ineffable religious-like experience, an overwhelming awe-inspiring experience of the majesty and beauty of the universe and the incredibly unlikely and mysterious existence of humanity and consciousness, and yet I do not believe in god.
posted by empath at 4:49 PM on May 23, 2013


koeselitz, you said: faith is supposed to be an experiential thing. The point isn't knowing details; the point is an experience of something ineffable. So, as frustrating as it might be, both to atheists and religious people, faith is a thing that you aren't supposed to be able to understand unless you have it."

I'm simply saying that some religious people don't regard their personal subjective experience as an important part of their religious belief and/or practice. They would not agree that their faith is better understood "from the inside," as you say.

Maybe you believe that religious believers are having ineffable experiences whether they perceive them or not, but that's your religious belief talking, not theirs.
posted by straight at 5:08 PM on May 23, 2013


Dennett's* recent google talk.

* It offends my sense of symmetry that his name isn't spelled "DDennett."
posted by grumblebee at 7:14 AM on May 24, 2013


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