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Saturday, April 29, 2006

Slate has been running interviews with philosophers and scientists about the nature of consciousness in a section called Here's part of an interview with Daniel Dennett about belief:

Daniel Dennett: I don't like the term atheist because it usually means somebody who is going around upbraiding people and trying to force people to listen to his arguments as to why there is no God. I don't think there is a God so I am an atheist but I don't make a deal of it. It's not that I passionately believe there isn't a God, it's that, of course there isn't a God, but so what?
[Robert] Wright: So the difference in your mind is not one of how confident you are that there is not a God. You are 100% sure there is not a god.
Daniel Dennett: 100%? I'm not 100 sure of anything.
Wright: Ok.
Daniel Dennett: I'm of sure of it as I am of anything.
Wright: But not 100%?
Daniel Dennett: Right.
Wright: The reason I ask is that that version of atheist has always struck me as, in some technical sense, logically indefensible.
Daniel Dennett: You can't prove a negative.
Wright: Right.
Daniel Dennett: I think it was Bertrand Russell who once said that he couldn't prove that there was not a teapot orbiting Mars. So he's a teapot agnostic. I'm a teapot agnostic with regard to God, too. I can't prove that God doesn't exist.
Dennett: In fact I think that's a much more interesting question to ask most people or actually hard to ask them because they don't want to answer it. I have a feeling that not that many people actually believe in God. Many people believe in belief of God. That is, they think it's a good thing, and they try to believe in God, they hope to believe in God, they wish they could believe in God and they say they believe in God, they go through all the motions, they try very hard to be devout. Sometimes they succeed and for some periods of their life they actual do, in some sense, believe that there is a God and they think they are the better for it. Otherwise, they behave like people who probably don't believe in God. Very few people behave as if they really believe in God. A lot of people behave as if they believe they should believe in God.

The rest of the interview is also worth reading, especially the part where Dennett gets really annoyed about epiphenomenalism.

The interview with Steven Pinker is also good (the interviewer, Robert Wright, is much more involved in the conversation with Dennett than he is with Pinker. In the Pinker interview, he just says "right" most of the time...):
Steven Pinker: Right. I mean, one view is that there is actually a discipline devoted to topics that the human mind is incapable of understanding and that discipline is called philosophy...
Wright: Right.
Steven Pinker: ... and most philosophers hate that characterization but it was one of them, Colin McGinn, who suggested the philosophy is the subject is the study of problem that the human mind is incapable of understanding.
Wright: Yes.
Steven Pinker: But it has a natural affinity to religion and McGinn points out that virtually every problem in philosophy has had a religious explanation historically... free will, consciousness, morality, knowledge...
Wright: And often the specific religious explanations get debunked or are no longer tenable in light of science and yet the problem itself remains unsolved.
Steven Pinker: There's often some nugget, some kernel that remains unsolved. Yes.

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Blogger Ben on Mon May 01, 07:21:00 AM:
For the record, not everyone is "teapot agnostic."