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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dan Dennett Says Science Informs Humanities

"I applaud the convergence by naturalistic philosophers, psychologists and other researchers in the life sciences on the physical and biological foundations of the phenomena which compose the humanities: ethics, art and music, humor, and of course religion, to name a few," philosopher Daniel Dennett writes in an autobiographical piece in Philosophy Now magazine. "The shrill defensive cries of those in the humanities who view their topics as off-limits to science, as somehow transcending all gross considerations of how their favorite phenomena can be located within the creative swirl of the physical world, are, in a word, embarrassing. I view myself as a defender of the humanities, not a traitor. I have been trying to show how our understanding and our appreciation of consciousness, free will and ethics, religion, and the arts grows when it is grounded in a detailed understanding of the relevant science. It is possible, of course, to contribute to our understanding of these beloved phenomena without paying any heed to the questions scientists raise about them; but when an unscientific perspective drifts into an anti-scientific perspective (as it frequently does), the result tends to be either obscurantism or mythmaking. Each of the topics I just mentioned has bulwarks apparently designed to deflect the probes of science: qualia and ‘intrinsic intentionality’; agent causation and other forms of frankly mysterious indeterminism; the systematic incomprehensibility of religious doctrines and practice (only those with ‘faith’ are qualified to investigate); and the ‘ineffability’ of artistic meaning and genius. Some philosophers brandish these doctrines like crucifixes in the face of a vampire, but those who reject such dodges are making genuine advances in understanding, typically by clarifying, refining, extending, and when it is called for, rebutting the analyses and theories of other scientists who now dare to approach these hallowed precincts."