God v. Atheism: My Debate with Daniel Dennett

Posted: Dec 03, 2007 11:51 AM
God v. Atheism: My Debate with Daniel Dennett

On Friday, November 30, I debated philosopher Daniel Dennett at Tufts University on the topic, "Is God a Man-Made Invention?" This was my third debate against a leading atheist, following my debate with Michael Shermer at Oregon State University and my debate with Christopher Hitchens at the Ethical Culture Society in New York. The auditorium at Tufts filled up so quickly prior to the Dennett debate that the organizers had to have a second overflow room where viewers could watch the fireworks on a big-screen TV.

Do you want to watch the debate? Go to Youtube.com and search for the “Dennett D’Souza debate.” My earlier debates with Shermer and Hitchens are also online. You can find the Hitchens debate at dineshdsouza.com or isi.org.

Dennett surprised me a little by showing up with a power-point presentation. I hadn't agreed to this in advance, but I didn't object. I thought to myself, "I'm not sure what advantage slides are going to give him in a format like this one." Dennett spoke first for 25 minutes, and sure enough, he made full use of those slides. He had quotations from me up there, and he challenged me to defend them. I was impressed by Dennett's preparation, and also by his avulcular "grandpa" style, an effect enhanced by his white Santa beard. Atheism is a grim philosophy, but Dennett more than anyone else makes it seem harmless and even charming.

Normally I would use my opening statement entirely to make the case for God's existence. But I didn't want Dennett's allegations to go unrebutted for too long. So I devoted the first five minutes to puncturing some factual and historical holes in Dennett's argument. Then I proceeded to make my case. Of course I conceded that religion is a man-made invention, but I argued that modern science has over the past century produced remarkable discoveries that affirm and support the argument for God's existence. In doing so I recognized that I was challenging Dennett not only on his home campus, Tufts university, but also on his home turf, which is a philosophical atheism rooted in science.

We each had two five-minute rebuttals which produced lively exchanges about the Big Bang and about whether the universe is fine-tuned for life. When I challenged Dennett’s interpretation of evolution, he charged me with simplifying and “caricaturing” his views. Some degree of simplification is unavoidable in debate, because there simply isn’t enough time to address arguments with all their nuances. This criticism, however, applies to both sides. I countered Dennett by saying that I wasn’t the only one to question his use and abuse of Darwin.

I made my point by citing the late Stephen Jay Gould's review-essay on Dennett in the June 12, 1997 New York Review of Books. Unlike Dennett, who is a philosopher, Gould was one of the world's leading authorities on evolution. One can feel safe in saying that he knew a lot more about the biological evidence for Darwinism than Dennett. And Gould was an unbeliever, like Dennett.

So I noted how significant it was that Gould dubbed Dennett a "Darwinian fundamentalist." He suggested that just as religious fundamentalists read Scripture in a literal and pig-headed way, and unimaginatively apply biblical passages to everything, so Dennett tries to apply Darwinism to virtually every human social, cultural and religious practice, with disastrous and even comical results. Gould termed Dennett's work on evolution "a caricature of a caricature."

Finally there was a lengthy question-and-answer session. Given that the audience was mostly made up of Tufts students sympathetic to Dennett's atheism, a majority of the questions was directed at me. Most memorable for me was the philosophically-minded savant who pooh-poohed the possibility of God's existence on the basis of what he called the Principle of Parsimony. He argued that either propositions are true by definition, or they are true by empirical verification. If a proposition cannot satisfy either criteria, then it is meaningless. Since God does not exist by definition, the young man insisted, and since we cannot verify His presence empirically, clearly God has been refuted by the Principle of Parsimony.

I asked our undergraduate savant to apply his twofold test to the Principle of Parsimony itself. Is it true by definition? No. Well, can it be verified empirically? Again, no. Therefore by the student's own criteria the Principle of Parismony is worthless and can be cast aside. The student had no comeback to this and neither did Dennett.

So who won the debate? That's for you to decide. But I’d like to know your assessment. Go ahead and post it here, and also email me at dineshjdsouza@aol.com.