Man, that’s deep(ity) …

So, recently Eric Macdonald is trying to figure out if religion is a “deepity”, as Dennet puts it. “Deepity” has become a very popular word lately, describing everything from philosophy to theology. So, then, just what is a “deepity”?

Well, in the video embedded in Eric’s post, Dennet uses this as an example:

Love is just a word

Now, one of his main criteria is that a “deepity” relies on having at least two senses, one of which is true but trivial, and one of which is false but would be earth-shattering if it was true. He also adds in that it tends to salve skepticism while discouraging curiousity, which doesn’t seem to be the case here … but, then, that’s not a particularly clear point either. After all, any answer to any question or any form of knowledge should indeed do that, so an answer that’s a “deepity” should do no less. So I think the “true, but trivial, or false but profound” criteria is a better one, which also incorporates his “It sounds profound” criteria.

So, then … is “Love is just a word” a “deepity”?

Well, Dennett gets it right when he argues that it has an undeniably true yet trivial interpretation, in that the word love is, well, just a word like any other. This, of course, is not likely to be how most people use it. But he then argues for the false but potentially found interpretation, where he seems to be saying that it, itself, isn’t a word, but is a thing that is separate from the word, as he says “You won’t find love in the dictionary”. So, there are your two meanings, and so it’s a “deepity”.

The problem is that that last interpretation is, it seems to me, not what anyone who uses this phrase either. When they say this, what they are arguing is more about the significance attached to the word. So, they mean it a bit like this example from the Street Fighter movie: When Chun Li regales M. Bison with how cowardly he was to be driven off from their village and then killed her father as he was running away, Bison replies: “For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was Tuesday.”

Now, Bison is not trying to say here that the day was, in fact, Tuesday. It might not have been Tuesday, but proving that that was false would not have changed what he was trying to convey. What he was saying was that the specific event that drove Chun Li to her revenge and was the central event in her life was utterly insignificant to him, just another run of the mill day.

The same thing is how the phrase “Love is just a word” is used. It’s generally meant to be an argument about how we place too much emphasis and importance on love itself, and achieving it, when it should have no more significance than the word “hamburger” or the word “book”. Yes, there is an object for the word love, just like there is an object for the other words (depending on what you mean by “object”, which we won’t get into here). It references something, so you won’t find what it references in the dictionary, and so won’t really find love in the dictionary. But the argument is that it isn’t any more significant than the other words you’d find in there, implicitly stating that we place too much significance on it.

So, another way to translate that statement would be to say “Love is an emotion just like any other”. Again, this isn’t literally true, because we can distinguish it from other emotions. But the argument is that it is no more significant than any other emotion. And from this, we can see that the statement is not obviously false and yet would be incredibly profound if it turned out to be true. Our only recourse is to get into the context of the argument and see if the reasons given for love just being another word or another emotion are right or wrong. Thus, Dennett is blinded by the poetic style of the comment and ignores the context, and so misses the argument completely.

This, I’d say, is what happens when a lot of people do theology or even philosophy, which is why the accusations of “deepity” are starting to fly. Sure, you can take a lot of those things at face value and call them a “deepity”, but that’s letting poetic and figurative language and style blind you to the arguments that are being made. There may be a profound sounding interpretation that’s obviously false, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an interpretation that’s both not obviously false and yet also obviously profound. Yes, you can indeed get stuck into analyzing sentences like this and finding profundity where there is none, but it can also be the case that there’s really interesting stuff there that a literal interpretation is hiding from you. One of the keys to finding really interesting philosophical or theological propositions are ones that you think “I don’t think this is right … but the argument is interesting. This is worth thinking about”. Thus, your reaction when you think it false is telling … if you’re willing to put aside your personal views and examine the context and the argument fairly.

So, since I don’t think there really are such things as “deepities” — or, at least, they aren’t common — I don’t think that religion is just “deepities”. All we have are interesting and uninteresting arguments, and it behooves us to figure out which are which, without appealing to a buzzword that outlived its time before it was coined.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: