Sophisticated Theology: Meaning and Truth

So, in a burst of theological examination, I finished both “Where the Conflict Lies” by Plantinga and “Science and Religion: Are They in Conflict?” where Dennett and Plantinga go at each other. To be frank, I fail to see why people think that Dennett refuted Plantinga there, since he seems to spend little time talking about the things that Plantinga said or what Plantinga considered important. I hope to talk about both books more in the near future, but I want to highlight something here that Dennett said:

As I have said, our brains are syntactic engines, not semantic engines, which, like perpetual motion machines, are impossible. But syntactic machines can be designed to track truth, and that is just what evolution has done. A useful comparison might be with a hand calculator.

(pg 34)

Now, here’s where this goes wrong. What it means to be “semantic” is, basically, to relate to meaning. The semantic properties of a sentence, for example, track its meaning while the syntactic properties track its general form. So, if the brain is a syntactic and not semantic engine, then it does not track meaning. And if it doesn’t know what the things it is working on mean, then how can it be deriving true statements? Basically, no semantics, no meaning … and no meaning, no truth.

Thus, this counter — if it is the only way to have our natural cognitive abilities evolve — supports Plantinga’s point, because if the brain is manipulating syntactic symbols without knowing what they mean — because it isn’t doing anything semantically — then any link it has to “truth” is merely accidental. The only want to get non-accidental truth is to base your calculations on what the symbols and the syntax mean or represent, and not on the symbols or representations themselves. Effectively, for Dennett the brain would be like someone who memorized the times table up to 10 by doing nothing more than memorizing how those symbols join together, and so they can see that “2×2=4” because it recognizes the symbols “2”, “x”, “4” and “=” but they have no idea that they are, in fact doing multiplication or, possibly, even that they are doing mathematics at all.

Or rather like a hand calculator.

And if this is the case, then any belief formed by our cognitive faculties links to truth only by accident, if it does it at all. And this, then, would undercut our warrant for thinking that our cognitive faculties — and, by extension, the things produced by them — are reliable. Which means that even the proposition that they seem to work and therefore produce truth would be unreliable, but we couldn’t appeal to any method to save them. That, I think, would be bad … and it all follows from something that Dennett says.

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3 Responses to “Sophisticated Theology: Meaning and Truth”

  1. Crude Says:

    To be frank, I fail to see why people think that Dennett refuted Plantinga there, since he seems to spend little time talking about the things that Plantinga said or what Plantinga considered important.

    The most apt summary I’ve seen of this encounter wasn’t that Dennett refuted Plantinga, but actually gave the game away entirely – basically said, ‘Yes, religious and science are compatible. But so what? Compatibility with science is easy! Even if they’re compatible, I think religion is wrong!’ Which may be a worthy avenue of discussion – except, you know, the point of the book and the conversation was the compatibility between religion and science.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Well, I think Dennett started out that way, but at the end — at least in the book — he shifted back to talking about incompatibility again forgetting that, at least, he had conceded the sort of compatibility that Plantinga seemed to want.

      As for what you say, one of my main comments on Coyne is that he spends a lot of time trying to prove that religion is wrong when he’s supposed to be proving that it’s incompatible with science. If he’d stick to the first point, he’d at least have useful arguments. The same can be said of Dennett.

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