Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Dennett fish

Daniel Dennett, in his debate with Alvin Plantinga, ended his first presentation with "a little joke". It didn't make it into the published form of the debate for whatever reason -- perhaps the editor's didn't like it or perhaps it didn't play well with the audience. He had published it before, however, in his essay "Natural Freedom" which appeared in Metaphilosophy in 2005. The joke is a play on the Jesus fish. In case you don't know, the Jesus fish is an acronym in Greek. "ἸΧΘΥΣ" is the Greek word for fish. The I stands for Ἰησοῦς (Jesus), the X for Χριστός (Christ), the Θ for Θεοῦ (God), the Y for Υἱός (Son), and the Σ for Σωτήρ (Savior). So ἸΧΘΥΣ stands for "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior." 

The early Christians used the fish as a secret symbol to identify themselves to each other when they were being heavily persecuted: one person would draw one arc of the fish, and the other would draw the other arc (if the second person didn't know what to draw, then the first person would know that the second wasn't, or probably wasn't, a Christian). Some contemporary Christians have picked up on this idea, although it's not as anonymous as before, by putting Jesus fish on the backs of their cars, sometimes with "ἸΧΘΥΣ" inside the fish, sometimes with "Jesus" inside it, and sometimes just leaving it empty. This quickly prompted a response in the form of the fish with legs with "Darwin" written inside it. Some Christians countered with a Jesus fish eating a Darwin fish with "Survival of the fittest" written under it, etc. Others picked up on the idea, and now there are numerous fish-like symbols with all kinds of things written in them.

In the debate and earlier article, Dennett decided to make an acronym out of Darwin to copy the origin of the Jesus fish. Instead of Greek he used Latin, and instead of a "w", which doesn't exist in Latin, he used "uu" -- double "u". He came up with Delere Auctorem Rerum Ut Universum Infinitum Noscere and translates it as: "Destroy the Author of things to understand the infinite universe." Now the first thing that struck me, because of my proclivities, is that the universe isn't infinite. This comes from Einstein's general theory of relativity: the universe -- including the dimensions of space -- are expanding outward from a point of zero volume (a singularity). So he fundamentally misunderstands the universe that he says we must destroy God for in order to understand it. But maybe that's just niggling.

The real problem is that first word, delere. I don't know Latin, but everywhere I've looked up that word it doesn't mean destroy, it means delete. And that would make the phrase more sympathetic: we have to delete the concept of God from our sciencing in order to understand the universe. It would be a statement of methodological naturalism, that we should proceed as if God isn't supernaturally altering whatever we're examining. You could make a strong case for that. But that wasn't enough for Dennett. He gave delere an atypical definition in order to say we need to destroy God. Ignoring him isn't enough; doing science without him isn't enough. We need to destroy him.

That doesn't sound like atheism. It sounds like misotheism: hatred of God. I was wondering if there was any philosophy written on this, and I discovered the book Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism by Bernard Schweizer. Unfortunately, it's not philosophy, but it still looks pretty interesting. It also makes me think of Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism by Paul Vitz which argues that the most vociferous atheists of the Modern era tended to have deceased, absent, or weak fathers. This isn't an argument against atheism, obviously, it's a psychological study. It just makes me wonder how much of Dennett's apology for naturalism is motivated by hatred of God rather than just disbelief in him.

Update: It reminds me of this quote from War in Heaven by Charles Williams. It's about someone who encounters Jesus without realizing who it is: "...the instant that he spoke became conscious that he actively disliked the stranger, with a hostility that surprised him with its own virulence. It stood out in his inner world as distinctly as the stranger himself in the full sunlight of the outer; and he knew for almost the first time what Manasseh felt in his rage for utter destruction. His fingers twitched to tear the clothes off his enemy and to break and pound him into a mass of flesh and bone, but he knew nothing of that external sign, for his being was absorbed in a more profound lust. It aimed itself in a thrust of passion which should wholly blot the other out of existence."

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