On Disagreeing and Understanding 

Do I understand those I disagree with? And does it work both ways? 

I've been away from Dennett's Freedom Evolves for a few days now. My sister and brother-in-law were visiting from out of state, and I've also been spending a lot of time writing blog comments, so I've been pretty well occupied. I'll be getting back to Dennett soon, but first a digression on process and approach.

If you've read my earlier posts on Dennett, you've picked up my sense of consternation or frustration. It's partly with him; it's partly with myself.

There are a number of places in his book that seem transparently illogical to me. This bothers me. Dennett has a worldwide reputation. He co-wrote one chapter with a philosopher. Many good people went over his manuscript before publication. The errors can't be as simple as they appear, can they?

So I wonder if I've just missed something.

It's a high value to me not to criticize another person's views unless and until I understand what they're really saying. The last thing I want to do is to call Dennett down on the basis of my misinterpretation of what he wrote. This is obvious on one level: if I were to misread him and criticize on the basis of my mistake, then I've treated him unjustly and I've embarrassed myself. But I'm talking about something deeper.

Dennett's entire point of view is anti-supernatural. He takes it for granted that God is not and cannot be a part of the picture. I can't take that for granted. Dennett's arguments really depend on this assumption, though, so to understand him fully, I need to try to follow his argument from a starting position that I don't share. I have to try to enter his world and understand it, and then emerge from it and think through what I found there.

It's really tempting to criticize him for not drawing conclusions that I would come to, when in fact he's not operating from the same rule book. His rules don't allow God's involvement. There are huge problems for him choosing that set of rules; yet if I dig in to understand him clearly on his own terms, then I can speak much more honestly and authoritatively to what he's saying.

That's the goal. It's a real challenge. So I struggle with books like this, but I think the understanding is worth the effort.

There's a second reason I've brought this up here: I wish others would do the same regarding evangelical Christianity. There's a great deal of evangelical-bashing out there, a great deal of angst over James Dobson's purported attempts to turn American into a theocracy, a great deal of upset over evangelicals' supposed intolerance, and so on. What I don't see much from those who criticize is any real attempt to understand what we're really saying, or what we really believe. There are exceptions that I've enjoyed experiencing in this blogging world; I wish it were more universal.

We could all use some better attempts at understanding each other. 

Posted: Sun - June 12, 2005 at 10:05 PM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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