What did Daniel Dennett teach me about God?

In his essay “Out of the Armchair and into the Field” published in Brainchildren (p. 289-306), Daniel Dennett brings his own fieldwork experience from June 1983 when he visited Kenya and Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney in their research camp and stayed there for few weeks. Robert and Dorothy were studying “the social organization and communication system of bands of vervets living in Amboseli National Park, in Kenya.” (291)  Reading this interesting and insightful paper, I was amazed and thankful at the same time.

Firstly, I was amazed by the content itself: Dennett here describes his authentic experience of noticing the real and important difference between thought experiments where everything is as it should be (this means that everything is as we imagined), and real, actual experiments conducted in nature where we need to hold thumbs (or, to pray God) that experiment succeeds. Secondly, I was grateful because this content and Dennett’s story teaches (reminds) me on how God is patient with us humans. At the same time, this gives me a possibility for better understanding of God’s interaction with the world and with us humans whom the world is natural habitat.

The central thing, for me, was Dennett’s describing this “disappearance” of the researchers in the vervet’s world, or their eco-system. The main question was: “How can you get the animals to habituate to you in the first instance?” It takes a lot of patience for the researchers to become “invisible” for the animals. First, they need to be really boring – just sitting there uninterested: “never act in such a way as to give a vervet reason to pay attention to you in the future.” You soon become invisible for them; you disappear into the background. When you become invisible for the animals, you can start moving around and gather information without disturbing the natural habitat of the animals. This process takes months even years, before you can try to conduct designed experiments. If your experiment includes some technical aids, you need to go through the same process with them. “The monkeys have seen Robert walking around a bush with a speaker in his hand and returning empty-handed hundreds of times and it is important that they not be able to associate this with a subsequent interesting noise from the bush. Usually, such hiding episodes are followed by… nothing memorable at all.” (298) Now, you are ready to conduct your experiment. And this kind of experiments are different from the experiments conducted in labs, or from thought experiments. All experiments conducted in natural habitat of the animals, without disturbing that habitat, are “one-shot and nonrepeatable.” (297) At the same time, they are open for possible multiple interpretations and are theory-depended (the relevant interpretation depends on the information gathered earlier by the invisible observer).

Now, using analogical approach to this authentic story, I can say something about God and His interaction with this world and with us humans – creatures created on the Image of Him. The analogical approach refer to our capacity to know God apart from or without the revelation of Jesus Christ (or Scriptures), via natural reason. At the same time, this approach is and can be justified by the Scripture. In this mode of analogy, we can see us as being in analogue role to that vervet monkeys have and the God as analogue to the role of researcher.

First thing that emerge is the God’s patience with us humans. God does not want to disturb our natural habitat – this can be seen as a human freedom. He respects our freedom since He creates us as free creatures. We can see Him as just sitting there uninterested while the evolutionary scene, for entering the humans into history, is setting in the place. This means that God, the Creator of heaven and earth is becoming invisible for us humans: he disappears into background so we could practice our freedom and act in accordance with our natural habitat and nature. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2. Peter 3,9) “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 30,18)

The second thing is our freedom itself. God wants to see us in our natural habitat (to gather information about us) – he wants us to develop all the potential and talents He, while creating us, gave us. He is interested in “fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred.” (Mk 4,8) The third interesting thing, analogous to the Dennett’s story, is uniqueness of our life and our subjectivity (our soul). If God interacts with humans, and I firmly hold that is the case, we can se this interaction as conducting designed field experiments with us that are, at every time and every singular instance, one-shot and unrepeatable. This interaction would seem to us as something so normally natural (if the Researcher did His job well done with the technical equipment if there is some) that we could sometime overlook it as it is about something so banal and everyday. This leads me to my final point: possibility of multiple interpretations. Something that seems to be banal and everyday, can be seen as a miracle if we slightly change our perspective or theoretical paradigm (there is no theory-independent interpretation). Mere everyday words may become lifesaving and lifechanging events if spoken in right context. So, we need to remain open-ended for possible miracles in our everyday life. On more sophisticated level, when religion and science are in question, this means that we need to remain open for more than one perspective and interpretation of the world which is our natural habitat. We need to be open for something that cannot be perceived by us, since that Something make Itself to be invisible, to disappear into the background of our everyday lives, so we could be ourselves. This primarily refers to scientific research that is not able to “measure” subjectivity, or personhood neither one of us humans nor one of God’s. This is what Dennett teach me about God and I am really grateful for this lesson.


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