By Nick Stephens
“Mundify the epigastrium” is a phrase the average person has never said nor heard. However, when Daniel Dennett, the 2011 Beloit College Visiting Selzer Philosopher, told everyone attending his lecture this past Wednesday night to repeat it three or four times, they had the faculty to do so despite their unfamiliarity with the phrase. Our ability to process language is one of the many amazing capabilities humans possess, an ability for which we begin to develop competence even before we comprehend it, the underlying theme of Dennett’s lecture.
I had never heard of Dennett until seeing posters around campus with the alluring title of “The Human Mind as an Upside Down Brain.” I attended his lecture with only slightly attenuated ignorance, having skimmed his Wikipedia a few hours before he spoke. One of the four horseman in cahoots with “Darwin’s Bulldog,” Richard Dawkins, Dennett is among the leaders of “new atheism,” whose aims are not to merely dissent from religion but to aggressively counter it. As a recovering atheist/current religious ignoramus, I both admire and am appalled by the bellicosity of this movement. Dennett entertained a group of fifteen students for lunch, myself included, and I took the opportunity to ask him a question I had had on my mind during his lecture: “How does one begin to have a conversation with someone whose views are so rooted in dogma to the extent that any sort of demur is instantly brandished as blasphemous?” He took a deep breath and responded, “With great caution and diplomacy.”