Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The loss of a friend: Denis Dutton, RIP

Today started with a shock as I opened my web browser and quickly discovered the loss of a friend, Denis Dutton.

I well remember the first day I met Denis. A friend of mine, Michael, is an astronomer who frequently works at observatories around the world. While we met in the U.S. we next saw each other in Africa where he was working and where I was then living. And in-between we corresponded while he was working in Sri Lanka and hanging out with the likes of Arthur C. Clark.

I had promised Michael that I would visit him in Christchurch, which is where he made his home. So one week I flew to Christchurch to visit and stayed with Michael. We debated the issue of “over-population,” and were at complete opposites on the matter. Michael had drunk long and hard at the poisoned well of Paul Ehrlich and other such doomsday prophets. Michael was absolutely convinced that I was as wrong as I could be.

That day he suggested that we go to the University of Canterbury and drop in to see Denis, a friend of his. Denis was a widely esteemed philosopher and thinker. Michael was absolutely convinced that Denis would set me right, verify the disaster-in-waiting that Ehrlich breathlessly warned us about, and set me on the straight and narrow. I told Michael I had my doubts that would happen. By that I meant that in reading some of Dutton’s material in the past I suspected he would not necessarily agree with Michael. But Michael assured me that Denis would agree with him and reminded me that they had been friends for some time while I have never met Denis.

We made our way to the philosophy department and found the office of this esteemed man. Michael introduced me and then immediately sought verification that my thinking on population was completely wrong. Denis listened to Michael and then asked me what my conclusions were. I explained the basic assumptions I started with, what the evidence showed me, and what my conclusions were. Denis listened, nodded and then told Michael he was in full agreement with what I said. Michael was astounded and I suspect was now more willing to consider the arguments I made, now that someone with the stature of Prof. Dutton had signed on board.

We were then scheduled to have dinner with Dutton and his wife but something came up at the last minute and we had to cancel. The next time I ran into Denis was a dinner for Bjorn Lomborg. I well remember that day; it was October 7, 2003. It was one time I was a bit disappointed with Dennis. Californians were voting in a special recall election to fire Governor Gray Davis. Davis had been a disaster and voters wanted him gone. They voted to remove Davis from office and also voted into office his replacement, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Denis, who was a Californian himself, was thrilled to see Davis gone, as was I. Our big difference was that he was enthusiastic about Schwarzenegger and I had no such delusions.

Later Dutton and I spared in a series of debates, though it was hard debating as we were in fundamental agreement. He had written a column on capitalism, praising the economic system but arguing that it lacked the moral grandeur of competing philosophies. I, in turn, argued that it did not lack such moral grandeur at all. That two confirm “capitalists” were debating the virtues of a depoliticized economy drove the pro-socialist intellectuals crazy. They were quite livid about the whole debate. Of course they never screamed when two leftists would argue variations of Marx but this was just too much for them to endure.

One of these Lefties then wrote a rebuttal to both Dutton and myself and a friend of mine then responded to him. Another publication got into the act when a writer for that publication took on both Dutton and myself, disagreeing with us both rather strongly. And that publication printed a lengthy rebuttal from myself. At that point the Left intellectuals decided to beat a strategic retreat and figured they were better off keeping quiet. Thanks to the debate that Denis started the final toll were 3 to 2 for the advocates of depoliticized markets.

Denis was one of those people who I like instantly and with whom I found myself in virtual agreement. He taught the philosophy of art and philosophy of science: two topics that interest me greatly. He was a well-known skeptic, someone who disputed claims of the supernatural and deities, another area of agreement. His philosophy of science studies had made him skeptical of the modern environmental movement, another area of broad agreement. He was a great fan of evolutionary theory, as am I. And he was basically a libertarian in his political outlook, another area of agreement. (See his video below where he lectures on the Darwinian explanation of esthetics.)

His death came as a great shock because I didn’t know he was sick. Apparently neither did he until rather recently. Just this last semester he was still teaching at the university when he informed his students that it was discovered that he had cancer. From that point onward his decline was rapid indeed and he died Dec 28, 2010.

Dutton argued that art and beauty were things necessary for survival. He says that there is universality of esthetics that is cross-cultural and cross-generational. Because of this it is of “particular interest to Darwinian literary theorists.” The evolutionist would ask why something evolved as it did, what use did it fill. Dutton’s answer is one that resonates with my own views:

“The usefulness of the arts for survival is demonstrated by the universal human tendency to reconstruct reality in the imagination. The rehearsal of dangers and conflicts in fiction is a way of learning about the world without having to take actual risks. Those of our ancestors who derived pleasure from fictional ‘practice’ for real life gained an evolutionary edge. They were better prepared to deal with the world.”

I have long argued about the important of fiction in teaching moral values. I have, in fact, argued that humans get their perspectives about morality from the cultural myths that permeate all societies. I never got around to reading the book on esthetics and Darwin that Denis wrote. Now I will have to. Goodbye my friend.

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