I’ve finally taken up Daniel Dennett’s latest effort, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. The book is an attempt to apply the methods of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology to a critical examination of the possible reasons for our fondness for religion. It has unsurprisingly ruffled a few feathers, something Dennett always seems to relish.
I’ve generally been a fan of Dennett’s; say what you like about him, he is unarguably quite brilliant, and he writes well, in a clear, plain style that is rare among philosophers. I share his confidence in the scientific method’s ability to determine truths about the physical world, and I stand firmly behind him in his defense of Darwinism against the fundamentalist yahoos who deny its validity. He is the author of an outstanding book on evolutionary theory, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1996).
Dennett has also done some very important work in examining our unquestioned assumptions about consciousness, and while some of his assertions (for example that qualia are illusions, in some way that I have never quite been able fully to understand) are problematic, and perhaps go too far, he has also brought to public attention many of the gaps and weaknesses in our “folk” model of conscious phenomena. He has also written two excellent books about the problem of free will: Elbow Room (1984) and Freedom Evolves (2004).
Dennett has, however, staked out some rather extreme positions over the years. In particular, he is a vociferous proponent of the view that not only is science the only reliable way to discover truths about the physical world, but also that the physical world is all that there is. He is dismissive of mysticism, or of any approach to understanding by paths other than reason, and has no patience whatsoever for even the slightest whiff of dualism. In short, he is an arch-materialist, and is rather a militant atheist besides. He is also a prominent member of an organization whose purpose is to promote these ideas (fair enough, given that fundamentalist Biblical literalism is all but hegemonic in so much of the country). Unfortunately, though, this organization and its members have given themselves the wincingly pretentious name The Brights, which is just guaranteed to irritate people.
I’ve been there myself; I have been quite the truculent atheist in my day too, and although I do in fact believe, from personal experience, that certain esoteric or “mystical” systems offer genuine possibilities to the diligent practitioner, I do not in any way expect that the results of such practice will turn out to be at odds with the fruits of scientific inquiry. In fact I think that mystical systems are simply treating aspects of the physical world (of which we are, of course, a part) that have not yet been corralled by science, and that as research in the cognitive neurosciences and fundamental physics continues there will be a growing consilience between the two approaches. In this sense I am a materialist, too, though a much more inclusive one than Dennett.
Breaking the Spell was savaged recently, with startlingly bitter hostility, in the New York Times Book Review by the vain and pompous literary critic Leon Wieseltier, self-proclaimed “policeman of the culture.” You can read the review here, and Dennett’s response here. Also making the rounds in the blogosphere (hat tip to Dr. Bill Vallicella) are an email exchange between Dennett and Darwinist philosopher Michael Ruse, and another between Dennett and Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne.
For all the ruction the book has already caused, I have to say that it seems to me so far that Dennett’s tone is quite calm, and that his agenda is perfectly, well, reasonable. I will weigh in myself once I have got a little farther along.