The Bright Side

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.

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  1. Thomas says

    Hi Malcolm, welcome back!

    a quick thought (have to work):

    I still find it incomprehensible how anyone can confidently state that “the physical world is all that there is.” This is no scientific statement: it cannot be tested scientifically, as science obviously deals with the physical world only so cannot prove whether that is all there is. And as a philosophical statement, it is debatable and therefore not unproblematically “just true”.

    As a matter of fact, I find it not just a bit over-confident to assume that what humans are able to scientifically detect is all there is.

    But, well, as a Dutch scientist stated in a newspaper a few days ago, these discussions tend to reveal more about one’s attitude towards life and the world, than about the world itself. “The physical world is all that there is” in that sense is an existential statement; nothing more, nothing less.

    oops, now to work!

    Posted March 7, 2006 at 8:21 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Thomas, and thanks as always for commenting.

    One fuzzy part of all of this is what we mean, exactly, by “the physical world”. I doubt very much that we have permanently and immovably set its frontiers just yet. Likewise for the question of what we can and cannot, in either principle or future practice, “detect scientifically”.

    I think the next few centuries should be quite interesting; I have the feeling that we are just getting warmed up.

    Posted March 7, 2006 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  3. Bob Koepp says

    I, too, think Dennett goes “over the top” in his critique of religious belief. As Michael Ruse has pointed out, it might help if Dennett actually studied the object of his scorn — not as a believer, obviously, but as a fair-minded critic who knows whereof he speaks.

    But I certainly share Dennett’s dislike of the handwaving and obfuscatory evasions one gets from defenders of the faith when they are asked to provide recognizable _reasons_ for their beliefs.

    Posted March 7, 2006 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Part of the problem is the phenomenon of faith itself, which by its very nature is not publicly communicable in the way that reasoned arguments are.

    Posted March 7, 2006 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  5. Bob Koepp says

    Hi Malcolm –
    Yes, faith is problematic in this context since MY faith isn’t (or shouldn’t be) any sort of reason for YOU to believe as I do. In other words, the persuasiveness of faith-based belief doesn’t extend beyond the one whose faith it is. And when, as often happens, faith serves as an “excuse” for not confronting uncomfortable data in a forthright manner, then, whatever its other merits, I think faith has gone off the rails and should be directly challenged.

    Posted March 8, 2006 at 9:22 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Right. I can’t share my faith with anyone else, and a lack of reasoned arguments in support of whatever my faith tells me to be true need not compel me to abandon my conviction. I would say, though, that if logical objections are brought up that contradict my faith, then I should begine to suspect that something is wrong, and if at that point I fail to try, at least, to find a logically defensible “loophole”, then I’m just copping out.

    Posted March 8, 2006 at 10:56 am | Permalink