Friday, February 10, 2006

Evolution, Conciousness, and Religion

Daniel C. Dennett has a new book coming out Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon that argues we should scientifically study religion. I agree, but many people have already been doing this. I hear that he also lays out a hypothesis of how physical evolution and cultural change developed religion. I am not a fan of

In a Reason interview for another book, Daniel Dennett comments:
People confuse determinism with fatalism. They’re two completely different notions.
Dennett: Fatalism is the idea that something’s going to happen no matter what you do. Determinism is the idea that what you do depends. What happens depends on what you do, what you do depends on what you know, what you know depends on what you’re caused to know, and so forth -- but still, what you do matters. There’s a big difference between that and fatalism. Fatalism is determinism with you left out.

If I accomplish one thing in this book, I want to break the bad habit of putting determinism and inevitability together. Inevitability means unavoidability, and if you think about what avoiding means, then you realize that in a deterministic world there’s lots of avoidance. The capacity to avoid has been evolving for billions of years. There are very good avoiders now. There’s no conflict between being an avoider and living in a deterministic world.


Although, I am not as enthusiastic about seeing cultural evolution through a Darwinian natural selection framework:
...contrary to some of the blather, you see that good, coherent, true scientific theories in general tend to win out over second-rate, formless, incoherent theories. We’ve improved our understanding of the world over the years. The good theories spread. Bad theories don’t.

Well, not always. Sometimes they get a foothold, and they’re sort of like diseases and they’re hard to eradicate, but those are the exceptions. I think it’s an uphill battle for falsehoods to get established.

While I'd like to think of some beliefs as a sickness to be treated, I am cautious about placing evolutionary ideas with normative concepts of what is good. Using evolutionary theory as a model for cultural change tends to muddle understanding of physical evolution and how physical evolution interacts with cultural evolution.

Reason: Think tanks like the Ethics and Public Policy Center and thinkers like Leon Kass and Irving Kristol seem very frightened about the moral implications of your project.

Dennett: They're scared to death of this ... The idea that they could save what they hold dear by making it magical, by embodying it in this little pearl of soul stuff, that’s superstitious thinking of the worst sort.
Reason: I actually suspect some of them of believing that you are correct. They just don’t want ordinary people to think about this stuff. They are afraid that if people believed that God doesn’t exist, then they might think that everything’s permitted.

Dennett: Yes. They don't want me letting the cat out of the bag. I think that’s incredibly paternalistic and arrogant. They underestimate the intelligence of their fellow human beings.
At its worst, it’s that paternalism: "I don’t need it, but look at all these childish people around me. They need it. I won’t dare walk the streets at night if my fellow man doesn’t persist in this delusion."
Yes, but then I think: what about all of the fellow men who have been assisted by a 12-step program looking toward a higher power, or the many testimonials of people saying their lives have been transformed in a very real way by belief in God?

The latest books seeks to open the door to answering this question: what causes belief, and is religion good for us? It looks as if DD sees much of religious belief as anti-truth meme desease. In the SFGate:
"Memes that foster human group solidarity are particularly fit (as memes) in circumstances in which host survival (and hence host fitness) most directly depends on hosts' joining forces in groups. The success of such meme-infested groups is itself a potent broadcasting device, enhancing outgroup curiosity (and envy) and thus permitting linguistic, ethnic, and geographic boundaries to be more readily penetrated."
Dennett admits that many of his claims are speculative.


S: If society doesn't get its moral foundation from religion, where will that foundation come from? What will keep us being good to each other, if not rules laid down by God?
D: Rules that we lay down ourselves. We've been doing this for centuries. There've been revisions about what counts as a sin in God's eyes. It has changed quite a bit since the days of the Old Testament. It has changed because people thought about it hard and could no longer stomach some of the old rules and practices and changed their minds. It became politically obvious that something had to give, and so it has, and will continue to do so. Now we can continue to expand the circle and get more people involved, and do it in a less disingenuous way by excising the myth about how this is God's law. It is our law.
S:The political consequences of undermining faith are monumental, spurring riots and killings around the world. Are you -- is science -- willing to take responsibility for these deadly outcomes?
D:We cannot let any group, however devout, blackmail us into silence by their expressions of hurt feelings whenever they feel that we are getting close to the truth. That is what con artists do when their marks begin to get suspicious, and that is what children do when they can't have their way, and it should be beneath the dignity of any religious group to play that card. The responsibility of science is to safeguard the well-being of those it studies and to tell the truth. If people insist on taking themselves out of the arena of reasonable political discourse and mutual examination, they forfeit their right to be heard. There is no excuse for deliberately insulting anybody, but people who insist on putting their sensibilities on a hair trigger demonstrate that they prefer pity to respect.

This sounds like it could be a comment in response to the recent hub-bub over cartoons (although the cartoons could be closer to the "deliberately insulting" category, rather than scientific truth).

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