Monday Musing: Good Reason, in Good Faith

A review of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett.

Isaiah Berlin resurrected the line “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, and famously used it to divide thinkers into two camps:

The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzak, Joyce are foxes.

Aimdennett01Daniel C. Dennett is a fox. In fact, he is perhaps one of the greatest foxes alive. Dennett has had more great little ideas than anyone else I can think of. And his foxiness has a fractal quality: it exists at every scale. He has written about philosophy, evolutionary theory, neuroscience, and much more. Within philosophy, he has written on philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, the problem of free will, and much more. Within philosophy of mind, he has written on… well, you get the idea. He is astoundingly prolific in his output of ideas and arguments for dealing with a given issue, and an adept at inventing what he calls “intuition pumps” (thought experiments, illustrative examples, new vocabulary–like “intuition pump!”, you name it) to help us grasp difficult concepts. He has written books for specialists (The Intentional Stance) as well as for the well-educated lay reader (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) and everyone in between, but in his new book he targets and reaches out to his widest audience yet, “the curious and conscientious citizens of my native land–as many as possible, not just the academics. (I saw no point in preaching to the choir.)”

Dennett’s project in Breaking the Spell is to use the methods and tools of science to examine religion, just as science examines any other natural phenomenon, and to write about it in such a way that it is accessible to everyone. The book is divided into three parts. Dennett is particularly eager that religious people read his book, and for this reason spends the first third of the book motivating and justifying his project, and even just appealing to his audience to keep reading:

…in spite of my best efforts I will no doubt outrage some readers, and display my ignorance of matters they consider of the greatest importance. This will give them a handy reason to discard my book without considering just which points in it they disagree with and why. I ask that they resist hiding behind this excuse and soldier on. They will learn something, and then they may be able to teach us all something. (p. 21)

Here is Dennett’s own description of his goal:

While I recognize that many religious people could never bring themselves to read a book like this–that is part of the problem the book is meant to illuminate–I intend to reach as wide an audience of believers as possible. Other authors have recently written excellent books and articles on the scientific analysis of religion that are directed primarily to their fellow academics. My goal here is to play the role of ambassador, introducing (and distinguishing, criticizing, and defending) the main ideas of that literature. (p. 23)

Dennett says that scientists study fields like sports and cancer, where miracles are sometimes said to happen. Maybe they don’t and maybe they do, but:

…the only hope of ever demonstrating this to a doubting world would be by adopting the scientific method, with its assumption of no miracles, and showing that science was utterly unable to account for the phenomena. (p. 26)

He says the same goes for religion. And for this reason, even the Roman Catholic Church at least goes through the motions of objective scientific investigation of miracles when considering candidates for sainthood. If believers really want to show that something supernatural exists, they should welcome a scientific examination of the facts. Frankly, this portion of the book may be a bit tedious for those (the choir) who are already convinced that a scientific examination of the phenomenon of religion is a good idea.

The second part of the book is where the real fun starts. Dennett says that there is no reason that religious practices cannot be accounted for in terms of our understanding of evolutionary biology. He begins with theories of the origins of folk religion, and then shows that as human culture grew in scope and sophistication, these ideas developed into fully-fledged organized religions. This is covered in considerable detail, and he makes many interesting points along the way. One of his strategies here is to do with religious memes what Richard Dawkins did with genes thirty years ago: he adopts their point of view. In other words, what characteristics would a religious meme have to have to reproduce itself successfully and spread? Note that memes are:

…passed on to one’s offspring by non-genetic pathways. Speaking one’s “mother tongue,” singing, being polite, and many other “socializing” skills are transmitted culturally from parents to offspring, and infant human beings deprived of these sources of inheritance are often profoundly disabled. It is well-known that the parent-offspring link is the major pathway of transmission of religion. Children grow up speaking their parents’ language and, in almost all cases, identifying with their parents religion. Religion, not being genetic, can be spread “horizontally” to nondescendents, but such conversions play a negligible role under most circumstances. (p. 86)

This method of looking at things from a meme’s-eye point of view makes possible a number of interesting observations, and also explains why so many religious memes share striking similarities, for example, a systematic invulnerability to empirical refutation. It also helps to explain the similarities of various religious practices across different religions, for instance, the ritual of walking unharmed over a bed of hot coals has religious significance in India, China, Japan, Singapore, Polynesia, Sri Lanka, Greece, Bulgaria, and other places. (I know from my own childhood that Pakistan is no exception: walking on burning coals has at least been incorporated into the mourning rituals that are practiced by the Shia, along with self-flagellation.)

Just to give a flavor of the kinds of interesting insight that are made possible by the use of memetics in Dennett’s hands, I will quote him at some length here:

Domestication of both plants and animals occurred without any farseeing intention or invention on the part of the stewards of the seeds and studs. But what a stroke of good fortune for those lineages that became domesticated! All that remains of the ancestors of today’s grains are small scattered patches of wild-grass cousins, and the nearest surviving relatives of all the domesticated animals could be carried off in a few arks. How clever of wild sheep to have acquired that most versatile adaptation, the shepherd! By forming a symbiotic alliance with Homo sapiens, sheep could outsource their chief survival tasks: food finding and predator avoidance.They even got shelter and emergency medical care thrown in as a bonus. The price they paid–losing the freedom of mate selection and being slaughtered instead of being killed by predators (if that is a cost)–was a pittance compared with the gain in offspring survival it purchased. But of course it wasn’t their cleverness that explains the good bargain. It was the blind, foresightless cleverness of Mother Nature, evolution, which ratified the free-floating rationale of this arrangement. Sheep and other domesticated animals are, in fact, significantly more stupid than their wild relatives–because they can be. Their brains are smaller (relative to body size and weight), and this is not just due to their having been bred for muscle-mass (meat). Since both the domesticated animals and their domesticators have enjoyed huge population explosions (going from less than 1 percent of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass ten thousand years ago to over 98 percent today–see Appendix B) there can be no doubt that this symbiosis was mutualistic–fitness-enhancing to both parties.

What I now want to suggest is that, alongside the domestication of animals and plants, there was a gradual process in which the wild (self-sustaining) memes of folk religion became thoroughly domesticated. They acquired stewards. Memes that are fortunate enough to have stewards, people who will work hard and use their intelligence to foster their propagation and protect them from their enemies, are relieved of much of the burden of keeping their own lineages going. In extreme cases, they no longer need to be particularly catchy, or appeal to our sensual instincts at all [as was the case with folk-religious memes]. The multiplication-table memes, for instance, to say nothing of the calculus memes, are hardly crowd-pleasers, and yet they are duly propagated by hardworking teachers–meme shepherds–whose responsibility it is to keep these lineages strong. The wild memes of language and folk religion, in other words, are like rats and squirrels, pigeons and cold viruses–magnificently adapted to living with us and exploiting us whether we like them or not. The domesticated memes, in contrast, depend on human guardians to keep going. (p.169)

It is for such inventive ways of presenting ideas that Dennett is such a pleasure to read, and so easy to understand. Notice that in the above passage, wild animals and plants were domesticated by humans because they provided a mutual benefit. So what was in it for the domesticators of wild memes? Dennet examines this question in some detail next, but I must try to refrain from rewriting a short version of his book here.

The last part of the book is an examination of where religion stands today. This is the part of the book that is explicitly motivated by the current tensions that religion is producing in the world, and here is where Dennett urges his reader toward a serious reexamination of his or her own faith. A religious person might argue that for all of Dennett’s reasoning about religion, he is missing the point. Accepting religion and accepting God is not like accepting a conclusion, it is more like falling in love. To which Dennett says:

…it isn’t just like falling in love; it is a kind of falling in love. The discomfort or even outrage you feel when confronted by my calm invitation to consider the pros and cons of your religion is the same reaction one feels when asked for a candid evaluation of one’s true love: “I don’t just like my darling because, after due consideration, I believe all her wonderful qualities far outweigh her few faults. I know that she is the one for me…

But Dennett wants you to evaluate your love anyway, and he is right. He ends by first examining the question of whether morality is possible without religion (guess what his answer is!), and then by considering what our attitudes toward religion should be today. The whole book is marked by a careful attention to documenting sources and studies whenever an empirical assertion is made (this reminded me of Steven Pinker’s books, where hardly a paragraph goes by without his citing of several studies to back up what he is saying!) and, indeed, it also succeeds in being just about as accessible as is possible to a very wide audience while applying sophisticated analytic tools to its subject. Dennett has done what he wanted to do, and it is an extremely important and timely achievement. I strongly urge you, specially if you are religious, to click here to buy the book, and read it, will you?

Have a good week!

My other Monday Musings:
Mohammed Cartoon Madness and Understanding
A Moral Degeneracy
In the Peace Corps’ Shadow
Richard Dawkins, Relativism and Truth
Reexamining Religion
Posthumously Arrested for Assaulting Myself
Be the New Kinsey
General Relativity, Very Plainly
Regarding Regret
Three Dreams, Three Athletes
Rocket Man
Francis Crick’s Beautiful Mistake
The Man With Qualities
Special Relativity Turns 100
Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President