Sunday, January 22, 2006

Dennett on religion

Daniel Dennett, the namesake of this blog, has a new book coming out about the natural history of religion:
For those who do not need to be persuaded, the main draw here is a sharp synthesis of a library of evolutionary, anthropological and psychological research on the origin and spread of religion. Drawing on thinkers such as Pascal Boyer (whose own book is called Religion Explained) and giving their work his own spin, Dennett speculates how a primitive belief in ghosts might have given rise to wind spirits and rain gods, wood nymphs and leprechauns. The world is a scary place. What else to blame for the unexpected than humanlike beings lurking behind the scenes?

The result would be a cacophony of superstitions — memes vying with memes — some more likely to proliferate than others. In a world where agriculture was drawing people to aggregate in larger and larger settlements, it would be beneficial to believe you had been commanded by a stern god to honor and protect your neighbors, those who share your beliefs instead of your DNA. Casting this god as a father figure also seems like a natural. Parents have a genetic stake in giving their children advice that improves their odds for survival. You’d have less reason to put your trust in a Flying Spaghetti Monster. At first this winnowing of ghost stories would be unconscious, but as language and self-awareness developed, some ideas would be groomed and domesticated.
Sounds like a modern, Darwinian twist on Hume...
No wonder, then, that mankind, being placed in such an absolute ignorance of causes, and being at the same time so anxious concerning their future fortune, should immediately acknowledge a dependence on invisible powers, possessed of sentiment and intelligence. ... Nor is it long before we ascribe to them thought and reason and passion, and sometimes even the limbs and figures of men, in order to bring them nearer to a resemblance with ourselves. ...

It may readily happen, in an idolatrous nation, that though men admit the existence of several limited deities, yet is there some one God, whom, in a particular manner, they make the object of their worship and adoration. ... his votaries will endeavour, by every art, to insinuate themselves into his favour; and supposing him to be pleased, like themselves, with praise and flattery, there is no eulogy or exaggeration, which will be spared in their addresses to him. In proportion as men’s fears or distresses become more urgent, they still invent new strains of adulation; and even he who outdoes his predecessor in swelling up the titles of his divinity, is sure to be outdone by his successor in newer and more pompous epithets of praise. Thus they proceed; till at last they arrive at infinity itself, beyond which there is no farther progress.

35 Comments:

Blogger Chris said...

It also sounds like a slightly more cynical twist on Cassirer's Language and Myth, with his "momentary gods." I assume Cassirer had read Hume, of course.

1/22/2006 09:31:00 PM  
Blogger driftwood said...

This kind of speculation might be amusing, but it always seems to fall into the “sounds good to me” style of argumentation. And if somebody else says it doesn’t sound good to them, then that’s the end of it since neither party can point to much by way of evidence. I’m much more impressed by the kind of argument that Paul Bloom made in the December “Atlantic” that looks instead at what is it about humans that make them so susceptible to religious belief. At least here there is the hope of real evidence for or against your claim. And if we can nail this question down with some clarity, it might provide at least broad brackets on how historic religious beliefs and practices were likely to have developed. I’ll probably read Dennett’s book, but I’m not expecting it to be one of his better efforts.

1/23/2006 03:11:00 AM  
Blogger driftwood said...

I also agree with Bloom that religious belief might not have had any adaptive advantage in itself but is, perhaps, merely the by-product of other things that did. He quite rightly points out that there are many near universal characteristics of humans that do not have such advantage--say, masturbation.

1/23/2006 03:20:00 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Speaking of ideas that Dennett may or may not have gotten from Hume, his attack on the Cartesian theatre sounds a lot like Hume's idea that "The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, repass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different, whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity. The comparison of the theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion of the place where these scenes are represented, or of the materials of which it is composed."

Steven Pinker has a "non-adaptive by-product" explanation of religion along the lines of what Bloom describes, as a combination side effect of 1) theory of mind [which causes us to overextend theory of mind to see intention in nature] and 2) trust of experts [adaptive because no one can know everything, so it's good to trust the group's herbal expert, but this makes us susceptible to religious preaching].

1/24/2006 08:15:00 AM  
Blogger driftwood said...

I've never read Pinker; maybe I should take a look. One of the most interesting bits of Bloom's argument is that the key piece is more basic than an overextended theory of mind causing us to see intention in nature. Before that the theory of mind causes us to see mind and body as distinct. Who hasn't imagined being "transported" into somebody elses body? We can think like that with ease. From there it is no problem to imagine existing after death or without a body at all. And then why not have all sorts of thinking, doing creatures that either don't need bodies or do quite nicely with a tree or even the wind?

1/25/2006 02:57:00 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

re Pinker - I don't think his explanation of religion is in any of his books (as far as I remember) - I heard it at a talk he gave 2 years ago. Maybe it will be in his next book... The divorce of mind and body is a key thing, I think Pinker did mention that. Maybe he took it from Bloom!

1/25/2006 01:05:00 PM  
Blogger graefix said...

Hi Andrew,
Have you seen yesterday's (Feb. 8) interview of Daniel Dennett at Salon? I'm tempted to read the new book based on the interview. I like his description of the "invisible moat around religion," keeping scientists from studying the phenomenon lest they "break the spell."

Driftwood is right about Bloom's article in the Atlantic. It's quite interesting. I especially like Bloom's descriptions of experiments on babies that show how we form different expectations of the physical and psychological worlds very early. Cool stuff.

2/10/2006 02:43:00 AM  
Blogger driftwood said...

Hmm, since I don't want to turn Cookies on just so I can watch an ad from Salon, could you fill in a bit what Dennett said?

I rather enjoyed Dennett's earlier work but he seems to have slipped into a bait-and-swap style of promising a lot more than he even tries to deliver. So my fear is that his book will be padded out with a lot of armchair speculating that might be interesting and might even be possible, but will be a long way off from probable. But, as I said, I will probably read the book since I have been growing more interested in the subject of late.

2/11/2006 04:39:00 AM  
Blogger graefix said...

Hi driftwood,

I bought Dennett's book yesterday. I have just begun reading it, but I would say that nearly everything in the Salon interview is discussed in the first 100 pages of the book. If you are going to read the book anyway, don't bother with the Salon interview. Here are a couple of answers Dennett gave that I thought were interesting:

Does it worry you that American politics under the current administration have become infused with religion?

It does. The separation of church and state is very important and is not as uncontroversial today in the United States as it should be. Around the world we see clear cases of how seriously bad theocracies are. So we certainly have to take steps to preserve the secular foundation of this country. I put my faith in secular, free societies and democracies like the United States.

You have "faith"?

By faith, I don't mean an irrational belief. I've got to leap and secular democracy is the lifeboat I leap to. Somebody else may think, "If I have to choose between my religion and country," I choose religion. We're beseeching people in Iraq not to do that. But what about at home? It's all right to have an allegiance to a religion, but is your allegiance to democracy and a secular state more important than your allegiance to your religion? If the answer is no, then I don't want you in office. I think that's a pretty reasonable test.

Dennett is a good writer. I am finding the book quite engaging so far. The topic was also handled well by Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow.

-g

2/12/2006 10:28:00 AM  
Blogger driftwood said...

Ok, cool.

Yes, I think Dawkins writes well too.

2/12/2006 08:46:00 PM  
Blogger graefix said...

I should clarify my last comment. There is some overlap between Unweaving the Rainbow and Breaking the Spell, but Rainbow is broader in scope. Spell is an argument for the scientific investigation of religion, whereas Rainbow is a defense of scientific inquiry in general. Both emphatically make the point that scientific understanding in no way diminishes the beauty of the natural - or the human - world. Religion may prove an exception. Dennett argues that investigating religion may be critically important, but we don't know because people are afraid to talk about it.

(I'm beginning to think I have hijacked this thread. Enough from me.)

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The book is divided into three parts. Part I discusses the motivation and justification for the entire project: Can science study religion? Should science study religion? After answering in the affirmative, Part II proceeds to use the tools of evolutionary biology and Promotional Items memetics to suggest possible theories regarding the origin of religion and subsequent evolution of modern religions from ancient folk beliefs. Part III analyzes religion and its effects in today's world: Does religion make us moral? Is religion what gives meaning to life? What should we teach the children? Dennett bases much of his analysis on empirical evidence, though he often points out that much more research in this field is needed.

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