Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Review of Dennett's Breaking the Spell

There is an important but often overlooked piece of philosophical methodology. Generally one can ask the following question: Does X exist or not? Then a fight breaks out. Some philosophers say yes, some say no. Let us say that a good number of philosophers then say "no, there is no X" but there are a very large number of people who still disagree. Perhaps common sense disagrees. It doesn't change the fact that X might still not exist, but they are then left with a very important question: Why do so many people believe that X exists?

Daniel Dennett's book, Breaking the Spell tries to answer this question for the philosophy of religion. The main question we start with is about the nature of God and religion. Philosophers have taken to answering "no" to the question of whether or not God exists or religion is true. But then it is left to anthropologists and philosophers to solve the mystery of why most of us believe that it is.

There is a new trend at least for the past 10 years or so to try to marshal the resources of evolutionary biology, cognitive science, economics, and sociology, to come up with an answer that is more sophisticated than the ones given like Critias in Ancient Greece, or Marx or Freud. Pascal Boyer made a good attempt a few years ago. So have others. Dennett wrote a book that is meant to be both popular and thorough.

Much of what Dennett writes is repeated from others, though Dennett's is a very good synthesis. Dennett's book is also strongly polemical. He believes that religion is too harmful to just leave alone.

The argument goes something like this: Humans have a developed system for detecting intentional agents. That is, we know when we are dealing with a another person who is doing something on purpose, and we know something about others who know that we do things on purpose. So we are a species that is capable of positing agency and things like that.

Secondly Dennett makes a case for memes. Memes are the features of culture that are capable of being passed around. A meme can be a tune, a phrase, a language, a fad or whatever. Memes get passed around and replicated pretty much the same way that genes do.

So put this all together with evolutionary biology and you get a theory that says that humans are quite satisfied positing more intentional agents than may exist. Those may be our supernatural agents (and there is good cognitive science evidence which describes how circumscribed our religious conceptions may be). There is the possibility that these religious memes do enhance either our own (or even possibly) our group fitness and ultimately led us to the religious stage where we are today.

Naturally, religious people will not want their religions deconstructed the way he does, but the fact is, there is no principled reason to look at humans and religious phenomena any differently than anything else.

I am overall sympathetic to his project. I thought Boyer, however dense and dull the read was essentially right, though perhaps not comprehensive. Dennett's book is for more general audiences. But I

found the book mildly annoying sometimes. For one, Dennett is bit full of himself. He thinks he's got it all figured out. Now, he might, but coming off like that is off-putting. Also, there is no reason he had to spend the first 75 pages telling us that this is an important question to ask. If we didn't think it was a good question, we wouldn't bother reading the book. I really do not need to waste as much time as I did on not even getting to the question of the book.

That being said, this book deserves a wide readership, undoubtedly it needs a wider readership then it is certain to get. Read it.

(BTW, Leon Wieseltier's review in The New York Times is among the worst reviews ever written of a philosophy book. Dennett is not a religious person obviously, and it not very well informed about what religion is. But he does suggest in his book that when we do get around to studying religion from a properly scientific perspective it would have to be done by a person who has a real deep understanding of the religion. Wieseltier does not have the same methodological compunctions. His review reminds me of some rabbis and fundamentalist Christians I've encountered who have no problem dismissing evolutionary theory by insisting that their grandmother was not an ape. "I have pictures of her" QED. Wieseltier has no need to be competent enough to judge the science, or even think about science. He can just botch Hume, ignore the fact that science produces real results, and believe he has thusly refuted Dennett. Man, even when the Times is being conservative they screw it up.)

1 comment:

John Byrnes said...


I read BTS back in January while in Florence. I agree it was a great look at the topic. Great companion piece to The God Delusion which is a bit more polemic.
Still haven't gotten to Harris' End of Faith.

Joh Byrnes