Thursday, March 30, 2006

Daniel Dennett and the Theology of Science.



This discussion is based on an excellent review of Professor Dennett's most recent book by H. Allen Orr, "The God Project," in The New Yorker, April 3, 2006, at p. 80. It is never a good idea to rely on reviewers for the opinions of any philosopher, so I suggest that you read Dennett's book Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomena (New York: Viking, 2006) and come to your own conclusions. I plan to do so. I enjoyed Professor Dennett's televised conversation with Bill Moyers, when Dennett's views were discussed for close to an hour.

I shall comment mostly on views of religion attributed to Dennett by his reviewers, but also on his own words. Dennett's ideas concerning consciousness (though mistaken, in my view) interest me much more than his views concerning religion. The difficulty with many attacks on religion from those who are hostile to it, as I have been in the past -- and as I still am in many ways -- is that they fail to understand what is religion and why it matters. Militant antireligionists are, of course, the most intensely, passionate and "religiously inspired" persons on the planet, except that their religion is atheism. They cannot help preaching to the masses. Michael Lerner in The Nation, April 24, 2006, at p. 20, summarizes many of my criticisms:

So I am led to the conclusion that the main reason that underlies the Left's deep skepticism about religion is its members strong faith in a different kind of belief system. Even though many people on the Left think of themselves as merely trying to hold on to rational consciousness and resist the emotionalism [Is such resistance possible or desirable?] that can contribute to fascistic movements, it's not true that the Left is without belief. The Left has been captivated by a belief that is called scientism. ... I rely on science to tell me about many aspects of the physical world in which I live, and in the new organization I've founded with Cornel West and Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, called the Network of Spiritual Progressives (http://www.spiritualprogressive.org/ ), we have developed an eight point Spiritual Covenant with America in which one of the eight planks is about defending science from interference by the state, religion or the capitalist marketplace.

Mr. Lerner is a friend of science, but not of antireligiousness, which is not required by science. Intolerance and dogmatism are unacceptable, whether they come from religious or nonreligious people. The subject of Dennett's book is the "scientific" study of religion. This raises some difficulties at the outset. Is the scientific study of religion possible? If so, then is it worthwhile to pursue such a study?

Any natural phenomenon may be studied scientifically. The question is whether religion is exclusively a "natural" phenomenon. One answer is that religion only occurs among conscious subjects, which means "us" (as far as we know). Hence, it is possible to study us in order to determine, scientifically, what happens in persons or societies that we then call "religion." Yet this will not tell us whether religious beliefs are true, since truth or falsehood is logically independent of the reasons that explain why someone holds a particular belief. I believe that it was Leon Wieseltier who made this point in a superb review of Dennett's book in the New York Times.

Notice that a science of religion will have no bearing on the theoretical import or non-empirical aspects of religion. Such a science will be irrelevant to religions, as myths or systems of meaning, in terms of the vocabulary of symbols or their truth-content. The scientific study of religion, even if it is possible, will only yield information of a factual nature that may well be irrelevant to the most important concerns of religion, as a phenomenon, which has to do with the meanings of religious stories and practices for the moral and spiritual lives of persons. I urge you to read George Santayana's writings on this topic.

Science, Santayana writes, expresses in human terms our dynamic relation to surrounding reality. Philosophies and religions, where they do not misrepresent these same dynamic relations and do not contradict science, express destiny in moral dimensions, in obviously mystical or poetical images: but how else should these moral truths be expressed in a traditional or popular fashion? Religions are the great fairy tales of the conscience.

Remember that all of the great fairy tales convey important truths, even though they are empirically false. Dennett puts on his lab coat and sets out to explain how religious beliefs arise, so as to debunk religious creeds, persuading readers that religion should be discarded or subjected to tests of "rationality," something which is pointless and irrational. Why should rationality matter when it comes to mystical insight? Is it "rational" to demand rationality of such insights? What kind of rationality? Objective rationality? Is Kierkegaard mistaken to speak of religious truth as "subjectivity"? What would Kierkegaard say in response to Dennett? Do you submit Hamlet to a test of rationality? Are there truths communicated in that work of literature?

Suppose I say to you: "We should submit your feelings of romantic love to the tests of rationality. Why love A, not B. B is a better cook, better sexually, so why care about A?" The answer will not come from a test tube, but from the statement: "I love A." This will usually be followed by a shrug of the shoulders. Why one loves a person is secondary. What love "is" (objectively) may be fascinating, but it is kind of irrelevant to the (subjective) experience of loving a woman. I am sure Dennett will agree on this. "Why love A and not B?" Answer: "because I do." Likewise, ask the believer: "Why do you believe in God?" Answer: "I just do."

Dennett is not deliberately insulting the reader. One senses that he regards religion as something to be dismissed and trivialized, non-scientific mumbo-jumbo, unworthy of acceptance by intelligent and sophisticated persons in our time. ("Is it rational to believe in God?" and "Is this atheism's moment?")

This is, of course, a profoundly religious attitude about science, which assumes that what is not scientifically explainable is unreal, unimportant, or unworthy of our concern. Is this view rational? This is not a scientifically determined conclusion, only a value judgment. Many great scientists have not shared this assumption. For instance, Steven Jay Gould argued (persuasively) that religion and science have entirely different concerns because they are compatible forms of "knowing" or awareness concerned with different aspects of human being in the world. By way of comparison, see John D. Caputo, Philosophy and Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), pp. 70-74.

I regard Dennett's religious attitude about science as a form of "scientism," which is mistaken because it is based on irrational beliefs concerning the scope of both science and religion. So I propose to study Dennett's view of science as a kind of "theology," to mirror his study of religion scientifically.

Notice Dennett's easy-going assumption that Darwin's natural selection "is the single best idea anyone has ever had." I beg to differ. Of course, whether an idea is the best idea ever is not a matter to be determined scientifically, since it is a question of values, subject to discussion and debate that is not amenable to laboratory verification.

I think a better idea is "love your neighbor as yourself." Consider the difference to human lives and the world if persons were really to adopt this latter idea. Think of how differently people would behave if they really believed in universal love. If Darwin's natural selection is accepted as true -- which I think it is -- then the world pretty much goes on as before. The religious person can say: "Great, Darwin figured out the mechanism used by God to get life going here." On the other hand, "to love your neighbor as yourself" is for you to become a very different person, whether you believe in the supernatural or not. A world filled with people who really believed in such love -- and lived accordingly -- would be a much better place than the reality we experience every day.

Yes, religion has been a force for evil. So has science. Think of nuclear weapons and those scientifically planned and run concentration camps. This is irrelevant to the point that I am making concerning, in pragmatist terms, the "cash value" of the two ideas: natural selection versus an ethics of love. I think experiencing love is more important than our theories about either religion or science. I think of this Judeo-Christian and, yes, also Islamic idea -- which has a secular variant, from Aristotle to Spinoza, Hegel and Romanticism to existentialism -- as the best of the two competing discourses, even as I find both discourses true and helpful to humanity. We do not have to choose between science and religion.

When it comes to understanding the emergence of life on this planet, in an empirical sense, I am a Darwinist. This is distinct from my formation of metaphysical views. Darwin certainly was content to think of himself as a biologist and would have been surprised to find himself regarded as a sort of guru on metaphysical matters. Charles Darwin should not become a nineteenth century version of Oprah Winfrey, much as I admire Ms. Winfrey.

What is religion? According to this reviewer, "Religion, as [Dennett] provisionally defines it, involves believing in, and seeking the approval of, a supernatural being." (p. 80.) In Dennett's words, "There was a time when there was no religion on this planet, and now there is lots of it. Why?" I disagree. Religion, in my view, is a phenomenon that coincides with the emergence of human beings on the planet. There was never a time when there were persons, but no religions.

Joseph Campbell says of the religious impulse in humans, which he sees as universal and natural to us, that "... universally cherished figures of the mythic imagination must represent facts of the mind [not the brain]: 'facts of the mind made manifest in a fiction of matter,' as my friend the late Maya Deren phrased the mystery.' ... " Religion is concerned with: "symbolized facts of the mind." I believe that its purpose is to bind us to one another and to our species-history and species-memory, so as to guide us in making life's natural transitions, especially in coming to terms with death. I suspect that Carl Jung and Ernst Cassirer were closer to the truth than Dennett when they identified the religious impulse in humanity with the source and foundation of language, art and all symbolizing, including the symbolizing used in science.

Thomas Nagel in his classic essay "What is it like to be a bat?" speaks of the human need to imagine what cannot be known with certainty, but may be deemed vital, nevertheless, to our flourishing. "We may imagine something by representing it to ourselves either perceptually, sympathetically, or symbolically." There are forms of knowledge that we need and can acquire only by means of symbols. Religious truths are of this sort, I think, because they are concerned with our natural spirituality. You can recognize and accept your spirituality, as a natural part of yourself, without joining any religious group or institution, just as you may appreciate art without joining one artistic faction or another.

In a published dialogue between Jean Paul Sartre and Fidel Castro (I am not a Communist nor an apologist for the Cuban Revolutionary Government, which I often strongly criticize and always oppose to the extent that it denies freedoms to its people), Castro said that the revolution would get people whatever they requested. Sartre asked: "What if they asked for the moon?" Castro thought for a moment and said: "We may not be able to get it for them, but we would understand that they need it."

Religion is humanity's way of saying that we need the moon. Part of what I understand by a human being or person is a concern with spirituality. We know that early homo sapiens -- long before the emergence of civilization -- buried their dead, created rituals of mourning and celebration, created art to commemorate the animals killed in the hunt out of respect for their spirits and as atonement. This is religion. Art seems to arise almost simultaneously with religion in the story of humanity's development, so does language.

Symbols and metaphors are needed to gesture at what is transcendent of human particularity and physicality, as against mortality and life's other great mysteries. Religion coincides with the universal experience of the numinous, also with the awareness of the proximity of death and love, of "limit" situations and mysteries in life. (Jaspers, Ricoeur)

Religion certainly existed long before science did in human history. What we now know to be scientific truth existed before science, as an intellectual discipline (the earth was round when people thought it was flat). Similarly, the spiritual or ethical truths found in the great religions existed also, in my view, before people were smart enough to discover them. It has always been true that we should love one another. It has always been true that slavery is evil and that discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sexual-orientation or gender is immoral. Some of us have still not figured these things out, but we can no longer wait for everyone to get it. We insist on freedom and equality now for all others, as we do for ourselves. This is based on a religious idea of human dignity and spiritual worth. ("America's Holocaust.")

Also, these early religions did not necessarily depend on, or concern themselves with, the "approval of a supernatural being." Nevertheless, they were religions. Many religions today do not concern themselves with winning the approval of a supernatural being. Buddhism is very distant from Western religions, in this respect, and classical Chinese myths are also much more abstract in their ethical concerns and teachings. Pantheism is a form of religious sensibility which is always with us.

Grudgingly, Dennett admits that: "... a scientific study of religion does not exclude the possibility that religious beliefs may be true." If this is so, then why does Dennett wish to "break the spell" and have humanity move beyond religion? What makes his "faith" in science "religious," is his apparent assumption that science could ever fill the needs and provide for the concerns satisfied only by religion in human life. He does not stop to consider seriously what we mean when we speak of religious truth. How is such religious truth different from scientific truth? (See "Has science made philosophy obsolete?")

Dennett's use of the concept of "memes" (derived from the work of Richard Dawkins, a militant antireligionist, "blessed" with a wonderful mythic or religious imagination) illustrates Dennett's own essentially religious sensibility. "A meme, a term introduced by Richard Dawkins, is any idea or practice -- any thought, song, or ritual -- that can replicate from one brain to another." (p. 81.) A "meme" is what used to be called a "good idea." Memes are a lot like our old friends Plato's "forms," except that they are wearing tiny space suits.

Notice how quickly metaphors and symbols take over and we are creating a religion in the language of science. "Dawkins often thought of memes as mental viruses, selfish parasites on human minds." Minds are not brains, or bodily organs, but abstract entities existing culturally and linguistically, made possible by cerebral processes that do have physical locations. Minds are not reducible to -- nor identical with -- those cerebral processes.

Freud disagreed with Jung concerning the role of libido in human emotional life. For Freud, love is sex; for Jung, love is sex and much more. In a letter to Freud, Jung spoke of Chartres Cathedral and explained that it might be described as "a pile of stones" and this would be accurate, as far as it goes. Yet this cathedral is also "a magnificent architectural structure" within a shared civilization, religion, tradition and with a meaning or meanings that are cultural. Love is more than sex. Mind is more than brain. Chartres Cathedral is more than a pile of stones. That cathedral, apart from its beauty, is a chapter in a saga entitled: "The Story of Christianity or Religion in Western Civilization." In a way, so are you. This is true even if you are an atheist.

Minds are not spacially constrained, so that we may encounter the mind of Shakespeare in his plays, or Dennett's mind in his books. A mind cannot have a "virus." A concept of a "meme" cannot be "selfish." Ascribing such qualities as "selfishness" to non-persons is a logical error known as an anthropomorphism. (Look up "the pathetic fallacy.")

My computer is feminine, willful, flirty, witty and annoying. I call her: "She who must be obeyed." If we deny the religious imagination -- as the Victorians tried to deny sexual appetite -- it is merely displaced into other areas of activity, becoming pervasive in our lives. Our technology and media will then acquire religious connotations. We will "personalize" our gadgets. Even in an atheistic setting, religion will emerge. College students may not be joking when they identify their religion as "television." If technology or economic activity become our only gods, then this "religion" is much sadder than any form of atheism or traditional faith.

Religion is not about individual self-interest, but more like an aesthetic or moral need of the species that may require even the sacrifice of personal survival, as love sometimes does. (See my story "The Soldier and the Ballerina.") Naturalism is valuable and accurate as a method in science, but not necessarily as a metaphysics. Science only requires the adoption of a naturalistic method, not your belief that all of reality is reducible to what science can explain naturalistically, since this metaphysical claim is not one that science can explain naturalistically. (See "Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Philosophy of Science.")

As Joseph Campbell explains, for Carl Jung, religion has to do with inner survival, not external evolutionary "success":

" ... the imageries of mythology and religion serve positive, life-furthering ends. According to his way of thinking, all the organs of our bodies -- not only those of sex and aggression -- have their purposes and motives, some being subject to conscious control, others, however, not. Our outward-oriented consciousness, addressed to the demands of the day, may lose touch with these inward forces [concerned with the needs of the night]; and the myths [ -- states Jung --] when correctly read, are the means to bring us back in touch. They are telling us in picture language of powers of the psyche to be recognized and integrated in our lives, powers that have been common to the human spirit forever, and which represent that wisdom of the species by which man [and woman] has weathered the millenniums."

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