Monday, April 03, 2006

Dennett: Breaking the Spell excerpts (2)

Continuing with some excerpts from Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, not selected to accurately represent the thrust of Dennett's book, or to establish an argument of my own -- they're simply passages that struck me as interesting as I was reading the book. (All typos are mine.)

Ideology is like halitosis -- it is what the other fellow has. -- Terry Eagleton, Ideology


A philosopher is someone who says, "We know it's possible in practice; we're trying to work out if it's possible in principle!"


Evolution is all about processes that almost never happen. Every birth in every lineage is a potential speciation event, but speciation almost never happens, not once in a million births. Mutation in DNA almost never happens -- not once in a trillion copyings -- but evolution depends on it. Take the set of infrequent accidents -- things that almost never happen -- and sort them into the happy accidents, the neutral accidents, and the fatal accidents; amplify the effects of the happy accidents -- which happens automatically when you have replication and competition -- and you get evolution.


As Richard Lewontin recently observed, "To survive, science must expose dishonesty, but every such public exposure produces cynicism about the purity and disinterestedness of the institution and provides fuel for ideological anti-rationalism. The revelation that the paradoxical Piltdown Man fossil skull was, in fact, a hoax, was a great relief to perplexed paleontologists but a cause for great exultation in Texas tabernacles." (["Dishonesty in Science." New York Review of Books, November 18] 2004, p.39)


John Searle once told me about a conversation he had with the late Michel Foucault: "Michel, you're so clear in conversation; why is your written work so obscure?" To which Foucault replied, "That's because, in order to be taken seriously by French philosophers, twenty-five percent of what you write has to be impenetrable nonsense." I have coined a term for this tactic, in honor of Foucault's candor: eumerdification.


We used to think that secrecy was perhaps the greatest enemy of democracy, and as long as there was no suppression or censorship, people could be trusted to make the informed decisions that would preserve our free society, but we have learned in recent years that the techniques of misinformation and misdirection have become so refined that, even in an open society, a cleverly directed flood of misinformation can overwhelm the truth, even though the truth is out there, uncensored, quietly available to anyone who can find it.


Dennett tackles the question of what "spirituality" is, and whether it's intrinsically linked to religious belief:

[L]et your self go. If you can approach the world's complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things. Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready to hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will be a better person. That, I propose, is the secret to spirituality, and it has nothing at all to do with believing in an immortal soul, or in anything supernatural.

While I appreciate Dennett's attempt to fend off the insulting argument that "atheists lack 'values'; they are careless, self-centered, shallow, overconfident" and incapable of understanding or achieving spirituality, he unfortunately starts to sound here a bit like a self-help book. There's nothing really wrong with what he wrote, but...


What seems like an amusing aside on leftist politics ends with a disturbing thought, related to the quote from Frank Herbert I posted (via Billmon) yesterday:

Remember Marxism? It used to be a sour sort of fun to tease Marxists about the contradictions in some of their pet ideas. The revolution of the proletariat was inevitable, good Maxists believed, but if so, why were they so eager to enlist us in their cause? If it was going to happen anyway, it was going to happen with or without our help. But of course the inevitability that Marxists believe in is one that depends on the growth of the movement and all its political action. There were Maxists working very hard to bring about the revolution, and it was comforting to them to believe that their success was guaranteed in the long run. And some of them, the only ones that were really dangerous, believed so firmly in the rightness of their cause that they believed it was permissible to lie and deceive in order to further it. They even taught this to their children, from infancy. These are the "red-diaper babies," children of hardline members of the Communist Party of America, and some of them can still be found infecting the atmosphere of political action in left-wing circles, to the extreme frustration and annoyance of honest socialists and others on the left.

Today we have a similar phenomenon brewing on the religious right: the inevitability of the End Days, or the Rapture, the coming Armageddon that will separate the blessed from the damnned in the final day of Judgment. Cults and prophets proclaiming the imminent end of the world have been with us for several millennia, and it has been another sour sort of fun to ridicule them the morning after, when they discover that their calculations were a little off. But, just as with the Marxists, there are some among them who are working hard to "hasten the inevitable," not merely anticipating the End Days with joy in their hearts, but taking political action to bring about the conditions they think are the prerequisites for that occasion. And these people are not funny at all. They are dangerous, for the same reason that red-diaper babies are dangerous: they put their allegiance to their creed ahead of their commitment to democracy, to peace, to (earthly) justice -- and to truth. If push comes to shove, some of the are prepared to lie and even to kill...


If our tribalism is ever to give way to an extended moral identity, our religious beliefs can no longer be sheltered from the tides of genuine inquiry and genuine criticism. It is time we realized that to presume knowledge where one has only pious hope is a species of evil. Wherever conviction grows in inverse proportion to its justification, we have lost the very basis of human cooperation. -- Sam Harris, The End of Faith

In order to adopt such a moderate position, however, you have to loosen your grip on the absolutes that are apparently one of the main attractions of many religious creeds. It isn't easy being moral, and it seems to be getting harder and harder these days. It used to be that most of the world's ills -- disease, famine, war -- were quite beyond the capacities of everyday people to ameliorate. There was nothing we could do about it, and since "'ought' implies 'can,'" people could ignore the catastrophes on the other side of the glove -- if they even knew about them -- with a clear conscience, since they were powerless to avert them in any way. Living by a few simple, locally applicable maxims could more or less guarantee that one lived as good a life as was possible at the time. No longer.

Thanks to technology, what almost anybody can do has been multiplied a thousandfold, and our moral understanding about what we ought to do hasn't kept pace. ... You can have a test-tube baby or take a morning-after pill to keep from having a baby; you can satisfy your sexual urges in the privacy of your room by downloading Internet pornography, and you can keep your favorite music for free instead of buying it; you can keep your money in secret offshore bank accounts and purchase stock in cigarette companies that are exploiting impoverished Third World countries; and you can lay minefields, smuggle nuclear weapons in suitcases, make nerve gas, and drop "smart bombs" with pinpoint accuracy. Also, you can arrange to have a hundred dollars a month automatically sent from your bank account to provide education for ten girls in an Islamic country who otherwise would not learn to read and write, or to benefit a hundred malnourished people, or provide medical care for AIDS sufferers in Africa. You can use the Internet to organize citizen monitoring of environmental hazards, or to check the honesty and performance of government officials -- or to spy on your neighbors. Now, what ought we to do?


Surely just about everybody has faced a moral dilemma and secretly wished, "If only somebody -- somebody I trusted -- could just tell me what to do!" Wouldn't this be morally inauthentic? Aren't we responsible for making our own moral decisions? Yes, but the virtues of "do it yourself" moral reasoning have their limits, and if you decide, after conscientious consideration, that your moral decision is to delegate further moral decisions in your life to a trusted expert, then you have made your own moral decision. You have decided to take advantage of the division of labor that civilization makes possible and get the help of expert specialists.

We applaud the wisdom of this course in all other important areas of decision-making (don't try to be your own doctor, the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, and so forth). Even in the case of political decisions, like which way to vote, the policy of delegation can be defended. ... Is the a dereliction of [one's] dut[y] as a citizen? I don't think so, but it does depend on my having good grounds for trusting [the delegate's] judgment. ... That why those who have an unquestioning faith in the correctness of the moral teachings of their religion are a problem: if they themselves haven't conscientiously considered, on their own, whether their pastors or priests or rabbis or imams are worthy of this delegated authority over their own lives, then they are in fact taking a personally immoral stand.

This is perhaps the most shocking implication of my inquiry, and I do not shrink from it, even though it may offend many who think of themselves as deeply moral. It is commonly supposed that it is entirely exemplary to adopt the moral teachings of one's own religion without question, because -- to put it simply -- it is the word of God (as interpreted, always, by the specialists to whom one has delegated authority). I am urging, on the contrary, that anybody who professes that a particular point of moral conviction is not discussable, not debatable, not negotiable, simply because it is the word of God, or because the Bible says so, or because "that is what all Muslims [Hindus, Sikhs ...] [sic] believe, and I am a Muslim [Hindu, Sikh ...]" [sic], should be seen to be making it impossible for the rest of us to take their views seriously, excusing themselves from the moral conversation, inadvertently acknowledging that their own views are not conscientiously maintained and deserve no further hearing.

I think you can see here some of what I complained about in my previous post about Dennett's book -- he's taking here a point of view which is entirely antithetical to that of almost every religious person, which makes it practically impossible for them to accept Dennett's reasoning or go with him to his point. If a religious person delegates his moral decisions to a clergyman, it's not so much because of the good judgment and capabilities of the clergyman as it is because the clergyman is seen to be in some way channeling the word of God. What Dennett's saying makes perfectly sense if you already don't believe in God, but it's utterly dismissible by anyone who does. That's hardly a way to win converts.

[Previously posted excerpts are here, here and here.]

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Ed Fitzgerald | 4/03/2006 09:12:00 PM | write me | | | HOME | MAIN SITE

Ed Fitzgerald

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