Saturday, March 25, 2006

Dennett on Religion on the Radio

Daniel Dennett, bringing out the "sweet tooth" metaphor again, was the primary guest on a Radio Open Source show titled "Is God in Our Genes?"(this is the link to the mp3 file of the show). His main point, which I assume is the main point of his recent book, is that religion is an appropriate topic for scientific study. He's preaching to the choir with me, of course. I've tossed around a few ideas for experiments on memory and religion (in line with Atran's work), so I have no compunction in studying religion scientifically. But apparently some people do, perhaps because they're afraid that explaining religion will cause it to lose some of its value (or maybe just because they don't like hearing this stuff from a man who looks like Santa Claus).

Dennett starts to lose me when he gets into memetics, which I find utterly worthless, and as you might expect, he focuses a lot on evolutionary explanations of religion's origins, which I also find pretty worthless, but for the most part the interview is interesting. He's joined on the show by two evolutionary biologists, an Episcopal minister, and a philosopher of religion, each of whom has something interesting to say. So if you're into the psychology or biology of religion, you might find the interviews interesting, and if you plan to read Dennett's book, it seems to provide a nice preview of what you'll find in it. (I haven't read the book myself, but I suspect that Razib's giving good advice when he says that you should just go to the primary sources.)

13 comments:

Razib said...

two points

1) dennett is a better writer than boyer or atran...so, i thought it was actually pretty cool reading a digested survey. but, i think it would have been wasted if i didn't have the primary lit. under my belt in the first place. in other words...i think it is most fruitful to not use breaking the spell as an intro, but as a review after you've read the primary literature.

2) to me, i will add that many passages and arguments were suspiciously similar to the material in the first half of d. jason slone's theological incorrectness. hmmm....

Michael Anissimov said...

Why do you find evolutionary explanations of religion's origins worthless? This must mean that either 1) you find evolutionary explanations in general worthless (I doubt this) or 2) you don't care about unraveling the origins of religion. How could this be?

jeff g said...

Dennett advocates not merely studying religion scientifically, but actually studying it as a natural phenomenon without any social taboo's holding us back. He compares such an endeavor to the study of medicine: while miracles might happen in the medical field here and there, this doesn't stop any researchers from adopting a purely naturalistic outlook on the subject. You can kind of see why many people aren't terribly excited about this.

I agree with razib, if you have read Boyer and Atran prior to this, and know enough about memes to guess how Dennett will use them, you can probably guess how the book will turn out. He did, however, make a good use of Rodney Stark as well however.

Chris said...

Razib, though Atran is a friend of mine, I have to admit you're right, Dennett is a better writer. Dennett has become, in large part, a pop philosophy/science writer in the last decade or so, and he's pretty good at it.

Michael, if the study of the evolution of religion is comparative (comparing human and nonhuman animals, for example, on things like agency detection), then it probably won't tell us anything we don't already know. We are hard-wired to detect agency, particularly under conditions of uncertainty, as are many other animals. This may be in part responsible for our anthropomorphic religious impulses. But we already knew that. If an evolutionary approach to religion is more like Evolutionary Psychology, then it won't tell us anything at all.

As I've said before, I like Atran's approach: look at the cognitive mechanisms that are utilized in religious cognition (both everyday religious cognition and more formal theological reasoning). Comparative psychology and biology can help us to understand which specifically human mechanisms are involved, and not much else. Sociological, anthropological, and even economic study can supplement this by looking at variations in religious beliefs, and perhaps in the cognitive mechanisms utilized. I just don't know what evolutionary considerations will tell us over and above that.

mindmaker said...

Memetics is not so worthless. Memes of artificial intelligence, lodging in people's memory, are strong enough to ignite and launch a Technological Singularity.

Chris said...

mindmaker, I have to admit, I have no clue what you mean. Could you expand on that a little?

mindmaker said...

I just mean that memes are a powerful way to spread ideas, such as a Theory of Mind for artificial intelligence.

Clark Goble said...

Hmm. Personally I've yet to see any compelling reason to buy into memes and a lot of good reasons to reject them.

As to Dennett, I've not picked up his book. From what others have said (as above) it doesn't seem likely he'd add much to what I've already read. (i.e. Atran and others)

I'm all for scientific analysis of religion. The more the merrier as I see it. I just worry that perhaps biases might discount out of hand religious content or judge as religious things that are perhaps more generally just human.

Chris said...

Clark, on memes, I simply wonder what a theory involving memes has predicted that we wouldn't have predicted from what we already know about knowledge representation, communication, etc. It's an interesting metaphor, and that's all I get out of it.

I agree about the science of religion, too. Understanding how we represent and process information about physics doesn't cause us to doubt physics. That alone shouldn't cause us to doubt religion, either. I think the temptation to doubt religion once we understand the cognitive and social mechanisms behind it is that it does remove a lot of the mystery, and the mystery is part of what makes religion compelling to many. Still, I think the temptation is misguided. Interestingly, James talks about both this temptation and the temptation of the religous to fear scientific study of religion at the beginning of Varieties of Religious Experience. Man, that guy was smart.

Clark Goble said...

Yes, the pragmatists were definitely ahead of their times. Both Peirce and James in their ways offered a lot to future thinking about the structures of human behavior, especially in connection to religion. Although I think there are good reasons to be skeptical of both their approaches as well.

The biggest "failing" for religion with respect to scientific analysis is the subjective nature of it and the lack of repetition on demand. It makes it very hard to study.

jeff g said...

While I think that memetics has it's uses, I don't think that they can or should only be limited to a theory of "memetics". In particular, I do like the idea behind ideas being somewhat autonomous in their darwinian propogation. I think that such a point of view could be somewhat relevant in understanding religion and perhaps even ethics, but I have yet to see anything approaching a convincing treatment of memes.

Perhaps the most outrageous part of memes (a part which Dennett is smart enough to avoid) is the attempt to defined them in terms of physical replication. This seems to me to be a lost cause if there ever was one. Of course Aunger in his book argues that Darwinian selection without physical repliaction is meaningless. I'm not sure what his reasoning for this was though; I'll have to brush up on his book which is really good until he attempts to lay out his own thoery of memetics.

Chris said...

Jeff, when I first encountered memetics in college, through Dawkins, I was impressed with the idea. It seems like a very interesting way to think about ideas, especially in the age of the culture industry. But as I began to run through the literature in grad school, including the books like The Meme Machine, The Elctric Meme, and Virus of the Mind, and also grew better acquainted with research on things like schemas, I couldn't help but feel that memes could either be seen as an interesting and perhaps inspiring metaphor for already estalished ideas about memory and knowledge representation, or as a promisory note that, after all that theoretical work, has yet to be cashed in. I've often joked that I would become a fan of memetics if memetics could produce a solid analysis of why the concept "meme" has become so popular despite the complete lack of tangible empirical results.

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