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Daniel Dennett - The Scientific Study of Religion
Posted: 12 December 2011 08:26 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Guest Host: John Shook

Recently, the Center for Inquiry held a conference titled “Daniel Dennett and the Scientific Study of Religion: A Celebration of the Fifth Anniversary of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”. During that conference, John Shook, CFI’s Director of Education, sat down with Dennett for this interview.

Shook and Dennett have a broad conversation ranging from Dennett’s past and current work to his definition of free will. Dennett explains what caused him to write Breaking the Spell in 1996 and the impact it had on him personally.

They talk about how the public views the scientific study of religion and how it has changed in the recent past. Dennett comments on the continued mutation of religions, and how their rate of change seems to be increasing; about how to come out as a non-believer; and much more!

Daniel Dennett, PhD, is Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts. Among his many books relating to science and religion are Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (with Alvin Plantinga, 2011); Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006); Freedom Evolves (2003); and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995).

http://www.pointofinquiry.org/daniel_dennett_the_scientific_study_of_religion/

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Posted: 13 December 2011 05:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Wow, great, CFI!

Can’t wait to hear this!

Everything I’ve heard or read from Mr. Shook has been VERY insightful and helpful and then, of course, there is his guest…

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Posted: 13 December 2011 12:58 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Just listened to it. Very nice.

:D

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Posted: 13 December 2011 05:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Instant Classic. 

Thanks CFI.  cool smile

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Posted: 13 December 2011 06:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Dennett’s enthusiasm and positive attitude are admirable. However, one cannot do justice without remarking on language exploits which have produced this ignorance.

The fitness enhancement of Dennett’s “free will”, or rather the ability to chose, was tremendously magnified by speech because the exercise of creativity could impact so many more. Even if the population were unaware of this advantage, the individual’s trait would benefit the group and thus it’s own reproduction AMONG THE GROUP. Thus, ironically, this blossoming “free will” was built on interdependence. Dennet notes that “free will” is only relatively free, e.g. neither is it free of the laws of physics nor is it free of the thoughts of others in that it depends on the selection among the ideas of others. Dennett, however, fails to remark on the hyperbole of “free will”, a confounding framing which survives in repressive culture. Even the “will” of the spirit cannot be imagined to be absolutely free. Via the concept of free will, authoritarians both mock, in that the will cannot be free, and chastise, in that it provides the opportunity to sin, the exercise of creativity. “Free will” is the disinformation of the powerful - one should reject the frame, not attempt to clarify it. It is purposefully confusing and therefore one should liberate from that purpose. O, Humanity!

My preferred counterargument to the immorality of non-believers is to note that “free-thinkers” would be a threat to the manipulation of the group and thus to the immorality of bad rule. IOW, the belief in the immorality of atheists arises as a projection of authoritarians. Non-belief without believers would not have modified cooperative traits. OTOH, believers could instill taboos and exhortation with the aid of gods without reason and, unfortunately, despite reason. The very suppression of free thought, the climate of fear to which freethinkers were subjected, demonstrates that the lack of reason was actually a suppression of reason. This counterargument is not a substitute for good works, but neither is good works the only defense against this pernicious, nay sinister, myth.

Thanks for the inspiration, Professor.

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Posted: 13 December 2011 09:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I enjoyed the conversation.  I volunteer as an EMT in my community.  I am becoming more comfortable discussing my thoughts on religion.  I hesitated for a long time, as this is a very small community and the first question you are asked is often, “Which church do you attend.”  I concur with Daniel Dennett that here needs to be more than,” I am an atheist.”  Thanks again for a constructive program.

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Posted: 14 December 2011 10:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I enjoyed the conversation, but I do think Professor Dennett is confusing the subject of free-will. There is nothing that distinguishes our agency with a random animal’s agency. It’s just more complex behavior. What would cause this difference in free will? It all comes down to the pieces, and the pieces are the same.

He really needs to take a page out of Dr. Steven Pinker’s books in that, free-will really is just an illusion, but definitely an important one. We should recognize the illusion, and it should influence our future actions for the better (not that we really have a choice wink). What Professor Dennett is suggesting is just rhetoric. Of course there are levels of freedom (or complexity, or randomness, etc.), but don’t miss the trees for the forest. There isn’t new or different physics going on in our heads than outside our heads.

Let’s get past this rhetoric bottleneck.

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Posted: 14 December 2011 02:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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klox - 14 December 2011 10:57 AM

There is nothing that distinguishes our agency with a random animal’s agency. It’s just more complex behavior. What would cause this difference in free will? It all comes down to the pieces, and the pieces are the same.

[...] free-will really is just an illusion, but definitely an important one. We should recognize the illusion, and it should influence our future actions for the better (not that we really have a choice ;)). What Professor Dennett is suggesting is just rhetoric.

Too reductive: your very exercise of complex behavior is different from that of a random animal’s and framing it as reification of, say, quantum mechanics, is a wrong-headed conflation. Dennett is not mystifying “free-will”, he is dissolving the illusion and clarifying the complex behavior.

A minister I know speaks of the necessity of myth. But, one must ask, how is the best myth selected? He revealed no awareness of the contradiction in his justification. On the other hand, I suspect his services would be less in demand if he insisted on the necessity of illusion.

Should Dennett avoid the baggage of “free-will” and speak of “agency”? No, he’s right to pare the meaning down rather than discard the word. The delusive, supernatural meaning must be critiqued. Of course, the baggage is too attractive when using “free”, so indiscriminate use would perpetuate the delusion. However, it’s safe to use it with his audience. Can one imagine Dennett declaring it a forbidden word? Hilarious! Shades of Jahweh!

But even if he used “agency”, Dennett would not be advocating determinism. Determinism is more a counter-belief, albeit a rather justified reaction to supernaturalism, than a theory. Even were one able to determine the behavior of any random animal, though determinism would be a scientifically well-accepted theory, it would also likely result in a rather repugnant technocracy.

Though I am uneasy about his avoiding the legacy of “free will”, I’d rather have Dennett’s rhetoric.

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Posted: 15 December 2011 03:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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What I admire most about Dan Dennett is his way of approaching old problems from new angles.  Instead of going around in circles on free will, he says: “let’s think of free will as a biological problem”. 

Instead of debating theology on theology’s turf, he simply asks: “What have you got to offer?”.

Instead of debating religion, he says: “let’s study religion as a natural phenomenon, as carefully as you might study the trajectory of a baseball or the embryology of the mouse”.

Thank you Dan Dennett.

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Posted: 15 December 2011 05:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I admire Dr. Dennett as much as anyone, I suppose, though I think the whole “Bright” thing was on balance ill-advised, and it seems to me that his take on “free will” might simply create some semantic tail-chasing.  Both subjects would require long posts that probably nobody would read except me!

I thoroughly agree with Dr. Dennett’s pointing up the fact that thanks to modern technology, tyrants and pedophiles and socio/psychopaths of all sorts will find it far more difficult to get away with their acts, because they increasingly live in an electronic fish bowl and because those same electronics allow people to band together to fight back.***

However, what I really want to comment on with regard to this podcast was Dr. Dennett’s remarks, on the one hand, that he believes his secular/rational/science-based world view is “better” than a religious world view, while on the other hand he couldn’t answer affirmatively to John Shook’s query as to whether the consequences of religion were a net negative for humanity.  Dr. Dennett, if I’m not mistaken (I was in my car in traffic), said the answer to the latter “could not be known.”
I stark-raving beg to differ.

Dr. Dennett’s answer lends some credence to an idea that I’ve held for a long time, which is that the people who best understand both the good and the profoundly evil effects of religion are those who have escaped from its clutches.  I’d bet, for example, that Richard Dawkins would moderate his rhetoric a bit if he had a better handle - more personal experience - with the real and widespread good that people do while motivated by “faith.”  On the other hand, it seems to me that only people who have spent considerable portions of their lives within religious communities and families grasp the DEEP AND PROFOUND damage that religious thinking does to the judgement and maturity of billions of people, and the ramifications of that loss of human potential.  Dr. Dennett’s answer seems to me to show that he lacks a full grasp of this.
In short, the billions I’m talking about make Alvin Plantinga look very much like Albert Einstein.  And those billions reproduce (a lot!) and raise their children to think like them.
And they vote, too.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

*** I responded to a recent op-ed in the NY Times by Eric Weiner, who among other odd things, wrote, If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people — more loving, less angry — then it is necessarily good, and by extension “true.”

I wrote this to the author, FWIW:

Well, yes, if “us” is all of us, or at least a considerable majority of us.
But all too often, the aggregate consequences of “a certain spiritual practice” are a disaster for humanity in my view and that of increasingly large numbers of other observers. Until fairly recently, the dark and often hideous sides of the major “spiritual practices” were not much known. Now, it’s much easier to learn the big picture. This greater perspective spurs thinking about whether the associated religious claims create a net “good,” not to mention whether they might properly be called “true.”

[ Edited: 15 December 2011 05:24 AM by Trail Rider ]
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Posted: 15 December 2011 02:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Trail Rider - 15 December 2011 05:22 AM

it seems to me that only people who have spent considerable portions of their lives within religious communities and families grasp the DEEP AND PROFOUND damage that religious thinking does to the judgement and maturity of billions of people, and the ramifications of that loss of human potential.

And yet, Dennett acts wisely; the emancipated should be speaking of that damage. Both roles must be played, for the light must remain when the darkness is gone.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Damn the opium dealers.

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Posted: 17 December 2011 06:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Morality and doing good without religion:
    Without advertising, people still buy, but with advertising they buy more, much more. People commit money, a lot of money on that observation.
      Liberals, leftists, social activists, homosexual activists, even atheist activists believe that publicity, propaganda, repetition, and browbeating affect human behavior or at least they act as if they believe that.
      Without religion people would still do good. I have no religion and I do good, but I have a nasty suspicion (and a lot of observation) that I may not be all that typical. How can people who practice propaganda and activism for their own ends turn around and argue that religions that ceaselessly nag and organize to preach and practice charity, responsibility, forgiveness, love, and self discipline are unnecessary or pernicious?
      And no mention of refraining from doing evil.

Highjacking English words such as gay and bright:
    I don’t like people who high jack English words for the same reason I don’t like liars and other too crafty manipulators.
Bright: Do we need yet another unintentional self parody of liberal conceit, particularly one this blatant, transparent, and over the top?
   
    One question seemed to be untouched. How do we agree on what is good?
      The older I get (and hence the less vulnerable to charges of personal stake in the question) the more it smells like the intensity of animus toward Christianity may have sexual undertones, especially homosexual undertones. Oh, but brights, skeptics, and liberals could never be so human or so irrational or so stupid as to be swayed by emotional or personal interests. Forgive me if I see a lot of baby boomers clinging to memories of youthful rebellion by sticking arthritic fingers in the eyes of their fathers’ ghosts. Is good those things once treasured by the mummified ids of liberal baby boomers, or the things one has to believe to keep being invited to the politically correct people’s parties?

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Posted: 17 December 2011 11:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Trail Rider - 15 December 2011 05:22 AM

Dr. Dennett’s answer seems to me to show that he lacks a full grasp of this.

I think his answer shows objectivity; your view is subjective.  Dennett surely knows that religion is damaging, but he also knows that religion sometimes appears to drive people to do positive things.  Knowing whether the net result is positive or negative would require some objective means of quantifying harm vs benefit, and we don’t have that.  If you lack information, the only honest thing to say is “I don’t know.”

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Posted: 17 December 2011 09:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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rg21 - 17 December 2011 06:50 AM

      And no mention of refraining from doing evil.

That antagonism is revealing. First, because one can’t suppose that a bright is for “doing evil”. Second, surely a bright would avoid using “evil” not only due to it’s legacy and connotations, but also because the projectionist of “evil” deserves some suspicion, as we all should have learned from George Bush II, et al. Third, because fire and brimstone comes from their persecutor’s tradition.

So, it’s not likely you are sincere and understanding if you are comfortable using that language.

There also doesn’t appear to be a very positive view of human nature in the following:

rg21 - 17 December 2011 06:50 AM

How can people who practice propaganda and activism for their own ends turn around and argue that religions that ceaselessly nag and organize to preach and practice charity, responsibility, forgiveness, love, and self discipline are unnecessary or pernicious?

Attributing selfishness or chauvinism to Dennett, for one, is a sour deprecation of his work. But even more revealing is your advocacy of nagging and preaching for to lead people. It can be well argued (and it was once well understood) that the hypocrisy of supernatural religion foments this vicious cycle of preaching.

But could it be you have a chip on your shoulder about something else entirely?

rg21 - 17 December 2011 06:50 AM

I don’t like people who high jack English words for the same reason I don’t like liars and other too crafty manipulators.
Bright: Do we need yet another unintentional self parody of liberal conceit, particularly one this blatant, transparent, and over the top?

Yes, that bit of hyperbole is revealing (and self-discrediting). And it just goes downhill from there ...

I am curious. As a conservative non-religionist, do you think it necessary to mislead people for their own good? And why did you stick your finger in the “eyes of your father’s ghosts”?

Gimme a break.

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Posted: 18 December 2011 03:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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The term ‘Bright’ is absolutely ludicrous. It’s just an embarrassment and we need to get rid of it immediately and pretend we never said it or took it seriously. I was hoping that everyone had forgotten about this term and no one was using it any more, but this interview shows quite clearly that this is not the case. Everybody, including fundamentalists, thinks they’re bright, rational, evidence-based, and committed to critical thinking. It’s crazy to use these kinds of words to try to separate yourself from religious people.     

To his credit, though, Dennett doesn’t make ridiculous claims about religions always being harmful or on balance doing more harm than good or anything like that.

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Posted: 18 December 2011 10:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Dom1978 - 18 December 2011 03:38 AM

Everybody, including fundamentalists, thinks they’re bright, rational, evidence-based, and committed to critical thinking.

Hardly. Even if Fundamentalists did, they generally would not prioritize these qualities, and of those who did, it would be Bible-based. That caged rationality would not cut it. I suppose you mean that everybody’s intelligence should be respected. Okay. But not when they’re abusing mine.

Dom1978 - 18 December 2011 03:38 AM

To his credit, though, Dennett doesn’t make ridiculous claims about religions always being harmful or on balance doing more harm than good [...]

C’mon, give him more credit than that. He’s in the negative on the polemicist scale, contra, say, Hitchens or Harris. You make it sound, though, as if you believe religions are, on balance, doing more good than harm. That’s not a scientific conclusion, is it?

Would you be willing to say, “Religions bring harm”? Then, how can deceit, even were it self-deceit, make up the balance?

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