Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Mirabile dictu ...

... some (mostly) interesting remarks from Daniel Dennett as interviewed by Alessandro Lanni. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

By and large I have no objection to a "scientific" study of religion or anything else. One thing I find interesting here is that, in talking about religion's evolving and the species and subspecies of religion, Dennett has to be speaking metaphorically. A species of religion is not the same sort of thing as a species of reptile. The "evolution" of religion or culture is not the same as the evolution of biological species. To speak as if they are the same is either to speak metaphorically or to equivocate.


  1. Anonymous2:12 PM

    Hello Frank, been missing your conversation.

    I'm not sure Dennet would claim the evolution of religion or culture is the same, the exact same, as the evolution of a biological species, the reptile, to use your example, though I think the principle is similar since human ideas are as subject to change and adaptation to prevailing circumstances as anything else alive is. A cursory glance at the history of religions shows that their ideas do change and try to adapt as new evidence demolishing their prior positions is made available, one well known example being the Christian Church versus the Copernician revolution.

    Though imperfect at the time, suggesting that the planets revolved in circles around the sun rather than in ellipses as we now know, the Copernician system (which was originally invented by the Ancient Greeks) still shredded the religious idea that the earth was stationary and the center of everything. The Church initially forbade the teaching of the Copernician system as true in all of the learned institutions it could control before gradually accepting the truth of it, 200 years later.

    As the progress of knowledge continues and the literal truth of the Bible and the painstaking theology of the ancient and mediaeval Church have lost credibility, I think understanding how and why religious ideas evolve is interesting.

  2. At times I wish the biologists would just shut up about religion, because they seem to miss the point that their usual methodology simply doesn't apply to studies of religion. They want to apply quantitative analysis to fundamentally qualitative material, which is gross category error. That's why the results are often so absurd.

    The proper scientific disciplines for the study of qualitative materials such as religion are: anthropology, ethnology, folklore, archaelogy, musicology, etc. Those are rigorous scientific disciplines in themselves, but they have the proper tools for measuring, evaluating, andd writing about qualitative materials such as religion.

    In fact, the anthropologists have been doing just that for well over a century. Maybe the biologists should read outside their own disciplines more often.

  3. Anonymous3:58 PM

    Art, I don't see why biologists in particular should shut up about religion while an anthropologist, archaeologist, musicologist or story teller should be given rapt attention. I am curious to know why you left out the theologians ...

    Biology is the study of life. It encompasses zoology, the study of animals; botany, the study of plants; microbiology, the study of microrganisms; neurobiology, the study of the brain; biochemistry, the identification and investigation of which matter is composed, their properties and the ways in which they interact, combine and change; and cellular biology which examines the basic building block of all life which is the cell; physiology which examines the mechanical and physical functions of an organism; and ecology which examines how various organisms interrelate. Medicine is an applied field of biology and involves many specialized sub-disciplines which like all other branches of biology are not only concerned with quantitative analysis.

  4. First, Noel, it's good to hear from you again. I was just thinking about you last week and wondering why I hadn't heard from you.
    At any rate, the point I was making was that I don't think evolution is synoymous with change - otherwise, we wouldn't need two words. Let's say change is the genus and evolution is one species within that genus. Evolution, the theory hit upon by Darwin, is meant to address a particular kind of change regarding species. It is not meant to address all manner of change taking place under the sun. Art and history and society simply do not evolve in the manner of reptiles and mammals and birds. The problem with the Dennett/Dawkins one-theory-fits every imaginable phenomenon is that it's glib.

  5. Anonymous5:41 AM

    Frank, I've been busy for months with stuff that doesn't matter and it's good to be back for a bit.

    If I am understanding you right, you feel there is something else apart from evolution that could cause the ideas human beings invent, especially religious ideas, to develop and change. I suppose if you believe living organisms were divinely created then the ideas those organisms come up with must be divinely inspired and perhaps also divinely directed too (though I can't help feeling that if human beings and their ideas are the culmination of four and a half billion years of divine intervention, the divine must be very unhappy with His results).

    The evidence however would suggest that ideas evolve and that they evolve apparently without divine intervention, adapting to the times or dying out, if in not the exact same way as species do, in accordance with the same general principles. The process of adaptation or elimination is certainly true of the history of religions. No one believes in the Norse God Thor anymore or the Greek God Poseidon, and parts of the Christian religion - belief in the earth being stationary and the center of the universe for example - have also disappeared.

    We know through science that a hairy Norwegian racing across the sky in his chariot is not the cause of thunder and lightning, that an angry vindictive being in the sea does not cause storms to form or any kind of mental disturbance in people and that the earth and the planets in our solar system really do revolve around the sun. Christianity in particular has mellowed through the centuries, purifying itself of ideas inherited from a brutal past. It has, for example, almost lost the desire to persecute. What is left to all but the fundamentalists is an ethical doctrine.

    Evolution shows that life forms do change through time so I think it possible that ideas about the nature of life follow similar processes, taking on as they do a life of their own that changes through time. Personally I think religions appeal to the emotions which is trickier to inquire into than physical structure, but perhaps it is worth the effort. We might learn something useful.

  6. No, my point is much simpler than that. It's that cooking is not the same as carpentry and that while both cooking and carpentry have changed over the centuries to look at culinary changes in terms of changes in carpentry would be ridiculous. Dawkins and Dennett insist on looking at everything - and I mean everthing - in terms of one category of being. It won't do. It's too simplistic.
    Evolution doesn't show that life forms change through time: Life shows that. Evolution is an attempt to explicate that change. Don't you see that you have reified evolution into the Prime Mover of all things? Moreover, you seem to have subsumed all science under the rubric of evolution. There are sciences besides biology.

  7. Anonymous12:25 PM

    Frank, promoting the very idea of sciences other than Biology to study what religions try to do and how they do it? Heresy!

    There was I thinking your position would be that no science can ever hope to understand religious ideas.

  8. You seem, Noel, to have a deep yearning for certainty. I myself rather like uncertainty, and as I have grown older I have come to feel there is very little we can be certain of. The certainty of mathematics is severely circumscribed by its tautology: the expressions on either side of the equal sign are simply different ways of saying exactly the same thing. Also, like Dawkins and Dennett, you seem to define religion in terms of churches and creeds and dogmas, which are products of religion, not religion itself - and which is also why churches and creeds and the like can so often be, well, irreligious. The ease with which humans can turn things such as atheism and enviromentalism into something quasi-religious should indicate to you that the relgious impulse, whatever it may be, is part and parcel of being human.

  9. Anonymous10:05 PM

    I wouldn't say I have a deep yearning for certainty, but I am not comfortable accepting things blindly, as the Church expects me to. If I had a deep yearning for certainty I would not have rejected religious faith since that is what religious faith offers: certainty based on firm convictions, unfortunately without evidence to support those convictions, for example, what will happen to you after you die. And it is not just a lack of evidence. Religion is based upon fear - fear of the unknown, fear of being punished, fear of death - and fear as someone said is the parent of cruelty. It is no wonder that cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand throughout the ages.

    I agree that the religious impulse is human, but this doesn't make religious claims true. If I have a deep yearning for anything, it is for truth. I agree that there is little we can be certain of, but what we can be reasonably certain of, as revealed by science, I am grateful for and feel no hostility towards because it may upset beliefs I was taught to cherish and want to cherish.

    Any time religion has come into conflict with science, it is religion that has been forced to retreat. Religions cannot compete with science because religions offer no evidence to support their claims. Science does. I agree science does not have all the answers and I like that it freely admits this. The essence of good science is not a dogma or a bunch of tools or an analytic method. It is intellectual honesty. I see no virtue in subscribing to a set of false beliefs.