Dennett's Dangerous Idea

As a Christmas gift, I could not have asked Santa for a better gift - an Evolution Theme Semester. Trying to listen to the talks has itself been a lesson in the 'survival of the fittest'. Last week's talk by Jonathan Weiner on the Beak of the Finch (reviewed here) was at the Washtenaw Community College(WCC). I reached the venue to find out that what I thought was the WCC was the Washtenaw Juvenile Correction Center! Finally after I made it to WCC, finding the auditorium turned out to be quite a task. It's a common error made by students, but The University of Michigan is not Ann Arbor!. I should have known the local community college - talk about living in ivory towers! Since I arrived late the hall was packed and I had to kneel on the carpet.

Today's lecture was by Daniel Dennett, one the leading thinkers of our time. In contrast to the Einstein Theme semester the Evolution theme seems to be more popular and understandably so. Thanks to some over-zealous officials trying to comply with the fire-safety laws, I and another 30 people were kicked out of the hall because "you can't sit on the steps, you have to have a chair." However, that did not deter people from standing in the hallway and listening. There were two large halls below and across the street that would have accomodated all the people had the organizers been more flexible, or would have created overflow rooms or alternate locations. Dennett is such an entertaining speaker that it was worth listening to his deep voice and seeing his slides through the body parts of a dozen other people who were standing, sitting and crouching in the hallway.

It is not hard to see why more than 150 years after Darwin's short book evolution is still is contentious. Dennett is his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea explains,
"If I were to give an award for the single best idea that anyone has ever had, I'd give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unified the realm of life, meaning, and the purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. It is not just a wonderful scientific idea. But it is a dangerous idea."

Dennett goes on to explain why. Darwinism's greatest foe has been religion. It threatens to undermine everything that religion stands for. The subject of his talk today was based on his latest book - Breaking the Spell. Dennett wants to propose that Science needs to study Religion in a neutral dispassionate way. Why is there? Why has it survived? Drawing from Richard Dawkins' concept of the 'meme', he says religion is a very sticky sort of meme. Whether you believe in it or don't you have to agree that religion does serve some purpose and has persisted because it provides serves human needs. In fact, natural selection is responsible; religion is not an accident but is a natural phenomenon. It may not be divine (if there is such a thing) but it just another ideology not much unlike democracy, communism, freedom. In some way or the other they provide:
1. Something to live or die for;
2. A great placebo;
3. An explanation for the bewildering and confusing world.

Many times, people are faced with dilemmas which can be resolved, say by a coin flip. Of course, for more serious issues flipping coins might be a little 'flippant' so religion provides a more 'serious coin flip'. So you can say, "God asked me do it!", "or scripture says it". Sure, the world is a confusing and bewildering place and our success has has much to do with the constant need for humans to try to make sense of the unknown. How convenient of an invention is religion. It provides faith-based answers, or insists "that this world is the great mystery of God, the Creator, accept it". Dennett says, that this might not have been so much of a problem, but human religion has its caretakers and they tend to introduce interference. So now there is a group that wants to safe-guard its own interest. Dennett showed a picture of a billboard outside a church. It read,
"GOOD without GOD is just zero."
Such thought Dennett says is the most dangerous, implying that to be moral you have to be religious. This spell must be broken.

Michael Ruse published a review of the book in the latest edition of Nature 439, 535 (2 February 2006). His claim is that Dennett's approach might not be very helpful because,
"A major plank in Dennett's discussion is that religion is all smoke and mirrors, so even if we cannot hope immediately to eliminate all religious belief, those of us in the know will realize that we are dealing with a delusion, rather than a rationally justified belief system. However, a naturalistic analysis of religion in itself has no direct bearing on the truth of religious claims. My eyes are the end products of a long process of natural selection. Does that make any less real the truck I see bearing down on me as I stand in the middle of the road?."

Dennett's idea is a start and his solution calling for more education and dialogue is a compelling one. The world in already in a sorry state, thanks to ethnic and religious conflict and now more than ever seem to be finding succour or even release in religion instead if questioning it. Dennett described the types of people:
1)Those who believe in God
2)Those who believe in the belief in God
3) and those who believe in the belief .... ad infinatum.

There is no harm in some religious ideas, but as long as we know what they really are. A notion like - 'there is a God and he is watching over us' might be comforting but has no real basis. However it is nice to believe that there is a Santa and he brings gifts.


Mihir said...


Thanks for the wonderful account of yesterday's presentation! I was lucky enough to arrive early and get second row seats. I should add that the presentation was full of humor, in complete contrast to the man's standing among the world's leading philosophers). It highly entertaining (he had the audience in splits with the pun on "fluke", the juxtaposition of pictures of the vatican and mecca with those of the superbowl and collegiate games).

Do you know more about the University's decision to have an "evolution" theme semester?

Hirak said...

I don't know how they decide but they have a statement on the evolution theme.
I think that recent events in Kansas and PA might be a factor. In addition, AA Reads and the University collaborate closely to ensure that their themes complement in some way.

Ashutosh said...

One of the big problems is that positive infleunces of religion are relatively hard to discern. When there is a 'fatwah', a fundamentalist church action, or a riot, all of us take notice and say that there are the evils of religion. But what about the millions of people out there, who go about their daily life peacefully and let others live in peace, all because the good teachings of faith have been inculcated in them? I have realised that this is a point made by the advocates of religion, which I find hard to counter. As a scientist, I can only say that this point, according to Karl Popper's principles, is not 'falsifiable' way of pushing the issue under the rug!
Dennet of course is a famous man...

Ashutosh said...

Nice account though. Lucky boy :)

Anonymous said...

This is very old problem religion verses evolution it recurs in different version. Of course evolution remains firm and stable, religion tries to find new approcahes to counter.
Religion serves one fuction which so far is not replaced by anything else. The fuction is moral behavier of society and its memebers may be regulation of society as well. This is partly because long historic tradition . "Hindus call their religion as way of life." why?
I am not comfortable with scienece discussing moral, social issues. Partly because it is too rigid needing proofs and disproofs, its inability to cope up with too many human behaviers ( remeber art inteligince)

Hirak said...

That's exactly Dennett's point. Science needs to study religion and morality in an unbiased, neutral way. It is a grave error of assuming that you cannot have morality without religion. Have you looked at humanism lately?

It is undeniable that religion fosters a strong a sense of community, purpose and a sense of belonging which all humans want. However, the good side-effects of religion can be replaced something more grounded in reality.

Science unlike religion does not claim it has all the answers. More importantly whatever answers it has, it is willing to modify/discard in the light of new discoveries. One of the problems with science is that it does not take sides or always provide comforting answers such as 'there is a God and he is taking care of you from up above'.

I don't know what you mean by not being able to cope with human behaviors? Explaining things in terms of faith is not an explanation.

In any case, try to get hold of the book since Dennett might be a better person to resolve your doubts.

Ashutosh said...

Actually I think the problem is with the confounded concept of creation, and with God. If religion were merely regarded as a way of life, then how would it conflict with evolution? Evolution is how we have been made, and religion would have been about how we should behave now. I think the concept of God really and inevitably creates a big stumbling blog, because then he has to have created us. I believe that religion and evolution may have a much easier time coexisting if the cantankerous issue of creation was not brought up again and again. Unfortunately, I know that's not going to happen. The most ironic aspect of religion is that if it is supposed to be for the betterment of all, which is emphatically in the future, how come most religious people spend much more time with the past? My peeve with religion is not that it has certain dogmas, but that it is not even consistent (except for a few points which are conveniently irrevocable)

T 1 said...

So there is Hirak Parikh. Finally decided to search you out on the net.

Hirak said...

A more balanced review from the Economist