Essay / Misc.

Just the facts and Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett is a philosopher (DPhil Oxford) who specializes in philosophy of biology and cognitive science. He has recently written a book called Breaking the Spell: religion as natural phenomenon. He has been doing a book tour to promote his book which he touts as a sort of kinder and gentler version of Richard Dawkins.

When discussing the book in the Newstatesman he points out, “I made a very deliberate decision to write the book so that religious people could read it. I didn’t want to give them an excuse not to read it. Richard gives them that excuse – he’s so hostile and aggressive that he’s unsympathetic.”

And, yet, here is what he has to say about in his book about parents who bring up their children in religious households, “If you have to hoodwink your children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct.” I am not sure what he thinks aggressive is. The term “hoodwink” denotes intentional deception. So it seems he thinks that adults are somehow not committed to their religious tradition, but are committed to tricking their children into a life of religious foolishness?

But, back to the kindler, gentler Dr. Dennett… In the same Newstatesman article he points out that religion does have some positive aspects, “but then do does the Mafia. It keeps neighbourhoods quite secure; there’s a very low petty crime rate if the Mafia’s in control. That doesn’t make it a good thing.” He then goes on to point out the irrationality of religion where he describes it as “the nuclear weapon of rational discussion if, whenever it gets tough your draw the blinds and play the faith card. It turns into a sham.”

Dennett lives in a world where the only thing that can exist is biological reality. He does not think that any discussion of things outside of the empirical world is coherent. He states, “But when it comes to facts, and explanation of facts, science is the only game in town.”

Dennett is amazingly consistent in his worldview. Late 2006 he suffered from a dissection of the aorta which almost killed him. He states, in an article he wrote for Edge entitled, “Thank Goodness,” that he did not have some sort of death bed conversion. Here is what he says about his “religious friends” who said they prayed for him.

I am not joking when I say that I have had to forgive my friends who said that they were praying for me. I have resisted the temptation to respond “Thanks, I appreciate it, but did you also sacrifice a goat?” I feel about this the same way I would feel if one of them said “I just paid a voodoo doctor to cast a spell for your health.” What a gullible waste of money that could have been spent on more important projects! Don’t expect me to be grateful, or even indifferent. I do appreciate the affection and generosity of spirit that motivated you, but wish you had found a more reasonable way of expressing it.

What Dennett will not allow for is a world where there is something efficacious in the act of prayer. He is so convinced of his empirical paradigm that he holds to, and will not allow for any other possibility to exist. As he said above when it comes to facts science is the only game in town. Interestingly,he even says that his non-religious friends who are thinking about him and wishing him well are acting in “another ineffective but irresistible self-indulgence”. It is unclear how one would go about expressing deep concern about another human being without crossing into some clearly unscientific realm.

I guess you could say, “I assume that steps are being taken to ensure that your internal organs are functioning at their peak efficiency, and that you have medical specialist who are the best in their field.” Or “My endocrine glands are secreting, my heartbeat rises, and my pours dilate when I have mental events about your present state of bodily disrepair.” It is my hope that Dennett’s friends continue to express their love and concern for him through prayer. He literally doesn’t know what he is missing

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