Monday, February 25, 2008

TEDTalks: Dan Dennet on Religion

From the endlessly stimulating Technology, Entertainment, Design lectures.


w1ndst0rm said...

PBS had some TED programs on a few years ago. Dan's beard keeps getting longer. I always love a good philosophical discussion ... until it tries to mix in science and ceases to become purely philosophical. Like for example "intelligent design" or "cultural memes." This IS NOT my argument but many accuse Dan of doing exactly what Dan accuses "religion" of doing. In order for any of what I just typed to make sense you have to watch Dan's other TED videos, read some comments and then see what others in the biz think of his ideas. So far he is unclassifiable. People don't know if they should call him a philosopher, thinker or scientist. LAst I heard he doesn't want to be classified as any of the above choices.

Full disclosure: I haven't read Rick Warren's A Purpose Driven Life. I have now watched three videos by Dan Dennet. Fun stuff but still a little too out there for me. More hypothesis than experiemntation and theory. Yet fun as heck to excercise the brain with.

Gus said...

Yeah, that's what I really dig about this guy in particular -- he's all over the map, not when it comes to consistency of ideas, but when it comes to classification. I think this makes him, to be honest, harder to assail because he's not coming at religion and evolution from a position of ideology, but from one of curiosity.

cardinal23 said...

This IS NOT my argument but many accuse the many who accuse Dan of doing exactly what Dan accuses "religion" of doing of being idiots. Not me, though.

avk said...

Does that mean you think they aren't idiots? Or were you just negating the positive without affirming the negative?

Gus said...

I'm gonna have to diagram Mike's post.

w1ndst0rm said...

avk said...

More seriously, I think some people who need to accuse Dennet of intellectual disingeneity (he's doing just what he says religion is doing) will probably attempt to poke any possible hole in his argument because any treatment of religion as social construct (albeit a natural one) threatens the perception of their religion as Natural Law. Others might just be pedants whose only conversation consists of stone-throwing.

Of course, the middle ground would be that no argument is perfect, and even a flawed argument may bear any amount of worthwhile fruit.

Also, people who criticize this sort of discussion have never talked with Wolf about religion, as this this little speech sounds like a revival meeting by comparison.

w1ndst0rm said...

Dan almost quoted AVK in a debate he had with some angry Christian guy from India.
"Of course, the middle ground would be that no argument is perfect, and even a flawed argument may bear any amount of worthwhile fruit." - AVK
Dan's words on the point were, "I will give you a draw."

To make a statement of behalf of myself I agree with Dan that "religion is man made and that some is toxic."

Gus said...

I think the neat idea of his reasoning is that it's inclusive. Even if you believe in God, you can accept that man chose how to worship him and devised the many systems for doing so. Open minded folks can step back, take a look at these fabulously systems and ask "what works, what doesn't and what exactly are people getting out of them?"

avk said...

Clearly, the weakest point of the body of Dennet's work is the paucity of quotes from me. Because, you know, absolutely everything that comes out of my mouth is insightful and well-reasoned.

Wolf said...

[throws stone at AVK]

I endorse the concept of comparative religious study, per se. However, I do not believe that it be could implemented as Dan proposes at the middle/high school level. I just don't trust that the histories would be taught from a neutral perspective. The latest
Pew research
indicates that more than 80% of Americans affiliate themselves with a specific religion, and I think that in too many cases, teachers would be unable to keep their biases to themselves. That's open to argument - I may just be cynical.

As to the idea that the atheist argument is also founded in a kind of faith, I can only say any atheist who resorts to using faith-based statements in their arguments is arguing poorly. There is no scientific evidence for the existence of a god. Period. The counter-argument that there is no evidence that a god does not exist is fatuous and irrelevant, as are all negative proofs.

w1ndst0rm said...

I agree with wolf that "in too many cases, teachers would be unable to keep their biases to themselves."

I also believe that if Athiests would teach the class that some of them would have a hard time not snickering or portraying contempt filled body language.

We are all human and like what we like and dislike what we don't like and it comes through. (verbally, body language, sub/un-consciously)

Gus said...

I'm not comfortable with the idea of not teaching something because of the chance it can't be taught fairly. That's throwing the baby out with the bath water. Put the textbooks in the kids' hands. Put the lesson plans in the teacher's hands. Make the knowledge available and it will do some good.

Wolf said...

Don't worry, Tim, the odds of your child being taught by an atheist in middle or high school are somewhere between zero and crazytalk.

Gus, in general, I'm with you. Just nervous. No kids here, but I imagine it's already hard enough to try to raise a child secularly in today's America.

avk said...

Wolf's statement, " The counter-argument that there is no evidence that a god does not exist is fatuous and irrelevant, as are all negative proofs.", is a straw man (I don't know enough HTML to condescendingly link to a definition of "straw man"). The competent argument is that Science does not address the same issues as Philosophy (hence the different buildings at the Universities) and, by extension, Religion.

The most germaine issue is that scientific explanations for some of the more complex elements of human interaction are deeply dissatisfying, except to the most repugnant nihilist. As soon as any among you are ready to replace the phrase "I love you" with "my nervous system undergoes a relief of tension when we interact because you're so familiar" I will accept that argument as internally consistent (again, not enough HTML to condescendingly link to a definition of "internal continuity"). Because, logically, the argument that there's no scientific proof for God throws out the love-baby with the God-bathwater.

BTW, I've already sent the email to Wolf's wife explaining how he said he doesn't love her, QED.

avk said...

Okay, I can't sleep so I might as well bring it all around now.

For the record, I do not nor have I ever believed in God. I hardly ever make that assertion out loud, in writing or to groups of people for reasons of my own that have no bearing on the disussion at hand.

Another assertion I have never out loud, in writing or to people whatsoever, is that I believe that the whole truth of love is the nerological explanation that I outlined above- an extreme form of neurological familiarity that drives us to form family groups- one of our chief survival strategies. Period. I have not held this belief nearly as long as my atheism, wallowing irrationally from time to time in some morass of inflated significance or other.

Being that as it may- I recognise the value of the mythology that we've created around the idea of romantic love, even though it digresses ridiculously from the biological fact of it. It isn't true, but it makes us better. Which is more important? I take the better every time.

And so does Wolf. He could have stuck to his atheistic guns and not got confirmed. He could have explained to his mother that her disappointment was just a conditioned neurological efect, and didn't merit any more consideration than, say, a fart. Someone who truly valued empirical truth over all else would have done just that and called any other course of action enslavement to a meaningless fiction. Period. I, who see the value in the exaggerated significance of these conditioned responses, and am willing to fudge on the empirical truth for their benefit see depth of character and strength.

Of course, I've made a parallel argument, on one hand, to avoid the "people have done all sorts of horrible things because they believed in God." Of course, people did all sorts of horrible things and used God to justify them, in the cases they felt they needed justification. They don't necesarily negate the value of God as a social construct. Let me be clear- I don't believe any individual needs to hold it up or tear it down, because I don't begrudge any individual the right of concience, even when they reach a conclusion I find untenable. On the other hand, I used an example we all (I'm pretty sure) think of positively because people who have had poisonous experiences with a religion ( among people I know Catholicism is represented disproportionately) seem to have a real hard time without a certain amount of anti-religion bias that bleeds in from their experience. They over-blame religion and under-blame the douchebags who abuse it.

We must not let ourselves pretend that the Scientific method is absolutely empirical, as there are volumes of Biology that proves that European people are superior to African people (in fact, co-discoverer of DNA James D. Watson was trotting some of it out just LAST YEAR), and plenty of sound Psychology that considered homosexuality a disorder into the 1990's. Unfortunately, the Scientific Method does not have a mechanism for removing cultural bias from the process of forming hypotheses, especially as we get further from the math and the physics into the disciplines that have the hefty task of modeling emergent phenomena. It's still people asking the questions.

Wow. That's like, Andy long.

w1ndst0rm said...

Wow, AVK. Wow.

Wolf, I was niether lamenting nor fearing an athiest teaching anything. I was pointing out the truth of the human condition religious or not.

Your statement, "the odds of your child being taught by an atheist in middle or high school are somewhere between zero and crazytalk" is untrue. (it also proves the point of my last post) I would say the chance is between 1% and 20% but closer to one. Here is why:

1. You quoted the Pew Research. Let us use the 20% non religious folk as the top end or the pool of possibilities. Extrapolate it to the group "teachers in america".

2. Dan Dennett pointed out in his videos and books that the growth of the Christian religion in America has been stagnant for 20 years. The fastest growing religious group in the world is Islam. And the second fastest growing group/segment in the world is the non-religious group. (he has maps and charts and everything)

3. There were two athiest teachers in my High School. I am putting my kids through the same system.

As to, "but I imagine it's already hard enough to try to raise a child secularly in today's America." I would say it is just as hard to raise a kid religiously.

You can do both. The power and the choice is not beyond doing. Both have hurdles but part of being a parent is staying on your toes anyway ...

Wolf said...

Sigh... I think I sometimes manage to pick a fight when I don't intend to.


My atheist teacher estimate of less-than-zero is just argumentative hyperbole. I think we'd agree it's some very small number.

My fear of religious encroachment, the numbers notwithstanding, is probably due largely to the political climate in the last 8 years. Hearing such constant, overt talk of God from the highest levels of our government is demoralizing.


Damn, yo.

I agree that love (and every other emotion) is wholly neurochemical, and I'm fine with concept of using it to our societal advantage. It was an elegant evolutionary device to keep us grouped together in order to better fight off the saber-tooth tigers. The fact that it can be transcendent is gravy, which doesn't diminish the transcendence at all. But to deny the root cause (which you clearly don't, I hasten to add) is to deny reality.

Yes, people have performed deeds both good and evil in the names of their gods through the ages. They probably balance, on the whole. As I doubt we'll ever have an empirical study on the matter, I'm willing to call it a wash. And sure, in the absence of a universal rationalist conversion in my lifetime, I'll take the good deeds however and wherever they come. But similarly, to assume that those deeds are only of worth in the context of their relationship to a higher power is to deny reality.

I'm an optimist. In time, science will fully understand the chemistry of human emotion, and even having tasted of the Fruit of Knowledge, we will not lose our capacity for love. It's too fundamentally useful. Likewise, in time, humanity will reject the concept of a deity, and we will be stronger for it, but we will not descend into the abyss of nihilism. We will recognize that good performed for the sake of the person next door, or the person in the next country, is of intrinsic value, and that to ascribe the motivation for that good to a God is simply... unnecessary.

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