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Dennet Audio and Video
July 25, 2007 11:15 PM   Subscribe

The Daniel Dennett interview with Bill Moyers [GoogleVid now with free viewing]. Dennett's talks at TED. Dennett with Robert Wright [GVid]. And additional AV at Daniel Dennett Multimedia -- his presentation at the Center for Naturalism (on "Breaking the Spell") is excellent. [Previously 1, 2, 3, 4]
posted by McLir (21 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
MetaFilter has been serving up some real gems lately. Thanks for this. I've been meaning to pick up "Breaking the Spell" for some time now.
posted by Curry at 11:25 PM on July 25, 2007


I'm also glad to hear more from Dennett. I find him to be much easier to approach than either Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, both of whom seem to be as dogmatic as any fundamentalist in their denouncing of religion. Dennett advocates studying religion as a natural phenomenon, and does not encourage dismantling or deriding it.

Dawkins seems to hold nothing but derision for religion, and Harris seems to be mostly afraid of it.
posted by snifty at 12:55 AM on July 26, 2007


Two of my heroes discuss a heated topic with the utmost civility. The world needs more of this. Great post-- thank you!
posted by pgautier at 1:08 AM on July 26, 2007


Thanks, as a "bright" I enjoyed that.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:09 AM on July 26, 2007


Thanks.
posted by phaedon at 1:38 AM on July 26, 2007


Okay, fine, I'll watch it, but next time tell us who the heck this person is. I can keep a limited number of people in my head and thanks to the Lohan thread that number is even smaller.
posted by Deathalicious at 1:45 AM on July 26, 2007


Shouldn't he be talking to Ted? I thought we had the discussion about not using @ notation because one should not talk "at" a person.
posted by Eideteker at 3:23 AM on July 26, 2007


Robert Wright engages him on a much more interesting level than Bill Moyers. In the first link, which I stopped watching, he seems more pigeon-holed as a provacateur and deflationist. Moyers keeps bringing up things that we like to hold on a pedestal, like symphony music or religious sentiment, so that Dennett can then say: yeah, that's just instinct.
posted by creasy boy at 3:23 AM on July 26, 2007


I've been watching his talks at TED, but hadn't come across the other material yet. Thanks a lot.
posted by palimpsest at 4:21 AM on July 26, 2007


Thanks for these. I'm always interested in this stuff. But here's a question: even if religion is a "natural phenomenon," what difference does it really make? Say I'm a physicalist. I believe that everything--including my belief in God--is the result of matter in motion, and that matter obeys physical laws. But if I take comfort in my religion, why should I give it up even though it's not "true" in some sense? Providing, of course, that said religion doesn't harm anyone else.

The assumption seems to be that "believing" (a tricky concept) something that is not "true" by the lights of science is irrational and always to be avoided. But as a practical matter that doesn't seem to follow, does it? Living well by benign "fictions" could be entirely rational. In fact, it could be an evolved trait, and one we shouldn't ignore. Obviously, if your fictions are not benign, that's another thing entirely. Just trying to figure this out...
posted by MarshallPoe at 5:54 AM on July 26, 2007


Moyer describes Dennett as believing that "The world is polarizing between the rational and the faithful and it's time to break the spell of religion." Dennett does not correct the characterization. This does not sound to me to be a person uninterested in dismantling religion.

He then likens religious belief to belief in any other supernatural phenomenon like poltergeists.

Framing religion as a coping mechanism that is grounded in nothing more than instinct and biology (akin to a dogs reaction to sudden noises) is not a neutral understanding of religion. It prejudices the discussion against religion right from the very beginning. The obvious rhetorical move is to then ask: If it is indeed nothing more than the outgrowth of an instinct why shouldn't we abandon it? He then adds the patronizing acknowledgment that if a person knows what is really going on behind the curtain it's safe to be religious. That is if a person isn't really religious at all, it's safe to play at religion.

I mean, he likens being faithful and relying on faith to establish moral principles to simply saying "Lucille says your wrong" whenever an argument isn't going your way. (Lucille is a fictitious being who is always right.)

If you aren't prepared to grant that your opponent might be right, then you aren't treating your opponent fairly. It's disingenuous to claim that you have no problem with religion and then characterize religion in way that no truly religious person would recognize.

Let me show you. If I were to say this: I have no problem with people who think that the president is a robot so long as those people acknowledge that their belief is based on ancient genetic predispositions and is in fact false and irrational. Would anyone characterize my position as an acknowledgment that the people who believe the president is a robot have a perfectly acceptable world view?

Finally, my favorite part, he characterized religious institutions as being predisposed to discourage thinking about problems in favor of dogmatic answers "in a book," while then claiming that secular institutions simply wouldn't do that. Really? Secular groups never cling dogmatically and uncritically to their beliefs? Putting aside the obvious and glaring example of secular dogmatism provided by communist governments in the USSR and Cuba (and plenty of other governments). Putting aside the dogmatic belief of the Republican party in the US in the ability of market forces to solve every single problem. Does he really think that a member of PETA wishes to encourage a questioning attitude toward vegetarianism? Does he really think that a member of NOW would seriously consider polygyny? Is he serious? Secularists don't have dogmatic views? Yes, I'm sure.
posted by oddman at 5:55 AM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


The assumption seems to be that "believing" (a tricky concept) something that is not "true" by the lights of science is irrational and always to be avoided. But as a practical matter that doesn't seem to follow, does it?

Well, if you think belief x is false but beneficial, then it might make sense to encourage others to believe it, since it would benefit them. That is, if you think it's OK to lie to others for their own good. But you can't really lie to yourself, because you are yourself and so you would know that you're lying.

Maybe you could subconsciously lie to yourself -- but then you wouldn't "know", except perhaps subconsciously, that the belief if false. You would know that it is beneficial and you would also think that it's true.

One way or the other, you can't say "I know x is false but I believe x because it comforts me", because the first part of the sentence indicates that you in fact don't believe it and thus cannot be getting comfort from it. You are one and the same person, so you can't split yourself into two different people, the liar and the one sold the lie.

Of course some people really do compartmentalize themselves, believing things on Sunday that they would scoff at on Monday. But this seems to me a reckless abandonment of all standards of reason and thus pretty much an offence to human intelligence. Because if something is ludicrous on Monday, it shouldn't suddenly pass muster on Sunday just because you find it comfortable.

Don't mean to imply that I think religion is just a lie. I agree that Dennett seems to oversimplify religion.
posted by creasy boy at 6:38 AM on July 26, 2007


creasy boy. I like your comment and agree. It is odd, tho', that I know a lot of people who don't "believe" in a guy in a white beard in the sky, but they get a lot of comfort from praying to "him" and going to "his" church.
posted by MarshallPoe at 8:23 AM on July 26, 2007


oddman wrote: I mean, he likens being faithful and relying on faith to establish moral principles to simply saying "Lucille says your wrong" whenever an argument isn't going your way. (Lucille is a fictitious being who is always right.)

Maybe my mind is clouded by secular thinking, but that does seem to be a fairly accurate portrayal of the way Christians derive their moral compass.

You might want to ask some gay mefites why it is they can't get married here in the US. Lucille does, indeed, say that they're "wrong", and people listen.
posted by Avenger at 8:40 AM on July 26, 2007


Obviously, if your fictions are not benign, that's another thing entirely. Just trying to figure this out...

The problem is more "What if you fictions clash with someone else's?". Because no one really understands life/the universe/etc as a coherent expression, we are all living in a fiction of some sort or another. Your senses tell you a story, your brain tries to adapt and figure it out.

The problem with belief as an operating principle is that it takes one's own very subjective fiction and build another fiction on top of it that says "I really do know whats going on, this is how it all works". This is fine, as long as you don't meet anyone who believe the they have it all figure out but it doesn't match your idea. Wars, religious persecution etc follow.

If religions in general would approach their faiths rationally, and limit their activities on this basis, no one would have any problem with religion, but that hasn't ever been the case.
posted by doctor_negative at 9:06 AM on July 26, 2007


Avenger: yes but this is what annoys me about all these crusading atheists like Dawkins & Dennett, they take up the idiot's unwitting caricature of his own religion rather than real theology. Above all they assume that religion is meant as a set of hypotheses -- an assumption shared by fundamentalists, obviously -- and then show that they're bad hypotheses, bad science. But even the fundamentalist must get more out of his religion than this even if he doesn't know it. Wittgenstein wrote a bunch of "Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough" critiquing just this critique of religion. Frazer had written about things like rain dances as if they were based on a causal hypothesis that dancing actually makes the rain come; and W says: so why didn't they just do the dance in the dry season? How could it take them this long to figure out that it rains at some point anyways? How can all this plausibly be explained as mere stupidity?

MarshallPoe: yeh I can understand that expressing gratitude for simply being here in this life, come what may, can be an important part of one's spiritual, intellectual & emotional household, and one could imagine a person responsible so that one could "thank" this person the way we thank other people: hence, prayer. Humans are symbolic creatures and they transfer their interactions with other humans such as thanking, supplicating, loving onto their relation to the world as a whole as if there were a supreme person there at the other end. At least that is how I as an atheist imagine the appeal of religion. And these sorts of imaginative practices can't be "disproven" because there's no theory there there in the first place. Wittgenstein says: "there is no opinion underlying a religious symbol. And only with opinion can there be error."
posted by creasy boy at 9:08 AM on July 26, 2007


I'm also glad to hear more from Dennett. I find him to be much easier to approach than either Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, both of whom seem to be as dogmatic as any fundamentalist in their denouncing of religion.

Actually, Dennett has been known to call himself a "Darwinian Fundamentalist".

There's a thoughtful Christian critique of Dennet's book here.
Dennett, needless to say, has no curiosity regarding any actual faith or its intellectual tradition. His few references to Christian history make it clear that his historical consciousness is little more than a compilation of threadbare eighteenth- and nineteenth-century caricatures. In the six spacious pages he devotes to the question of whether there is any reason to believe in God (or, really, devotes mostly to quoting himself at length on why the question is not worth considering), he does not address any of the reasons for which persons actually do believe but merely recites a few of the arguments that freshmen are given in introductory courses on the philosophy of religion. Even then, his mental sloth is so enormous that he raises only those counterarguments that all competent scholars of philosophical history know to be the ones that do not work.
See also this anectote that points out that those of us who believe that evolution is true might want to take care not to insist that it entails atheism:
“If Darwinism is inherently atheistic, as you say, then obviously it can’t be taught in public schools.” “And why is that?” inquired Dennett, incredulous. “Because,” said Jordan, “the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution guarantees government neutrality between religion and irreligion.”
posted by straight at 12:51 PM on July 26, 2007


Darn, it this is the link I intended for Darwinian Fundamentalist.
posted by straight at 1:37 PM on July 26, 2007


Avenger, that very claim, that religious belief is akin to fictitious belief, would obviously be rejected by any theist. To insist that this is, nevertheless, what really underlies all theistic beliefs; to insist, in essence, that theist are simply wrong about the status of their beliefs is at the very least uncharitable and at the worst sophistry masquerading as putatively superior understanding.

If one takes as an assumption that every person one disagrees with is really, at bottom, just wrong, then one cannot really engage in meaningful attempts to resolve disputes and reach a common understanding.

As an exercise let's see how this kind of assumption looks like in the other camp. To paraphrase you:
Maybe my mind is clouded by thinking about God's will, but that does seem to be a fairly accurate portrayal of the way atheists derive their moral compass. They just ignore all of the evidence and turn to their obviously flawed rational faculties instead of listening to their hearts and asking God to grace them with the true understanding of His will.

If I sat down and opened our discussion with that claim, would you really feel that I was treating your position fairly and that we might achieve some semblance of mutual understanding?
posted by oddman at 1:38 PM on July 26, 2007


they take up the idiot's unwitting caricature of his own religion rather than real theology. Above all they assume that religion is meant as a set of hypotheses

Ugh. Look, one basic problem here is that in order to discuss something rationally, especially something that is guiding shared value judgements, we have to define some hypotheses. We have to be able to say "Well, we should do x because of y." That's not to say that religion has to be discussed as a set of rules for creating shared values, but that's the context in which an atheist encounters it.

Most of my life, I have been a proponent of the dictum that I don't care what you believe, I care what you do. But it's gotten to the point, and this is probably why you're seeing the rise of 'crusading atheists' as you put it, where I'm being asked to participate, in a societal sense, in complete inanity to avoid trampling on someone's religious belief. I can't go along with that.

I think the main problem with the moyers/dennet interview is that dennet was letting moyers off too lightly. He was trying to be a gentleman and not trample all over moyers. (Also, I think he's a better writer than a speaker, but whatever). When moyers trots out the old canards of 'oh, doesn't religious experience make you feel good' the proper response is 'yes, but in what way does that make it true?'
posted by lumpenprole at 4:03 PM on July 26, 2007


I have tended to think of Dawkins, particularly, and Dennett, less obviously, as being perhaps too strident in their critiques of organized religion, and as omitting discussion of the many positive reasons why people engage in religious activities. However, watching these nutty christians (via boing boing) makes me wonder if we shouldn't be rather more strident.
posted by fcummins at 5:14 AM on July 27, 2007


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