?

Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Yesterday was the last full day of the 2006 Human Behavior and Evolution Society conference. It was the high point of the conference for me because of the number of paper presentations on evolution and religion and because of the presence of Daniel Dennett.


I sat behind Dennett during the plenary sessions and the symposia on religion and was fascinated by his rapt attention to the talks and his vigorous note-taking. Great thinkers are forever students. At noon there was a special panel session on the Dover school board case, with contributions by Judge John E. Jones, Dennett, Paul Gross, and others. Jones got a standing ovation from the packed hall before he spoke a word. He was amused by this, noting that this had never happened to him before. He said that right-wing web sites had recently accused him of making his ruling as a publicity stunt to kick off a "world tour," and then quipped that it seems his world tour had started. Dennett, after effusively praising Jones for his ruling and his well-written decision, took issue with a minor point in the decision. Jones indicated that modern evolutionary theory does not rule out a Creator. Dennett pointed out that evolutionary theory does, in fact, rule out certain notions of such a Creator even if it does not rule out all possible Creators.

Dennett's keynote talk that evening was based on the talk he has been using for his book tour for Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Having already read the book, I was already familiar with most of his points. Nonetheless, his presentation was a virtuoso performance, a pleasure to behold. The talk began with a number of slides graphically illustrating how animals can be infected by parasites that alter the host's behavior for the benefit of the parasite. Naturally, this set up very nicely the idea that humans are hosts to infecting religious memes. Of course, not all religious memes are as destructive as biological parasites, and some act in a mutualistic fashion whereby humans derive some benefits. Dennett emphasized that he was not so much interested in demonstrating whether religious ideas are true or false as he is in getting people to understand the behavioral consequences of holding various sets of memes. His one policy recommendation is to make study of all world religions mandatory in the school system, from grade 1 to 12.

Comments

( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
anan_ab
Jun. 11th, 2006 04:47 pm (UTC)
That's awesome.
spiritofnow
Jun. 11th, 2006 06:33 pm (UTC)
Is the book not called Breaking the Spell and not Religion Explained, or is the latter a new edition or sequel that I'm not aware of?
hostirad
Jun. 11th, 2006 10:51 pm (UTC)
Correct! The book is Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Apparently I was not multi-taking very accurately between 8 and 9 AM, trying to write this post, eat breakfast, and talk to my colleagues all at the same time. Apparently I morphed the title with another of his books, Consciousness Explained. The mind works in funny ways.

Now I need to edit this post in my journal and the two communities where I cross-posted. Ugh.
spiritofnow
Jun. 11th, 2006 11:56 pm (UTC)
Heheh, I thought the title Consciousness Explained was an overshoot, so Religion Explained seemed pretty hyperbolic! :-P
spiritofnow
Jun. 11th, 2006 06:34 pm (UTC)
Btw, I am jealous that you got to attend this conference! :-P It will be some time before I get to the US for grad studies.

I completely agree with Dennett on making a study of world religions mandatory in the school system. This should be done everywhere in the world.
kent1
Jun. 12th, 2006 03:49 am (UTC)
Yesterday
I'm glad to hear that you had a nice time and gathered valuable information. *If* we end up in the same office in the fall, I'm looking forward to hearing more about your trip. Welcome back!
morningstar5
Jun. 13th, 2006 12:13 am (UTC)
Dennett -- religious memes
That is great that you got to hear Dennett speak at the conference. Did you personally get to speak to him? Did you get him to sign your copy of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon? Sorry for all the questions, but it is awesome to personally see someone that you admire.

Okay, suppose Dennett's recommendation for the mandatory study of world religions in the school system for grades 1 to 12 was to be implemented, there would somehow need to be unbiased world religion teachers hired in the schools all over the country. Where would all these unbiased teachers be found? In addition, there are too many narrow-minded school board members, administrators, teachers, and parents that would do everything they could to prevent it from happening. The children would be very open to the learning, but the grown-ups would fear it.

Having said all of that, I know Dennett is recommending that children and young people study world religions. But if I understand it correctly in more general terms, Dennett wants people to study world religions so they can see the common threads in all religious myths. Then, they will see how religious ideas developed and were passed down from generation to generation. As the religious memes became part of the culture, they were accepted as gospel truths within that particular culture. What Dennett hopes to get people to understand is that by believing various sets of memes (religious ideas) people behave in certain ways and that there are always consequences for their actions.

So, here is my question: Once people understand the behavioral consequences of believing various sets of religious memes, what does Dennett want them to do with this new understanding?

hostirad
Jun. 13th, 2006 02:46 pm (UTC)
Re: Dennett -- religious memes
I could have spoken to Dennett easily if I had chosen. If I had brought along my copy of Breaking the Spell I would definitely have asked him to sign it. I considered simply saying hello, shaking his hand, and telling him how much I appreciated his books. That's all I would have been able to do because he was constantly surrounded by either other luminaries or by young groupie women. I decided against a superficial hello--it was completely satisfying just to be close enough to see him in action.

As for the teaching recommendation, Dennett realizes that biases against non-Christian religions make it unlikely that his proposal would be adopted. Or, if adopted, done properly. As someone in a LJ community in which I cross-posted this entry remarked, "They would probably ask gym teachers to teach religion."

I believe that Dennett's recommendation on exposure to the world's religions is to get children to see that religious systems are just an accident of time and place. The problem today is that children are indoctrinated into their parents' religion as the gospel truth (so to speak) for years and years before learning about significantly different religions. If ever. By that time, it is too late to realize that if you had been born into a Muslim or Hindu family you would have accepted those beliefs as gospel truth rather than the religion you were brought up in. A majority of theists continue to assume that they were brought up in the correct religion while other less fortunate people were brought up in the wrong religion.

I think that Dennett's point is not that children under his educational system will become of universal truths across religions, but, rather, that they will realize that all religions are fanciful fictions. Or, at the very least, they will see that some religious practices are more likely to lead to destructive consequences, while others lead to more beneficent consequences, so that if they must practice some kind of religion they will hopefully choose one of the less harmful ones. Under the current system, children don't even realize that they have choices outside what they are being indoctrinated into and that different choices have different consequences.
hostirad
Jun. 13th, 2006 02:49 pm (UTC)
Re: Dennett -- religious memes
"become aware of universal truths"
morningstar5
Jun. 14th, 2006 01:38 am (UTC)
Re: Dennett
As someone in a LJ community in which I cross-posted this entry remarked, "They would probably ask gym teachers to teach religion."

When I was in school, the gym teacher taught sex ed. What a hoot it would be for the sex ed. teacher to teach religion. It just seems so appropriate. ;-)


I think that Dennett's point is not that children under his educational system will become aware of universal truths across religions, but, rather, that they will realize that all religions are fanciful fictions. Or, at the very least, they will see that some religious practices are more likely to lead to destructive consequences, while others lead to more beneficent consequences, so that if they must practice some kind of religion they will hopefully choose one of the less harmful ones. Under the current system, children don't even realize that they have choices outside what they are being indoctrinated into and that different choices have different consequences.

Your explanation makes so much sense (as does Dennett's recommendation for teaching world religion in schools) and seems so obvious to me now. I haven't read Breaking the Spell yet. I only read reviews about the book on amazon. And, I didn't pick up the part about fanciful fictions or behavioral consequences from the reviews.

A few of the reviews are very critical of Dennett's work. The readers on amazon would benefit greatly by reading a review written by you. You have a way of accurately interpreting the work others and expressing your thoughts with clarity. Plus, you have the added credibility of having personally heard Dennett talk about Breaking the Spell.

Give it some thought, won't you? If you do decide to write a review of Dennett's book, let me know because I would love to read it.



queenlyzard
Jun. 14th, 2006 02:40 am (UTC)
Re: Dennett
I think that Dennett's point is not that children under his educational system will become aware of universal truths across religions, but, rather, that they will realize that all religions are fanciful fictions.

I'm intrigued by this idea, but somehow doubt it would work. You'd have to get to kids when they are *very* young, and my experience with religious people also leads me to suspect that they would be more likely to find the "universal truths" idea before being willing to accept religion as totally false.

Religious thinking is, after all, deeply seated in the brain, and hard to overcome with reason alone. I guess my experience (e.g., with my dear Mormon friend who believes much of the mythologies of other religions, while still thinking that hers provides the correct moral guidance) has been that people are more likely to become openminded about the potential "truth" of other religions before they would consider the possible fallaciousness of their own. You'd be raising a generation of Unitarians, not atheists. Mind you, it would still be a huge improvement over fundamentalism...

It still amazes me, too, how many people are willing to dismiss others' beliefs as absurd while claiming staunchly the absolute and "self-evident" veracity of their own nutty ideas. Go figure. Kids need a crash course in critical thinking more than anything else.

And is there any way to get past the... ? I don't know the formal term for it, but it's the tendency to believe that the things we feel to be true are backed by evidence. Our tendency not to question the things we think we know. The simple fact that it's so hard to consider that we might be wrong. The reason that doctors prefer their own diagnoses to ones made by computer, even when the computer is proven to be more accurate (see Atul Gawande's "Complications" for the reference to that study). I've noticed time and again that this simple human failing is at the root of *so* much of human error... and there seems to be no way to compensate for it. Any ideas?

I haven't read "Breaking the Spell" yet, but it's on my list and I'm looking forward to it. I read 'Consciousness Explained" and found it dense but comprehensive. I think I'll like "Breaking the Spell" a lot more, since the topic is of greater interest for me.

Sorry to babble so much!
hostirad
Jun. 14th, 2006 01:22 pm (UTC)
Re: Dennett
You'd be raising a generation of Unitarians, not atheists.

Daniel Dennett apparently would be satisfied with this, at least for now. Fundamentalists are like time-bombs that threaten the human race. The first priority is to deactivate the bombs. We can worry about truth later.

Sam Harris sees it differently. He wants to get everyone straight to the truth about the nonexistence of gods although he is vague on how that will be accomplished. He touts "rational mysticism" as a way of satisfying religious feelings without steeping one's life in falsehoods.

I don't know the formal term for it, but it's the tendency to believe that the things we feel to be true are backed by evidence.

In psychology, one version of what you are talking about is called confirmatory bias (see http://pages.stern.nyu.edu/~wstarbuc/Writing/Prejud.htm ). There is also a large literature in psychology on what we call "statistical versus clinical prediction" that addresses the issue of doctors prefering their own intuitions. Even when faced with decades of research (beginning with Paul Meehl's work in the 1950s) demonstrating that empirically-derived formulae ALWAYS match or exceed predictions derived from intuitive judgment, hundreds of clinicians still want to believe that they are the exception, that their hunches, based on their "clinical experience," is more accurate than statistical rules. Talk about stubborn . . .
queenlyzard
Jun. 19th, 2006 03:59 pm (UTC)
Re: Dennett
Exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about! With the doctors, I mean. On a similar note, I hear that something like 80 percent of all people with cars believe that they are "better than average" drivers. Scary, huh?

You know what's funny, though, is that I bet most patients also prefer to trust their doctor's intuition over a machine or a formula... heck, even I probably would rather believe a doctor than a chart, and I know better! It's just that we trust *people* so much more than things... and that must have an evolutionary basis.

Of course, there is a good reason to trust your doctor-- because a huge part of medicine is really psychology. I forget the statistics, but I know that a *lot* of the people who go to the doctor either have "nothing" wrong with them, or have something like a cold, that just takes time to go away. What helps the person feel better is the reassurance of a medical authority, being paid attention to, etc. It may be a little more complicated than just "placebo effect", but I'd have to say that a doctor's bedside manner may have more to do with how quickly his patients recover than his basic medical knowledge.

I'm just fascinated by this whole idea. Our minds are such complicated things, and they have a real knack for playing tricks on us-- sometimes to our advantage and sometimes to our detriment. I guess the only thing we can work for is to maximize the good tricks (like placebo effects) and minimize the bad ones (like people thinking they can drive just fine when drunk).
hostirad
Jun. 19th, 2006 06:00 pm (UTC)
Re: Dennett
Evolutionary psychologists suggest that our brains contain no natural cognitive modules to deal with statistical abstractions. Using statistics to make decisions is such an unnatural activity that even people who should know better are prone to using inferior sources of information (concrete experiences, intuitions, non-data-based pronouncements by authorities, etc.). Armed with this realization, we should be able to avoid those mistakes.
hostirad
Jun. 14th, 2006 12:59 pm (UTC)
Re: Dennett
The readers on amazon would benefit greatly by reading a review written by you.

Good suggestion. I am pretty busy right now reviewing for journals and doing my own research and writing (I shouldn't even be LJ-ing) but if I get around to writing a review of Dennett's book I will let you know.
kent1
Jun. 16th, 2006 03:59 am (UTC)
Re: Dennett
I am enjoying your prioritization! Keep on LJing as this is the only way that I can keep up with what is going on in your life!
hostirad
Jun. 16th, 2006 12:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Dennett
LJ is an irresistible attraction. I think it is safe to say that I will continue to post here.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )