Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Daniel Dennett's Materialism Breaks No Spells

Along with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, the American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has become widely known as one of the key thinkers and leaders of the so-called “New Atheism” movement. Anyone familiar with the other New Atheists would surely expect Dennett to share their harsh, confrontational style, criticizing religion as ‘poisonous’ and ‘delusional.’ Yet perhaps Dennett’s most mainstream publication, Breaking the Spell, is really nothing of the sort. While he is certainly very critical of religion and unapologetically atheistic, Dennett’s style is generally more humorous and witty than vitriolic and aggressive. His basic argument is that all religions are completely natural phenomena that can be sufficiently explained with evolutionary reasoning. While claiming to be interdisciplinary, his theory has little need for fields of study other than evolutionary science. He certainly rejects supernatural explanations to understand religion, as they are all products of natural selection. While he is deeply influenced by the empiricism of David Hume and the gene-centered evolutionary science of Richard Dawkins, he also draws heavily on the work of William James, specifically his classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Dennett is thus probably best described as a ‘philosopher of science’ and a strong materialist who seeks to show that religion flourished because of its evolutionary benefits for the humans that pursued it. While there is much to appreciate about Dennett’s book, I am ultimately compelled to make the argument that his totalizing evolutionary method is an unhelpful, even deeply flawed way to attempt to make sense of religion.

Daniel Dennett
Despite Dennett’s less confrontational tone, he begins the book by crudely describing religion as a parasite of the human mind. For him, all ideas, including religious creeds (‘memes’) are biological facts, “visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science.” At the same time, Dennett does not affirm that religious memes are always harmful to the host; rather, he is open to the possibility that these memes may be beneficial or neutral. But all the evidence must be weighed scientifically. In order to begin to evaluate religions on the basis of evolution, Dennett explains their historical origins. Even before such a historical task, one must define religion in some way. But the definition Dennett provides seems problematic, to say the least: religions are “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” This seems to leave out the nontheistic religions, such as Buddhism, as well as various types of naturalistic theism. It also places an undue amount of emphasis on expressed ‘belief’ and the act of seeking ‘approval’ of supernatural agents, which are certainly not the central emphases of all religions or individuals who would identify as religious.

Dennett is of course not alone in his essentialist definition of the complex phenomenon of religion (although it is worth noting that William James resisted developing such definitions). Stephen Prothero rightly points out that virtually all of the New Atheists, Dennett included, have tended to “load all religions into one boat.” Prothero suggests a way beyond essentialism by talking about ‘family resemblances’ rather than looking for some common essence of all religion. A more robust definition of religion may have significantly improved Dennett’s work, perhaps something like philosopher Ninian Smart’s theory of religion’s seven dimensions: ritual, narrative, experiential, institutional, ethical, doctrinal, and material dimensions. On the other hand, a more complex definition of religion such as this would have complicated the delivery of Dennett’s main point: that all ‘religion' can be explained as a purely natural phenomenon.

Keith Ward
After making his case that science should be used to study religion, we begin to see some of the problems with Dennett’s thesis emerge. These problems are rooted in materialist assumptions. Dennett is well-known for his ‘philosophy of mind’ in which he argues against Cartesian dualism for hard-line materialism, reducing mind and consciousness to nothing more than information-bearing events in the brain: the mind “is the brain”, he writes. In this view, the thinking, feeling, perceiving subject can hardly be anything more than an illusion. They are mere physical effects of the activities of brain, which is itself made up of organized bits of matter. As a materialist, Dennett is committed to explaining the (seemingly) conscious mind based only on unconscious, mindless matter. But is this philosophically defensible? It is at least highly disputable. As the Oxford philosopher Keith Ward points out, “materialism has rarely seriously been on the agenda of classical philosophy”, and it is only in the last forty years that it has been taken seriously amongst philosophers – even amongst committed atheists. It is one thing to affirm that mind depends upon the brain, but quite another to collapse the two. Philosophers like Ward, Philip Clayton, and David Ray Griffin argue for different but serious alternatives to ontological materialism, a philosophy that I would argue creates more problems than it solves. While this is not the place to argue for a particular view of mind or consciousness, it is important to point out that Dennett’s materialist, deterministic foundation for his project is very debatable.

Dennett then moves to discuss the evolution of the human brain by arguing that there was a crucial evolutionary adaptation, which he calls HADD: ‘hyperactive agent detection device.’ This “fiction generating contraption” made humans attribute mind or agency to “anything that puzzles or frightens us.” This gave birth to animism, the earliest expression of religion in which nature is attributed the additional status of spirit. So for Dennett, religion was not ‘chosen’ by humans based on what we presently understand as religious experience or revelation – it arose naturally, purely through the impersonal processes of biological and cultural evolution. From this basic method, he provides his own ‘natural history of religion’ that describes the evolution of religion from animism, to deities, to present forms of theistic religion.

Furthermore, this same evolutionary approach that Dennett uses can be applied to just about anything in human experience: “Everything we value – from sugar and sex and money to music and love and religion – we value for reasons. Lying behind and distinct from, our reasons are evolutionary reasons, free-floating rationales that have been endorsed by natural selection.” Dennett seems to get a thrill out of trying to convince us that our experiences are illusory, ultimately due to natural selection: “We don’t love babies and puppies because they’re cute. It’s the other way around: we see them as cute because evolution has designed us to love things that look like that.” While evolution has blindly designed us for certain things apart from the behavior of organisms, Dennett takes this to the deterministic and reductionistic extreme. This of course rests on his dogmatic commitment to mindless matter as the ‘really real’, when in fact many philosophers would see this as a very problematic position.

Thomas Nagel
As I see it, the fatal flaw with Dennett’s coupling of thoroughgoing materialism and the evolutionary method of explaining (away) religious phenomena is this: if our cognitive faculties that are determined by natural selection can only provide us with beliefs that help us survive, if they are merely chemical reactions in our brain, then why stop at religious beliefs? Why should we trust our so-called reasonable beliefs either? Indeed, Dennett’s fellow atheist friend Thomas Nagel questions our trust of reason on this same logic: “[Can we have any] continued confidence in reason as a source of knowledge about the nonapparent character of the world? In itself, I believe an evolutionary story [of the human race] tells against such confidence.” This is also pointed out by Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic: “[Dennett] portrays reason in service to natural selection, and as a product of natural selection. But if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection?...[Dennett] cannot invoke the power of reason even as he destroys it.” Even Darwin expressed concern that his theory would ultimately undermine the trustworthiness of the reasoning mind. But if one concedes a stronger reality for mind and consciousness than Dennett has done with his materialism, there is at least space for talking about the relative independence of reason – and by extension, of the possibility of religious experiences being independent of the imperialism of natural selection that Dennett envisions. This means, however, that Dennett’s grand theory of religion as being purely the product of natural selection becomes untenable.