2007/05/19

Spell-breaker

A friend lent me the latest book by Daniel Dennett, knowing that I was a fan of some of his previous work. In particular, his Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991) struck me as brilliant, with the clearest and most memorable explanation I'd ever read of "the self" (or "ego" or, as some prefer, the "soul"), how it is produced and where it resides. It is produced in the brain but it doesn't really reside in any particular place there, according to Dennett, but is "the center of narrative gravity," shifting with our focus or excitement about whatever it is we are contemplating at the moment. Dennett himself so liked his phrase that he used it as the title of a later essay.

And that's the annoying tic of Dennett: he falls in love with his own formulations and repeats them endlessly, infested by his own memes. In fact, "memes" is one of those formulations (originated by Richard Dawkins but appropriated enthusiastically by Dennett) that he can't let go of, even when "memes" are not the most convincing explanation of, in the case of his newer book, religious belief.

Dennett, Daniel C. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. London: Allen Lane (Penguin), 2006. By "natural phenomenon" he means one that can be investigated (researched) by natural (as opposed to supernatural) scientific methods, such as surveys, brain-scans, rigorously controlled tests with control groups (for example, of claims of the "efficacy of prayer"). And he makes several proposals of specific research topics. That's fine.

Another good thing is that he states very clearly some things that you surely already know but may have had trouble explaining. Here's one remark I especially liked:
There is no reason at all why a disbelief in the immateriality or immortality of the soul should make a person less caring, less moral, less committed to the well-being of everybody on Earth than somebody who believes in "the spirit." (p. 305)
However, his jokey tone and his manifest incredulity at any religious claims (Max Weber described himself as "religiously unmusical," but Dennett is tone deaf) make it unlikely that reading this book will release any true believer from the "spell" of belief. He's smart and good company, and I agree with most of what he says, but I didn't learn anything I didn't know or think anything I hadn't thought. Most of what he has put together here was better said long ago in the book he quotes in almost every chapter, William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). (Click on keyword "religion" to find other comments on the topic.)

2 comments:

Dirk van Nouhuys said...

You might be interested in Philosophy Talk. It’s an Internet and ether radio show from station KALW done by two philosophy profs from Stanford. They are lively, knowledgeable, and articulate. They are kind of the click and clack o the intellect, but that makes them sound like the emphasize humor. They have humor but it’s not the point. The do both traditional philosophical subjects (consciousness, Hegel, Berkeley, friendship) and contemporary issues form a philosophical perspective (Can/ should values be legislated, should science be censored). They always have a guest expert, Anthony Apia and peter Singer for example. You can catch them at (http://philosophytalk.org/) on 10 o’clock PST Sunday mornings, or down load any of their past broadcasts from (http://www.philosophytalk.org/notesPastShows.htm) any time. Some of programs are podcasts.

gef said...

Thanks. Sounds like fun.