Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Quite Acceptable Boundaries


New imaging techniques have allegedly pinpointed the region of the brain that allows us to imagine ourselves in the future:

"Our findings provide compelling support for the idea that memory and future thought are highly interrelated and help explain why future thought may be impossible without memories."
Speaking of which, the World Question Center recently asked Daniel Dennett what future event he felt optimistic about living to see. Imagine how surprised they must've been when he answered "the evaporation of the powerful mystique of religion."

If you're wondering how this is going to happen, or what the world will look like when it does, Dennett is happy to enlighten you:
Of course many people – perhaps a majority of people in the world – will still cling to their religion with the sort of passion that can fuel violence and other intolerant and reprehensible behavior. But the rest of the world will see this behavior for what it is, and learn to work around it until it subsides, as it surely will.
QED, motherfuckers!

If it seems like Dennett has made his work a bit lighter than it ought to be, that's probably because he feels that religious faith is a cultural phenomenon along the lines of smoking cigarettes:
Recall that only fifty years ago smoking was a high status activity and it was considered rude to ask somebody to stop smoking in one’s presence. Today we’ve learned that we shouldn’t make the mistake of trying to prohibit smoking altogether, and so we still have plenty of cigarettes and smokers, but we have certainly contained the noxious aspects within quite acceptable boundaries.
See? It's the exact same thing. In essence, fanaticism will become "uncool," as the world comes to realize that it's far preferable to dwell within "quite acceptable boundaries" per Dennett, than to believe in a god who can only be properly worshipped by overstepping - or demolishing - those boundaries.

Anticipating the reader, Dennett asks "Why am I confident that this will happen?" O ye of little faith! Obviously, you've never heard of "the asymmetry in the information explosion":
With the worldwide spread of information technology (not just the internet, but cell phones and portable radios and television), it is no longer feasible for guardians of religious traditions to protect their young from exposure to the kinds of facts (and, yes, of course, misinformation and junk of every genre) that gently, irresistibly undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance.
Yes, thanks to the Intertubes and its handmaidens, the day is soon coming when most people won't believe stuff that isn't true anymore. Why should they, when they can simply Google the eternal verities, and download them as a podcast?

I also look forward to the day when the externalities of pornography become less worrisome. I'm thinking that the Internet could help with that, too. After all, there are lots of facts about human sexuality and women's rights online, as long as you know where to look.

I think it's fair - if not mandatory - to say that Dennett comes off here as a hypercredulous schmuck. I'm sure most of us share his holiday wish for an "avirulent" religion that exists solely to relieve suffering and poverty and injustice - one that will never be radicalized by (or collude with) state powers that have ordained suffering and poverty and injustice for a certain population, or otherwise drive its followers to "the teleological suspension of the ethical."

But some of us, unlike Dennett, can recognize this prediction as harebrained Candyland bullshit with no basis in fact or rationality. And we're accordingly troubled when it's offered up for public consumption as a "rationalist" worldview.

"Eventually," says Dennett, stroking his beard meditatively, "the truth will set us free."

Well, why not? It's always done so in the past.

(Illustration: "Christ Carrying the Cross" [1920] by Stanley Spencer.)

8 comments:

Rmj said...

Screw blogger.

I wrote a long post and lost it in logging in via Blogger beta.

Anyway, to sum up: Dennett clearly has no knowledge of history at all. Maybe he needs to read Dr. Swift's "children's book," or Voltaire's "Candide." Just for starters.

I mean, since the reasoning of the Renaissance did away with the "violent" Middle Ages; or the ratiocination of the Enlightenment paved the way for peace in the settling of America; or the scholarship of the 19th century ended all superstition and mythology.

It didn't? Oh, must be because we didn't have technology. Yeah, that'll save us! Technology! "O machine, O machine!"

Honestly, has Dennett even read a poem in his life? A work of fiction? Any philosophy? Study even the outlines of history?

I don't know what sticks in my craw worse: his credulousness, or the credulity of his audience, which apparently thinks he knows what he's talking about (somebody is buying his book and keeping him in the public eye). He's supposedly a philosopher by profession (IIRC), but his ignorance of the field should get him fired and the faculty purged for ever hiring him. Were I to publish as much proof of my ignorance as he has, I'd retire from public life and live on a deserted island to expunge the shame.

These things that pass for knowledge I don't understand.

Rmj said...

New imaging techniques have allegedly pinpointed the region of the brain that allows us to imagine ourselves in the future:
"Our findings provide compelling support for the idea that memory and future thought are highly interrelated and help explain why future thought may be impossible without memories."


By the way, we really are just meat, you know. Right? Although the very idea that memory is a part of personality or identity is one that goes back at least to Locke, and really stems there from Descartes.

The very way we frame these issues has more to do with the frame than with the subject. But don't tell Dennett that; he'd accuse you of being irrational.

Eli said...

How odd; I just quoted Dennett this morning, but in a completely different context.

I more or less agreed with him, actually, but it was about free will rather than religion.

Boreas said...

George Steiner, in his After Babel: Aspects of Language & Translation [1975, 1998] suggests that the notion of futurity originated in the Fertile Crescent, as the cultures there transitioned from hunter-gatherer to agriculture.

His reasoning is that the harvesting of crops brought on the realization that surplus food could be stored for future use, thus bringing the idea of "future" into being.

Mircea Eliade, the great historian/philosopher of religion, points out, in language peculiarly appropriate to the present season, that the earliest year-end festivals were literal markers of the absolute end of not only the world but also of individual identity - both being renewed at the dawn of the new year (The Sacred & The Profane: The Nature of Religion [1957])

Phila said...

Honestly, has Dennett even read a poem in his life? A work of fiction? Any philosophy? Study even the outlines of history?

Well, he's read all of that, I'm sure. But that's not even half the battle, as you know.

I don't know what sticks in my craw worse: his credulousness, or the credulity of his audience, which apparently thinks he knows what he's talking about

The credulity of the audience is the real problem, I think. By the same token, I'd probably rather have the country be reliably able to recognize authoritarian frauds than to have George W. Bush not be one. (If you're gonna dream, dream big, right?)

Eli:

I more or less agreed with him, actually, but it was about free will rather than religion.

Oh, I'm sure DD and I agree on any number of things. And I'm sure he means well. But hell, this subject has addled the brains of smarter people than Dennett....

Rmj said...

No offense to Eli, but Dennett's comment in the NYT about free will is hardly what I'd call insightful.

Then again, this is the guy who claimed to have explained consciousness and ended the need for all further discussion on the topic ("Look upon my works, ye Western philosophers, and despair!"). Having solved a problem that stumped the greatest minds from Socrates to Hume to Sartre (and that's just in the West; but again, Dennett had the magical aid of technology! O machine, O machine!), Dennett has apparently decided he is the last word on religion.

Past performance is no indicator of future performance, and even a blind hog can find an acorn, but still: feh!

The only good thing I can say about Dennett is that he is not as embarassingly ignorant on the topic of religion as his running mates Harris and Dawkins. But when any of the three of them show any understanding of religion in human history, society, and existence, and I mean both anthropologically, existentially, and as a world phenomenon, not just an American (fundamentalism started here!) one, perhaps I'll listen.

Perhaps. But only after Dennett admits he can't even explain consciousness, much less give Western philosophy the last word on anything.

I'm with Boreas: there is more on earth alone (let alone heaven) than is dreamt of in their philosophies. Maybe if they read something besides American scholarship, and looked into fields other than neurobiology (in which only one of them is qualified, and he's as ignorant of philosophy as I am of biology).

Phila said...

Then again, this is the guy who claimed to have explained consciousness and ended the need for all further discussion on the topic ("Look upon my works, ye Western philosophers, and despair!").

Oy. Please don't get me started on that book...we'll be here all night.

Jay Draiman said...

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1-14-2007

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