Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Daniel Dennett Just Can’t Stay Out of That Lions Den
For all of their self-publicized objectivity and rigorous standards of reasoning, there are some rather breathtakingly naive ideas that have gained currency in the contemporary culture of atheism and among some of a vaguely scientific bent. Few of these are as astonishing as the assumption that the theorized genetic basis of religious belief necessarily leads to the conclusion that religion is just the undesirable artifact of evolutionary biology and QED: god is bunk. For a person who doesn’t believe in a god or who is making a career in the burgeoning pop culture field that champions these kinds of ideas, that assumption seems to be immediately grasped because they think it confirms their pre-existing preferences. But that is certainly not the most necessary conclusion, nor is their heart’s desire the only conclusion that can be drawn from it using their own level of rigor.

First, the proposition, most often associated with Daniel Dennett, is glaringly lacking in rigorous analysis. It assumes that a proposed creator god who created the entire universe, planets, solar systems, galaxies, clusters, dark matter, energy, the entire shebang, and who also keeps it in motion, wouldn’t have any say in what happens in the puny little molecules that make up our genetic inheritance. Perhaps they think that such a god would just have to grow forgetful under the burdens of considering the big picture.

Not only COULD such a creator god’s role be proposed in any such genetic basis of belief, but to leave out that possibility is entirely dishonest in a PHILOSOPHICAL* discussion of the matter. It is hard for me to believe that doing so could be just a rather astounding oversight for a philosopher to make. If you’re talking god, you don’t get to leave the possibility of god out of the picture just at a point when doing so best suits your conclusion. It certainly wouldn’t be by a careful philosopher who was thinking about the subject. When talking about “god”, god isn’t an unimportant detail in the argument.

Rather charmingly, Dennett and his cubs seem to not realize that even if they were to conclusively prove that faith was controlled by genetics that could lead someone so disposed to take that as the strongest physical evidence ever found that there was a god. Not only a god but a god who wished that people should know of his existence, or at least to have that option open to them as a recessive or latent possibility**. They could be handing the I.D. types, not their death sentence, but fulfilling their greatest desideratum***. I say charmingly only because Dennett, one of the proponents of that other PR disaster in the making, “The Brights” idea, seems to have a bad habit of handing ammo to the other side.

Note: From experience, you can be certain that one of the things that might come up in a discussion of this issue is the matter of “wish fulfillment” to impeach one side of the argument. That is, again, rather an astounding gap between the pretense of the self-identified “realist” side of things and life as it actually is. There are few, established, well accepted ideas found by scientific research which were not fervently desired by their discovers and promoters. And there are a lot of ideas that, found by mistake, lead to an equally fervent desire for confirmation and extension. Wish fulfillment in and of itself doesn’t prove sloppy thinking or dishonesty, though it can certainly be a motive in both. The falsity of an idea isn’t based in whether that it’s considered to be desirable by the person who holds or promotes it but that it has been disproved. If that wasn’t the case then even the idea that there is a genetic basis of religious belief would have to go, since it seems to be pushed most strongly by those who have a well known axe to grind on the subject. And, like many of the ideas of this school of speculation, it’s pretty much a construct made of words and assertions. And , as seen above, many of them are rather shaky in themselves.

* That is philosophical, not scientific, so don’t bother bringing that red herring up. Questions of a god have no place in any part of science. Philosophy can and does deal with many things that fall outside of science, whether or not anyone likes that.

** God help us, the strict Calvinists would have a field day with that one.

***I, personally, am doubtful that there is any such genetic mechanism but I’m not a biological determinist to begin with.

The Walrus was Ringo.

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