Saturday, 31 October 2009

The Evolution of Confusion and the Development of Deepity

Well worth the hour . . .


  1. (This comment has to come in two parts...)

    Thanks for the post, Psi. This definitely was worth the hour, and it has lots of ideas worth further exploration. I think Dennett is spot on with the preliminary ideas and work, but then fails, which is frustrating, because I like to see people picking up the meme ball since Dawkins isn’t championing real research in the area.

    He starts with a lot of empathy toward his 6 atheist clergy and asks a very insightful question: WHY are there atheist clergy? After all, it seems obvious to believers and non that this population really should not exist. He then describes the financial and social structures that keep these clergy in the “pickle” that they’ve found themselves in.

    Then, Dennett makes some serious errors. He generalizes their experiences and their ideas into his own (as well as the interviewer’s) bias. Any social psychologist can tell you a sample size of 6 and a data set from interviews does not qualify as good data. Dennett explains how his interviewer is good at probing and probing and getting good information out of these individuals. They may be telling deep personal truths, but this sample size is not worthy of the implications Dennett describes. For instance, he says that seminary is where these clergy came to believe that God could not exist. This is a simplistic argument put forward most recently by Crumb’s illustration of the book of Genesis that all one really has to do to become an unbeliever is actually read the Bible instead of being spoon-fed it by your pastor. I agree, in part, that this is a good thing to do and it may actually make many people disbelievers. However, Dennett seems to chime in with the attitudes of his 6 clergy (or maybe he even spins the responses of his 6 clergy) to be that there is this general conspiracy (perhaps not overtly ill-intentioned, but there is this conspiracy) that clergy are taught: To avoid telling the truths in the Bible (24:50). C’mon! If people entering seminary are really devout and honest, and the institution was so corrupt, could it really sustain? He says that his clergy believe they are the tip of the iceberg. He also says that he expects half of them to come out at some point. Puhlease! Does he really think religion is that vulnerable? If so, he really does not understand its structure.

    He then goes into “Why does theology exist?” Here he has a great quote which came to me again yesterday as I am touring Italy and gazed at the magnificent structure that is the tower at Pisa. The quote is from Donald Hebb, “If it isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing well.” By employing this quote, and the discussion leading to it, Dennett describes theologians as clever people who come up with creative ways to substantiate their ideas. He furthermore describes the parishioners as needy in some respects and that theologians are the charlatans that fill this economic niche, spinning religion to appease the masses (29:00).

    This diminution of humanity is what disgusts me about Christianity and what I find disheartening in Dennett’s talk. (Christianity tells everyone that they are sinners and need grace, and Jesus can provide that grace. Dennett seems to claim that everyone who does not use a word or the concept of the word perfectly is not in his league. Earlier on, he calls his 6 clergy “not very good thinkers” (14:05)).

  2. Dawkins begins the video with a very good question “What’s the point of philosophers?” When Dennett goes off on use mention errors, I have to wonder as well. To say “God is love”, it is important to understand that to the believer, this is not a deepity. While it may have been coined in some previous time, it has now become part of Christian theology. So, to demean it as a spin put forward by theologians of today really misses the point. What we have to work with in understanding Christianity today is the belief that love is a supernatural force and it is defined as God. God can be love. God can be justice. God can be anything we or our pastors and theologians want to say God is. Funny how he didn’t put “meme” into his deepity arguments when they seem even more poorly defined than “God”.

    At 43:00 he starts talking about Karen Armstrong where she said “God is no being at all.” He equates this with “No being at all is God.” and says that they are logically equivalent. When the theologian uses 1, but everyone can see that it is also 2, then the theologian is trying to pull something over the listener’s ears. No, Dan! Don’t try and dupe us into believing that just because on paper and through predicate calculus these two terms are equivalent that when the theologian says 1 that since it can also mean 2 that the theologian is duping us or admitting an inadequacy. These two terms are not equivalent! The Jon Lovitts enactment at the end of that example is dishonest.

    At the end of his talk, he reveals something that I do not think is worth support. He says, “If we want to extinguish religion or encourage it to mutate into benign forms, we need to understand how it works.” While I oppose religion and would like to see it extinguished, my methodology is not so deliberate. I’d much rather be known for revealing fruitful living without religion and how to live a world free of suspicion. I see religion falling as a byproduct of that and I think that understanding how it works is a way of reaching to those people, but I don’t think marching to extinguish religion is valiant.

    That being said, deepities surround religion and can and should be exposed. Examples like that at 46:45 were great. Theologians and believers often fall into this trap. I will keep a better ear for them.

    I really agree with him toward the end at 49:00 that the institution did simply evolve and that there is no conspiracy mastermind. I think Dennett is generally on the right track with trying to understand religion via memes. He claims (at 53:00) that with respect to religion, it is so easy to see the social design that we must assume a master designer (or conspirator if you are that kind of an atheist). Unfortunately, Dennett is too far removed from religion to realize the social structures themselves are the lures toward religion. Once he clues in, he should be able to access a much much larger sample for his research.

  3. Hi Tom,

    Great comments- thanks - I think we agree on most if not all of the points you made.

    When you make such good comments it seems a shame you don't blog anymore!

    Take this as a big hint.