Monday, March 20, 2006

Alister McGrath on Daniel Dennett

Alister McGrath skillfully undermines Daniel Dennett's recent book on religion:
Whatever the benefits of religions, Dennett and these writers believe that they arise entirely inside human minds. No spiritual realities exist outside us. Natural explanations may be given of the origins of belief in God. Now I hesitate to mention this, but this is clearly a rather circular argument, which presupposes its conclusions.

So what models does Professor Dennett propose for the origins of faith in God? I was delighted to find a rich range of explanatory approaches in this book. I read the first – the “sweet tooth” theory. On this approach, just as we have evolved a receptor system for sweet things, so in a similar way we might have a “god centre” in our brains. Such a centre might depend on a “mystical gene” that was favoured by natural selection because people with it tend to survive better.

Just a moment, I thought. Where’s the science? What’s the evidence for this? Instead I found mights and maybes, speculation and supposition, instead of the rigorous evidence-driven and evidence-based arguments that I love and respect. These theories are evidence-free and wildly speculative.

We are told, for example, that – I quote from the jacket blurb – religious “ideas could have spread from individual superstitions via shamanism and the early ‘wild’ strains of religion”. There’s no credible evidence for this. There’s no serious attempt to engage with the history of religions. It reminds me of those TV ads; “this could help you lose weight as part of a calorie-controlled diet”. Could. The TV ad writers would love to be able to say their product was “clinically proven” to do these things. But they can’t. There’s no evidence.
There's more good stuff, especially about Dennett's unscientific reliance on the notion of "memes."

3 Comments:

Blogger Kevin Jones said...

Yummy. Dennett-beatings are my mind candy, thanks for finding this.

7:38 AM  
Blogger David Best said...

Except that Dennett is careful throughout to acknowledge the speculativeness of his hypotheses. He attempts to frame them in a fashion such that they can be subjected to rigorous testing, including falsifiability criteria.

A major point of the book is to argue that the cultural and psychological aspects of religion should not be off limits to scientific exploration.

12:44 AM  
Blogger David Best said...

Except that Dennett is careful throughout to acknowledge the speculativeness of his hypotheses. He attempts to frame them in a fashion such that they can be subjected to rigorous testing, including falsifiability criteria.

A major point of the book is to argue that the cultural and psychological aspects of religion should not be off limits to scientific exploration.

12:45 AM  

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