Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Is your meme my god

I just listened to the good RSA symposium between Denkins and Alister McGrath about Dennet's book Breaking the spell of religion. I think one of the most interesting points demonstrated was the failure to admit to the prejudices of one's own belief system is the surest way to believe you have the winning argument. I think antagonism towards religion only proves this point. The degree to which religious like beliefs are mocked is often correlates to the degree to which someone is blind to the circular nature of their own belief system. This isn't to say some modes of thought are better at certain things than others, only that we tend to forget that individual priorities mean what we value may not be the same as someone else. Hence the circularity caused by background perspectives.

While Dennet is much broader in his definition of religion than most, McGrath's meme critique seems to assume a broader definition still. It seems to define religion in terms of faith claims rather than the supernatural. Therefore memes theory functions in a similar role as god, albeit in a much more palatable way for society. In relation to this, Dennnet raises a very interesting point, science has evolved a way to largely remove bias from its findings, making it able to escape endless cycles of handwaving.

With this possibility, I find it ironic that so many people who attack religion seem to do so in rather religious like fashion. I would suppose, from Dennet's position, atheism or feminism becomes becomes no different from traditional religion as long as they are unable to find tools to remove the inherit biases their own memes engender. Perhaps it is as McGrath says, any organization has its fanatical elements. Today's problem with religion may not be as much what it is about, but rather how it is perceived, presented and used.


jeff g said...

I always get confused when people, you kind of do it here but not too much, think that Dennett really has it out for religion. From what I've read of him, and I've read a lot, is that while he doesn't believe in religion and he would be glad to see some forms of religion be utterly banished (but wouldn't we all?), he is not really anti-religious. His tone doesn't at all sound like Dawkins' who he often gets paired with. Is there some ugly Dennett rant that I'm not aware of or something?

Clark Goble said...

I've not read the latest by Dennett. (I've mainly read his more philosophical books) But I agree Jeff. But I think by "has it out for religion" Chris simply means is arguing against religion and not that Dennett sees religion as a threat. In the same way some religious people might argue about atheists but in practice not particularly care if someone decides to choose that belief.

chris g said...

No, I actually think he is really quite well balanced. I was quite impressed with him during the symposium. I smirked at his critique of males not being able to fully participate in feminist studies. He seems quite open to analyzing his own positions with what he is saying even though he is obviously guarded in a debate. He seems to assume the potential testability of his position excludes him from circularity, but then I also think the same thing of religion.

I thought McGrath while better at rhetoric felt a bit hollow with his meme attack. He wasn't willing to flat out say that Dennet's use of meme paralled his use of God. I would have preffered a bit more openess there I guess. I think, after all, that is where the real debate lies.

I guess the problem is that my last paragraph can be interpreted to apply to Dennet when I meant it to apply to people who blindly follow Dennet's conclusions without critical and humble self reflection. In other words, the problem is that some people take an idea and use it to disenfranchise whole areas, neglecting the uses that aren't readily apparent from their frame of reference.

While I haven't started his book yet, I would tend to see Dennet as being open to the idea of religion as a useful myth. I don't take that stance, but I don't imagine him having any hard feelings to religion per se. Instead I can see him with a "sorry you are misdirected" type of approach. Of course I wouldn't doubt he loathes the extremist branches of religion. However he doesn't get carried away in that mode of attack like other people (the audience perhaps) do. This last point and the possibility of meme=god are the things I find ironic.

However, I will try and watch myself from overly negative characterizations.

jeff g said...


I didn't think that you were really getting all that carried away in your characterization of Dennett so no apologies needed. However, I suspect that his position toward religion is actually even more friendly than you might think.

While it may be me reading my own beliefs into him, it seems that he acknowledges that it is possible that there is a god, it's just that he sees no good reason for believing it himself. He doesn't really come out and say that everybody else is wrong, but instead asks everybody if they've ever considered the possibility that they might be wrong. He seems to be all for religion in people, so long as it be a humble religion that doesn't impose their beliefs uncritically on other people.

It has amused me to see some religious bloggers pull some quotes from his book out of context to show how antagonistic he is toward religion, but such quotes only serve thier purpose when ignoring the numerous qualifications which he also mentions in his book. Of course this is not to suggest that he is at all "pro-religion".

chris g said...

Thanks for the insight. Hopeful it can dispel some of the myths and mischaracterizations that go about.

I guess the overlap of humilty is the point to build on. And you are right, few people on any side ever truly consider the possibility that they are wrong. Like Dennet, whether one considers god necessary or unecessary, memes necessary or unenecessary, to my mind depends a fair bit on what one plans to do with each idea. For me, I see religion as a good tool tool to create such humilty (although fundamentalists certainly do abuse it). Others see science as a work around whose structure ultimately provides humilty. I guess in part it depends if one is looking for answers or a change in the way one looks at answers.

jeff g said...

I should also point out that Dennett's use of the meme actually has a reason behind it: it allows for the spread of religion without it having to contribute any kind of evolutionary fitness to the people who adopt it at all. While the book wasn't very explicit on this point, if I remember correctly, his oral presentations which I have listened to have made a main point out of this. Whether memetics is valid in any form at all, it would be awful nice if something along it lines could lighten the load which people are trying to get the "God-gene" idea to carry.

chris g said...

In the past I have probably expressed my ideas about religion that way. In relation to the god-gene idea, there seems to be a couple of ways I can think to look at it.

1. There is something physical that makes spirituality a sense like any other. This "god-gene" is expressed in the population according to a normal distribution. Some have it in abundance others don't. Seems to explain why religion is common, and why degrees of belief vary. Problematic because the evolution of such a gene is not necessary, and can be viewed as not having accomplished anything concrete. In effect, there are easier less convoluted answers that seem to work quite well.

2. Divine belief is a spandrel. It tags along with other more evolutionary favorable things like social structures, abstract thought, organizational tendencies, agent detection systems, etc. This seems to be compatible with Dennet's view of religion as a meme. It is also compatible with a religious idea of a fairly practical god - use the structures you have, limited direct involvement because of time constraints. This religious view also seems to value processes of becoming over absolute answers. The disadvantage of the spandrel view is, for now, proofs amount to hand waving. Dennet's meme is religion's god. Both arguments are largely equivalent, however because of modern context, the meme view is favored. (Certainly this is highly debatable, but this is where I think the question is)

3. There is no god-gene or biological disposition for religious thought. Religion is abstract thought put to unwarranted uses. Organized religion is successful because it is the ultimate pyramid scheme. According to this idea, religion continuously creeps up in every civilization because it is a successful strategy. It is less of a meme and more a thought based virus (although one could think of it as a very basic meme that is built upon few if any preceding contexts. The social milieu necessary for its development is handled entirely by people's standard biological conditions. This idea may be based on meme transmission which may or may not be accurate). I wouldn't be surprised if Dennet's ideas fit here better than in #2. WIth this idea one runs into the same type of problems one gets with probiotics. Is their symbiosis good or bad? Should we expel them, if they are not "natural". WIth social tendencies what they are, this perspective's equilibirum point is probably going to be rather unstable. It certainly could be for educated well thought out people, but not too many people get nuances, and as a population we tend to one extreme or another which colours everyone's take. Another potential problem with this perspective is quite a few biological tendencies can be viewed as thought based viruses. Which is correct?