Saturday, 29 December 2007

BB2: Teach the four Rs, the fourth being religion! :Daniel Dennett

[This is talk 5, session 1 of 2, on the first day of the The Science Network's Beyond Belief Enlightenment 2.0 conference. An introduction and list of all reviews can be found at BB2: Enlightenment 2.0 Introduction]

Following Donald Rutherford's talk, we have Daniel C. Dennett, philosopher of cognitive science; the author of Breaking the Spell and many other books; and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. His main theme is that we need to teach the facts of religion, to defend against the future dangerous excesses of it!

He starts by picking up the reaction to last years conference with the then popular phrase that "I am an atheist but...". This relates primarily the books by "the four horsemen of the apocalypse" - Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and himself - and that one common critical comment was that they are all "abrasive, insulting, offensive". Lets look at this claim. A specific critique of his own "Breaking the Spell" was by fellow researcher Richard Sosis, who fears that this book may do more harm than good since religious people who read will it "look on us [researchers on religion] with even greater distrust than they did before" because they will find the tone of Dennett's book "insulting" and its arguments "unnecessarily belittling". His response is that religious correspondents "distrust" of such research and the researchers may well be due "to the recognition of the insincerity of the respect they are paid". He clarifies this point over "insincerity" with an aphorism
"if you have to lie to get your data you are not doing science you are doing espionage"
How does one deal with it? I am not sure I agree that one is either doing espionage or science, even as Dennett states that "he is all for espionage", as that is sometimes it necessary to get the data however one can - I agree and would add that provided the data is internally untainted it is still valid data, then it is still science. He adds to this theme of the "murky territory between diplomacy and dishonesty" by the 'argument from impoliteness', one might call it. All four horsemen are impolite and Dennett responds, correctly in my view, that there is no polite way to say:
"with due respect, sir, have you considered the possibility that you have blighted your whole life with a fantasy and are polluting the minds of defenseless children with dangerous nonsense".
Still what if it is true? Should you button your lip or break the spell? There are a few answers which saying no to breaking this spell - from religion is a good and irreplaceable thing to this being too cruel or too dangerous. Dennett correctly points out that many believe the latter "it is too dangerous" but, slyly, argue for the former "it is too cruel". We should certainly consider this issue ourselves. Now he omits to point what I think is both historically and still currently valid is that many, although certainly not all, religious writers and commentators are very often themselves rude, certainly in their criticism over their perceived opposition - atheists and the like. For example, anyone perusing editorials and opinion articles around the time of the last USA Presidential elections, would probably have been equally appalled, as I was, at the amount of deceit, slander, mis-representation, out of context quotes and bearing false witness against anyone who could be considered to have an enlightened worldview. Their impoliteness argument fails, as it really is the case of the pot calling the kettle black and it should be ignored for the sophistry that it is. On the other hand this is not a justification for being rude ourselves. Still there may be no sensitive way to avoid being perceived as "impolite" and indeed I think that Dennett did easily the best job of avoiding polemics and rudeness of all four horsemen with his book. Sometimes rudeness is in the eye of the beholder and I think Dennett out of all four could make a case for himself here.

Lets return to Dennett's talk, jumping over his amusing Gold versus Silver army metaphor, which concludes with the issue of do you send out an army to fight based on the delusion of believing in god - with the hidden cost of dishonesty? Can we or should we do better than that? Maybe leaders could have done this in the past, since they sincerely held the same beliefs but can anyone still do such a thing, without hypocrisy, since the 17th century? This reminds me of the famous Seneca, 2000 year old, quote that “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful. I do not think the 'argument from sincerity' is ever a sufficient basis to justify this whether before, during and since the 17th century. It is not enough to be sincere, one owes it to check the validity of one's beliefs before one acts - Blair and Bush's 45 minute WMD threat to justify invading Iraq springs to mind - the issue is not whether anyone believes that they acted sincerely on such a belief but that they used this principle at all when talking to Parliament, the Senate and Congress and their citizens.

Anyway he explores this question, as it applies to ourselves, by stating the minimal defining set of "shared presuppositions" that a modern enlightenment thinker could have:
Credo #1: The role of reason and scientific thinking should be expanded because it is by far the best set of methods for guiding our actions
Credo #2: Science is always skeptical. Scientists always ask "Could we be wrong?"
So could we be wrong about Credo #1? For sure, many religious people think so, and we can note that we know that they would avoid, at sometimes huge cost, challenging themselves in the same way. Unlike them, we can challenge ourselves this way. This is, in my view, a virtue of enlightenment thinking. Now I will add here that this
is certainly a good question but highlights what I think is misleading about credo #1. That is what we now call science is an umbrella term for what indeed are the best methods for guiding our actions. This emphasis is different, leading to subtly but importantly different Credos:
Credo #1a: Choose the best set of methods for guiding our actions and we have found these to be what we now label science and reason.
Credo #2a: Best is determined by always being skeptical. Always question these methods by asking "could they be wrong?"
This is makes explicit the value term"best" and makes it the focus of these credos. I think my representation is consistent with my worldview (versus content and application) level of examining the structure enlightenment and classical worldviews independently of content, with error correction versus error denial, respectively, as a, if not the, key distinguishing feature between these. In one way I have sort of defined away the question Dennett has asked, but this is not a rhetorical move, as reading the introductions and previous reviews one can see it is a consistent element of my conception of Enlightenment 2.0. Still one can still now ask how could anyone consider such a question with two points. The first is that we can recognize that not to ask it or to avoid and suppress, or worse, this question is a specific feature of classical worldviews, considered on the error denial 'dimension'. Secondly, we can ask this question but this then takes us from the worldview to the application level and this is where we are now.

Dennett then examines David Sloan Wilson's argument on this issue. Since he is the next speaker I will avoid giving the details here, allowing that this can be dealt better in reviewing his talk. The main thrust of his argument is that, to quote Wilson
" appears that factual knowledge is not always sufficient itself to motivate adaptive behavior. At times a symbolic belief system that departs from factual reality fares better".
This, Dennett holds, is an empirical claim but not one he is going to answer, but one he recommends should be explored. This empirical point is made clearer by Roy Rappaport, pointing out that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing since
"in a world where the processes governing its physical processes are in some degree unknown and in even larger degree unpredictable empirical knowledge of such processes cannot replace respect for the more or less mysterious integrity and it may be more adaptive - that is adaptively true - to drape such processes in supernatural veils than to expose them to the misunderstandings that may be encouraged by empirically accurate but incomplete naturalistic understanding"
Is this a naturalists apologia for justifying non-naturalistic claims? Is this a recommendation that one should lie, when it leads to adaptive behaviour? Dennett assert that lying, like espionage, is sometimes the best we can do. Still one should know what one is doing when lying. No argument here. Further we know too much today to rely on this practical (as opposed to factual) knowledge, better characterised as an "engine of hypocrisy". Can practical realism justify forcing atheist presidents to deny their atheism, as Dennett asserts has been the case in the USA? Can we really justify this dilemma over "practical realism" versus the "reality-based community" that we have today? Dennett returns to Wilson and his latest book, knowing that Wilson certainly prefers factual realism and wants to find a way to get there. Dennett investigates "Wilson's dilemma" - can we have a horizontal community "is anybody OUT there" without the glue or dependency on a vertical dimension "is anybody UP there?". Wilson's ideal is to get the practical realism of the horizontal at no cost of factual realism. Wilson does not know if this is possible and neither does Dennett.

He now gets to the central thrust of his talk with a tentative proposal to answer Wilson's dilemma. He acknowledges, reluctantly, that the "too cruel" and "too dangerous" points will inevitably upset adults whose emotional identities are set and so wants to focus on children by adding a fourth to the three Rs - Religion! Make it compulsory to teach the facts of all world religion in all schools public, private and home schools, to teach their history, creed, music, symbols, festivals, foods, ethical commands and prohibitions, teach the facts, with "no spin, no value judgment" . He does not care how well or badly this is taught - provided this does not incapacitate children's ability to learning from hatred - they still be tested on this anyway. Why? Because all religions have their toxic forms and these all "depend on enforced ignorance in their young". Denett supposes this curriculum will prevent these toxic forms from taking hold, leaving benign religion, if any, in its place. Examples of such horizontally powerful religions, absent of irrational, supernatural components already exist. Again we are quite in agreement on this.

Now who could object to this - the compusory teaching of the 4Rs in the USA? Thomas Nagel is one and he is prepared to write off the children in order to prevent a discussion of what the state can propose. I note that this is a USA specific constitutional issue. It is still relevant internationally since Dennett he wants the USA to set an example and without this how can they encourage the rest of the world - he uses the world of Islam as an example - to do the same thing, if the USA does not set its on house in order first? He finishes by noting some solutions in other countries, however imperfect, already exist such as "Religious Instruction" as part of the UK educational curriculum (incidentally created by Thomas Huxley). So we already have empirical data of how to develop this, and to learn from the errors of others.

Interestingly my ripostes to these latter points probably confirm to some extent, that however inadequately executed in the UK, such things as Religious Instruction maybe have worked. The question is how much of a factor this actually is for the state of affairs here, at least till recently. The idea that one needs a religious community to have a horizontal only community does not make much sense in the UK, since far far less than 10% of the population even regularly attend a place of worship. There are plenty of ways of finding a community, most of which are areligious. It has always struck me as a peculiar and mistaken myth that one needs religion to have a bond in a community and this probably comes from living in the UK, where the need for religious based communities in any real sense has been extremely rare, at least in the late 20th century.

Still I have two serious concerns. The first is the avoidance of dealing with the emotional upset to adults by using the "too cruel" and "too dangerous" arguments. We are talking about adults not emotionally immature teenagers, aren't we? The histrionics fallacy is a poor defense in critical reasoning in general, does it hold water here? I think Dennett means this in a far deeper fashion, specifically the "too dangerous" point. However if it is dangerous now, is there any indication that it will get less dangerous in the future? Certainly, the evidence points to the opposite conclusion, in the UK at least. Religious groups are getting more vocal, more assertive, more arrogant and, yes, there is an undercurrent of, often unstated, threats and mostly (thankfully) potential violence, and I find this is extremely disquieting. To be somewhat controversial, by making what I think is an obvious, although mostly unstated, observation by many, that "moderate" Muslim groups do not condemn sufficiently their toxic elements and have benefited in asserting their so-called "rights", knowing that such toxic elements are more likely to activated if they do not get their own way. Still they have only had a limited success and there are a few indications that the tide is turning as the UK Government drops their failed multi-culturalism, what I would call biased appeasement, policies. Further I mean this only as an illustrative example of what can happen with any religion, as indeed others have been getting more active recently as well. Like Dennett and other enlightened thinkers, once could observe that these policies and such types of religious actions are all against the unbiased freedom of and from religion and we should focus not on upholding the status quo using poor arguments from tradition but complete this project, for the benefit of everyone here in the UK.

Now returning directly to the compulsory teaching of the facts of religion in the USA, whilst not a constitutional expert, I am concerned about the the dangers of taking this path. It often appears, as an outsider, that the US constitution is too easily regarded and defended as a "sacred" document and, as odd as it seems, maybe, it should remain so? There is considerable momentum from the religious right to circumvent the constitution, and, in order for the Federal government to enact compulsory religious education, surely this presents another threat to the constitution, specifically the First Amendment? Can it survive attacks from both sides, so to speak, and who do you think will win the current climate? I do not know enough to pursue this further and this is where I turn again to the UK. It could serve as an example, and possibly an influence around Europe. Here we have to deal with a far greater influx and diversity of communities than pretty much anywhere else on the planet and this place is as good as any to solve this problem. One of my focuses is education in the UK and I have written recently in this topic. I totally endorse Dennett's ideas as a means of solving potential sectarian communication breakdown. Religious Instruction has been influenced recently by the British Humanist Association but more work needs to be done on the control and content of the religious curriculum and it is not yet a compulsory topic in schools. This is a policy all three of the political parties and to not make it a partisan issue, a small hope I know. They all should investigate this given an the election that will occur in the next couple of years. A good solution might not only benefit us but be an example to others, especially since maybe one that is too difficult, right now, for the USA to pursue? Lets get the UK and the USA to teach the Four Rs!