Is it just me, or is Daniel Dennett becoming a crotchety old fart? First he signs on for that dead-end campaign to rename atheists "Brights," which may have been the most obnoxiously flaky lost cause since metric time. Then, in the course of stumping for his new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, disbelieving Dan files this testy exchange with The New York Times Magazine.
Interviewer: I take it you do not subscribe to the idea of an everlasting soul, which is part of almost every religion.
Dennett: Ugh. I certainly don’t believe in the soul as an enduring entity. Our brains are made of neurons, and nothing else. Nerve cells are very complicated mechanical systems. You take enough of those, and you put them together, and you get a soul.
Interviewer: That strikes me as a very reductive and uninteresting approach to religious feeling.
Dennett: Love can be studied scientifically, too.
Interviewer: But what’s the point of that? Wouldn’t it be more worthwhile to spend your time and research money looking for a cure for AIDS?
Dennett: How about if we study hatred and fear? Don’t you think that would be worthwhile?
Ugh, indeed. It’s almost as though the famed philosopher of deep Darwinism couldn’t be bothered with the
interviewer’s perfectly reasonable (if predictable) questions on the
very subject of his purported expertise.
Maybe he was just having a bad day. And I suppose Dennett’s air of glib dismissiveness may read as "refreshing" among a certain segment of his already convinced audience. Yet I can’t help being reminded of the caricature of neuroscientific determinism from Tom Wolfe’s entertaining essay, "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died":
I have heard neuroscientists theorize that, given computers of sufficient power and sophistication, it would be possible to predict the course of any human being’s life moment by moment, including the fact that the poor devil was about to shake his head over the very idea.
In the former exchange, Derbyshire serves up an engaging analogy to delineate the epistemological parameters of scientific inquiry:
…yes, material causes only are admitted in science, because
science is the attempt to find material explanations for observed
phenomena. Likewise, only hollow balls 2.5 inches in diameter are
allowed in tennis, because tennis is a contest played with 2.5 inch
diameter hollow balls. Whether other kinds of balls exist is a matter
of opinion among tennis players and fans, I suppose; though if a
player were to come on court and attempt to serve a basketball across
the net, the rest of us would walk away in disgust.
Which, I hope and suspect, is the sort of caveat that a scientifically curious laity would be better served to understand, especially with all this tiresome ID flummery still making the rounds.
As it happens, I tend to agree, at least in theory, with Dennett’s materialist-to-the-core
account of even the most ineffable and deeply-felt pseudo-spiritual
pining, and despite my grumbling, I remain something of a fan. Dennett’s studies on the vagaries of consciousness are out of my depth, but Darwin’s Dangerous Idea was a hoot, and I like to point out that Dennett — along with Peter Singer, Richard Rorty and David Stove — ranks among the few contemporary philosophers who can be read and understood without the benefit of an academic background, which, in case you’re wondering, is a compliment.
Still, with high stature public intellectuals in precipitous decline, it seems reasonable that we might expect a little more from one of the best. So while I’m sure I’ll look into Dennett’s disquisition on the god goblins once it hits the remainder bin, for now a little Derb will do.