Saturday, January 05, 2008

E2.0: Daniel Dennett: "But What If It's True?"

This is the seventh in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

Because Daniel Dennett discussed two topics, both of which are worth our full attention, I am going to be discussing his presentation in two posts. One of those two topics was the thesis that there is something morally objectionable in the tone of atheist writings – independent of their content. The other topic (which I will discuss next week) was the thesis that we should require that the school system teach children about all of the major religion – that there be a ‘religious studies’ requirement in our schools, so that a child graduates knowing the basics of Christianity, Islam, and the rest.

Actually, Dennett discusses a third topic that I want to cover – but that third topic is a criticism of the views of David Sloan Wilson, who will speak after Dennett. I will discuss Dennett’s criticism of Wilson’s view at that time.

The Tone of the Anti-Theist Writers

From the time that the very first of the anti-theist books hit the bookshelves, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, people have been complaining about the tone. That complaint carried through to the other books that came out on the same subject – Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Hutchins’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and back to Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation.

I have covered this topic a number of times in my blog. See, for example, Polite Atheists, Defending Real World Harms for Imaginary Reasons, and Moral Outrage.

In those essays, I made substantially the same point that Dennett made in his presentation.

There is no polite way to say, ‘With all 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?’

In my writing, I focus on the ‘dangerous’ component. I have argued that the proposition, “At least one God exists,” is morally neutral in that believing this proposition tells a person absolutely nothing about how he should treat others. My problem is with the propositions found in religion that guide a person into acting in ways harmful to the interests, and even to the lives, of others.

In this, I have also argued that the most dangerous weapon of mass destruction is legislation. Religious beliefs have inspired whole armies of people in the United States and elsewhere to set of legislative ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that do significant damage to the life, health, and well-being of others.

In fact, in the United States, religious propositions are used to justify the expenditure of whole fortunes and whole lives to projects devoted to doing harm to others.

I have denied that religion is the cause of this harm. People do not adopt the positions they hold because of scripture – there are too many inconsistencies between scripture and people’s moral beliefs for this. They are not killing people who violate the Sabbath or who charge interest on loans. The process actually works the other way. The individual first adopts an interest in policies harmful to others. He then reads those policies into scripture – giving scripture an interpretation that can shield him from the guilt that he should feel for behavior that subjects others to unjustified and undeserved harm.

However, all of this is consistent with the fact that scripture and religious institutions are heavily used in this country and elsewhere to shield behavior harmful to others. To the degree that there is reason to cause that behavior to stop (and everywhere there is harm, there is reason to cause the harmful behavior to stop), to that degree we have reason to tear down the defenses that those who engage in harmful behavior use to ‘rationalize’ those harms.

Quite possibly, those people who are intent to do harm, if the prospect of using scripture and religious tradition to defend that harm comes to be condemned as it should, will retreat to some secular justification. In fact, they can be expected to grasp at whatever straw they can find to give their harmful behavior the illusion of legitimacy (and there is no more tempting source of legitimacy than to say, ‘God told me to do it’). Those defenses will have to be stripped away as well, in turn.

Dennett’s point is that there is no polite way to say, “You are engaged in a pattern of behavior that deprives others of life, health, and well-being and you are using scripture and religious tradition to wrap your harmful behavior in an illusion of legitimacy.”

If there is no polite way to say this then the only way to be polite is to not say this.

Here, Dennett responds:

But what if it’s true?

Well, it is true. Or, more precisely, there is substantial reason to believe that it is true.

However, even if it is not certain, even if it is a mere possibility, it is morally irresponsible not to investigate that possibility. It is morally irresponsible for a person to turn his back when the question comes up, “Would you please consider the possibility that you are doing harm?”

We cannot say such things politely. So, the next option to consider is that we should not say such things at all.

Dennett looks at three arguments in support of the claim, “We should not tell people that they are engaged in these patterns of behavior harmful to others founded on false beliefs.”

Reason 1: Because religion is a good and irreplaceable thing. It’s fragile. It’s valuable. Don’t be a vandal.

Reason 2: Because although religion is not so good, pointing this out is too cruel.

Reason 3: Because although religion is not so good, pointing this out is . . . too dangerous.

The ‘Religion is Good’ Argument

I would like to pause a moment and note that Dennett shows the true virtue of a philosophical thinker here. Before he criticizes a position, he does his best to present it in its strongest form. To show the ‘good’ of religion, Dennett postulates a war between a gold army and a silver army.

The gold soldiers believe that God is on their side, that God will answer their prayers, that if they die they will go to heaven and be rewarded by God. The silver soldiers are well-informed and highly trained economists. They are taking out insurance policies, laying out side bets, they’re doing . . . very well informed cost-benefit analysis, they’ve got exit strategies both personal and by group.

Dennett suggests that the Gold army would probably be the better army to have in such a battle – that they would likely defeat the silver army. This, I take it, is an analogy for saying that religious groups can accomplish more than non-religious groups.

There may be evidence for this in recent history. The success of religious groups in taking over the government and influencing policy may, perhaps, be explained by the fact that they represent a ‘gold’ political army, confronting a ‘silver’ secular army with their side bets, exit strategies, who, to put it bluntly, refuse to accept the risks associated with standing up to the ‘gold’ army.

Dennett says that trying to preserve this ‘gold’ army comes with a cost. A part of that cost is dishonesty. This is an answer that I have already discussed in the post “Does Religion Make One a Better Ruler?” The fact is, we need true beliefs in order to accurately explain and predict what happens in the world, and a lack of respect for true beliefs is a great source of trouble in the world.

Our political and social debate in this country is contaminated to the core with deception, sophistry, and hypocrisy. We are all far worse off because of it. The only way to reverse this trend is to restore some respect to truth and reason. We cannot do this by advocating myth and superstition, or by claiming that the advocates of myth and superstition have a special right not to be challenged.

Cruelty and Dangerousness

The claim that it is “too cruel” or “too dangerous” to tell people that they are using scripture to give an illusion of legitimacy to behavior harmful to others is the easiest to answer.

It is even more cruel to the victims of this behavior – those made to suffer the loss of life, health, and liberty – to allow this type of behavior to go unchallenged. The innocent people who are killed in religious wars, the minorities who are made to suffer everywhere where religion dominates public policy, the loss of medical breakthroughs and prohibition on social practices that could cure or treat disease and keep people alive – these things are cruel.

It is even more dangerous to allow the practice of engaging in behavior harmful to others and giving it an illusion of legitimacy by appeal to scripture to continue.

The challenges leveled against behavior harmful to others given an illusion of legitimacy by appeal to scripture is precisely the opposite of ‘cruel’ and ‘dangerous’.


There is, in fact, no polite way to tell people, “You are engaged in behavior harmful to others and using scripture and religious tradition to give your harmful behavior an illusion of legitimacy.” Either we must be impolite, or we must decide that we are not going to challenge this type of behavior.

The decision to be polite is, in fact, even more cruel and dangerous. It ignores the victims of behavior harmful to others, and legitimizes the practice of defending behavior harmful to others by appeal to myth and superstition. We are not made better off by refusing to challenge these practices. We are made worse off. We end up being surrounded by even more behavior harmful to others, and a culture that promotes the use of deception, sophistry, and hypocrisy in defense of doing harm to others.

When confronted with the claim that one's statements are impolite, let's not respond by getting into a discussion of the merits and demerits of politeness. Just, stop the person and ask, "Am I wrong? I'm saying that these people are harming others and giving their behavior an illusion of legitimacy by using scripture. You say I am being impolite. I ask you, 'Am I wrong?'"

Standard disclaimer: I do object to some of the things that the anti-theists say. However, it is not because those claims are 'impolite'. It is because those claims are false. The permission to be impolite that I discuss in this post applies only to a permission to make true accusations. Also, please keep in mind that the only legitimate response to words are words and private actions, and the only legitimate response to a political campaign is a counter-campaign in a free society.


martino said...

Great Review! And very good insight into dissecting and responding to Dennett's arguments.

Atheist Observer said...

I have no issues with this post, but must admit one thing jumped out at me in relation to yesterday’s post. You mention in today’s post, “the true virtue of a philosophical thinker …who before he criticizes a position, does his best to present it in its strongest form.”
Do you honestly believe yesterday you presented happiness theory in its strongest form? It seems to me you chose a very weak and narrow interpretation of it to lead readers to think it would make predictions obviously false.
I am not an adherent or an expert on the theory, but even a little basic psychology tells me it would predict some people would answer “no” to the pleasure machine question.
If you are truly interested in intellectual honesty, you would at least acknowledge how realistic happiness theories address behaviors that appear to contradict them.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

One trick for defending a claim is to streatch the meaning of the terms until they become so broad that there is no possibility of an exception.

Does God exist?

This depends on what you mean by 'God'. One of the ways that people try to defend the existence of God is to broaden the term. "God is love" or "God is that which makes all things possible."

One of the ways to defend happiness theory is to expand the concept of 'happiness' so that it means, "That which gives all things value."

But, the concept is to broad to be useful. It does not rule anything out.

Happiness is a brain state. Whatever happiness is, it is created by putting the brain in a particular configuration. It is independent of the outside world. Once a person is 'happy' you can take his brain and put it in whatever type of environment you want and he remains 'happy' so long as the internal state is not disburbed.

Desire fulfillment theory relates to the outside world. You cannot take a brain and put it in a different environment and have it be the case that the agent's desires are still fulfilled.

Atheist Observer said...

The only thing we know as humans are “brain states.” We have no way to climb out of our brains to get to what’s “out there.” Therefore we can only be motivated by brain states. They are the only motivational entities that exist.
The only difference between what you are asserting about desire utilitarianism and happiness theory is that happiness theory claims a single motivational mechanism lies behind all our desires. You claim one does not.
Just as you often use linguistic shorthand that doesn’t fully explain your position, you must admit “happiness” in any serious theory must defined along the lines of a chemical, electrical, and neurological brain state with a subjective effect of a sense of well-being and satisfaction. It is entirely consistent and virtually inevitable for any human in the real world to have satisfaction tied to events or experiences derived from the real world.
You insist you have desires that are not happiness or satisfaction related. Fine. Why do you have them? Where did they come from and how were they acquired?
Unless you have a plausible explanation for the motivation behind these desires it would seem you suggest they just pop into existence for no reason. To me that indicates at best an incomplete, if not flawed, theory.

Eneasz said...

Forgive me if I'm missing something, but it seems to me this argument is almost pointless. As far as I can tell, Alonzo is saying

"We act to fulfill our desires."

and AO is saying

"We act to fulfill our desires (because it makes us happy)."

There's practically no difference between them. AO's version may be slightly more complete, but I'm pretty sure Alonzo's version implies the same idea. If anything, I'd prefer to drop "because it makes us happy" due to the fact that this can easily be confused by the casual listener (ie: just about everyone) as the sugar-high version of happiness as opposed to the long-enduring-sense-of-satisfaction version of happiness.

Most people, when they think of an altruist leading a life of hard work and deprivation to help the impoverished, would doubt or reject an assertion that this is a behavior to maximize personal happiness (even if it's true technically). The assertion that this is a behavior of maximizing personal desire-fulfillment seems more plausible intuitively - since desire != happiness in common usage - even if they're the same thing on a technical level.