Friday, May 18, 2007

Daniel Dennett: Thank Goodness

Daniel Dennett was invited to give a presentation at the Beyond Belief 2006 conference, and had accepted. However, at the time of the conference he was in the hospital recovering from a near fatal heart ailment. Paul Churchland was invited to speak in his place. In addition to Churchland’s own presentation on John Rawls’ theory of justice, he read a letter that Dennett had written to the attendees at the conference.

Dennett wrote the letter to ‘thank goodness’ that he was alive. Then he went on to say that this was not just a euphemism for ‘thank God’. He truly meant ‘thank goodness’. In his stay at the hospital, he had found a model of morality – a model of virtue – a model of goodness – that he could truly thank for the fact that he was alive.

An important part of that model of goodness was the fact that hospital staff members were constantly asking themselves, “What if I am wrong?” They recognized a duty to be careful about everything that they did, to make sure that they made no mistakes. He emphasized that this did not only apply to the doctors and nurses who cared for him. It also applied to those who prepared his meals, those who wheeled him to X-ray, and everybody who worked at the hospital. They all recognized (or, they would be severely reprimanded if they neglected to recognize) a duty to ask, “What if I am wrong.”

Furthermore, nobody in the hospital was allowed to obtain any level of certainty from scripture and divine guidance. No doctor was allowed to walk into a patient’s room and begin treatment, claiming that he had received a revelation from God that this was ‘the right thing to do’. Instead, he was to gather the evidence (symptoms), conduct tests, form a theory, test the theory, and use the results of this scientific method to determine what was wrong and how best to fix it.

In Dennett’s case, the original diagnosis of his problem was mistaken. Doctors looked at his symptoms and offered an initial theory as to what the problem was. However, one doctor disagreed with that theory. He offered another theory, and he proposed a way to test it. “If I am correct, then this test would produce the following results.” They conducted the test, it produced the results he expected, and they treated him (to 9 hours of surgery during which time they stopped his heart and chilled him to 45 degrees to prevent brain damage) according to the new theory.

Here is a question that needs answering. Where did doctors learn that by chilling a body to 45 degrees they can prevent brain damage? Did they go through scripture hunting for the correct interpretation of the many pages of instructions on how to deal with illness and injury? As a matter of fact, scripture tends to be missing a great deal of knowledge about how to treat illness and injury that an all knowing God could certainly have provided – if he cared to do so. Instead, the scientists relied on their scientific method.

I had an experience much similar to Daniel Dennett, which I wrote about in much the same way. I returned home from work one night to find my wife substantially unresponsive. She would look at me, but did not answer my questions. I called 911, she spent 9 days in intensive care, and left the hospital with a brand new pacemaker.

I discussed these events in a posting called, “Atheist Materialist Scientist”. I did not turn to God to save her life – because there was no God who could do so. Her survival depended on her doctors having a competent understanding of the facts discovered through the application of ‘atheist materialist science’, that taught them how the human body works and how to fix it. That is who I thank for her survival. And, today, one can hardly tell that she had been in the hospital. The two most obvious symptoms that she has from her illness is a scar on her chest (for the pacemaker) and a tendency to take better care of herself (exercise, diet, etc.).

I returned to this subject in a subsequent essay that had become one of my most popular, an essay called, “Faith Hospital”

Dennett next took up the question of whether he ‘worships’ medical science. He says ‘no’. Quite the opposite, he advocated that every aspect of medicine continue to be held up to utmost scrutiny against an ever growing body of evidence. In thanking goodness, a part of the goodness that he thanked was the peer-reviewed science of medicine.

He thanked the editors and reviewers of those journals who upheld a moral standard that actually prohibited them from ‘respecting’ all positions (and, in particular, positions grounded on faith). Instead, they had an obligation to disrespect and to dismiss all submissions that was not well secured by available evidence.

He also commented about religious friends who had told him that they had prayed for his recovery. At first, he expressed gratitude – the person who gives a prayer for the well-being of another person does, after all, press an interest that the other person was well.

Or does he?

Upon reflection, Dennett suggested that there might be something morally problematic with praying for somebody.

If you truly wish somebody to do well, then would it not be better to take the time and resources devoted to prayer and devote them to doing something that is actually useful? There has been medical research done on the effects of prayer, with the findings showing that the prayer is utterly worthless. A person who foregoes something useful for the sake of doing something useless (or, even worse, provides only the person giving the prayer with a pleasing jolt of self-satisfaction without doing anything to help the patient) hardly qualifies as a model of moral virtue.

Dennett applies this model of moral virtue to those who would pray for him, and he invites them to ask, “What if I am wrong?” – particularly in the face of medical evidence that says that they are wrong.

If a doctor insisted on using a medical procedure that evidence showed to be ineffective, the doctor would risk censure by the medical community and possibly a loss of license (if he persisted).

I suspect that even those who pray for a friend or family member in the hospital do so only after they have provided necessary real-world assistance, or during a few minutes that their mind is free. As such, they are not taking away from the real-world help they can provide. There are exceptions – including those who insist on a witch-doctor’s remedy over that of a physician trained in the medical sciences. However, I wish to leave those aside as a special case.

A person is not required to spend all of his time doing something useful. We have some moral permission spending our time relaxing – watching television, listening to music, attending and/or participating in some sort of performance (e.g., a religious performance at a church). So, the accusation that somebody who prays is not doing something useful is a weak objection, equally applicable to somebody who still takes time to watch his favorite TV show while his friend is in the hospital.

I admit, while my wife was in the hospital, I wasted some time playing computer games and watching television, and I feel no guilt over it.

The story changes for somebody who engages in activities that are actually harmful to the institution that is providing this life-preserving aid. There is, in fact, a moral and intellectual standard required in hospital care – a standard that demands evidence-based thinking and constant questioning of one’s beliefs.

Activities that weaken those standards – that preach against evidence-based thinking or that block access to medical care for religious reasons – are not harmless activities. They are cases where a person’s religion drives him to do harm to others, uncomfortably similar in effect to that of a person who straps on a vest of explosives and detonates it in God’s name.

The standards and practices of medical science that Dennett writes about do, indeed, embrace a moral standard, a ‘goodness’, that Dennett (and I) both have reason to thank. Thank goodness we have an institution that puts these standards to work. They provide us with extremely important life-saving goods, and we have many and good ‘reasons for action’ to see these standards encouraged, rather than denigrated and degraded in ways that we find in some religious traditions.


olvlzl said...

Upon reflection, Dennett suggested that there might be something morally problematic with praying for somebody.

I wrote a long piece about those phony "prayer studies" and came to the conclusion that unless someone was puting off treatment or being cheated of their money that their praying was their business and scientistic positivists should leave them alone.

How do you know it wasn't helpful in at least one case? There is no way to use sience to demonstrate that it could or couldn't be. How do you know that someone who reads this post and doesn't do whatever they concieve of as "prayer" (an entirely undefinable term and infintely varied behavior) couldn't be harmed by it? The fact is, none of us knows. I don't understand why "I don't know" is so hard for some atheists to say and mean it.

Maybe Dennett was harmed by his struggle to find negative things to say about religious believers during his experience. I don't know AND it is none of my business what he thinks on his own time. Though, given his epic impracticality, I'd like him to continue doing his Bright thinking in public.

Hume's Ghost said...

In one respect "I'll pray for you" can be beneficial. It's equivalent to saying, "I care about your well-being and hope that you get better."

The offering of social support is what is of benefit in this instance, and you've already addressed that it's unlikely that the actual physical act of prayer is going to take away from time that the person could be doing something to help the individual.

Anonymous said...

where does Dennett get this idea of "morally problematic?" How can there be any "morals" if life is nothing more than a chance occurance and our brain is a bunch of chemical reactions. It would be an opinion; not a moral. No one can say Hitler is better than Mother Theresa if this is true.