Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Dan Dennett

Fri 18th Mar 11


I met Dan Dennett in January. He came to Dublin to speak on the theme ‘Taking the place of religion’. A crowd of maybe four hundred turned up at some expense, and he had a warm reception. He spoke for an hour and took questions for another hour. At the question time only one speaker introduced himself as ‘a believer’, and he then admitted he hadn’t heard the talk, he had come in late just to put his question. I can’t remember what it was, but he must have been disappointed by the mild answer he got.

I like Dennett’s writing, particularly his books ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ and ‘Freedom Evolves’. Although he is a professor of philosophy he refuses to write in jargon.

I wrote him an email last year thanking him for his elegant unravelling of the free-will problem. The puzzle is this:

Do we have free will, or is everything that happens completely determined?

An example of determinism is the rubber balls bouncing around in a lotto machine. Each ball can only go where physics dictates, according to its individual elasticity and the forces it meets. None of this is random; quantum indeterminacy (or any spontaneous quirk at all) is irrelevant; all that is required is that the bouncing is sufficiently complex to make the order the balls will end up in unpredictable in practice.

So the answer? Yes, we have free will in the sense that we can and do choose things with great discrimination, but also yes, everything that happens (including our choices!) is completely determined by what went before.

It’s a false dichotomy; we are freer than rubber balls because we have greatly superior elasticity, and respond to subtler forces. If you don’t find my description convincing, read the book.

Or just read this, which puts it more succinctly:

(An illustration I stumbled upon)

He replied to my email, thanking me for my poem, and also to another one I sent after booking for his Dublin event. Michael and I arrived very early for the talk, to get the best seats, and there was Dan having his cup of tea, so I sat next to him and we discussed Nabokov, an author we both admire. Very approachable and benign, he is a dead ringer for Santa Claus, even more than I am myself.

The talk was interesting and very well presented, though virtually all of the content was familiar from his books, particularly ‘Breaking the Spell’. His new book comes out this month, dealing with humour. Not sure how I’ll like that; it’s OK to go dissecting religion, but humour? We’ll see.

If there was a slightly anodyne feeling by the end, perhaps it is accounted for by Dennett’s own self-description. “Religious people prefer dealing with Dawkins” he said. “I approach them with Marquess of Queensberry rules and [mimics dodging and sparring] while Dawkins just goes [piledriver punch] and they like that better!”

It seems to me that the question of what will replace religion if (as he hopes) it is indeed on its way out is hardly one that a single person or group can have within their competence; they can only hope the butterfly-wing effect picks them up and amplifies their movement. It seems likely that religion will go on being replaced by more religion; as Wittgenstein said,

All that philosophy can do is to destroy idols. And that means not making any new ones—say out of the ‘absence of idols’

—but it seems to be a strong instinct in humans to replace rather than simply ditch such things. Religions have very strong anti-trampling routines built in; they seem to thrive well under oppression. Pruning toughens them up. One ploy the defenders of religions use is to assert that atheism is a religion. I took part in a discussion on h2g2 that invited endings to the sentence “If atheism is a religion then . . .” My best ending was “vegetarians just eat different animals”.

Meditation is fine without belief, as an exercise in aligning yourself—tuning to the music of what happens. Prayer is like a bicycle helmet: it’s OK to wear one, but not a good idea to believe it will save you. But Dennett specifically does not address revisions of religion; his beef is with those who revise while pretending that they are preserving the original model, such as Pastor Rick Warren.

Anyway, despite its excellence, I’m sure Dennett would be the first to admit that his idea—that TED could provide a focus for some of the good bits of religious practice, the parts that are worth preserving—is a wee bit, how should I put it, aspirational.

Epicurus

Wed 30th Dec 09

Malachy gave me a perfect holiday book: The QI Book of the Dead, a collection of facts and scandal about historical persons. I love the portrait of Epicurus, and the big-minded Ben Franklin.

Epicurus, the book tells us, has the reputation ‘as the high priest of high living and sensuous pleasure, the philosopher of the debauchee and the gourmand. Except that he wasn’t. So far from indulging in orgies and banquets, Epicurus lived on barley bread and fruit, with cheese as a special treat only on feast days. … But Epicurus had the misfortune to live in the highly competitive golden age of Greek philosophy, where he found himself up against the Academy founded by Plato, and the porch (stoa) of the Stoics: both articulate and well-organised opponents. The mud they slung at him over two millennia ago has stuck firm.’

Which deserves to be preserved in an epigram:

To have a bad reputation is to have influential enemies.

A Christmas thought: if the Magi saw and followed ‘a star in the east’ then they came from the west. They may have been from a sect of Platonists disenchanted with the way the Academy’s teaching had descended into nihilism—

I went to university
Studied Greek philosophy
And all that it taught me was there’s nothing to know
But that knowing you know nothing, well that’s knowing something too.

In my fantasy these wise men came east looking for a newborn child to take on the mantle of Socrates, a moral model and innocent victim condemned to death by the state he sought to reform. Socrates (as reported by Plato) had improved on previous moral teachers by urging kindness to enemies simply because treating everyone positively is the right thing to do—something Jesus certainly passed on. The Proverbs of Solomon had said that doing good to your enemy will ‘heap coals of fire upon his head’, and this vengeful prospect was reiterated some centuries after Socrates by a professed Christian (Romans 12:20). Perhaps St Paul didn’t quite get the message.

Hence my take on Christianity and Christmas:

He doesn’t really go with Christmas trees,
This younger, more attractive Socrates—
A sobering memento hung on wood:
See, children, what you get for being good.

I had what may best be called an Epicurean thought (I saw it then as more like Diogenes, another philosopher with influential enemies who have given his school, the Cynics, an even worse name than the Epicureans) on one of my long cycles with Michael. I was approaching the age of sixty and wanted to prepare myself for old age: what should my priorities be? I came up with:

Be less
Do less
Have less
Get out more

My new year’s resolution.

Theology as entertainment

Mon 23rd Nov 09

One of my current favourite books is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700. I’m on a second read through, having got about half way last year before losing the plot. It is complicated and full of characters, but brilliantly written, and the history is often stranger than fiction.

I see he has a new book out now, a history of Christianity published to coincide with his BBC4 series. Tempted to get it despite its thousand pages. Two reviews I’ve read are tantalising enough: the Irish Times reviewer (a Maynooth professor) loved it but regretted MacCulloch’s description of Christianity as ‘a personality cult’, while the Telegraph TV reviewer found the whole enterprise much too PC. MacCulloch’s response to him was “I think the term ‘political correctness’ was invented to describe what’s essentially showing politeness towards other people’s feelings” to which I say hear hear.

I can’t really explain my interest in theology, the pursuit of certain error. Of all my family I was the one most likely to find myself drawn to a church career. A hundred years earlier, or even fifty, I could have gone that way. My nearest relation in the clergy was Uncle Tom, but I didn’t want to be like him. I preferred the shambolic but credible Billy Wynne who was our rector in Monkstown; as an old man he told me he was ‘a Christian agnostic’. My Dad would have been sympathetic to that. I feel he would also be sympathetic to the person famously quoted by Disraeli:

“Sensible men are all of the same religion.”
“Pray, what is that?”
“Sensible men never tell.”

There is a very good reason for not telling. It would be most flattering to be asked for one’s theological views, except of course by an Inquisition. But apart from the entertainment of conversation, the only reason for consulting another’s beliefs is either to flatter or to exploit them. Unless the interviewee is in a position of command, one can gain little from sitting through an exposition of their articles of faith. It is like their health, equally fascinating to the speaker and boring to the listener.

Studying philosophy in TCD in the sixties, I was very taken by Berkeley. He seems to have been the first to note that

The grand mistake is that we think we have Ideas of the Operations of our Minds.
certainly this Metaphorical dress is an argument we have not

In a nutshell! That would knock all theology on the head, it seems to me. Not only can we not know the universal mind, we can’t even expect to perceive (the workings of) our own minds, since everything that is perceived is in a category (Berkeley called it Ideas) that does not include the perceiver. Of course later in life Berkeley became a bishop and started saying the things bishops say; the quote from his notebook above was written about the age of twenty-two. I was sad to see the egregious theology he committed towards the end of his last book Siris, but there you go. He was only human, and that was then. I still regard Berkeley highly; I wrote a short appreciative article on him for the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Earth edition).

Urim and Thummim

Sat 13th Dec 08

About twenty years ago, in my forties, I read through the Bible. It made great sense—the history of the rise and fall of a great nation. The last part didn’t seem to belong at all; crossing from Old Testament to New Testament was a severe culture shock.

I was—am—fascinated by oddities, like the dress code for priests (linen drawers compulsory) and the forms for offering meat sacrifices: what is the difference between a wave offering and a heave offering?

One piece of priestly dress code was a pocket for the Urim and Thummim. Like most things, these were mentioned without explanation, but all I could read up suggested that they were stones used for divination. That makes religion simple enough to comprehend; the will of God is found by the properly chosen and anointed person throwing the holy dice. The Tibetan Buddhists have their equivalent if more colourful procedure: a chosen person interprets  another chosen person’s trance-induced ramblings.

Curiously, there is no certainty about the exact form of the Urim and Thummim. They seem to have been lost, or their use died out, during the captivity in Babylon, 2500 years ago.

Like everything else, religions, even the longest-lasting and apparently most monolithic,  change over time. Judaism itself appears in the Bible as the reformation of previous religious institutions, through several stages.


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