Philosopher Daniel Dennett On Religion, Gould and UFOs at Monsters & Critics


Philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Freedom Evolves, and most recently, Breaking the Spell, is interviewed by Dan Schneider over at Monsters & Critics. Wading through the overwrought, pretentious and often confused questions, there are some Dennettian gems to be mined from it. (In journalism, few things are more annoying than interviewers who think that they are more interesting than the people whose views they are allegedly soliciting.) I boil down a couple of the questions to their essentials and leave Dennett's answers in full.

On religion:

Q. I have to admit that the really religious-despite whatever blinders they wear, were FAR happier and focus on their lives than the anomic suburbanites or career-oriented MBAs:

DD: There is no doubt that many religions make many people happier than they otherwise would be. The same is true, as you say, of opium. Probably—I wonder if this research has been done—being an impassioned major league baseball team fan has similarly bracing effects. I find that scientists and philosophers seem to be happier than bankers and stockbrokers, by and large, but that's just anecdotal. I haven't done any careful studies. Several studies show that paraplegics are, in general, more satisfied and happy with their lives than people not confined to wheel chairs! This fascinating—and heartening—fact shows that some of our 'obvious' convictions about quality of life are just wrong. But I'm not going to start toasting to the future of my friends' children by wishing that they become paraplegics.

Q. I claim that, by that definition, all organized religion is fundamentally psychotic. Do you agree?

DD: There is definitely a similarity, but more interesting are the differences: most deeply religious people can be entirely effective and clearheaded agents on behalf of their curious beliefs. Nothing disorganized about their behavior.

On Dennett's falling out with Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.

A. Your views on the late Stephen Jay Gould.

DD: I see Gould quite differently. He was an academic bully, who exploited his scientific credentials to push his political views—or maybe they were closer to religious views. (Remember: I started out as a friend of his; I often attended his seminars at Harvard but eventually I got so annoyed with the way he would misrepresent his critics and bully the students that I had to leave.) When I wrote DDI, I knew I was going to have to expose Gould's history of misrepresentation—since he was going to hate my book, and would pillory it with his usual tricks if I didn't attempt to preempt that vilification effort with an analysis of his own work. Gould had been selling America a watered-down and distorted version of basic evolutionary theory for decades, and when I pointed this out, he reacted–not unreasonably!– with a venomous attack on what he called my "Darwinian fundamentalism," but, you know, the evolutionary biology community knew I was right, and said so. (I am not alone in incurring Gould's wrath: I'm proud to stand with Richard Dawkins, the late, great John Maynard Smith and Steve Pinker, as sane and forthright a team of "fundamentalists" as one could ask for.) Gould could never accept that natural selection is fundamentally a sorting algorithm, and kept hunting for some softening of that fact—limiting the role of natural selection itself, or elevating 'constraints' that would subdue it. He never found any worth keeping, but he tried hard. Punctuated equilibrium, the Cambrian explosion, and exaptation all turn out to be interesting wrinkles in orthodox ("ultra") neo-Darwinian theory, not challenges to it. And today we still have to face creationists (such as Senator Brownback) who think that Gould's punctuated equilibrium shows that the theory of evolution is not established. That's part of Gould's legacy, sad to say. He didn't actively discourage the idea that he'd found a major flaw in the theory of evolution by natural selection. I don't know whether a protracted debate between me and Gould on television would have worked in any case. He was not above pulling rank, and was a master of insinuation. Certainly in our infrequent public confrontations after my book came out, he did not behave in a principled manner.

On UFOs:

Q. Why are people who claim to be alien abductees looked upon askance while those who see the Virgin Mary [are] not?  

DD: There are good reasons to believe that many who claim to be alien abductees have actually had a traumatic sexual experience at the hands of some abusing member of the family, or other sexual abuser. For them this is just the socially easiest way of "explaining" their traumatic memories, and their PTSD symptoms, and they may be entirely sincere in their hallucinated memories. (So John Mack was probably half right: these people had indeed had a terrible experience; it just wasn't with aliens.) The phenomenon should be studied with a suitably rigorous methodology (not the way Whitley Strieber "investigated" it). But that's tough, since ethical and legal problems arise immediately. That's no accident. It's an instance of Nicholas Humphrey's Argument from Unwarranted Design (in his excellent book LEAPS OF FAITH). Now why should it be that the juiciest and most contagious tales of horror and wonder always seem to involve circumstances that are systematically difficult to investigate? These myths spread because they can spread, just like the virus for the common cold.

reason's interview of Dennett in which he discussed the idea of humans as "choice machines" in his book Freedom Evolves here. Also see my review of that book here.

Finally, the whole M&C interview here.