Saturday, December 31, 2005

Soul Man 

Der Spiegel interviewed Daniel Dennett, author of Freedom Evolves and Darwin's Dangerous Idea, on the subject of intelligent design (and fundamentalist religions):
Dennett: [T]he idea of a creator that is more wonderful than the things he creates is, I think, a very deeply intuitive idea. It is exactly this idea that promoters of Intelligent Design speak to when they ask, 'did you ever see a building that didn't have a maker, did you ever see a painting that didn't have a painter.' That perfectly captures this deeply intuitive idea that you never get design for free.

SPIEGEL: An ancient theological argument...

Dennett: ... which Darwin completely impugns with his theory of natural selection. And he shows, hell no, not only can you get design from un-designed things, you can even get the evolution of designers from that un-design. You end up with authors and poets and artists and engineers and other designers of things, other creators -- very recent fruits of the tree of life. And it challenges people's sense that life has meaning . . . .

SPIEGEL: But still, something out of the ordinary happened when humans came along.

Dennett: Indeed. Humans discovered language -- an explosive acceleration of the powers of minds. Because now you can not just learn from your own experience, but you can learn vicariously from the experience of everybody else. From people that you never met. From ancestors long dead. And human culture itself becomes a profound evolutionary force. That is what gives us an epistemological horizon and which is far, far greater than that of any other species. We are the only species that knows who we are, that knows that we have evolved. Our songs, art, books and religious beliefs are all ultimately a product of evolutionary algorithms. Some find that thrilling, others depressing.

SPIEGEL: Nowhere does evolution become so apparent than in the DNA code. Nevertheless, those who believe in Intelligent Design find the DNA code less problematic than the ideas of Darwin. Why is that?

Dennett: I don't know, because it seems to me that the very best evidence we have for the truth of Darwin's theory is the evidence that arrives every day from bioinformatics, from understanding the DNA-coding. The critics of Darwinism just don't want to confront the fact that molecules, enzymes and proteins lead to thought. Yes, we have a soul, but it's made up of lots of tiny robots.

SPIEGEL: Don't you think it's possible to leave life to the biologists, but let religion take care of the soul?

Dennett: That's what Pope John Paul II was demanding when he issued his oft-quoted cyclical in which he said that evolution was a fact, but he went right on to say: except on the matter of the human soul. That might make some content, but it is just false. It would be just as false to say: Our bodies are made up of biological material, except, of course, the pancreas. The brain is no more wonder tissue than the lungs or the liver. It's just a tissue.

Dennett: [Religions] all have to have features for prolonging their own identity -- and a lot of these are actually interestingly similar to what you find in biology, too.

SPIEGEL: Can you give an example?

Dennett: Many religions started before there was writing. How do you get high fidelity preservation of texts before you have texts? Group singing and recitation are efficient mechanisms for maintaining and spreading information. And then we have other features too, like you really want to make sure there are some parts of religion that are really incomprehensible.


Dennett: Because then people have to fall back on rote memorization. The very idea of the Eucharist is a lovely example: The idea that the bread is symbolic of the body of Christ, that the wine is symbolic of the blood of Christ, that's just not exciting enough. The idea needs to be made strictly incomprehensible: The bread is Christ's body and the wine is his blood. Only then will it hold your attention. Then it will win in competition against more boring ideas simply because you can't quite get your head around it. It's sort of like when you have a sore tooth and you can't keep your tongue off it. Every good Muslim is supposed to pray five times a day no matter what.

SPIEGEL: You see that too as an evolutionary strategy to keep the religion alive?

Dennett: It's very possible. The Israeli evolutionary biologist Amotz Zahavi argues that behaviors which are costly -- which are hard to imitate -- are those that can best be handed down because non-costly signals can and will be faked. This principle of costly behaviors is well established in biology and it is present in religion. It is important to make sacrifices. The costliness is a feature you tamper with at your peril. If the imams got together and decided to remove that feature they would be damaging one of the most powerful adaptations of Islam.

SPIEGEL: By using this type of argumentation, can you predict which religions will win out in the end?

Dennett: My colleagues Rodney Stark and Roger Finke have researched why some religions spread quickly and others don't. They're adapting supply side economics to this and saying that there's a sort of unlimited market for what religions can give but only if they're costly. So they have an explanation for why the very bland and liberal Protestant religions are losing members and why the most extreme, intense religions are gaining members . . . .

What's really scary is that a lot of them seem to think that the second coming is around the corner -- the idea that we're going to have Armageddon anyway so it doesn't make much difference. I find that to be socially irresponsible on the highest order. It's scary.

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