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Ch. 4 - The Roots of Religion 
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Post Ch. 4 - The Roots of Religion
Ch. 4 - The Roots of Religion


Please use this thread for talking about Chapter 4. ::38




Tue Jun 27, 2006 12:51 am
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - The Roots of Religion
Notes...
1. The births of religion
Dennett's express aim is "to get something on the table that is both testable and worth testing." (p. 104) If so, then I think he's barking up the wrong tree. After all, how do you test a historical event? The best you can do, it seems to me, is to test the plausibility of a particular conjecture, but that does nothing to guarantee that it actually took place, or even that it's probable. And this is far different from, say, testing conjectures about how the dinosaurs went extinct, because Dennett is using this as the basis for making judgements about religion as it stands now and how we should situate ourselves in regard to it.

3. How nature deals with the problem of other minds
The discussion of the intentional stance was interesting, I thought. That's a handy term, and I already find myself making use of it elsewhere.

But...
The basis for religion that Dennett builds in burial taboos is highly conjectural, and he doesn't provide much of an answer to the question of why we ought to assume that religion began in that way. Even if there were a way to test if functionally -- ie. would, in experiment, the tension between the persistence of intentional stance and taboos concerning human corpses result in religious or pre-religious ritual? -- how do you go about substantiating that such a progression actually did occur historically? Might not some other chain of events have led to religion, possibly with burial taboos as a side effect rather than as the cause? Persistent intentional stance is a handy peg, but how do you ascertain that it was the peg in question?

Incidentally, that taboo theory of primitive religion has been largely abandoned by anthropologists and sociologists, cf. E.E. Evans-Wentz, "Theories of Primitive Religion". It's interesting to me that a philosopher arguing from the viewpoint of evolutionary biology would adopt a theory that has been abandoned by more specialized fields, in large part due to their adoption of more rigorous scientific methods.




Fri Jul 14, 2006 2:53 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - The Roots of Religion
I'm reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich's Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. Both books use evolutionary biology to examine an important aspect of humanity (war or religion) that goes back for thousands of years. Book Rites is a better book, and I might suggest it for a future discussion.

Though evolutionary psychology has merit, its advocates overstate how scientific it is. When studying some aspect of human nature, analyzing its contribution to fitness, as measured by the propagation of ones genes, is a valuable perspective. However, all the subjective interpretation necessary to reach a specific conclusion makes the field less scientific. As a physics Ph.D., I have demanding standards about what to classify as science.

Dennett's discussion of burial taboos was a tangential point in his section on How Nature deals with the problem of other minds. It was an elaboration on his interesting discussion of the intentional stance, not an explanation of the origins of religion.




Sun Aug 06, 2006 9:49 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - The Roots of Religion
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"Theories of Primitive Religion" - E.E. Evans-Wentz


I only see this under the name "Evans-Pritchard" is this the same one?

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Mon Aug 07, 2006 3:00 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - The Roots of Religion
Julian:

Quote:
It was an elaboration on his interesting discussion of the intentional stance, not an explanation of the origins of religion.


Yes, but taken like this, it is hard to attack the book!

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Post Re: Ch. 4 - The Roots of Religion
misterpessimistic: I only see this under the name "Evans-Pritchard" is this the same one?

Yeah, my mistake. Evans-Pritchard wrote "Theories of Primitive Religion". Evans-Wentz is an interesting writer in his own write, particularly if you're interested in either Hindu religion or Celtic fairy faith.




Mon Aug 07, 2006 4:07 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - The Roots of Religion
Celtic Fairy Faith sounds like something I would like.

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Tue Aug 08, 2006 1:38 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - The Roots of Religion
It's a really cool book, though I think it might tend to frustrate a really staunch rationalist. The book is called "The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries", and it deviates from most books of folk-lore and myth by virtue of its methodology. Evans-Wentz's aim was to collect testimony as to the then-current survival of fairy faith in the British Isles, and to do so, he travelled around interviewing people as to the things they believed and the local stories they knew (whether they believed them or not). So the book is mostly made up of ver batim testimony, categorized by region, of still-living fairy faith in the early part of the 20th century.

Evans-Wentz's own view was that fairy faith was the transmutation of a belief in the spirits of the dead. That might accord well with Dennett's view, but the book isn't really an argument to that end, and it's more interesting just as a comparative record of folk traditions at the turn of the century.

But Evans-Pritchard's "Theories of Primitive Religion" is more to the point of our discussion, and I definitely suggest you seek it out if you have the time. It's a short book, and serves as an excellent summation of the development of anthropological, sociological and psychological work on the history of religion. It makes for a very useful supplement to Dennett's book, and places his hypotheses in a context that he himself hasn't really presented, save where it supports his own view. And in most of those cases, as I've tried to point out, he's relying on more or less obsolete work for support.




Tue Aug 08, 2006 4:04 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - The Roots of Religion
Quote:
Dennett's express aim is "to get something on the table that is both testable and worth testing." (p. 104) If so, then I think he's barking up the wrong tree. After all, how do you test a historical event? The best you can do, it seems to me, is to test the plausibility of a particular conjecture, but that does nothing to guarantee that it actually took place, or even that it's probable.


Quote:
Even if there were a way to test if functionally -- ie. would, in experiment, the tension between the persistence of intentional stance and taboos concerning human corpses result in religious or pre-religious ritual? -- how do you go about substantiating that such a progression actually did occur historically? Might not some other chain of events have led to religion, possibly with burial taboos as a side effect rather than as the cause?


I think that you are perhaps approaching this matter with a strange idea of what it means to "test" something. For instance, you ask how it is possible to "test" a historical event. Well, the answer is that you test for a historical event in the same manner you'd test for something in physics. A hypothesis is made, and observations are made to see if the facts conform to the inferred predictions and prohibitions. For instance, if I wanted to test the hypothesis that Mayans sacrificed virgins to their god, I would search for evidence that is implied by this hypothesis (bones, sacrificing tools, perhaps texts or symbols, and so on) and if no contrary evidence was found, I could count it a reasonable truth.

Does this do anything to guarantee its truth? Not at all. More evidence could be found that doesn't cohere with the implications of the theory. Theories don't have to guarantee truth at all--they just have to be compatible with it to a very high degree.

The issues you raise are issues of indeterminancy applicable to most science. For instance, you say that even if the burial hypothesis passes its tests, it is possible that there remains an alternative explanation that is also coherent--it may have less evidence on its side, but perhaps it could also be true.

This is a good observation, but it seems a bit silly. If I hypothesize that a cat overturned a trashcan, and find evidence of this in pawprints and trash with bite-marks, this doesn't guarantee the truth of my theory--a rival explanation that a ninja-like goat that left no traces of its arrival knocked over the trash can and the cat came after the fact could also explain these facts. However, it isn't the best explanation, because it needlessly posits a goat for no real reason. Simply because the truth may not accord with the available evidence doesn't mean we should consider evidence worthless and assume any possibility, in other words. Evidence is all we have to work with, as imperfect as it is.




Tue Sep 12, 2006 2:06 am
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - The Roots of Religion
Saint Gasoline: I think that you are perhaps approaching this matter with a strange idea of what it means to "test" something.

I don't think it's all that strange, I just think it's narrower than that used by Dennett, and given that he's calling for the creation of public policy on the basis of these tests, I'd say the circumstances warrant a narrowing of the field.

Well, the answer is that you test for a historical event in the same manner you'd test for something in physics.

No, because test in physics are presumably repeatable, and the results of the tests are applicable retrospectively because you assume that the present conditions are not significantly different from past conditions. And given the mechanistic assumptions of physics, those assumptions are warranted. History, on the other hand, has a cumulative and temporal element that frustrates that assumption.

For instance, if I wanted to test the hypothesis that Mayans sacrificed virgins to their god, I would search for evidence that is implied by this hypothesis (bones, sacrificing tools, perhaps texts or symbols, and so on) and if no contrary evidence was found, I could count it a reasonable truth.

I think that example is more complicated than you may have supposed. That the Mayans sacrificed humans we can verify more or less by noting architectural features and their proximity to large amounts of human remains that have the marks of ritual sacrifice. That those victims were virgins would be a lot harder to substantiate. Even more problematic would be any attempt to substantiate the claim that they were chosen because they were virgins -- it may be that they were chosen for some other feature that just happened to be coextensive, in Mayan culture, with maidenhood.

As it stands, I believe the truth of the matter is that the Mayans sacrificed prisoners of war, not virgins, and we know this not because of any particular anthropological or architectural remains (which have been more instrumental in elaborating the process rather than the fact of human sacrifice), but rather because we have written and artistic testimony to that end.

It's a useful illustration, I think, because it points to the fact that the sort of hypotheses Dennett wants to test are all questions that involve a how or why component. Not "did primitive people have religion", but "why did they cling to it?" Not "did primitive religion take this particular form", but "how did it take that particular form?" And those are questions which cannot, so far as I can see, be tested by scientific method, which is the mode Dennett insisted on.

Theories don't have to guarantee truth at all--they just have to be compatible with it to a very high degree.

In so long as they're academic matters more than anything else, I'm not apt to argue. But when you talk about crafting policy out of theory, particular policy that deals with the day to day existence of the majority of people in the world, I'd say we're justified in demanding a little more than compatability.

To put it into perspective, suppose there were a theory which was settled thoroughly in the realm of the possible, but which could not be verified, to the end that traditional family households were intrinsically likely to psychologically damage children. What degree of verification would you demand before advocating that politicians start using that theory as the basis for crafting national policy? I'd say that, without very substantial verification, any policy crafted from a theory that struck that closely to the heart of how people lived was too much of a gamble to take so lightly.

This is a good observation, but it seems a bit silly. If I hypothesize that a cat overturned a trashcan, and find evidence of this in pawprints and trash with bite-marks, this doesn't guarantee the truth of my theory--a rival explanation that a ninja-like goat that left no traces of its arrival knocked over the trash can and the cat came after the fact could also explain these facts.

When we talk about the origin of religion, we're talking about a precedent that cannot be replicated in modern times, which no one alive witnessed, and of which there is no record. It can only be inferred from evidence whose connection to the actual events is conjectural. The burial remains Dennett mentions are not analogous to the cat's paws you see -- the fit between paw print and cat's paw is too close. We're not even sure where in the timeline the burial remains fall in relation to the onset of religion, and nearly any interpretation of that relationship is likely to be influenced by the interpretation of what does and does not consitute religion. If the only evidence around the trashcan was a puddle of water, you might have a closer analogy. The water might involve the cat -- particularly if she trailed water from her drinking bowl -- but a person might have also spilled some water when they bumped into the trashcan at night. The point here is that the phenomenon itself cannot be repeated with any fidelity, and the relation of the evidence to the event is incredibly susceptible to interpetation. In a case like this, what counts as more or better evidence depends in great measure on factors which are, themselves, notoriously unstable.




Wed Sep 13, 2006 12:42 am
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - The Roots of Religion
Quote:
No, because test in physics are presumably repeatable, and the results of the tests are applicable retrospectively because you assume that the present conditions are not significantly different from past conditions. And given the mechanistic assumptions of physics, those assumptions are warranted. History, on the other hand, has a cumulative and temporal element that frustrates that assumption.


Historical tests are indeed repeatable in a scientifically relevant sense. They are not "repeatable" in the sense in which you use the term, but it is arguable that even tests in physics are not repeatable in your sense, either. (For instance, rolling a ball down a plane as Galileo experimented, and then doing it again, is not performing the same experiment--there will be slight changes in the variables, be it wind resistance, a different position of the ball, a different path down the slope, etc. But your argument that the present conditions are not significantly different from the past conditions stems on the rather arbitrary word "significantly"--what constitutes a significant difference? What about statistical sciences like quantum physics where completely different effects can occur from situations without a significant difference?)

That digression aside, historical tests are indeed repeatable. Repeatability is only applicable in regards to evidence. So long as the evidence that established the occurrence of the holocaust in 1950 is still available to establish the occurrence in 2006, then this hypothesis is indeed testable and repeatable. You can test it by searching for the relevant artifacts and evidence, and you can repeat it by finding the same evidence all over again. I think your use of "repeatability" is based upon a more "experiment-oriented" view of science that doesn't really reflect the true nature of science. For instance, most of the "scientific" evidence for evolution is not from "repeatable experiments" in your sense of the term, but from ancient artifacts and other observations that accord with the theory. We can't show the evolutionary progression that went about in the Cambrian in your sense of "repeatable" (because the conditions are different today), but this doesn't mean that the evidence in favor of a particular Cambrian progression is somehow non-scientific.

Quote:
I think that example is more complicated than you may have supposed. That the Mayans sacrificed humans we can verify more or less by noting architectural features and their proximity to large amounts of human remains that have the marks of ritual sacrifice. That those victims were virgins would be a lot harder to substantiate.


Of course it is hard to substantiate various claims. It is equally hard to verify theories about the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and so on. The fact that it is hard to substantiate doesn't somehow differentiate this research from scientific research, anymore than your (in my opinion) flawed account of repeatability differentiates it.

Quote:
To put it into perspective, suppose there were a theory which was settled thoroughly in the realm of the possible, but which could not be verified, to the end that traditional family households were intrinsically likely to psychologically damage children. What degree of verification would you demand before advocating that politicians start using that theory as the basis for crafting national policy? I'd say that, without very substantial verification, any policy crafted from a theory that struck that closely to the heart of how people lived was too much of a gamble to take so lightly.


I agree, of course, although I'm not sure what aspects of policy you think Dennett is addressing. (Bear with me here, I'm only at around Chapter 6, I just got the book the other day.) Dennet's theory isn't adequate enough to form any policy on the matter, and it is far from cohering in a very high degree to the truth. My original point was only that it is impossible to know that we have truly reached the truth--all we can expect is a very reliable conforming of the expected outcomes of a theory to the actual facts. In your example, we would need to have a very good coherence between the theory's predictions and our observations to make a policy out of it. But to demand absolute certainty is to demand the impossible.

Quote:
When we talk about the origin of religion, we're talking about a precedent that cannot be replicated in modern times, which no one alive witnessed, and of which there is no record. It can only be inferred from evidence whose connection to the actual events is conjectural.


I wouldn't be so quick to write off any possibility of finding evidence of religion's origins. It is best to continue inquiry and fail rather than to silence inquiry where we may have been able to succeed, I'm sure you'll agree. Do you think anyone in the 1800's would believe we would one day be producing adequate accounts of the birth of the universe itself based upon evidence? Or have the ability to know how stars and planets form? People would have thought, like you think in regards to religion, that we could only establish such facts through conjecture. But I'm not so sure I agree with you. I think it is indeed possible to establish and evidence-based account of religion's origins, and I remain hopeful that this is possible.




Wed Sep 13, 2006 12:18 pm
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