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Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days

#29: July - Sept. 2006 (Non-Fiction)
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Chris OConnor

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Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days

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Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early DaysTalk about Chapter 5 in this thread.
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Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days

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Notes...1. Too many agents: competition for rehearsal spaceI'm not to sure about the state of some of the sources Dennett has drawn from for his discussion in this section. So far as I know, animistic theories of the development of religion fell out of favor ages ago. Another dubious instance is the quote on pp. 117-118: "Every now and then rain dances were rewarded by rain." So far as I know, rain dances were always rewarded with rain for the simple reason that the participants in the dances didn't stop -- sometimes going on, in shifts, for weeks at a time -- until it rained. That right there should be a red flag. It suggests that rain dances are something other than a method for effecting nature. It's far more likely that there's a social function at root in rain dances, and it's only the assumption that the participants are childishly naive that prevented the animistic theorists from considering the possibility that the participants were aware of the social function. In part, that fallacy may arise from having taken avowed motives at face value: the natives say they're attempting to make rain, so that must be what they're really doing. But that isn't necessarily so, and if we don't assume that the people around us are always completely upfront about their intentions, why should we assume the same of "primitives". Evans-Wentz has suggested that a lot of the mistaken theories of "primitive religion" (what Dennett calls "folk religion") derive from a kind of specious reasoning of the variety he terms "if I were a horse". "If I were a horse" works by looking at a sort of behavior that you yourself would presumably never do, isolating a particular (or apparent) differences between yourself and the person who does engage in that behavior, and then speculating as to what your motive would be if you were on the opposite side of the line. Sadly, Dennett seems to have implicitly taken that stance here, and is content to assume with the (much critiqued) anthropologists of the past that non-industrialized peoples habitually reason with the sort of fairy tale logic that we abandon early in our childhood. It's notable that Dennett makes a direct comparison between "our ancestors" and B.F. Skinner's pigeons. In doing so, he implies our (or at least his own) intellectual or cultural superiority. What evidence validates that assumption? If the answer is religion then Dennett has begged the question.On p. 120 there appears to be a kind of naturalistic fallacy: "Clouds certainly don't look like agents with beliefs and desires, so it is no doubt natural to suppose that they are indeed inert and passive things being manipulated by hidden agents that do look like agents: rain gods and cloud gods and the like -- if only we could see them." Why would he suppose that its "natural" for a human, even one not benefitting from later cultural development, to make that sort of profound cognitive leap? What I'm suggesting here is that Dennett has glossed over some very important steps and some very important questions about the form belief has taken by invoking certain assumptions about primitive thought, assumptions that should not be allowed to pass without some consideration.And really, the whole section is premised on the fallacy which reduces supernaturalism to a form of explanation. That formula is by no means proven, and anthropologists in recent decades have rejected the idea in favor of theories that more fully accord with the evidence of actual cultural studies.Getting back to the functional side of Dennett's project, he provides an account on p. 120 of how an idea becomes "self-replicating". We may ask several questions of that account: a) Does rehearsal alone increase the probability that an idea will spontaneously recur in a person's thoughts or is more required? And at the same time, we may ask whether or not it's likely that an idea will actually get rehearsed without already making some sort of significant impact on the rehearser. It looks to me like mindless repitition is Dennett's way around considering the role that interpretation and meaning play in the adoption of an idea (see the thread on Appendix A). b) Is it enough to "review" and idea "idly" or must it be incorporated into a congnitive endeavor that rewards the use of the idea? Even if that isn't a requirement, is it likely that ideas would have routinely proliferated by idle review rather than successful exercise of some sort? And c), in either case, does this form of proliferation justify Dennett's use of the term "self-replicative power"? A great deal hinges on this, I think, since the purported "self-replicative power" of an idea is important to the genetic analogy being made here.2. Gods as interested partiesPp. 126-127 revive in modified form Freud's maxim that the gods are ancestors, specifically the Father, projected on the clouds. Dennett asks, "Why, though, do we humans so consistently focus our fantasies on our ancestors?" The best answer I can think of is, prove that we do. It may very well be that Dennett has taken a few apt examples and used them as the basis for a generalization that doesn't really hold true across the board. It doesn't help that he's repackaging the bias of a man who compared all folk religion to the symptoms of neurotics.Speaking of bias, Dennett notes on p. 127 that "biologists are often accused of gene centrism", agreeing to the extent that "the process of natural selection itself doesn't require that all that valuable information move 'through the gene line'." I've added the italics there to point out an irony that Dennett himself may not have noted, mainly that he's only shifted the emphasis from genes to information. His meme argument is, ultimately, information centrist.3. Getting the gods to speak to usA potential problem running thoughout the chapter, and more fully articulated here, is the assumption that the earliest religions shared a notion of gods that was roughly congruous to ours. Dennett's assumption that all religions must deal with anthropomorphic gods removes from the field all alternatives without providing for the possibility that the actual origin of religions may stand among those alternatives. His definition may be working against him here, even if we accept its validity in the context of modern religions. We can't be certain that the idea of the anthropomorphic god is contemporaneous with the birth of religion -- Dennett is only certain because he's only interested in dealing with religions that center around anthropomorphic gods, and summarily excludes everything else from the category of religion. So, realistically speaking, is this really a critique of religion, or is it a critique of the idea of God?I'm not convinced by Dennett's quotation (p. 133) from Jaynes' "The Origin of Consciousness..." to the effect that "in earlier times, there was no way of even suspecting that some event was utterly random; everything was presumed to mean something, if only we knew what." Dennett seems to take it on authority, but I don't see any way of demonstrating that premise.As for the last section, 4. Shamans as hypnotists, I don't know that I can assess the claims there without going back and reading the bulk of sources that Dennett has cited. The best I can do for the moment is suppose, without any real evidence to that effect, that Dennett's sources aren't faulty, and that Dennett isn't misusing them somehow. So much the better for his argument, I suppose.
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Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days

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There were a lot of interesting ideas in the chapter. I'm not sure about the validity his arguments, since they're all so speculative, but he provided plenty to think about.Dennett's Too many agents hypothesis seemed plausible, when you consider how often people anthropomorphize various technological artifacts like cars and computers. A primitive society could readily imagine supernatural human-like agents behind the unpredictable world they experienced. Once people believed that active agents were influencing the world, they'd start wondering what those agents cared about and how to influence their behavior. You can't prove any of that speculation, but it's a reasonable starting point for religion.The Shamans as hypnotists section was less convincing, since its argument seemed kind of circular. While an individual who believed in the common religion might feel greater impact from a placebo effect, that doesn't explain what created the overall religious system in the first place.Finally, the Memory-engineering devices discussion took a good stab at explaining rituals, a major component of how religion is practiced. I bought Dennett's idea that group rituals would help perpetuate the religious meme across generations.
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Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days

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JulianTheApostate: Dennett's Too many agents hypothesis seemed plausible, when you consider how often people anthropomorphize various technological artifacts like cars and computers. A primitive society could readily imagine supernatural human-like agents behind the unpredictable world they experienced.I just don't see much reason to suppose that "primitive" cultures would be more apt to assume agency on the part of a poorly understood thing. It isn't a fluid transition from recognizing that we half-jokingly anthropomorphize our cars to assuming that previous generations -- no matter how far removed -- earnestly attributed agency to the clouds. There's at least one structural or cultural step missing in there. It makes for a neat simplification of religious history to gloss over that step, but without some sort of clear evidence that primitive humans were more apt to buy into anthropomorphism as a genuine explanation of phenomenon, we run the risk of romanticizing that step of cultural development without shedding much light on what might actually have happened.You can't prove any of that speculation, but it's a reasonable starting point for religion.Reasonable in what sense? I think it's just another easy generalization, premised on the assumption that "primitive" peoples were intellectually inferior. If we take that speculation as the starting point for understanding religion, we might easily build a rather ornate explanation for the whole development of religion, only to realize later on that our premise is pretty shaky. In all actuality, we need not bother -- the antrhopologists and sociologist of the early 20th century already went through all of that on our behalf. This sort of speculation doesn't strike me as at all constructive of a genuine history of religion, and unless Dennett's line of reasoning can find some stronger form of evidential support, it stands a good chance of leading us down altogether the wrong path.While an individual who believed in the common religion might feel greater impact from a placebo effect, that doesn't explain what created the overall religious system in the first place.Agreed: that's a problem I also found with Dennett's reasoning in that section.I bought Dennett's idea that group rituals would help perpetuate the religious meme across generations.I thought the whole belief through repetition explanation was a little simplistic and unconvincing. But on the whole, I can't buy the explanation that depend on meme perpetuation until I see a better justification for the efficacy of the meme model as a way of explaining cultural phenomenon.
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Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days

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People, whether primitive or modern, generally believe that there's a cause behind the world around them and their personal experiences. And that cause is often some variation of a human-like agent, because it's difficult to imagine an alternative. The scientific atheistic worldview is, from a historical perspective, a recent development, and obviously many people still don't accept it. Neither Dennett or I are claiming that primitive people were intellectually inferior, though they clearly lacked the book-knowledge that we possess. An intelligent person in a primitive society could readily suspect human-like agency taking place behind the scenes, just as many intelligent people today believe in God.Dennett's whole approach is predicated on the perspective of memes and evolutionary psychology. If you don't accept that premise (and many people who believe in evolution don't), you won't buy his reasoning.
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Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days

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JulianTheApostate: People, whether primitive or modern, generally believe that there's a cause behind the world around them and their personal experiences.That has nothing to do with the difference between scientific and supernatural explanation, though. Nor does it provide any sort of explanation for why primitive people would assume that the cause behind any given phenomenon was some sort of conscious agent. Primitive humans were surrounded by just as many simple cause effect relationships, and were bound to see that many things happened simply by virtue of simple effects. So a very central question -- and one that Dennett hasn't answered in a very satisfactory way -- is that of why they would assume that a hitherto unexplained phenomenon would be more explicable as the work of a conscious agent than as a natural event.An intelligent person in a primitive society could readily suspect human-like agency taking place behind the scenes, just as many intelligent people today believe in God.I think Dennett underestimates the sheer novelty of the idea of a supernatual agent. You hinted at it when you expressed doubt about his top-down explanation of subjects accepting the supernatural claims of their rulers. How do you convince a population of an idea that is so foreign. Comparison to the modern situation is insufficient in a number of ways, but particularly in that so much in our culture paves the way for grasping the concept of deity, even suggests it. So it might stand to reason that a person in the modern situation would brush up against enough suggestions and intimations that they could formulate and conceive the idea of a supernatural agent behind all phenomenon, even if that isn't an explicit part of their upbringing. We're all initiated in religious modes of thought, even if only by osmosis and inference. But for a primitive person, living in a culture lacking that battery of ideas, the advent of that idea seems unlikely at best.The meme model that Dennett suggests may actually be somewhat useful in tracing the proliferation of that idea from its advent to its current profusion -- provided that we can arrive at some idea as to what form the initial idea took -- but it doesn't do much to explain the advent itself.Dennett's whole approach is predicated on the perspective of memes and evolutionary psychology.Yup. And as far as I can tell from what he's written here, his decision to predicate the idea on that approach was predicated on the assumption that it led to interesting results, saying nothing about the truth value of those results. In fact, I'd say there's a disparity between the exhortations of the first section -- proclaiming the need for a hard look at the facts and an earnest search for the truth -- and the very conjectural and mostly untestable propositions of later chapters.
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Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days

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I don't see religious ideas as such a "novelty". As the human mind evolved and people became more self-conscience, people tried to come up with a coherent narrative that explained the mysteries, randomness, and suffering of their lives. Due to the limits of the human imagination, they assumed that there were other agents, similar to themselves but not seen, controlling things. Based on my knowledge of human psychology, that seems plausible.From an evolutionary perspective, it doesn't make sense to ask for the fundamental cause of something. Instead, elaborate structures can arise from random fluctuations and survival of the fittest. If evolution can gives rise to an eye, why can't it give rise to religion?Finally, Dennett probably believed in evolutionary psychology long before he attempted to apply it to religion. That's the foundation for his reasoning, just as Christian theologians start with the assumption of a Christian god. If you disagree with someone's intellectual starting point, it's hard to see past that, as I notice when I read Medieval philosophy that's fixated on various Biblical nonsense.
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Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days

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JulianTheApostate: I don't see religious ideas as such a "novelty". As the human mind evolved and people became more self-conscience, people tried to come up with a coherent narrative that explained the mysteries, randomness, and suffering of their lives.If that's an apt summation of what happened, even that in itself is a novelty. What evidence do we have that any other animal creates narratives that explain their own existence, the existence of the universe, or the presence of suffering? If you place it in the fuller biological context, it's as astonishing that we ask questions that presumably prompt religious speculation as it is that we've devised the answers we have.But my reading on religious development leads me to believe that some of the questions we take as fundamental to religion are rather late developments in religious tradition.Due to the limits of the human imagination, they assumed that there were other agents, similar to themselves but not seen, controlling things. Based on my knowledge of human psychology, that seems plausible.It's plausible, perhaps, but it doesn't explain all that much. Even assuming certain limitations placed on human imagination, why settle on the conclusion that human-like agents are responsible for phenomenon? Why not some other similarly simple explanation? More to the point, why settle on an explanation that brings up so many obvious complications, that demands a particular kind of relationship?But more to the point, Dennett is neglecting a great deal of anthropological and sociological work which suggests that aetiology was not the principle and initial purpose of religious conceptions -- in other words, that people didn't devise religion in order to explain phenomenon for which they lacked a proper science.If evolution can gives rise to an eye, why can't it give rise to religion?It can, and I personally have no problem with that explanation as the instrumental cause of religion. The problem that arises -- and the problem that Dennett initially alluded to, without stating that it was, in fact, the subject of his book -- is that of why religion, regardless of its instrumental cause, is or should be retained by rational creatures. And this is both a contemporary problem (which is how I suspect Dennett will present it at the end of the book) as well as a historical question -- in other words, presuming that there were rational humans in the past as well, how do we account for the persistence of religion. Genetic evolution could feasibly answer that question, provided that we find a genetic basis for religious conformity, but at present it doesn't give much of a handle on the instrumental cause of the persistence of religion among rational beings. Theologians have explained it by recourse to a number of explanations, ranging from the assertion that religious belief is ultimately rational, to the apposite claim that humans are intrinsically and at least partially arational, and are better off for being so. Dennett's taken up the meme model as a way of bypassing the question altogether. We don't have to think about why any particular rational being would buy into religion, he implies, because we can explain its survival and difussion statistically.Finally, Dennett probably believed in evolutionary psychology long before he attempted to apply it to religion.No doubt. I'm not arguing that he has adopted this argument in order to justify a prior belief. My understanding of it is that it's mostly just the confluence of two trains of thought. Dawkins, on the other hand, seems to have devised the meme model in part to bring religion and theism into the perview of evolutionary explanations, and that's a bias that I think it's important to consider any time someone attempts to build a criticism of religion on memetic grounds.If you disagree with someone's intellectual starting point, it's hard to see past that, as I notice when I read Medieval philosophy that's fixated on various Biblical nonsense.It's true. But I am willing to listen to Dennett's reasons for settling on that intellectual starting point. So far, I'm simple not impressed. In the body of the book itself, his reason is that it allows him to construct an interesting and elaborate explanation of religion, without any reference to whether or not that model is true. In Appendix A he gives a more elaborate explanation of his understanding of the meme and its importance as an explanatory tool. I have my problems with that explanation as well, not to mention Dawkins' original presentation of the idea, and I've lodged both of those ideas in another thread. My point here is that I've considered their grounds, as they've presented them -- in fact, I had never considered or studied the meme model until I read it in Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene", where the idea was coined -- and I still find them unconvincing.Ultimately, it's not a matter of "seeing past" any disagreement I might have with their "intellectual starting point". Dennett and Dawkins are constructing logical arguments; their conclusions must follow from their premises, and therefore depend on those premises for their logical validity. I find their premises to be dubious, and therefore am logically bound to distrust their conclusions.
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Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days

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In my mind, the question "How did religion arise?" is closely related to the question "Why are so many people religious today?". Regarding the latter question, many people absorb the religion of their families and society. However, another factor is at play: religion satisfies some sort of psychological need. Otherwise, it wouldn't have become so widespread. Many people aren't satisfied with the "Shit happens, and then you die" view of an atheist. They want a deeper meaning, and emotional meaning is generally tied with a sentient being, not a simple mechanical explanation. It's true that Dennett has not, thus far in the book, classified religion as rational or irrational, or for that matter as a positive or negative influence. As a philosopher, he's not forming judgements of that sort. Instead, he's exploring how religion may have contributed to human fitness and how primitive societies may have devised and accepted religion. His speculations are at least as plausible as any others I've seen about the origins of religion.
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JulianTheApostate: However, another factor is at play: religion satisfies some sort of psychological need. Otherwise, it wouldn't have become so widespread.I'd tend to agree. That said, it's easy to assume, based on casual observation or even direct questioning, what psychological needs are being satisfied. And for a genuine understanding of religion and its place in culture, it's important that we avoid drawing facile conclusions on that count.Incidentally, I think Dennett's appeal to the meme model serves as an obstruction to -- or at least a distraction from -- attempting to understand what psychological imperative is being satisfied by religion. Reductionary means are enough to provide for that aspect in the meme explanation; Dennett goes so far as to make the process the result of semi-conscious repetition and nothing more. The question of why religion produces some measure of satisfaction in so many people drops from view.They want a deeper meaning, and emotional meaning is generally tied with a sentient being, not a simple mechanical explanation.I'm not convinced that this accounts for the origin of religion, though it may account for individual cases of affirmation. And without evidence, I don't see why anyone should be convinced of it. We, as a forum, insist on evidence for so much else -- and especially when we're talking about religious claims -- it would be odd to exempt this conjecture from the same demand.It's true that Dennett has not, thus far in the book, classified religion as rational or irrational, or for that matter as a positive or negative influence. As a philosopher, he's not forming judgements of that sort.You don't think that's what he's leading up to?And I'm a little mystified that Dennett has been so insistent on labelling himself as a philosopher. Very little of what he's written about in the book so far has much to do with philosophy, either in subject matter or method. I suppose he recognizes that it would be disingenous to present himself as an evolutionary biologist, but by making so much of his official status as philosopher, he's obscured the fact that this book isn't really (yet) a philosophical argument.His speculations are at least as plausible as any others I've seen about the origins of religion.Except that a lot of his speculations have already been conjectured, tested, and dismissed by competant and qualified researchers. Dennett has either downplayed or is blind to the amount of scientific work that has been applied to the questions he's asked. It's ironic, really, because he's made a mandate of applying scientifically testable hypotheses to the history of religion, and here he is tripping up a well-worn path that he says doesn't exist.
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