TIA Tuesday: Does Vox really understand?August 19, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
In reading Vox’s response to Daniel Dennett, in chapter 10 of TIA, it’s sometimes easy to jump to the conclusion that Vox doesn’t really understand the issues Dennett is talking about. For example:
[Dennett] raises [the] possibility that religion is merely a by-product of evolution, otherwise known as a spandrel. It’s here that the philosopher finds himself in logical trouble. Both of Dennett’s memetic proposalsand [sic] his subsequent argument against Starke and Finke’s economic case for the rational value of religion directly contradict his assertion of the way that evolution’s remarkable efficiency means that a persistent pattern amounts to proof—”we can be quite sure”—that the pattern is of benefit to something in the evolutionary currency of differential reproduction. How, one wonders, does Dennett fail to grasp that a creed which explicitly states “go forth and multiply” is likely to be inordinately successful in evolutionary terms, genetic or memetic?
Vox seems to like the argument that religious people are more likely to reproduce than non-religious people—as though nobody really cared much one way or another about sex until Moses came along and showed them in Genesis 1! This kind of silly, superficial thinking suggests that Vox hasn’t really put much effort into trying to understand how religion and evolution would interact in the real world. All he really seems to be interested in is mining the idea for talking points he can use to make religion sound better than atheism.
For instance, here’s Vox elaborating on the above idea. After quoting Dennett’s example of how a lancet fluke can cause an ant to climb a blade of grass, looking for a passing sheep to infect, Vox writes:
It somehow escapes the professor’s attention that it is not the religious portion of the population that is having trouble doing what every other species on the planet does, but rather, the irreligious one. If there is a metaphorical lancet fluke to be blamed for anti-evolutionary human behavior, then it is atheist secularism that most accurately fits the analogy now that the Shakers and Skoptsi are no more. Indeed, the demographic performance of secular post-Christian societies over the last fifty years suggests that from a grand historical perspective, modern atheist secularism will be seen as a fluke indeed.
What escapes Vox’s notice is that Dennett is talking about the origin and propagation of religion, not about the relative behaviors of religious and non-religious populations under circumstances where the dominant population has saturated its environment and is beginning to suffer shortages of food and other resources. (He’s also playing fast and loose with statistics by lumping all the social, economic, and cultural factors together under a simplistic dichotomy of religious vs. secular, but we’ll let that pass.) What Dennett is looking for is a reason for the emergence of religious beliefs and behaviors, at a time when overpopulation was not really an issue—a question Vox ignores in favor of trying to score a few anti-secular talking points.
Vox also castigates Dennett for holding that people ought to trust scientists without necessarily understanding all the scientific details, while at the same time holding that people are wrong to trust in priests to make moral decisions for them.
Dennett attempts to justify these contrary stances by stating that the difference is that the scientific priesthood really know what they’re doing, that they understand their formulas and use them to achieve amazingly accurate results, while the religious priesthood does not.
But Dennett is demonstrably incorrect on both scores. Dennett’s two favorite sciences, cognitive science and evolutionary biology, are primarily distinguished by the way in which no one understands exactly how anything works nor has managed to construct any significant formulas, let alone achieve any results demonstrating the precision of the quantum electrodynamic calculations cited in Dennett’s example. Dennett himself confesses that human consciousness is a mystery, a phenomenon that people don’t even know how to think about yet, and while he is rather more sanguine about the achievements of evolutionary biology, he admits that the science which began with the Origin of the Species [sic] still regards the way in which species begin to be a mystery too, albeit one with more of the details filled in.
Here again, Vox tempts us to conclude that he does not really understand the issues that Dennett is talking about. No understanding of how evolution works? No formulas for calculating mutation rates, genetic drift, and other evolutionary mechanisms? Vox is only highlighting his own ignorance of biology when he attempts to refute Dennett with that argument. It’s true that there are unanswered questions about how consciousness works, and how life first began, but—and here’s the distinction Vox fails to address—science does not claim to know more than it knows, and is prepared to demonstrate the objective, verifiable basis for what it claims it does know.
Priests can’t do that. When you trust a scientist, you are practicing the principle that the truth is consistent with itself. You may not know particle physics personally, but you know there are people who do, and that there is constant dialog between scientists about which possibilities are most consistent with the evidence. Science is reality-based, and interacts with the real world in countless ways, all of which would conflict with and expose any attempt to pass of non-science as science. You can’t fake science and get away with it.
With priests (and prophets and other religious authorities), you just have to take their word for it, and the word of their predecessors. You not only can fake religious truth, at least most of the religions out there are faking it, and getting away with it. There is no real-world verification for what they claim, and wherever their claims interact with the real world, the discrepancies between their claims and the actual evidence only gives job security to the rationalizers and apologists. People have to just take their word for it anyway, which is the practical definition of gullibility. And here’s the real catch:
So while some sciences have proven themselves worthy enough of our complete confidence that we need not trouble our pretty little heads about them, to claim that we are justified in placing blind trust in cognitive scientists, evolutionary biologists, and sociologists because physicists really know what they’re doing is absurd. It’s a bait-and-switch worthy of Dawkins. And Dennett offers absolutely no evidence that any religious faithful are any more prone to unquestioning obedience of their priesthood than science-fetishists are of the various secular bulls issued regularly from the archbishoprics of Oxford, Cambridge, M.I.T., and Stanford.
The catch is that even if you do question the priests, you have no real-world basis for proposing any better alternative. It all boils down to whatever seems right in your own eyes. Faith in scientists is justified, firstly because they can back up their conclusions by showing the objective evidence which led to them, and secondly because of the way all the sciences are interrelated, being studies of the same cohesive, consistent, objective reality. If you’re going to pick and choose which sciences you trust and which you don’t like based on non-scientific criteria, you’re going to lead yourself into a bunch of contradictions and inconsistencies in your own conclusions. But religion has no real-world basis, and even a cursory survey of the religious landscape will confirm that Vox is correct about how easy it is to break with the theological leadership. What’s to stop you? It’s not like there’s any way anyone could come up with real-world evidence that your interpretation of the Bible was inferior to someone else’s.
In short, Vox’s objections to Dennett’s observations are shallow and irrelevant, being based chiefly on Vox’s failure to grasp the real issues Dennett is addressing, coupled with Vox’s apparent ignorance of biology and other sciences. But does this mean that Vox is ignorant, or stupid? I don’t think either term would accurately describe the reason why Vox argues the way he does. It’s not that he can’t grasp and grapple with the issues, but that he simply won’t. He’s got an axe to grind, and some talking points he wants to raise in “rebuttal” to Dennett’s essays, and he approaches each issue seeking only what he needs to reach his own goals. Which, to be fair, is his prerogative. He’s got his job to do. And I’ve got mine.
Between the two of us, we just might get to the heart of the matter.