Tue 14 Mar 2006
Tuesday: If we just introduce and accept the concept of *evitability*,
then there’s no conflict between Determinism and Free Will.
Thursday: Religions are a lot like domesticated animals, except that
they propagate via memes instead of genes… and that purpose that
they serve is a lot less clear.
Any friend of mine will tell you that I’m not a big fan of fiction.
But there’s a type of fiction that I have called “self-aware” fiction,
where the author is clearly just making stuff up (often quite
incredible stuff) to make a point about something that has nothing to
do with fiction.
Some literature buffs try to tell me that all fiction is really this
way, but if you want to really see what I’m trying to get at, read a
short story called [*Where am
I?*](http://www.cs.umu.se/kurser/TDBC12/HT99/Dennett.html) by Daniel
Dennett. I think you’ll agree the author is trying to do a completely
different kind of thing than, say, John Stienbeck ever was.
This story was what first impressed me about Daniel Dennett. I read
it in [The Mind’s
during the [Douglas
phase that I (like all good nerds my age) went through in college
(Hofstadter and Dennett were the editors of that book). I think of
myself as someone who loves philosophy, but when I studied philosophy
in college, I found most of it terribly boring. Most classes I took
seemed more about the history of philosophy than they were about
philosophy itself, and the texts that we studied were usually horribly
difficult to read. Dennett, Hofstadter, and others, represent to me a
movement interested in presenting enjoyable presentations of
philosophically interesting topics. When a professor in graduate
school described Dennett as “a charmer”, that resonated with me, even
though I’d never met him.
Well, I arrived home from NYC on Tuesday to an email from Kynthia telling
me that Dr. Dennett was in Bloomington this week delivering [Patten
Lectures](http://www.indiana.edu/~deanfac/patten/) on Tuesday and
Thursday evenings. And so it was that I got to see the charmer in
action. And in case there needed to be any support for the “charmer”
hypothesis, room 124 in Jordan Hall was clearly well over its stated
capacity of 298 people when I arrived about five minutes before the
lecture was to begin. I can’t remember philosophy ever looking so…
For as much as I admire Hofstadter’s writing, the times I’ve seen him
speak have always been disappointing. Such an amazing writer, you’d
think that that would translate into being a great speaker. Not so
much… He was quite cute though delivering his lengthy introduction
of Dennett on Tuesday night, replete with old embarrassing photographs
and his trademark word play.
But I found Dennett to be a very engaging speaker just as he is a
writer. His lecture was certainly not as gripping as *Where am I?*,
but we wouldn’t expect it to be either. If he always approached his
topics in that story-telling manner, it would get old quickly. But,
even when talking more like most other philosophers, he is engaging
and anything but dry. Or at least, so it was for me.
And this disclaimer is important. I had a strong sense at this event
of feeling at ease. At home. This kind of thing feels *natural* to
me, which is probably bizarre, but it’s true. And, while it is true
that I’m more comfortable in and interested by a lecture format than
many people, what I really mean is that the *kinds* of things that he
talked about and the *way* that he talked about them work in a very
natural way for me. I felt like a devout Christian must feel on
returning to church after a period of separation… Not euphoric in
any sense, just happy to be among somewhat-like-minded people,
exploring the deep issues that matter to us the most.
I will not try to reproduce the content of the talks, but I will
summarize them. Tuesday’s talk was about the old Free
Will/Determinism debate. Dennett’s offered contribution struck me as
a way to bring peace to the issue by changing the terms of the debate
somewhat. The key element being *evitability*.
Evitability is the opposite of inevitability, synonymous with
“avoidability”. Dennett argues that as life evolved, it introduced
evitability. Inanimate things can’t avoid anything. Lob a brick at a
wall, and the brick hits the wall. Lob a brick at a mammal, though,
and the mammal gets out of its way. Or tries to, anyway. Maybe they
fail, but they have the ability to make a decision in an effort to
have an effect on the future. Dennett presents this ability as
particular to life, and therefore introduced by evolution. [Freedom
he says. Free will is a product of evolution.
So, is the universe deterministic? If someone had all the information
about all of the particles in the universe and could somehow process
it all, could they predict the future perfectly? Although I think
Dennett pretty clearly thinks the answer to this is “yes”, in this
lecture his point is that it doesn’t matter. Evolution introduces
free will whether the universe is deterministic or not.
I think the audience for Thursday’s talk was even slightly larger, but
they reserved a larger hall too so it seemed less crowded. Still, if
there were open seats in the house, there weren’t many. The topic was
that of Dennett’s latest book, [Breaking the Spell : Religion as a
And yes, the religious theme almost certainly helped to inspire my
church analogy, above. Even more on that below…
Dennett introduced the meat of his presentation by saying that it was
a “sketch of a sketch.” I understand that he’s trying to highlight
that there is a great deal of conjecture in what he describes, and
that he wants to encourage more rigorous scientific investigations
into his conjectures. But, I don’t actually think that his
description of how religion is a natural outgrowth of life and culture
is all that difficult to summarize. Here’s my attempt:
We humans, like many animals, have an instinct to ascribe agency to
unknown things (hear a bump in the night: Who was that? An intruder?
An animal? An imp?). This is a great trait, because in some very
important cases, those unknown things are real predators, and we’d
better pay attention. Unlike other animals, humans have language, which (along with other
cultural abilities) gives us the ability to share these thoughts with others
easily. These ideas – a.k.a. memes – then reproduce in the
environment of our minds (“I think there was an imp trying to break
into my house last night!” “Really? What’s an imp? … Wow! I think
that’s happened to me too!”). Most of these ideas die out quickly,
but some ideas are compelling enough to make homes for themselves in
many brains. Stories about these unseen agents develop in our minds
and cultures. Eventually, some people devote themselves (frequently
with mind-boggling dedication) to the advancement and development of
some of these memes. And, at that point, we have religion.
A moment of the homey feeling that I described above happened when he
showed a slide of a rather grotesquely large looking dairy cow. He
asked “who is the designer of this animal?” My example for the same
idea is stating that apples are basically inventions of human culture.
The process of domestication is grossly underestimated in most casual
understanding of these things. Think of an apple you might find at a
grocery store (no matter how organic)… Nothing even remotely like
that apple existed until humans domesticated the tree. The fruit of
the pre-domesticated plant is apparently almost inedible (the “wild
almond”, I gather from [Guns, Germs, and
is actually poisonous!) (Much more on the domestication of apples can
be learned by reading the extremely approachable [The Botany of
At the same time, humans have as yet (to the best of my knowledge)
never produced any food that could sustain us that wasn’t made out of
something once alive. For Dennett, then, (and for me) most of our
food depends both on both natural evolution and “artificial”
So it is, he presents, with religion. Dogs, he claims, don’t develop
stories out of whatever goes through their heads when they are aroused by a
bump in the night. They can’t, they don’t have the language to do so.
We not only have the language, but we have the brains to fixate on the
stories, and we have the culture to allow some of us to devote our
lives to the stories while others make the food, clothing, and shelter
that we need.
It’s an interesting presentation. Do I buy it? Pretty well. In both
talks, really, the feeling that I got was that these were ideas that I
pretty much already believed in, but he’s just saying them well and
has thought them through much better. Having said that, I also revel
in being able to reserve judgment, and let these ideas just live in
my mind as I proceed through life without having to commit.
The enjoyment I felt, then, is not “Hallelujah! The truth is
spoken!”, but more like, “It feels good to hear someone who thinks
about these things similar to how I think about them giving an
enjoyable talk about his thoughts.”
Further adding to my respect for the talk was his points of political
advocacy. Is Dennett trying to rid the world of religion? No, he
says. Having no idea what a world without religion would look like,
he’s not about to start advocating for it.
He did, however, advocate one idea and encouraged the audience to
“spread the word” if they agreed: It should be a mandatory part of our
primary and secondary education system to learn basic uncontested
facts about all of the [major religions of the
world](http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html). He even
mentioned standardized tests being required to verify that anyone with
a high school diploma (including those private- and home-schooled) be
able to demonstrate basic knowledge of the fundamental beliefs,
origins, histories, practices, rituals, and taboos, of the world’s
major religions. (He added, by the way, that if a private institution
wanted to add anything additional (such that all adherents to
religions other than X are doomed to eternal torture), that’s fine.
He’s only advocating that the basic facts be well understood.)
Personally, I was very pleasantly surprised by this choice. I hate
proselytizing, and I’m particularly annoyed by atheists proselytizing
because I don’t want to be associated with them. This, however, is
much more consistent with my beliefs in education, in freedom of
religion, etc. And I certainly think that it would only reduce the
amount of strife between some of these religions. So, I’m signed onto
this cause, and like Dr. Dennett, I encourage any of you who agree
with us to spread the good word.
A few quibbles: Dennett claimed that the above was his only point of
advocacy, but he did clearly advocate for the respect of atheists.
Specifically, he showed a humorous church sign that proclaimed: “GOOD
without GOD is 0”. While acknowledging the cleverness of this, he
also said that he strongly feels that the notion is wrong and should
be respectfully resisted. I agree.
He made a claim during the Q&A that “religious organizations are doing
all of the heavy lifting” when it comes to charitable work. Having
effectively started my professional career at the local United Way
chapter and being a proud contributor to that organization to this
day, I must take issue with that claim. While I whole-heartedly
respect much of the faith-based charitable work that happens in our
society, there is also a great deal of secular work in this area.
Indeed, if [secular persons really make up only 13-15% of the US
population](http://www.adherents.com/rel_USA.html) then I’d say “we” are
doing more than our fair share right now, although I don’t have any
hard facts to back up that claim.
Finally, while I understand the benefit, I must take this opportunity
to express my qualms with PowerPoint driven presentations. Yes, it’s
great to empower speakers to have all of their slides and other visual
materials well-organized and at their fingertips. It’s even nice to
see their main points highlighted more frequently. However, I find
that PowerPoint encourages the speaker to follow what they have
written, often defaulting to simply reading aloud what is on the
screen. I get a book on tape if I want someone to read to me; I
attend a lecture to see and hear someone actually act like a person.
Dennett was not as bad as many about this, but he certainly was at his
best when he was talking freely rather than following his notes too
closely. In one particularly bad moment, he wanted to make a point
that he kept thinking was illustrated on the “next slide”. He kept
not finding it, I don’t think I ever learned what the point was going
But, obviously, these complaints do not amount to a negative
experience for me. I was very glad to be present for the clear and
enjoyable presentations on interesting but potentially dry topics. I
hope that this tradition flourishes. When the presenters also happen
to be people with similar beliefs to my own, it’s just that much
easier for me to enjoy.