Una serie de acotaciones al margen a medida que voy leyendo algunos libros... A series of annotations whilst reading interesting books... A collection of notes on books about science, SciFi, history, others topics... Una colección de notas sobre libros de ciencia, ciencia-ficción, historia, otros...

15 January 2017

Dennet's Breaking the Spell - Chapter Two review

Chapter 2 opens with a question: Can science study religion?

Like all opening question the answer is a yes. However Dennet as a philosopher goes into a discussion of science and it's limits and if religion falls into its domain of study.

He questions why religion has evaded scientific study. Part of the blame is in the social dynamics: no one likes to be hanging around second rate professionals, and studying religion is surrounded by an aura of "low prestige, backbiting, and dubious results that currently envelops the topic of religion" (pages 33 - 34).

Clearly organizations like Templeton do not help and maybe it is a way to put a soft fence around a good, objective and rational study of science. Also questions that are raised suspiciously between family members and friends. People just let it go, including when everybody agreed in its atheism, or prefer not to insult "cultural sensitives". Dennet puts it succinctly "since we know from the outset that many people think such research violates a taboo, or at least meddles impertinently in matters best left private, it is not surprising that few good researchers, in any discipline, want to touch the topic" (page 34). How convenient for religion in general!

Categorically Dennet states that "the question is not whether good science of religion as a natural phenomenon is possible: it is."

And he launches his next question "the question is whether we should do it" (page 34)

What could happen if something that you do as part of your group it is deemed to be unhealthy, Or wrong? Would you stop doing it right away? Which will be your first reaction? Anger, defensive outrageous cries, or just saying "this is the way it is. It always have been like this".

Dennet makes a parallelism with music. If studies reveal that music is bad, what would be your reaction? Good example as several extreme forms of religious belief, up to some extent most of the Abrahamic religions condemn music and enjoying it at all or in some degree. Also music has been studied in different disciplines including evolutionary biology. In some way it should be some biological explanation and in some cases and evolutionary basis (not all traits and behaviors should have it, they can be co-opted also). We like it or not most of our behavioral traits they have a big genetic influence, whilst culture has rocketed the Homo sapiens in a fast forward line of changes.

Most people enjoy music and believe that it is good: we go to concerts, stream it, learnt and add to the school's curricula as well.

If studies show that music is bad, will concerned parents stop playing it to their kids including when they are in the womb?

There is a range of other possibilities: music is not bad at all, but it's scientific study could destroy the speak it has on humans, rendering music as a non-sense maybe dull or boring activity. Like for a grown up kid playing with her toys could mean: the magic is gone and you do not want to play anymore.

Dennet goes strong in this: show me he evidence. "In spite of all warnings over the centuries, I have been unable to come up with a case of some valuable phenomenon that has actually been destroyed, or even seriously damaged, by scientific scrutiny" (page 45)

We can all feel relieved : music is here to stay and our understanding of it enhances our appreciation rather than destroying the enchantment. In the worst scenario those parents worrying so much about their future kids intelligence maybe they could play any music they like instead of sticking to some oil snake salesman product and kill themselves to boredom with the likes such as Baby Bach: if you like classic just go for the interpretations you most admire, if you like rock just rock&roll your babies!

Dennet continues with another taboo. So big that until just a few years ago there was no scientific research and anyone attempting it was considered a second class scientist in he best case: sex. Clearly we know much more, still we have a lot to understand but no one can say that "knowing" destroyed the pleasure of it.

Or not. Lot of research is how sex is used in power driven and abusive interactions. The more we know, the better, isn't it?

More the benefits derived by its scientific study overwhelm any wrong deduction: from a social and political and individual level. Ironically the biggest religions keep their outdated and moralistic attitudes against sex, however all the data telling the contrary. And we know that all about sex is not good, and neither is bad. And still we do not know a lot, so we keep studying it.

There are other issues about trying to stop scientific inquiry: the genius is out of the bottle, and it is very difficult bear to impossible to keep this knowledge from spreading.

This strong sentiment against scientific scrutiny of human activities it is not only seen dangerous by religion advocates. It is a widespread sentiment that run in all cultures, and percolates to pop culture. I think of Mary Shelley's Frankestein to Tim Burton's Nightmare before Christmas: from trying to understand what's life to figure out Christmas. In one extreme knowing is Pandora box releasing terrible things on us, in the other is science dissecting a cherished human value and rendering it obsolete or dull. Like proving god, the burden is on the people trying to say that knowledge can be dangerous or kill core human aspects. The question to them: what's core to human nature? Do we know if do not study it?

If religion is like Santa Claus, it will be regarded as a child story. If it is like music or sex we will have a better understanding and enjoy it and benefit from it at a different level. And most important it will influence policies and costumes in our societies that could prove important for our own survival.

Dennet states at the end of the chapter the moral dilemma: what if religion is what keep us humans moral? Prevent us of wrongdoings and evil? If it's effect disappears like the Santa Claus myth, is it not a dangerous path to follow? (he elaborates from page 49 until the end of the chapter, page 53)

Dennet agan is clear about it "religion is not out-of-bonds to science, in spite of propaganda to the contrary from a variety of sources. Moreover, scientific inquiry is needed to inform out most momentous political decisions. There is risk and even pain involved, but it would be irresponsible to use that as an excuse for ignorance" (page 53)

Books and References

From the fantastic and super informative blog Probably Overthinking It by Allen Downey, take a careful read on:

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