A Conversation with Daniel Dennett

This is the first in a series of interviews with celebrity freethinkers, part of an online donation drive to support ongoing Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) relief  and rehabilitation efforts.

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(You may also download the podcast file here.)

Red: Good morning, Mr. Dennett!

Dennett: Hello!

Red: Hello, am I coming out clear?

Dennett: Yep, very clear

Red: Ok, so like I said, thank you so much for participating in this benefit webathon that we’re doing for the relief effort that’s ongoing right now. And so let’s get to it so that we can talk about many things. Our organisation is a freethought organisation and one of the things that keeps coming up in our discussions is whether a freethinker or a skeptic or someone who claims to be a critical thinker necessarily has to be an atheist or a materialist. Like, can they be honest and maintain a theist’s position?


Dennett: Well, I suppose it must be possible in some regard because I know a lot of people who are very intelligent and are very sincere and intellectually honest in every way and in every other regard and they still somehow manage to at least profess some theistic beliefs. I always have my doubts about how much advantage they’re taking of a metaphoric interpretation of what they say. I often suspect that they’re deceiving themselves. But it seems like a rather mild form of self-deception if that’s what it is and maybe we should just give them the advantage of the doubt and say ok, I don’t know how you do it, but apparently it’s possible.

Red: So you think it’s kind of a belief in belief as you have mentioned several times.

Dennett: Well, it’s certainly belief in belief. That is to say for one reason or another, they’ve decided that believing in god is a really good thing. It’s something they aspire to, and if you aspire to something, sometimes it helps to claim you’ve already achieved it. As the Alcoholics Anonymous slogan says, “fake it til you make it”. And that sounds a little crass, but when it works, it works.

Red: And speaking of that, there are people who actually say they believe, but they do not. Like you did a 2010 study on this, on preachers who are still preachers but are no longer believers. Can you tell us a bit about the findings of that study?

Dennett: Yes, in fact we’ve just done wrapping up the second phase. The book should be out before Christmas.

Red: Great. We look forward to reading that. Can you give us some spoilers? Of course we’ll be getting the book when it’s out – the connection is… it’s back, but there’s a problem with the call Hold on while we try to get the call back. – Ok, sorry about that, our call was dropped for some reason.

Dennett: Ok let’s see, I guess we’re back now.

Red: So, can you give us some spoilers about your upcoming book?

Dennett: Well, we’ve got several dozen more preachers that Linda’s interviewed. They had different stories and we’ve, also ended (?) a bit to talk to for instance seminary professors who teach the students, cause a lot of the dynamic of falling out of faith and becoming a non-believing preacher starts in the seminary and I think it’s a very moving book, actually and fascinating. There are so many ways that people find themselves drifting imperceptibly, always with good intentions into a real situation where they’re stuck in the hope then no longer believing.

Red: Yeah, I’m sure their stories are quite fascinating I’ve read about people like Dan Barker and John Loftus who have lost their faith and have now sorta become like preachers for the other side, like champions of atheists and non-belief. Can you tell us, of course there’s a trend of atheist churches. Have you heard of that? What do you think of that new trend?

Dennett: Well, I guess I applaud the idea, but I doubt it’s gonna work. I think we do have the need, a real pressing need especially in the United States for good alternatives, good institutional community alternatives to churches without the supernaturalism, without the irrationalism, just good community spirited groups which is what churches have been very often in the past and people who have wanted to form groups of that sort are wise to adopt as many of the design features of religion that they should bear in some regards because those are time tested design elements that have proven their worth over the centuries, so music, unison, don’t call it prayer, but reciting in unison, standing and saying gets the heart pumping a little. These are all good things and f we can enlist them, I don’t see why you can’t, really. I mean, we have weddings and funerals and commencement ceremonies, graduation ceremonies that work as rituals. I think rituals are a perfectly fine idea. The trick is a lot of people that you want in these organisations are really averse to rituals.

Red: Yeah I have a similar experience here whenever you mention something vaguely or remotely like the church, freethinkers would be against it and of course there are some people who think that there is nothing about religion that you can use. Like these are the self-professed militant atheists or sometimes they call themselves anti-theists, even. And there has recently been a backlash against this kind of militant or more aggressive type of atheism and do you think that that kind of way of promoting scepticism has already run its course that it’s maybe time for a more compassionate and friendly kind of scepticism?

Dennett: It may be. But I tend to think that we’re still in the period when we wanna have different strokes for different folks. There’s some people that need that pail of cold water in the face that militant atheism offers. And we wanna make sure that we address the religious people on all fronts. But actually, yes. I’ve been saying recently that I think the corner has been turned that we should take seriously the fact that it really hurts to give up your religion. If you see your children falling away from the traditions you grew up with and this is something that has meant something to you all your life, this is a very painful period. And we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we will be liked by people for being the bearers of this bad news that their religion is crumbling. So I think that compassion is called for, yes.

Red: Definitely and speaking of a change of approach or a more compassionate approach, the new Roman Catholic pope has been getting a lot of positive press even from sceptics. Even from atheists or people who are really critical of organized religion. What do you think of this guy?

Dennett: Well, the Machiavellian answer was given, in effect, by Richard Dawkins who a year or two ago, when we were wondering whether Ratzinger should resign, we hope not. Because he thought that a rigid conservative  like that was just the man to bring the church to its knees. So in one regard, we might rather wish to have a more unbending and unlovable pope because it would continue to drive people away from the Roman Catholic Church. Now, Francis is obviously deeply intent on preventing that from happening. And bringing the wanderers back into the church and probably having some significant success, although it’s very interesting to see the church hierarchy is getting very very resistant to this. There’s been a lot of quite surprisingly public backlash against the new pope which must be quite something for him to contemplate.

Red: Yes, and in our group, there are still people who are Catholics and they are progressive Catholics which is why they’re part of a freethinking organisation and they are hoping that pope Francis is finally the person to usher in progressive change into the church. With your experience and knowing the cultural basis that the RC is founded on, do you think that there is still hope for meaningful change in the RC, or do you think that the change in the RC will just be cosmetic?

Dennett: I think that what’s likely to happen is the church changes cosmetically too slowly to preserve itself. I think right now, we’re in a very chaotic period where all religions are gonna have to change dramatically or they’re going to go extinct. And they can go extinct very fast. There’s remarkably little momentum, I think, in any church in spite of the fact that it has  a tremendous portfolio of money and thousands and thousands of churches and all these rituals and offices. If people start abandoning the church, it can fall apart very fast. And I have said that I think the religions are gonna change more in the next 10 or 20 years than it did in the last century. And it did change more  in the last century than it did in the last two millennia. And the accelerated change brought about by the new transparency of information is really striking. No church has yet to figure out how to deal with that.

Red; Yes, and you mention that you think that religion will change in a very rapid way. What do you think the direction is gonna be? I read some people speculate that in the future, religion will probably go in the way of humanism, or secularism. So do you think that that is correct?

Dennett: Well, it’s hard to say. Let’s look at some of the candidates. In the US, the mega churches, and some of them are actually having troubles now are drawing people away from the evangelical and fundamentalist churches and drawing them into these glittering new mega churches. And their recipe seems to be they’re basically country clubs and day care centres and they have yoga classes and lots of parking and swimming pools and trips around the world, and they have services with lots of soft rock music. And they go out of their way to avoid being very churchy. And basically as long as you are one with Jesus, then whatever you believe is right. But what does that mean? Well, whatever you like is what it means.

Red: So yeah, religions are of course not created equal. Some have survived better than others and of course that says nothing about how ethical or how good a religion it is. But as a humanist or a sceptic, of all the religions that you have surveyed, which would you consider the most ethical? Like if there were only a few religions remaining, what would you prefer it to be?

Dennett: Well, that’s a hard one, actually. Because in part through this study that Linda and I have done, I’ve come to appreciate more the personal costs to the clergy of the ultra-liberal religions where the clergy are basically required to speak in metaphors but not admit it. Because there’s a sorta double-speak there. The old folks in the church hear the preacher and they think the preacher is speaking literally. The young folks understand that this is all metaphor and this creates a sort of systematic dishonesty within the church that can be smothered for generations, but this can be one of the real difficulties that the churches face whereas the literal conservative churches mean what they say and when someone falls away from that, they fall hard. And so ethical… Well, you know the Unitarians are a pretty well established organisation; doesn’t appeal to everybody, but they certainly are ethical and doing good works is right at the top of their list and I find that attractive.

Red: And aside from the Unitarians, people who lose sight of religion, they tend to go through this phase where they say I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.  What is your take on this?

Dennett: My take on it is benign neglect and tolerance. I’m not gonna hound somebody who says that. I don’t think they know what they mean by spiritual but they’re well-meaning. They think they mean something good and probably they do. They mean that they’re serious that they want their life to mean something; mean something ethical. If that’s what they mean, then I’m all for spirituality. But for some of them it just means adopting a sort of gullible new age enthusiasm for almost anything that comes along.

Red: Yes, and of course there are those who do not turn spiritual and actually cling to their religion as hard as they can. And it’s something that we actually take in this country especially in times of calamity, like with Typhoon Yolanda and of course statistically, where there is poverty and existential insecurity, religion tends to thrive. Do you think that it’s right for sceptics to criticise that kind of thinking in a time like this or when is the right time, or is there a right time?

Dennett: Yes. Very important point. The statistics on this are just overpowering. It’s precisely where people are worse off, where they are most insecure where poverty reigns, where states are on the edge of being failed states. This is where religion thrives and I can see exactly why it thrives. People are desperate and they need something to cling to and it’s their source of hope. And as soon as times get better, they start wandering away from the church. This is something that Calvin noted and he realised the other sort of paradox: the very Calvinistic virtues that he was teaching in Switzerland. When they succeeded, the parishioners became less interested in their church. They didn’t have to be as dependent on the church. And  I think that for the same reason we would never advise somebody, a sceptic, to try to talk someone in the last days of their life, to talk them out of their religion. That’s just cruel. Their fantasy may help them and it doesn’t hurt anybody. And if right now, in the terrible straits that people are in in the Philippines, I think that anything that encourages them to help the person next to them and not think of the person next to them as competing for that last scrap of food or that last bit of shelter, but instead, anything that will encourage mutual aid and cooperation and a sense of hope, don’t extinguish that. Let it go. We can reflect once people are well-fed and housed. We can reflect on what it all means. But not right now. Not until we get them in better shape.

Red: So it’s one thing to say that we shouldn’t criticize religion so much because people need it. Another kind of thing that’s happening here right now, there’s this anti-critical meme going around that’s saying that we shouldn’t be critical of the government, you shouldn’t be critical of people trying to help or even use blatant lies to inspire others. What do you think of this? What about the critics who think that criticism is a valuable thing by itself? And who are afraid that being uncritical at this time will let those people who deserve critical at this time go?

Dennett: I think this is actually a tough question, a tough issue. Suppose that you were living in a state that was on the edge of becoming a failed state; about to collapse into economic chaos and political chaos. And suppose that you knew some facts about the government which if you wrote about them in your newspaper would pretty well guarantee the collapse of the state. Meanwhile, suppose that there are investors that are just about ready to invest in improvements and there’s a whole lot of help that’s on the way, but it will evaporate overnight if you blow the whistle. I mean I think we can tell that story and put the details in such a way that one will have to think very hard about how much buttoning my lip, how much silence can I justify if that silence will or might preserve and improve a situation? But of course the trouble is it’s almost impossible to make those judgements in an informed way. You’re taking a chance; there’s always going to be these scoundrels who will leap into that silence and take advantage of it. So, it’s a hard one. But you do have to recognise that you might be risking just the utter collapse and sometimes you might be thinking “well utter collapse with truth is better than hanging on with our fingernails to a lie”. That may be true, but  once a state fails, it’s very very hard to put it back in order. We’ve seen this around the world. When you see a failed state, it seems just about impossible to recover any sense of security and trust in the country.

Red: I’d like to talk more about the idea of that, failed states. But first let’s talk about cultural evolution. You mentioned the idea of cultural fleas, like these memes that are passed on but aren’t necessarily beneficial, like do you think that religion is a cultural flea, or what are cultural fleas that peeve you in particular?

Dennett: Yes, I feel that culture as containing a lot of elements; not all cultural elements that are basically well perceived as symbiotic creatures. They are, they’re like fleas and mice and rats and cockroaches. They have evolved to thrive in human company, but they don’t do us any good, but they’re so hard to eradicate. And malicious gossip, crazy folk beliefs that are harmful, racist attitudes, hazing traditions in organisations where the initiation rites are mean and cruel and demeaning. There’s a few examples right there and some religious rituals that don’t do anyone any good, but they’re very good at prolonging themselves. They survive like the common cold because they can.

Red: Of course you’re talking about these cultural fleas, these memes, right? But memes are used in a different sense, like most people are more familiar with internet memes. Like in the Philippines, being often called the social media capital of the world, we get a lot of things on social media such as memes and all these things. What do you think of this social media like do you think that it’s something that will dramatically change society or culture for the better or is it something that could go both ways?

Dennett: It could go both ways. First of all, let me say something about internet memes and software memes. The word has been appropriated, meme is not in a way a bad thing but since these are clearly intelligently designed, like people intently trying to make a viral video or to make a viral slogan; so that the source of these is not the memetic source that Dawkins was talking about this is not mindless bottom up Darwinian evolution, this is intelligent design of memes, which is why we’re intelligent designers.

Red: But we exist!

Dennett: We exist and we’re not that intelligent, but we’re more intelligent than in the early days of cultural evolution, so if we talk about those as memes, then we have to abandon what is perhaps their defining feature which is that they are created and designed and improved by differential selection and not by clever designers. But then, what about social media? What kind of change is that going to achieve? I think some good and some bad. I think that the fact that social media have expanded our world so that the whole world is my village and geographic distance is no barrier anymore. That has many positives, now that aside, it also has a negative and that is that we don’t know our neighbours. And we have people who are turning their back on their neighbourhood and devoting themselves to living in cyberspace. And I think that’s not only unfortunate, but I think that’s actually very dangerous. I think that if, for instance, the internet were to collapse, as it could, people have become so dependent on it that they would panic. And this would be a very nasty world. That would be a very nasty thing.

Red: I can certainly agree that people would panic if the internet collapsed. So you mentioned intelligent design and I am very thankful that creationism is not such a problem in this country; however, dogmatism is. And it’s what’s kept progress in the social justice arena quite stalled. Like for example, we have this reproductive health law that cannot be implemented because of religious opposition. Now these religious people who oppose this contraceptive law, they’ve wizened up and they’ve evolved somehow and they’re now using science on their side. They’re citing these supposed scientific experts who say “Hey, we have just as much science and evidence and logic on our side.” Now it becomes a battle of who has the better scientist, who to cite. What do you think about this problem?

Dennett: First of all, I wanna know who on earth are the scientists that are on the other side? And what are their credentials? Are there any of them that have any important posts in any lab or scientific institution?

Red: They do not, actually. And the problem is that the scientific literacy here is not so high so there really needs to be more information on how to be sure of your scientific sources.

Dennett: Yeah, this is one of the side effects/ by products of the democratization of the communication world which is unfortunate. Because there was a certain amount of quality control in the somewhat authoritarian or bureaucratic pecking order that scientists, well, if you’re a scientist at MIT, or CalTech or Oxford, that’s one thing. And if you’re a scientist at East Poland (?) junior college, it’s something else but the opinions of the least educated, least accomplished scientists can now be trumpeted just as widely as the opinions of the very best experts in the field. That’s a real problem.

Red: And you of course agree that critical thinking is a very important thing to have. You wrote a book called Intuition Pumps. How do you think we can increase the value put on critical thinking in such a conservative and religious culture such as ours?

Dennett: Good question. I don’t have any fast recipes. I’ve got a few ideas. I would think that it might be possible to create little dramas and what medium or form they would take, I don’t know where there’s this solution to a problem which requires a little critical thinking in a surprising way. And the hero is—and maybe the whole audience can see “Oh if you just put on your sceptical glasses, you’ll see what you have to do to get out of this problem” and it might enliven the appreciation of critical thinking if you had some children who were at first teased or belittled for their being sceptics, and then they save the day in one or another, that might help.

Red: Yeah, another idea or problem that has been brought up with this whole weather disaster that’s been happening in the Philippines is how capitalism has somehow caused or accelerated global warming. And a lot of people are thinking that maybe we should challenge the idea of capitalism, celebrities like Russell Brand have even gone viral with that speech he did. And what do you think about this? About how capitalism can somehow evolve into something quite different?

Dennett: Well, I haven’t heard about Russell Brand’s speech, now I’m curious. Seems to me like he’s a rather unlikely spokesman for that considering what capitalism has brought to him. But never mind that. He might have had a valuable change of heart. He is an intelligent man in many regards. I think that we really did learn in the late 20th century that plant economies just don’t work. And it doesn’t work for rather deep reasons. So some forms of capitalism tempered and modified and partially controlled, I think, you gotta have it. For instance, let’s take seriously, the wonderful effects of micro-financing in the 3rd world. This is a great movement, bringing micro-financing around the world, and mainly to women, and of course that’s capitalism, but it’s improving a lot of women and it’s improving the health and safety and welfare of people all over the world. The thing is, to prevent the excesses of capitalism and that is a scary thing because the multinational corporations are now in some regards operating with impunity that is states are having a hard time controlling them. And that’s definitely worrying.

Red: You used anarchy as an analogy for how the brain actually works and you speculated that the human creativity was possible because of that kind of organization. Now I was wondering if you thought that translated into the real world? That if we had such a system, it would greatly accelerate the kind of human society that we could have? What are your thoughts on this? The possibility of a real world application of the analogy that you used for the brain

Dennett: Oh I think that’s actually pretty obvious. If you look at very rigidly, hierarchically, controlled societies, creativity is hard to find. *laughs* I mean, the point that tempers that is that I think all really creative artists recognize that constraints are important for creativity. A lot of the greatest arts for instance was done under commission by a church or a state; where a very specific artistic task, a theme, “this is for the glorification of the king” or “this is to commemorate the battle of such” and these were often not particularly inspiring commissions. But the fact that they, the artist, had to work with that framework, they had to come up with something wonderful inside that straightjacket led to some of the greatest strokes of creativity ever. So constraint is not a bad thing for creativity; it’s just too much constraint which is the problem.

Red: Ok and of course I know that anarchy is something that this group of people would not want to happen. I am talking about objectivists, the Ayn Rand kind of objectivists. In our group, I, in particular, personally have some difficulty conversing or discussing or debating with two kinds of people, objectivists and post-modernists. So they’re on opposite sides of the spectrum; one is so certain the other says there can be no certainty whatsoever. What’s your take on this?

Dennett: *laughs* I think the right idea is to put them all in a room and let them fight it out. They deserve each other.

Red: *laughs* Well, thank you for that. I’ll see if that can be arranged.

Dennett: Yeah, work for it. It’s good.  *laughs*

Red: *laughs*  So but as philosophies, how valid do you think those stances actually are?

Dennett: Not at all. I think they’re threadbare and incoherent and actually socially pernicious.

Red: *laughs* Well thank you for that. That made me laugh and happy inside. So one last question from me before I bring the discussion to the wider audience online and in this room. Recently, I’ve read another skeptical writer, Guy Harrison. He wrote about how skepticism should be a sort of social advocacy. It kinda reminds me of the work of William Clifford in Ethics of Belief when he said that we have an ethical duty to spread skepticism because if people aren’t skeptical, it’s not good for society. So do you think that people like us who have this critical thinking, freethinkers of all sorts, have the ethical responsibility to let others, teach others, influence others to think skeptically as well?

Dennett: Oh yes absolutely. Absolutely, of course. I think that’s one of our primary obligations. Absolutely.

Red: Yeah of course a lot of atheists, they start out just being pissed off at religion. They feel that they’ve been duped. But I feel personally that they have to go beyond that and to look to social justice causes. Do you agree with this kind of thinking?

Dennett: Well, I certainly think that what freethinking groups, humanists, atheists, what all these groups should do, is not just sit around badmouthing religion but do good works. For instance, what you’re doing right now is exactly the right thing to be doing because you are helping your fellow citizens in a time of crisis. You’re dropping everything and coming to their aid and you’re doing it under the banner of freethought and I think it’s very important that we do that because my own impression of how people in the United States, particularly say in the Bible Belt, the reason the churches are so strong there is that young people looking around and thinking they want to be good. They wanna have good lives. They wanna do good things. The only groups that they see doing good things in organizations are the churches. So they figured that what they have to do to have a good life, to be good. We wanna show “No, no, no, we have the muscle, we have the organization. We have the team spirit. We can do good things too.”

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