Thursday, June 08, 2006


Dyson's Sphere

The New York Review of Books has a review by Freeman J. Dyson of Daniel C. Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon that is fascinating in no small part because of the wonderful anecdote Dyson tells of G.H. Hardy, a mathematician and what Dyson calls a "passionate atheist" at Trinity College, Cambridge while Dyson was a junior fellow there.

During my tenure, Professor Simpson, one of the old and famous fellows, died. Simpson had a strong sentimental attachment to the college and was a religious believer. He left instructions that he should be cremated and his ashes should be scattered on the bowling green in the fellows' garden where he loved to walk and meditate. A few days after he died, a solemn funeral service was held for him in the college chapel. His many years of faithful service to the college and his exemplary role as a Christian scholar and teacher were duly celebrated.

In the evening of the same day I took my place at the high table. One of the neighboring places at the table was empty. Professor Hardy, contrary to his usual habit, was late for dinner. After we had all sat down and the Latin grace had been said, Hardy strolled into the dining hall, ostentatiously scraping his shoes on the wooden floor and complaining in a loud voice for everyone to hear, "What is this awful stuff they have put on the grass in the fellows' garden? I can't get it off my shoes."

If Dyson's description of Dennett's book is accurate, Dennett thinks religion is something that is worth scraping off the soles of humanity's shoes, though he is trying to be less explicit than that. Dyson, conversely, makes it clear that he has a philosophical bias against Dennett's position and in favor of religion.

To my mind, Dyson's most serious charge against Dennett is that:

Dennett defines scientific inquiry in a narrow way, restricting it to the collection of evidence that is reproducible and testable. He makes a sharp distinction between science on the one hand and the humanistic disciplines of history and theology on the other. He does not accept as scientific the great mass of evidence contained in historical narratives and personal experiences. Since it cannot be reproduced under controlled conditions, it does not belong to science.

This is the same sort of constipated description of scientific inquiry that certain creationists use to deny the empiric examination of the past. While it is hard to imagine Dennett encouraging his audience, Ken Ham-like, to chant "Were you there?", there seems little reason for someone as smart as Dennett to cut out so much potential investigation unless he has an inkling, at least, that he will not like the results some people will claim for it.

On the other hand, Dyson does much the same when he says:

In my opinion, such research [studying religious activities and organizations as social phenomena], looking at religion from the outside, can be helpful but will never throw much light on the central mystery. The central mystery is the perennial sprouting of religious practices and beliefs in all human societies from ancient times until today.

One area of possibly fruitful investigation might be why two such fiercely intelligent people seem to have so much trouble communicating across this particular divide.

Dyson concludes with a section on the kamikaze pilots of World War II Japan, their potential similarity to the 9/11 perpetrators, and how we may misconceive their actions as those of brainwashed zombies, that is worth thinking about if we ever want to understand, rather than just propagandize about, our enemies in the War on Terror.
Jason Rosenhouse has promised to share his thoughts on Dyson's review at his straightforwardly named Evolutionblog before long. He is an outspoken atheist who, I suspect, will be on Dennett's "side" but Jason always has interesting things to say on the subject.
Update: Jason has fulfilled my expectations here.
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