Friday, October 19, 2012

Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell": Book Review

Every reader of this book needs to constantly keep in mind Dennett's reminders about his authorial attitude. On pg. 103, speaking of the three favorite purposes for religion (comfort, explaining, cooperating), he reminds us: "The main point of this book is to insist that we don't [italicized emphasis in original type] yet know--but we can discover--the answers to these important questions if we make a concerted effort." That is, questions about why these three purposes emerged, how they were diffused, and why these and not other ideas about religion's efficacy. "Probably some of the features of the story I tell will prove in due course to be mistaken." He stresses: "The purpose of trying to sketch a whole [italics in original] story now is to get something on the table that is both testable and worth testing." (103-4) As he says, so I concur: "Many people may wish that these were unanswerable questions. Let's see what happens when we defy their defensive pessimism and give it a try." (104)

Now, I as with anyone who has actually read all of this book (including endnotes and appendices), can cavil with some of his "sketch"--but like Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel," Dennett is giving us the big picture, not filling in the details. This does make for a very uneven survey.

If I could finesse my rating it'd be 3.65/5 stars at best. It could have been so much better if he took more time to polish his arrangement and explication. He wants to pour it all out right away on to paper, and the book for all its learning documented reads as if too rushed off to take advantage of the notoriety aroused by 2004's Sam Harris' "The End of Faith." Too often--in both books--chapters drift in and out of focus. Subtopics come up as in an intelligent conversation, but in permanent form (for both Harris & Dennett) more cohesion with the rest of the chapter is often woefully absent. Inevitable perhaps for popularizing books tackling for a wider audience an immense and subtle and rather intangible morass of belief, fact, and supposition. Dennett's engaging, even if he too thinks smugly from his tenured comforts and rarified perch that "brights" are smarter, better, and wiser than believers.

He also, I find, tends to assume brights are all atheist. Liberal Christians and progressive Jews, I suggest, share many of the "God as essence but not as being" tendencies that exposure to higher education (in or out of college) has given recent generations raised with notions of biblical 20c "higher criticism" or Mordecai Kaplan's "Judaism as a Civilization." He also gives but one bare mention in the entire book to even the word "agnostic." (Not to mention Buddhists and their own approach to the divine.) I think many of the topics here are mulled over also by agnostics and rationalists who still support culturally religious identities. Dennett seems to want to set off a binary atheist vs. believer standoff, but glosses over many millions (perhaps billions if more of us were honest with our own souls and selves?) who waver in between the two too easily polarized and stereotyped positions of faith vs. reason, assertion vs. evidence, secular vs. spiritual. Lots of us live in the middle.

I think too he takes easy potshots at those smart people who have chosen to place their trust in prayer--especially those in contemplative monastic orders, for example; his attempt to explain "ex nihilo" creation as if it came out of a substance nearly indistinguishable from nothing (a close paraphrase of his phrase) seems shaky when placed against those positing a prime mover or first cause: are not theists and scientists occupying the same ground (or lack of matter!) for argument here, when the names and labels are removed? But, Dennett's a good sport, and notes again with italics: "Assuming that these propositions are true without further research could lead to calamitous results." He wishes on pg. 311 this could be placed as a cautionary sticker on this book's cover: may I suggest this for the paperback edition?

His conclusions are about as commonsensical or as quixotic as those of Sam Harris' "The End of Faith" (also reviewed by me on Amazon): Harris urged idealistically that if only all parents told their children only the truth, the future could be secured for rationalists. Dennett too places his trust in the secular. That's about it for big answers. These are so simple, yet so elusive: do not many true believers of gods or God or no gods think exactly that? That we no matter what we preach have a handle on the truth, and that we mean best for our progeny as we raise them in the light of our own understanding; all the while, however, unable to step out of our own limited perspective of the universal and the eternal?

Dennett's devilishly entertaining, if a bit too enamored of his own cleverness. You need to imagine him on the first day of the term impishly riling up a class full of naive freshmen. He manages to make you think, although I personally was never shook up, let alone shocked, by what he had to say--despite his oft-repeated desire to ruffle (if not pluck out) all of our protective covering of faith-based feathers.

A savvy reader, in fact, will note that his book does not exactly disprove God/gods. Dennett's only asking why and how do many believe based on natural rather than supernatural explanations. A good counterpart: Randall Sullivan's "The Miracle Detectives," all about how the Vatican investigates the veracity of otherworldly visions and purported miracles. Like Dennett, Sullivan creates a readable, erratic, but thought-provoking account of how grownups in the early 21c can go about asking tough questions about faith-based suppositions and expect honest answers, or at least acknowledgements that none of us have all the answers. Both authors (like Harris, too, in another erratic but worthwhile screed) express refreshing caution in an era too in love with righteousness. Dennett's book makes a big splash, and gets our attention. From here, it's up to all challengers to take him on and support or qualify his initial rabble-rousing. He wakes us up. What will we do when jolted out of our spell?

His note #18 on pg 412 bears repeating: "(As all you careful readers know full well, I am an equal-opportunity teaser, who refuses to tiptoe around for fear of offending people--because I want to take the 'I'm mortally offended' card out of the game.) It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, falls into my trap. They won't be assiduous note readers, will they?" Caveat lector.

(Amazon US 5-12-06. As I wrote this before I started blogging, I figured it merited a reprise here.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from Australia. I came across your site via your Amazon review of Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt.

Please find some references on this topic by a unique "Philosopher"/Artist that you may already know about. Whose purpose here was to wake us up from the now world-dominant spell/trance of scientism.