Last month Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, two notable scientists and atheists, had a little chat at Oxford that covered a range of topics including evolution, religion, memetics, language, parasitic genes and multiplexing.
Dawkins begins by discussing a comment Daniel Dennett had made to the effect that Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection was a more revolutionary idea than the work of Sir Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein and “everybody else,” since it fundamentally changed how many of us see ourselves and the world we inhabit.
To which Dennett replies, “That’s what I meant and I still think it’s right… It’s Darwin’s idea that unifies everything, from physics and quarks all the way to ethics and art and morality and love, through the idea of natural selection, which is responsible for all the living things and all the artifacts that living things make. Not just the beaver’s dam and the ant hill and the termite mound but the cathedrals and the poetry and the music and the systems of law and so forth.”
Below is the video and some great excerpts from the conversation since the talk is roughly 1 hour and 15 minutes long.
Daniel Dennett on trees and religion:
“One of the fundamental insights that we can get from a Darwinian perspective is the idea that just as trees, let’s say—there are many brilliant details to trees, they’re brilliantly designed but by nobody. There’s lots of reasons why trees have the arrangements of parts that they do. And the same is true of many cultural entities: they are cunningly organized to perpetuate themselves and to protect themsleves, and sometimes, rarely, there’s a human being or group of human beings or a cabal of priests… that have actively designed this thing, but usually not. Usually the design has exactly the same provenance as the design of the bird’s wing. It came about by differential replication of what are basically unintended, more or less mindless mutations.”
Dennett on the relation of unison chanting and religion:
“It’s no accident that religions around the world have used unison singing and chanting because unison and chanting is itself a mechanism of high fidelity. It’s a principle that has been endorsed by computer science… If you have eight people and they all have imperfect memories of the words to “God Save the Queen” or “Pledge of Allegiance of the Untied States”… if they say it in unison the errors that individuals make along the way get drowned out and corrected, and you hear what the majority says and you refresh your own memory of the text. This is how religious content—rituals, holy scriptures, text—were preserved before writing. They had to have mechanisms for maintaining the fidelity, and unison was the beautiful, excellent mechanism for doing that because it had this multiplexing capacity.”
Dennett on how the afterlife is a useful trick:
Dennett: “Oh, that one’s too obvious I think. It takes a steely person, somebody stronger than me to resist the temptation to say to a child, whose parent or whose dog has died, not to fall back on the comforting myth of there being some place where this loved one has gone and can watch you… There’s no surprise why that would have been invented over and over and over again. It’s a good trick.”
Dawkins: “It’s a good trick if you can persuade yourself that what you wish to be true is true.
Dennett: “And that’s a good meta-trick that you find through religions…
Dennett on how religion is similar to a Ponzi scheme:
“One that’s been interesting me more recently is how a number of social institutions depend on the ignorance of those that they exploit, whether it’s a Ponzi scheme, where the individual investors are sort of almost complicit in their ignorance of what’s going on because it’s not worth their while to be too inquisitive about what’s going on until it’s too late, and, in particular, religions.”
Dennett on electronic communication’s effect on religion:
“I think that perhaps the single most important change in the world as far as religion is concerned is electronic communication: the Internet, cell phones, transistor radios for that matter, going back a little bit. For thousands of years religions thrived in an environment where information was hard to come by, and you could more or less assume that individual members of each group were not only ignorant of other religions, but even ignorant of a lot of their own religion’s history and practice. This easily maintained ignorance I think was the lifeblood of religious solidarity.”