Breaking the Spell: A Review

"Breaking the Spell:
Religion as a Natural Phenomenon"
(Daniel C. Dennett)

Generally I don't see eye-to-eye with Daniel Dennett philosophically, especially his views on agency and artificial intelligence, though I do respect the fact that he is one of the few popular modern philosophers with a knack for writing for the mainstream, and has a rare ability to render complex problems into a readable form with minimal use of jargon. His most recent (and probably most controversial) work is an engaging read, and it explores concepts and ideas that really should be explored in this modern age of religious extremism (as he himself states).

In "Breaking the Spell" Dennett explores several possible evolutionary accounts of the purpose and existence of religious thought in a veiled, but obviously antagonistic, manner. This exploration is taken as a purely scientific (albeit multidisciplinary) endeavor, calling upon current thoughts in sociology, anthropology, genetics, and even economics, with some little effort towards assuaging the fears of examination on behalf of religious individuals. The books is purposely written for mass appeal, so more serious individuals might find its tone slightly patronizing, and understated, lacking the rigor we usually associate with Dennett specifically and philosophical-sceintific tracts in general. He does try to supply enlightening endnotes and appendices, but they do not make up for the simplicity of the style.

The book mostly deals with probable evolutionary theories which would explain religiosity, I say probable because this book is more of a "state of research" treatise, and a call to arms than a work making conclusions towards his premise. As such it stands as a rather weak text since there is no hard data to be taken from it, or to point towards its conclusions. The speculative nature of the text serves only to weaken the meaning of the text.

Not to make this review seem too negative to Dennett's recent offering, I would firmly recommend this book to my more novice friends. It is an engaging read, and does (if nothing else) bring up some interesting discussion points, which is a very important thing (and potentially the entire point of the work). As stated, the author does have a knack for being "the philosopher for the masses", and would serve as a good point to begin research on the issue of religion as natural phenomena. I also appreciate the pains he went through to make this book readable to religious people, though one wonders if it will only reach the audience that already accepts his view of inquiry. The more fundamental of Christians would probably reject this book on first sight of the title alone. The downfall of this aim, though, is that at times the book seems more like an attempt to push a naturalistic view of religion (and at times even atheism) down the throats of the reader. Again, the problems with this book are easy to push aside, it makes a good piece of non-technical general science non-fiction.

One pedantic and philosophical point I would like to take issue with, though, is his response to the hypothetical objection that religion, and religious experience, lay outside the possible explanation of science, and empirical materialism (faith). His answer is that science must explore the phenomena, if only to prove that it indeed does lie outside the purview of science. I wonder at the effectiveness of this idea, it doesn't seem possible that science could ever discover that religious experience lies outside of its ability to grasp, or indeed any other phenomena. To grasp the lack of scientific understanding, science would have to be able to deal with some conception of the issue itself, which if if the issue was truly incommensurable, would be impossible in itself. It would be like mathematics showing what Gödel problems were unprovable via math itself, which is impossible due to Gödel's incompleteness theorem. To put it more philosophically, we might be butting against two incompatible Wittgenstinian language-games. Can any language or system express that which is unknowable to it? I'm not saying, of course, that the claim to unknowability is true, but just that proving such might be impossible.

A second problem, that might be faced, is one that I'm sure Dennett is familiar with, the impossibility of us "brights", as he calls people free from religion and mythology, actually understanding the subjective experience of religion. I say he might be familiar with this subjective problem because of his semi-famous argument with Thomas Nagel, and especially Nagel's essay "What is it like to be a bat", where Nagel shows the impossibility of objectively understanding a subjective experience (a subjective experience is not reducible). Due to this there may indeed be parts of religiosity that we are not aware of, and that cannot be expressed in a way commensurable with scientific reduction and understanding.

Again, problems aside, this book makes an engaging read, and raises many controversial issues for argument, whether or whether not you accept Dennett's views. Quickly, read it and spread your love or hatred for the philosophical and scientific views, discussion has never hurt anyone.

I was going to post more reviews, but this one went over-long. So stay tuned for more reviews.

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