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Daniel Dennett picks a fight.

And now for something completely different: noted athiest philosopher, Daniel Dennett:

Dennett begins his talk with the picture of a dairy cow. While cows are a natural phenomenon, they’ve been bred, and evolved, to meet our current needs.

Religions are like cows. Humans have been designing our religions for thousands of years to meet our needs. They’re a natural phenomenon, and we should study them the same way we study phenomena like global warming. They’re brilliantly designed, like the cow – a mix of evolutionary design and design by humans who are consciously designing their religions. (And they’re what Dennett’s writing about in his most recent book, “Breaking the Spell”.)

He believes that religions are a singificantly important natural phenomenon that we should teach religion – the facts about different world religions – to every child in the country, the same way we teach English, American History and mathematics. Teach your children whatever you want, but make sure they have this basis in the factuality of religion.

This is important because democracy depends on informed consent – to participate in a society that has so many different religions, we need to understand the facts about the wide world of religion. Reviews of this policy proposal have been pretty hostile – one called it “totalitarian”, another called it “hilarious” – he hopes the TED attendees will help him shape this idea further.

Cows could not live without human stewards. Humans are now a form of symbiote to cows. How clever it was of sheep to acquire shepherds! They’ve outsourced their problems – predator protection, food discovery, healthcare.

It doesn’t matter that sheep are really dumb. Evolution is really smart. Orgel’s second rule (by Francis Crick): “Evolution is cleverer than you are.” The designs discovered by natural selection are unbelievably brilliant, but the process is without foresight and design.

Humans now wield the paintbrush, and culture is what lets us work. If Martians came to earth, they’d want to know why Muslims came to Mecca, why Hindus came to the Ganges.

He talks about organisms – parasites – that hijack brains and turn mice into super-brave mice so that they’ll be eaten by cats… so the parasite can pass from mouse to cat to complete their lifecycle. Do we do this as human?

Dennett believes we do: “Islam” means submission, surrender. Christianity has themese of the same – Rick Warren’s book talks explicitly about the idea of surrender to God’s plan. “Surrendered people obey God’s word, even if it doesn’t make sense.”

Dennett sees a lot to like in Warren’s book, but sees some major problems… which he proceeds to dissect… at length. Dennett sees meaning, and reason for right or wrong without the need for God providing a purpose. Dennett is very worried that Warren is an apologist for creationism, who uses a great deal of scientific language, much of which isn’t factually accurate. And Dennet believes that the book tries to convince by repetition, asking us all to say with him, “Every time you read it or say it, you make another copy in your brain.”

Do we really want to tell people, when they encounter religious doubt, “Don’t listen, that’s just Satan talking.” Do we want to tell people in encountering the wealth of religions around the world that youu’re listening to lies sharpened over thousands of years? Can we acknowledge that there are many good people who are atheist, agnostic or otherwise moved to goodness for reasons other than religious ones.

(It’s an interesting choice for a talk – I’ve not read Warren’s book, and a passage by passage response to the book seems an odd way to use one’s 18 minutes. As Chris Anderson says at the end, “In some ways, that talk was outrageously unfair”. He tries to give Warren the chance to respond, but Warren had already left.)

(A personal note: It’s rare that I do the “celebrity lockjaw” thing – I get to rub elbows with very famous people quite often and usually manage to say something polite, if not witty. But I found myself totally silent when I was backstage, waiting to talk to the TED AV people, standing next to Daniel Dennet.

Daniel Freakin’ Dennet!

I lost most of my senior year in college arguing over “Explaning Consciousness”. I looked for a witty quip to say to him, and soon I was lost in thought. I found myself recalling arguments about the nature of mind and selfhood, the diference between brain and mind, the possibility of disembodied intelligence from fifteen years back, screamed arguments I had with some of my closest friends.

I woke up four hours later in a lettuce field somewhere outside Gilroy, CA, missing my wallet and my TED pass. I blame all philosophers, but I especially blame Dennet. I suspect all the posts on my blog were written by a synthetic consciousness independent of my body, lying in a ditch somewhere off of Route 1. Damn you, Daniel Dennett, and the parasite that took over my brain.)

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