Friday, January 30, 2009

Breaking the Spell


By Thomas Riggins

BREAKING THE SPELL: RELIGION AS A NATURAL PHENOMENON by Daniel C. Dennett, Viking, New York, 2006, 464pp.,
reviewed by Michael Shermer in SCIENCE 27 January 2006.

Dennett claims that his book is a “forthright, scientific, no-holds-barred investigation of religion as one natural phenomenon among many.” He also claims that such a study will not void “the life-enriching enchantment of religion itself.” Since Shermer tells us the author is an atheist, this seems like a case of wanting to have your Eucharist and eat it too. When we find out that God-belief turns out to be a boo-boo in thinking how do we keep the feeling of “enchantment”?

Dennett thinks the general public, being 90% religious, will resent a scientific approach (if indeed that is what his approach really is) and so he spends the first 55 pages of his book, according to Shermer, talking down to them (Shermer doesn’t quite say this but the implication is there). He thinks “believers” have a “repugnance for science” and so he has taken upon himself the “daunting task” of enlightening them (l’homme moyen sensual.)

Shermer says the book is actually written for “scientists and scholars” who have not given much thought to religion as a “natural phenomenon.” This must be a very small audience, especially since Shermer doesn’t tell us what is meant by “natural.” At any rate, the reviewer tells us that Dennett begins with something called “rational choice theory” as it has been applied to religion by the sociologist Rodney Stark (“Religion, Deviance, and Social Control” 1997, et al.). This is a theory also used by many bourgeois economists. It assumes that people make rational choices based on their perceived interests. The fact that they don’t often actually do this (think of Kansas) has not dampened enthusiasm for the theory.

Shermer explains Stark’s application of the theory thusly (I have boiled it down to get rid of jargon): religion acts as an exchange mechanism between the people and the gods--i.e., people do rituals, etc., for the gods and the gods give the people things they need-- rain, good hunting, victory in war, etc. This theory, by the way, is as old as the hills. It is better put forth by Spinoza.

Dennett takes this theory but “looks for a deeper causal vector.” This, since Dennett is an evolutionist, turns out to be reproductive fitness [as with Catholic priests and Hindu and Buddhist celibate monks perhaps-tr]. Dennett says, quoted in the review: “Any such regular expenditure of time and energy [as is done in religion-tr] has to be balanced by something of ‘value’ obtained, and the ultimate measure of evolutionary ‘value’ is fitness: the capacity to replicate more successfully than the competition.” Since there are more Chinese than any other population group, does this mean Marxism is a religion? Why doesn’t the Kama Sutra outsell the Koran or the Bible?

Shermer now asks how is evolutionary fitness enhanced by religion. From this point on I think the discussion becomes confused due to a category mistake. I mean that terms and ideas developed in the biological sciences are transferred mechanically to the social and cultural sciences. What we get is a modern day version of the type of social Darwinism created by Herbert Spencer in the nineteenth century.

In answer to his question Shermer lists four “values” that religion provides that promote “evolutionary fitness.” These are 1. “mythmaking to explain apparently inexplicable phenomena in the world.” Why should this make us more fit? How could anything like this be tested? There are many evolutionarily fit systems that have developed without recourse to myths. Some mythical systems are independent of religion (such as the race theories or the current fad of meme theory.) 2. “redemption (forgiveness in this life) and resurrection (immortality in the next life “-- this is too specifically Christian a formulation to be put forth in a general theory about religion since redemption and resurrection are not universal features of religion. 3. “morality (reinforcement of pro-social behavior and punishment of anti-social behavior)”-- again it appears that this value can exist independently of religion and while associated with some religions (though not all) some type of morality seems to be a universal feature of social life even predating conscious formulation of religious ideas. Finally, 4. “sociality (encouragement of within-group amity and between-group enmity”-- this is also a universal features of social grouping with or without religion.

Shermer says Dennett admits we don’t know if religion can be explained by these values, and on the face of it it doesn’t look like it can. While an argument could be made for evolutionary (reproductive) fitness being a benefit of 3 and 4, 1 and 2 don’t seem all that relevant. Regardless of this admission, Shermer maintains the book “presents a plausible explanation” that they do. Shermer presents Dennett’s theory as follows.

As humans attained self-consciousness the mind developed (or brain) a “hyperactive agent detection device” (HADD). This HADD alerted us to real dangers in the world-- scorpions, snakes, etc., but “also generates false positives” and attributes minds and powers to “rocks and trees,” etc. Dennett is quoted: “The memorable nymphs and fairies and goblins and demons that crowd the mythologies of every people are the imaginative offspring of a hyperactive habit of finding agency wherever anything puzzles or frightens us.”

This is of course, as Shermer points out, “animism” which eventually leads to belief in one God, but “God is a false positive generated by our HADD.” Then Shermer says, “our ancestors created folk religions, which, between the Neolithic revolution and the rise of cities, evolved into the organized religions we recognize today.” I hope this is not part of Dennett’s theory. If you were to go back to the end of the Neolithic and the rise of cities, i.e., the commencement of the Bronze Age around 3000 BC or so you would not find any traces that “the organized religions we recognize today” had “evolved.” Buddhism is 2500 years in the future, Christianity won’t appear until the Roman Imperial period ( what is now called “Judaism” was concocted around this time as well). Islam will not appear until the Middle Ages and India is still basically in the grips of a folk religion.

We are told the “God” of today is a “meme” that resulted” from a contest of “countless God memes” in the past. “Meme” theory, which postulates little “mental” entities (analogous to biological genes) which compete to control our “mental DNA” as it were, are themselves the latest example of a HADD which has led to a modern form of animism. Once we enter “memeland” we have left the world of natural phenomena for the world of idealist philosophy and metaphysical speculations and so we take our leave of Shermer’s review at this point.

Read this book if it you want to, but 464 pages is a major investment of reading time for many people and it doesn’t look like there is much to it. I should also mentioned that the book is marred by McCarthy like anti-communist comments. If you really want to learn something about the origin of religion read Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, Hegel’s early writings on the positivity of the Christian religion and Engel’s “Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy.”

Sunday, January 18, 2009

US Economics: A Pseudo-science in the Making

By Thomas Riggins

True science, a dispassionate search for the truth, can only thrive in environments conducive to free inquiry and intellectual honesty. When the search for the truth can cost you your life or freedom, as in the Middle Ages or at the time of Galileo – or anywhere where religion or superstition has state-sanctioned authority, it is unlikely to be vigorously sought. Today in the U.S. the pursuit of truth may not be life threatening (yet), but it is definitely income threatening. When a person's income and job are on the line and jeopardized, if telling the truth conflicts with powerful vested interests, you can be sure that the majority of people will conform to what is expected of them rather than ruin their careers or chances for future employment by standing up for an honest accounting of the facts.

An example of this can be seen in the state of the "science" of (bourgeois) economics as it is taught today in every major university in the country. I refer to an article in The New York Times of 1-27-06: "Students Are Leaving the Politics Out of Economics: Shunning Advocacy to Focus on Science" by Louis Uchitelle. What this article really shows is that what the students (and their professors) are leaving out is not "politics" but science itself.

Let’s see what Uchitelle has to report: Referring to the new book by Steven D. Levitt, "Freakonomics," we are told that graduate students in economics are following Levitt's model of "focusing on small insights about the economy" and abandoning "broad theories" about how the economic system we live under (capitalism) actually works. They are, Uchitelle says withdrawing in effect from political debate." The "freakonomists" think this makes them more scientific, when in reality they are trying to avoid asking how the economic system actually works, because they are afraid of the answer.

Uchitelle reports that the present generation (in the main) of young economists prefers to "shun prescriptions that seek to cure the economy's ills." What they claim to do is "to cast economics as a scientific inquiry" by using mathematical models, "without becoming advocates for one solution or another." Imagine a medical scientist who shunned any interest in curing sick people but was only interested in finding out what caused them to become sick, and with no desire to advocate a solution.

Here is another example of how the type of "science" utilized in freakonomics could be misused: Global warming is causing all sorts of environmental, social and health problems. The scientists tell us that greenhouse gases are responsible, so we ask them "How do we get rid of these gases? What is the best solution to this problem?" If a scientist replied that he or she had no interest in that sort of question and that our question was unscientific because science doesn't put forth solutions to problems or make judgments about them, we would rightly think that the person we were talking to had little understanding of either the function or the history of science. Was Einstein being unscientific when he advocated the banning of nuclear weapons as the solution to the threat of atomic war?

The article points out that mathematical modeling is today predominant in graduate economic training. Models based on "assumptions" about such things as unemployment, inflation, etc., are programmed into a computer and then the computer spits out its responses. This is of course a matter of garbage in, garbage out, since the assumptions most frequently used are contained in the dominant capitalist model in the first place. The graduate students, however, are seeking a more "empirical" approach, such as that found in Levitt's "Freakonomics"-- i.e., an approach "which relies on statistical evidence." Many graduate students, as well as their professors, may consider such an approach "scientific," but it has all the markings of bourgeois mystification, resorted to in order to avoid the damaging (for capitalism) results of a genuine scientific approach. Thus, pseudoscience is preferred because there are few university and no corporate jobs for those who call into doubt the rationality of the capitalist system.

Here is an example of Levitt's scientific approach. He says he "finds a strong correlation between legalized abortion and the decline in crime." Now that Roe v. Wade has been around for three decades crime has gone down because the number of "unwanted, crime-prone young Americans " has declined. Thus, these potentially evil fetuses have had their future criminal careers aborted. Therefore, our reporter wants to know if Levitt is pro-choice or anti-choice. The "scientific" answer is this, in Levitt's own words: "As an economist, I am better than the typical person at figuring out whether abortion reduces crime, but I am no better than anyone else at figuring out whether abortion is murder or whether a woman has an intrinsic right to control over her body."

There are several problems with Levitt’s answer, especially coming from someone supposedly educated in science and logic (assuming bourgeois economics to be a science and logical). First "murder" is defined by the criminal law of the state-- it is not something an individual decides for him or herself. Under the laws of the United States abortion, presently at any rate, is not only not murder, but is a constitutionally protected right. Second, in our system all citizens have equal rights and protections under the law (in theory) so that if any persons (men for example) have intrinsic rights to their bodies, then all persons have. It is up to anyone who denies such rights to women to come up with a scientific or logical reason for their position-- i.e., they bear the burden of proof.

It is legitimate to ask if Levitt actually is better then the "typical person" at telling whether abortion reduces crime. The claim is based on a "statistical correlation," and Levitt seems to assume that this is the same as a "causal relation" (he says abortions "reduce" the crime rate)-- a very unscientific position! Let me give a concrete example of such pseudo-causality. The February 6, 2006 issue of Time magazine contains the following statistical correlation: "The NFL title game's outcome typically forecasts stock-market performance for the rest of the year. Eighty percent of the time, a win by an old-NFL team [but not an old AFL team --TR] has meant a bullish market." It would be a freak economist indeed who set out to understand the workings of the stock market by studying football statistics.

Uchitelle also reports that undergraduate students are taught economics completely differently than graduate students (who presumably will become professional economists working in a capitalist framework). He quotes Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw: "My undergraduate students are tremendously interested in public policy, and I teach it to them in Principles of Economics." The "principles" he teaches extol the benefits of "free trade" and he does this because "I am teaching the next generation of voters. In graduate school, however, we are training the students to use the tools of economic research."

Mankiw, Uchitelle reminds us, was formerly chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisors and will be remembered (if at all) for maintaining that it was good for the US to outsource jobs overseas. Good for the big multinational corporations, of course, but not for small businesses and not for working people.

Students in graduate school, we are informed, are "rarely offered courses in the history of economic thought." It also seems that the number of future economic professionals now in graduate school who have read the "works of the giants in their field" is less than it was 20 years ago. Uchitelle lists these "giants"-- they are Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Alfred Marshall, and John Maynard Keynes. Needless to say, Karl Marx doesn't make the cut. He seems to be read only in places such as Cuba, Venezuela, Vietnam, China (for nostalgic reasons), and now perhaps Bolivia.

So a new generation of economic charlatans is being born that under the guise of "science" will peddle their bourgeois nostrums to corporate power in the hope of getting good jobs and big bucks. However, they will help us understand nothing of the real economic forces that are driving the world as we know it ineluctably towards destruction.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Victory of Reason: A Meta Review

THE VICTORY OF REASON: HOW CHRISTIANITY LED TO FREEDOM, CAPITALISM, AND WESTERN SUCCESS by Rodney Stark, Random House, 2005, 281pp., reviewed by Jon Meacham in THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, Sunday, December 25, 2005.

I must admit that reading this review gave me the impression that neither the reviewer or the author of the book have the right understanding of the relation of reason to Xtianity. Meacham (the managing editor of Newsweek) writes that, “Following in the Judaic tradition of valuing human reason, Christians treasure the mind as a gift of God, and the faithful are called to use his gifts to the fullest, to fail to do so is a sin.” I think he basically liked Stark’s book-- but thinks that he lacks “humility” for the way in which he puts down other religions for not depending on reason as much as Xtianity does. Here he quotes Stark: “While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guide to religious truth.”
Meacham himself says, “Stark is right to argue that the idea that Christianity is incompatible with reason, a line of thought running from Celsus in the late second century to the philosophes of the Enlightenment, does not withstand historical scrutiny.” We shall see about that. Stark also makes the claim, in his words, that “ the church fathers taught that reason was the supreme gift from God and the means to progressively increase their understanding of Scripture and revelation.”
Here are some quotes from the “church fathers” I looked up-- to see how they “praised” reason. Here is Paul taking about those who depend on reason: “The more they called themselves philosophers the more stupid they grew.” “The wisdom of the world is foolishness to God.” In his book, “The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason”, Charles Freeman shows that Paul condemned “any philosophy that concerned itself with finding truth in the material world.” He was anti-science.
The early father Tertullian said he believed in Xtianity because “it was absurd”-- so it had to be true because only God could make it make sense. There are examples from Augustine as well, who gets the credit for subjecting “reason to faith and authority,” according to Freeman, and thus helping to “undermine the classical tradition of rational thought.”
Xtianity was always, and still is, hostile to reason and science as opposed to dogma and authority. Meachem really gets it wrong about Augustine,for example, when he writes, that he argued “for the significance not only of reason but of free will-- the idea that people have it within their power to choose to accept God and follow his commandments [this is actually the Pelagian heresy that Augustine fought against] in the hope of attaining everlasting life.”
Augustine really said we are only free to do sin. We cannot accept God unless he gives us Grace and makes us, as it were, choose Him. “If this gift of God,” Augustine said, “by which the will is set free, did not precede the act of the will, it would be given in accordance with the will’s merits, and would not be grace which is certainly given as a free gift.” So much for people having it within their power to choose God. Anyone who says “Understand, so that you may believe; believe, so that you may understand’-- is no friend to reason.
Martin Luther was another great friend of reason. He said, “All the articles of our Christian faith, which God has revealed to us in his Word, are in presence of reason sheerly impossible, absurd, and false.” Luther should know.
So much for Meacham and Stark. Stick with the Enlightenment and look for our upcoming full review of Freeman’s book.
[This has since been published in the Sept/Oct 2006 print edition of Political Affairs.]
[This review is also on this blog[Thomas Riggins' Blog]-- type 'freeman' into the search box.]

Thomas Riggins is the associate editor of Political Affairs Online.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Muhammad And His Heirs

Books: The Heirs to the Prophet Muhammad and The Creation
(PA Book Round Up #19 Reviews of Reviews)

By Thomas Riggins

THE HEIRS OF THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD: THE TWO PATHS TO ISLAM by Barnaby Rogerson (Time Warner, 432pp.) reviewed by Anthony Sattin in the Times Literary Supplement, July 7, 2006.

Progressives have a lot to keep up with these days. Besides having to keep tabs on the new and refurbished old theories of the right and left plus keep track of the aggressive misuse of Christian doctrine for right-wing partisan advantage, Imperialism’s assault on the Muslim world now requires us to monitor “political Islam” as well. I am assuming most Americans are more familiar with Christian and Jewish religious thought and can easily, hopefully) see through the hypocritical uses of religion by the ultra-right (waging war and claiming to follow “the Prince of Peace”, or denouncing “terrorism” and turning a blind eye to the genocidal pogrom unleashed against the Palestinian people) than they are with the understanding of Islam and its misuses.

Rogerson”s book, therefore, looks like a good introduction to the history of Islam. The reviewer calls it a “fascinating narrative.” It deals with two important aspects in the rise of Islam. The first deals with the struggle for leadership of the new Muslim community after the death of Muhammad in 632 AD (excuse the Western dating system.) The second deals with the rise of the Islamic empire “one of history’s great epic tales.” The reviewer points out that coming out of Arabia, the Muslims, within 50 years of Muhammad’s death, ruled from the Atlantic Ocean through the Middle East up into Central Asia. Quite a feat. “Yet,” Sattin writes, “rather than attest to the glory of God as revealed by the latest messenger, [the book] shows how the Arab Empire proved to be the rack on which the Prophet’s followers were broken.”

How is this conclusion reached? It is shown that as a young man engaged in the world of trade Muhammad was not so different from his fellow humans. He engaged in trade, as did many others, and “was not adverse to wealth.” But all that changed for him “once he had begun his mission.” As he succeeded in his religious endeavors and his influence grew tribute and wealth began to flow to him. Did he use it to aggrandize himself? No! He used the new wealth to help and benefit the poor and weak members of the new Islamic society.

He also preferred the simple life like “the biblical prophets” before him.

But what did his followers do after his death? Not so much the early followers who knew him personally, but the second and third generation and beyond, what did they do? This is where this second aspect (the rise of empire) is intermingled with the first one-- the leadership struggle right after the Prophet’s death. In brief, two factions began to develop: one formed around people associated with Aisha (Muhammad’s second wife) and the other around his son-in-law Ali. This is the origin of the split between the Sunni and the Shia (the Ali faction).

This split might never have happened but for the immense wealth that began to accumulate as a result of the expansion of Islam. This led to disputes about who should be leading the community as the successor of the Prophet. The wealth now led to “temptation and conflict.”

Finally these tensions led to “a civil war in which Ali, Muhammad’s cousin, son-in-law, confidant and champion, was assassinated.”

This was a disaster. As has happened too many times before in history, the money and power trumped the true meaning of the message of the religious teacher. With the murder of Ali, Rogerson writes, “ the era of holiness within the Islamic community is over, the scheming politicians, the police chiefs and the old clan chiefs are once again back in power.” Welcome to the club.