I know haven’t been blogging much. I’ve been busy, and will be at least until Easter, with bookish things, earning a living, and so forth. I’ll try to manage little bursts of entertaining procrastination from time to time. Here’s one.
I spotted an important mistake in the First Things review of Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. I’m not a big fan of American right-wing
Catholic intellectuals, and their tone of pompous weary condescending omniscience but this makes some decent points and, as I said, one instructive mistake:
The social and personal effects of religion, even if they could be proved to be uniform from society to society or person to person, may simply be accidental or epiphenomenal to religion. And even if one could actually discover some sort of clear connection between religious adherence and, say, social cohesion or personal happiness, one still would have no reason to assume the causal priority of those benefits; to do so would be to commit one of the most elementary of logical errors: post hoc ergo propter hoc — “thereafter, hence therefore” (or really, in this case, an even more embarrassing error: post hoc ergo causa huius –“thereafter, hence the cause thereof”). In the end, the most scientists of religion can do is to use biological metaphors to support (or, really, to illustrate) an essentially unfounded philosophical materialism.
I think this genuinely misunderstands an important part of selective processes, and that is the role of death. It is death or the repeated rounds of winnowing in a selective process which allow us to assume fitness for purpose in what survives. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is indeed a fallacy the first time something appears. But it is no longer a logical fallacy when something reappears over thousands of generations. When one sees, for example, strongly conserved gene sequences, there is no logical fallacy involved in assuming that they have been conserved because they serve some function.
I know I am ignoring the question of whether one can in fact observe this process in cultural evolution — though in practice no one entirely does: it would be surprising to find a contributor to First Things who did not believe that monogamous heterosexual families were more successful at raising children than the alternatives — but as a general statement about evolutionary theory, that particular criticism of Dennett fails entirely. Also, “thereafter, hence the cause thereof” my arse.