Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Dennett Demolition Derby

Do contemporary debates about science and religion have anything to say about the nature of evidence and inference in the courtroom (or other legal proceedings)?

For a delicious example of a biting attack on a contemporary religiously-zealous but "scientific" tract in favor of irreligion, see Leon Wieseltier, Review of Daniel C. Dennett, BREAKING THE SPELL: RELIGION AS A NATURAL PHENOMENON, NYTimes Online (Feb. 19, 2006). A sample of the critique:

In his own opinion, Dennett is a hero. He is in the business of emancipation, and he reveres himself for it. "By asking for an accounting of the pros and cons of religion, I risk getting poked in the nose or worse," he declares, "and yet I persist." Giordano Bruno, with tenure at Tufts!
Wieseltier also offers less catty critiques. For example:
There are a number of things that must be said about this story. The first is that it is only a story. It is not based, in any strict sense, on empirical research. Dennett is "extrapolating back to human prehistory with the aid of biological thinking," nothing more. "Breaking the Spell" is a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology. There is no scientific foundation for its scientistic narrative. Even Dennett admits as much: "I am not at all claiming that this is what science has established about religion. . . . We don't yet know." So all of Dennett's splashy allegiance to evidence and experiment and "generating further testable hypotheses" notwithstanding, what he has written is just an extravagant speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing.
It will be plain that Dennett's approach to religion is contrived to evade religion's substance. He thinks that an inquiry into belief is made superfluous by an inquiry into the belief in belief. This is a very revealing mistake. You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason. In this profound sense, Dennett does not believe in reason.
An important part of the story of the emergence of modern probability theory involves the study of the evidentiary value of Biblical miracles. See, e.g., Lorraine Daston's Classical Probability in the Enlightenment (Princeton: 1995). See also Oscar Kenshur, Bayle's Probabilistic Fideism and the Rhetoric of Ideology.
  • Kenshur discusses John Craige's Theologiae Christinae Principia Mathematica (1699). This book, regarded by Ian Hacking as the work of a crackpot, "begins with the notions about the credibility of marvelous historical events that we have encountered in our discussion of Browne. If we assume that extraordinary or miraculous events counted as knowledge to those who witnessed them, but lose their credibility progressively as time goes on, then it follows that we can say that the miraculous events associated with the origins of Christianity are less credible now than they were shortly after the events occurred, and will be even less credible in the future. What Craige did was to try to express this notion in mathematical terms, by computing the degree of probability for each point in time. Once the probability of belief is quantified, then we can predict precisely when the credibility of Christianity will disappear altogether, namely, in the year 3150, and hence that the second coming of Christ will occur before that date."