Daniel Dennett and the Scientific Method

Tufts materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote a book entitled “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.”

David Hart reviewed the book in the January issue of First Things, “Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark.”


The thesis of Dennett’s book is that the “phenomenon of religion” arose as the result of natural evolutionary biology, and has now implanted itself within human consciousness as a sort of parasite—a “meme” out of control. Because Dennett views all religion as an artifact of pre-revolutionary ignorance and superstition, he then explores the ways that modern public policy, through the instrumentalities of the modern state, might fight and eradicate this blight on the public weal.

What interests me is the way Dennett, and his fellow travellers, use the rituals and appearances of the scientific method (and thereby trivialize and parody that method) to pursue their authoritarian agendas.

Hart makes the following observation during his review:

“But, while they (the example of Cargo Cults) may not teach us much about religion in the abstract, they may help to explain the kind of thinking animating Breaking the Spell-for, in a sense, Dennett is himself a cargo cultist. When, for instance, he proposes statistical analyses of different kinds of religion, to find out which are more evolutionarily perdurable, he exhibits a trust in the power of unprejudiced science to demarcate and define items of thought and culture like species of flora that verges on magical thinking. It is as if he imagines that by imitating the outward forms of scientific method, and by applying an assortment of superficially empirical theories to nonempirical realities, and by tirelessly gathering information, and by asserting the validity of his methods with an incantatory repetitiveness, and by invoking invisible agencies such as memes, and by fiercely believing in the efficacy of all that he is doing, he can summon forth actual hard clinical results, as from the treasure houses of the gods.”

Hart is making several salient points here, both about Dennett’s mendacity (or mere incompetence) and the uses put to the formula of the scientific method in our materialist society. Leaving aside Dennett, Hart is describing a procedure all too common in social science (and in this case employed by a supposedly hard-headed materialist philosopher)—use of the outward language and protocols of the scientific method to indulge and support magical thinking.

Hart summarizes the problems with these kinds of imitative performances with this critique of Dennett’s “method:”

“Dennett, incidentally, is conscious of this “hermeneutical objection,” but he truculently dismisses it as an expression of territorial anxiety on the part of scholars in the humanities who fear the invasion of their disciplines by little gray men in lab coats. His only actual reply to the objection, in fact, is simply to assert yet more stridently that human culture’s “webs of significance” (in Clifford Geertz’s phrase) “can be analyzed by methods that critically involve experiments and the disciplined methods of the natural sciences.”

“Well, if Dennett is going to resort to italics (that most devastatingly persuasive weapon in the dialectician’s arsenal), I can do little more than shamelessly lift a page from his rhetorical portfolio and reply: No, they cannot. This is not a matter of territoriality or of resistance to the most recent research but of simple logic. There can be no science of any hard empirical variety when the very act of identifying one’s object of study is already an act of interpretation, contingent on a collection of purely arbitrary reductions, dubious categorizations, and biased observations. There can be no meaningful application of experimental method. There can be no correlation established between biological and cultural data. It will always be impossible to verify either one’s evidence or one’s conclusions-indeed, impossible even to determine what the conditions of verification should be.”

Hart is merely stating the obvious, but this kind of performance has been going on so long among the materialist propagandists that it needs stating. The scientific method is not an all-purpose manual appropriate for all contexts, analyses, or investigations, nor is it necessarily useful in understanding all of the phenomena encountered in the human world. Some things aren’t reducible to repetitive emprical phenomena and observations, and are hopelessly subjected to the observer’s interpretations and biases, to the point that the very object of study is merely a projection of the examiner’s biases. But, if one has materialized the entire universe (like Dennett has), and has adopted as the principle of intelligibility a mechanistic view of phenomena, one is reduced to a one-trick pony, and when confronted with something like “religion” (whatever that term is taken to signify) the philosopher begins to resemble the imitative behavior of the dog who pretends to bury an imaginary bone in the corner of the living room—he can do no other.