greer-heard review 3: mcgrath's critique of denett's hypothesis
3/29/2007 10:24:00 PM
After Dennett delivered his presentation, Alister McGrath began his lecture. McGrath has been one of the most outspoken critics of the idea of the meme. He first published a book entitled Dawkin's God: Memes, Genes, and the Meaning of Life, which challenged the scientific appeal of the concept of the meme. McGrath brings many of the same arguments to life in this lecture on Dennett's book, Breaking the Spell, because it like Dawkin's book is based on the idea of the meme. He does so by first addressing the asking the question, "What is a religion?", critiquing Dennett's use of science, and ending on a lengthy critique of memes.

For McGrath, there seems to be a shortcoming to how Dennett describes religion. Dennett describes religion without a God as a "vertebrate without a backbone." McGrath challenges the validity of this idea on the notion that there are many would be religions that don't have gods, and he mentions Buddhism in particular. He suggests rather than trying to define a religion, one should look for the "essence" of religion. He didn't really specify any criteria as to what the essence of religion may be though. He does seem however to think that one could objectively deem something a religion and something else as just merely a worldview.

After briefly discussing religion, McGrath looks at the would-be scientific underpinnings of Dennett's arguments. Here he notes two things. First he notes how Dennett suggests that it has been taboo to evaluate religion scientifically. McGrath notes that the scientific study of religion is nothing new, and it is in fact several centuries old. He dates it to around 1780. McGrath also notes that many of the naturalistic attempts to explain the rise of religion presuppose that God doesn't exist, the very thing that many of them are trying to show. Second, McGrath then asks, "Where is the science?" He notes Dennett supposes a "Sweet-tooth theory" which suggests that humans have a "mystical gene" that somehow makes them more fit, but he doesn't see any science in Dennett's book to back it up.

The final part of McGrath's critique, and where he spends most of his time is on the idea of the meme. There at least eight objections that McGrath gives to memes in his presentation. First, McGrath is quick to note that memes are based whole on an analogy, in that memes are like genes. McGrath points out that analogy break down at some point, and that the analogy between memes and genes is no different. Second, McGrath asks what model of cognition is used to transfer memes. He notes that neither Dennett or McGrath propose a model, but just state that memes jump from brain to brain as if they were flying through the air. Third, McGrath notes that there is no clear working definition for a meme, and thus is makes it hard to identify or locate a meme. Fourth, he notes that there is no testable model, but he says without developing the thought. Fifth, he notes that it ignores existing models, but he had already developed this analysis earlier in the presentation. Sixth, he suggests that memes have a high degree of circular explanation, but again he doesn't offer any analysis to how. Seventh, he notes that the analyzing religion through memetics makes the debate of religion based solely upon the meme. For McGrath, this is problem because of the other problems inherent to memes. And lastly, he notes that somehow Dawkins excuses his own ideas from memetics, so they don't fall under the same critique. McGrath then ask in reference to this, "Is there a meme for atheism? Is there a meme for a memes?" He suggests that Dawkin's judgments are somewhat subjective, and need to be clarified more.

He concludes his presentation by noting that science is wonderful for making discoveries and offering explanations for things in the material world, but it is limited in its scope when it comes to metaphysical questions. McGrath seems to think that science does not offer a good rubric for analyzing these things.

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