Daniel Dennett’s new book
I spent three years in something called the “Society of Fellows” at Harvard. They paid me a stipend and let me do whatever research I wanted. My only obligation was to go to a fancy dinner every Monday night and eat with some of the most erudite people you could ever imagine. It was always hit or miss, depending on who you happened to sit next to. I remember one day finding myself next to an older man and asking him what his area of research was. “I’ve devoted my life to studying John Dos Passos,” he replied. My knowledge of John Dos Passos sustained the conversation roughly until the appetizer arrived. Another time one of the people I was sitting with said something I couldn’t understand and everyone burst out laughing. I later asked what had happened — she had punned in Greek.
Anyway, one of the most memorable dinners I ever had was with Daniel Dennett and the late Robert Nozick. I got to listen to two of the modern ages most distinguished philosophers spar about how the human mind works. It was my great luck to be halfway through a book on that very topic by Marvin Minsky, so I was even able to fake like I knew something, which rarely happened at these dinners.
Dennett has a new book coming out tomorrow entitled “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.” I have not been able to get a copy yet, but I did see an interview with Dennett in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Dennett does not appear to pull any punches in the book in going after religion. Publishers Weekly writes that Dennett “elegantly pleads for religions to engage in empirical self-examination to protect future generations from the ignorance so often fostered by religion hiding behind doctrinal smoke screens.” Sounds kind of Freakonomics-y in approach. (Although I want to stress that neither Dubner nor myself is the slightest bit anti-religion, just to be clear.)