“We’re all alone, no chaperone”
Despite his resemblance to Santa Claus, Daniel Dennett wants to disillusion the believers. If we’re all adults, why can’t we reveal the truth that God(s), like Santa, are childish fantasies?
Earlier tonight I attended Dennett’s talk “What should replace religion?” at Tufts University, which was kindly hosted by the Tufts’ Freethought Society as part of their Freethought Week.
Atheist groups will have to compete with religion in the realm of social activities such as church services. People won’t leave churches if they don’t have something else to give them the excitement, the music, the ecstasy, the group affiliation, the team building, the moral community, etc. that churches provide. Many churches already contain atheists who go for all the other stuff besides the doctrine. In fact, some of the preachers themselves do not believe the doctrine.
Daniel Dennett @ Tufts, 11 Oct 2010
I won’t go over the entire talk, but I’d like to talk about the truth segment. Dennett pointed out the various citizen science (although he didn’t use the term citizen science) projects going on, in which random people voluntarily collect or analyze data, such as for bird watching and galaxy classification and report that to central repositories. But certain other data collection activities have gone down—the mundane types of things such as goings-on in a town. Town newspapers are dying, and nobody is there to take notes in local affairs (such as education, politics, etc.). And this lost data might be important, because it is oversight.
The Internet has democratized evidence gathering while also promoting the abuse of misinformation. So, Dennett proposes, some organizations could start projects as preservers of truth—or perhaps a church replacement could convert lovers of God into lovers of truth. But it wouldn’t be unconditional love of truth. The privacy of your own thoughts, for instance, may contain truthful information, but it doesn’t necessarily have to become public. A scientific (in a broad sense of the word) organization that loves truth would compete with religion’s typically “imperfect” handling of truth.
A serious project of truth preservation could become a sort of Super Snopes. Snopes is the famous website which debunks and/or proves true various urban legends and the like. When you get one of those emails such as certain bananas will eat your flesh, check it out on Snopes first before continuing the hoax chain. Dennett doesn’t define Super Snopes in detail, just that this is a kind of project that would be like Snopes or Wikipedia on an even more massive scale. And there could be similar or overlapping projects that operate on local scales—perhaps reinstating the town/neighborhood oversight that is now missing.
Of course, something this vague has a chance of happening in the future. But how it happens could be, as usual, an imperfect evolution from what we have now. Hopefully secular groups, as Dennett makes the call for, will try to architect and create these projects as soon as possible.
I speculate that the projects that end up working in the future as far as truth preservation will make use of software agents (autonomous programs). For instance, if people are not interested in taking notes on every little issue in your town/city, especially the mundane ones, then a computer can do that.
Of course, one person’s boring task is another’s hobby. Some people enjoy collecting the data that they contribute to a central database. But some will be able to use software agents to act as their minions—the citizen truth gatherer becomes a node, in which they are a small local central repository, which then sends data to the next biggest node, and so on.
The truth needs to be available to people whenever they want. So the other major part of the technical aspect will be the interfaces and filters that allow humans to digest information, and to choose what streams to digest. Of course, various web technologies have been increasing this capability (of filtering and choosing streams) for the entire life of the Internet.
Here is my question: could a (or perhaps several) Super Snopes ever evolve beyond truth preservation into actual civilization preservation, for instance like Asimov’s fictional Foundations?
(Cross-posted with Science 2.0.)