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Bearded in his den

13 April 2017


JUST as pet owners come to re­­semble their dogs, so scholars can start to look like the people they revere. As he ages, Daniel Dennett is looking increasingly like Charles Darwin a point that did not escape his interviewer, Jim Al-Khalili, on The Life Scientific (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), and prompted a rare moment of provocation in an other­wise tame encounter.

As a philosopher by training, Professor Dennett’s inclusion in a series celebrating the careers of pro­fessional scientists might in itself be grounds for an interesting spat; and his recent contributions in the field of linguistics certainly invite a scep­tical prod.

But Professor Dennett is a man with whom you do not want to start anything you are not prepared to go many rounds to finish; and, from his own account, his career has been defined by the people he has fallen out with. He went to Harvard to argue with Willard Quine; then, at Oxford, he got fed up with the philosophers, and instead hung out with the medics.

Perhaps the Darwinian beard is there as a sign of a softening: he talked of religious solace as a valu­able contribution to the welfare of the world. Or perhaps the beard is one of those evolutionary decep­tions, designed to put you at your ease before the jaws snap.

There are certain conditions that appear to have escaped the win­nowing process of evolution. Painful and debilitating though they are, migraine headaches do not threaten the continuation of the human species; and the fact that three-quarters of sufferers are wo­­men means that migraine is a condition that people are expected simply to put up with. A. L. Kennedy’s Migraine (Radio 4, Mon­day of last week) did not do the science so much as the sociology of migraine.

The question posed by Pilate dur­ing his confrontation with Jesus has become the central question of con­temporary politics, and was the sub­ject of Beyond Belief (Radio 4, Mon­day of last week) in its season finale. What is truth? Pilate may have posed the question whimsically or desperately; accompanied by a wave in the direction of the crowd, it might be taken as a complacent ac­­knowledgement that truth is defined by what the people say it is.

Beyond Belief is at its strongest when the discussion focuses on case studies, and this was provided by the recent proclamation by the In­­donesian Islamic Council of a fatwa against “fake news”. Politics in In­donesia have been dominated by the blasphemy trial of Ahok Purnama, the Christian Governor of Jakarta, whose comments on a verse of the Qur’an were spread on social media with misleading subtitles. Indonesia has the highest concen­tration of Facebook and Twitter users in the world, and misrepre­sentation through social media is thus a powerful tool.

In a situation where religious in­­terests are at fault for manipulating truth, it might seem inappropriate to offer a faith perspective on fake news. But Ernie Rea’s guests made a good fist of it: religion can impart the humility required to recognise the gap between what any person knows and the ideal of an objective truth. It is not a message that fits neatly into a tweet, but that is no bad thing.

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