Jonathan Miller’s Brief History of Disbelief

Jonathan Miller is a very clever man, but I don’t know why this documentary is on TV. Does digital channel BBC 4 really have a wider audience than Radio 4? Maybe he knew that I at least was more likely to listen to it on digital TV than radio. Nice.

Up front Dr J reassures us that he is not going to bombard us with “clever imagery”, dramatic reconstructions and the like. That’s too crass for proper intelligent documentary he explains, and sure enough he keeps his promise – boring our eyes with: Jonathan walking to a Library; Jonathan in the Library; Jonathan walking to a book shop; Jonathan walking past a church. The only times you have to look at the screen are the punctuating epigrams typed up on screen (with “clacking” typewriter F/X). They really should be read out at the same time, it would save us the effort.

The point of a lot of the first show last night (there are 2 more in the series), as is traditional with analytic essays of this sort, was a preamble – the “ground rules” – of what is meant by belief. There was the feeling of time being filled (these are hour-long shows) with Dr J rewording the same basic point three or four times, but otherwise it was a perfectly clear, if slightly unsurprising narrative.

My interest did pick up at one point – during the conversation with the anthropologist of religion (sorry I forget his name). It appears (he explained) that the concepts common to all religions do NOT include “the creator”, but do include both “ritual” and “unseen actors” – covering ancestor worship, the work of “spirits” or the presence of immortal souls of the dead. “Unseen actors” is interesting from the stance of cognitive science, because at a basic level, our brains represents the world in terms of intentional actors – think of how we as a species fall into anthropormphic explanations all the time. We see things around us as signs of those actors at work – we infer that those footprints show that there is an animal not far from here, and so on. In this way the unseen spirits are “false positives” – examples of where we infer too much, because there has been a survival value in being over cautious. Indeed Dr J went on to emphasise this point explicitly, using the phrase “false positive”.

I hope the remaining eps produce more nourishing thought. There is the promise of interviews with some interesting thinkers, such as Daniel Dennett (though his only “previewed” contribution was pretty fatuous), and the likes of his big mate Dawkins.