Monday, February 20, 2006

Leon Wieseltier's negative review of Dennett's new book

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, has written an strongly negative review of Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell. Wieseltier maintains that religion is beyond the scope of scientific examination, and so takes issue with a key aspect of Dennett's project.

Wieseltier's review has been critiqued by Brian Leiter (at Leiter Reports, here), P.Z. Myers (at Pharyngula, here), Taner Edis (at the Secular Outpost, here), and Michael Bains (at Silly Humans, here). I disagree with Bains about the term "scientism," even though I am quite sympathetic to "naturalized epistemology" and giving science a major role in philosophical questions. There is clearly quite a lot of room for disagreement about the idea that science should be the primary mechanism of inquiry in all domains--most scientists regularly argue that science draws no moral or ethical conclusions, which means they leave that area to philosophy or (a mistake, in my opinion) religion.

There is a key passage of Wieseltier's review that I partly agree with:
It will be plain that Dennett's approach to religion is contrived to evade religion's substance. He thinks that an inquiry into belief is made superfluous by an inquiry into the belief in belief. This is a very revealing mistake. You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason.
In general, the origin of a belief is irrelevant to its truth or falsity. However, if Dennett's mission is like Pascal Boyer's, to give an account of why people believe in religion in general, rather than to prove that religion is false, then this is not an objection to what Dennett is doing. Further, if the explanation produced is the best explanation around, then that is good reason to believe that explanation (over an explanation that says religion is divinely inspired).

The fact is that there are lots of different religious beliefs that people hold, and they contradict each other. We know from the outset that all religions cannot be true--in fact, the mere existence of the contradictions is sufficient to show that much of the content of most religions must be false. Why people continue to believe it is something that requires explanation.

If the best such explanation is a naturalistic one, and that explanation fits the evidence for all religious belief better than supernatural explanations, then that is good reason to favor the naturalistic explanation over the supernatural explanations.

Wieseltier seems to reject "inference to the best explanation" as a form of reason.

UPDATE: Dennett has responded with a letter to the New York Times, and Wieseltier responds immediately following.

1 comment:

namronatsoc said...

I am disappointed in Leon Wieseltier's review of Dennett's “Breaking the Spell”, as much for its poor analysis, as for its closing, ad hominem insult. As a scientist, I know of no others who meet Mr. Wieseltier's definition of Scientism. They and Dennett are more accurately characterized as believing that science is the only arbiter for describing the properties of things in the natural world – things like liquid water, and theoretical constructs like the particle theory of subatomic phenomenon, and the evolution of religious behavior.

There is no problem in Dennett's assent to Hume's two questions regarding religion (its foundation in reason, and its origin in human nature), while not accepting Hume's response to the first. How many of us agree on a question while differing on our enlightened responses and discourses? Yet, Mr. Wieseltier uses the distinctions in Dennett's thought process to accuse him, inappropriately and unfairly, of misquoting and misrepresenting Hume.

Dennett is very clear, if not forthright to a fault, by saying he is offering his own speculation on what science may find in a study of religion as a natural phenomenon. Is he not explicit about doing so from the perspective of evolutionary (instrumental and functional) biology. Wieseltier seems to delight in uncovering Dennett's words on this, as if he has uncovered a secret, revealing passage, and hitting Dennett with a Gotcha!

Wieseltier dismisses Dennett's reasoning because Dennett's view presupposes human reason to be a natural phenomenon, based in biology. Then when Dennett uses the word 'transcend' to describe high levels of human reasoning, Wielseltier gives him another Gotcha!, and attaches the opprobrious label of 'animal' to Dennett's human reason. Wieseltier assumes an 'obvious truth' that human reason is a faculty that exists apart from its biology, a la Descartes. Well, here is where the discussion should begin. Instead, Wieseltier chose to end it, not prematurely, but before it even started.