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Sunday, February 19, 2006

The "God Genome"

In the New York Times, Leon Wieseltier has this typically sharp and hard-hitting review of Daniel Dennett's book, Breaking the Spell:  Religion as Natural Phenomenon.  Here is a bit:

THE question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so. For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett's book. "Breaking the Spell" is a work of considerable historical interest, because it is a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions.

The orthodoxies of evolutionary psychology are all here, its tiresome way of roaming widely but never leaving its house, its legendary curiosity that somehow always discovers the same thing. The excited materialism of American society — I refer not to the American creed of shopping, according to which a person's qualities may be known by a person's brands, but more ominously to the adoption by American culture of biological, economic and technological ways of describing the purposes of human existence — abounds in Dennett's usefully uninhibited pages. And Dennett's book is also a document of the intellectual havoc of our infamous polarization, with its widespread and deeply damaging assumption that the most extreme statement of an idea is its most genuine statement. Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism, in a purely naturalistic understanding of religion or in intelligent design, in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in the sky.

In his own opinion, Dennett is a hero. He is in the business of emancipation, and he reveres himself for it. "By asking for an accounting of the pros and cons of religion, I risk getting poked in the nose or worse," he declares, "and yet I persist." Giordano Bruno, with tenure at Tufts! He wonders whether religious people "will have the intellectual honesty and courage to read this book through." If you disagree with what Dennett says, it is because you fear what he says. Any opposition to his scientistic deflation of religion he triumphantly dismisses as "protectionism." But people who share Dennett's view of the world he calls "brights." Brights are not only intellectually better, they are also ethically better. Did you know that "brights have the lowest divorce rate in the United States, and born-again Christians the highest"? Dennett's own "sacred values" are "democracy, justice, life, love and truth." This rigs things nicely. If you refuse his "impeccably hardheaded and rational ontology," then your sacred values must be tyranny, injustice, death, hatred and falsehood. Dennett is the sort of rationalist who gives reason a bad name; and in a new era of American obscurantism, this is not helpful.  . . .

BEFORE there were naturalist superstitions, there were supernaturalist superstitions. The crudities of religious myth are plentiful, and a sickening amount of savagery has been perpetrated in their name. Yet the excesses of naturalism cannot hide behind the excesses of supernaturalism. Or more to the point, the excesses of naturalism cannot live without the excesses of supernaturalism. Dennett actually prefers folk religion to intellectual religion, because it is nearer to the instinctual mire that enchants him. The move "away from concrete anthropomorphism to ever more abstract and depersonalized concepts," or the increasing philosophical sophistication of religion over the centuries, he views only as "strategic belief-maintenance." He cannot conceive of a thoughtful believer. He writes often, and with great indignation, of religion's strictures against doubts and criticisms, when in fact the religious traditions are replete with doubts and criticisms. Dennett is unacquainted with the distinction between fideism and faith. Like many of the fundamentalists whom he despises, he is a literalist in matters of religion.

Check it out!

UPDATE:  Professor Brian Leiter objects, here, that Wieseltier's review does not do justice to Dennett's book.  Here is an excerpt from the post:

Perhaps it is correct that the "question of the place of science in human life" is a philosophical, not scientific question, though I wish I could be as confident as Mr. Wieseltier as to how we demarcate those matters.  But "the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical" is not a "superstition," but a reasonable methodological posture to adopt based on the actual evidence, that is, based on the actual, expanding success of the sciences, and especially, the special sciences, during the last hundred years.  One should allow, of course, that some of these explanatory paradigms may fail, and that others, like evolutionary psychology, are at the speculative stage, awaiting the kind of rigorous confirmation (or disconfirmation) characteristic of selectionist hypotheses in evolutionary biology.  But no evidence is adduced by Mr. Wieseltier to suggest that Professor Dennett's view is any different than this.  Use of the epithet "superstition" simply allows Mr. Wieseltier to avoid discussing the actual methodological posture of Dennett's work, and to omit mention of the reasons why one might reasonably expect scientific explanations for many domains of human phenomena to be worth pursuing.

Posted by Rick Garnett on February 19, 2006 at 01:35 PM in Religion | Permalink


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For those interested, PZ Myers also takes on the review here:


I'm interested in this area, so I was looking forward to seeing what Wieseltier had to say. As near as I could tell, though, there wasn't a lot of substance. Rick, most of what you quote is name calling. Sharp in language, perhaps, but not in analysis.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Feb 19, 2006 10:54:56 PM

Without having read the book, I have to suspect that getting Wieseltier to review anything of the kind is more like "Crossfire" than serious book reviewing.

(I *did* read Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which seemed in line with the characterizations in LW's attack/review ... DD seemed simply unaware of religious people who also accept scientific truth & eschew fundamentalist thinking.)

Posted by: Anderson | Feb 19, 2006 8:06:54 PM

Rick, I'd urge caution before becoming too enthusiastic about this particular review. My comments are here: http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2006/02/why_review_a_bo.html

Posted by: Brian | Feb 19, 2006 3:26:47 PM

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