Day By Day

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Scientistic Illusion

In recent months scientistic determinists have been singing the praises of Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon". It once and for all, they claim, dispels the illusion of religion and reveals it to be a simple product of evolutionary forces. Despite repeated urgings from some of my friends and correspondents I have not read it. Life is too short to waste on such nonsense. But Leon Wieseltier has read it, and today he publishes a devastating response in the New York Times. His argument makes three key points. First, Dennett's book is a reductionist polemic that ignores all but the most extreme positions possible:
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.... 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.
Secondly, it is dishonest. After noting the Dennett seriously misrepresents the thinking of philosophers such as Hume, James, and Nagel, Wieseltier gets to the core of Dennett's error.
For Dennett, thinking historically absolves one of thinking philosophically. Is the theistic account of the cosmos true or false? Dennett, amazingly, does not care. "The goal of either proving or disproving God's existence," he concludes, is "not very important." It is history, not philosophy, that will break religion's spell.
One wonders why he bothered to include the philosophers he misrepresents. Then follows an evolutionary fable in which apprehension of a higher being is rooted in adaptations to changing environments. But, as Wieseltier notes,
it is only a story. It is not based, in any strict sense, on empirical research. Dennett is "extrapolating back to human prehistory with the aid of biological thinking," nothing more. "Breaking the Spell" is a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology. There is no scientific foundation for its scientistic narrative. Even Dennett admits as much: "I am not at all claiming that this is what science has established about religion. . . . We don't yet know." So all of Dennett's splashy allegiance to evidence and experiment and "generating further testable hypotheses" notwithstanding, what he has written is just an extravagant speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing.
Thirdly, Dennett's account denies the very reason he claims to champion.
And why is Dennett so certain that the origins of a thing are the most illuminating features of a thing, or that a thing is forever as primitive as its origins?

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 this profound sense, Dennett does not believe in reason. He will be outraged to hear this, since he regards himself as a giant of rationalism. But the reason he imputes to the human creatures depicted in his book is merely a creaturely reason. Dennett's natural history does not deny reason, it animalizes reason.
Dennett is unable to imagine a fact about us that is not a biological fact. His book is riddled with translations of emotions and ideas into evo-psychobabble.
Finally, Wieseltier notes the foolishness of Dennett's quest:
Never mind the merits of materialism as an analysis of the world. As an attitude to life, it represents a collapse of wisdom. So steer clear of "we materialists" in your dark hours. They cannot fortify you...
And as for the materialist litany of the sins of religious believers that I seem to hear at least once a month:
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.
And in conclusion:
[Dennett] 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....
Well said! Read the whole thing here. It's well worth your time.

[I quoted extensively because it will only be available on the web for a few days.]

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