Dennett review in NYT

The New York Times has just published a rather stupid review of Daniel C. Dennett’s new book, Breaking the Spell. The intelligent design creationists like it, and just about anyone who buys into the traditional self-conception of philosophy as the fundamental intellectual discipline should find much in it to like as well.

Wieseltier, the reviewer (who doesn’t display much evidence of knowing much about any of the relevant sciences addressed in Dennett’s book), starts out with “The question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question.” What he means is that there are some questions — Deep, Fundamental Questions — that are specifically reserved to philosophy. And by philosophical he means that the proper way to address them is to get comfortable in an armchair and shove your head up your ass.

I’m not sure I want to come out too strongly in defense of Dennett’s book. I have considerable respect for Dennett. He’s a philosopher who has no truck with the notion that philosophy is an isolated and exalted activity of divining principles fundamental to all the rest of intellectual life. He works on questions I happen to have some interest in, and I generally feel like I’m learning something when I read him, whether I end up agreeing or not. But Breaking the Spell is, somehow, not entirely satisfying.

Nevertheless, what bugs me about this review and some others I’ve read is not that they point out specific errors Dennett might have made, or that they leap to the defense of religion. That’s all legitimate criticism, wrong or right. No, these pompous twits object to the very idea of trying to explain religion within the natural world. And they do it not by engaging the actual debate, but by declaring from on high that the whole thing is a misguided notion reeking of materialist ideology.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • PK

    It’s ironic that Edis accuses Wieseltier of failing to engage with Dennett’s naturalistic explanation of religion, since Wieseltier accuses Dennett of failing to engage with the content of theistic beliefs or with intellectual, as opposed to fundamentalist theism. Here is the heart of Wieseltier’s criticism:

    “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”

    Wieseltier is saying that Dennett’s book is thoroughly scientistic and reductionistic. The problem with these two forms of argument is that they’re based on sleight of hand. Of course, genuine explanations are reductive, and scientific explanations are genuine. But scientistic stories are only pseudo-scientific and pseudo-explanatory, much like theistic explanations. According to Wieseltier, instead of arguing that religion is only a spell which hypnotizes people, by showing that theistic claims are false and are upheld merely by mechanisms, Dennett’s naturalistic account of religion presupposes that theism is false.

    More exactly, Dennett reduces the rationalist domain–in which the content of a belief is taken seriously and reasons are offered for and against a belief to determine whether the belief is justified or true–to the biological domain in which only evolutionary and mechanistic explanations are permitted. The consequence of this sort of eliminativism is that evolutionary explanations aren’t justified or true. According to Wieseltier, Dennett’s book is guilty of scientistic sleight of hand, of giving a pseudoscientific explanation of religion, presupposing the falsity of theism even while pretending to reduce questions of truth to questions of evolutionary fitness.

    The idea is that beliefs have only instrumental value, and therefore whether beliefs are justified or true is beside the point. This is the biological perspective. Scientism is the technique of hiding behind the authority of science to avoid a head-on defense of the radical philosophical assumptions of this biological perspective–materialism, reductionism, instrumentalism. Instead of philosophically defending these assumptions, the scientistic philosopher claims to be doing the more important work of science, or at least of protoscience. But questions about materialism, reductionism, and instrumentalism are genuine and they’re philosophical, not scientific.

    Questioning a belief’s origin isn’t the same as questioning its truth or its justification. If these questions are not different, or rather if the latter reduces to the former and can be ignored in its own right, then the theory of evolution itself must only be useful, not true or justified. The standard of usefulness in the area of ideas (memes) is just whether an idea successfully replicates itself in people’s brains. Once we throw reason out the window, scientistic sleight of hand becomes perfectly acceptable, since one way of getting others to replicate an idea (say, the idea of evolutionary biology) is to make the idea seem attractive with exciting rhetoric. According to Wieseltier, that’s what Dennett does: he tells a captivating narrative, replacing the theistic myth with a naturalistic one. Maybe that’s just what we need.

  • Taner Edis

    Nonsense. If Dennett’s enterprise was to debunk the content of religious belief solely by giving a biological or otherwise reductive account of its origins, you (and possibly even Wieseltier) might have a point. That’s not how I read Dennett.

    A successful reductive account would reduce the plausibility of religious beliefs, as it would compete with more supernaturalistic explanations of religion (such as divine revelation, mystical illumination into Absolute Reality, whatever). But that obviously addresses just one sort of supernatural claim, leaving plenty of the content of religion to be discussed in other contexts. It’s only part of the story.

    And I don’t see that Dennett, read charitably, is making the mistake of claiming that his sort of account of religion settles all issues concerning religion. He does think it’s an important part of the puzzle. He may even oversell the importance of his approach (and there I’d be inclined to agree). But accusing Dennett of substituting his account for a criticism of the content of supernatural beliefs is so overblown I suspect it’s dishonest.

  • Hiero5ant

    PK — I’ve got the book on request from my local library and I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but apparently you have, so perhaps you can answer this question for me.

    Citing Wieseltier, you claim that Dennett “contrive[s] to evade religion’s substance” and that “you cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content.” Can you supply a citation to the effect that Dennett is putting forward BTS as an attempt to “disprove theism”?

    It seems a bizarre and even contradictory criticism to make, given that elsewhere in the article Wieseltier cites Dennett and specifically criticizes him for not attempting to disprove religion. (“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.’” ) I’m trying to wrap my head around how it could be the case that Dennett simultaneously fails in an attempt to disprove something and ignores it.

  • PK

    Just to be very clear, I have NOT read Dennett’s book on religion. I have read Content and Consciousness, The Intentional Stance, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and various other articles by him, so I’m familiar with his general position. I also heard him give an hour long interview about BTS on NPR radio.

    Anyway, I was just pointing out what I take to be Wieseltier’s main criticism, which doesn’t come out clearly in Edis’s short review. I don’t know whether Wieseltier accurately represents Dennett’s strategy and overall argument in BTS, since I haven’t read the book. But I do know that Edis doesn’t address Wieseltier’s main points. As I said, Edis avoids Wieseltier’s argument in an odd way, since Wieseltier’s main point is precisely that Dennett, preferring to talk about the origin of religion, fails to engage the actual debate about whether theism is true or false. Edis says Wieseltier himself fails to engage the debate about whether religion can be scientifically explained.

    Edis now grants that Dennett may “oversell the importance of his approach,” but he still thinks it’s nonsense to suggest that Dennett substitutes his account for a criticism of the content of supernatural beliefs. Again, I haven’t read Dennett’s book, but I don’t see how Dennett could leave room for a debate about the content of theistic beliefs if he thinks that “The goal of either proving or disproving God’s existence” isn’t very important. Surely if it’s not important whether God exists, then all the theistic beliefs which rest on the assumption that God exists are equally unimportant in the intellectual sense (they may still have instrumental, evolutionary value). According to Wieseltier, Dennett argues that “we must seek the biological utilities of what might otherwise seem like ‘a gratuitous outlay.’” Of course, this would be consistent with what Dennett says elsewhere about the “universal acid” of Darwin’s dangerous idea. The question is whether the Darwinian view of the usefulness of theism replaces the rationalist view that theistic beliefs are either justified or true, or not. Again, I’m only reporting Wieseltier’s argument in his review.

    Hiero5ant, as I understand Wieseltier’s review, he’s not saying that Dennett is trying to refute theistic claims by meeting theism on rational ground, giving disproofs of God’s existence in the traditional philosophical manner. Rather, the claim is that Dennett’s strategy is scientistic and reductionistic, which is to say that Dennett thinks the traditional, rationalist approach to theism is bankrupt and superceded by the naturalistic, scientific, evolutionary approach. If I recall correctly, in his one hour interview Dennett says he’s just trying to swing the pendulum the other way to achieve some balance. So contrary to Wieseltier, he’s not saying there’s no point in evaluating the content of theism; instead, he’s presenting an alternative approach to theism, one which explains religion’s evolutionary value. The question is whether Dennett takes this approach to replace the philosophical, rationalist one, as Wieseltier says. Since I haven’t read the book, I can’t say. But this is what Wieseltier claims, as I read him.

    Wieseltier is saying that Dennett should be trying to refute intellectual theism, or at least shouldn’t be making the category mistake of taking an evolutionary explanation of religion to address the same questions as does the philosophical approach to theism. Just because religion evolved in a certain way and for certain reasons, doesn’t mean theistic beliefs are true or false. This is the point about the genetic fallacy. A flower can rise from the dirt, and so forth. Dennett seems to want to “break the spell” of religion on people without having to address the philosophical question of theism’s truth.

  • Taner Edis

    Let’s not commit the genetic fallacy fallacy here. That is, how a belief comes about can be very relevant to how you assess its plausibility.

    Say you could show that physicists have accepted quantum mechanics not because of theoretical coherence, the way it explains a wide range of experiments etc. etc., but because Heisenberg and Bohr got together with some other friends and decided to see if they could pull off a huge scientific hoax. Other physicists fell for it, and dupes like myself now teach it in the classroom just because that’s what we were taught in turn from our textbooks. All of the continuing experimental evidence and theoretical development reported since is part of the hoax, perpetrated by a cabal who are in on the joke and think it’s great entertainment to keep it going.

    If this were so, I would not be entitled to defend my continued teaching of quantum mechanics by indignantly proclaiming that quantum mechanics may still be correct nonetheless, and that you’ve done nothing to address the truth or falsity of the theory.

  • PK

    The genetic fallacy is the reduction of a belief’s logical status to its historical status. The genetic fallacy fallacy, I take it, is to ignore the pragmatic constraints on evaluating a belief, as though we were creatures of pure logic who have endless time to consider all available hypotheses before deciding what to believe. Of course there are such pragmatic constraints. Since there’s no way to consider all available hypotheses, we have to resort to what Dennett calls “heuristics,” or to commonsense rules of thumb which guide our investigations. If there’s overwhelming evidence that quantum mechanics was put forward as a hoax, then for pragmatic reasons we shouldn’t spend much or any time investigating the theory’s empirical merit.

    But this point about pragmatic constraints doesn’t mean the genetic fallacy isn’t a fallacy. Even if, for pragmatic reasons, everyone were justified in ignoring quantum mechanics, because of the evidence of a massive hoax, it’s possible that regardless of the intentions of the hoaxers, they hit on at least a partially correct or useful theory. It just doesn’t follow that because a theory has a suspicious origin, the theory is false. At best, a theory’s overwhelmingly suspicious origin would lower the probability that the theory is true. So yes, how we assess a theory’s plausibility, or its readiness to be evaluated, is pragmatically constrained. But a belief can be true even if no one wishes to spend time evaluating it. So there’s a conflict between the search for knowledge and the pragmatic constraints.

  • Hiero5ant

    Taner Edis –

    I see the point of your analogy, but I’d want to tighten it so that it lines up more closely with what I take to be the aim of projects like BTS. “Suppose religion were ‘like’ a deliberate and conscious hoax” strikes me as a bit blunt.

    So how about this: there are three main vectors for the adoption of theistic beliefs. There is 1) lived spiritual experience, 2) secondhand, hearsay authority (in the form of texts or reports from doctrinal officials), and 3) philosophical speculation. If (and it’s a big ‘if’) evolutionary psychology can explain 1 and by extension 2, then a substantial amount of the evidence in favor of theism is obviated. This in no way shape or form “disproves” theism, it just means that theists are left in the uncomfortable position of constructing arguments in defense of a proposition they had previously believed for unrelated and demonstrably irrational reasons.

    If one needs an analogy, I would say it would be as difficult to motivate theistic arguments given an ev-psych explanation of their origins as it would be to motivate planet-pushing angels given a newtonian explanation of their orbits.

    And pk, I’m afraid I still can’t see anything but a contradiction in Wieseltier’s criticisms. One doesn’t need to read the book to know a priori that is impossible for him to have argued for p and to have not argued for p. If Dennett is not saying “and therefore the beliefs are false”, then by definition he cannot be committing the genetic fallacy.

  • Hiero5ant

    On consideration I should strike the locution “in no way, shape, or form”. I would think “renders to a substantial degree otiose” counts aas a form of disproof in empirical arguments.

  • Ahab

    Is a person who has already concluded that the Greek Gods do not exist guilty of the genetic fallacy for trying to ascertain the historical and cultural reasons for the belief that they exist?

    It appears that some theists are trying to use this ‘genetic falacy’ in order to preempt the validty of any naturalistic study of religion.

  • namronatsoc

    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.

  • Adam Lee

    Isn’t it possible that Dennett doesn’t undertake the task of offering an intellectual defense of atheism because he believes that task has already been done satisfactorily and he sees no need to repeat others’ efforts? I have the book and haven’t yet read it, but I would not be at all surprised if he explicitly said this or something very like this.

  • Jim Lippard

    Dennett has responded to Wieseltier and vice versa:

  • Adam Lee

    I’ve read the book now, and it’s false to say that Dennett ignores the question of whether God exists or not. In the last section of chapter 8, he explicitly (if briefly) considers the common arguments for God’s existence, and he also cites books that present his conclusions in greater length. Wieseltier’s criticism ignores the actual content of the book.