February 20, 2006

Giordiano Bruno, with tenure at Tufts!

The redoubtable Leon Wieseltier takes on contemporary Scientism, Brightness, biological reductionism, "evo-psychobabble," and Daniel Dennett's new 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.

Posted by Dr. Frank at February 20, 2006 06:13 PM | TrackBack

I don't want to rationalize or demystify religion. I aleady do that constantly in my mind and it scares the living hell out of me. I wish I could just bathe in my faith but my scientifically programmed mind won't allow me to do so and thus the Douglas Adams famous quote of "Don't Panic" and the "Ultimate question to life, the universe and everything" being dulled down to a simple "42" or even worse yet "We apologize for the inconvience" translates to "Sorry for making you believe in an afterlife, a supreme being, living by these rules and worshipping for nothing".

So what if we get our 0-100 years and that's it, nothing, hope you enjoyed your time here? Damn, now that IS scary. "Don't Panic" he says?!?!

Posted by: Zaphod at February 20, 2006 09:04 PM

I loved this article. I'm going to read more Leon. Dennett is a fool who routinely gets caught with his pants down, both philosophically and literally.

Thanks doc.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward at February 20, 2006 11:50 PM

Hooray for ad-hominem attracks!

Listen, everybody, you may not know who Daniel Dennett is, in fact I'm betting that you don't, but he thinks that if you believe in God that makes you irrational. He thinks that it's all a matter of evolution and that you are too STUPID to understand. I know, the nerve! Well, who are you going to believe, the arrogant jerk who thinks you're stupid or me? Yeah that's what I thought. Oh yeah and HUME believed in God and you've probably heard of HIM. Umm... what else? Did you know that materialism is a SUPERSTITION! You don't want to believe in superstition, do you. People who do that are stupid. So you see, materialism is for stupid arrogant jerks and if you are not a stupid arrogant jerk, you are not a materialist. QED

This article is utter non-sense.

Dennett engages in just-so story telling, he acknowledges that and I imagine anyone who has ever read Dennett is well aware. Wieseltier is simply offended. Being offended is hardly valid criticism of philosophy so he pulls out loaded words like psycho-babble and susperstition. Really? Believing human being and their brains evolved is superstition? It's understandable enough that the author is offended. That doesn't make Dennett wrong. The author's mistake is that he dismisses the entire idea of evolutionary psychology out of hand. Beyond that, he seems to be dismissing the idea that human beings even evolved out of hand. Or maybe, he wants to say that everything evolved except our brains or something. Hey, whatever, he's entitled to his oppinion, but this article doesn't do a lot to justify why he's right and Dennett is wrong if that's his intention.

Posted by: josh at February 21, 2006 02:31 PM

I know where you're coming from, Josh, but I don't think your comment accurately characterizes Wieseltier's article.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at February 21, 2006 05:25 PM

You've got to read between the lines.

Okay, so it wasn't that bad, but I still contend he substituted a lot of "Can you believe this jerk would say that about romantic love?" for actual argument.

Posted by: josh at February 21, 2006 07:43 PM

I'm someone who, in a fundamental way, believes Dennett's story. I find religious belief fascinating, and while I don't burn with some sort of condescending hatred of believers, I think they're *wrong*. All of them. That's basically what it means to be an atheist.
But let's be clear: Dennett set the ground rules here. He's the one who wants to use logic and scientific methods to investigate religious belief, and I think Wieseltier catches him out basically putting forth a hypothesis that can't be tested scientifically at this point. There's nothing wrong with that; I happen to find it pretty persuasive. But I think Wieseltier *does* prove that this is conjecture, and the set-up about science and rigorous logic chains is so much window dressing.
More importantly, Dennett is the one who (and I'm trusting Wieseltier here, I haven't read this) claims that he is not arguing from biological determinism and then proceeds to do exactly that. Either biology explains absolutely everything or it doesn't, and Dennett's 'we've escaped the bounds of biology...just as biology intend us to do!' just doesn't cut it.
Again, I fundamentally agree with Dennett, or, more properly, I find his theory compelling and the best I've yet seen on this topic. Maybe it's the difficulty of writing to a popular audience about a difficult scientific topic, but more likely, the joys of playing to the audience are just too tempting to avoid. This seems like a book everyone who already agrees with Dennett will love, and will convince no one. He's already got a reason why it WON'T convince those idiotic christians. Presented as a theory, a causal model of religious belief's development that needs testing and investigation, it'd be great. But it wouldn't sell.

Posted by: marc w. at February 22, 2006 02:51 AM