Saturday, February 18, 2006

In case I'd felt tempted to subscribe to The New Republic

Here is a terrific example of a flourishy, flailing critique, devoid of persuasiveness or meaningful analysis: the review by Leon Wieseltier of 'Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon' by Daniel C. Dennett, in the New York Times.

Wieseltier, apparently entrusted as the literature editor for The New Republic, opens by flopping down the old red herring that rational, rather than faith-based, epistemology, is just another faith: "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... 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."

Why do religious believers think the ultimate put-down for scientific epistemology is to allege that it is just another faith? Are they themselves arguing that a belief system would be shown to be worthless if it is based on faith?

But repeating a claim over and over doesn't lend any actual meaning to empty words. What makes the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions a superstition? How is a superstition defined, and how does the worldview of science compare with that definition? When will any of these faith-based epistemologists actually try to lay out a reasoned argument for why the scientific method should be just another faith?

But I guess expecting a reasoned argument is precisely to expect them to switch sides. Who needs a reasoned argument when you can just make a proclamation with lots of expressions of earnest conviction? Who can argue with the truthiness they feel about the validity of faith over science as a means to understand the world?

Try this on: a superstition is a belief prompted by an inner feeling that can't be confirmed by objective observation of the results of external, real-world phenomena. The scientific worldview is precisely that which rejects such beliefs that define superstition. The belief that science is somehow actually a superstition, rather than the diametric opposite of the mental state that fosters superstitions, is itself prompted by an inner feeling that can't be confirmed by objective observation of the results of external, real-world phenomena. You lose; science wins.

Looking deeper, what would make an otherwise (presumably) educated person, who probably accepts the scientific explanations for how his computer and his statins work, rather than endowing CPU's and hypolipidemic agents with disembodied spirits, insist on outrage when scientific epistemology is not restrained from examining human thoughts and behavior and beliefs? Perhaps a persistent discomfort with accepting that we ourselves are defined by the physical structures of our bodies and brains, without requiring a mystical quickening spirit, or that our persistent motivations to find belief in a supreme being, despite the absence of any evidence for spirit selves or gods, and the presence of overwhelming evidence that it is in our nature to hold to beliefs in those concepts. The epistemology of faith, forever malleable by definition of being unrestrained by external evidence, allows one to hold on to the comforts of spiritual beliefs. And so the mode of deciding what is true is selected to allow for the truths axiomatically insisted upon.

I reject the very concept of belief. The word "belief" is just a euphamism for internal emotions mistaken for evidence of the state of the external world.

I cringe every time I see one of those "People of Faith for Kerry/Edwards" bumper stickers (which are still around). How about "People of Skepticism for Kerry/Edwards"?

(Though, god forbid Kerry the Incoherent should be nominated again.)

[UPDATE] - Brian Leiter has picked up on this too, with a more detailed demolition of Mr. Wieseltier's work, in an excellent post entitled "Why review a book of philosophy when you can sneer at it?"

[UPDATE AGAIN] - Majikthise has also listed a number of other interesting responses to Wieseltier.

And if anyone hasn't yet read Majikthise's revelatory paper on normative naturalized epistemology, DO IT NOW for reason's sake. It is the natural sciences - especially physics - that have taught us not only the truth about the world around us, but that has also taught us how to discern actual truth - no mean feat for the wayward-tending imagination of the human mind.

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