Friday, February 24, 2006

Wieseltier's going down!

As a former book review editor, I can only wonder where The New York Times came up with Sam Tanenhaus, its book review editor, the guy who mistakes reviewers incapable of anything more than ranting slurs for those who offer actual, thoughtful criticism - as I mentioned in this earlier post. Several other bloggers have caught onto Leon Wieseltier's review of Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett - including Lindsay Beyerstein and coturnix at Majikthise, the Mad Scientist at The Daily Trascript (of RNA), and Brian Leiter at Leiter Reports.

The Mad Scientist hits it on the head:

Wieseltier attacks Dennett's reasoning by reasoning that reason can't be used to study religion. What the bloody hell??? In other words, please don't ask rational questions.

That sums it up pretty well: it's really a choice not of what to believe, but how to believe: to rely on emotional or spiritual feelings to decide what is true, or to accept as truth only that which is supported by objective observation and rational analysis. To pursue a reasoned critique of Dennett would only be giving in to Dennett's commitment to reason - whereas Wieseltier's preference for emotionally discerned "truth" leads him to believe the only criticism needed is a huffing, puffing appeal to emotion.

Turning to Dennett's book, without having read it yet (soon...), it would be ridiculous with all we know at this point, not to investigate the potential evolutionary origins of the widespread human impulses to religious belief and the collection of behaviors that make up religion.

1 comment:

namronatsoc said...

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.