Friday, February 24, 2006

A Few Points on Wieseltier's Review of Dennett

Having recently managed to read Wieseltier's review (this is a slightly abridged version, see below) of Dennett's Breaking the Spell, I confess myself disappointed, both with the review and with some of the critics of the review in the blogosphere. The review is not particularly great; but the swarming with indignation isn't particularly admirable, either.

A case in point is the mention of Hume as a theist. Contrary to what some of the critics say, this is not a sign of ignorance, nor is it necessarily a misrepresentation. Far from it; the position Wieseltier adopts (the "wan god", or attenuated theism/deism) is, and has been, quite common in Hume scholarship; the major figures in favor of this general sort of interpretation would be scholars like Gaskin and Livingston. I suspect that Wieseltier has derived his view of Hume from one or the other or both, although it's always possible that he just got it by reading Hume's Natural History of Religion -- it's the simplest and most straightforward interpretation of Hume's philosophy of religion, because other interpretations have to see Hume as engaging in strategic maneuvers. (Some of these interpretations, of course, are also respectable and well-reasoned, e.g., Russell's or Fieser's. The simple explanation is not always the right one in the interpretation of texts. Nonetheless, simplicity is a factor, which is why the attenuated-theism interpretation keeps popping up in the scholarship.)

In any case, it's not essential to Wieseltier's argument, since close reading shows what his point in bringing up Hume is. Hume is very clear and explicit that the question of whether 'God exists' is rationally supportable ("its foundation in reason") is a very different question from that of why masses of people tend to have the belief that God or gods exist ("its origin in human nature"). He also explicitly says, as Wieseltier points out, that the former is the more important. Wieseltier's charge against Dennett is that he tries to turn this on its head. He quotes Dennett as saying, "The goal of either proving or disproving God's existence [is] not very important," which he appears (rightly or wrongly) to read as a dismissal of Hume's first question. In this light we see that Wieseltier's review is chiefly devoted to this complaint: to put it crudely, his primary complaint is not that Dennett is anti-religion but that the work is, contrary to Dennett's intention, anti-reason. The evidence that this is Wieseltier's point mounts up if you look at the things he says: e.g., "There is not intellectually respectable surrogate for rational argument"; "For Dennett, thinking historically absolves one of thinking philosophically"; "In the end, his repudiation of religion is a repudiation of philosophy". As he says early on, "Dennett is the sort of rationalist who gives reason a bad name; and in a new era of American obscurantism, this is not helpful."

Another major charge by Wieseltier is that Dennett is really a biological reductionist. This section of the review was the worst section. One of the reasons this is a disappointing review is that it is very obscure, for two reasons: (1) Wieseltier is not always very clear about what argument in Dennett he is arguing against; (2) the flow of thought is very difficult to follow. I think careful reading can easily untangle the point about reason mentioned above, and that critics who have not recognized are simply not reading carefully. But while I'm often the first to rant against intelligent people not taking the trouble to read carefully, in this case I can't honestly blame them. The review is in parts very difficult to follow, and this is true especially of the biological reductionism section. I can sort of see where Wieseltier is going with his argument: he wants to say that Dennett, despite his claim otherwise, is committed to saying that we don't "transcend our genome," i.e., that all of human life is nothing but survival and reproduction mechanisms, with no other value and no other significance. He's going for something along these lines, but he doesn't argue for it very well. It's difficult to see that the passage he quotes has quite that implication, or, indeed, is as confused as Wieseltier thinks it is.

Wieseltier's third major charge is that Dennett shows himself to have nothing but a caricature of religion in his head. Not having read the book, I can't say if this is entirely just when applied to the book. However, comparison of Wieseltier's comments with a recent essay Dennett wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education shows, I think, that Wieseltier's probably right. The criticisms Wieseltier makes of the book are similar to criticisms I made of the essay when it came out. The essay was muddled, full of unsupported and unsupportable generalizations, and mostly showed itself to be a tissue of prejudices rather than anything a rational person could take seriously.

In a paragraph of the review that are left out of the abridged version linked to above, Wieseltier says:

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. It portrays reason in service to natural selection, and as a product of natural selection. But if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection? The power of reason is owed to the independence of reason, and to nothing else. (In this respect, rationalism is closer to mysticism than it is to materialism.) Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it.


Contrary to Myers's reading of it, this isn't a case of using the origins of an idea to discredit it. It's a somewhat obscure and confusing summary of an argument made by Nagel (who is mentioned briefly earlier in the review) in The Last Word. In fact, it's the same argument Alejandro recently criticized in the interesting review at "Reality Conditions" I had mentioned in a previous post. (I suspect Wieseltier is a big fan of Nagel's book, and that this is the source of the reason argument. Wieseltier also seems to imply that Dennett criticizes Nagel at some point, which, if so, perhaps explains the real source for the negativity of the review.) In any case, it's not really Myers's fault that he couldn't see this, since it would only be noticeable to someone who had read Nagel's book; Wieseltier doesn't flag the point at all.

The review is not very well written; from what little I've read of Wieseltier's work, this is not his best, by far. Despite its critics, however, it is not ignorant, either, although the argument is in places controversial; and it is just as disappointing to see so many people buzzing so indignantly about it as it is to read the review itself. A more careful reading would have cut out many of the more absurd criticisms; but Wieseltier does himself no favors, and many of the misreadings are not surprising given the way the argument is formulated. Even more disappointing are that handful of people in the blogosphere making snide remarks about how religious people will jump up indignantly at anything that seems on the surface even slightly critical of their pet beliefs when an impartial spectator could tell in an instant that they are doing the same thing they are accusing the religious of doing. It is, alas, a common human flaw. Difficult as it may be for us to get our minds around the notion, thinking should take priority over opening the mouth.

In any case, my impression of the review is that we are left pretty much where we were: to form any ultimate judgment in the matter, we still need to read Dennett's book. From everything I've read about it, the book doesn't sound too interesting -- largely a popularization of things that have been around for a while, for which your time is probably better spent reading the posts on cognitive science of religion at Mixing Memory and the articles Chris points to in those posts. But I must confess that close examination of Wieseltier's review has actually whetted my curiosity a bit, since now I want to know what Dennett says about Nagel.

No comments:

Post a Comment

No anonymity (but consistent pseudonyms allowed). Abusive comments, especially directed toward other commenters, will be deleted; abusive commenters will be hunted down and shot. By posting a comment you agree to these terms and conditions.

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed (although I do occasionally check to make sure that no comments are being overlooked).