Thursday, February 23, 2006

Another Debunker Debunked

The New York Times Sunday Book Review featured Leon Wieseltier's superb review of Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. The basic thrust of Dennett's book (using science to debunk religious belief) sounds like the Bloom Atlantic Monthly piece we discussed last week.

Here are some of key paragraphs from Wieseltier's review ("The God Genome"):

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.

Like many biological reductionists, Dennett is sure that he is not a biological reductionist....

Then suddenly there is this: "But it is itself a biological fact, visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science." As the ancient rabbis used to say, have your ears heard what your mouth has spoken? Dennett does not see that he has taken his humanism back. Why is our independence from biology a fact of biology? And if it is a fact of biology, then we are not independent of biology. If our creeds are an expression of our animality, if they require an explanation from natural science, then we have not transcended our genetic imperatives. The human difference, in Dennett's telling, is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind — a doctrine that may quite plausibly be called biological reductionism.


Dennett is unable to imagine a fact about us that is not a biological fact. His book is riddled with translations of emotions and ideas into evo-psychobabble.

In other words, using evolution to debunk religion ends up debunking reason, including the scientific reason used to justify evolution (like Justin L. Barrett's Atlantic letter). I really appreciate the line "As the ancient rabbis used to say, have your ears heard what your mouth has spoken?"—it so colorfully captures the gaping wound in so much modern thought: these thinkers never apply their own standards to themselves. Their philosophical thoughts are incompatible with being thought true—Kant is one major violator. (Stanley Jaki's Means to Message is a genius elaboration of this theme that cannot be paralleled, so I won't go into it here.)

The Left is squawking (squarking?) about ad hominems (with which they are certainly familiar!) and calling for an email campaign against the Times. Here's a doozie of a quotation from Brian Leiter's review of the review (as quoted at 3quarksdaily):

But "the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical" is not a "superstition," but a reasonable methodological posture to adopt based on the actual evidence, that is, based on the actual, expanding success of the sciences, and especially, the special sciences, during the last hundred years.

But I can't help but ask: is the methodological posture based on the evidence, or is the evidence based on the methodological posture? Unless there are some unspoken assumptions1, this is a very convenient bit of circular logic. It is truly amazing that these "brights"—supposedly educated, reasonable people—fail to see the faults in this logic and even uphold it as exemplary. It would seem they even lack the categories to comprehend the faults!

Sure science can explain everything—everything that it can explain.2 The "brights" would have us believe that what science fails to explain (or cannot even comprehend) isn't real. (Notably the unreality of the extra-scientific would mean the assumptions undergirding science aren't real....)

No one is arguing scientific methology isn't fruitful for understanding the world. No one is arguing that science isn't necessary for understanding the world. But being fruitful doesn't make scientific explanations the last word.

And speaking of successes of science "during the last hundred years": how about "scientific" breeding and "scientific" economics, also known as German National Socialism's final solution, and Marxist Communism's world-wide revolution. Those were wonderful fruits of science freed from any overarching metaphysical or moral system.3 The Nazis were first-rate in the sadism of their methods, but the Communists drown them with sheer numbers. The tens of millions slaughtered by these secular "scientific" ideologies dwarf any atrocities secularists can trot out to embarrass theists.

Bereft of counter-argument, the Left fumes impotently against free speech. For my part I have to say the Times deserves credit for publishing the review. It certainly cuts against the grain of their historical apologetics for Communism. Certainly it doesn't take an extraordinarily penetrating intellect (only some common sense) to see the problem with Dennett's book, but perhaps we have reason to hope the Times will continue such sanity.


1. These assumptions are so deeply rooted in our culture that we take them for granted. Obliviousness to these assumptions is what allows the brights to chop down the tree they are sitting in.

2. More on science's manifest blindness to nature in a future post.

3. The point is not that science is bad, but that so many things sold as "scientific" are not simply bad, but categorically evil. Any label can be abused, religious as well as rationalistic. What fools we mortals be!

Leon Wieseltier "The God Genome" New York Times (February 19, 2006). [free registration required]

Stanley L. Jaki, Means to Message: A Treatise on Truth (Eerdmans, 1999).


mjmcdonald said...

It strikes me that any adaptive advantage to faith, reason or any methodolgical approach to knowledge would be the agreement between the thing thought and the thing itself: an organisms accurate perception of reality is what will allow it to form a proper judgement about what to do. Dennett seems to have lapsed into the old canard about religion as a comfort and coping mechanism. Flannery O'Connor refutes it thusly: "People think of the Church as a warm electric blanket. It's not, it's the Cross."(1) I've never found the Confessional to be much of a sedative. In animalizing reason, Dennet is guilty of what Arthur Koestler dubbed "ratomorphism;" attibuting to humans the qualities of Skinnerian rats.(2)

Whittaker Chambers said this in 1946 while discussing the scientists who "bit into the apple of scientific good and evil" in developing the atomic bomb:

It is typical of the dilemma of this civilization that masses of men humbly accept the fact of Einstein's genius, but only a handfull understand in what it consists. They have heard that, in his Special and General Theories of Relativity, Einstein finally explained the form and the nature of the physical universe and the laws governing it. They cannot understand his explanation. To a small elite of mathematicians and phycisists, the score of equations in which Einstein embodied his picture of the universe and its functioning are as concrete as a kitchen table. To the layman they are as staggering as to be told that, when he is straining to make out the smudge which is all he can see of the great cluster in the constellation Hercules, that the faint light that strikes his eye left its source 34,000 years ago. Hence the pathetic paradox that Einstein's discoveries, the greatest triumph of the reasoning mind on record, are accepted by most people on faith.

It is also true of evolutionary theory that many who could not give a reasoned explanation of it have the sense that it is true on the say so of the lab-coated clerics. Which is not to say that it is false, but that any ideologically driven writer with enough understanding can manipulate this feeling on the part of the public who prefer not to be thought of as single-toothed, slack-jawed, Bible-thumping literalists. Dennett himself, as the reviewer points out, is apparently a literalist in matters of religion. It makes the straw men so much easier to set up. The Catholic Church has never had much of a problem with the idea of evolution as it has never been literalist in its Biblical interpretation. It has recommended not going beyond the evidence, as it did in the Gallileo case.

The NY Times Book Review has been much improved since Sam Tanenhaus became it's editor. He describes himself a secular liberal, but wrote an excellent, mostly sympathetic, biography of Whittaker Chambers so all is forgiven - provided he says three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys. All roads lead to Whittaker Chambers.

(1) Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being. From memory. Also to this point, Whittaker Chambers: "You will know that life is pain, that each of us hangs always on the cross of himself." in Witness, Random House, 1952.(2) Probably from "Ghost in the Machine." Also relevant: "The Case of the Midwife Toad" on the rigid orthodoxy of evolutionists (evolutionary literalism?) and "The Act of Creation" on human psychology and creativity, with some discussion (from an agnostic's pov) of the religious commitments of some scientists. As an agnostic, Koestler is respectful and defferential to the theist side, although he has laid some harsh judgements at the door of the Inquistition.
(3) Whittaker Chambers, "Crossroads," Time Magazine, July 1, 1946
reprinted in Terry Teachout, ed., Ghosts on the Roof: The
Collected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, Regnery Gateway 1989. If they're not in the machine, they're on the roof.
(4) Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, 1997
Bill Buckley & ST discussing book on Firing Line:

Mike Godfrey said...

Hello Lawrence,
great post - those circular arguments are everywhere-of course you cannot claim to be objective if you are a product of random mutation and natural selection,your objectivity has been subjected to those blind forces-in which case how can you claim anything with any degree of certainty.
A quote from c.s.lewis 'You cannot go on "explaining away" forever:you will find that you have explained explanation itself away......To "see through" all things is the same as not to see.'

Anonymous said...

Your comments remind me of Kipling's Stalky in Stalky and Co. when he reads a bit of Ruskin and exclaims 'lummy what a sentence!"

Only in this (and probably every other case) Ruskin wins out since his sentence, while convoluted, had meaning. Your erudite-sounding arguments are based on nothing more than proclaiming yourself to be right - and most of your criticisms are fallacious from the start and so fallacious at the end. I particularly like the way you equate atheism, science and the left wing. It is just as erroneous as equating religious with moral.

And finally, I only show up here to respond because you were too cowardly to respond directly at the 3quarks site.

Lawrence Gage said...

It's very easy to sling names around ("coward", "fallacious"), isn't it? You could be right: my argument could be fallacious. I'm willing to listen, if you're willing to explain.


Lawrence Gage said...

Dear anonymous,

A little analogy to help your understanding of the poverty of Brian Leiter's paragraph:

Suppose I claimed that I know visible light to be the only kind of light in existence because it's been so successful in uncovering the world and it hasn't revealed anything invisible. Would that make any sense?


Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

03 09 06

Wow LG: I just found your blog and am so impressed. I will add you to my blog roll! You have asked some very pertinent questions that certainly need to be asked by the scientific community at large. We oft commondere certain expressions that have no meaning or sound logical basis. Here is a good example:
1. A RIGHT TO PRIVACY- The Constitution never enumerates such a right, ever! Yet due to the polarization caused by the RvW decision, you got people yelling and screaming about a "right" that was never granted to us via the Constitution.
2.Evolution is the ONLY answer. I think that evolution is much like the standard model; incomplete. Did you see about the new golden blonde haired lobster species they discovered? The evolutionary biologists are baffled because this crustacean has HAIR. Now the usual response is that this could've evolved separately from red lobsters, yet what was the impetus for it to develop hair? It is not a mammal AND lives far below the depths of the sea.
3.As scientists, students and general human beings, we owe it to ourselves to ask questions about accepted orthodoxies or neo orthodoxies. Good post.

Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

03 09 06

BTW don't feed the negative troll commenters because they just want attention. Any reasonable human being will have no issue stating their opinions in a cogent fashion!

Lawrence Gage said...


Thanks for your comments, and your compliments! If you're pro-life, it is clear that we share many ideals. I would however beg to differ with you on the first two points you make:

1. There is a right to privacy in the Constitution (5th amendment, searches and seizures, quartering troops, etc.), but the principle was abused in RvW (abused is too weak a word: "tortured" perhaps): just because I have a right to privacy in my home doesn't mean I can kill an innocent person within it!

2. Blonde lobster--cool! But I think evolution can accomonodate it, and it is precisely this plasticity that reflects the vacuousness of evolutionary "explanations." As I wrote before, "randomness" is a description, not an explanation: it means anything and everything you can want it to and says nothing about causes.

About trolls, I try not to presume what a commentor's intentions are; I just ask them in a non-confrontational way to put their money where their mouth is.


Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

03 10 06

Oh I see what you mean about the Fifth Amendment, however my point is that a right to privacy isn't mentioned there, but implied. Check out the specificity of the language. My grievence is that many of the choicers say that this right is explicity enumerated. It is not.

Secondly, I am certain that evolution can account for many things, but there are mysteries for which we have no explanation. I totally agree about randomness being a condition and not a cause. Good point!