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).