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February 20, 2006

Blogs on Wieseltier on Dennett

Awful Leon Wieseltier's review of Daniel Dennett's book Breaking the Spell has already been ably fisked by PZ Myers of Pharyngula, Michael Bains of Silly Humans and Brian Leiter of Leiter Reports.  I have nothing to add to those brilliant fiskings, so just go and read the Grand Masters.

If you are hungry for more, there are some other interesting reviews of the review on Stumblings in the dark, The Little Green Blog, Shotgunfreude and The Secular Outpost.

The rest of the blogosphere, predictably, is cheerleading Wieseltier as he coddles them in their supernatural superstitions and beliefs, and provides them with material for today's Minute Of Hate for all things rational.

(Cross-posted on Science And Politics)


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» Dennett and Wieseltier links from Geoff Arnold
Majikthise has posted a couple of pieces here and here providing useful links to discussions of Dan Dennetts book and Wieseltiers execrable review. She quotes from an email from Dennett to a physicist who had written to him about the rev... [Read More]


I notice that in Wieseltier's review, he hauls out an accusation of "scientism" in his third sentence. As I've said before, this is one of my reach-for-the-revolver words. Scientism as conventionally defined is a real fallacy, one that I suppose the Soviet Marxists, the Objectivists, and certain 18th-century savants could be accused of; but today, the use of the word is an extremely reliable marker of pious crankery, and it typically means "any scientific speculation or attitude that seems to be intruding on my religion".

Oh yeah - "scientism" is such a red flag.

Thanks for collecting all these great reviews of the shabby Wieseltier review of Dennett in one place. I have no idea what the NY Times was thinking publishing such rot. They become more and more unreliable every week. I wrote a review of Dennett's book which can be seen here:

I understand scientism to be the fallacy of supposing that positive science is the touchstone or standard of human knowledge. As such, to my cranky pious mind, it is one of the preeminent superstitions of our time, on the same footing with its totalizing pietist enemies like creationism. No "scientific speculation" (or, better, for the likes of Dennet or the late Quine, scientistic speculation, since it's all armchair story-telling and not falsifiable empirical investigation -- it vaunts but doesn't do science) can "intrude" on my religion, because they are toto caelo differing discourses embedded in different forms of life. Fundamentalist pseudoscience that imagines that Genesis is a textbook for evolutionary biology happens to agree with its scienticist enemies on that point: they just think it's an erroneous account, while fundamentalism takes it as positive fact.
If your practice were to light candles for the Sabbath and hallow it over a Kiddush cup, you might see how overreaching and fatuous it would be to insist that the blessings don't make sense or that the practice is reducible in nauralistic terms and that the reduction can be effected by a belles-lettristic story about the scientific story of the evolution of species, or that Leon Wieseltier's or my household would be improved, more "rational," without it. Hegel, IIRC, said of the Enlighteners' treatment of religion: they did not know the thing they were rebelling against; he was more than half right. But we do know scientism, all too well.

I can't believe TNR employs this jackass. They're not anti-left-blogosphere - they're just on the other side.

Personally, I haven't read Dennett's book and haven't, in the past, agreed with everything he's said; and I have no personal yearning to get rid of anyone else's religious faith, so I tend not to be an evangelizing atheist. I also suspect that too much of modern evolutionary psychology consists of post-hoc, just-so stories with fairly little science behind them. In this I know I differ with Dawkins and maybe with Dennett too.

But to announce at the outset that it's not permitted, or automatically invalid, to investigate the basis of religion using scientific approaches--this I don't buy. There's a difference between keeping science from becoming a religion, and insisting that it's prohibited from all territory previously claimed by religion.

Man, that comment thread over at Pharyngula's place got hardcore, with people like Seth Edenbaum and John Halasz showing up to kick Dennett around. Not equipped to participate, but sure was fun to read.

I just looked at that... who the fuck is Seth Edenbaum? Why is he being such an asshole?

And where was he going with the bit about Brad DeLong and Chomsky?

...The thing about Seth Edenbaum is, he actually has part of a point if you look closely enough at his enraged mutterings: none of this stuff really touches on the problem of what subjective experience is.

This is a mystery I can't personally imagine being attacked by any scientific process we know of, because science is about reproducible observations, and you can never know what I'm experiencing now; all you could ever have to go on would be phenomena such as my personal narratives, scans of my brain, etc. It's the old "am I seeing the same color you see when I say 'I see red'?" conundrum that every kid stumbles on sooner or later.

I personally believe that there ought to be some parallelism between brain states and subjective experiences, but I can't prove that that's true and don't know any way it could be demonstrated evidentially. We might be able to show that there's parallelism between brain states and what people describe as their experiences, but that's logically distinct.

I also don't see how it follows out of physics, because physics doesn't really concern itself with the subjective experiences of the system under study. (On the other hand, I'm cautious making absolute statements about this because things that were thought forever closed to science have been opened to it before. I just can't see how, in this case.)

Speaking personally, this problem is the one and only thing that really drives me toward mystical musings, and makes me skeptical of extreme mechanists like Dennett. But I also realize that anything I come up with this way is probably wrong, too.

"And where was he going with the bit about Brad DeLong and Chomsky?"

Well, hey, I am not gonna annotate the darn thing. Seth Edenbaum hangs over at Crooked Timber and DeLong's, and all I really know of him is from his comments. I liked his comments on the thread, even if he was a little contemptuous.

A little bit contemptuous? He was just a straight-up asshole. I didn't see a single comment that didn't involve some shitheaded insult directed at pretty much everyone else on the thread. Whether he has a point or not, internet tough guys like him need to cool out or shut up.

You should have seen the free-for-all involving Dennett at the American Philosophical Association meeting in NY last December. Hacker, the Wittgenstein scholar, sneered at Dennett in his posh BBC accent for about 45 minutes. The sneering was piled so high, just like BS (and as structurally unsound), that many of us in the audience began to fear for our safety. You could tell that Dennett was, uncharacteristically, rattled. He even started cozying up to John Searle (also on the panel) as a potential ally.

This totally uninteresting Clash of the Egos was finally put to an end when a neurobiologist, Max Bennett, exposed Dennett's scientific posing for what it was. Bennett noted, among other things, that there was nothing of scientific value coming out of Dennett's work.

Dennett's like an earlier representative of Scientism, T. H. Huxley. Instead of doing any real science, he just proselytizes in support of a metaphysical picture. Like a religious fundamentalist, he can't stand the fact that we just haven't understood a whole lot about The Way Things Really Are. Like a fundamentalist, he rushes forward and tries to fill in all the blanks in our understanding, mainly by banishing any recalcitrant phenomena that don't fit his picture (like medieval theologians denying that there really is any undeserved suffering). Like anyone with a dogmatic disposition, Dennett confidently pronounces on matters way beyond our current knowledge. Like the fundies, he needs to learn that whereof one cannot speak (or at least cannot yet speak), thereof one should shut the bleep up!

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.

" announce at the outset that it's not permitted, or automatically invalid, to investigate the basis of religion using scientific approaches--this I don't buy." I don't, either -- that isn't my position, and I don't think it's Wieseltier's, either.
Consider: it is undeniable that physics is a social phenomenon. After all, human beings do it in society, working conventions in e.g. research and its evaluation; physics is a social practice. Enter the sociologist, who investigates it at length, but describes physicists' ideas about length, mass, time etc. rather thinly -- and the only mathematics in the sociological study uses is much statistics and game theory. For good measure, the sociologist also offers a story, maybe a few centuries old, about the social origins and career of physics. This might amount to a sociological classic. But if its purported upshot is that we need not take seriously what physicists have to tell us in their terms of length, mass, time etc, because they have been sociologically explained away, or even that physical theories are generally false, and their falsity demonstrated by sociology -- something has gone wrong at both ends.
What is wrong with the conclusion? As Wieseltier says, "You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content." And sociology cannot disprove the content of physics, even when (like too much analytic philosophy) it shows off gratuitous formalism to affect its typographical look. At worst it could persuade the physics-averse how sagacious they are, but it cannot debunk, discredit, fisk physics. It went wrong at the start by taking for granted that, because undeniably physics is a social phenomenon, that is all there is to physics.
There was a Chinese proverb (according to Chairman Mao): "The frog at the bottom of the well says, 'The sky is no bigger than the top of the well.'" Inquiry must begin by delimiting its subject-matter, deciding what to ignore, but inquirers sometimes mistake the limits of their subject for the limits, the boundary between illusion and the really real. It must be the only reality, because after all that is all the inquirer has set out to explain, and having explained it, falls under the illusion that anything else must be illusion.
But for the likes of P.M.S. Hacker, the world is more colorful. For one thing, it includes ways of living and knowing that are no less worthwhile for not being the sciences or their pursuit. Even some of the just-so stories are illuminating: not Dennett but DURKHEIM on religion, for example --and Durkheim nicely debunks the Enlightenment etiology of religions as founded and perpetuated by Pfaffentum, "priestcraft', or "acts of deceit" as Dennett naively repeats the account, as if the Buddha or Rabbi Hillel or St. Francis of Assisi were charlatans like Cagliostro or Gurdjieff or L. Ron Hubbard.

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