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February 23, 2006

Dennett replies to Wieseltier

If you haven't read Leon Wieseltier's review of Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, please do so immediately. Satisfy yourself that Wieseltier's piece is every bit as venal and banal as you may have heard.

Dennett has written a letter to the editors of the New York Times Book Review responding to Wieseltier's hatchet job.

Prof. Dennett has also given me permission to publish this excerpt from an email he wrote to a physicist who had written to him deploring Wieseltier's slipshod review:

Look at it this way: I am running an experiment. The question is: can thoughtful religious people read my book without losing it? Some can; some can't. That's something worth knowing. I'm sure there will be many more data points in the coming months. It will be interesting to see what the pattern is. Ugly? Yes, but experimenters often have to endure gross things in order to get the evidence they need.

Like many reflexive theists, Wieseltier mistakes Dennett's self-assured atheism with anti-religious bigotry. Having studied with Dennett and read most of his earlier writings on religion and evolution, I can assure you that he is a charitable critic whose irreverence is difficult to mistake for hostility. (Unlike the publishers of certain mean-spirited editorial cartoons), Dennett is a humane and intelligent provocateur. In his review Wieseltier assails Dennett's motives at every turn without citing the slightest textual support for his paranoid slurs (cf. Abbas Raza's review at 3QuarksDaily).

A number of prominent scientists and philosophers have already written to the Times to deplore its shabby treatment of Dennett and his work. Abbas is spearheading a letter writing campaign to urge the editors of the Times to publish letters in support of Dennett. Please email the Times and urge the paper to give Dennett and his supporters equal time to respond to Wieseltier's meanspirited and uninformed attack.

Email addresses: publisher@nytimes.com, president@nytimes.com and to the editor at letters@nytimes.com

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One more swing at Leon Wieseltier, because I think there's another interesting point lurking here.... [Read More]

» Wieseltier on Dennett -- IV: Fiction from Without Gods
One more swing at Leon Wieseltier, because I think there's another interesting point lurking here.... [Read More]

» Wieseltier on Dennett -- IV: Fiction from Without Gods
One more swing at Leon Wieseltier, because I think there's another interesting point lurking here.... [Read More]

» Wieseltier on Dennett -- IV: Fiction from Without Gods
One more swing at Leon Wieseltier, because I think there's another interesting point lurking here.... [Read More]

» Wieseltier on Dennett -- IV: Fiction from Without Gods
One more swing at Leon Wieseltier, because I think there's another interesting point lurking here.... [Read More]

» Wieseltier on Dennett -- IV: Fiction from Without Gods
One more swing at Leon Wieseltier, because I think there's another interesting point lurking here.... [Read More]

Comments

alright, never miss a beat. Only second post, we are in battle mode already. woo hoo...


wb.

Is hostility towards religion necessarily unjustified? I mean, it may not be the most practical or pragmatic of perspectives to take given our religion soaked culture, but might it not be justified as the appropriate response?

To use a highly tendentious example, we have no problem with people who get mighty angry at racism and the like.

It all depends on the specific teachings of the religion. Some religious beliefs and institutions deserve hostility, others don't.

I don't agree with the underlying metaphysical underpinnings of any religious teachings, and yet I agree with some key moral claims made in the name of various religions.

Why should I be hostile towards someone who argues that we should fight against racism, help the poor, reject violence, respect the environment, etc? (You can find advocates for all of these good things within any religious tradition you care to name.) I may think that they believe the right thing for the wrong reasons, but that's something we can discuss respectfully.

But... scientism!

Why on earth did the NYT publish Wieseltier's "review" in the first place? It didn't meet the most basic requirements of a critique but was more like a rant appropriate to the Washington Times or the NY Post. There is something very wierd going on at the NYT that goes back at least to their "he said/she said" coverage of the ID/evolution debate.

What makes Wieseltier so hostile? Is he basically a theologian? His bio at the New Republic lists him as a Harvard/Oxford educated writer, what gives?

Lindsay--

You should also add books@nytimes.com to that list, as well as trying tanenhaus@nytimes.com, which should be the email address of Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the book section. (It was as of January 2005.)

Also, as a freelance reviewer (who must remain anonymous, since I've just given out Sam Tanenhaus's email address and would like to not scuttle my career with the Times), I can tell you that I thought the review was a hack job as soon as I read the first couple of paragraphs. A good review lets you know if you'd like the book regardless of what the reviewer thinks, and the fact the Wieseltier doesn't know this basic idea of reviewing and is the editor of the NR review section is disconcerting to say the least.

Well I knew, despite or because of Wieseltier's contempt, as soon as I read the first few paragraphs that I would like to read Dennett's book.

But, between this and Garrison Keillor's slur of Lévy, maybe the Times needs to look for a new book review editor, one who can discern between a negative review that competently criticizes, and a negative review that is nothing but an unreasoned insult.

It's an outrage or injustice that a book gets a bad review? That a person of liberal learning, rather than one trained in the analytical tradition, wrote it? If you condemn projects like Dennett's phony hsitory of religion as ill-informed and misguided, must you be "losing it"? If you oppose scientism as an error on par with fundamentalism, need you be in cahoots with the likes of Kent Hovind?
Why didn't Wieseltier like Dennett's book? The questioner may take for granted that the answer has nothing to do with the book's demerits, and then the desired answer may commit the genetic fallacy. But if it has to be about Wieseltier, not Dennett's work, I suspect that he is a believing Jew, and he finds his faith and practice insulted by overweening reductionism. If he argues back, get used to it and argue with him.
Moi, I'm going to do something I normally only do to counteract right-wing expressions of displeasure, and write emails supporting the choice of reviewer and publication of the review.

Hmmm, I guess I don't think that a respectful conversation and hostility are mutually exclusive. I have had "respectful conversations" with IDers and Holocaust deniers, doesn't mean I have anything less than contempt for their views.

And I am with Hume in saying that good religious people are good in spite of their religion and not because of it.

Speaking of,

do we have a progressive book reviewer? come on...blog? this gotta be the most obvious blog people will make.

Why bother with NYTimes? let's promote our own guys...

I've asked for a review copy of "Breaking the Spell."

There are literally thousands of people who would love to write bad reviews of Dan Dennett's natural history of religion. Almost any of them could have done a better job than Leon Wieseltier. Dennett isn't entitled to a positive review. He is, however, entitled to a fair assessment of his work. That means an honest review from a qualified reader.

Wieseltier's review is just a rant against Dennett. He doesn't even bother to state Dennett's thesis, let alone explore his arguments.

He accuses Dennett of misinterpreting Hume and Nagel without justifying those assertions. In this passage Wieseltier embarrasses himself while making a veiled accusation of intellectual dishonesty:

Dennett flatters himself that he is Hume's heir. Hume began "The Natural History of Religion," a short incendiary work that was published in 1757, with this remark: "As every enquiry which regards religion is of the utmost importance, there are two questions in particular which challenge our attention, to wit, that concerning its foundation in reason, and that concerning its origin in human nature." These words serve as the epigraph to Dennett's introduction to his own conception of "religion as a natural phenomenon." "Breaking the Spell" proposes to answer Hume's second question, not least as a way of circumventing Hume's first question. Unfortunately, Dennett gives a misleading impression of Hume's reflections on religion. He chooses not to reproduce the words that immediately follow those in which he has just basked: "Happily, the first question, which is the most important, admits of the most obvious, at least, the clearest, solution. The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion."

Wieseltier doesn't seem to realize that Dennett wrote an entire book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, explaining how evolutionary explanations have made Hume's argument from design obsolete. Whether you agree with those arguments or not, only someone staggeringly ignorant or dishonest would trot out Hume's argument from design as some sort of "gotcha." Dennett is already on the record as having grappled at length with that aspect of Hume's thought.

New York Times Review of Dennett's Book

Mr. Wieseltier is clearly angry at Daniel Dennett‘s book “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” Although his long review has many specific objections to the what he sees as the writer‘s arrogance, such as his use of the unfortunate term “brights“, it boils down to one monumental issue, that the book’s premise is that God does not exist. It certainly would be a more peaceful world if atheists and believers could transcend their difference in matters such as this, but this review illustrates why this just may not be possible.

Perhaps, Dennett could have been kinder. There is no contradiction between atheism and acknowledgement of the wonders, the transcendent powers of spiritual belief. But this was not Dennett’s goal. He wanted to present a narrative, a loose hypothesis that brings our knowledge of human behavior to bear on the institution of religion. It is a worthy goal, and everything that Wieseltier says about the book indicates that Dennett did a good job. Wieseltier writes: “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 other words, he wants Dennett to dig into the religious cannon, the Bible, the Talmud, the body of Jesuit exegesis, and only then evaluate the product. But why stop there? Scientology has published over fifty million words describing their beliefs and procedures. Shall this stand as valid--the creation of the world by a mad scientist, the e-meter to cure repression, the whole elaborate confabulation- unless someone spends years evaluating this entire opus.

To an atheist, belief in God in all of its variations is equally irrational. Unwillingness to engage in a theological debate cannot be a disqualification for addressing the phenomenon of religion, a central organizing force of mankind. Atheists study it using the tools of science, not scientism, as Wieseltier calls it, but science. The difference is that science is open to refutation, makes no claims beyond that which can be verified, and has universal acceptance among those with the same general ethos. This is contrasted with the world of religion, where there is no such convergence. Rather there is homicidal hatred, even among the various branches of Abrahamic religion.

I am afraid, with all of the erudition of Mr. Wieseltier‘s review, it is of the same cloth of those who are outraged over the blasphemy of the Danish cartoonists. If he had the ability to remove every imperfection, every exaggeration, every unproved hypotheses would he then admire this book? I doubt it. He needs his God, omniscient and omnipotent , and atheists need their naturalism-- comprehensive and invariable.

Wieseltier and Denett are of two world views, that are not only incompatible, but destructive of the foundational beliefs of each other. Wieseltier’s review confirms this harsh reality.

Al Rodbell
I' looking for online discussion venue for this book. See my blog AlRodbell.blogspot.com “Is God an Accident--for more discussion of this topic

"...thousands of people ...would love to write bad reviews of Dan Dennett's natural history of religion. Almost any of them could have done a better job than Leon Wieseltier. Dennett.... entitled to a positive review. ...is... entitled to a fair assessment of his work. That means an honest review from a qualified reader."
If I may cross-post part of a comment for 3Quarks:
Hume wrote for the educated public, the citizenry of the republic of letters. Dennett claims to be addressing "as wide an audience of believers as possible" (though he plainly expects to be read by enthusaists for his work like Leiter and A.R.), so why isn't Wieseltier a worthy critic for that wide audience of believers? If W. doesn't argue in quite the way an analytical philosopher would, that puts him in company with almost all of D.'s purportedly intended audience. And it isn't as if D.'s armchair story-telling is specialist science -- it more resembles Marchen about the social contract, or Vico's thunderclap, which again were told for a broad reading public.

That the readers D. says he is writing for should include W. would suggest W. has standing to answer, or least isn't talking out of turn. As for aspersions of dishonesty or bad faith or (as I saw somewhere this evening) "intellectual terrorism" on the part of W. or the NYT Book Review, the onus is on the casters. And if W. or D. have misconstrued Hume, that is surely less important than e.g. valorizing scientism's naturalistic fairy tales as if they were science's novel predictions that had survived falsification, or passing off the undertaking to explain naturalistically as much as possible as an accomplished condemnation of anything that cannot be so explained to non-being or illusion, or supposing that an argument that invokes memeticism or the evolution of species could have any bearing on whether Hilary Putnam should say a b'racha or not the next time he has a drink of water?

Let's suppose Dennett's an arrogant blowhard who's cooked up some intellectually shoddy and dishonest just-so stories to explain religion. Let's assume that the whole book is inconsequential crap. There is still the question of why exactly do so many people need religion or spirituality or superstition or voodoo or whatever you want to call it. Millions and millions of people have a yen for religion that transcends hunger, fear, and God knows, too often, common sense. It’s one of those human things like laughter or our weird distribution of hair. What gives? Where’d it come from? What’s it for? Call it “scientism” or “overweening reductionism”, but I’d like an explanation that starts out in the actual world we live in. If I want an explanation of anything here on earth, like why my car isn’t idling or why my horse has a snotty nose, I go find someone like a mechanic or vet who will attempt parsimonious interpretations before invoking spiritual causes.
Sorry if I don’t want to soar around in the ether with the angels, but I’ll take a world that can be seen and explained rationally, like, you know, with science.

I am no fan of Mr. Wieseltier, but his criticism of the nonsensical idea that 'evolutionary psychology', properly denoted by the reviewer as a kind of scientistic superstition, is a 'rational' explanation (and dismisal) of religion is correct. Dennett's view is the opinion of a scientist, not science. I have had to squirm under Dennett's biological reduction of human consciousness and his contradictory evolutionism in too many books. I respect Dr. Dennett and read him, but I disagree with him profoundly. Unfortunately, Mr. Wieseltier didn't go far enough in putting down this nonesense about religious behavior and the role of values and faith in human social life. I am disappointed in his review, but even more disappointed in the poor quality of the intellectual argument his review has provoked. We live, indeed, in degenerate time where philosophical debate is reduced to name-calling, stereotyping and personal loyalties.

FYI, Hume most definitely did not endorse the argument from design. His analysis and rejection of that argument is, in fact, a true "classic" in the history of philosophy. Ignorance masquerading as erudition is, it appears, widely distributed.

Dabodius writes: ...so why isn't Wieseltier a worthy critic for that wide audience of believers?

I think that the point is that Wieseltier's review was a bad review. Bad, in the sense of worthless, rather than bad in the sense of negative. The review wasn't honest. It wasn't well-researched. You say that you agree with Wieseltier's dismissal of Dennett's analysis as "naturalistic fairy tales", but didn't you already hold that opinion?

If you want to defend Wieseltier's review, give an example of something new you learned from reading it. What new insight into Dennett, or into religion, or into Dennett's book did it provide?

Well, I like Dennett's approach, but he has a history of leaving things open-ended. His Multiple Drafts Theory of the mind, for example, does well in debunking Descartes, but that was pretty well much debunked, and Dennett's proposal really did little but destroy other theories while offering little in contrary.
Talking about divorce rates being lower among atheists, however, is not a good way to argue, for even the smartest fall in love with their hearts, not heads.
Dennett's proposal sounds (I've not read the book) a bit like Pascal Boyer's, which was not that impressive. But, it's not difficult to see why the book engendered hostility. Not that that's a bad thing, for exciting religiots is always fun- but it may not be science. It sounds like this book does to religion what Jacques Barzub's horrid From Dawn To Decadence did for Western History- become an old man's screed.
And, let's face it, atheists are as prone to bad thought and writing as anyone else.
Recently I reviewed a film called The God Who Wasn't There:

http://www.cosmoetica.com/B310-DES250.htm

I got some furious emails from two leading Atheists- one a PHD and the other the head of Infidels.org, and neither really understood the difference between atheism and agnosticism, nor strong and weak atheism.
Read the entire exchange, and you'll see how childish and intellectually dishonest they were.
My point is, rip religion, please- it's illogical and clinically psychotic, but do so with honesty and intelligence. From what I read of this review, the lack of both seemed to anger the reviewer more than Dennett's theories. Whether Dennett was lacking I don't know, but if the reviewer thought so, he's got a legit right to gripe. At least as long as he knows he could be wrong, too.


The purpose of the book reviews in the New York Times is not to inform potential readers of the quality of the books, but rather to induce people to purchase and read the New York Times. While accurately informing readers of the quality of books would generally be useful for boosting readership, it is not as useful as stirring up a bit of controversy. As long as they don't go completely tabloid, and thereby harm their reputation, it is smart to do a bad job in this case. Every letter they receive about how bad this review was is a letter of congratulations.

Bob, here's the relevant passage from Hume's http://www.class.uidaho.edu/mickelsen/texts/Hume-Nat%20Hist%20Rel.txt>The Natural History of Religion (1757):

As every enquiry, which regards religion, is of the utmost importance, there are two questions in particular, which challenge our attention, to wit, that concerning its foundation in reason, and that concerning its origin in human nature. Happily, the first question, which is the most important, admits of the most obvious, at least, the clearest solution. The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion. But the other question, concerning the origin of religion in human nature, is exposed to some more difficulty. The belief of invisible, intelligent power has been very generally diffused over the human race, in all places and in all ages; but it has neither perhaps been so universal as to admit of no exception, nor has it been, in any degree, uniform in the ideas, which it has suggested. [Emphasis added]

Hume asks two questions: What is the rational foundation for religion? and Why do people actually believe in it? Hume cites design as the rational foundation for religious belief. That's why Wieseltier jumps on Dennett, for citing this passage in Breaking the Spell.

In Darwin's Dangerous Idea Dennett explained why Hume lets his skeptical character Philo stop short of rejecting the theism in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), even after making the character voice the now-classic critiques of certain versions of the argument from design. Ultimately, the most Philo is willing to say is that we don't have enough evidence to draw any conclusions about the attributes of a creator. (It's probably a mistake to assume that Philo's opinions match Hume's own beliefs perfectly.) Regardless, Dialogues was Hume's most radical work on religion, which he deliberately arranged to have published posthumously.

Hume's views on design evolved between 1757 and the writing of Dialogues, but a close reading shows that he never renounced the opinion that the appearance of design in nature couldn't be explained by undirected natural processes as he understood them.

Before Darwin, Dennett argues, it just wasn't possible to be an intellectually respectable atheist. What was needed was a naturalistic explanation for the appearance of design and purpose in the natural world that didn't presuppose a designer. That's what Darwin provided.

Lindsay - The fact that Hume "never renounced the opinion that the appearance of design in nature couldn't be explained by undirected natural processes as he understood them" doesn't mean he _endorsed_ the argument from design. Even a "moderately close reading" (i.e., skimming) shows that he did _not_.

Hume was a skeptic. He did not believe that the argument from design povided a "rational foundation" for anything. He understood very well that although his debunking of the argument from design did not "disprove" theism, it demolished the strongest pretender to a rational foundation for religious belief.

So now, after Darwin and all subsequent work on evolution, there is no rational basis for a belief in a Creator, at least in terms of biology and human genesis. The advent of modern physics has pushed back the role a supposed creator has played in the running of the universe to point zero of the big bang. Dennett and others working with many of the advances in neuroscience have made serious inroads in explaining the nature and workings of consciousness itself and have thereby pushed the notion of soul further back towards the realm of irrelevancy. As if that wasn’t bad enough, now Dennett is setting out to explain why and how we have formed religions themselves, precious faith is now to be explained as definitively as the origin of the species, the makeup of the atom or the biology of vision.

The religious believers and their beliefs will not acquiesce graciously; they basically control all the major secular as well as religious institutions in the world and are heavily invested physically and psychically in maintaining their view of the world.

Wieseltier’s review was poorly reasoned as many have shown but his tone was emblematic of an expected response. I wish the NYT had gotten a more worthy adversary for Dennett, someone maybe like Simon Blackburn, to write a considered review of Dennett’s book.

ERRATUM: The phrase "entitled to a positive review"
was inadvertently included in the quotation from LB
that begins my second comment above; she had said, "Dennett isn't entitled to a positive review."

Bob, I agree. Hume didn't actively promulgate the argument from design. He wrestled with it throughout his life, but he tacitly accepted it because he couldn't come up with a plausible alternative hypothesis.

Which goes to show that Wiseletier doesn't know what he's talking about. In the book review, he implies that Dennett is selectively and dishonestly quoting Hume in order to fraudulently position himself as Hume's heir. I

n fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Dennett sets out to answer Hume's second question: Why do people actually believe? He already offered a Humean solution to the first question in "Darwin's Dangerous Idea." Dennett agrees with Hume that design is real and needs an empiricist explanation. That's why Dennett is right to place himself in the Humean tradition.

Lindsay - I have no idea what you mean when you say that Hume tacitly accepted the argument from design "because he couldn't come up with a plausible alternative hypothesis."

I repeat, Hume was a skeptic. He demolished the argument from design. He didn't need an alternative hypothesis to effect this demolition. He didn't accept the argument from design -- neither tacitly nor explicitly.

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