Saturday, May 2, 2015

A Review Which I Had Missed Should NOT Be Missed

I missed this scathing review in NYT of Daniel Dennett and his “Breaking The Spell” book from nearly a decade ago. Executed with finesse by Leon Wieseltier, who is (or possibly was) the literary editor of The New Republic.
” In his own opinion, Dennett is a hero. He is in the business of emancipation, and he reveres himself for it. "By asking for an accounting of the pros and cons of religion, I risk getting poked in the nose or worse," he declares, "and yet I persist." Giordano Bruno, with tenure at Tufts! He wonders whether religious people "will have the intellectual honesty and courage to read this book through." If you disagree with what Dennett says, it is because you fear what he says. Any opposition to his scientistic deflation of religion he triumphantly dismisses as "protectionism." But people who share Dennett's view of the world he calls "brights." Brights are not only intellectually better, they are also ethically better. Did you know that "brights have the lowest divorce rate in the United States, and born-again Christians the highest"? Dennett's own "sacred values" are "democracy, justice, life, love and truth." This rigs things nicely. If you refuse his "impeccably hardheaded and rational ontology," then your sacred values must be tyranny, injustice, death, hatred and falsehood. Dennett is the sort of rationalist who gives reason a bad name; and in a new era of American obscurantism, this is not helpful.

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."

So was Hume not a bright? I do not mean to be pedantic. Hume deplored religion as a source of illusions and crimes, and renounced its consolations even as he was dying. His God was a very wan god. But his God was still a god; and so his theism is as true or false as any other theism. The truth of religion cannot be proved by showing that a skeptic was in his way a believer, or by any other appeal to authority. There is no intellectually honorable surrogate for rational argument. Dennett's misrepresentation of Hume (and his similar misrepresentation of William James and Thomas Nagel) is noteworthy, therefore, because it illustrates his complacent refusal to acknowledge the dense and vital relations between religion and reason, not only historically but also philosophically.”

There is an intermediate elaboration on Dennett’s all new Just So Story, which he calls “biological thinking” (a great way to look at such fabrications). That is followed by this:
” 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.”
Then there is this coup d’ gras, upon which the underlying fallacy of Dennett’s entire intellectual existence is laid open, and the internal contradiction is ripped out for viewing:
” Like many biological reductionists, Dennett is sure that he is not a biological reductionist. But the charge is proved as early as the fourth page of his book. Watch closely. "Like other animals," the confused passage begins, "we have built-in desires to reproduce and to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve this goal." No confusion there, and no offense. It is incontrovertible that we are animals. The sentence continues: "But we also have creeds, and the ability to transcend our genetic imperatives." A sterling observation, and the beginning of humanism. And then more, in the same fine antideterministic vein: "This fact does make us different."

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.”

[Emphasis added]
There is much more, before these excerpts as well as after. Read it there, it is on the money.

Well, I just can't resist this part:
"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. "It is in the genetic interests of parents . . . to inform — not misinform — their young, so it is efficient (and relatively safe) to trust one's parents." Grief for the death of a loved one is "a major task of cognitive updating: revising all our habits of thought to fit a world with one less familiar intentional system in it." "Marriage rituals and taboos against adultery, clothing and hairstyles, breath fresheners and pornography and condoms and H.I.V. and all the rest" have their "ancient but ongoing source" in the organism's need to thwart parasites. "The phenomenon of romantic love" may be adequately understood by reference to "the unruly marketplace of human mate-finding." And finally, the general rule: "Everything we value — from sugar and sex and money to music and love and religion — we value for reasons. Lying behind, and distinct from, our reasons are evolutionary reasons, free-floating rationales that have been endorsed by natural selection." Never mind the merits of materialism as an analysis of the world. As an attitude to life, it represents a collapse of wisdom. So steer clear of "we materialists" in your dark hours. They cannot fortify you, say, after the funeral of a familiar intentional system."
[Again, emphasis added]
Yes, indeed.


cameron O said...

As I have stated before, my greatest frustration / concern is for the "trendy Atheist" type. Those who, for the sake of being part of the group accept anti-rational ideology for ego boost. They seem to think that they are a cut above everyone else and why not?

This Daniel Dennett is clearly targeting this particular group by merely stating the term "Brights". A term that has no useful purpose other than to feed the ego of those seeking attention. It is a term that is specifically made to be worn as a badge of pure arrogance; which is after all, exactly what one would expect from this class of people.

I mean, how will anyone know you are a special "bright" unless you tell them? Once you tell them, you are now in the clear and can attempt to haphazardly debate them so long as they accept defeat ahead of time and agree with everything you have say as a "bright".

And why should a person surrender to a bright?


As quoted from the reviewer... "Brights are not only intellectually better, they are also ethically better."

More of the same Ego feeding at its finest.
Not to mention one may have to sit through the "If you don't agree with me, you are dimwitted, silly, ridiculous, intellectually dishonest,fearful or just plane stupid" snarky debating tactics that are so commonly used these "brights".

Im sure others will read this book, I may even read it myself when I have time, assuming my intellectually inferior brain can handle the wealth of knowledge that will indoubtedly be foisted upon me by Dennett. Nevertheless, I stand firm in my belief, that this book is specifically targeted to a certain class of people in need of positive affirmation that they are the best at everything; that group being the Trendy Atheist, ages between 15-30 mainly.

Keep them coming Stan, love your entries.
Read them everyday.

Stan said...