Why Review a Book When You Can Sneer?

The New York Times has done it again: they’ve enlisted an ignorant reviewer to review a philosophical book. The reviewer is Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor at The New Republic. The book is Daniel Dennett’s latest book, a “naturalistic” account of religious belief. Whatever Mr. Wieseltier knows about philosophy or science, he effectively conceals in this review. The sneering starts at the beginning:

The question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so. For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett’s book. “Breaking the Spell” is a work of considerable historical interest, because it is a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions.

Perhaps it is correct that the “question of the place of science in human life” is a philosophical, not scientific question, though I wish I could be as confident as Mr. Wieseltier as to how we demarcate those matters. 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. One should allow, of course, that some of these explanatory paradigms may fail, and that others, like evolutionary psychology, are at the speculative stage, awaiting the kind of rigorous confirmation (or disconfirmation) characteristic of selectionist hypotheses in evolutionary biology. But no evidence is adduced by Mr. Wieseltier to suggest that Professor Dennett’s view is any different than this. Use of the epithet “superstition” simply allows Mr. Wieseltier to avoid discussing the actual methodological posture of Dennett’s work, and to omit mention of the reasons why one might reasonably expect scientific explanations for many domains of human phenomena to be worth pursuing.

But onward with the sneering of the ignorant:

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…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.

Has Dennett misrepresented Hume? Mr. Wieseltier might have availed himself of a fine on-line essay on Hume’s philosophy of religion by someone who actually knows something about Hume. Paul Russell (Philosophy, British Columbia) writes (with some emphases added in bold):

In 1757 Hume published “The Natural History of Religion”, a work that proposes to identify and explain the origins and evolution of religious belief. This project follows lines of investigation and criticism that had already been laid down by a number of other thinkers, including Lucretius, Hobbes and Spinoza. Hume’s primary objective in this work is to show that the origins and foundations of religious belief do not rest with reason or philosophical arguments of any kind but with aspects of human nature that reflect our weaknesses, vulnerabilities and limitations (i.e., fear and ignorance). Related to this point, Hume also wants to show that the basic forces in human nature and psychology that shape and structure religious belief are in conflict with each other and that, as a result of this, religious belief is inherently unstable and variable. In arguing for these points, Hume is directly challenging an opposing view, one that was widely held among his own orthodox contemporaries. According to this view (e.g., as presented by Cleanthes), the evidence of God’s existence is so obvious that no one sincerely and honestly doubts it. Belief in an intelligent, invisible creator and governor of the world is a universal belief rooted in and supported by reason. From this perspective, no person sincerely accepts “speculative atheism”. Hume’s “naturalistic” approach to religion aims to discredit these claims and assumptions of theism.

Dennett’s naturalistic approach, even with its different speculative explanatory mechanisms, aims to do the same thing. What Mr. Wieseltier confidently pronounces Hume’s theism is, alas, not so clearly ascribed to Hume according to those who actually know something about Hume. There has been misrepresentation of Hume, I fear, but not by Professor Dennett.

Mr. Wieseltier’s confident ignorance extends beyond Hume scholarship, unsurprisingly. He continues:

For Dennett, thinking historically absolves one of thinking philosophically. Is the theistic account of the cosmos true or false? Dennett, amazingly, does not care. “The goal of either proving or disproving God’s existence,” he concludes, is “not very important.” It is history, not philosophy, that will break religion’s spell. The story of religion’s development will extirpate it. “In order to explain the hold that various religious ideas and practices have on people,” he writes, “we need to understand the evolution of the human mind.”

Just as scientific questions are clearly different from philosphical ones in Mr. Wieseltier’s simple world, so too are historical and philosophical questions. He does not seem to realize that an account of the historical genesis of a belief can have bearing on the epistemic status of that belief, that beliefs with the wrong kind of etiology are epistemically suspect. But quite apart from the banal epistemic point, the material quoted by Mr. Wieseltier suggests that Professor Dennett’s concern is not purely epistemological, but also rhetorical and psychological: namely, how does one get people to give up on religion? Like Nietzsche (and perhaps, in a different way, Hume), Dennett apparently puts his hopes in a convincing historical narrative.

As to Dennett’s speculative natural history of religion, Mr. Wieseltier observes, fairly enough, that “it is only a story. It is not based, in any strict sense, on empirical research. Dennett is ‘extrapolating back to human prehistory with the aid of biological thinking,’ nothing more. ‘Breaking the Spell’ is a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology.” He does not observe that religion is also, by the same criteria, “only a story,” a mere “fairy tale,” and one which can’t even pretend to continuity with explanatory paradigms we have reason to deem reliable. To call Dennett’s story “a pious account of his own atheistic longing,” is I think shameless projection: it is Mr. Wieseltier who has genuinely pious longings, which is why he is reduced to sneering at Professor Dennett while spewing out a tissue of confusions and misrepresentations.

That we are in the presence of the pious (and the very confused) becomes even clearer later in the review when Mr. Wieseltier complains:

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.

It is true that you cannot show a belief to be false by explaining its origin, but it is clear you can show that holding the belief is not warranted by explaining its origin. (This is an important topic I have dealt with elsewhere.) If you believe buying stock in High Tech Miracle, Inc. is a good investment based on recommendation of your broker, and then you discover that your broker recommended it because he is an investor in the company and a beneficiary of its rising stock fortunes, you no longer have a reason to believe it’s a good investment–though it might turn out to be one, of course, but you no longer are warranted in believing that. Hume, Nietzsche, Marx, Dennett and many others exploit this form of argumentation, without making any mistakes, let alone abandoning “reason,” as Mr. Wieseltier–whose arrogance may even outstrip his ignorance–remarkably claims.

There is more one could say about the muddled particulars of this display of mindless anti-intellectualism and feeble apologetics for religion, but other work beckons this Sunday afternoon. Mr. Wieseltier concludes that Professor Dennett’s book is “shallow and self-congratulatory.” Perhaps it is, but on the evidence of this review one is actually warranted in applying those adjectives only to the review’s author.

This article first appeared on The Leiter Report on February 19 and is republished here by permission. Brian Leiter is Joseph D. Jamail Centennial Chair in Law, Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Law & Philosophy Program at the University of Texas at Austin. The Leiter Report is here.

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