In which Dennett receives a well deserved whupping…
There is a certain vulnerability, of over-reaching, in acts of triumphalism that robs the agent of his well-deserved preening (we saw some of that in the fall of Bush (at least in popularity) in short order after proclamations of a ‘mandate’). There was a time when Selfish Gene theorists and other reductionists were somewhat of establishment outsiders and also not favourable with the public. EP and Sociobiology proponents fought hard to reach their current Amazon.com sales rank (Edward Wilson had to endure water being poured on him by indignant students, for instance), and with their most outspoken critic now safely in his grave, it is only natural and deserving that they enjoy the limelight to knock off a few mighty tomes of overarching wisdom.
But as the Eastwood character said in ‘Unforgiven’, it does seem to be not about deserving, at least over at the NYT Book Review, where old Dennett, all around AI and Neo-Darwinism groupie, gets a spanking in a review of his own take on Religion (following Edward Wilson’s attempt at it a few years ago). Read on (and click through) for an entertaining review that almost redeems TNR.
But before I let you proceed to the review, i have to say that I am quite tickled by the reviewer’s identification of scientism and materialism as the force behind some of these lines of thought. I am tickled because I have sitting in the drafts (for this blog) a festering rant about the American Left that ties into some of this stuff. It is particularly funny, to me, that Wieseltier (the reviewer) says:
Dennett’s book is also a document of the intellectual havoc of our infamous polarization, with its widespread and deeply damaging assumption that the most extreme statement of an idea is its most genuine statement. Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism, in a purely naturalistic understanding of religion or in intelligent design, in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in the sky.
Funny because I was thinking of some parts of the left and their own omniscient white man with a long beard… ;-). But that is another blog post…
The God Genome
‘Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,’ by Daniel C. Dennett
Review by LEON WIESELTIER
Published: February 19, 2006
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.
The orthodoxies of evolutionary psychology are all here, its tiresome way of roaming widely but never leaving its house, its legendary curiosity that somehow always discovers the same thing. The excited materialism of American society â€” I refer not to the American creed of shopping, according to which a person’s qualities may be known by a person’s brands, but more ominously to the adoption by American culture of biological, economic and technological ways of describing the purposes of human existence â€” abounds in Dennett’s usefully uninhibited pages. And Dennett’s book is also a document of the intellectual havoc of our infamous polarization, with its widespread and deeply damaging assumption that the most extreme statement of an idea is its most genuine statement. Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism, in a purely naturalistic understanding of religion or in intelligent design, in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in the sky.
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.
What’s up with the dudes with big white beards, anyway?
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