On Wieseltier on Dennett

Many of you have probably seen the digraceful and disrespectful hack job of a review in yesterday’s NY Times (what is up over there?) by Leon Wieseltier, of Daniel Dennett’s new book Breaking the Spell. (Robin posted it a couple of days ago here.) It would be one thing if Wieseltier were simply confused, incompetent, or incapable of comprehending Dennett (all of which he is), but it is much worse: he knowingly and deliberately miscontrues what Dennett writes, repeatedly. I will give a single example from the beginning of Wieseltier’s review:

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 has written this book with a very wide audience in mind, and at the beginning of the book he tries his best to very honestly make clear his own beliefs and motivate readers (specially religious ones) to read the whole book before making up their own minds. This is what he says:

I ask just that you try to keep an open mind and refrain from prejudging what I say because I am a Godless philosopher, while I similarly do my best to understand you. (I am a bright. My essay The Bright Stuff, in the New York Times, July 12, 2003, drew attention to the efforts of some agnostics, atheists, and other adherents of naturalism to coin a new tern for us non-believers, and the large positive response to that essay helped persuade me to write this book. There was also a negative response, largely objecting to the term that had been chosen [not by me]: bright, which seemed to imply that others were dim or stupid. But the term, modeled on the highly successful highjacking of the ordinary word “gay” by homosexuals, does not have to have that implication. Those who are not gays are not necessarily glum; they’re straight. Those who are not brights are not necessarily dim. They might like to choose a name for themselves. Since, unlike us brights, they believe in the supernatural, perhaps they would like to call themselves supers. It’s a nice word with positive connotations, like gay and bright and straight…) [p. 21]

In this long parenthetical statement, Dennett is just putting his own convictions on the table. Nowhere does he claim that he thinks that he is brighter or smarter than others. On the contrary, he goes to pains to make himself clear on this. Two hundred and fifty-eight pages later, while considering evidence for the hypothetical claim that perhaps religion makes people morally better, he writes:

…when it comes to “family values,” the available evidence to date supports the hypothesis that brights have the lowest divorce rate in the United States, and born-again Christians the highest (Barna, 1999). [p. 279]

This is just one of a long list of moral virtues that Dennett examines, always citing evidence of what he is saying, so nothing hugely important to Dennett’s argument rests on this particular claim. But now reread how Wieseltier disingenuously and sleazily uses these quotes, from more than two hundred pages apart and completely out of context, to demonstrate Dennett’s supposed arrogance. The rest of Wieseltier’s review is filled with such ad hominem attacks on Dennett along with a few remarkably muddle-headed and pathetically feeble attempts at philosophical argument. It is Wieseltier’s hubris which is unbelievable throughout, such as the risible notion that he understands Hume better than Dennett! (If you haven’t read Hume yourself, imagine some editor at a science magazine lecturing a world-famous professor of physics on Einstein’s theories, and you’ll get some idea of just how ludicrous this is.)

No one who knows the first thing about philosophy can take this review seriously, but more importantly, it is so vindictive and poorly argued that nor can anyone else. Read it for yourself! It is an absolute disgrace that the NY Times not only published this rot, but felt so proud of it that they advertised it on the front cover of this week’s Book Review, and then again drew attention to it on page four in a bizarre editorial introduction. How low will they sink?

I strongly urge you to protest this sort of intellectual terrorism and the extremely shabby treatment of one of the most well-repected and admired philosophers alive today by the Times, by writing to the publisher at publisher@nytimes.com, to the president at president@nytimes.com and to the editor at letters@nytimes.com.

Meanwhile, read Brian Leiter’s review of Wieseltier’s review:

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.

More here. And then read P.Z. Myers’ review of Wieseltier’s review:

[Wieseltier’s review of Dennett] is full of self-important declarations that reduce to incoherence, such as this one:

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.

One moment he’s telling us that just tracing the origins of an idea is insufficient to disprove it (sadly for Mr Wieseltier’s argument, there is no sign that Dennett disagrees), the next he’s telling us that the origin of Dennett’s reason is “creaturely” and “animalized”, and therefore of a lesser or invalid kind. I had no idea we could categorize reason by the nature of its source (I’d like to know what varieties of reason he proposes: “creaturely”, “human”, “divine”? Is there also a “vegetable reason”?), but even if we could, by his initial premise, it wouldn’t matter: he needs to address its content, not carp against it because it is the product of natural selection rather than revelation.

More here. And if you want still more, check out more reviews of the review at Majikthise, here.

Oh, and if you want to see my review of Dennett’s book, it is here.