Saturday, February 18, 2006

Breaking the Spell of Daniel Dennett's Superstitious Scientism

Most authors would be elated if a reviewer said it would be hard to improve upon his or her work. I'm pretty sure that won't be Daniel Dennett's reaction to this review of his Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon in the New York Times. Leon Wieseltier, literary editor for The New Republic, writes:
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.
Dennett, an atheist philosophy professor at Tufts University, has advocated that adherents to a naturalistic worldview should be referred to as "brights" since they are, in his opinion, more reasonable and intelligent than religious believers. To the contrary, Wieseltier claims that with friends like Dennett, rationalism doesn't need enemies. He also charges Dennett with misrepresenting David Hume, Thomas Nagel, and William James in attempt to support his case. Despite his claims to upholding rationality and science, Dennett's 448-page volume is "just an extravagant speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing."

Reminiscent of C. S. Lewis's argument against naturalism on the grounds that, if true, it would undermine our confidence in our reasoning processes, Wieseltier says:
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.
The end of the matter? "What this shallow and self-congratulatory book establishes most conclusively is that there are many spells that need to be broken."

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