Scientism Takes a Hit

There is a very nice review in today's New York Times of Daniel Dennett's recent book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Leon Wieseltier is very smart--it's not all that often that a reviewer proves himself to be much smarter than the author he's reviewing, but when it happens it can be delicious. He makes explicit what we regular readers of Dennett have known for years:
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!
You really have to wonder who, precisely, Dennett imagines it is going to be who is going to poke him in the nose. There are two sorts of people who read his works: those who already agree with him, and those of us who have to read what he writes in order to keep up with a certain literature but who know better than to take anything he has to say seriously. Neither group is likely to think poking him in the nose worth the effort.

Although I often disagree with Dennett, and I believe him to be something of an intellectual joke--a kind of charlatan, an academic snake oil salesman--nevertheless he, like many useful idiots, has had some useful ideas. Like the man he emulates, David Hume, he will be remembered in the discipline as a man who had one or two insights, and some folks will regard those insights as very important, in some sense, to philosophy. I suggest that the one he will be most remembered for is what he has called the "fantasy-generation process". In his own work, of course, this is a feature of our mental architecture that is supposed to explain the persistence of religious belief. Because of a "hyperactive agent detection device, or HADD", module in our minds, we look for--and usually find, whether they exist or not--other minds out there, sources of intelligence to which we may impute causal powers. The fantasy-generation process then kicks in and fills out the details without necessarily relying on empirical data. This happens most often when we can't find "rational" explanations for things--we are, in a sense, biologically "hard wired" to attribute agency to things that frighten or perplex us. Hence we invented the gods.

It would be a brilliant idea, if Nietzsche hadn't had it first. It's too bad that Dennett's own ideas have to wind up being recycled versions of ideas from Hume and Nietzsche, but there you have it--the perils of the publish or perish lifestyle. First you have to publish whatever pops into your head in order to get tenure; then you have to publish whatever pops into your head to keep people thinking and talking about you. It's at times like these that a "fantasy-generation process" can be particularly useful, and it is in this context, I suggest, that it will prove to have genuine adaptive value, at least for folks like Dennett. In an ideal world, books like Dennett's wouldn't get anybody tenure, and the only thinking or talking to get done about them would be negative. But Dennett is clever enough to know that adolescent posturing is a good way to get attention, and he has made a cottage industry out of it. So his fantasy-generating process works overtime to come up with just-so stories about everything under the sun that he finds distasteful. For some reason he particularly enjoys poking religion in the nose.

Indeed, one is tempted to wonder what sort of a kid he was on the playground, and why he thinks it is so important to discredit religous belief--indeed, so important that he says things that he knows perfectly well are inconsistent with his own reductive materialism just in order to mix things up with the not-so-brights. For all of his interest in originalism, he shows remarkably little interest in the origins of his own atheistic thinking. Perhaps, like many scientists, he rejects Freudian explanations as unscientific, but one cannot help but wonder whether he would be willing to submit his own beliefs to the same sort of test he wants to submit others to. If we are allowed to commit the genetic fallacy with impunity, then the reasonableness of his own views will dissolve with every fact that we discover about the motivations behind his own beliefs.

Maybe his next book should be on the evolution of the desire for intellectual consistency and honesty. I'm sure we have fully biological reasons for carrying that baggage around with us, too, but apparently some outliers have managed to survive without it, and Dennett does a remarkable job of showing how an otherwise valuable trait can be driven to extinction in a certain sort of population simply by calling attention to another trait in a different population.


Kevin Jones said…
"...Hence we invented the gods.

It would be a brilliant idea, if Nietzsche hadn't had it first."

It might be even older. I'm pretty sure Giambatista Vico gave this psychological interpretation of paganism in his The New Science.

Dennett, typically, can't see any distinction between polytheism and monotheism despite their systematic differences.
"For some reason he particularly enjoys poking religion in the nose."

Don't you see the value in exploring where religion comes from? With as many people these days using their religion as an excuse to invade or to burn other's embassies, it makes some sense to me.

Don't you think it'sa good idea to explore the message before killing the messanger?
Scott Carson said…
Man, you really are a whimsical monkey, aren't you?

I think the origins of religion are pretty interesting, actually. I just don't think that understanding the origins gives any insight into the truth or falsity of the claims of religion. My unwillingness to commit the genetic fallacy is where I part company with Dennett.

Well, that, and the fact that what he posits as "origins" has no foundation in any empirical evidence--like much ofhis work, it amounts to sheer speculation about just-so stories.

Not that just-so stories don't have their place, mind you--it's a good way to exercise your "fantasy-generation process". But I prefer archeaology.

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