1. Will E. says

    I remember the red flag that went up upon seeing the word “scientism” on the front page of the NYTBR when the review was originally published–so satisfying, then, this past week to see the barrage of letters rebutting said nonsense. Between this review and that Keillor dope a month or so ago, what gives with the Review?

  2. says

    What is the residue of this silly dust-up? Do I now skip NYTimes reviews because the editors are apt to be wasting my time by featuring biased hack reviewers? Or should I read on because the editors have a knack, conscious or not, for rousing controversies. I now know who Wieseltier is but dread having to be serially introduced to all the religion-hobbled goons who could ever write a book review.

    A paper that consciously promotes controversy is suspect. Such a program gets you readers but of the sort who might also have a good time listening to Rush or O’Reily. And it cost you readers.

  3. Pastor Maker says

    I find it interesting that Wieseltier gets an entire New York Times book review in which to lie about Dennett, and when Dennett responds in a letter, Wieseltier is offered yet another chance to hit out at Dennett! Does the NY Times believe assholes should always get the last word?

  4. Shirley Knott says

    Yes, Pastor Maker, you’ve got it.
    It’s their own little perversion of evolutionary theory — ‘survival of the feces’.
    They fling it and they want it to persist.
    pfeh. a pox on them.

    Shirley Knott
    BTW, ‘survival of the feces’ also accounts for the persistence of JAD and Uncommon Descent, no? Tragically, it will be partially undercut when Dembski’s “masterpieces” go out of print…

  5. D says

    from the letters:

    “As a composer, I am weary of being commandeered as evidence of supernatural forces.”


  6. 386sx says

    Wieseiltier: “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.”

    Holy hopping Geez, he could just as well have said “You cannot disprove a belief.” and stopped right there. Wow.


  7. says

    Did Wieseltier learn anything about logic? Especially, might he learn some day that it is religion’s premises which need to be shown to be sound?

    I’m not especially wild about Dennett’s “explanation” of religion, but clearly a historical view is appropriate for understanding religion. Wieseltier whines that we have to “disprove content” of religion, a clear indication that he doesn’t want religion to be subject to critique–because religion has no content (in the usual sense of the word), beyond a bit of “common knowledge”.

    I guess if we’re going to “disprove the Lord of the Rings”, we have to disprove its content? Or we might show how it arose, out of the human imagination. It’s fairly trivial to show the same for religion, within the bits of religion which are accessible to investigation (of course some is not, but I have reason to believe that those areas are not relevant, precisely for that reason). This is good historical/scientific thinking, to actually find the evidence and find some way to make sense of it.

    Wieseltier had set up a strawman to save religion from criticism. He says we have to disprove content to disprove a claim, or set of claims like religion. Why yes, that is no doubt true. However, we don’t have to “disprove religion”, we have only to make sense of it, for it makes no sense according to its own terms–not in the present world. The fact is that Wieseltier would make an excellent IDist, since he could insist that we can’t “disprove ID”, as if that would make ID a legitimate issue in science.

    He tries to cover himself vis-a-vis science, though, through his cavil about “scientism”. I’ll allow that “scientism” exists, at least in some arguments and perhaps even in a few people in a general manner. It is not, though, at all easy to identify “scientism”, since there are few people who “explain everything through science”. What is important is that sensible people accept the same sorts of evidence-gathering, recognition of apparent correlations, and model-building to explain what we see. Sometimes this involves science, sometimes it is literary, and sometimes it is a judicial inquiry with subsequent judgment. We can’t get around sober analysis of evidence when making claims about the world in public, although anyone is free to believe the truth of their own dreams and revelations, or even those of others if they are so gullible.

    It is not “scientism” to use proper methods of inquiry to study religion. It is only scientism if we cannot actually come up with reasonable explanations for religion, and yet claim that we have explained religion. We apply science and other forms of historical analysis because these are the methods that we humans can use to get to reliable answers, and not because we think this necessarily is “all there is”. I wonder if Wieseltier will be very happy if he is hauled into court and subjected to non-scientific forms of discovery of evidence, for instance, psychic evidence, or evidence coming from the NT.

    Probably the one well-known version of scientism out there now is ID, a sort of religious dogma. We are not unwilling for Dembski, et al, to “have faith” that their Great Engineer designed life to look like it evolved. But they have to believe that ID is science, so despite their total inability to find founding evidence, they insist that ID is science. Now that is an attempt to put any claim for “truth” into the realm of science, no matter how speculative (at best) it is.

    The opposite tendency is to privilege religion, to claim that its “truths” are above science. Let’s call this “religionism”. So despite the fact that we may adequately explain religion through psychology and historical analysis, Wieseltier automatically proclaims that we must “disprove content” of religion, rather than merely to explain its “content”. Thus he writes of “content” which doesn’t exist (according to standard concepts of what “content” is), simply assumes that science cannot explain it, thereby insulating religion from analysis. And yet anyone who has read some of his other pieces knows that he subjects some Xian religions to historical analysis (if not especially good analysis–the principle holds either way).

    Not only does his logic fail, it leaves him a hypocrite.

    Glen D

  8. Harry Eagar says

    Huh? Are we supposed to be incapable of disproving the content of religion?

    Offer us a specific content, Leonard, and let’s have at it. We could start with coming back from the dead.

  9. says

    I find it interesting that Wieseltier gets an entire New York Times book review in which to lie about Dennett, and when Dennett responds in a letter, Wieseltier is offered yet another chance to hit out at Dennett! Does the NY Times believe assholes should always get the last word?

    We are all more fond of our own assholes than those of others’. NYT only believes their assholes deserve the last word.

    In the first place, why did they choose someone bereft of the knowledge of what makes a sound premise, and of how illegitimate logical claims are until one has sound premises? Why choose someone who knows essentially nothing about science? Why choose one sympathetic to religion to review such a book? Other periodicals have found reviewers not especially pleased with Dennett’s book who nonetheless do not complain about actually trying to apply the rules of evidence to religion, as science may be said to do.

    But NYT pretty much has a list of “big names” who they confuse with experts, and the last thing they want to do is to call into question their own great truths, the primary one being the superiority of themselves. It may be an asshole, but if it’s yours you protect it and let it do its work.

    Glen D

  10. says

    Gray’s review may be more thoughtful than Wieseltier but then that doesn’t take much. He accuses Dennett of focusing on Western monotheism and belief, and of ignoring animism and practice, but in fact animism and the importance of practices are part of Dennett’s story — a big part for the latter.

    “there is nothing in the history of ideas that resembles natural selection in biology”

    Well, the evolution of language, as not just a counterexample but intellectual predecessor to Darwin…

    “pagan religion lost out… because it was repressed”. Yes, which can be described as the dominance of repression memes over tolerance memes, applicable to Christianity vs. paganism but also orthodox vs. more tolerant strains.

    Gray’s a bit less vitriolic, but I don’t get a sense of him understanding what he’s criticizing.

  11. BlueIndependent says

    Perhaps this is low on my part, but should we expect anything more from someone with the name “Wieseltier”? Is he not just some fool arguing from a “tier” befitting a “weasel”?

    Bah, anyhow…

    With the contempt the religious right has for science, I think they should continue their efforts to reject it by…rejecting medical treatment. Yes ladies and gentlemen, the very science that allows many of them and their koolaided-up children to stave off or cure afflictions they think their god gave them out of spite, should be rejected out of hand, should it not?

    After all, it’s about consistency, ain’t it?

  12. Torbjorn Larsson says

    I have to agree with Damien. Gray falsely concentrates on only two of Dennet’s arguments. The first, about supernaturals as a defining part of religion, he dismisses on faulty grounds as parochial since religions cannot see the distinction between natural and supernatural phenomena.

    It’s more interesting when he states that belief is not very important in most religions. “For the majority of humankind, religion has always been about practice rather than belief.”

    Unfortunately, he later contradicts himself by explaining that the need for myths are hardwired in humans, where “it fuels secular belief as much as traditional religion.” Myths “are symbolic narratives that give meaning to the lives of those who accept them.” Like animism and supernatural beings, for example.

  13. Caledonian says

    I (heart) Dennett.

    Wieseiltier: “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.”

    What an idiot. It is true that, by randomly combining letters, I can come up with meaningful statements in English, and it is true that the truth of those statements is independent of the manner in which I produce them. The significance of those statements, however, is determined entirely by how I produced them. Reason (the progenitor of science) dictates that it’s the method that is everything. That’s precisely why mathematicians care so much about proofs, and why less abstract scientists care about the evidence they collect — it’s not the conclusion that matters, but how you reached the conclusion.

  14. Molly, NYC says

    Wieseltier is offered yet another chance to hit out at Dennett!

    . . . in which he pretty much confirmed every criticism lobbed at him.

  15. Christopher says

    See, I have an entirely different objection to Wieseltier’s argument;

    Most religions (Not all, but most) posit a universe that, ultimately, runs on moral principles. Whether it’s an abstract force like Karma, or a concious entity like YHWH, it’s a thing that runs on moral principles, which are themselves expressed most clearly through religions.

    What this means is that part of the content of most religions is that they predict a certain result: excellent morality from believers.

    So criticising the result of religious beliefs is criticising their content.

  16. says

    Just for the record, BlueIndependent, as best as I can figure from my limited German, Wieseltier would literally translate to “weasel animal”. I’m not the last word on it by any means, but I think this is a reasonable translation.

    And yes, it is probably not a good thing to play off of a person’s name. Especially with some Jewish names which were assigned specifically to denigrate the Jewish name-bearers a few hundred years back, the slight is too easy and too reminiscent of out-and-out anti-Semitism. I realize that this was (almost certainly) not intended by anybody, one reason why I mention it and try to warn anybody off from any such unintentional slights.

    Best to just stick to the arguments in any case, especially since Wieseltier mostly does badly in that department. Not entirely, and in fact I think that Dennett’s “transcendence of biology” claim is at best a bit slippery, but hardly crucial to the sensible project of explaining religion historically and scientifically.

    The fact is that there is little reason even to bring up “the ability to transcend our genetic imperatives.” We simply are what we are, and any sort of organism might be able to “transcend its genetic imperative” in the sense that Dennett uses. Isn’t that more or less the point of evolution?

    But one might well ask what “genetic imperative” means in the first place, if genes and genetic expression are simply contextual and contingent within environments and social interactions.

    We do have genetic causes, but they are not and never were absolute “imperatives” and indeed, it seems as if all organisms have in fact evolved to avoid “imperatives”, instead having contingencies available to modify behavior and phenotype where this is needed. If we look at genetics this way, we hardly need to talk about “transcending” any sort of “imperative”, and need simply to speak of developmental and evolutionary adaptation.

    This, however, is no excuse for Wieseltier’s exploitation of the weaknesses (at least in my view) in Dennett’s language. My point is that I can disagree with Dennett’s language without really changing anything about the view of human behavioral and cognitive plasticity. The fact of the matter is that we are generalists who develop religions or even no religion, based on circumstances and upon contingent forces. We do not have to suppose that people have good reasons either for religion or for a lack of it (though some do have good reasons, at least for the lack of religiosity), rather each case depends for analysis upon each person’s life and the influences on that life.

    Indeed, Wieseltier’s non-evaluation of Dennett’s non-religious outlook belies his demand that religion must be “disproved” by “disproving its content”. Wieseltier prefers to sidetrack any serious discussion of religion, by focusing on several of Dennett’s particular comments about religion. Unfortunately for Wieseltier, the case against religion does not depend upon Dennett, nor really upon anything except the fact that we haven’t begun to have sufficient evidence for religious claims.

    Glen D

  17. Harry Eagar says

    Small matter, but most journals that pretend to any sort of serious discussion of books, including very liberal ones, rejoice in the custom of the riposte/reply to a review.

  18. says

    “…when Dennett responds in a letter, Wieseltier is offered yet another chance to hit out at Dennett!”
    Yes, that’s how it is with reviews: author protests bad review, reviewer gets to reply. Is Dennett so venerable that he rates an exception? Should his misleadingly selective quoting of Thomas Nagel have gone unremarked?
    Btw, Wieseltier is not on the Religious Right. Why not get to know him better? Like he says, sanctity is not an excuse for stupidity. Scientism shouldn’t excuse anything.

  19. says

    Yes, “Wieseltier” would mean something like weaselanimal or weaselbeast, literally.

    As for the quotation of Nagel, I notice that at best that’s the only thing W. did correctly. I have yet to read the book, but the review is absurd on a lot of grounds. There are, and have been for well over a century, scientific studies of religion, and Dennett is just encouraging the acceleration of research.

  20. Torbjorn Larsson says

    “Btw, Wieseltier is not on the Religious Right. Why not get to know him better?”

    That link only strenghtens the view that Wieseltier is a bad philosopher and no scientist: “The mind may recoil from the possibility that all this sublimity came into being by accident, but it cannot, on those grounds alone, rule the possibility out, unless it is concerned only to cure its own pain.”

    This is of course the old and nowadays stupid idea of ‘first cause’, which is something physics, not philosophy, handles within cosmology. It has turned out that this principle doesn’t work for physics, which is why it uses other mechanisms for modern cosmologies. No cosmology will ever again use this principle; Wieseltier have better get used to it.

    “Scientism shouldn’t excuse anything.”

    As Glen says, it’s not scientism. Furthermore also ‘religionism’ shouldn’t excuse anything; his arguments are stupid.

  21. says

    Torbjorn Larsson, Wieseltier doesn’t claim to be a philosopher or a scientist — he is a critc, and as a believing Jew, he is among the readers Dennett claims to have addressed his book to. Forgive me if I’m unsure whether you understand the sentence you quote from him: he is saying that the “cosmological argument” fails, and he cannot delude himself that it succeeds, no matter how much the contingency of the world discomfits him. He goes on to join Kant in rejecting the argument from design. The upshot of his piece is to reject the pretensions of “Intelligent Design” to be a scientific theory.
    Again, forgive me for belaboring this if you did get his point — but one of the philosophers defending Dennett in a letter to NYTBR asserted that Wieseltier denies “Darwinism,” by which I think he means the evolution of species by natural selection — and it should be clear from the piece against “ID” that he acknowledges its truth. Perhaps Dennett’s defender took it for granted that only a slipshod reading of the book could have made for an unfavorable review, and proceeded to read the review as badly.
    I (and I think Wiesletier) agree with you that a First Cause has no place in physical cosmology. But I would go further back, to the scientific “heroic age,” to say that G-d became otiose to physical explanation when final causation did. But if we are not undertaking to do science, but to address the headache of sublime contingency, we address it as Jews in the first place by trying to listen to and obey our G-d. If there is still work for philosophical inquiry, we then seek accounts from it that would save a different set of phenomena than a scientist (or a naturalistic philsopher) would.
    If Wieseltier or I were to try to pass off our lore and learning as the canons for the sciences, and insist that the phenomena or endoxa we might philosophize to give an account of is the unique proper canon for phenomena to be explained by the sciences, or even that nothing should be left to the sciences — then the scientism that is Dennett’s project’s fatal flaw could be rebutted by the parodistic tu quoque of “religionism.” (I have tried to rebuked a similar point about Dennett’s neologism “meteorologism” HERE. ) But Wieseltier is not a “religionist” in the sense that Dennett is a scienticist. Wieseltier, for example, accepts both the truth of “Darwinism” and that he is chayav (obligated) to mourn his father in ways prescribed by halakha (Jewish law), not to eat certain animals, etc. He does not need to use either domain as the measure of the other. Dennett, OTOH, is committed to tell the story of the one in terms of the other, plus meme-talk. See any symmetry there?