Monday, February 20, 2006

Materialism in a new form
Via Andrew Sullivan, I learned of this fascinating book review. It's essays like this that make me miss my lapsed NY Times subscription. New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, does a pretty good job setting Daniel Dennett straight in Dennett's absurd attempts to explain religion as somehow an evolutionary phenomenon. There is much in Wieseltier's review that I can agree with, for example the following passage:
For Dennett, thinking historically absolves one of thinking philosophically. Is the theistic account of the cosmos true or false? Dennett, amazingly, does not care. "The goal of either proving or disproving God's existence," he concludes, is "not very important." It is history, not philosophy, that will break religion's spell. The story of religion's development will extirpate it. "In order to explain the hold that various religious ideas and practices have on people," he writes, "we need to understand the evolution of the human mind."
and also this passage:
It will be plain that Dennett's approach to religion is contrived to evade religion's substance. He thinks that an inquiry into belief is made superfluous by an inquiry into the belief in belief. This is a very revealing mistake. 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. 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.
And, indeed, rationalism, in the strict philosophic sense of Spinoza and Leibniz, is closer to mysticism. But the point is well taken -- reason is neither materialistic nor rationalistic. It must be objective and thus include both method and content or it is empty. There are a number of other really good points that Wieseltier makes, though at times I think he rejects what I might term biological naturalism a bit too much. The mind is a natural biological product of evolution (since everything about us is) but its nature is the one that Wieseltier insists gives us our limited independence from our animality. The book review is well worth reading in its entirety.

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