Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Biologists Gone Wild

For those interested, here are a few more clips from David B. Hart's review of Breaking the Spell entitled Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark (available in the current First Things). To take Dennett's cue of the biological analogy, reading Hart is one way of developing immunity to the new atheism's very old line or reasoning - a mental virus called materialism.


The essential vaccine can be obtained in these two paragraphs:
"Of course religion is a natural phenomenon. Who would be so foolish to deny that? Religion is ubiquitous in human culture and obviously constitutes an essential element in the evolution of society, and obviously has itself evolved. It is as natural to humanity as language or song or mating rituals. Dennett may imagine that such a suggestion is provocative and novel, and he may believe that there are legions of sincere souls out there desperately committed to the notion that religion itself is some sore of miraculous exception to the rule of nature, but, in either case he is deceived.

For one thing, it does not follow that, simply because religion as such is a natural phenomenon, it cannot become the vehicle of divine truth, or that it is not is some sense oriented toward a transcendent reality. To imagine it does is to fall prey to a version of the genetic fallacy, the belief that one need only determine the causal sequence by which something comes into being in order to understand its nature, meaning, content, uses, or value."
Then there is the claim that Dennett is himself quite religious:
"When Dennett proposes statistical analyses of different kinds of religion, to find out which are more evolutionarily perdurable, he exhibits a trust in the power of unprejudiced science to demarcate and define items of thought and culture like species of flora that verges on magical thinking. It is as if he imagines that by imitating the outward forms of scientific method, and by applying an assortment of superficially empirical theories to nonempirical realities, and by tirelessly gathering information, and by asserting the validity of his methods with an incantatory repetitiveness, and by invoking invisible agencies such as memes, and be fiercely believing in the efficacy of all that he is doing, he can summon for the actual hard clinical results, as from the treasure house of the gods."
The review is also not without a few ripostes:
"Using The Bellman's maxim, 'What I tell you three times is true,' is not alien to Dennett's method. He seems to work on the supposition that an assertion made with sufficient force and frequency is soon transformed, by some subtle alchemy, into a settled principle. And there are rather too many instances when Dennett seems either to clumsily to miss or willfully to ignore pertinent objections to his views and so races past them with a perfunctory wave in what he takes to be their general direction - though usually in another direction altogether.

There is his silly tendency to feign mental decrepitude when it serves his purposes, as when he pretends that the concept of God possesses too many variations for him to keep track of, or as when he acts scandalized by the revelation that academic theology sometimes lapses into a technical jargon full of obscure Greek terms like apophatic and ontic. And there are the historical errors, such as his ludicrous assertion that the early Christians regarded apostasy as a capital offense.

In the book's insufferably prolonged overture, he repeatedly tells his imaginary religious readers - in a tenderly hectoring tone, as if talking to small children or idiots - that they will probably not read his book to the end, that they may well think it immoral even to consider doing so, and that they are not courageous enough to entertain the doubts it will induce in them. Actually, there is nothing in the book that could possibly shake anyone's faith, and the only thing likely to dissuade religious readers from finishing it is its author's interminable proleptic effort to overcome their reluctance."
Finally, and most importantly perhaps, there is Hart's parting advice:
"If Dennett really wishes to undertake a scientific investigation of faith, he should promptly abandon his efforts to describe religion in the abstract and attempt instead to enter the actual world of belief in order to weigh its claims from within. As a first step, he should certainly - purely in the interest of sound scientific method and empirical rigor - begin praying. This is a drastic and implausible prescription, no doubt, but it is the only means by which he could possibly begin to acquire any knowledge of what belief is or what it is not."