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February 21, 2006

Wieseltier on Dennett I: "Scientism"?

It is not quite clear what faith Leon Wieseltier (left) is defending wieseltier.jpgdaniel_dennett_1.jpgin his over-the-top review of the new book by Daniel Dennett (right) on the causes of belief. But he must see the threat to that pale faith, and civilization as he knows it, as profound, because no holds are barred. The New Republic's literary editor even finds himself sounding a bit like a late-seventies comp-lit professor:

"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."

It is indeed an entertaining world we live in when science (broadly applied, to be sure) gets called religion by a long-gray-haired neoliberal (with a weakness for the spiritual) to fend off a long-gray-bearded philosophy professor (with a weakness for sociobiology), in, of all places, the pages of the New York Times. What are we to make of this charge?

Is there actually a sense in which science, when extended to human culture, might truly be considered a faith? (Does the attempt to locate a common source for faith and reason attributed to Derrida -- guru of late-seventies comp-lit professors -- below illuminate matters any?) Is the villain here just sociobiology -- evolutionary biology as applied to cultural behaviors? Or are we to conceive of our whole scientific view of the world as, gulp, just another religion? (Was Einstein the wrong choice as "Person of the Century"? Should it have been Thomas Kuhn?) Can one be an atheist or even an agnostic with respect to science -- or some overly ambitious applications of science?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at February 21, 2006 11:30 AM


The proposition that there are no phenomena that cannot in principle be successfully investigated scientifically, including all aspects of human beings (including religion), is not a "faith" in the sense that religious faith is called "faith." It is simply the working assumption that scientists go on, and has been supported (so far at least) by several centuries of successful research. Any so-far-unanswered questions that scientists find in front of themselves are simply subjects for further research. What reasons could be given for admonishing them to give up trying to answer such and such a question?

Religious faith, on the other hand, is not based on any history of successful research. It is merely a set of stories which the members of a given society have traditionally, over many centuries or even millenia, told each other in order to ensure that they all conform to the same view of the world and to allay their fears of the unknown, especially death.

At least, that's my assumption.

Posted by: sort of buddhist at February 22, 2006 1:05 AM

I have not read the book, but I have looked at the review. As I work as scientist, I am wondering about "Scientism". I have never particularly heard the word used, nor read much about it. I have never heard or read anyone describing themselves by saying something like "I agree with Scientism" or "I believe in Scientism".

But it seems to be a word used by those who critize science. So the claim above ".. not an insult to science to say so." seems unsupported from my point of view. It seems very much like a term defined within the context of philosophy to describe an idealized position that no one actually claims to subscribe to.

Now, that does not mean that scientists may not agree with some technical definitions, but Wieseltier is not sticking to a technical definition. More definitions of Scientism are here and here or perhaps less biases, here.

As far as I can google, almost all usage of the word "scientism" is limited to philosophers who bring it up in order to criticize it, and religious writers who do the same. It is thus nearly always a strawman position.

Butthe article was supposed to be a book review and it turned into a religion versus science opion piece. I think the public would benefit from a more balanced look at the book. I just cannot trust a reviewer who attacks the author's philsophy with such fervor.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at February 22, 2006 5:58 PM

I think it is insane to call science "scientism" or a religion. Religion is the belief in a higher power, a grand design, be it a serious belief in God or a joking belief in a flying spaghetti monster (http://www.venganza.org/).

Science is the search for the basic rules which govern how everything works. We study evolution because if we can understand how we changed into what we are as a species, we can predict how we will change in the future, we can understand it.

Science is the search for proof, it is a never ending struggle to prove what, why, where, when and how. Religion is search for faith, a search for, instead of why and how, who.

Posted by: dan at February 22, 2006 11:14 PM

Wieseltier’s review is not closely reasoned, and it is not calm, but I find it generally right on. It did not surprise me that people who value Dennett as much as he does himself smarted. I was surprised however that the Times chose not to publish a single letter in Wieseltier’s defense. I’d like to edit the review to a number of key sentences which I think are either incontrovertible or just very funny.

“The orthodoxies of evolutionary psychology are all here, its tiresome way of roaming widely but never leaving its house, its legendary curiosity that somehow always discovers the same thing.

“The excited materialism of American society - . . . the adoption by American culture of biological, economic and technological ways of describing the purposes of human existence - abounds in Dennett's usefully uninhibited pages. And Dennett's book is also a document of the . . . deeply damaging assumption that the most extreme statement of an idea is its most genuine statement.

“Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism, in a purely naturalistic understanding of religion or in intelligent design . . .

[Yes. Dennett never attempts to arrive at a thoughtful definition of religion in its diversity and complexity. One would not understand from reading Dennett that there might be an atheistic religion (Buddhism) or a religion that accepts complete physical determinism and rejects any concept of free will (Calvinism).]

“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! He wonders whether religious people "will have the intellectual honesty and courage to read this book through." If you disagree with what Dennett says, it is because you fear what he says. Any opposition to his scientistic deflation of religion he triumphantly dismisses as "protectionism." But people who share Dennett's view of the world he calls "brights." Brights are not only intellectually better, they are also ethically better. Did you know that "brights have the lowest divorce rate in the United States, and born-again Christians the highest"? Dennett's own "sacred values" are "democracy, justice, life, love and truth." This rigs things nicely. If you refuse his "impeccably hardheaded and rational ontology," then your sacred values must be tyranny, injustice, death, hatred and falsehood. Dennett is the sort of rationalist who gives reason a bad name; and in a new era of American obscurantism, this is not helpful.

[In fact, Dennett’s smugness and arrogance have been noted for a long time, to the point where they would appear to be salient to his appeal to the Bright community. Explore: Dr. Spock and smugness as rhetorical device.]

“What follows is, in brief, Dennett's natural history of religion. . . . .There are a number of things that must be said about this story. The first is that it is only a story. It is not based, in any strict sense, on empirical research. Dennett is "extrapolating back to human prehistory with the aid of biological thinking," nothing more. "Breaking the Spell" is a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology. There is no scientific foundation for its scientistic narrative. Even Dennett admits as much: "I am not at all claiming that this is what science has established about religion. . . . We don't yet know." So all of Dennett's splashy allegiance to evidence and experiment and "generating further testable hypotheses" notwithstanding, what he has written is just an extravagant speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing.

“And why is Dennett so certain that the origins of a thing are the most illuminating features of a thing, or that a thing is forever as primitive as its origins? . . . "Breaking the Spell" is a long, hectoring exercise in unexamined originalism. . . . . An anxiety about the reality of nonbiological meanings troubles Dennett's every page. But it is very hard to envisage the biological utilities of such gratuitous outlays as "The Embarkation for Cythera" and Fermat's theorem and the "Missa Solemnis."

“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.

“Like many biological reductionists, Dennett is sure that he is not a biological reductionist. . . . . Why is our independence from biology a fact of biology?
Dennett is unable to imagine a fact about us that is not a biological fact. His book is riddled with translations of emotions and ideas into evo-psychobabble.

[No need to quote the rest of this effective passage. Brights apparently like said kind of babble. Most people I think find it adolescent, and it verges on the schizoid.]

“He cannot conceive of a thoughtful believer. He writes often, and with great indignation, of religion's strictures against doubts and criticisms, when in fact the religious traditions are replete with doubts and criticisms. . . . Like many of the fundamentalists whom he despises, he is a literalist in matters of religion.

[. . . and so forth. I think that what most disturbed many of the readers of this review was its refusal to follow the tired conventional reviewer’s rote formula: 50% or more must be neutral summary and much patting on the back of the author for having troubled to write a book at all]

Posted by: Mark Shulgasser at March 26, 2006 2:35 AM

"I have never heard or read anyone describing themselves by saying something like "I agree with Scientism" or "I believe in Scientism"...But it seems to be a word used by those who critize science."

Actually, I think it's used against those prosletyzers who use science to preach against religion. The review is not anti-science and neither is the word. It's no different than using the term Islamism, where it's understood that criticisms of radical political Islam are not inherently anti-Islam.

Posted by: Shmuel at June 28, 2006 6:30 PM

Science is the attempt to take the individual out of theology. If enough people using the same environment observe the same thing than it is considered the most likely reality. At least until multi-validated experiences negate the prior hypothesis. The faith of science is the faith in a democratic view of reality. It is still faith, but very, very different from the reality that starts with unverifiable myths and stories.

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 28, 2006 6:40 PM

"The faith of science is the faith in a democratic view of reality. It is still faith, but very, very different from the reality that starts with unverifiable myths and stories."

I'm not arguing that science isn't different. I'm not arguing that science isn't the best way to understand "reality" in pragmatic ways. Science simply isn't the only way (Scientism). For example, science will never be able to answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing. And to believe that science could answer such a question surely would involve an element of faith.

Posted by: Shmuel at June 29, 2006 9:58 AM

Science isn't the only way to what? Think, believe? Obviously not. Your use of Scientism confirms brior posts about its use only by those who would misrepresent it. It is not science that will never be able to answer those "questions". It is human beings in their present limited awareness that create these unanswerable questions about "meaning".

And, even though it requires the leap of faith about reality, it has demonstrated its power in our observable universe and has already begun to technologically evolve humans. We cannot know if a more aware being will even be concerned with our great questions, or if they are, have the answers or if that will fall to what follows them.

The most important thing we have learned from science is that we are not as special as we want to believe. We may very well not even be the most advanced abstract thinkers on this planet.

We have no idea what we do not perceive about reality. We are all using pretty much the same equipment to build our versions of reality. And now we are told none of our telescopes can see over half of the universe--dark matter. Holy moly!

There are quesions we CAN answer with science and they will lead us on. There are "metaphsyical" questions we cannot answer. It is vain to try. Trying leads only to frustration or accepting the wrong answer which leads to Iraq and other hard places.

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 29, 2006 10:30 AM

"It is human beings in their present limited awareness that create these unanswerable questions about "meaning"."

Wondering why or how there is something rather than nothing is not a question of meaning in scare quotes. It's a question about the physical universe that cannot be answered scientifically. Questions about first causes are not the same as questions about semantic paradoxes like "What is a married bachelor?" etc.

"There are "metaphsyical" questions we cannot answer. It is vain to try."

This is a good definition of Scientism.

Posted by: Shmuel at June 29, 2006 11:59 AM

"The most important thing we have learned from science is that we are not as special as we want to believe. We may very well not even be the most advanced abstract thinkers on this planet."


"Trying leads only to frustration or accepting the wrong answer which leads to Iraq and other hard places."


Posted by: Shmuel at June 29, 2006 12:03 PM

Well if why is not a question of meaning what is it a question of? The how we are in the process of answering. How do you know there are questions about the physical universe we cannot answer in time? Science sure does not make that assumption. That is a matter of faith. As is your belief in Scientism--which only exists in the minds of the religious. Scientism has as much to do with science as Scientology does.

There are many scientists who believe in God, where do they fit into your (to borrow a phrase from JM) binary view of God/Science?

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 29, 2006 12:59 PM

? Blue Whales have brains nine time the size of ours. And we are only aware of intelligence in biological life. The possiblites are infinite. What if music is really the force behind life and we are just the unwitting carriers of melodies that are evolving and devolving?

? Asking: Why everything? Why me? What is the meaning? They exist only as internal dialog and would seem to be very individually human, like our machines.

Why ask why? What can you possibly gain other than the knowledge you cannot answer such a question? When you quest for and expect and then find answers to those questions you get religion. Which brings us to Iraq.

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 29, 2006 1:25 PM

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