The New York Times has just published a rather stupid review of Daniel C. Dennett’s new book, Breaking the Spell. The intelligent design creationists like it, and just about anyone who buys into the traditional self-conception of philosophy as the fundamental intellectual discipline should find much in it to like as well.
Wieseltier, the reviewer (who doesn’t display much evidence of knowing much about any of the relevant sciences addressed in Dennett’s book), starts out with “The question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question.” What he means is that there are some questions — Deep, Fundamental Questions — that are specifically reserved to philosophy. And by philosophical he means that the proper way to address them is to get comfortable in an armchair and shove your head up your ass.
I’m not sure I want to come out too strongly in defense of Dennett’s book. I have considerable respect for Dennett. He’s a philosopher who has no truck with the notion that philosophy is an isolated and exalted activity of divining principles fundamental to all the rest of intellectual life. He works on questions I happen to have some interest in, and I generally feel like I’m learning something when I read him, whether I end up agreeing or not. But Breaking the Spell is, somehow, not entirely satisfying.
Nevertheless, what bugs me about this review and some others I’ve read is not that they point out specific errors Dennett might have made, or that they leap to the defense of religion. That’s all legitimate criticism, wrong or right. No, these pompous twits object to the very idea of trying to explain religion within the natural world. And they do it not by engaging the actual debate, but by declaring from on high that the whole thing is a misguided notion reeking of materialist ideology.
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