Wieseltier -v- Dennet: Onward Ho!

Hey Mom! I'm quoted in the NYTimes!
[Link] Silly Humans, Three Quarks Daily and The Secular Outpost offer more criticism in the same vein, with Silly Humans taking aim in particular at Wieseltier's accusations that Dennett is guilty of "scientism." "Scientism," writes Silly Humans' Michael Bains, is "the ultimate meme. It is insanely inane since it ignores the fact that Science is only a method for revealing the material workings of reality. Since it misdefines what science is, it says absolutely nothing about it."
Re-reading my quoted words on the exalted (for good or for ill) stage of the NYTimes, I see where my emotionalism stretched my objectivity just a little in choosing absolutely over essentially or effectively. It's kinda funny cuz, just last night, I referred to Mitchell Stephens' recent post on on the subject as the last word on Wieseltier V Dennett. At least that characterization was absolutely accurate for a short bit o' time.

This follow-up article in the NYT is also good for linkage to thoughts that span the blogosphere o'er the issue of Evolution V Creationism. From the Right comes a telling portrayal of all that is dear and Good in the history of Western Civilization being a result of Judaeo-Christian philosophy.
So why only one cheer? Once the Judeo-Christian foundations of values like democracy, justice and love wither away, Burton writes, the evolutionary foundation that Dennett and others propose may just wither away as well. "I fear that in Darwinist hands these ideals will come off looking like the merest tissue of fraud and delusion."
(emphasis and emphasis mine)

I had to read that bit several times because it mixes reasonable assertion with the aforementioned pomposity. Burton is assuredly correct in so far as "Darwinists" {shakin'head} like myself are equally capable of being, well, Human. As individuals, we are going to be as emotional in our pursuits as any righteous believer in ghosts and ghouls and gods. This does indeed add to the difficulty of convincing the gullible or the simply disinterested of the facts that are slowly but surely being worried out of the world by a dedicated and yea! democratic usage of the scientific methodology.

This remark is a head scratcher.

[Link]In response, Wieseltier makes various criticisms, but the one that pretty much everybody seems to agree on is this:

"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."

I've seen something to this effect elsewhere and, as a layman, I wonder here aloud if the actual philosophical POV of most scientists, ie professional practitioners of the scientific method, really subscribe to this idea. I'm thinking it is simply the old straw that "if you can't prove it's false, then it must be true."

But Science is not about popularity. The cooberative construct that is Peer Review, which scientists have developed over the last few centuries to ensure that facts and theories discovered and proposed by scientists are objective and factual, is far less susceptible to rhetoric and charisma than is the normal democratic process. It's not immune from these and I'd ne'er suggest such a silly aphorism. It is simply that scientists lay their facts upon a table of testability for ALL to observe and poke and prod and dissect and reconfabulate and anything else which another human can conceive in order to determine the most basic componentry of the issue at hand.

Individual scientists may fall prey to Scientism, but Science itself is inured, no, it is immune to such a sensation due to it's abstract and ultimately mathematical state of being. One plus another One equals Two. Compile the possibly infite components of each of those Ones, and add them all together and they can only equal the One in the initially proposed equation.

We are One species. There are literally billions of components of our species and, because of the laws of physics and biology, laws determined regardless of our knowledged of how, when or why, we have evolved from previous species and from previous species and so on, and so on and so ... We continue to evolve, sometimes despite the best efforts of madmen and maniacs, and it may be that such an evolutionary process will result in separate intelligent species in our distant future. Hekk! It may be that we are at a branching in the Tree of Life right this very moment. The nature of evolution is such that this possibility is impossible for us, with out current tools of observation or potential for understanding, to see such a bud beginning. The scale of bio-evolution is simply much too vast.

My point is that the Right and the Left of the spectrum of political opinion are equally driven by human emotion and ability to comprehend the world in which we share our existence. For thousands of years religion and superstitious supposition have guided and led our ancestors forward in time on this planet and brought us to the point where we can look back on our history as our ancestors wrote it down and objectively perceive where those ancestors, those bio-cultural predecessors of each and every one of us, were both correct and incorrect in their opinions about their own observations. We can learn and change our minds and the only way to do so objectively is to utilize the tools of science.

I've given up religious belief as a personal choice. There are good reasons for me to do so and not all of them can be applied to or, certainly not, enforced upon every other homo sapien with whom I share this biosphere. That doesn't mean I don't believe silly things nor serious. It means that I have access to the same tools of understanding that everyone has and can refute or substantiate my own beliefs if I so decide. Those tools are objective and efficacious and they will continue to be ever more so as our species' knowledge expands. This refinement can not be helped if left Legally supported, but it can be stymied and stifled by ignorance and fear and political manipulations which are based solely upon the flawed and fabulous assumptions of those who fear the potential our species to reign in and control the chemical emotions which drive each and every one of us to statistically different degrees.

There is an integral place for Conservatism and Mysticism on our little planet, just as there is for Liberalism and Reason* (Scientism???.) We will evolve whether we notice it or know how or not so, In My Humble Opinion, I believe that effecting changes in our cultures which allow ever more of us individuals to be conscious of our evolution is the most democratic and efficacious route to take as a species.

Know thyself and it will not matter if thou ne'er knoweth thy maker.

Even if it means that you may find out there isn't one

* I used Reason instead of Rationalism for two good, um, well, reasons: 1) I have a negative emotional reaction to Isms, and 2) I felt this word choice made it stand out from the other three isms. Now, honestly, that may be called a case of scientism. If only a small incidence of such.

** I've struggle with finishing with the newly added last line since first writing this post. I published and looked away when I left it off. Re-reading the post on UTI, I decided I really really want it this way.


  1. Wow, that's the coolest! A NYTimes quote. You should buy a hundred copies of the paper and give it to your friends. :p

    BTW, concerning this quote:

    "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."

    I believe what he's referring to are the genetic fallacy (origin) and the appeal to consequences. I have not read Dennett's book Breaking the Spell so I don't know if the reviewer gave a fair characterization of his arguments, though judging from the review, it seems that it's hardly sympathetic.


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