Give me creaturely over preacherly any day

You can tell when a dogmatic theist has to review a book by an unapologetic atheist: there’s a lot of indignant spluttering, and soon the poor fellow is looking for an excuse to dismiss the whole exercise, so that he doesn’t have to actually think about the issues. That’s the case with Leon Wieseltier’s review of Dennett’s Breaking the Spell—it’s kind of like watching a beached fish gasp and flounder, yet at the same time he apparently believes he’s the one with the gaff hook and club.

It’s full of self-important declarations that reduce to incoherence, such as this one:

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.

One moment he’s telling us that just tracing the origins of an idea is insufficient to disprove it (sadly for Mr Wieseltier’s argument, there is no sign that Dennett disagrees), the next he’s telling us that the origin of Dennett’s reason is “creaturely” and “animalized”, and therefore of a lesser or invalid kind. I had no idea we could categorize reason by the nature of its source (I’d like to know what varieties of reason he proposes: “creaturely”, “human”, “divine”? Is there also a “vegetable reason”?), but even if we could, by his initial premise, it wouldn’t matter: he needs to address its content, not carp against it because it is the product of natural selection rather than revelation.

Then there’s this rather bewildering build-up. Wieseltier carefully builds a case that he has caught Dennett in an internal contradiction, an idea he pounces on with a kind of petty triumphal glee…but all it shows is that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Like many biological reductionists, Dennett is sure that he is not a biological reductionist. But the charge is proved as early as the fourth page of his book. Watch closely. “Like other animals,” the confused passage begins, “we have built-in desires to reproduce and to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve this goal.” No confusion there, and no offense. It is incontrovertible that we are animals. The sentence continues: “But we also have creeds, and the ability to transcend our genetic imperatives.” A sterling observation, and the beginning of humanism. And then more, in the same fine antideterministic vein: “This fact does make us different.”

Then suddenly there is this: “But it is itself a biological fact, visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science.” As the ancient rabbis used to say, have your ears heard what your mouth has spoken? Dennett does not see that he has taken his humanism back. Why is our independence from biology a fact of biology? And if it is a fact of biology, then we are not independent of biology. If our creeds are an expression of our animality, if they require an explanation from natural science, then we have not transcended our genetic imperatives. The human difference, in Dennett’s telling, is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind—a doctrine that may quite plausibly be called biological reductionism.

To declare that we are not limited by our genetic imperatives does not in any way contradict the statement that we are material, biological beings with behaviors that can be explained scientifically, without recourse to the supernatural or any other kind of immaterial vitalism. Opposing simplistic genetic reductionism—which, by the way, is good to see from Dennett, because he has a bit of a reputation for being far too narrowly reductionist in his views—is not the same as denying a natural, biological basis for behavior. When Wieseltier tries to insist that genetic determinism is the same as biology, he’s just flaunting his own ignorance.

The whole review reads this poorly, and I suppose I could take it on paragraph by paragraph…but nah. Brian Leiter has already torpedoed it, so even this much seems like excess. The New York Times really needs to do a better job of finding qualified reviewers—it seems in this case they just found a guy anxious to posture against the ungodly, with no competence to actually judge the book.


  1. #1 Anonymous
    February 20, 2006

    Does the current state of science justify Dennett’s investigation of the issue he explores or is he beyond science’s warrant and violating Humanities’ and Religion’s turf?

    The reviewer says in part:
    “He [Dennett] remarks that the question cui bono? — who benefits? — “is even more central in evolutionary biology than in the law,” and so we must seek the biological utilities of what might otherwise seem like “a gratuitous outlay.” 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.””

    Science has excellent evidence that life on earth does not tolerate “gratuitous outlays.” See that other atheist irk, Dawkins. So science is either wrong or wherever there is a gratuious outlay, there is some serious splaining to do.

    Dennett has directly adressed one area where this scientific problem of fundamental biology is manifest, religion. Obviously all the religions aren’t right. They are costly. So why are they all there? Could be God made them so. But how are humans made so that they spontaneously generate religions (mutually exclusive religions at that)?

    A similarly fundamental scientific problem based on the current state of knowledge, that gets people upset so they refuse to see the issue since it invovles their actual lives and beliefs: homosexuality. Why is it there?

    Dennett tries to explain what science demands an explanation of. Within the natural science tradition supernatural explanations are not acceptable.

    No critic here has justified criticism of Dennett as pursuing what science cannot legitmately pursue. Nor does it seem any defenders are saying that Dennett has found The Truth.

    Scientism, like secular humanism, is a scam invented and maintained so people with threatened vested interests can use the nouns as Just So explanations of complex divergent effects, while inconsistently announcing, e.g., “Correlation isn’t even causation.” And while correlation indeed need not be (but typically does signal)causation labeling isn’t causation either and accusing Dennett of scientism or communism just evades the issues.

  2. #2 john c. halasz
    February 20, 2006

    windy: You responded with an obvious fallacy. The point about “chimpanzees” was that no animals possess a religion, because they lack the thematic self-consciousness and discursive reasoning capacities to raise such questions, which are an effect of language. Further my basic point concerned appropriate levels of explanation, which is a rational-normative question and not simply an empirical matter.

    John Emerson:

    I have no problem with the thesis that human language emerged from natural evolutionary processes, presumably on the basis of a prior analog system of animal communication and that specific phenotypic “adaptions”, (enlarged brain, descended larynx, etc.) were requisite for the emergence of symbolic, syntactically organized and semantically self-stabilized language. However, whatever the synergistic convergence of factors in its emergence, it does not follow that language is simply innate, (as opposed to species-specific), since it derives just as much from the exteriority of communications across the world as from the brain processes of its users. Further, to causally explain a capacity is obviously not to constitute a causal determinism of the exercise of that capacity, else that capacity is merely epiphenomenal rather than a genuine phenomenon, to be explained away. Once language emerges, it evolves together with the socio-cultural form of life in which it is embedded and which it mediates, and that evolution is not a case of natural selection rooted in genes. (Strange as it may seem to some,”meaning” is a non-causal relation, irreducible to material processes, although there are other ways in which it can be gotten at and “explained” non-reductively and criticized at its “roots”: e.g. cf. Wittgenstein.) And while I have no problem per se with the notion of a biological substrate to human social life, the socio-cultural form of human life does at the very least add on new “problem sets” (or conflicts and questions) that modify the expression of that biological substrate. (Actually, I would hold to Arnold Gehlen’s thesis that human beings are born organically deficient, that is, lacking in adequate functional specification of instincts due to the natural evolution of “excessive” instinctual “plasticity”, such that they require cultural structuration of their biological/instinctual potentials in order to acquire the behavioral adequacy and adaptive functionality that is pre-given, in large degree, for animals by their instinctual endowments.) At any rate, the main point here is that there are limits to the explanatory adequacy of naturalistic explanation in terms of efficient material causes that render efforts to totalize such explanations arguably, (i.e. normative-rationally), fallacious.

    jbark: There is no “dualism” showing up in my account, unless it be opposition to a crude, dogmatic and reductive monism. The only “dualism” appealed to is the (empirically well-warranted, I take it) one between language and reality and between the counterfacctual status of norms, which are anchored in the recognitions and agreements between language users and the empiricity of facts, which are agreed upon through the differentiation of normative frameworks.

    Paul W.:

    The wisecrack about “pickup line” was that “algorythmic process” is an awfully odd way to refer to biological reproduction. Not just odd though, but specifically wrong. An algorithm is a fixed reiterable rule, which breaks down a more complex intractable calculation into more managable subroutines. It’s a term from mathematics that obviously applies as well to computer science. Now I think I get what Dennett wants to say by invoking the term. He wants to follow up on Dawkins’ gene selection account of Darwinian evolution, whereby genes are the main, if not sole, objects of natural selection. Now there are significant problems with Dawkins’ claims,- (see Prof. Myers post on 2/18/06 at 8:25 pm below to get some idea of that),- but the idea seems to be that the algorithms operate on sets of genes and their rules of recombination. However, in the long-run of evolution by natural selection, there are no pre-existent rules, nor is there any fixed combinatorial of genes: any “rules” or extension/addition/alteration of genes emerge only from natural selection, and there is no ready generalization of such as can be empirically found and substantiated. (That’s an empirical question, not a matter to be dictated by high theory.) But still more fundamentally, Dennett claims to be giving an account of Darwinian theory, that is, evolution by natural selection, when in fact he is not giving a strictly selectionist account at all, but rather an instructionalist account, based ultimately on the model of digital computational devices, (or, similarly, computationalist cognitive-functionalist theories in “cognitive psychology”, that derive from formal analysis and then are somehow claimed to be embedded in material processes). An instructionalist account involves fixed predefined functions, which then operate upon information that is predefined as transparent to those functions and their operations. But in natural reality per se, there are no predefined functions, nor any unambiguous environmental information or signals. A properly selectionist explanation involves contingent selection events among statistically variant populations that redistribute or re-enforce the distribution of probabilities. (The conceptual and formal means did not fully exist in Darwin’s time, but I think his account is basically a stochastic account, in terms of accounting for the probability of the improbable.) The basic point here is that such contigent selections themselves are what generate the information that brings about the covariation between organisms and their metabolic processes and their environments, which information would not otherwise “exist”. And that is the source of the tremendous explanatory resources of Darwinian, selectionist explanations. Computers are exceedingly useful tools, but make for bad metaphors, and, though formal modelling is indispensible, their applications to empirical data is a procedural question that requires independent justification.

    In general, the anthropological reduction and ad hominem criticism of religion has been around in full dress form since Feuerbach, and probably was partially and variously anticipated before that. Now ad hominem argument was classically classified among the fallacies, but I think it has a legitimate rational use as an obviatory procedure in the service of some larger, independently established truth. And I think Feuerbachian style criticism of religion can go about 99% of the way toward achieving its aims. But it’s that last 1% that prevents its absolutization/totalization, which in a plural world is probably a good thing. But that last 1% will not submit to being bludgeoned by irrational passions claiming to derive from “logic” or “science”. It’s not Dennett’s materialist “reductionism” that bothers me and which, at any rate, is entirely unsurprising, not the least bit shocking. It’s his instrumentalist reductionism that I would object to, as not remotely adequate to the questions involved in religion, and, for that matter, to an account of the rationality of science. One shouldn’t let an anti-religious animus blind one to the crudities and dogmatisms of his account, when others have already done a much better job of it.

  3. #3 Paul W.
    February 21, 2006


    I’m going to have to punt on arguing about Dennett’s particular claim that evolution is algorithmic, and his spin on it; I don’t have my copy Darwin’s Dangerous Idea handy, and don’t trust my recollection of my reading of Dennett.

    I do share concerns about his overly Dawkinsish focus on gene selection to the exclusion of things like group selection, etc. That did not keep me from recognizing the validity of viewing natural evolution as an algorithm—but I can’t say that my reading of how Dennett meant that is correct.

    So all I’m going to say at this point is that I don’t think the basic statement that “evolution is algorithmic” is patently absurd, irrespective of how Dennett put it and where he was going with it.

    I think it depends very much on what you think “algorithm” means, and how you apply that term to evolution. Many people assume that an algorithm has to be sequential, or invoke subroutines to solve problems top-down using a divide-and-conquer strategy. That’s not right.

    There are lots of bottom-up algorithms, where the logic of the strategy is not reflected directly in the control structure, and complexity emerges by glomming things together into larger and larger structures in a data-driven way. (Bottom-up parsers are the most common example.) There are some that are also very simple, massively parallel, and implemented in hardware, such as routing algorithms for massively parallel hypercube networks.

    So when somebody says “evolution is algorithmic,” that sounds about right to me. And it’s not because I don’t understand evolution; it’s because I do understand computers and algorithms.

  4. #4 Seth Edenbaum
    February 21, 2006

    David Wilford- or any other vulgar materialist here- explain how the sentences in your paragraph above were generated by cause and effect, as an apple falls from a tree.
    Then explain- and here is the hard part- how to act upon such an assumption, in daily life, work politics etc.

    Then answer this: Why do Dennett and our host argue with religious fundamentalists in the way they do? Why not examine religious arguments as Ronald Dworkin does in terms of the abortion debate. Most people opposed to abortion, many of whom will say ‘abortion is murder’ are not opposed to it in cases of rape or incest. How can this be, Dworkin asks, if they believe as the they say that “abortion is murder”? The answer is that they don’t mean what they say- or what they think they mean- but something else, that they refuse to articulate even to themselves This has to do not with a simple crime but with the sense these people have that others do not or will not take the responsibilities of abortion seriously enough. Only a small minority of those who are opposed to abortion are opposed to it under any circumstances.

    So in this case, what is it that keeps PZ Meyers, Dennett the Menace, or Richard Fucking Dawkins, from looking behind others’ statements at what they might mean? Why this opposition to the possibility of subtext? Is subtext for mystics?

    Have your little chats about free will if you want. Stuck as I am in the world, I am interested in communicating with others and in finding out about them, about how they live and respond to things, to each other. This is a political interest of course, but I don’t want to simplify it. I’m human: I like company when I eat and I like to fuck.

    As an atheist and a humanist I try to be agnostic towards myself. I consider it an intellectual and moral responsibility to make the attempt. Curiosity is a moral value.
    By these measures Dennett has shown himself a failure.
    The above words may be the result of pure cause and effect but we’ll never know so I won’t sweat it.

    And all my other criticisms stand.
    john c. halasz and P.P. keep up the good fight.

  5. #5 r
    February 21, 2006

    There is a war on against the enlightenment that the “cultural war,” in which some struggle to impose their beliefs on others, is but a part.

    Bizarrely, the war predictably erupts amongst the eggheads whenever evolutionary psychology/mind/material issues come up. This should give the haters pause, but, of course, does not. I have seen the issue blow up so often now I now find it reassuring, the way a boil about to crest promises the cure is near, or perhaps like the pain of a tootache relished, or hearing 2 plus 2 is 5 and knowing it is not.

    Agent A publishes some argument about the material basis of human nature, which is typically but speculations that will come naturally to anyone familiar with the work being done in the field, and, who is inclined to speculation. So Dawkins. So Dennett. So Pinker. (The Evil Tooby and Cosmides!) No big deal. The fun of the chase. True, when they speculate they irk other people and go beyond the evidence. So what. How ….. familiar. But, they at least work off the evidence of the day, where most all future winners will be found at work.

    But then in response to these good faith speculations, Agent B (almost invariably from the humanities, which has been missing in action for generations) angrily quotes or references some received wisdom about mental processes, which is invariably unique to the western tradition. Seems about half the time the angry one works a dead end marxist tradition. (Say, Chomsky. Say Gould.) The received wisdom is sometimes profound, but more often dogmatic, and irrelevant on its face, because it is transparently contingent, with a proven history of zero predictive value, and proven useless in the field.

    I haven’t isolated the particular immune responses from the tenured eggheads humanities received wisdom, but the Mecca being defended by those cornered has something to do with the idea that one can be free of history and biology and create oneself by reason or some liberating choice that emerges from the study of whatever they have studied and prefer to study. They defend some secret liberating grasp on the human condition but for which evil will reign. They rudely defend some well mannered tradtion of Reason and civility that I have never seen in action, though I do see smug recitations. Somehow the way some have attached to the western tradition is threatened in a widespread manner. I don’t really know why since I know my attachment to the western tradtion isn’t threatened by Dawkins and Pinker and Dennett. To the contrary, it is a fun time to be around. The liberal arts and sciences are converging. It is a great time.

    Once upon a time I endeared myself to an evangelical in an ev psych grad class by saying on her behalf what she was afraid to say but believed, that an alternative to an evolved psychology of the species explanation to religious belief (and the one offered in the class was far shallower than Dennett’s) was that God did what he said he did. The trouble is, in that class, while the sneering at the Divine explanation was rude and unjustified, neither was there a place for the divine explanation.

    Mr. Costa is right, those who want to should argue Descartes since that seems the core issue. Which I think is a waste of time. Descartes was wrong. Numerous traditions east and west that have never made that mistake. Those who want to go with Descartes should at least acknowledge that.

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