Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Sunday, February 26, 2006
I've been following with interest Derb's debate (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here) over Leon Wieseltier's review of Daniel Dennett's latest book. (It beats reading the news from Iraq.)

I think I know what Derb is worried about. Stephen Sondheim wrote a rather underrated work about the opening of Japan, called Pacific Overtures, in the first act of which there is a scene where the Shogun, an idiot playboy, is being cajoled to pay some minimal attention to the fact that American warships are sitting in the harbor demanding to land and receive an audience (all of which Japan's laws would prohibit). Here's a bit of the libretto where the Shogun's mother suggests calling in the priests to opine on what to do:

It's the Day of the Ox, my Lord.

With but three days remaining

And today already waning,

I've a few further shocks, my Lord.

To begin, let me say,
At the risk of repetition,

There are ships in the bay,

And they didn't ask permission,

But they sit there all day

In contemptuous array

With a letter to convey

And they haven't gone away

And there's every indication

They they still plan to stay,

And you look a little gray, my Lord …

Have some tea, my Lord,

Some chrysanthemum tea,

While we plan, if we can,

What our answer ought to be.

If the tea the Shogun drank will

Serve to keep the Shogun tranquil,

I suggest, if I may, my Lord,

We consult the Confucians —

They have mystical solutions.

There are none wise as they, my Lord …


Night waters do not break the moon.

That merely is illusion.

The moon is sacred.

No foreign ships can break our laws.

That also is illusion.

Our laws are sacred.

It follows there can be no ships.

They must be an illusion.

Japan is sacred.

Derb is surely right that if we start to reason like this, our civilization is in for a heap of trouble. And so that's not a bad thing to spend your time worrying about.

But I think I need to point out - in an entirely friendly manner - a few problems with his style of argumentation.

First, arguments exclusively from genealogy can get opponents annoyed. They got Wieseltier sufficiently annoyed to write a rather unimpressively sputtering review. Similar annoyance got people like Peter Robinson to write sympathetically about Wieseltier's effort. Is it wise - is it likely to be rhetorically successful - in such a context not merely to allude to the genealogy of Wieseltier's arguments as if that were itself an argument, but to mock said genealogy (references to Fr. Rutland and all that)? What is gained, other than self-satisfaction?

Second, Wieseltier is (attempting) to make a philosophical argument. I think it is worth the effort to tease out what that argument may be and knock the stuffing out of it on its own terms. I've got a pretty strong commitment to epistemological pragmatism, but sometimes pragmatism is the last refuge of a lazy (or, more likely, weary) rhetorical combatant. Even if you're going to argue from consequences, you're going to get a better response if you stick to consequences germane to the particular discourse, to say, "following this line isn't going to get you anywhere you want to go intellectually" when you are debating a philosophical point, rather than, "that we are even debating this question proves my point that we are falling ever further behind the Chinese in the contest for mastery of the future of the human race" - and that's true even if you believe the latter to be true.

Finally, and most troublingly (to me) on his final contribution to the debate. Derb winds up by saying, basically, that Dennett does no one any favors by playing that village atheist, and that he ought to be more respectful of the good opinion of most people - for the good of science. I seem to recall a controversy some months ago about a piece by Gertrude Himmelfarb (also a not-very-good piece, I might add - Derb seems to be making an unfortunate habit of martyring not-very-good pieces by launching wild attacks on their authors' motives) in which Derb expressed his profound distaste for "noble lie" types of compromises. It seems very much that he is urging Dennett to tell just such a lie. Dennett thinks he knows the truth, and that it will set us free. To be fair, Derb doesn't agree with Dennett on the former point - Derb is not a tub-thumping village atheist - but he is effectively advising Dennett that even if he sincerely believes what he says about atheism and materialism, he ought to keep it to himself because most people - by nature - cannot handle such a truth. I fail to see the difference between this advice and the kind of attitude that he attributed to Irving Kristol (and, by implication, his wife), who was (Derb claimed) cozying up to Intelligent Design types for the sake of social peace. The only difference I can discern is the nature of the good being protected from the unreasoning mob in each respective case. I don't like that style of argument any more than Derb does, but I do think that's the kind of argument he's making. I'll go into why I think he winds up making such arguments further on, what might be some alternative arguments, and what their big pitfalls are in turn.

I'm going to defend Derb defending Dennett, even though Derb has not read Dennett's book and, while I haven't read this one, I've read other books of Dennett's and I'm decidedly unimpressed - and not because he's a tub-thumping village atheist. Anyone who can write a book entitled Consciousness Explained has a chutzpah problem. When you write a book with that title and, in the end, do nothing whatever to explain consciousness - that is, to reduce it to understood phenomena, to explain it in a scientific sense - you have a problem bigger than chutzpah. He "explains" consciousness entirely be means of a metaphor, leaving consciousness as such just as much of a mystery as it was before the book began. But he is adamant that now the mystery is gone, and all the "mysterians" can pack up their tents. Dennett is the worst kind of science popularizer: the kind who thinks that if you admit science can't currently explain something or other and, indeed, may have a very great difficulty ever explaining something or other, then that is just giving an "opening" to the other side in some kind of conflict. He writes as if he believes precisely what religious fundamentalists believe: that anything science cannot currently account for must have been handled by God directly. No scientist should ever believe such a thing, or they'll wind up doing very bad science; no popularizer of science should ever write in such a way, or he'll only give an "opening" to the other side in a very real conflict. I'm going to defend Derb defending Dennett because I think Derb's reasons for disliking the Wieseltier review are good ones, and that those who are defending Wieseltier are a little too secure in their own intellectual redouts for my personal taste.

Now, to a substantive defense, with important qualifications.

Derb is right on the essential merits. I've never understood what humanists like Wieseltier are criticizing, precisely, when they criticize "materialism." I know what theists might be criticizing; they might believe quite literally in divine providence, for example. In their case, my question what not be what they believe but in what sense they really believe it - my inquiry would be pragmatic: how do their decisions differ because of their belief, and does this belief appear to be efficacious in their decisionmaking. But for a humanist to criticize "materialism" is perplexing. Is Wieseltier an old-fashion Cartesian dualist? Is he familiar with the litany of problems with dualism, with its internal incoherence? Or is he a panpsychist of some kind? Where does Wieseltier think the mind comes from, if not the brain? I suspect Derb is right, and that Wieseltier couldn't care less about the answers to these kinds of questions; he's committed to some notion that there is a domain of "spirit" because, say, the Nazis and Communists seemed to be against such a domain, so the good guys must be for it; or because he has a nostalgic affection for Jewish tradition that affirms the existence of such a realm; or something. Derb's got every right to be annoyed at seeing such ill-thought-out intellectual prejudices wielded like a cudgel.

And Derb's right that the faculty of reason and the religious "instinct" could be - almost certainly are - incommensurate, and that there is no teeth in the argument that if both are products of natural selection then both are equally undermined by that genealogy. To begin with, there is a cogent - though not at all proven; actually, not even evidenced, really, just hypothesized - argument that our inclination to religious belief is a "side effect" of a cognitive property of great value rather than a property selected for in its own right. That's the argument that Dennett is sketching in his book: the ability to model the intentionality of other minds is of enormous value cognitively, but the side effect is that we infer intentionality whenever we are confronted with sufficient complexity, and religion is an example of this side effect. That's not a scientific theory at this point; it's just a logical argument that fits with what minimal evidence there is on this topic at all. But it's at least as plausible that a predisposition towards religious beliefs and practices are natural in a more robust sense - that they really were selected for because they increase fitness, not because they are a sorry side-effect of some other faculty. If this is the case, though, then the religious instinct is analogous to, say, common sense, or "folk physics" that appears to be hard-wired into us. We don't have to learn, for example, about the existence of gravity, or friction, or inertia; we are born with hard-wiring about these things, and we what we learn is how to get along with these forces as we actually make our way through the world, running and jumping and throwing baseballs and the like. But we are not born knowing the actual laws of physics, and the actual laws of physics turn out to differ in far-reaching ways from the common-sense or "folk" physics we know by instinct. And it is our faculty of reason that we use to discern the differences, because it is our faculty of reason that allows us to . . . reason. Or to access Reason, if you prefer. Reason has a certain pride of place amongst our faculties when we ask questions about how things are. To repeat, then, if religious "instincts" have been selected for in their own right, it seems far more likely that they are analogous to "common sense" rather than to the faculty of reason. Which would imply that reason should, similarly, be granted the ability to overrule what religious instincts "teach" - when the question at hand is one of how things are.

I need to dispose of one important argument, however, before moving on. It is striking that we human beings have the faculties to develop natural science - that we can, actually, unravel the rules about how things are with a very high degree of precision. That is to say: it is striking that, however hard psychologically it may be for us to deploy it, we have a faculty of reason with a high correspondence to how the universe actually works - as opposed to how we experience the universe, which is what you would expect we would have and which, in fact, any animals that manifest signs of consciousness probably have to some degree. This is a sufficiently striking fact that it has inclined some scientists - physicists and mathematicians, mostly - to understand it as proof of at least the truth of Plato's religion, though not of Moses'. It suggests an intelligence behind the existence of things, a kinship between that intelligence and our own, and a disjunction between our intelligences and the other, lesser animal intelligences with which we have made contact. But a few things need to be said about this suggestion. First, it's just that: a suggestion. It's also possible that our ability to do natural science is a happy accident, the bi-product of some other trait selected for more mundane reasons. To the extent that modern civilization requires this kind of intelligence for survival, we may now be selecting for precisely that trait, but it's not obvious to me that individual survival, as opposed to collective survival, actually depends in any way on one's ability to do math or natural science, so I doubt this is the case. Second, even if one is persuaded by this suggestion, it does not imply that there is any truth whatever to the religious beliefs that we are strongly inclined to hold. Even if it could be proved that there is an intentionality behind everything, that does not imply that there is an intentionality behind any particular thing. And it is the latter that is the meat and potatoes of religion as it has actually been lived for all of human history. Third, and finally, no analogy can be made between the correspondence of the law-governed universe to law-discerning human reason and a hypothesized correspondence between a God-governed universe and a God-knowing human soul. No such analogy can be made because science justifies itself in its own terms and has earned that correspondence. It is not at all obvious what our religions - assuming they agreed with one another on some irreducible set of axioms, which they don't - could do to earn such a correspondence for themselves.

Derb is right that Wieseltier's review is (as Wieseltier himself might formulate it) "objectively" anti-Darwinist in that it gives aid and comfort to those who want to wall off certain kinds of scientific arguments as inadmissable. But I don't think that's a very telling attack, and Derb wouldn't approve of accusations in that style made in other contexts (such as, for example, when Wieseltier has called people or arguments "objectively" anti-Semitic). The more telling point is that Wieseltier refuses to engage with Darwinian logic as such. He seems to have concluded long ago that science by definition couldn't possibly impinge on his (humanist) beliefs, and so when someone comes along saying, actually, they do so impinge, he doesn't need to engage that particular argument at all. Unfortunately, and here I get to my most important disagreement with both Wieseltier and Derb, I think Darwinian logic does impinge in a very specific way on all sorts of beliefs that, I suspect, the three of us hold in common. To take this argument further, I'm going to have to wander off into theodicy. I hope at least some of you will follow me there.

David Hart wrote a piece about theodicy for First Things last year that annoyed me to no end, and as I thought about it I decided that it annoyed me not for any reason particular to it but because I find Christian theodicy uncompelling as such, and this was a perfectly orthodox example of Christian theodicy. My initial reaction to the piece was different; I thought I was annoyed because Hart was elaborating a Manichean theodicy in that he attributed natural evil to God's "enemy" rather than to God. But, in fairness, in good orthodox Christianity, natural evil is a product of Man's Original Sin. The very nature of reality itself is fallen as a consequence of humanity's free choice to rebel. I find this theodicy unpersuasive on a gut level, I will admit. But it seems to me that the Darwinian account of creation makes it - or ought to make it - very, very hard for anyone to accept such a theodicy.

The reason is simple. The biblical account of creation, in the Christian reading, has natural evil enter the world as a consequence of human sin. Without our sin, there would be no suffering and death. In the Darwinian account of evolution, suffering and death are the preconditions to our existence. Our intelligence, and hence our ability to sin, is a faculty that was selected for in a bare-handed struggle for survival. Our religious instinct, if one is to assert that it does correspond to some objective reality as our reason corresponds to the reasoned ordering of the universe, is also the fruit of a process of natural selection. We may climb a mountain and see the face of God, but the mountain we climb is a mountain of skulls.

Put simply: natural selection is not the motor one would expect the Christian God to use to make the world go 'round.

(This is not to say that orthodox Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu theodicies are satisfying to me. Personally, I don't know a theodicy more compelling than that expressed by the whirlwind to Job: behold Behemoth, whom I made with thee . . . he is the beginning of the ways of God. If Behemoth is the beginning of the ways of God, then His ways truly are not our ways. The whirlwind does not attempt to justify the ways of God to man; the whirlwind tells man to stop expecting such a justification and get on with life, a life only possible because of God, author of all, and a life filled with wonder as well as suffering. Such an attitude isn't really a theodicy at all, which is probably why I find it more persuasive than either the attempts to justify the ways of God to man that David Hart, following Ivan Karamazov, abominates, or the orthodox Christianity that he embraces instead.)

Why do I take this digression? Because Derb would like to wall religion off from science by confining them to different explanatory realms. Religion will say absolutely nothing about how things are, and science will say absolutely nothing about why things are. The trouble is that I really do think discoveries about how things are can impact the persuasiveness of certain explanations about why things are. Which means that religion, even if it abandons any attempt to joust directly with science and accepts evolution, textual criticism, and so forth, may be threatened nonetheless by the discoveries of science.

Which leaves me with the following conclusion. If I am right that a "wall of separation" between science and religion is not tenable, because science may nonetheless threaten religion by its explanations of how things are; and if I am right that reason and science are rightly privileged in our heirarchy of faculties when we investigate the world as it is, and therefore religion must rightly yield to science in that sphere; and if I am right (and I'm agreeing with Derb here as well as in the previous point) that religion is not going to go away because human beings are born with a religious instinct (and this instinct, contra Dennett, may have survival value rather than being an unfortunate bi-product); then it follows that humanity badly needs religious leaders who take the truth - the whole truth - seriously. It seems very unlikely to me indeed that Aquinas, Averroes and Maimonides, in reconciling, as they saw it, their revealed religions with the Aristotelean science that they knew, anticipated precisely every possible challenge to be raised by science for the rest of human history. To a considerable extent, the landscape of religious thinkers today presents us with three choices: those who actively war with science; those who recycle old Scholastic arguments to reconcile science and religion as if science's challenge were unchanged in 800 years; and those who have never entertained a serious thought about such questions because they - "objectively" - treat religion as a branch of politics and/or psychotherapy. These three alternatives are not good ones - not good ones for any religious tradition and not good ones for human civilization.