Book review controversy over Daniel Dennett's 'Breaking the Spell'

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Professor of philosophy Daniel Dennett's (Tufts University) new book Breaking the Spell uses the scientific method commonly employed to analyze natural phenomena in order to examine religion. The New York Times' February 20th review by Leon Wieseltier, which was strongly negative, has sparked debate about the merits of this approach.

Breaking the Spell attempts to present an understanding of religious memes (pieces of information that can spread from person to person) in the same way as Richard Dawkins approached genetics in his selfish gene theory. Dennett's book presents the point of view of an individual religious meme, in competition with other memes, trying to maximize its own successful spread.

Wieseltier objects to Dennett's "meme's eye view" analysis as "scientism", claiming that "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, in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in the sky." Not all aspects of human life can or should be illuminated by scientific methods, claims Wieseltier.

Dennett responded that this criticism followed a pattern of recent "stunts" by the New York Times book review: "When you can't stand the implications of some scientific discipline X, but can't think of any solid objections, you brand them instances of the sin of Xism and then you don't have to take them seriously!" He continues to state that "the very idea of an intensive scientific exploration of religion so upsets Wieseltier that he resorts to flagrant falsehoods — and doesn't even bother supporting his claims with citations."

Wieseltier also criticizes several of Dennett's quotations of fellow philosophers, including David Hume, William James, and personal friend of Dennett's Thomas Nagel.

Brian Leiter, a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, also objects to Wieseltier's claim that some aspects of human life can not be illuminated by a scientific approach. "'The view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical' is not a 'superstition' but a reasonable methodological posture to adopt based on the actual evidence, that is, based on the actual expanding success of the sciences... during the last hundred years," writes Leiter. [1]

Dennett is eager for the religious to read Breaking the Spell, and spends the first third of the book motivating and justifying his project; this may have had bearing on the Times' selection of reviewers.

Both the selfish gene theory and the idea of memes were originally popularized by Professor Richard Dawkins (University of Oxford, Biologist), in his book The Selfish Gene. The selfish gene theory is the most widely accepted basis for mathematical models in evolutionary biology, as it has repeatedly correctly modeled various problematic situations, such as gender ratios in insect species with haploid males.

Daniel Dennett is among the most widely read living philosophers, highly regarded for the diversity of his academic contributions. Many of his popular works concern evolution, memetics, and human thought.


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