I have written a fairly rude review of Dan Dennett’s new book on God, which will in due course appear in the _Guardian._ But the piece that the _New York Times_ published on it fills me with sympathy for the aged philosopher. I skim-read it on Saturday, then someone sent me a copy this morning, and I so I had to have another go at the most offensive paragraph:
bq. It will be plain that Dennett’s approach to religion is contrived to evade religion’s substance. He thinks that an inquiry into belief is made superfluous by an inquiry into the belief in belief.
this seems to me quite untrue, and sums up all the – er – reasons that I am in favour of Dennett. DCD assumes the untruth of a lot of the content of a lot of religious beliefs but this must be the beginning of any reasonable enquiry. A quick glance through the Bible will show you any number of stories that are untrue, in the essence that they didn’t actually happen, and couldn’t actually have happened; the old atheist argument that everyone disbelieves in thousands or millions of Gods and the atheist just disbelieves in one more has a bearing here.
Everyone, Weiseltier included, believes that most religious beliefs are untrue, especially the ones which distinguish any particular religion not their own. The problem is not to explain the persistence of true belief. The problem we face is explaining the persistence of palpably false belief, and it is dishonest to supply an account of atheism that ignores this point.
I personally think that what Dennett calls “belief in belief” is not really propositional. It is more a matter of group loyalties, and conformism. But it is certainly and obviously the case that very few people, believers or not, come to their beliefs by a process of rational
bq. This is a very revealing mistake. 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. It portrays reason in service to natural selection, and as a product of natural selection.
How is it %(sane) “in service to natural selection”? % — assuming that he means human reason — we have no way at all of knowing whether it is in service to natural selection. We can only be certain that it is less powerful. Obviously, it is a product of evolution. There was a time when there were no reasoning beings on earth. That there now are such beings is the result of natural selection, chance, genetic drift, and all the other processes of evolution.
bq. But if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection? The power of reason is owed to the independence of reason, and to nothing else. (In this respect, rationalism is closer to mysticism than it is to materialism.) Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it.
%(sane) “If reason is a product of evolution, how much confidence can we have in a
rational argument for natural selection?” % This makes no sense to me at all. The alternative LW would like presumably that reason is a product of God. OK, in that case, how much confidence can we have in what reason tells us about God?
What on earth does it _mean_ to say that the power of reason is owed to the independence of reason? Independence of what? It is independent of our own views and desires, certainly. But so is mathematics. Yet we know we can grasp mathematical truths. We know we can understand some of the ways that they work. The proof is when things don’t fall down. But the capacity to reason is not independent of our minds, and it’s not independent of our brains. In all this Dennett is entirely right.