Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Great Wiesel Shoot

As I may have indicated some time ago, I recently wrote a response-essay to Leon Wieseltier's philistine review of the new Daniel Dennett book in the New York Times back in February. It's out now, and you can read it here. If I do say so myself, I've got the old gasbag dead to rights. Money quote:
The first philosopher to appreciate the problem of induction fully was not a Christian apologist like Plantinga, but the consummate atheist David Hume, who casts his shadow over any discussion of naturalism and the limits of naturalistic explanation because it is his epistemology that provides the theoretical foundation of the actual practice of science. To enter into the discussion, therefore, a working knowledge of Hume’s epistemology is absolutely indispensable. The root source of all of Wieseltier’s trouble is that he gets Hume’s epistemology completely, utterly wrong, and the cause of that error in turn is that, undeterred by a surfeit of biographical evidence and a consensus in Hume scholarship to the contrary, Wieseltier attributes to Hume a belief in the existence of God on the basis of an argument that contradicts the essential character of Humean philosophy. “His God was a very wan god,” asserts Wieseltier, understating matters to the point of absurdity. “But his God was still a god; and so his theism is as true or false as any other theism.” The meager evidentiary basis of that claim is a single sentence outside either of Hume’s two major philosophical works:
The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion. (The Natural History of Religion).
It does look fairly convincing on first glance that Hume both believed in the existence of God, and held that belief on the basis of an argument from design. Indeed, passing off this remark without further consideration of the major themes of Hume’s corpus is so suspiciously convincing that it precludes the possibility that it is just an honest mistake. Quite simply, either Wieseltier has been defrauded himself or he is attempting to defraud his readers. For in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, nearly universally regarded as Hume’s masterwork, and again in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, he gives a devastating counterargument against affirming the existence of God from observations about design. Though Hume’s argument against theism-from-design has been cleaned up and formalized over the centuries, it has never been substantively improved upon.

Would Wieseltier have us believe that the man who constructed the definitive rebuttal to the argument from design nevertheless upheld the argument from design himself? Does Wieseltier believe Hume was a schizophrenic? Not even schizophrenia could make the notion of Hume-the-theist remotely plausible: Hume’s general methodological principles provide rules for rebutting all arguments of the type of which the argument from design is a token, and they also helpfully reveal what is actually going on in the passage from The Natural History of Religion. In contemporary philosophical discourse, “Humeanism” denotes the doctrine, as described by the metaphysician David Lewis, that “all there is to the world is a vast mosaic of local matters of particular fact, just one little thing and then another.” The foundation of Hume’s epistemology is the denial of necessary connections anywhere in nature. In the Enquiry he sets out to demonstrate that all we can ever have knowledge of is the conjunction of one event with another; reason then applies the concept of causality to our experiences and tries to deceive us into thinking that causality is something real, “out there,” rather than a cognitive illusion:
The bread, which I formerly eat, nourished me; that is, a body of such sensible qualities was, at that time, endued with such secret powers: but does it follow, that other bread must also nourish me at another time, and that like sensible qualities must always be attended with like secret powers?
“No,” goes the answer resoundingly. The evident dependence of the existence of causality on the necessary constancy from one moment to the next of invisible “secret powers” should tip us off to the fact that nothing makes it so that uniformities in nature are necessarily so. Belief to the contrary is based on phantoms in the minds of those whom reason has successfully misled. So Hume does not think there is any justification for inferring the necessary existence of cause-and-effect relations from observing nature. The suggestion that Hume believed God’s existence could be inferred from the same method is farcical.

What sense, then, can we make of the solitary line Wieseltier takes as dispositive of Hume’s theism? Quite the opposite, in fact, of what Wieseltier takes away from it. Consider precisely what it is Hume says: No “rational enquirer” can suspend his belief in theism and religion. But Hume is not, in his own idiom, a “rational enquirer”; he is the champion of empiricism, and rationalists are his philosophical antagonists. Of course a rationalist of the sort Hume is criticizing cannot suspend belief in God. Rationalism takes as indubitable the postulate that what pure reason makes out of perception is reality. Anyone laboring under that false doctrine, and who perceives nature as bearing marks of design, would be powerless to resist fallacious inferences from the appearance of design in nature to the reality of the existence of God. In a line from the Treatise I would find it hard to believe Wieseltier has never come across, Hume makes his thoughts about the role of reason overt: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” The rationalism Wieseltier believes is common ground between himself and Hume is in other words the precise object of Hume’s intellectual scorn. Hume is not affirming the argument from design, but laughing at those who do.

There are, of course, alternatives to Humean science, and Plantinga points the way to one. Call it Kierkegaardian science — believe in God and, by virtue of the absurd, the science will follow. Aristotle’s science dominated most of the history of Western civilization, until Galileo and Copernicus embarrassed its geocentrism, Newton embarrassed its mechanics, and Darwin embarrassed its notion of biological species as eternal and unchanging. But the undoing of Aristotelian science is its method, not its conclusions. A science according to which penicillin cures bacterial infections because it possesses an antibiotic virtue is not a science capable of discovering penicillin in the first place. Moreover, it takes Kant, not Aristotle, to provide a principled basis for erecting the sorts of walls between science and philosophy and between individual sciences that Wieseltier proposes. The theoretical cost of doing so is accepting Kant’s theory that space and time are nothing more than “forms of sensible intuition,” and consequently that not even the images captured by the Hubble telescope advance us one inch towards an understanding of “things in themselves,” i.e. true, transcendental reality. Wieseltier wants Kantian science without Kantian metaphysics, a possibility ruled out not by the sinister scientistic machinations of the likes of Dennett, but by the minimal requirements of intellectual defensibility.

However, the science Wieseltier actually lends his support to is nothing so dignified as Kant’s, but the only science that could result from the self-parodying rationalism he mistakenly attributes to Hume (and here is where the political implications of Wieseltier’s arguments become apparent). There is unfortunately no shortage of bullies who claim to have proved, on the grounds that it seems to them that “nature bespeaks an intelligent author,” that such an author necessarily exists. The name of that peasant revolt against knowledge is “intelligent design theory,” and Wieseltier, for all his erudition, is its oblivious footsoldier. “[W]hy must we read literally in the realm of religion,” wonders Wieseltier, approximating candor, “when in so many other realms of human expression we read metaphorically, allegorically, symbolically, figuratively, analogically?” What a silly question. Of course we may read any way we choose to, and no one has suggested otherwise. All that naturalists ask is that we not mistake our right to read metaphorically for the power to make metaphors into literal truth by believing in them strongly enough. The occasional stridency Dennett displays in reminding us that the universe is indifferent to our thoughts about what it should be is nothing compared to the metaphysical hubris involved in self-righteously refusing to pay heed to those reminders.


At 11:18 AM, Blogger Evan said...

Yes, very impressive I suppose (my philosophical credentials are very weak, you'll have to forgive me) but what of the book project?


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