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Reason, Religion, and Natural Selection


Andy Ferguson just pointed out Leon Wieseltier’s book review in last Sunday’s New York Times. Notwithstanding that I swore off posting until I got a couple of big writing assignments off my back, the review is so good that I want to bring it to the attention of every reader of this happy Corner.

The review is devoted to Daniel C. Dennett’s book, “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.” Wieseltier engages in a complete and utter demolition. He is stylish and wise, memorable and analytically acute. I’d urge everybody to read the whole thing, but here’s a critical paragraph:

“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. 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….Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it.”

Note, incidentally, that Wieseltier’s point here—”if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument”—was anticipated by C.S. Lewis:

“Granted that Reason is prior to matter [as it is in the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of the word], I can understand how men should come, by observation and inference, to know a lot about the universe they live in. If, on the other hand…minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry…on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.”


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