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Thursday, February 23, 2006

High Hopes -- or Once there was this little ol' ant....

This past week I was taken aback by an attack by Leon Wieseltier on Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell, in the New York Times Book Review Section. While it was not of the readable quality of Keillor's critique of the Levy book (described several posts earlier), it was clearly aimed at undermining Dennett's alleged "scientism" perspective and would have made me reluctant to go out of my way to purchase the book were I not such a "fan" of Dennett's earlier works.

So purchase it I did -- and got my hands on it last night.

And it is pure and wonderful Dennett all the way -- or at least so far (I am only in the first chapter) he has made his point loud and clear. The subtitle of the work gives away his major theme ("Religion as a Natural Phenomenon"), and in the first few pages -- hell, in the first paragraph -- he grabs your attention. In fact, there is nothing about religion in the opening paragraph -- it is a description of a parasite , a "little brain worm", that enters the head of ants and makes them engage in an ongoing sisyphusian effort to climb to the top of grass blades. The parasite's goal is the enter the stomach of some unsuspecting grazing cattle, and it cares not a bit about its use of the ant as its mode for transporting itself therein.

And so it is with ideas -- religious ideas, as we learn -- that parasitically embed themselves in the heads of humans and use them for their purposes....

At least that is the theme established as Dennett launches into what promises to be a terrific read. I think I am going to have fun with this, and I just get the feeling that there will be more posts as I get past the first chapter.

As for Mr. Wieseltier, whatever his agenda, it certainly wasn't to give this book a good read. Dennett clearly has an agenda -- this is a work that is putting forward an argument that deserves to be confronted as such. Wieseltier fails to do so, taking the approach instead of labelling Dennett as a mere follower of "scientism"" and then engaging in ad hominem attacks that are better left for street fights than book reviews.

I read on!

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