Leon Wieseltier's review of Daniel Dennett's new book about religion has received quite a bit of attention, much of it briskly dismissive. Brian Leiter, for instance, questions Wieseltier's competence for the job (just as he complained a while ago when the New York Times gave the novelist William T. Vollmann a book about Nietzsche to review), while Abbas Raza at 3 Quarks Daily says baldly that "no one who knows the first thing about philosophy can take this review seriously".
The review is certainly muddled and characteristically lugubrious throughout. But I think there's one point in it that merits more serious consideration than either Leiter or Raza gives it. It has to do not with what Leiter calls Wieseltier's "feeble apologetics for religion" (I'll leave aside the question whether that's what they are; the piece is too dense and garbled for me to be sure), but with the limits of philosophical naturalism.
It occurs in Wieseltier's first paragraph, which Leiter is particularly rough with:
The question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so. For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett's book. "Breaking the Spell" is a work of considerable historical interest, because it is a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions.
This is Leiter's gloss:
Perhaps it is correct that the "question of the place of science in human life" is a philosophical, not scientific question, though I wish I could be as confident as Mr. Wieseltier as to how we demarcate those matters. But "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, and especially, the special sciences, during the last hundred years. One should allow, of course, that some of these explanatory paradigms may fail, and that others, like evolutionary psychology, are at the speculative stage, awaiting the kind of rigorous confirmation (or disconfirmation) characteristic of selectionist hypotheses in evolutionary biology. But no evidence is adduced by Mr. Wieseltier to suggest that Professor Dennett's view is any different than this. Use of the epithet "superstition" simply allows Mr. Wieseltier to avoid discussing the actual methodological posture of Dennett's work, and to omit mention of the reasons why one might reasonably expect scientific explanations for many domains of human phenomena to be worth pursuing.
The "methodological posture" Leiter's describing here is what philosophers call "naturalism" - and it's what Wieseltier is indicting as a "superstitition" under the heading "scientism". (Later Wieseltier uses the term "naturalism" in a way that suggests he regards it as more or less synonymous with "scientism". I think most philosophers would find that controversial and would prefer to keep the terms separate.)
Leiter is right, of course, to say that naturalism is not a superstition. But this doesn't mean that naturalism is unproblematic or that there are no good philosophical criticisms to be made of it. And when Wieseltier says that "the question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question" I think he is groping towards just such a criticism.
Leiter characterises naturalism as a methodological "posture". But that methodological posture presupposes an ontological thesis to the effect that the only (natural) facts there are are physical facts (or, at a stretch, physical, chemical and biological facts). It is a good question -and I'm crediting Wieseltier with recognising this- whether that claim can itself be arrived at by naturalistic means. In other words, the ontological thesis doesn't simply state all the physical facts about the world; it says that they are the only facts there are - which is something more than just the aggregation of all the physical facts. (The argument in this form is due to Barry Stroud.)