A Genetic Fallacy?
I haven't read the book; nor do I mean to defend the whole review. But much of the invective strikes me as being unfair. Part of the pleasure of reading reviews is the occasional polemic, and given the constraints of space, the polemical review is bound to involve some measure of unargued assertion. If it is to concede this point, the objection to Wieseltier must be that his dismissal of Dennett's book depends on assumptions that are simply unreasonable, ones that no competent reviewer would make. That seems to be the implication of some of his critics.
The problem is that, for the most part, the implication is false. Resistance to "scientism" is perfectly reasonable – at least if it is sufficient to make an opinion reasonable that it is held by perceptive thinkers who have thought carefully about the matter. (A stronger test for reasonable belief would make the polemical review impossible.)
To take one central case, consider Wieseltier's suspicion of genetic tests for the credibility of our beliefs:
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.These remarks are easy to dismiss. But everyone knows that the simple genetic test – on which a belief is justified only if it was formed on the basis of appropriate evidence – will have to be revised. If there is sufficient evidence now, who cares how the belief was formed? You can't refute belief in God, however it arose, without tackling the ontological argument.
More significantly, even a qualified genetic test will threaten to undermine our moral and political beliefs: suppose that our basic ethical stance is formed by acculturation, not rational argument; and that it cannot be defended against every alternative – at least not without begging the question. These assumptions are no doubt controversial, but they deserve to be taken seriously. (Witness the anxieties expressed by G. A. Cohen, in the introduction to his wonderful book on egalitarianism.) One reasonable response is to reject or further qualify the genetic test – and this may well leave room for the credibility of religious belief.
It is also reasonable to fear that a crude genetic test will undermine science, by undermining our belief in the reliability of scientific method. (Think of "inference to the best explanation": why do we assume that the world is simple, or that more elegant descriptions are more likely to be true?) Even worse, the test might indict belief in itself. It doesn't matter, here, whether such fears turn out to be correct. What matters is that reasonable people are moved by them – and so they are sceptical of anything but an extremely qualified version of the genetic test.
This may not be Wieseltier's point, of course. His rejection of the test may be the product of sheer ignorance – not a shorthand for the need to qualify it in ways that might permit religious belief. But it would be clear instance of the genetic fallacy to dismiss his critique of Dennett's book on that account.