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Sunday: March 26, 2006

Leiter Misfires Again

Filed under: — site admin @ 9:51 PM UTC

What with my domain problems, I’m a bit late getting to this, but better late than never.

Brian Leiter has been trashing Leon Wieseltier for an insufficiently respectful review of a book by Daniel Dennett. Here’s his second post on the subject:

Dennett, Wieseltier, and the Epistemic Relevance of Origins (Leiter)

The New York Times has published a number of letters about the scandalous review of Dennett by Wieseltier, on which we commented previously. Tim Maudlin (Philosophy, Rutgers) has a pithy version of a point I had also called attention to about the relevance of the causal origin of a belief; he writes:

Leon Wieseltier writes: “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.” Someone tells me that he believes that the core of Mars is iron. When I ask how he came by that belief, he tells me that it came to him in a dream. This does not disprove his belief, but does show that there is no reason at all to take it seriously.

This, of course, is a familiar epistemological point, though it is amazing how many folks, including some (not very good) philosophers, fail to appreciate it.

Maudlin’s example is astonishingly ill-chosen. Apparently neither he nor Leiter remembers that the solution to the problem of the structure of benzene came in a dream. Here’s what a chemistry page at Purdue has to say about it:

The structure of benzene was a recurring problem throughout most of the 19th century. The first step toward solving this problem was taken by Friedrich August Kekulé in 1865. . . . One day, while dozing before a fire, Kekulé dreamed of long rows of atoms twisting in a snakelike motion until one of the snakes seized hold of its own tail. This dream led Kekulé to propose that benzene consists of a ring of six carbon atoms with alternating C-C single bonds and C=C double bonds.

Of course, it took quite a bit of lab work to show that the hypothetical circular structure was in fact correct. But this example suffices to prove that the origin of an idea, no matter how ridiculous, does not in any way invalidate it, just as Wieseltier wrote. It is indeed amazing how many folks, including some (not very good?) philosophers, fail to appreciate the point.


  1. Dr. Weevil
    Everyone who reads Brian Leiter’s blog knows that he says some ridiculous things. He’s an ideologue. He accepts propositions as true only if, and only to the extent that, they cohere with his leftist values. This explains why …

    Trackback by Brian Leiter, Academic Thug — Wednesday: March 29, 2006 @ 1:31 PM UTC

  2. To be fair, we’ve discovered reasons for thinking that the hypothesis were correct, but someone who held onto the belief about the constitution of Mars’ core without further research would rightly be ridiculed. So, which one is religious belief like?

    I say you can’t generalize across all religious believers, but I’ve not met many who subject their beliefs to the necessary scrutiny. Your example shows that maybe it’s not about the origins but about the basis. Beliefs that are without any rational basis at inception or for the life of the belief are bad. The benzene belief isn’t like that but aren’t most religious beliefs like that? It’s not the norm that people subject their religious beliefs to much critical thought, right?

    Comment by Clayton — Wednesday: March 29, 2006 @ 5:44 PM UTC

  3. It is indeed not the norm that religious people subject their beliefs to any sort of scrutiny. One exception to this, I’m finding, is the Quakers, whose religion is decidedly experiential: a kind of practical mysticism.

    Of the basis of belief, George Fox, the founder of Quakerism in the 17th century, said this (as reported by Margaret Fell many years later, in 1694)):

    “You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?” [my emphasis]

    Comment by Dave Trowbridge — Sunday: April 2, 2006 @ 11:39 PM UTC

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