David Berlinski, The Devil's Delusion - Atheism and Its Scientific Pretentions (New York: Crown Forum, 2008)
Every now and again I come across books which do two things. They provide great food for thought and they make me laugh out loud. It is a very rare convergence of events but nonetheless there are some authors out there which succeed at uniting the horns of thought and humor in my life. This summer I just finished reading one such book, one The Devils Delusion - Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinski. For those of you who are not familiar with him Berlinski is a sort of rogue academic who is involved with the work of the Discovery Institute (shhh...they are involved with intelligent design...shhh). Slate recently did an interesting piece on him if you want some background on the man described in that article as "a critic, a contrarian, and—by his own admission—a crank"
He holds a PhD in Philosophy from Princeton has taught at numerous institutions of higher learning and has published books on Mathematics and the history of science. He is a bit of a rogue because he is a skeptical secular Jew who most recently has been writing against the overconfident reach of the the Darwinian establishment. He also is an American academic who lives in Paris...which seems to point to "rogue." I don't think he is too much of a troublemaker but he is a bit punchy and mischievous in his writings.
The book is another work which addresses the arguments of militant (perhaps obnoxious?) atheists such as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet and the now infamous Richard Dawkins (aka Dick to the Dawk). This book, however, has a particular idea in its cross hairs; the idea that only atheism can lay claim to being "scientific" as well as some of the more ridiculous things atheistic thinkers claim in the "name of science." It seems that the likes of the new atheist posse have big love for him as well. From Slate:
The atheists, meanwhile, can't stand him: According to Daniel Dennett, Berlinski exudes a "rich comic patina of smug miseducation"; Richard Dawkins implies that he may be wicked to the core; and blogger-ringleader P.Z. Myers has called him a "pompous pimple" and a "supercilious snot."
How nice of these fellows! In reading this book I can see why they might find Berlinski a bit maddening. For one, he is spooky smart, erudite, irreverent towards their cause and quite pithy in his deconstruction of their cherished religion of scientism. Quite frankly, I have found Berlinski to be quite adept at the lost art of polemics. With a society that is either too squeamish to oppose any ideas or is so ridiculously uncivil in dealing with opponents, a nice intelligent polemicist is a treat to read.
In this review I will summarize the book's argument using many of Berlinski's own words. I will then share some of the things I enjoyed in Berlinski's book as well as few times where I felt him just a little bit unfair - well, ok, maybe only one time. I also have a few questions for Dr. Berlinski which I will ask here in closing.
In beginning his book, Berlinski provides a great preface that summarizes succinctly his aims in writing. He quite frankly wants to call the scientific hegemony on its bluff - that it, and it alone can answer all of life's questions...if given enough time of course. In addition, he wants to dismantle the belief that religion is bankrupt as a system of understanding things which science seems hopelessly empty in addressing. In his own words:
No scientific theory touches on the mysteries that the religious tradition addresses. A man asking why his days are short is not disposed to turn to algebraic quantum field theory for the answer. The answers that prominent scientific figures have offered are remarkable in their shallowness. The hypothesis that we are nothing more than cosmic accidents has been widely accepted by the scientific community. Figures as diverse as Bertrand Russell, Jacques Monod, Steven Weinberg, and Richard Dawkins have said it is so. It is an article of their faith, one advanced with the confidence of men convinced that nature has equipped them to face realities the rest of us cannot bear to contemplate. There is not the slightest reason to think this so.
While science has nothing of value to say on the great and aching questions of life, death, love, and meaning, what the religious traditions of mankind have said forms a coherant body of thought. The yearnings of the human soul are not in vain. There is a system of belief adequate to the complexity of experience. There is recompense for suffering. A principle beyond selfishness is at work in the cosmos. All will be well.
I do not know whether any of this is true. I am certain that the scientific community does not know that it is false. (Berlinski, xiv)
So Berlinski's task is simple - show that science is full of itself and overstates its case against religion all the while making some pretty impressive leaps of faith of its own. The book covers a diverse range of topics from philosophical arguments for God from Thomas Aquinas and others, to a rebuttal of Richard Dawkins' sophomoric argument against God's existence related to "complex entities", to some dense chapters on the standard model of quantum physics and the infinitely inventive purveyors of string theory.
I found Berlinski to be quite well read on the subjects he treats and seemed to skip around within them with both a feeling of delight and ironic skepticism. Now on to a few things that I really found enjoyable in the book.
I found many things enjoyable in The Devil's Delusion the first being his calling the almost infinite arrogance of certain thinkers to account. In recounting the words of chemist Peter Atkins, Berlinski exposes this posture:
Peter Atkins is a professor of physical chemistry at Oxford, and he, too, is ardent in his atheism. In the course of an essay denouncing not only theology but poetry and philosophy as well, he observes favorably of himself that scientists "are the summit of knowledge, beacons of rationality, and intellectually honest." It goes without saying, Atkins adds, that "there is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence." Science is, after all, "the apotheosis of the intellect and the consummation of the Renaissance." (7)
So much for that old fashioned human virtue known as humility. Additionally, he exposes the way that some scientists (after all, Berlinski is quite the fan of science) present their views as the only admissible discussion in any human affairs. What Berlinski has found in reading the literature of science is that some men have created a new religion and one that demands all people submit to its tenants of the faith. Again and again he shows that many times science has attempted to flee from certain ideas (such as design, God, morality, human uniqueness in the universe, big bang cosmology, etc) by cooking up strange explanations to avoid the obvious.
The second enjoyable aspect of the book is that it is extremely funny. Now, I will say that you might need a bit of a background in the sciences to understand just how funny some of his prose actually is...but nonetheless the humor is transparent enough in most places for even the uninitiated reader. Let me just drop some of his lines in for your enjoyment as well...
On the fact that "religion is the source of all violence and carnage" Berlinski has this to say:
It is religion, Christopher Hitchens claims, that is dangerous, because it is "the cause of dangerous sexual repression." Short of gender insensitivity, what could be more dangerous than sexual repression? (18)
In the same chapter, he brings one of the more blunt uses of humor when speaking of the heinous atrocities invented by atheistic thinkers and certain creations of modern scientific understanding. This was in some commentary he made on the words of physicist Steven Weinberg:
"Religion," he affirmed, "is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion (italics added by Berlinski) In speaking thus, Weinburg was warmly applauded, not one member of his audience asking the question one might have thought pertinent: Just who has imposed on the suffering of the human race poison gas, barbed wire, high explosives, experiments in eugenics, the forumula for Zyklon B, heavy artillary, pseudo-scientific justification for mass murder, cluster bombs, attack submarines, napalm, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons? If memory serves, it was not the Vatican. (21)
Touche! If you are interested in a few more pithy quotes click the "continue reading" link at the end of this review. So let me move on to my final enjoyable aspect of the book; his exposing of the naive positions of the likes of one Sam Harris.
Harris has the habit of reducing things to simple rants and platitudes. A quick reading of his "letter to a Christian nation" will suffice to show that he does not treat serious subjects with much rigor. Perhaps he is just writing out of field and we need to show him charity. Yet Berlinski is right to call him on much hot air. One example is the atheistic treatment of human sin and behavior. It is quite common for Harris and the like to present smart people as good people and that if we only could get rid of religion all people would live in perfect harmony. Here is Berlinski calling them on this nonsense:
I am under most circumstances the last person on earth to think Richard Dawkins a Pollyanna, but in this case I defer to his description. Why should people remain good when unobserved and unpoliced by God? Do people remain good when unpoliced by the police? If Dawkins believes that they do, he must explain the existence of the criminal law, and if he believes that they do not, then he must explain why moral enforcement is not needed at the place where law enforcement ends.
To the scientific atheists, the ancient idea that homo homini lupus--man is a wolf to man--leaves them shaking their heads in poodle-like perplexity. Sam Harris has no anxieties whatsoever about presenting his own views on human morality with the enviable confidence of a man who feels that he has reached the epistemological bottom. "Everything about human experienc," he writes, "suggests that love is more conductive to human happiness than hate is." It goes without saying, of course, that Harris believes that this is an objective claim about the human mind.
If this is so, it is astonishing with what eagerness men have traditionally fled happiness. (34, emphasis in original)
Yes, human beings are more complicated than simply thinking we will all do right and good with one another once we have studied brain and biology. Some of the smugness and confidence of these men is amazing in light of the 20th century carnage brought about by atheistic regines (Stalin, Mao, Khamir Rouge). It needs to be called out.
One finanl chapter is worthy of note. Chapter 8 - Our Inner Ape, a Darling and the Human Mind does a masterful job and explaining and demonstrating the actual difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. The chapter is worth the price of admission and is a needed argument in light of the atheistic mantra than human beings are nothing special in the universe. I tell my own kids that you don't see alligators, or chimps for that matter, launching a mission to Mars. The difference between man and ape is massive and Berlinski gives a great treatment of this subject.
Now, there are a few problems with the book and a puzzle I find in Berlinski himself. First, there are a few places that he seems a bit unfair to his opponents. Now, I know, Sam Harris is a big boy and can take it but it does seem he gets thrown into a bit of a guilt by association argument in aligning him with holocaust denying David Irving. Though Harris' views that the Jewish people's beliefs and actions could have brought on their suffering, making him an ally of source with Irving seemed a bit unfair (see Berlinski, 28).
Finally I have one question for Dr. Berlinski. Why don't you go ahead and leave the skeptical place in your views about God and come on over to the team. He defends theism masterfully, seems to understand the biblical message and spent quite a bit of time in the book making a pretty good case for the theistic arguments. There is a place for skepticism, in seeing through things. But as CS Lewis once said, if you see through everything you lose your ability to see. So I hope Dr. Berlinski would accept that which he seems to have some good knowledge thereof. That there is a God, who created us in his image, who orders the moral universe and to whom we will give an account.
Overall, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. I particularly enjoyed the discussions of various scientific theories as I still remain a huge fan of the scientific enterprise. This is no anti-science book, but rather a book which will not allow the smuggling of atheistic philosophy into the room by putting a lab coat on its back. Science is the empirical study of repeatable causes, it is not the sum of all knowledge and human experience. All of us have some sort of faith commitment from which they launch into daily life. Some trust in the creator, others trust that they themselves will solve every problem and explain away all spiritual reality and every mystery when science is given enough time. I find such an existence absurd and quite boring. Science from a theistic perspective is quite fascinating and I commend the young minds of the world to take up science and give glory to God.
Appendix - A few More Berlinski Zingers.
In speaking of the confidence some have in certain quantum mechanical theories, Berlinski again is a bit of a meddler:
It has not, however, explained the connection between the quantum realm and the classical realm. "So long as the wave packet reduction is an essential component [of quantum mechanics]," the physicist John Bell observed, "and so long as we do not know when and how it takes over from the Schrodinger equation, we do not have an exact and unambiguous formulation of our most fundamental physical theory."
If this is so, why is our most fundamental theory fundamental? I'm just asking. (94)
In sticking with the "science functioning for some as a religion" Berlinski actually produces a "Catechism of Quantum Cosmology" which I found ridiculous and wonderful. Just so you can catechize your own children (found on pp 104, 105)
Q: From what did our universe evolve?
A: Our universe evolved from a much smaller, much emptier, mini-universe. You may think of it as an egg
Q: What was the smaller, emptier universe like?
A: It was a four-dimensional sphere with nothing much inside it. You may think of that as weird
Q: How can a sphere have four dimensions?
A: Asphere may have four dimensions if it has one more dimension than a three-dimensional sphere. You may think of that as obvious
Q: Does the smaller, emptier universe have a name?
A: The smaller, emptier universe is called a de Sitter universe. You may think of that as about time some one paid attention to de Sitter.
Q: Is there anything else I should know about the smaller, emptier universe?
A: Yes. It represents a solution to Einstein's field equations. You may think of that as a good thing.
Q: Where was the smaller, emptier universe or egg?
A: It was in the place where space as we know it did not exists. You may think of it as a sac.
Q: When was it there?
A: It was there at the time when time as we know it did not exist. You may think of it as a mystery
Q: Where di teh egg come from?
A: The egg did not actually come from anywhere. You may think of this as astonishing.
Q: If the egg did not come from anywhere, how did it get there?
A: The egg got there because the wave function of the universe said it was probable. You may think of this as a done deal.
Q: How did our universe evolve from the egg?
A: It evolved by inflating itself up from its sac to become the universe in which we now find ourselves. You may think of that as just one of those things.
Now you are ready to sing the hymns of the new world order and your kids can report for confirmation. He is not trying to make light of the hard work of theoretical physicists, bu the is saying that they appear to be saying a bit of nothing disguised in mathematical flair that has no experimental connection to the observational world...and it is funny. Let me close this section with his quote about the continued and multiplied musings of string theory.
Ok, I must have a weird sense of humor because once again I had a chuckle at those lines.
In the end, string theorists argued that the extra dimensions of their theory were buried somewhere. At each point in space and time, they conjectured, there one would find a tiny geometrical object know as a Calabi-Yau manifold, and curled up within, there one would find the extra dimensions of string theory itself. It was an idea that possessed every advantage except clarity, elegance, and a demonstrated connection to reality. (119, empahis in original)