by Terry Scambray
New Oxford Review
Review of The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinski (Crown Forum, 2008. 225 pp).
David Berlinski is a skeptical man. He doesn’t believe in Darwinian evolution as well as certain other dogmas of so-called science. Equally skeptical of religion, he writes, “I am a secular Jew. My religious education did not take.” Even his spare, unadorned style reflects his reluctance to use his penetrating wit and his assorted literary gifts to go beyond the plain and the provable.
Yet Berlinski also realizes that skepticism is selective: deep down everyone is soft on something. Or as he puts it: “What a man rejects as distasteful must always be measured against what he is prepared eagerly to swallow.”
And “the new atheists,” his targets in this book, do swallow a lot of strange, “scientific” concoctions, in order to eliminate God.
In the first place, physicists, like evolutionary biologists, need a lot of wiggle room for their theories to make sense. One such is string theory which seeks to replace Democritus’ atoms with gyrating strings as the fundamental particles of matter.
Apparently some versions of string theory require more than the mere three or four dimensions of our, apparently, too parsimonious universe. So one must imagine a universe of many dimensions, say up to twenty-six, to accommodate string theory. As Berlinski writes: “. . . the conflict between the demands of the theory [Get me those extra dimensions] and the constraints of common sense [No extra dimensions here, Boss, and we looked] was not easily resolved.”
Apparently our universe, a mere 10 billion years old and 10 billion light years across, is too picayunish to accommodate such boundless ideas. Berlinski quotes the respected physicist, Leonard Susskind, to the effect that our universe “is giving away to something far bigger and pregnant with new possibilities.” As Berlinski mockingly responds, “Far bigger? And pregnant too?”
The answer is, yes. And on both counts. For Susskind has written that “physicists and cosmologists are coming to see our ten billion light years as an infinitesimal pocket of a stupendous megaverse.”
Realizing the de classe associations with the suffix ‘mega” as in “mega-blockbuster or “mega-mall”, Susskind rechristened the megaverse, “the Landscape.”
But if everything is so vast and we humans are so insignificant and unlikely, why are we here to read all about it?
Well, as the answer goes: In an infinite sea of possibilities, we are inevitable, me writing this and you reading it. Besides, as Berlinski puts it, if you weren’t here, you would be nowhere. “And yet here you are. What did you expect?”
See, it’s all pretty obvious, isn’t it?
But, despite all the scientific savvy that has gone into preparing these rarified intellectual delicacies, do they make sense?
Think about it: If everything that could ever happen has happened along with all the variations on the variations, then we are talking about infinity. To take one infinitesimal example, this very sentence will have to have been written with all possible sloppiness as well as with all possible elegance, countless different ways. And you would have to have read this sentence in an endless variety of ways in an endless variety of circumstances. This is Twilight Zonestuff, incomprehensible and unreal.
Additionally in order for this scheme to get cooking, there has to be an assumed set of laws. So everything is possible and wildly unexpected when one is committed to the Landscape. Except when one wishes to explain the existence of constants like forces and chemicals, and of human observers, like cosmologists, which are needed to give some intelligibility to “such stuff as dreams are made of” to cite Shakespeare from another but dreamily applicable context.
But is the preparation of such victuals energized less by “the desire to discover a new idea than to avoid an old one . . . that it is better to have many worlds than to have one God”?
A more comprehensible way to approach cosmology is to begin with something supported by the preponderance of evidence — which is to say, the Big Bang, two words which suggest “the most ancient of human intuitions . . . the connection between sexual and cosmic energies.”
The Big Bang also “suggests an old idea in thought: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Arnold Penzias, Nobel laureate, says that the Big Bang is “exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of the Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.”
Though Darwinism is a fossil of 19th-century progressive thought, it is eagerly embraced by the neo-atheists in their quest to appear scientific. But Darwin’s mechanism of progress, natural selection, has never been shown to create anything close to the improvements in organisms necessary to get us where we are right now, such improvements as wings in birds or brains in humans.
Thus, the Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins argues that such changes must, therefore, be the work of covert critters called, “selfish genes”. These Ayn Rand like rascals relentlessly compete for survival, the implacable goal of all organisms according to Darwin. So Dawkins hopes that when we observe people behaving, say, altruistically we will believe that the selfish gene fable explains their behavior and not what our own eyes and common sense tell us.
Like the many worlds hypothesis, such explanatory gimmicks cannot be disproven, they can only be parodied. Berlinski joins the fun by remarking: “The thesis that we are all nothing more than vehicles for a number of ‘selfish genes’ has accordingly entered deeply into the simian gabble of academic life, where together with materialism and moral relativism it now seems as self-evident as the law of affirmative action.”
Steven Pinker, the Harvard evolutionary psychologist, is another prominent exponent of the death of God, and man, by scientific strangulation. His work is devoted to showing that, “Every aspect of thought and emotion is rooted in brain structure and function.” Indeed, as an American geneticist has written, “a person’s capacity to believe in God is linked to his brain chemicals.” Berlinski’s riposte: “Of all things ! Why not to his urine? . . . And since the door is open, why not believe that a person’s capacity to believe in molecular genetics is linked to a brain chemical?”
Not surprisingly, Pinker, like other determinists, exempts himself from the imperatives of his own reductionist explanation when he avers, “. . . nature does not dictate what we should accept or how we should live our lives.” Apparently, some pigs are more equal than other pigs. Or, as Berlinski notes: “If evolutionary psychology is true, some form of genetic determinism must be true as well. . . No slippage is rationally possible.”
But if we cannot explain the human mind by a series of mechanical devices, what then is left? Berlinski responds: “There is the ordinary, very rich, infinitely moving account of mental life that without hesitation we apply to ourselves. It is an account frankly magical in its nature. The human mind registers, reacts, and responds; it forms intentions, conceives problems, and then, as Aristotle dryly noted, it acts.”
Because it is clear that Berlinski deeply admires the great edifice of science, he has it in for those who blithely or arrogantly create concepts like “the Landscape” and “selfish genes,” which resemble Rorschach more than they do Einstein and Edison.
And, furthermore, as one who knows science from the inside, Berlinski sympathizes with a great many people “who have an angry sense of being oppressed by . . . [the] endless scientific boasting” of smart alecks like Dawkins and Pinker who insist that science has obliterated religion.
Berlinski’s defense of religion is engagingly straightforward: “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 coherent body of thought. . . . There is recompense for suffering. A principle beyond selfishness is at work in the cosmos. . . I do not know whether any of this is true. I am certain that the scientific community does not know that it is false.”
For Berlinski, there are only four truly scientific theories: Newtonian mechanics, Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic field, special and general relativity and quantum mechanics. None of these mentions anything about God. As Berlinski wryly insists: “I have checked this carefully.”
As with other achievements in science, however, these four monumental theories have served to make “the world more mysterious than it ever was.” For one thing, no one has been able to unify such disparate peaks of achievement into a single unifying principle. Assorted other questions also remain: How did the universe begin? What is time? We do not know how a baby acquires so much language so quickly. “We can say nothing of interest about the human soul. We do not know what impels us to right conduct or where the form of the good is found.”
Berlinski concludes with a sobering parody of contemporary science. He describes a confused Cardinal Bellarmine, famed as Galileo’s opponent, directing the construction of a great cathedral. Berlinski, however, reverses the situation and has the brilliant and ruthless Cardinal supervising the construction of a church to science that is now our church.
The spire, however, has not been built. “And in the clear moonlight, the cathedral looks unbalanced, almost as if it were a cripple defiantly waving a stump against the sky.” At this uncertain juncture, the cardinal is asked if the cathedral supports the faith placed in it.
“Does any cathedral?” Berlinski responds to end the book.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson