Friday, July 18, 2008

A Review of "The Devil's Delusion"

Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions" by David Berlinski.

"...a great many men and women have a dull, hard, angry sense of being oppressed by the sciences. They are frustrated by endless scientific boastings. They suspect that, as an institution, the scientific community holds them in contempt. They feel no little distaste for those speaking in its name, They have a right to feel this way." Thus David Berlinski, who characterizes himself as a "secular Jew", opens his critique of militant atheism. This short, easy-to-read volume seeks to establish the limits of scientific inquiry as well as counter the claims of atheist's who use science for off-the-wall philosophical purposes.

In Chapter One, "No Gods Before Me", Berlinski examines some of these boastful scientific claims. Proclaiming his own naturalistic worldview to be the default position, Richard Dawkins, after proudly setting forth the humility of the scientific community, suggests that "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane". (p.7). Not to be outdone, fellow Oxford professor Peter Atkins "is ardent in his atheism" as well.

"In the course of an essay denouncing not only theology but poetry and philosophy as well, he observes favorably of himself that scientists "are at 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."

These comical declarations may be abbreviated by observing that Atkins is persuaded that not only is science a very good thing, but no other thing is good at all.

Neither scientific credibility nor sound good sense is at in any of these declarations. They are absurd; they are understood to be absurd; and what is more, assent is demanded just because they are absurd. "We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs," the geneticist Richard Lewontin remarked equably in The New York Review of Books, "in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories" (my emphasis).

Why should any discerning man or woman take the side of science, or anything else, under these circumstances? It is because, Lewontin explains, "we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door."

If one is obliged to accept absurdities for fear of a Divine Foot, imagine what prodigies of effort would be required were the rest of the Divine Torso found wedged at the door and with some justifiable irritation demanding to be let in? " (p. 9)

In chapter Two "Nights of Doubt", Berlinski touches on the moral argument. Rightly agreeing with Ivan Karamazov in declaring that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted, he undercuts the idea that "religion poisons everything". Of special value is the "DOUBLE-ENTRY BOOKKEEPING" that militant atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are known for.

"For scientists persuaded that there is no God, there is no finer pleasure than recounting the history of religious brutality and persecution. Sam Harris is in this regard especially enthusiastic, The End of Faith recounting in lurid but lingering detail the methods of torture used in the Spanish Inquisition. If the readers require pertinent information concerning the strappado, or other instruments of doctrinal persuasion, they may turn to his pages. There is no need to argue the point. A great deal of human suffering has been caused by religious fanaticism. If the Inquisition no longer has the power to compel our indignation, the Moslem world often seems quite prepared to carry the burden of exuberant depravity in its place.

Nonetheless, there is this awkward fact: The twentieth not an age of faith, and it was awful. Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot will never be counted among the religious leaders of mankind." (p. 19)

Page 24 gives a detailed account of these attrocities, but on these, are utopian atheists remain silent. Berlinksi points out that atheist "Christopher Hitchens is prepared to denounce the Vatican for the ease with which it diplomatically accomodated Hitler, but about Hitler, the Holocaust, or the Nazis themselves he has nothing to say." (p. 27)

Chapter 3 "Horses do not fly" is, in my opinion, the weakest of the chapters. It deals with the nature of the evidence used is examining the existence of God. In this area, Berlinksi comes close to the heart of the issue. He writes, "Neither the premises nor the conclusions of any scientific theory mention the existence of God. I have checked this carefully. The theories by themselves are unrevealing. If science is to champion atheism, the requisite demonstration must appeal to something in the sciences that is not quite a matter of what they say, what they imply, or what they reveal". In one sense, this is the heart of presuppositionalism, that the question of God's existence is not one that can be approached from a purely naturalistic worldview. That isn't to say that there is no natural evidence for God, but rather that is insufficient proof, relegating believers to the "God of the gaps" philosophy. What Berlinski fails to examine, however, is the validity of naturalistic science in an atheistic worldview. Berlinski does expose the self-defeating view of David Hume's analysis of abstract and experimental reasoning in relation to metaphysical claims (p. 57). What he doesn't do is examine the validity of knowledge, reason, or the uniformity of nature without God. In avoiding this issue, he gives the worldview of naturalism too much creedence, then again, this is to be expected from one who labels himself a "secular Jew".

From this point, Berlinksi begins to deal with some of the classical arguments for God's existence. Chapter 4 "The Cause" starts with the cosmological argument, specifically interacting with the works of Thomas Aquinas. While he admits, and rightly so, that "This is not by itself an argument for the existence of God" (p. 64), he makes an astute observation concerning materialistic assumptions. Because we "cannot allow a Divine foot in the door"...materialism hinders scientific inquiry. After all, what can materialism tell us about a time when there was no matter?

Berlinksi goes on to examine other suggestive evidences such as The Ontological Argument (Chapter 5), and the Watchmaker Argument (Chaper 6). While none of these arguments are conclusive, Berlinski does a very good job of updating them with modern evidence. He then expresses the ramifications of Materialistic presumptions in dealing with (or ignoring) these issues. In doing so, he shows the enormous philosophical bias exhibited by our modern day atomists. This can be best summed up in the following statement:

"Scientists," the physicist Paul Davies has observed, "are slowly waking up to an inconvenient truth—the universe looks suspiciously like a fix. The issue concerns the very laws of nature themselves. For 40 years, physicists and cosmologists have been quietly collecting examples of all too convenient 'coincidences' and special features in the underlying laws of the universe that seem to be necessary in order for life, and hence conscious beings, to exist. Change any one of them and the consequences would be lethal."

These arguments are very much of a piece with those that Fred Hoyle advanced after studying the resonances of carbon during nucleosynthesis. "The universe," he grumbled afterward, "looks like a put-up job." An atheist, Hoyle did not care to consider who might have put the job up, and when pressed, he took refuge in the hypothesis that aliens were at fault. In this master stroke he was joined later by Francis Crick. When aliens are dropped from the argument, there remains a very intriguing question: Why do the constants and parameters of theoretical physics obey such tight constraints?

If this is one question, it leads at once to another. The laws of nature are what they are. They are fundamental. But why are they true? Why do material objects attract one another throughout the universe with a kind of brute and aching inevitability? Why is space-and-time curved by the presence of matter? Why is the electron charged?

Why? Yes, why?

An appeal to still further physical laws is, of course, ruled out on the grounds that the fundamental laws of nature are fundamental. An appeal to logic is unavailing. The laws of nature do not seem to be logical truths. The laws of nature must be intrinsically rich enough to specify the panorama of the universe, and the universe is anything but simple. As Newton remarks, "Blind metaphysical necessity, which is certainly the same always and everywhere, could produce no variety of things."

If the laws of nature are neither necessary nor simple, why, then, are they true?

Questions about the parameters and laws of physics form a single insistent question in thought: Why are things as they are when what they are seems anything but arbitrary?

One answer is obvious. It is the one that theologians have always offered: The universe looks like a put-up job because it is a put-up job. That this answer is obvious is no reason to think it false. Nonetheless, the answer that common sense might suggest is deficient in one respect: It is emotionally unacceptable because a universe that looks like a put-up job puts off a great many physicists.

They have thus made every effort to find an alternative. Did you imagine that science was a disinterested pursuit of the truth?

Well, you were wrong." (The Devil's Delusion - pp. 110-112)

For a book that tries to approach the question of God from a naturalistic worldview, it does a pretty good job. The main weakness of this work is that it doesn't examine the any of the preconditions of science in the atomist philosophy. While Berlinski does a good job of outlining scientific arguments for God's existence (particularly in chapter 6), the question of God's existence is ultimately not a scientific question, especially since modern science "cannot allow a divine foot in the door". This book, however, is very good from an evidential perspective. It addresses the boastings of our modern militant atheists, and is quite readable and entertaining. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. wow - great review - I think I'll have to add this to my library.