Arts & Culture

David Berlinski’s God Con

File this in the Shit Where You Eat Department. My other digital stomping ground, Pajamas Media, has run a rather silly piece by one of the cleverer sophists of the Intelligent Design movement (do I mean to say 'moment'?), David … Read More

By / April 28, 2008

File this in the Shit Where You Eat Department. My other digital stomping ground, Pajamas Media, has run a rather silly piece by one of the cleverer sophists of the Intelligent Design movement (do I mean to say 'moment'?), David Berlinski. A trained mathematician with a doctorate from Princeton and author of the just published The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions, Berlinski is a high-profile member of the Discovery Institute, a religious think tank that sets upon Darwin's theory the way lions used to set upon Christians, and whose primus inter pares David Klinghoffer has had multiple outpourings in these pages, most recently comparing evolutionism to Nazism.

Slate's inestimable David Engber recently profiled Berlinski in a series of pieces about the conspiracy-mongering paranoids of pseudoscience:

Berlinski's radical and often wrong-headed skepticism represents an ascendant style in the popular debate over American science: Like the recent crop of global-warming skeptics, AIDS denialists, and biotech activists, Berlinski uses doubt as a weapon against the academy—he's more concerned with what we don't know than what we do. He uses uncertainty to challenge the scientific consensus; he points to the evidence that isn't there and seeks out the things that can't be proved. In its extreme and ideological form, this contrarian approach to science can turn into a form of paranoia—a state of permanent suspicion and outrage. But Berlinski is hardly a victim of the style. He's merely its most methodical practitioner.

What distinguished Berlinski from the pack is that he is not a believer himself; only an enemy of what he sees as belief's arrogant opponents. As one of his book jackets says, his ambition is to "turn the scientific community's cherished skepticism back on itself." He doubts the Big Bang could account for the origins of the universe, and he is unimpressed with the fossil record as a document of man's development into the lowly, febrile creature you see in the mirror each morning. So Berlinski is more of a fellow traveler and jujitsu artist of Intelligent Design than a true keeper of the flame.

I should add that my friend and fellow Nabokovian Ron Rosenbaum, who is the kind of literary journalist I want to be when I grow up, has called Berlinski "that rara avis, a True Skeptic, one of the most provocative—and courageous—of contemporary writers and thinkers. To me, Mr. Berlinski is a genuine intellectual hero." Now Ron has met the man in the flesh and so may have glimpsed a gem-like flame I keep missing in my investigations of Berlinski's scholarship. I should also admit that I'm capable of little commentary on advanced calculus beyond the Barbie-like assertion that it's "hard," but I do know something about logic and the fashioning of an intellectual argument. I can also affirm that Steven Pinker, one of Berlinski's foils, is not a fraud, nor does he present his theses as "dogmatically established, beyond the purview of doubt." Pinker recognizes that science still has much more to learn than it has to teach, but, unlike Berlinski, he does not believe existing epistemological lacunae are sufficient explanations for the existence of the divine.

Insane moral equivalence seems to be a trademark characteristic of this latest Great Awakening of cranks and fantasists, and Berlinski provides a good example at Pajamas, likening atheist scientists to Soviet commissars:

The commissars having vacated the scene, it is the scientific community that has acquired their authority. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Stephen Weinberg, Vic Stenger, Sam Harris, and most recently the mathematician John Paulos, have had a look around: They haven’t seen a thing. No one could have seen less.

It is curious that so many scientists should have recently embraced atheism. The great physical scientists — Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Clerk Maxwell, Albert Einstein — were either men of religious commitment or religious sensibility.

This comes as a kind of evidence against interest throat-clearing before introducing a supposed snatch of "gotchas" in the new Ben Stein-produced documentary Expelled, which is to Intelligent Design what Michael Moore was to Saddam Hussein, and which makes much the same case as Berlinski does here — that practitioners of junk science have been hounded like Zionist-Trotskyist-CIA-deviationists out of the workers' paradise of the scientific community. Did you know that if asked Richard Dawkins can't certify for 100% certain that there is not a prime mover in the universe? Q.E.D. there is one.

I'm not sure if Berlinski knows less about science or about Communism, but I certainly know more about the latter than he, so let's begin there.

It is of course untrue to say that the Soviet citizenry believed the Politburo to be "infallible;" it had been indoctrinated to believe that under Marxism-Leninism the Party itself was infallible and greater than any one man or collection of men. The Russian word for this was Partiinost, and it is why high-ranking Communists were routinely purged without any threat posed to the larger totalitarian system that produced and replaced them as interchangeably as cogs. One might make the case that Stalin was, in the popular imagination, an unerring supreme leader, but that historical observation comes at the expense of religion, not materialism. Indeed, many scholars of Russian political history have traced Stalin's personality cult back to the time of Golden Horde. The autocratic political imprint left by the Mongolian conquerors of infant Russia was then fused with Byzantine Caesaropapism, which is why the czars were not just secular heads of state, but godheads anointed and certified by the Eastern Orthodox Church. (As Peter the Great was given to remark when told Russia needed a holy Patriarch, Russia already had one — himself.)

As for classical Marxism, apart from being so greatly at odds with the messianic or ecclesiastical tradition, it was, as the French philosopher Raymond Aron once put it, a "Christian heresy;" a political movement that foreordained Providence on earth, where class took the place of sin. An apter comparison for Berlinski to have made, then, would be between the Soviet commissars and the clerisy during the Inquisition, both in terms of the brutal methods of interrogation employed and the interrogators' core objectives. (Dr. Dawkins's very participation in a shambolic documentary like Expelled is proof of his willingness confront and challenge adversarial thinking, a willingness which the commissars and the priestly agents of Torquemada were not known for sharing.) Communism, it must also be said, was not favorably disposed to the kind of science understood and practiced by the atheists Berlinski cites. One need only look at Lysenkoism or some of Stalin's sillier linguistic theories to see how vulgarized and ideologized science was in the former Soviet Union — the Baconian method of inquiry and trial and error never had a fighting chance. Nor would anyone trained even at the elementary level in the philosophical underpinnings of that method fail to spot the problem with a question like this:

"[W]hat reason do we have to suppose that God might not exist?"

One can't prove a negative proposition, and the burden of providing evidence still falls to Berlinski and his contrarian cohort. Why should we suppose God does exist? Mention of the awe and mystery of the universe only begs the question. As for Albert Einstein, he was once asked if he believed in the divine and replied, "I believe in Spinoza's god," which is as polite an admission of atheism as anyone has ever given. Unless of course believers wouldn't mind replacing "God" with the word "Nature" as the great Jewish sage was tellingly given to do — after being excommunicated by a rather commissar-like Dutch rabbinate.

Related in Jewcy: Philosopher and biologist Sahotra Sarkar explains that "'Intelligent Design' Creationism is an Immoral Fraud."