Berlinski on Atheism and Scientism

Some insightful commentary by an important philosopher of science:

I realise that it is not good form to label newish books ‘classics,’ but some recent volumes almost deserve such a description. Over the years I have been trying to highlight some of these books. And when you have a large library full of such volumes, that is no easy task.

But I will try to keep alerting folks to some authors and books that they really need to be aware of. One such writer is David Berlinski, an American intellectual who has written much on things such as the philosophy of science. Although a secular Jew, his 2008 book, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (Crown Forum) is a masterful volume that we should have in our libraries.

William F. Buckley Jr. had said this about it: “Berlinski’s book is everything desirable; it is idiomatic, profound, brilliantly polemical, amusing, and of course vastly learned.” Here I will just offer a selection of key quotes from the volume in the hopes that you might get it and read it for yourself.

Before I share some of these quotes here, let me present this from the inside book jacket:

An acclaimed author who has spent his career writing about mathematics and the sciences, he turns the scientific community’s cherished skepticism back on itself, daring to ask and answer some rather embarrassing questions:

  • Has anyone provided a proof of God’s inexistence? Not even close.

  • Has quantum cosmology explained the emergence of the universe or why it is here? Not even close.

  • Have the sciences explained why our universe seems to be fine-tuned to allow for the existence of life? Not even close.

  • Are physicists and biologists willing to believe in anything so long as it is not religious thought? Close enough.

  • Has rationalism in moral thought provided us with an understanding of what is good, what is right, and what is moral? Not close enough.

  • Has secularism in the terrible twentieth century been a force for good? Not even close to being close.

  • Is there a narrow and oppressive orthodoxy of thought and opinion within the sciences? Close enough.

  • Does anything in the sciences or in their philosophy justify the claim that religious belief is irrational? Not even ballpark.

  • Is scientific atheism a frivolous exercise in intellectual contempt? Dead on.

Image of The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions
The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions by Berlinski, David (Author) Amazon logo

Here then are some vital quotes:

“If science stands opposed to religion, it is not because of anything contained in either the premises or the conclusions of the great scientific theories. They do not mention a word about God. They do not treat of any faith beyond the one that they themselves demand. They compel no ritual beyond the usual rituals of academic life, and these involve nothing more than the worship of what is widely worshipped. Confident assertions by scientists that in the privacy of their chambers they have demonstrated that God does not exist have nothing to do with science, and even less to do with God’s existence.” xii

“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. To anyone who has enjoyed the spectacle of various smarmy insects shuffling along the tenure track at Harvard or Stanford, the idea that we are all simply ‘survival machines’ seems oddly in conflict with the correlative doctrine of the survival of the fittest. This would not be the first time that an ideological system in conflict with the facts has found it prudent to defer to itself.” 8

“What Hitler did not believe and what Stalin did not believe and what Mao did not believe and what the SS did not believe and what the Gestapo did not believe and what the NKVD did not believe and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe was that God was watching what they were doing. And as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either. That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society.

One might think that in the dark panorama of wickedness, the Holocaust would above all other events give the scientific atheist pause. Hitler’s Germany was a technologically sophisticated secular society, and Nazism itself, as party propagandists never tired of stressing, was ‘motivated by an ethic that prided itself on being scientific.’ The words are those of the historian Richard Weikart, who in his admirable treatise, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, makes clear what anyone capable of reading the German sources already knew: A sinister current of influence ran from Darwin’s theory of evolution to Hitler’s policy of extermination. A generation of German biologists had read Darwin and concluded that competition between species was reflected in human affairs by competition between races.” 26-27

“David Hume asked in the eighteenth century whether ought could be derived from is, and concluded that it could not: There is a gap between what is and what ought to be. The world of fact and the world of value are disjoint. They have nothing to say to one another. The ensuing chilliness between what is and what ought to be has in the twentieth century grown glacial. The more that science reveals what is, the less it reveals what ought to be. The traditional biblical view—that what ought to be is a matter chiefly of what God demands—thus stands on his existence, the very point challenged by scientific atheism. But if scientific atheists are disposed to challenge God’s existence—the party line, after all—they are far less willing to reflect on what His dismissal entails.” 35-36

“The idea that we must turn to the sciences in order to assess our religious beliefs owes much to the popular conviction that so long as we are turning, where else are we to turn to? The proper response is a question in turn. Why turn at all? And if we must turn, why turn in the wrong direction? To ask of the physical sciences that they assess the Incarnation, or any other principle of religious belief, is rather like asking of a powerful Grand Prix racing car that it prove itself satisfactory in doing service as a New York taxicab.” 59-60

“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.” 112

“The most unwelcome conclusion of evolutionary psychology is also the most obvious: If evolutionary psychology is true, some form of genetic determinism must be true as well. Genetic determinism is simply the thesis that the human mind is the expression of its human genes. No slippage is rationally possible.

Psychologists will now object. They have the floor. There is the environment, they say. It, too, plays a role. The environment has, of course, been the perpetual plaintiff of record in Nurture v. Nature et al. But for our purposes it may now be dismissed from further consideration. If the environment controls how men are made and how they act, then they are not born that way; and if they are not born that way, an explanation of the human mind cannot be expressed in evolutionary terms.

How could it be otherwise? On current views, it is the gene that is selected by evolution, and if we are not controlled by our genes, we are not controlled by evolution. If we are not controlled by evolution, evolutionary psychology has no relevance to the origin or nature of the human mind. And if it is has no relevance whatsoever to the origin and nature of the human mind, why on earth is it promoted so assiduously to within an inch of its life or ours?

A successful evolutionary theory of the human mind would, after all, annihilate any claim we might make on be- half of human freedom. The physical sciences do not trifle with determinism: It is the heart and soul of their method. Were boron salts at liberty to discard their identity, the claims of inorganic chemistry would seem considerably less pertinent than they do.” 177-178

“If Darwin’s theory of evolution has little to contribute to the content of the sciences, it has much to offer their ideology. It serves as the creation myth of our time, assigning properties to nature previously assigned to God. It thus demands an especially ardent form of advocacy. In this regard, Daniel Dennett, like Mexican food, does not fail to come up long after he has gone down. “Contemporary biology,” he writes, “has demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that natural selection—the process in which reproducing entities must compete for finite resources and thereby engage in a tournament of blind trial and error from which improvements automatically emerge—has the power to generate breathtakingly ingenious designs” (italics added).

These remarks are typical in their self-enchanted self-confidence. Nothing in the physical sciences, it goes without saying—right?—has been demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt. The phrase belongs to a court of law. The thesis that improvements in life appear automatically represents nothing more than Dennett’s conviction that living systems are like elevators: If their buttons are pushed, they go up. Or down, as the case may be. Although Darwin’s theory is very often compared favorably to the great theories of mathematical physics on the grounds that evolution is as well established as gravity, very few physicists have been heard observing that gravity is as well established as evolution. They know better and they are not stupid.” 190-192

“What is both interesting and innate in an organism cannot be explained in terms of its genetic endowment. If the concept of a gene is given any content at all—not a certainty by any means—it is entirely with the context of molecular biology and biochemistry. The gene is a chemical, a part of the molecule deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. Its function is straightforward: It specifies the proteins needed by a living organism, and it species them by means of a remarkably complicated system of translation and transcription. To speak clearly of the genetic endowment of an organism is to speak only of the passage from one chemical structure to another—that and nothing more.

But to speak of the genetic endowment of an organism in terms that answer any interesting question about the organism is to go quite beyond the coordination of chemicals. It is to speak of what an organism does, how it reacts, what plans it makes, and how it executes them; it is to assign to a biological creature precisely the properties always assigned to such creatures: intention, desire, volition, need, passion, curiosity, despair, boredom, and rage.” 198-199

Note: I penned this piece partly because I hope to soon offer a review of his brand new book, Science After Babel.

[1975 words]


4 Replies to “Berlinski on Atheism and Scientism”

  1. Raised quite a few chuckles here!
    PS: I bought the book at Amazon/Kindle immediately.

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