Delusions of Scientific Adequacy

Dan Peterson
The American Spectator
August 22, 2008
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In recent years, the parade of authors brandishing fierce new tracts against God and religion has become, it seems, interminable. Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, continues as head baton twirler, but now we also have Victor Stenger,Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett--naming them all would be nearly as tedious as reading their books.

As David Berlinski observes in The Devil's Delusion, the message of each of these writers is identical: "because scientific theories are true, religious beliefs must be false." And the conclusion they generally draw is revealed in the title of an essay by Harris: "Science Must Destroy Religion."

Why must it do so? Because, Berlinski shows, there is a body of true believers, often scientists, who have faith that materialist scientific narratives are the only narratives to which rational men and women can devote themselves. "And like any militant church, this one places a familiar demand before all others: Thou shalt have no other gods before me." The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must go.

Berlinski, a Princeton Ph.D. in mathematics who has written a number of popular books on math and science, describes himself as a "secular Jew" and "agnostic" with "no religious convictions and no religious beliefs." He might thus seem a curious candidate to publish a book that, in his words, "is in some sense a defense of religious thought and sentiment." But this is a defense that consists principally of a withering offense. The central question he addresses is not whether God exists, "but whether science has shown that he does not."

Science, of course, has shown nothing of the kind, as Berlinski demonstrates with wit, erudition, surprising passion, and the illumination of a powerful mind. It's not science itself with which he has any quarrel, but rather with those who cloak their personal beliefs in the mantle of science--atheism in scientific drag.

In the book's longest chapter, Berlinski sets the stage by examining the ethical implications of any belief system that dispenses with a creator and moral lawgiver. He quotes the 11th-century Arab philosopher Abu Hamid Muhammad AI-Ghazali, who predicted that if there is no system of divine justice by which life is to be regulated, then men and women will give way to "a bestial indulgence of their appetites." It's precisely the point made by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. If there is no permanent and ordained moral order, then only will and appetite remain--a surefire formula for violence, hatred, inhumanity, emptiness, and degradation.

The human need for a moral order does not prove that God exists. But a chilling scene recounted by Berlinski provides a sense of what is at stake. In the early part of the Nazi advance into Eastern Europe, an SS officer who was part of an extermination squad watched, machine gun in hand, as an elderly, bearded Hasidic Jew dug what he surely knew was his own grave. "He addressed his executioner: 'God is watching what you are doing,' he said. And then he was shot dead." Berlinski continues:

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....That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society.

Against a background of moral seriousness often lacking in his opponents, Berlinski scrutinizes the gambits they have deployed to promote atheism in the guise of science. Then, in urbane, high-spirited style, he proceeds to demolish them seriatim.

The claim that science itself has somehow "disproved" the existence of God is on its face a canard. As Berlinski dryly notes, "Neither the premises nor the conclusions of any scientific theory mention the existence of God. I have checked this carefully." Rather, materialist assumptions are smuggled into the definition of science, or its atheistic proponents claim that science provides explanations to fundamental questions that are superior to and displace any resort to a designer or creator.

In the chapters that form the heart of the book, Berlinski turns his searchlight on central questions that have traditionally been the province of religion, but for which some scientific apologists now claim to have answers. He begins with an examination of the "cosmological argument" for the existence of God, as advanced by Aquinas. What caused the universe? Is there, and must there be, a "first cause" that made the universe begin?

Here, as it turns out, the answer of modern science is discomfiting to atheism rather than to theology. As recently as the middle years of Einstein's life, it was possible to believe, consistent with the scientific evidence, that the universe was eternal and may have had no beginning. The Big Bang theory, now almost universally accepted, changed all that. Traced backward in time, causative sequences do come to an end (or rather, a beginning). There is no infinite regress of causes, at least not in this universe. If science has in some way shown that God does not exist, it is certainly "not by appealing to Big Bang cosmology. The hypothesis of God's existence and the facts of contemporary cosmology are consistent," Berlinski observes.

Indeed, in the following chapter Berlinski recounts, and exposes, Stephen Hawking's attempt to get rid of the Big Bang singularity, with its uncomfortable religious overtones, by mathematically describing a "self-caused" universe. It's not that Hawking's math was bad, but that he front-loaded his theory with assumptions (which are not necessarily true) that allow him to reach the desired result (which is not at all surprising).

The chapter entitled "A Put-up Job" shows Berlinski at his best. According to physicist Paul Davies, scientists have been waking up "to an inconvenient truth--the universe looks suspiciously like a fix." It has been becoming more and more apparent that a host of central physical laws and phenomena in the universe are exquisitely "fine-tuned" to permit the existence of life--Berlinski cites the cosmological constant, the fine-structure constant, the ratio of neutrons to protons, the ratio of the electromagnetic force to the gravitational force, and even the speed of light in this regard. Astronomer and atheist Fred Hoyle grumpily concluded, "The universe looks like a put-up job."

As Berlinski notes, theologians have long offered an answer: "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 is false." But because this answer is "emotionally unacceptable" to many physicists, they have worked long and hard to devise some extravagant theories to put chance, rather than design, back in the saddle.

One of their purported answers combines mathematical constructs known as the Landscape with the Anthropic Principle. The Landscape posits, if not an infinite number, at least an extremely large number of universes, an enormous "space of possibilities" in which multiple universes with entirely different physical laws could exist. The Anthropic Principle, in one of its several variants, may be summarized as: "Of course our universe is fine-tuned to support life-otherwise we wouldn't be sitting around commenting on it." Combine the two, and you've got a sure thing. Is the fine-tuning of physical laws in the universe uncannily precise and amazingly improbable? Then just assume a gazillion other universes (of which there is no proof, and which we can never see) where the laws are different. Lean back, crack a beer, and congratulate ourselves on our one-in-a-gazillion luck.

But which requires more faith: the conclusion that the design evident in our universe (the only one we know to exist) is actually the product of a designer. Or the assumption that there must be a gigantic, unseen, universe-generating machine, with a colossal number of universes completely unlike our own bubbling into being, and that we just happened to win the lottery against stupendous odds? And while we're asking, how does a mathematical theory get hold of a real universe to develop and control? Somehow, these otherworldly speculations, interesting as they are, do not seem to have solved the problem.

The chapter on Dawkins's alleged "new" proof that God does not exist is a special treat. As Berlinski shows, it's simply a prolix, 40-page version of a three-sentence argument presented by a third-century Chinese sage. Regarding Dawkins's extended explication, Berlinski comments, "Dawkins has failed only to explain his reasoning, and I am left with the considerable inconvenience of establishing his argument before rejecting it." He then does both, with devastating effect.

Berlinski also takes on the biologists, especially those who contend that there is little to distinguish men from apes and other animals. This is true enough--except for everything that matters. In response to the assertion that an extraterrestrial "would have a hard time seeing most of the differences we treasure between ourselves and the apes," Berlinski counters: "I suppose that if a fish were thoughtfully to consider the matter, she might have a hard time determining the differences we treasure between Al Gore and a sperm whale. Both of them are large and one of them is streamlined."

He has a field day with evolutionary psychology, which seeks to explain the human mind in terms of evolutionary imperative, and, because of its determinism, would "annihilate any claim we might make on behalf of human freedom." Yet its leading advocates, such as Harvard's Steven Pinker, cannot in practice bear its consequences. When Pinker asserts that "nature does not dictate what we should accept or how we should live our lives," he is expressing, Berlinski remarks, "a belief--one obviously true--entirely at odds with his professional commitments." So why pay attention either to evolutionary psychology or to Pinker?

Use of Darwinism to champion atheism receives its due as well. Within the English-speaking world, Darwinism is "the only scientific theory to be widely championed by the scientific community and widely disbelieved by everyone else....[T]he thing continues to elicit the same reaction it has always elicited: You've got to be kidding, right? ..[I]f biologists are wrong about Darwin, they are wrong about life, and if they are wrong about life, they are wrong about everything." It's becoming increasingly obvious that they are, in fact, wrong about Darwin--see book for details.

In a brief review, it's impossible to convey not just the complexity of some these issues, but the clarity, keenness, and breadth of learning that Berlinski brings to bear on them. He in turn assumes a certain level of background, mental agility, and sophistication on the part of the reader. This is not Science and Religion for Dummies. Although the book is lucidly written, he moves swiftly, occasionally makes leaps of logic or insight, and expects the reader to keep up with him.

A book that addresses issues of fundamental importance and timeless concern may be commended for that reason alone. One that does so with zest, style, and mordant humor, without losing sight of the profound implications of our ultimate beliefs, is rare indeed. A polemic that administers a capable drubbing to the arrogant and powerful also has its undoubted charms. But everything else aside, a book that simply permits one to spend some time in the presence of a first-rate, well-stocked, civilized mind, and to enjoy its workings, may provide the purest pleasure of all.

Berlinski's book supplies all these things in abundance, and I say God bless him.

Dan Peterson is a writer and attorney living in Northern Virginia. The views expressed are solely his own.