closed red blinds
Red light shining onto closed red blinds creating a pattern of red and black lines in a semicircle
Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Blinkered Sages

Published at National Review

David Berlinski’s new book describes the remarkable extent to which the dominant religion of the intelligentsia is now “science.” This new religion — which is based on atheism and materialism — is actually better termed “scientism,” since its religious claims far overreach its scientific content. Scientism reflects the tendency of scientists to become what Ortega y Gasset called “barbarians of specialization.” Knowing much about one thing gives them confidence to pontificate about other subjects to which their expertise is irrelevant, or to inflate their own little patches of expertise into “grand unified theories.” Knowing more and more about less and less, they finally rise into the nation’s TV-empyrean, chattering vacuously about anything and everything.

George Clooney or Carl Sagan, Al Gore or James Watson — actors, politicians, scientists — who can tell them apart, in their common babble of moral relativism and anti-capitalist eschatology? Their shallow ideology is the target of Berlinski’s book. A Princeton Ph.D., secular Jew, and former fellow at the Institute des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques in France, Berlinski — now affiliated with the Discovery Institute, which I co-founded — commands a range of scientific disciplines and philosophical skills that project him well beyond the camp of Ortega’s barbarians. The polymathic author of several scintillating books on mathematics and logic, he in recent years has written a series of incandescent essays on biology, physics, psychology, and mathematics in Commentary magazine that have evoked an overflow of dumbfounded responses in its letters pages (Berlinski’s replies are feloniously lethal).

The Devil’s Delusion is an incendiary and uproarious work of learned polemical writing, unique in its scientific sophistication and authority. Rather than criticizing science from the outside, Berlinski excoriates its atheist pretensions from within. Refusing to defer to scientistic credentialism, he makes the compelling argument that the anti-God fetish of modern science has driven many scientists into a mad nihilism that has crippled their scientific work as well.

Detailing the horrendous record of massacres committed by aggressive atheists during the 20th century, Berlinski observes “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.” An implicit argument underlies all these horrors. A: “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” B: “If science is true, then God does not exist.” C: “If science is true, then everything is permitted.” As Berlinski shows, these propositions led predictably (Dostoevsky and Nietzsche predicted it, after all) to the Holocaust.

By contrast, as Berlinski notes, Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) seems to blame Hitler’s excesses chiefly on the Vatican, and Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation) comes close to blaming them on the Jews: Harris points to “their refusal to assimilate [and] their religious culture [which is] as intrinsically divisive … and at odds with the civilizing insights of modernity as any other religion.” To Sam Harris in Santa Barbara, “civilizing insights of modernity” are evident on the palmy beaches, in the local theaters and cafés, and in a sweet scent of enlightenment pervading the balmy air, but Berlinski reasonably wonders whether men who use atheism to extenuate anti-Semitism can serve as a tenable guide to civilizing influences anywhere.

After demonstrating the moral obtuseness of atheist science, The Devil’s Delusion goes on to castigate its crippling limitations even as a means of explaining physical reality. Ignoring the hierarchical structure of the universe, with the concept preceding the concrete, the algorithm preceding the computer, the DNA word preceding the flesh, and theory preceding experiment, science has blinded itself to the indispensable role of faith in all forms of knowledge.

In Berlinski’s view, there is a crucial point of convergence between moral laws and physical laws: “In both cases we do not know why the laws are true but we can sense that the question hides a profound mystery.” Science, as Berlinski avers, is “everywhere saturated with faith.” The faith that is necessary to coherent scientific work, however, is debauched by a complacent atheism, which distracts science from the reality of its own necessary religious and hierarchical assumptions.

Science does not harbor the slightest idea of “how the ordered physical, moral, mental, aesthetic, social world in which [we] live could have ever arisen from the seething anarchy of the world of particle physics.” The so-called “standard model” seems to supply “as many elementary particles as there is funding to find them” while offering scant support for the reductionist assumption that the world is best understood by atomization into its smallest possible parts.

Beyond reductionism, science offers at least seven mostly incompatible theories of reality: quantum theory, focused on subatomic elements; relativity theory, spanning the universe; string theory, seeking a grand unification in multidimensional infinitesimals; thermodynamics, with its arrow of time and slope of entropic decline; evolution, in its grand, bottom-up materialist ascent; molecular biology, with its top-down DNA codes; and the macro-quantum concept of entanglement, which links quantum entities across the cosmos beyond conventional time and space.

Each theory offers stunning insights into some limited domain but fails to fit with the neighboring regimes. Eroding the coherence of the entire set is the self-defeating character of the underlying materialism: a theory that denies the significance of theories and theorists. Readily refuting itself is the idea that ideas are mere epiphenomena of physical systems (brains) evolving from random processes. All the incompatible physical systems of modern science ultimately repose on a foundation of mathematical logic. Finally making a hash of all atheist materialism, therefore, is the paramount mathematical finding of the 20th century: the inexorable Gödelian incompleteness of mathematics.

As Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, Alonzo Church, and Gregory Chaitin have proven, mathematical logic, whether expressed in computer algorithms or in differential equations, finally relies on premises beyond itself. In other words, faith is critical to mathematics and computer logic, which are themselves abstract conceptual schemes not in any way reducible to materialist dogma. Apparently to distract attention from this baffling paradox of atheism, scientists have clutched at a set of laughable chimeras.

Richard Dawkins, for example, accepts the idea of a “megaverse,” a stupendous “Landscape” of infinitely parallel universes that explain away the absurd improbabilities of Darwinian materialism by the assumption that our own universe is only one of an infinite array. As physicist Leonard Susskind puts it, with a straight face: “Physicists and cosmologists are coming to see our 10 billion light years as an infinitesimal pocket of a stupendous megaverse.” As Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg sums up the argument, in a transparent tautology preening as science, “Any scientists who study nature must live in a part of the landscape where physical parameters take values suitable for the appearance of life and its evolution into scientists.” Other physical parameters are presumed to hold in other universes that don’t harbor life. Totally free of evidence, logic, empirical support, and common sense, this stupendous circularity is called the Anthropic Principle and is touted as an explanation of the universe superior to the idea of God. As Dawkins puts it, “Better many worlds than one god.”

Berlinski concludes that Dawkins’s favored “Landscape and the Anthropic Principle represent the moral relativism of physical thought.”

Lest the infiniversical “Landscape” fail to convince, however, Dawkins ends with what he calls the “ultimate Boeing 747 gambit.” Berlinski explains both the takeoff and the crash: The appeal to a Boeing 747 is meant to evoke a lighthearted quip attributed to the astrophysicist Fred Hoyle. The spontaneous emergence of life on earth, Hoyle observed, is about as likely as a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747 out of the debris.

Although an atheist, Hoyle was skeptical about Darwin’s theory of evolution. … Since the junkyard expresses with rare economy precisely the odds [opposing] the spontaneous appearance of life — they are remarkably prohibitive on virtually every calculation — it has been an irritation to Dawkins ever since its appearance. But Dawkins affirms, if a tornado cannot do the job of creating life, then God cannot do the job of creating the Universe. … The ultimate 747 gambit, Dawkins writes, “comes close to proving that God does not exist.” Got that?

How do such absurd circularities come to be believed or respected by serious people?

Berlinski concludes that “the willingness of physical scientists to explore such strategies in thought might suggest to a perceptive psychoanalyst a desire not so much to discover a new idea as to avoid an old one.” But the idea of a God in a hierarchical universe is essential to coherent thought or uplifting culture of any kind. A culture that does not aspire to the divine becomes obsessed with the fascination of evil, reveling in the frivolous, the depraved, and the bestial. Without a sense of the transcendent, science ends up pursuing reductionist trivia, from the next particle or dimension of string to ever more abstruse arguments for the animality of man and the pointlessness of the universe.

The scientific community remains oblivious to these problems chiefly because of its insularity and defensiveness, protected by a trumpery of “peer review” and immunity to outside criticism. “Science claims to need no criticism because it is supremely self-critical,” Berlinski writes. “A system so conceived always works to the satisfaction of those who have conceived it.”

The public has tended to go along with this because of modern science’s alleged relation to engineering and technology. So let us return to that 747. Dawkins and his ally Daniel Dennett both declare, in the spirit of the common claim of “no atheists in foxholes,” that there are no devout believers on airplanes. Anyone undertaking a journey by air, they say, is staking his life on the validity and reliability of modern science. Few travelers indeed would find solace if, glancing into the cockpit as they boarded their plane, they saw the pilot praying rather than scrutinizing his instruments.

Because they are based on top-down engineering and intelligent design, however, the sciences that enable modern flight have nothing in common with the atheist materialism and moral relativism that Dawkins and Dennett uphold. Navier-Stokes flow equations, advanced materials science, solid-state physics, molecular chemistry, and computer design, among a host of real scientific disciplines, are expressions not of bottom-up random processes but of hierarchical planning in which the ideas and schematics precede their physical embodiment. Through most of the history of science, from Michael Faraday to Enrico Fermi, its protagonists were masters of the technology of their day. They built the apparatus that tested their concepts and embodied their theories. Science and engineering were cognate disciplines.

Beginning with Einstein, however, scientists reached for a new role as free-floating philosophical gurus and theological prophets. Only Einstein himself and Richard Feynman were at all capable of fulfilling this mission. Seeking grand theories, essentially theologies, that could unify all the conflicting schemes of physical science, even Einstein and Feynman came to recognize the futility of their quest. But their successors continued the search in ever diminishing circles of tautology, arriving in the end at Darwinian loops of survival of the fittest as an all-embracing explanation. Reifying mathematics and pushing its equations to extremes that could not be sustained in a Gödelian universe, grand scientific theories lost all contact with the foundations of engineering reality.

The Devil’s Delusion is a promethean work that clears away this debris of modern science and culture. It liberates conservatism from its thralldom to a spurious scientism and establishes the foundations for a realignment with real scientists, among whom there are many potential friends. Bill Buckley, in his final days, declared: “Berlinski’s book is everything desirable; it is idiomatic, profound, brilliantly polemical, amusing, and of course vastly learned. I congratulate him.” Buckley was right, as usual. It is the definitive book of the new millennium.

George Gilder

Senior Fellow and Co-Founder of Discovery Institute
George Gilder is Chairman of Gilder Publishing LLC, located in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. A co-founder of Discovery Institute, Mr. Gilder is a Senior Fellow of the Center on Wealth & Poverty, and also directs Discovery's Technology and Democracy Project. His latest book, Life After Google: The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy (2018), Gilder waves goodbye to today's Internet.  In a rocketing journey into the very near-future, he argues that Silicon Valley, long dominated by a few giants, faces a “great unbundling,” which will disperse computer power and commerce and transform the economy and the Internet.