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Delusions of Grandeur

Review: The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions

The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensionsby David Berlinski
Crown Forum, 237 pages, $23.95

It is at once lamentable and understandable that academics, wishing applause from other academics, proffer far-fetched theses. After all, no one receives applause (or tenure) with commonsensical hypotheses. When supposedly divined from capital-S “Science,” however, such theses are taken all too seriously. David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion calls “Science,” “which has supposedly proven there is no God” back to Earth.

With his strong literary voice, Berlinski is frequently noted in “best science writing” anthologies, and rightly so. Few nonfiction books will evoke laughter like this delightful reply to the “New Atheists,” Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris. (On ape-human similarities: “given the gift of language, [apes] have nothing to say” and “beyond what we have in common with the apes, we have nothing in common.”) Berlinski has a light touch and an artist’s sensibility, which makes sense since both of his parents were classically-trained musicians who fled Nazi Europe. If that is not a recipe for a sensitive soul, what is?

SCIENCE: AN ENDEVOR OF FAITH?

Berlinski’s chief question is not whether God exists but “whether science has shown that he does not.” The West has long told the story of a good God, of evil losing out in the end, of paradise regained. “I do not know whether any of this is true,” writes Berlinski. “I am certain that the scientific community does not know that it is false.”

Consider the world-picture of 20th century physics: Curved space-time? Fundamental “forces”? Black holes, quantum fields, bosons, fermions sub-divided into quarks and leptons; quarks having six sub-sets, leptons,four hadrons, symmetries, fields? “It is remarkably baroque,” writes Berlinski. “And it is promiscuously catholic. For the atheist persuaded that materialism offers him a no-nonsense doctrinal affiliation,” this should be a wake-up call.

Since ancient Greece we’ve longed for the fundamental particle, the basic pieces of material reality. But it is an article of faith that there is an essential unit. “It is entirely possible that there may be as many elementary particles as there is funding available to investigate them.” Thus Berlinski echoes the book of Hebrews, “Western science is above all the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Leveling the field, Berlinski asks whether scientific standards of proof can reasonably be applied to God. Obliged to answer his own question:

If by science one means the great theories of mathematical physics, then the demand is unreasonable. We cannot treat any claim in this way. There is no other intellectual activity in which theory and evidence have reached this stage of development.

If, on the other hand, the demand means merely that one should treat the existence of God as the existence of anything would be treated, then we must accept the fact that in life as it is lived beyond mathematical physics, the evidence is fragmentary, lost, partial, and inconclusive. We do what we can. We grope. We see glimmers.

Intellectuals often claim God and science inhabit separate realms, “Non-Overlapping Magesteria,” in Stephen Jay Gould’s nomenclature. Thus to argue that God (or more generally, an intelligence) is the explanation for certain features of nature’s intelligent design proponents do “is a mistake. For the more nature is explained, the more this “God of the Gaps” vanishes.

But has the last century confirmed this zero-sum thinking? The argument, says Berlinski, assumes that whatever gaps we have will be filled. “Western science has proceeded by filling gaps, but in filling them, it has created gaps all over again,” he writes. “[A]nomalies have grown great because understanding has improved.” Physical theories “have enlarged and not diminished our sense of the sublime” and mysteriousness of life. How does the mystifying, unpredictable realm of sub-atomic particles produce breathing, thinking, worshiping creatures? We know one thing for sure: Dawkins doesn’t know. But, Berlinski notes, he’d rather accept an infinity of universes than a single God.

Beware of playing poker with Berlinski. He calls bluffs. Of that last stronghold of scientific atheism, neo-Darwinism, Berlinski notes that while biologists often claim it is as well-proven as gravity, one never hears physicists claiming quantum mechanics is as well established as evolution. Let’s stop exaggerating. Unlike many of his interlocutors, Berlinski knows that a serious mind-or-matter-first debate has a long, distinguished pedigree. Doubting Darwin did not begin at the Scopes trial.

WHERE WE STAND

This is a book in but not of our times. It is profoundly humble and honest about the nature of human knowledge. It is postmodern without being cynical. Perhaps only and the agnostic can renew science’s humility without undermining its quest for truth.

Where do we stand? We stand where we’ve always stood, says Berlinski, at a place of uncertainty attempting to read the roadsigns rushing past. God remains as good or better an explanation for the Big Bang, cosmic fine-tuning, and why nature obeys any laws as he always has.

For the last two centuries, the West has ricocheted between positivism and postmodernism; between empiricism as the only reliable epistemology and the relativity of all things. Positivism held in the scientific community; postmodernism by literary types. Berlinski avoids the trap because he knows too much about science to buy positivism and too much about the humanities to dismiss the perennial concerns of the human heart. He wanders effortlessly between Schrodinger’s dead cat and Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

I suppose critics might say he cuts the scientific community down to size but erects little of his own philosophy. On what metaphysical ground does an agnostic stand, for instance, to affirm real truths about the universe?

Yet it is precisely because Berlinski sees no replacement for God as our moral and scientific foundation that he urges us not to dismiss the traditional Western worldview. If all agnostics were as intellectually honest as Berlinski, we’d have a fine chat over whisky and cigars, I imagine about love, loss, meaning, and ultimate reality. I do wish the rest of the scientific community would join us.

Logan Paul Gage is a policy analyst with Discovery Institute in Washington, D.C.

Logan Paul Gage

Logan Paul Gage is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Dr. Gage received his B.A. in history, philosophy, and American studies from Whitworth College (2004) and his M.A. (2011) and Ph.D. (2014) in philosophy from Baylor University. His dissertation, written under the supervision of Trent Dougherty, was a defense of the phenomenal conception of evidence and conservative principles in epistemology.