Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinkski (2009) A Book Review


Whatever else David Berlinski's Devil's Delusion may be, it's a good read. The language is lively and the metaphors crackle. Berlinksi puts the boots to the notion that science, with its methodological naturalism, "cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door" (quoting Richard Lewontin). His basic premise is that reductionist science cannot explain reality, life, or human existence at any meaningfully deep or satisfactory level. And, as long as this is true, there will be room for theistic explanations.

Berlinski adopts a polemical tone to his musings -- a tone which some may find irritating. Indeed, one cannot help but think the darwinian gods must have raised up this self-described secular Jew to be a thorn in the sides of the likes of Richard (The God Delusion) Dawkins and Christopher (God is Not Great) Hitchens.

Concerning Hitchens he writes: "When asked what he was in awe of, Christopher Hitchens responded that his definition of an educated person is that you have some idea how ignorant you are. This seems very much as if Hitchens were in awe of his own ignorance, in which case he has surely found an object worthy of his veneration." (208).

One can imagine Christopher, in response to Berlinski, seeking the darwinian gods three times to have this thorn removed from his side, with the darwinian gods responding, "your DNA is sufficient for you, now, dance!".

To give you an idea of Berlinksi's style, and the ease with which he blends scientific and philosophical thinking, I offer this:

Quote:

If the universe is as scientists say it is, then what scope remains for statements about right or wrong, good or bad? What are we to say about evil and great wickedness? Whatever statements we might make are obviously not about gluons, muons, or curved space and time. "The problem," the philosopher Simon Blackburn has written, "is one of finding room for ethics, or of placing ethics within the disenchanted, non-ethical order which we inhabit, and of which we are a part."

Blackburn is, of course, convinced that the chief task at hand in facing this question-- his chief task, in any case-- "is above all to refuse appeal to a supernatural order." It is a strategy that merits admiration for the severity of mind it expresses. It is rather as if an accomplished horseman were to decide that his chief task were to learn to ride without a horse.

End Quote.

As I worked my way through this book, the line from Job kept suggesting itself to me: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if you have understanding". Sure enough, Berlinksi quotes this verse in the context of the book's high-water mark: "The God of the gaps may now be invited to comment--strictly as an outside observer, of course. He is addressing us. And this is what He has to say: You have no idea whatsoever how the ordered physical, moral, mental, aesthetic, and social world in which you live could have ever arisen from the seething anarchy of the elementary particles" (201).

Just so.

The Devil's Delusion: a lively, topical read, now available in paperback.

24 comments:

Makarios said...

thank you for the info

Joe said...

I am looking forward to reading the book but I have a quibble with the appeal to morality. It seems that too often theologians cede the 'science' by instantly appealing to the morality proof. In fact I am convinced that science itself proves the existence of a Loving God that created and continues to sustain all that we understand as natural reality.

RkBall said...

Joe -- good point. I think the argument from morality is a good one, because objective right and wrong, good and evil, in a world that once consisted of only dead molecules in motion, is a pretty irrational idea, (as is the rise of rationality, for that matter). In fact, the whole world as we see it is incomprehensible if it was uncreated and once was dead and lifeless, and had no directing process moving it in a certain direction. So, life is one absurdity, but moral life is a whopper! Imagine thinking that smashing a pumpkin is any different than smashing a rock, or that smashing a baby's head in is any better/worse than smashing a pumpkin. All we are, ultimately, are dead molecules sprung to life by some unknown chemical, and then bio-chemical process.

Anyway, feel free to expand on what you said:

"I am convinced that science itself proves the existence of a Loving God that created and continues to sustain all that we understand as natural reality."

lastchancetosee said...

Yes, please do expand, Joe.

I wish creationists would stop using the title of Richard Dawkins' books for their own. It stopped being funny after the first few variations and now seems only childish. I know it sells books, but Come on! Show some imagination!

I also wish that creationist would give up on the morality thing. Berlinsky maybe packages it in a fun-to-read way, but it is hardly something new, and they all seem to make the same mistake: They cite the arbitrariness of morality as if it were an argument against it having arisen naturally. Why should that be? We have only their claim, based on their religion, that it is not arbitrary.
It is a bit like the complaint that without God, life is without purpose. To both one can only reply: Yes, so what?

Let Berlinsky show that morality is NOT arbitrary, then MAYBE he'll have a case against a universe driven exclusively by natural forces ('maybe' because it could also be the case that morality is not arbitrary, but still a product of purely natural processes. But that is a different discussion).

RkBall said...

LC2C -- I agree with you about the title thing, but marketing is marketing! However...

Berlinski is not a Creationist. He's not even an Intelligent Designer. He's not even a theist! At best, he's an agnostic. Which is what helps give his argumentation force.

They cite the arbitrariness.... life is without purpose.... Yes, so what?

Well, thank you for making my point in the previous post about God, Morality, Human Condition. Human life, if atheism is true, is an absurdity -- because purpose and moral sense are fundamental to what it means to be human.

Joe said...

Hey lastchancetosee:

There is no NATURAL!!!! Get over it.

Joe said...

You are right in your assertions Richard. I not opposed to using the 'morality argument except that most secular humanists reject any kind of morality or else co-opt it into a result of evolution. For example because we sometimes witness 'infanticide' in animals, an old sow pig will sometimes kill and eat her newborn piglets, infanticide in humans is natural and should not be punished.

lastchancetosee said...

Berlinsky not being a creationist:
Well, he's a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, and his arguments against evolution or what he calls "Darwinism" are identical to those of cdesign proponentists. If he doesn't believe in ID, then I'd be very interested to hear what HIS ideas about how life develops are ...

Human life, if atheism is true, is an absurdity -- because purpose and moral sense are fundamental to what it means to be human.

Again with the unfounded assertions ...
Claiming that purpose is fundamental to humans does not make it so. Same goes for moral sense (at least in the sense you are using it. I'm not denying moral sense, I just say that it is clearly not absolute, but arbitrary).

Since I can't ask Berlinsky, can you give any reasons as to why our morals should NOT be arbitrary?


Hey lastchancetosee:

Hey Joe:

There is no SUPERNATURAL!!!! Get over it.


... way to formulate a reasoned argument ... *sigh*

Joe said...

Well last to see, due to the fact that in order for there to be 'natural rules' there must be a supernatural cause. However since you don't accept that there is a supernatural there can be no natural. Therefore my statement meets the standard of irreducible complexity: There is no natural.

philosoraptor said...

To the religious folk here, I wonder: Assuming that you were sure you heard the voice of God, would you kill if He commanded it?

lastchancetosee said...

Joe:
Why is the supernatural a prerequisite for the natural? That is an extraordinary claim, how about supporting it with some sort of reasoning?

Therefore my statement meets the standard of irreducible complexity: There is no natural.

I have no idea what you are trying to say with that, but I don't think you know what irreducible complexity is.

RkBall said...

see fresh post.

Joe said...

Last to see the problem you are having is quite simple. You see something acting according to its 'nature' and you assume that it must be natural for that something to act according to its nature. However there is no logical reason to believe that the object in question has a nature to begin with.

Why does a dog act like a dog and not a cat. Obviously because a dog is a dog and not a cat. Except who determined that this clump of cells would be a dog but that clump of cells would be a cat.

An even more basic example. You take two gasses let's say water in its gas form, steam, and methane, natural gas. Lets begin to cool both gasses. Steam turns to liquid water quite quickly while methane takes much longer to liquify. As we continue to cool water turns to ice quite quickly but methane takes much longer to become solid. Careful observation shows that solid water floats on liquid water while solid methane sinks in liquid methane.

Now why does methane act like methane while water acts like water? Both have gas, liquid and solid states. Both are compounds yet they behave differently according to their nature. How was that nature given to each. To say that is their nature simple beggars the question. Why are there different natures to different elements?

Maybe we should look at how the universe came to exist. Most competent scientists would say that the universe began with the big bang. 'Singularity' exploded into all that we see and know. Herein lies a problem. According to scientific belief everything that came into being had a cause. What then was the cause of the big bang? How could the big bang explain the sub atomic attractions that strong enough to keep atoms from flying apart but not so strong as to crush them back to singularity. The same applies to gravity. In other words nature as we know it is not simply nature. The degree of design involved in nature baffles our most brilliant engineers. We can't even begin to count all the interactions that are required for a rock to exist let alone life. We couldn't begin to design the little factories in each cell that make exactly the right chemical at exactly the right time for the cell to survive. There isn't a computer programmer around that can understand the 4 digit code in the twisted helix of DNA.

Therefore since there appears throughout all that we see and know a master design it is completely logical to assume that there is a Designer behind it.

Once again in its simplest form (irreducible complexity) nature can not exist with out a Supernature. Since you assert that there is no Supernature nature can not exist.

Nature does not exist get used to it.

lastchancetosee said...

Let me first state that when I talk of "natural" or "supernatural" I mean "following the laws of nature" and "violating the laws of nature".

Both are compounds yet they behave differently according to their nature. How was that nature given to each. To say that is their nature simple beggars the question.

This illustrates very well the central fault in your reasoning. You look at both, notice that they behave differently and immediately conclude that something must have given them this behavior.
They have no nature. Nothing was given to them.
Now, the correct way to tackle that question would be to actually ask oneself why they behave differently.
And we know why. They behave differently because of their molecular structure, which in turn is determined by the structure of the atomic orbitals and the number ob electrons of the atoms involved, which is in turn determined by the quantum mechanical interaction of said electrons and the nucleus etc. pp.
Where you see "different natures for different elements" there are in reality only the for all particles identically operating rules of nature at work. Your view of - in this case - chemistry is stuck somewhere in the age of alchemy.
No one is trying to explain the behavior of water or methane by saying "It's their nature.". That is what you do, by saying "God made it so.". The two are equivalent.

There is no detectable design involved in nature. There are just very few elementary particles interacting with each other via very few fundamental forces.
It all builds up very logically from very few and very simple rules of interaction.
The universe is, on a small enough scale, exceedingly simple.

The supernatural is by definition antithetical to our whole method of explaining our world. To assume the supernatural is a very drastic step, one that should only be taken if proven to be inescapable.
Simply pointing to stuff that is unexplained is therefore not enough. You would have to point to something unexplainable.
Your solution to the question of how the world started is nothing more than answering the question with "Because it is so." - an obviously true answer with absolutely no gain of insight.

Joe said...

last to see wrote, "They have no nature. Nothing was given to them."

Then we agree there is no nature get used to it.

Joe said...

last to see wrote, "There is no detectable design involved in nature. There are just very few elementary particles interacting with each other via very few fundamental forces".

Now there you go again contradicting yourself. Either there is nature "fundamental forces" or there is not nature "fundamental forces"

A few lines ago you said there was no nature therefore there can be no 'fundamental force' since fundamental force is NATURE.

As for no discernible design. Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Gasp Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Oh my aching sides.

Sorry but you just lost all respect with that one. No design. Explain something as simple as the heart, its evolution and its reason for being.

Lets just for the sake of argument say that living single cell creatures exist. Now would you explain the 'natural causes' fundamental forces call it what you will that would cause that single celled creature to become a multicelled creature and how in that multicelled creature certain cells became specialized in their function based seeming entirely on where they are place in the body?

I read an article not long ago where scientists were claiming that they harvested stem cells from a man's bones then placed them in the the man's heart and were able to regrow the part of the heart that was badly damaged by a heart attack.

Now please remember that you have already eliminated fundamental forces when you denied nature.

I await your brilliant answer.

lastchancetosee said...

last to see wrote, "They have no nature. Nothing was given to them."

Then we agree there is no nature get used to it.


Now please remember that you have already eliminated fundamental forces when you denied nature.

[90% of the the rest of your post]

... which is why I took the trouble to define natural vs. supernatural at the beginning of my last post ...
You know very well the difference between something having a nature and something being natural. Water does not have "a nature", even though it and all it's characteristics are entirely natural.

I won't respond any further to this type of silly word games, nor to your twisting of my posts.
If you want to play semantic games, try a linguistics forum.

Joe said...

I'm not playing silly semantic games here. Water has a nature. If it didn't have a nature we couldn't tell if it was water. By its nature water extinguishes fire. By its nature methane is fuel for the fire.

Lets cut it down to your level. In TV shows like CSI they preform all kinds of tests to determine what killed a person. Maybe they look at a bullet hole. Now they understand the nature of flying bullets based on speed, caliber trajectory, mass etc. From that they can ascertain from whence the bullet came.

Maybe the person was killed by poison. The team preforms a series of tests to determine what kind of poison was used. The tests reveal the nature of the poison and thus they know what kind of poison killed the victim.

The fact remains that everything we see or know has a nature that is unique unto itself. I have spent a goodly amount of time trying to figure out why Oxygen acts differently than Nitrogen. The longer and deeper I look the more convinced I am that a Supernature determined the nature of both Oxygen and Nitrogen. All the evidence points in that direction and only if I stand with my eyes firmly closed ignoring all the evidence can I deny the existence of the Supernature.

Since you don't want to discuss anymore I will respect your wishes but in closing I would suggest that you open your closed mind to the possibility of the existence of a Supernature and you will be pleasantly surprised at the fitting together of a cogent world view. I know this because 30 years ago should such a forum as this which Richard so kindly provides existed I would have been arguing from the same point of view as you presently argue. Back in university studying to be an engineer I was just as fervent and evangelical in my atheism as you now are.

Then one day I woke up in a funk. As the week dragged on I became more and more depressed. When it seemed I couldn't go any farther I was taken to a very strange place. It wasn't wet but it wasn't dry. It wasn't light but it wasn't dark. There wasn't something but there wasn't nothing. Now utterly confused I heard a voice booming like thunder saying, "I AM". "I AM therefore I will create". "I AM therefore I will set in order".

I don't know why but I began to read the Bible and when I reached the 3rd chapter of Exodus I came across the words I AM that I AM tell them that I AM sent you.

Now what were the odds that my petty little mind could come up with a such a Name and then to have it confirmed by some guy who has been dead for millenia.

Now while you maintain your atheism by denying all the evidence I changed my mind based on the evidence. You know what; the more research I do the more evidence I find for an I AM being that brought all things into existence and determining the nature of each, force, element, compound, space, non living matter and life itself.

lastchancetosee said...

... against my better judgement ...

I have spent a goodly amount of time trying to figure out why Oxygen acts differently than Nitrogen. The longer and deeper I look the more convinced I am that a Supernature determined the nature of both Oxygen and Nitrogen.

Than you have wasted a goodly amount of your time.
If you had spend a fraction of that time reading a relevant book instead of dreaming about "Supernature", you would have found out that Oxygen reacts differently than Nitrogen because it has a different number of electrons (and a different number of protons and neutrons in their core, but that is irrelevant for their behavior). Apart from that they are identical and, more importantly, they behave according to exactly the same rules.
Seeing "Supernature" in this is like saying that some "Supernature" must have ordained that two apples are different from one apple.

I'm sorry, but there really is no point in discussing this any further. Have fun.

Joe said...

Ok last to see how about you publish your bibliography of books you have read concerning the Beginning.

My list book list consisting of titles authors and publishers is over 20 pages. BTW most of those books come from an atheistic point of view as well as being quite technical in nature. Can you truthfully say the same? Don't think so you spout lines that I used to use as a freshman in College when the most detailed science book I read was my Grade 12 science text book. But then I've noticed that due to their very high level of self atheists tend to be a lazy lot. I would love to spout my few vapid little lines over and over again rather than sit and read a book to come up with something original. Of course now that I am on the other side I have noticed that most of the atheistic books are full of errors and untruths. Dawkins et al use a high degree of baffle gab that sound impressive until you realize that they are fudging the numbers to prove what the real number say.

lastchancetosee said...

... you spout lines that I used to use [...] when the most detailed science book I read was my Grade 12 science text book.

That would be because the question you "have spent a goodly amount of time trying to figure out" is so simple that with any luck it would be answered in your "Grade 12 science text book".

Joe said...

Ah yes last to see another crackpot heard from. Have you discovered the nature of water yet? Oh yes I forgot there is no nature because there is no Supernature. Get used to it!

backcheck said...

I'm a little late getting into the fray here but I have to tell you that I really enjoyed what Joe had to say about this. The fact that you can actually legitimately claim the existence of God (or at least the very possibility of God) through irreducible logic is genius!

I have a different reason for believing and that's faith but if reason can lead you to faith which then leads you to the cross, then more power to reason! God bless you Joe and definitely God bless you Richard for your awesome contributions. We serve an amazing God and it's good to see that I have so many Brothers-in-Christ that care about apologetic defense of our beliefs. To God alone be the glory!

-Sung

RkBall said...

Thank you.

"... nothing intellectually compelling or challenging.. bald assertions coupled to superstition... woefully pathetic"