Berlinski and the Windmill

Paul R. Gross

The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, by David Berlinski (New York: Random House/Crown Forum, 2008, ISBN 978-0-307-39626) 256 pp. Cloth $23.95.

Faith is that quality which enables us to believe what we know to be untrue.

—From Boners: Seriously Misguided Facts—According to Schoolkids, by Alexander Abingdon

Reviews of putatively serious nonfiction books are usually organized from inside to outside. To place fair priority on the book’s ideas and their presentation, as well as for economy of space, a typical review starts with the essential interior content, leaving discussion, if any, of external features for last. However, in the case of David Berlinski’s fulminating polemic, The Devil’s Delusion—promising even in its subtitle to expose, confound, and defeat scientific atheism—it is best to begin on the outside. This is no crankiness on my part (although we shall soon come to crankiness); the book’s outside, preface, and opening chapter are revealing and therefore important for judging its arguments.

We must take from its subtitle, Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, that this book exposes major gaps or blunders in scientific knowledge, gained over the last 350 years, with which atheists contest theism. By “theism” Berlinski means—properly—belief in, commitment to, and submission to God: the maker of everything; omnipresent watcher of everyone; attentive receiver of a billion simultaneous pleas and thunderous applause; a jealous, often angry observer and nemesis of idolatry and sin. In other words, the theism in which the atheists in question (the writers of best-selling atheist books) do not believe is that of the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

In reality, science-based atheists are usually indifferent to the many deistic forms of deus absconditus. They shrug when the wonder of nature is reified and called “God” by a few scientists or candidates for the Templeton Prize. We are left to expect from the externals of Berlinski’s book that the science used in current arguments of prominent atheists is going to be questioned by means of correct or better science, possibly by other deep intellectual means. On that expectation there is deep disappointment.

Consider the endorsements for Berlinski’s new, book-length joust with science. There are four, and three of them are from nonscientists. The late William F. Buckley Jr., conservative political commentator, lifelong believer and defender of religion, was one; Harvey Mansfield, erudite student of government and rara avis, a staunch conservative at left, politically correct Harvard, is another; and Tom Bethell, a journalist of well-known crankiness about science, is the third. Bethell offers such ornaments of antiscience as a stubborn denial that HIV causes AIDS and claims of failure or fraud against key science figures and ideas. His enthusiasm is for the fringe, and few standard fallacies of argumentation fail to show up in his attacks. They appear in no scientific journal but in political magazines such as The American Spectator. Working scientists, needless to say, ignore such entertainments. Major-league baseball is more fun—and deeper.

Despite Berlinski’s professed purpose of evaluating science, then, only the fourth endorser is a scientist. He is Professor Michael Behe, biochemist at Lehigh University. Behe is perhaps the most visible member of the small “intelligent design” (ID) home team. He was the principal scientific witness for the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board, which was brought to trial for inserting ID creationism, i.e., stealth religion, into that district’s science curriculum. By all accounts of the 2005 landmark Dover trial, including the judge’s comprehensive opinion, Behe’s testimony did much to ensure that the school board would lose, and badly. So contrived are the claims he makes in his attacks on “Darwinism” that even his departmental colleagues at Lehigh have felt the unprecedented need to deny them publicly.

Berlinski’s assault on the science supporting atheism is thus endorsed by four more or less public figures, but not one has unquestioned professional standing in the sciences whose “pretensions” he claims to expose. Nor is Berlinski a scientist. His PhD is in philosophy; he has written popular texts on mathematics. Couldn’t his publishers, Crown Publishing and Random House, with their prestige and financial resources, find even one acknowledged leader, one respected figure in evolutionary biology, cosmology, physics, or in Berlinski’s own discipline—philosophy—to write a few substantive lines about this book? Either they could not find one, or they failed to see any tilting at windmills in this full-tilt attack on atheism. Perhaps they felt that a rhetorical critic of science who boasts that he was fired from every job he ever had must necessarily have interesting things to say.

The book’s short but emotional preface sets its tone: “To anyone who has enjoyed the spectacle of various smarmy insects shuffling along the tenure track at Harvard or Stanford. . . .” It is a display of relentless sarcasm, denigration, and dismissal of science and scientists, interspersed with muscular assertions for which no justification is offered. For example, Berlinski assures us that science is indefinable, a mere word “exhausted by its examples.” Granted, this is a fancy way of saying that science is no more than what scientists do. But that ignores most philosophy of science—surprising from an author with a degree in philosophy. “Nothing,” he declares, “answers to the name of science. And Nothing has no particular method either, beyond the immemorial dictates of common sense.” (Italics and capitalization in the original.)

The best match for this is perhaps the claim of the late Paul Feyerabend, at postmodern Berkeley in the 1990s, who promoted anything goes as the only correct description of the scientific method. Feyerabend, however, characterized himself—and his philosophical peers agreed—as “the court jester of [the] philosophy of science.” Berlinski displays no humor about his own position.

However, that is the least of the problems. More troubling are Berlinski’s frequent bald assertions, violating just those “immemorial dictates of common sense” to which he refers. For example:

We cannot reconcile our understanding of the human mind with any trivial theory about the manner in which the brain functions. Beyond the trivial, we have no other theories. We can say nothing of interest about the human soul. We do not know what impels us to right conduct or where the form of the good is found.

Now, it is no surprise that trivial (scientific) theories of brain function won’t help us to understand “the manner in which the brain functions.” But Berlinski adds that there are no theories of brain function that are not trivial. Thus he dismisses all brain science going back to Ramon y Cajal, Pavlov, Sherrington, et al., and dismisses all the cognitive sciences whose thousands of practitioners, a good many of them leading thinkers, are certain that their work is not trivial. Almost daily they produce surprising results on “the manner in which the brain functions.” Does Berlinski know better? He gives no evidence of it, so it seems unlikely. As for the “human soul” he evokes, undoubtedly to the delight of theistic readers, there is as yet, aside from its service as a linguistic placeholder for perso
nhood, no evidence for its existence. This is despite the unending efforts of scientists—not to mention theologians of the past millennia—to demonstrate it. On the other hand, “what impels us to right conduct” is one major interest of an international scientific discipline now known as evolutionary psychology, whose conferences are attended by thousands of serious investigators. Berlinski sneers at them too, repeatedly. But no real refutation of their conclusions is offered.

Berlinski grants that only a few of the examples he mentions “exhaust” the concept of science and are worthy of respect. He names four—only four—products of the scientific revolution that began in the seventeenth century, shaking man’s view of himself and his world. Berlinski’s list: Newtonian mechanics, Maxwell’s field theory, special and general relativity, and quantum mechanics.

Please notice what is missing: all of the life sciences! Not just evolution—the strongest worldview-shaker since Copernicus—of which Berlinski is of course a career denier. Biology is absent. Berlinski, who proposes to assess modern science, omits not just evolution but also cell theory, the disproof of spontaneous generation, embryology after the discovery of fertilization, the germ theory of disease, the strong generalizations of anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, genetics, and all the theory-driven applications of basic biology (including most of modern medicine and public health). By this omission, Berlinski says that none of the above qualify as “powerful and profound scientific theories.” He denies power or profundity in anything man has learned since the seventeenth century about life on Earth.

If biology is unimportant, is what religion and the Bible say about life on Earth powerful enough, profound enough, for Berlinski? No. He describes himself at the start as a “secular Jew” who has forgotten any Hebrew he might once have learned and who does not pray. In short, he doesn’t care about religion. Presumably, then, he does not believe in the God of the Torah (much less of the “Old Testament”); for him Genesis is presumably not a reliable science textbook. Yet The Devil’s Delusion, he assures us, is “. . . in some sense a defense of religious thought and sentiment.” That is false modesty. The book is, in any sense, a wide-ranging and aggressive defense of religion. It is mounted against an enemy: science, as used by atheists who write best-selling books. The book is a defense of theism by one who takes the trouble to say that he is not a theist. This will seem odd unless you remember what you once learned about “the noble lie.” And what is the shape of the defense? It is the claim that science is hugely overvalued and that its gross inadequacies (“gaps”) leave atheists in no position to criticize religious belief.

So, for example, the neurosciences are universally recognized as a jewel in the diadem of biomedical research, but Berlinski knows better. Quite early in the book we begin to detect vapors of what philosopher David Stove named the Ishmael Effect—“I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”* The Ishmael of Moby Dick, alone on the empty sea, afloat on the coffin of his friend, Queequeg, was alone, because his ship was sunk and his shipmates were dead. But in the matter of brain/mind science there has been no sinking of the ship. The crew is thick on the ground and flourishing. There are internationally honored experts among them and they get practical results. So far they take no notice of Berlinski’s charge that all theories of brain function are trivial. There is another term, less literary but more descriptive, for the Ishmael effect applied in this author’s way: crankiness.

But let us look for substance. The book’s dedication is mysterious and strangely moving. It is to the memory of the author’s grandfather, and it consists of waypoints—all in German—on that man’s path through the Nazi death camps toward his end in Auschwitz. One has to reach chapter 2 to recognize of what the dedication is in aid. It is the now-standard calumny favored by religious reactionaries: that the moral horrors of the twentieth century were caused by atheism. The ID movement and its political sympathizers have even produced, just recently, a very bad commercial film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which happens to include Berlinski and which suggests that those horrors, including the Holocaust, were due mainly to Darwinism (which causes atheism). Note: Berlinski insists he is not an advocate of ID. He just rejects anything evolutionary biologists deduce from their work about religion. The Discovery Institute, ID epicenter, supports Berlinski, as he acknowledges. It must be because they, too, have no evidence for ID, but they value any argument against science.

So the “science” whose “pretensions” are being exposed in this chapter is the identification by atheists of brutality, oppression, and mass murder throughout human history carried out under the aegis of religion. Berlinski’s response is not to dispute those facts: they are indisputable. It is instead an audacious tu quoque, “you are no better.” Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot . . . the lot were, by this argument, atheists. The rest of their dreadfulness is supposed to follow as night follows day. You may recount or even tabulate, as does Berlinski (on three pages, in small type), the long, awful roll call of deaths due to wars and mass murder in the twentieth century. That is the point of Berlinski’s dedication: the suggestion that atheism caused those deaths. Ergo, atheism is even worse than religion. Without religion, human brutality is unconstrained. With religion, there is hope for constraint. Eat your hearts out, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Weinberg!

This is . . . well, baloney. To begin with the Holocaust, Hitler considered himself a Christian. “How terrific was His fight against the Jewish poison . . .” he crooned. The “His” refers to Jesus Christ, to “My Lord and Savior,” and the quoted words are Hitler’s.** But even if he had been an atheist, Hitler’s Germany was not populated by atheists. On the contrary, it was populated largely by good Christians, a great many of whom were the executors of the unspeakable Nazi program. Moreover, such crimes, including genocide, were nothing new to Christianity. They were just a new wrinkle on one of religion’s oldest tricks: pogroms for entertaining the masses and for the seizure of power.

It is a trick of governors that preceded any form of public atheism by at least three millennia. The horrors of the twentieth century, the mass brutalities of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, have their equivalents in the earlier histories of their peoples—they are religious histories. Numbers of excessive deaths are meaningless unless normalized for population size. Human population growth has been exponential. The last century’s horrors reflect the almost universal quality of mind (or soul?) that enables us “to believe what we know to be untrue.” Religious fairy tales and secular fairy tales exploited by moral monsters have the same effect. They stimulate unreason even unto death. Suicide bombers are not Darwinists, and they aren’t driven by atheism: they are driven by religion and by the brutes who exploit it.

We have not yet, in fact, reached any recognizable science, if the “science” in question is natural science. But well into the book, the author finally tackles an issue whose elements are clearly that. It is the question of causation. As usual, he gives this ancient conundrum a good rhetorical run, the aim being to first show that cosmologists agree on a history
of the universe going back to a singularity—the Big Bang—and that this leaves the question of what caused the Big Bang shockingly unanswered. Second, and more to Berlinski’s point, is the fact that the Bible, too, starts the universe with something like a big bang, so maybe it isn’t wholly nonsense. The real issue of this dithering is not the meaning, or lack of it, in the singularity; it is the atheist claim (most recently from Dawkins) that if God caused the universe, and if every result must have a cause, then something (not God) must have caused God. And so on to infinite regress. We return to the shopworn arguments about first causes and uncaused causers. Berlinski writes of them with verve. The gravamen is that science has absolutely nothing to tell us about how and why the universe started: it is therefore in no position to pontificate (a word I use advisedly) about an origin of God.

We are now supposed to conclude: well, why not God then, as the cause of the Big Bang? There really is a simple answer, but one not likely to pop into an unprepared mind whipsawed by Berlinskian rhetoric or traditional theological logic-chopping. It is this: what science doesn’t yet know is not only unknown to religion but is utterly inconceivable to religion even as a question. Religion, on the nature and history of the cosmos, is not even wrong. And the biblical myth is unoriginal: it is a pastiche of origin myths of the surrounding cultures at the time of writing.

You can’t hope to defend as intellectually significant the ancient myths and superstitions by sneering—as Berlinski does—at the slow progress of modern physics, at the showstopper of quantum gravity. You don’t prove that religion is preferable to science just by pointing out that science has gaps. Berlinski is perfectly aware of that, but it doesn’t stem the flow of his idiom. This book makes most of the standard theistic attempts to up religion by downing science, albeit in livelier prose than in religious tracts. Still, the weirdness of superstring theory does not qualify burning bushes as alternatives to physics and chemistry.

To pursue his gaps, Berlinski moves on to fundamental physics and existence. Here he quotes, for example, the brilliant John Bell on quantum strangeness: “. . . [S]o long as we do not know how it [wave packet reduction] takes over from the Schrodinger equation, we do not have an exact and unambiguous formulation of our most fundamental physical theory.” And that is so. Berlinski’s comment: “If this is so, why is our most fundamental physical theory fundamental? I’m just asking.” (Laughter is expected from the audience.)

Answer: because quantum mechanics works, and it works at a level of precision not even imaginable in religion; because no theory of physical reality inherent in any religion works to a remotely comparable extent or at all. Berlinski’s “I’m just asking” is verbal sniping. It delights militant theists, because they share the delusion that any uncertainty in science increases the certainty of their own narratives. It delights such rabid anti-secularist journalists as Ann Coulter, whom Berlinski thanks for having helped with the publication of his book. It is the kind of false dichotomy Coulter must have learned from other fellows of the ID citadel, the Discovery Institute in Seattle, where Berlinski is a senior fellow. If evolution is wrong, the Gospel of John is true. No?

Berlinski doesn’t really get to evolution until the very end. That is a good thing, because his earlier ventures as critic of evolution have ended ignominiously. There was, for example, his impassioned attack upon a study by Dan-Erik Nilsson and Suzanne Pelger, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society (1994), which reported “A Pessimistic Estimate of the Time Required for an Eye to Evolve.” I quote here my own gloss of the paper:

In a 1994 theoretical paper, Nilsson and Pelger modeled one possible evolutionary pathway to the geometry of a fish-like eye from a patch of photo-responsive cells. There were already such cells—among the oldest organisms on Earth—a billion years before there were eyes. Nilsson and Pelger used pessimistic estimates of the relevant parameters (such as the intensity of selection) for their number-crunching. The point was to determine how many plausible, populational micro-steps of variation would be needed, under minimal assumptions, for very weak selection to yield a fish-like eye—and then under reasonable assumptions to convert micro-steps into generations and years. The order of magnitude answer was 350,000—a geological blink of the eye.***

Richard Dawkins, one of Berlinski’s devils, praised this work in his 1996 River Out of Eden. He referred to it as a “computer simulation” of eye evolution. It is not that but rather a mathematical model of same. On this distinction, Berlinski jumped. He read the original paper and believed he had found in it not just that it was a model rather than a simulation but errors, including a mathematical one. Forthwith, there appeared his rebuttal, entitled A Scientific Scandal. It accused Nilsson and Pelger of having made bad mistakes and Dawkins and all other evolutionists of having scandalously ignored them.

No, it did not appear in any scientific journal. The sometimes conscientious journal of conservative political opinion, Commentary, blazoned the title on its April 2003 cover. There was a large and immediate response from scientists, enumerating Berlinski’s blunders. A few of the usual antiscience sycophants wrote (short) letters praising Berlinski. All appeared in a subsequent issue of Commentary (July 8, 2003). Suffice it here to quote just one short paragraph of the reply from Dan-Erik Nilsson:

Had these and other points been unfortunate misunderstandings, I would have been only too happy to help [Berlinski], but I have the distinct impression that they are deliberate attempts to eliminate uncomfortable scientific results. Why does not Mr. Berlinski read up on the necessary scientific background? Why does he so blatantly misquote our paper? Why has he never asked me for the details of the calculation he claims to want so badly? It is simply impossible to take Mr. Berlinski seriously.

Interested readers may examine online the entire correspondence, including Berlinski’s turgid response. The point is that this was Berlinski’s most ambitious attempt to attack evolutionary biology at its professional level. He failed.

Representative of The Devil’s Delusion on evolution is the following characteristic fragment on the role of genes:

There is nothing in any precise concept of the gene that allows a set of biochemicals to create anything at all. If no precise concept of the gene is at issue, the idea that we are created by our genes, body and mind, represents a far less plausible thesis than the correlative doctrine that we are created by our Maker, body and mind.

Everything in this statement is wrong. A “precise concept of the gene” is that it is a stretch of nucleotides in DNA that encodes a protein or several proteins or, when combined with an appropriate transcription or other expression factor (usually a protein), determines how other genes will be expressed. There is no reason to doubt that every biochemical process of a living cell—including the living fertilized egg—results from interaction of the chemical products of gene expression with other molecules within the cell or in the immediate external environment. Nor is there any question that many of the interactions are under natural selection, so that the “interactome” evolves!

The literature of early embryonic development offers endless examples of development and differentiation, structure formation caused by the expression of genes, and also illustrates the dynamic interactive processes by which gene expression ends as structures and functions and, therefore, as behavior. Any decent modern textbook of molecular developmental biology and evolution establishes these points. There is consequently nothing wrong with the idea that “genes are engaged in the creation” of biological objects. Like Nilsson, I assume that Berlinski doesn’t bother to study such books.

People who like self-confident, mordant prose enjoy Berlinski’s writing provided they know no more about the science under discussion than he does. Such is the audience for which this book and his journalistic efforts are designed. To that extent, they are surely effective. But on the question of what science has to contribute to the evaluation of religion, to the question of God’s existence—i.e., to theism—I can join with Professor Nilsson: it is impossible to take Mr. Berlinski seriously. Having at windmills may pay a little, but it isn’t science.


* David Stove, The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991).

** From a speech of Hitler’s in 1922. Quoted in Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 20).

*** Paul R. Gross, A Scientific Scandal (2003). Available at blurred.cfm#scandal.

Paul R. Gross

Paul R. Gross is the University Profess or of Life Sciences emeritus at the University of Virginia.

The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, by David Berlinski (New York: Random House/Crown Forum, 2008, ISBN 978-0-307-39626) 256 pp. Cloth $23.95. Faith is that quality which enables us to believe what we know to be untrue. —From Boners: Seriously Misguided Facts—According to Schoolkids, by Alexander Abingdon Reviews of putatively serious nonfiction books are …

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