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A very persuasive dissenting voice
on November 8, 2009
I suppose most people like to at least appear to be open-minded, but sometimes I wonder how often (say) a conservative Republican sits down to read Noam Chomsky's political screeds, or a dedicated leftist sits down to enjoy Adam Smith. I picked up "The Devil's Delusion" in just that spirit, fully expecting to find a book which would argue against most of my own beliefs.
I wasn't really expecting something as brilliant, challenging, and engaging as this. If you think that the only people who don't believe in evolution are Fundamentalist knuckle-dragging Georgia swamp-dwellers, you're in for a big surprise. Berlinski himself is an agnostic of Jewish descent, an astonishingly erudite man and a brilliant thinker. He also writes frightfully well. And it is often hard to disagree with him. As he notes in the opening pages of this book --- concerning religion, God, and the rest: "I do not know whether any of this is true. I am certain that the scientific community does not know that it is false."
You might want to read those two sentences again, because they form the logical heart and soul of this book. Berlinski is not on a mission to preach religion; his task is to make plain just how little we actually know about the universe, and to try and re-awaken our sense of wonder. In this, he succeeds brilliantly.
The book cannot really be summarized in a brief review, but let me try to show you at least his thoughts about cosmology and the Big Bang. First, he makes it clear that the atheist camp has always had a hankering for an eternal universe (funny, that describes me, too) and a huge dislike for a universe which had an actual beginning, and then he demonstrates that all of current cosmological theory and knowledge points to the Big Bang as a singularity --- and not a universe which is constantly expanding and then contracting. So it comes Scarily Close to "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." He then amuses himself (and us) by skewering all of the "objective scientists" who are trying to wiggle out of this "difficulty." It really does sound like "objective scientists" accept the "scientific facts" which suit their own biases.
"We have no idea how the ordered physical, moral, mental, aesthetic and social world in which we live could ever have arisen from the seething anarchy of the elementary particles." One thing I can add is that, the last time I checked, we don't even know how genes and RNA manage to control the color of the eyes. We may be able to draw the hereditary chart and point to the right place in the DNA, but we have no idea at all how the genotype turns into the phenotype.
Berlinski is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, which is a place devoted to the idea of Intelligent Design, but, as an agnostic, he's something of a maverick even there. You can find him in Wikipedia and on YouTube as well.