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5.0 out of 5 stars An Agnostic Weighs In, April 3, 2008
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This review is from: The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (Hardcover)
Any book by David Berlinski is bound to be fun. He is simply one of the most erudite writers in popular science and mathematics today. Those who particularly like seeing sacred cows treated with a hint of sarcasm and irreverance will enjoy his writing on almost any subject, but this book, attacking the "new atheism" as it does, is especially delightful if for no other reason than for how pompous writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchins are in their approach to this subject.

In brief, Berlinski's argument boils down to three main points: there is nothing in science proper that undermines religion (a point that used to be widely recognized and even extolled by writers like SJ Gould), most of the new atheists badly misunderstand even the most rudimentary arguments of theology and are not logically consistent, and finally that much of science has become rather dogmatic, like a new religion. I think Berlinski does an excellent job addressing all three of these points, the first of which should be more or less self evident. Claims, for example, that one "should" only believe in physical or visible evidence are not, in and of themselves, empirical claims. Indeed, I have friends who resolutely insist that materialism is "all there is" while remaining blissfully unaware of the fact that such a statement could not arise from strictly empirical observation.

Regarding the new atheist approach to Aquinas, Berlinski correctly notes that the critics of St. Thomas really do not understand his arguments. Take for example the famous cosmological argument of Thomas Aquinas. In its simplest form, this argument takes the form of a syllogism. Everything that begins to exist has a cause. The universe began at some point. Therefore the universe has a cause. Agnostic that he is, Berlinski correctly notes that this is not actually an argument for God. It is an argument that the universe began to exist, meaning it required a cause. Aquinas, of course, argued this cause was "God" and very specifically the God of the New Testament and Catholic Church. But one need not arrive at this conclusion. It is possible that the universe simply goes on forever. One event causes another and so on back to infinity. (This was the position of David Hume and it has been popular among the atheist set ever since.) Still, Berlinski askes, if we saw a row of dominoes falling, "would we, without pause say that no first domino set the other dominoes toppling. Really?"[p. 69] Of course not. We fall back upon such reasoning only when discussing God. But of course Hume's argument has been rendered pointless by the fact that 20th century cosmology did in fact discover the universe had a beginning, and much of cosmology since then has been an effort to try to explain away the obvious implications of this. (One should also consult on this matter God and the Astronomers by another thoughtful agnostic, Robert Jastrow.) Scientists too, it seems, for all their vaunted objectivity, often find their research agendas driven by their theological concerns.

But how does a "scientist" who also publicly promotes atheism respond to Aquinas and the rather stunning vindication of his argument by 20th century science. Well, Dawkins for one simply asserts that Aquinas failed to consider the possibility that God was subject to infinite regress. Amazing. As one reviewer put it, to call this argument sophomoric is an insult to sophomores, though he did not specify whether he was refering to high school or college sophomores. Aquinas did not "assume" God was not subject to infinite regress. It was the conclusion of his argument that infinite regress was not possible and Dawkins, should he want to refute such an argument, needs to address it directly, which of course he does not.

And so it goes. Berlinski examines one argument for atheism after another and finds each wanting. The authors of these arguments are logically inconsistent. They appeal to multiple universes and diminsions, a weak anthropic principle, physical laws that change from place to place coupled with as yet undiscovered universal laws, and then accuse theists of violating the law of parsimony, Occam's Razor. They publicly stand by Darwin, especially on origin of life issues (about which Darwin had little to say) while privately expressing their doubts about the explanatory value of his theory in many respects. Perhaps the highlight of the book for me was Berlinski's decision to quote the prominent biologist Shi V. Liu who noted that Darwinism "misled science into a dead end" but "we may still appreciate the role of Darwin in helping scientists .. in fighting against the creationists."[p.197] Indeed. Any theory is better than an alternative that might imply God or some other non material cause.

But what would motivate a supposed scientist to make such outlandish claims? And it is here that Berlinski is at his dead level best. For some scientists, and many more non-scientist, science has itself become a religion. And it is a religion with a very jealous God, who can have no other Gods before Him. Like other religions, of course, this one has much to offer its followers, both in material benefits and spiritual solace. But all good agnostics still recognize it for what it is, the zeal of its adherents notwithstanding.
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Tracked by 8 customers

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Showing 51-60 of 252 posts in this discussion
In reply to an earlier post on Sep 1, 2008 5:29:27 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 2, 2008 12:09:39 PM PDT
J. Antolic:
"A trait no longer applicable to mainstream Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or even (in many areas) Islam or Judaism."

"A trait NO LONGER APPLICABLE to mainstream Chritianity", completely true, as true as "some time ago IT WAS APPLICABLE".

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 6, 2008 5:01:41 AM PST
Sloppy misunderstanding of Aquinas' thought. The principle of causality states, not that "everything needs a cause", but that "whatever comes to be is brought into being by something other than itself". For anything that comes into being there are only 3 possible explanations for its coming into existence: (1) it brought itself from non-existence into existence - but this is absurd, since a non-existent thing cannot possibly act on anything; (2) nothing brought it into existence - but this is also absurd since nothingness cannot act; (3) some other thing acted to bring this being into existence - this is the only explanation consistent with reason. But if we were to pursue the chain of causality as far as conceivably possible, i.e. to seek the ultimate origin of any existing thing we observe, we must finally propose a point at which some existing thing was brought into being by another being which was not itself brought into being by another, and which must therefore have existed always.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 8, 2009 11:41:41 AM PDT
Mark Twain says:
Of course, Aquinas' thought is pretty sloppy in itself. We have never observed anything that "is brought into being" in the sense he is talking about. Certainly not being "created from nothing", which is absurd even if you posit that some other being(god) existed at the time.

The logical and parsimonious conclusion to cosmological problems Aquinas' train of thought is that the universe is eternal. Not that some "being" is. At best, Aquinas could argue that the universe is, and must be, God - because nothing can ever be created from nothing.

At that point you can of course start questioning whether that's really true. Uncertainty+symmetry apparently allows 0=-1+1 to have creative potential in some cases, so "reason" may be mistaken. Meaning that "nothingness" in the inert sense you are talking about may be an impossibility. Not that I'm a physicist or anything, but given the choice between accepting that vastly complex things can exist eternally without explanation and that inert nothing simply is an incoherent idea - I'll go for the latter. Accepting the former would, for me, imply that the universe might just as well have existed eternally in the state it was 5 minutes ago, complete with false history, and it just started executing 5 minutes ago because it was bored. For me, this is a strictly better explanation than gods, because it doesn't make up new entities we have no experience with.

Posted on Sep 16, 2009 6:23:34 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 16, 2009 6:51:44 AM PDT
WHM says:
The mighty philosopher David Berlinski made up his CV. Contrary to what he claims, he wasn't a postdoc in molecular biology at Columbia University. Berlinski is counting on his readers' ignorance and naivety.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 17, 2009 4:19:39 PM PDT
Hawking asks "Why is there something instead of nothing?" The answer is that if there weren't something, there'd be something else. "Inert nothing" is an artifact of language and that's all it is. Search where you will, there's no Nothing to be found.
Fritz Ward and I went through this discussion several years ago. I thought we'd finished it.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 18, 2009 8:07:25 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 18, 2009 8:25:56 AM PDT
WB, Zeno says:
"I think deism is philosophically sloppy, but even if it weren't, it's a far cry away from any type of theism the 'New Atheists' are actually criticizing."

This isn't pertinent to the discussion, but anyway, and just for curiosity's sake: what do you mean by "religious", which it woud seem you conflate to some degree with different types of belief? Does a Deist qualify? An undecided "weekend-only" agnostic? A pantheist? A fundamentalist/extreme dogmatist of any sort (reductionist, market supremacist, marxist)?

Do "the Sacred" and/or "the Divine" (as used for example by Plato/Aristotle, and Einstein when he said that God didn't play dice) have for you religious connotations?

Thanks for your reply.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 18, 2009 8:23:00 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 18, 2009 11:25:44 AM PDT
WB, Zeno says:
Giordano Bruno:
"Hawking asks 'Why is there something instead of nothing?' The answer is that if there weren't something, there'd be something else. 'Inert nothing' is an artifact of language and that's all it is. Search where you will, there's no Nothing to be found."

Before Hawking there was Leibniz. And your two last assertions smack of Parmenides with some Platonist subtlety added. Nothing new under the sun, including this sentence.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 18, 2009 12:20:26 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 18, 2009 12:23:00 PM PDT
I would hardly claim total originality, Zeno. I don't see that I need to; my comment is just a reminder that this topic is indeed old and has been covered. I'd be thrilled if Fritz and others who have taken or opposed his position would just declare "okay, that's enough, understanding has been approached."

But you plainly haven't understood my gnomic utterance if you think it's tinged with Platonism. Just the opposite... You might smear with me Wittgenstein, but not with any idealist tar.

Posted on Nov 29, 2009 5:49:40 AM PST
tex says:
For further recent and entertaining David Berlinski insights on Darwinism, evolutionary concepts, and Intelligent Design see the film/DVD 'Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed' by Ben Stein. Prof. Dawkins (also interviewed) comes out of it rather well in some respects, incredibly badly in others.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 29, 2009 9:21:34 PM PST
I concur that this is truly a dead horse. Some of us find questions about the alternative to something (nothing) meaningful and some do not.

On another topic, I must here admit that I was wrong re global warming. I read Jeffrey Schaffer's excellent book on the geomorphic evolution of Yosemite Valley and was duly impressed by his comments on numerous global warming papers and their various flaws. But Schaffer seemed to feel that short term research projects, a lack of a generalist approach to physical geography, and some degree of political bias (or at least, using the funding granted by governments to get certain results) was behind the shoddy research. I tended to agree with him. Now that all the CRU emails have been released, it appears I was wrong. See this link:

In fact, it now appears that a group of scientists were actively cooking data, manipulating the peer review process, and generally doing rather nasty things to skeptics. I always denied I was a conspiracy theorist re AGW and now am moderately disappointed to find out that in reality, a simple conspiracy is the best explanation. It is the one that most completely fits the facts.

One now has to wonder if the general materialist bias in science is also so simply explained. I have long argued that "science" as it is understood today is informed by a variety of religious commitments which many scientists themselves are not consciously aware of. But perhaps I am overthinking this and giving these all too human scientists way too much credit. Berlinski generally does not make the same mistake and, re Jose's comment, it may be worth reviewing his comments in Expelled.

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