Of a Salamander in Eden: The Obfuscatory Illogicalities of Doctor David Berlinski

One of the very few joys of chemotherapy, I’ve learned, is the opportunity it offers for catching up on one’s long-overdue reading. I usually take to the cancer ward as I call the infusion room at my clinic, a couple of “readers’” magazines, and until the antihistamine kicks in (added to the saline solution to ward off such complications of Treanda as flush and flashes of heat in the head, even difficulty breathing at the start of treatment), I read the long articles contained therein. My current favorite is "Harper’s" magazine. My problem, though, is that I cannot break myself of subscriptionitis: I seem to subscribe to many more periodicals than I can hope to read properly. And because Harper’s is so geared to readers (as opposed to, say, "Time," which I actually appreciate for its brevity – the back of the book “Short List” of recommended current DVD’S, CD’S, books, and such is alone worth the cost of a sub), my "Harper’s" stay stacked up in the “must soon read” until they gather sufficient dust to look as if they belong in my cluttered little house.

And so it was that I took to the cancer ward this week the April, 2008 issue of "Harper’s," the one with a Bosch-like painting on the cover of a monster from hell, the first essay title glaring out, “Contagious Cancer.” (No, cancer is not generally contagious: you can kiss me if you want, I cannot give you my leukemia; the reference is to a particular type of tumor that is contagious among Tasmanian devils of all things.) I seldom completely read the shorter works up front, "Harper’s" so-called “Readings.” This issue jumped right into the still-topical, current (now long-standing) debate between the “New Atheists” (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and others – actually nothing “new” in what they say, but it is the first time atheist books have been in the beast seller lists) on the one hand and the faithful apologists for religion on the other. And there it was: a selection from David Berlinski’s then new book, "The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions" (Crown Forum, 2008; note the titular nod to
Dawkins’ "The God Delusion").

While I had not had any familiarity with Dr. Berlinski prior to reading the excerpt, I have since done at least a cursory search on the Net and learned that while he claims to be an agnostic, he is: "…a leading critic of evolution within the intelligent design movement and the author of several
magazine articles on the topic. He is the father of the neoconservative journalist…Claire Berlinski…."

Slate, in a piece on Berlinski the same year as the Harper’s essay, referred to him as “a critic, a contrarian, and – by his own admission – a crank [and] zealous skeptic, more concerned with false gods than real ones.”

But it was Wikipedia’s identification of him as “Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, a Seattle-based think tank that is the hub of the intelligent design movement” that really confirmed my worst suspicions of the man. The article notes that although “Berlinski is a scathing critic of ‘Darwinism,’” he, “unlike his colleagues at the Discovery Institute…refuses to theorize about the origin of life.” Gee, that is interesting: if he will not explain any alternative to evolutionary theory, how does he qualify as a critic of it? This certainly was the conclusion I reached after I woke up from the rather brief antihistamine nap and gave his essay, titled for the magazine “The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” a reasonably well-disposed reading. It is garbage from start to finish, a scoffing, smug, snarky attack on the “pretentions” of scientists who, better than he is, have
systematically disposed of arguments for evolution and the non-existence of a deity, certainly in the form of Intelligent Design, which has been ruled bunk by a federal judge in a now famous Dover, Delaware case involving attempts to teach the fraud in the public schools as part of a science curriculum. At least atheists – scientists – consider all the evidence of “God’s” existence before they go on to criticize faith. (The federal judge, by the way, called I.D. old wine in a new bottle –
meaning Creationism.)

There is yet another clue to the man’s personality in Wiki’s note that: "Berlinski, along with fellow Discovery Institute associates Michael Behe and William A. Demski, tutored Ann Coulter on science and evolution for her book, 'Godless: The Church of Liberalism.'" Aha! Doctor David is Ann Coulter's spiritual advisor! Ann Coulter is living proof of the folly of Christeranity. The organized Christian religion of today bears no resemblance soever to the Prophet's Laws.

There you have it, folks: Berlinski is an enabler of theocracy, which not only Coultergeist but all of the far right conservative pundits espouse (ever seen Laura Ingraham without her big gold cross dangling between those pendulous mammaries?). At least we now know why Coulter and all the other silly
blonde bimbo agents provocateurs have so many fallacies and obfuscations in their books: they go to Berlinski for advice on "God." I sometimes wonder why Michelle Malkin does not dye her hair just to conform.

Seems to me the name of Behe was prominent in the Nova special on the Dover case. His testimony was discounted: in fact, U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III, in his decision for the science teacher plaintiffs, wrote in his opinion that intelligent design "cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents."

But, now to the Berlinski excerpt. Due to limitations of time and space, I shall not go into the entire piece at length, but only point to some of the illogicalities and fallacious reasoning which permeates the whole article.
I apologize for any perceived tendency to take Dr. Berlinski out of context, but the statements quoted here merely illustrate the general drift of his ineffectual effort to condemn science as unnecessarily vain and unfairly hostile to religious belief, or, really,to place religion on the same "sacred" footing as science.

* Of scientific theory as to such things as why life emerged from a “warm little pond,” as Darwin put it, “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 good is found….” How unbelievably fallacious! How unfathomably anti-intellectual! There is no scientific proof – none – for even the very existence of such a thing as a “human soul.” It is an invention of theologists and rank, unsupportable dogma. If it existed, it could only “be” in the brains of the misguided, gullible people who believe in it. The soul was invented at a time when science had not explained such things as the hard-wiring of the brain to do one’s duty
in a social context, since it’s obvious man is a social creature, and as Dennett and others have concluded, we are good because we really want to be good, not because a “soul” dictates we should be. Plenty “of interest” can and has been said about the human soul, primarily that its very existence depends on faith and not on any demonstrable, provable hypothesis.

* Of scientific theory, Berlinski writes, “…The more sophisticated the theories, the more inadequate they are….” Has Berlinski ever looked into a mirror? How can he claim that sophistication in formulating scientific theories are “inadequate” compared to those of religion? Is there anything more “sophisticated” than, say, the “holy trinity”? The doctrine of remission of “sin”? The entire silly folderol of transubstantiation, which not even the clergy can clarify to any meaningful extent? An ignorant muddle of dispersions!

“If science stands opposed to religion,” he writes, “it is not because of anything contained in either the premises or the conclusions of the great scientific theories. They do not mention a word about God….” Duh! Of course none of the great scientific theories mention nothing of God: they disprove his or her very existence. If by rigorous scientific examination of phenomena, by testing objectively and using all of the available apparatus of scientific investigation, science finally concludes there “really is a god after all,” they would readily admit it, egg well plastered on their faces.
In fact, the semiconductor supercollider experimenters have freely admitted that going beyond the particle may help explain the origin of the universe, even if it happens to be “God.” (It won’t be.)
He writes: “While science has nothing of value to say on the great and aching questions of life, death, love, and meaning, the religious traditions of mankind have a good deal to say, and what they do say forms a coherent body of thought. The yearnings of the human soul are not in vain. There is a system of belief adequate to the complexity of experience. There is recompense for suffering. A principle beyond selfishness is at work in the cosmos. All will be well. I do not know whether any of this is true. I am certain that the scientific community does not know that it is false.” Golly, I do not know where to start. First, we are back to the “human soul,” a false construct of theological speculation and a fine example of the good doctor's circular reasoning. The construct, of course, is not capable, as all dogma is not capable, of “proof.” As the secularist author and editor Ronald Lindsay and many others have pointed out, there is no sense arguing with dogma; one simply cannot win. What Berlinski overlooks, however, is that the speculations of scientists are tested until proven true, as with evolution, while the "faithful" have by definition no proof of anything at all. Berlinski isn’t even much of a philosopher. Let’s see him refute, say, the argument from evil as expounded by such great minds as that of J. L. Mackie. Berlinsky proves nothing so much as that he is a master at obfuscation and claptrap.

* He writes, too, of the existence of “God” as susceptible to scientific proof, “no different in kind from the claim that there is tungsten to be found in Bermuda….” This is precisely the point. We can send
geologists to Bermuda and sample rock for evidence of tungsten; we cannot send anyone anywhere and find evidence of “God.” He then asks, “By what standards might we determine that faith in science is reasonable but faith in God is not?” Please, please! Evolution has been so rigorously tested as to put to shame the claims of Booblical scholars who want us to believe that the Creationist deity worked up the entire universe in six days, resting on the seventh, and that these miraculous (and therefore impossible) actions occurred no earlier than six thousand years ago. Some of them even claim that the fossil record was “planted by God just too fool us.” As Schiller said, against ignorance even the angels fight in vain. We know that the earth is hundreds of millions of years old. Creationism and “God” are both bunk.

* Berlinski further asserts that “within mathematical physics, there is no concept of the evidence that is divorced from the theories for which it is evidence, because it is the theory that determines what counts as the evidence….” What is he saying here? That the scientific method amounts to academic pedantry. My old German refugee theatre professor in college warned us against use of the "Germanic pedant’s" (his term, not mine) modus operandus for proof of theses: start from the conclusion, then search for evidence that supports it, disregarding almost everything to the contrary. It seems to me that the Berlinskis of this world are far more guilty of that than any scientist I know of.

Darwin had his fossils; Berlinski his paintings by Da Vinci and Michelangelo; his recordings of masses by Verdi and Mozart – inspirational by definition. Science starts with inspiration then moves through evidence until the theory is either established or discarded. No scientist I’ve heard of its so thoroughly, smugly convince of the rightness of his theory as Berlinski or any other garden variety believer. Berlinski is only an agnostic when it comes to Darwin.

* “…If tomorrow physicists determine that particle physics requires access to the ubiquity of the body of Christ, that doctrine would at once be declared a physical principle and treated accordingly,” Berlinski suggests. Fine, but it ain’t gonna happen, dude. Science, properly seen, hasn’t been around for anything approximating a 1,000th of as long as man himself: all of the ancient fears and superstitions of the primitive peoples have been explained by science. Let’s not forget the Church’s tormenting of Copernicus and Galileo for things we now know to be hard, provable
facts. The Church has retreated from one after another its positions on such matters, positions that brought about untold miseries on those who held them. Perhaps it will retreat in another thousand years from its core belief in the existence of “God.” I doubt it. Science deals with reason and with facts; religion with superstition and speculation. I am perfectly ready to admit errancy even if science concludes, ultimately, that there really is an Easter Bunny, a Santa Claus, or a Tooth Fairy.

* Berlinski claims that “the ideology of the sciences holds fast to the thesis that the sciences are true – and that only the sciences are true. The philosopher Michael Devitt thus arguments that ‘there is only one way of knowing, the empirical way that is the basis of science.’ An argument against religious belief follows at once on the assumptions that theology is not a science and belief is not knowledge….” Exactly so! Theology is not susceptible to accepted scientific method of proof. It is silly superstition and dogma – and only that. A man who refuses to speculate on the origins of life
shouldn’t be throwing stones at the scientific method.

The essay is full of such outrageous contradictions and glaringly fallacious arguments. I was, but should not have been, surprised to see it in the pages of "Harper’s." After all, one reads harsh criticism of the “New Atheism” in "The New Yorker’s" books section as well. True believers
will always rise to pick apart as best they can works by those most capable of expounding meaningfully on freethinking ideas. I would just hope to read such writings by men with more logical views than Dr. Berlinski.

“In science,” he concludes this excerpt, “as in so many other areas of life, faith is its own reward.” Perhaps, but faith is all the believers have. Scientists have proof. If not, they lose faith and move on. My point may be summed up thusly: It is science, not religion, which is driving my leukemia into remission. If organized religion had had its way, the advancements in human knowledge we now
take practically for granted would never have seen the light of day.

I don’t even know if my oncologist is a religious man, but each time he administers the drugs, he knows well their creation was by reason and experimentation, not prayer and prostration to a god who is not there. Like the late Lord (Richard) Buckley, the hipster stand up comedian, I
worship people. I really do. I like a god I can get my hands on. I like a god I can get my brains on.

My oncologist is my god.

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Comment by James M. Martin on July 26, 2010 at 8:24pm
Lindsay or someone with the humanists did an editorial recently positing that there is no such thing as the New Atheism. He said the current crop of atheist writers simply found major publishers for their works. That is all that is new about it. Do you suppose that I should drink it now or let it age for a while?
Comment by Jason Spicer on July 26, 2010 at 8:12pm
Now, Jim, you know very well that New Atheists are shinier, and they still have that new atheist smell.
Comment by Jim DePaulo on July 26, 2010 at 8:03pm
James, good post. Sorry that you are ill - hopefully science is re mediating that.
All of the vocal promoters of creationism / intelligent design are frauds and liars - certainly anyone who is associated with the Discovery Institute. The only thing they have discovered are legions of fools who fallen for their distortions and delusions and are willing to part with their money to support the BS.
New Atheism is remarkably similar to Old Atheism one doesn't believe in god and the other doesn't either - the distinction escapes me.
Comment by Jason Spicer on July 26, 2010 at 7:50pm
Yeah, Lynn, I get really sick of religious people claiming that science is just another kind of faith-based belief system. This is a totally ridiculous argument for two reasons (at least). First, how weak is it to say that your opponent has built his house of cards on just as shaky a foundation as you have? They damn themselves with that argument. And second, the complete absence of faith, the rejection of faith, cannot be a form of faith. The absence of bananas is not a kind of banana.

And James, let's not forget that Judge John E. Jones III, who presided over Kitzmiller v Dover was a conservative Republican George W. Bush appointee. If ID can't pass muster with that guy, it really is fringe nonsense.

It's really bizarre (and embarrassing for me, a Washington State native) that the Discovery Institute is headquartered in Seattle, a liberal stronghold in one of the least theistic parts of the country.
Comment by James M. Martin on July 26, 2010 at 4:50pm
Thanks for that clarification, Lynn. Yes, the creationists grasp at straws; that is what I.D. amounts to. But that federal judge in Dover was not fooled. The emperor may have new clothes (in a Frank Luntz newspeak word) but it is the same old flat wine in a new bottle. I was just amazed that they couldn't come up with anyone more logical than Berlinski.
Comment by James M. Martin on July 26, 2010 at 7:57am
Thanks, Jason. Yes, it is always disgusting to hear one of these religious apologists -- enablers, I call them, since this guy claims he is an "agnostic" -- condemn science for its claim that it has some monopoly on truth. At least, through empirical examination, science has grasp of some truth: the religious have none at all. Prior to my conversion (you should pardon the expression), I, too, believed in the imperfection of evolution since, after all, "it's only a theory." Yes, but a theory supported by specific enumerable, empirically examined facts leading inexorably to the conclusion that there is truth to its precepts is worth a good deal more than what the religious have: rank speculation based upon myth and superstition. Just because it is a theory doesn't mean it isn't true. Given Berlinski's credentials (Princeton degree, extensive publication, academic positions, &c.), I would have thought a much better argument would find its way into his writings. I guess a Ph.D. isn't worth much in a mind like his.
Comment by Jason Spicer on July 26, 2010 at 1:25am
Berlinski betrays his utter lack of understanding of science by saying something like "the ideology of the sciences holds fast to the thesis that the sciences are true – and that only the sciences are true." There is, in fact, only one way of knowing, and that is the scientific method; to hold otherwise is to fail to understand the term "knowledge". But saying that the sciences think the sciences are "true" is a childish construction that no scientifically-minded person would use. The sciences add to our storehouse of factual knowledge, expanding the things that we know to be true, but science is a method, not a factual statement that is true or false.

Great post, James. Sorry to hear you're sick, and I hope you're getting better.
Comment by James M. Martin on July 26, 2010 at 12:48am
I for one love it when the evangelicals misbehave, and they almost always end up doing so. It is fun to point to them and say to a "mainstream" believer, "You see, THAT is the form your belief ends up taking. Do you REALLY want to be identified with THEM?" Hopefully, that way, they broadcast their faith a little less often at least. Can you imagine how some felt when their evangelical loony compatriots were saying things like, "9/11 is God's punishment for abortion," or "Katrina is God's punishment on New Orleans for hosting a gay pride event." I feel it is my job to throw the disasters in the mainstreamers' faces. Goes along with my championing of the argument from evil as well.
Comment by James M. Martin on July 25, 2010 at 9:56pm
Thanks Lynn. At least the site reminded me of the term I was seeking (for people who enable the religious loonies): accommodation. When Andrew Sullivan debated Sam Harris at belief.net, Sullivan, a practicing Catholic, tried to persuade Harris that atheists should make a distinction between the Oral Roberts-Pat Robertson element and the mainstream faiths and sects. Harris would not "accommodate" Sullivan, and why should he? If there is no God, there is no God, whether he is the god of the evangelicals or the god of Episcopalians.
Comment by James M. Martin on July 25, 2010 at 7:28pm
There was an editorial about this in the secular humanist press a while back saying that there was no difference between old and "new" atheism, but that the Harris-Dawkins-Dennett-Hitchens books were published by mainstream presses, and it is the first time this has happened. During the 60s, when many young people were being busted for using and selling drugs, "Time" had a cover that said: "The Probation Generation." "New Atheism" is as false a construct as "Hippie." The media will do anything to make a mountain out of a molehill.



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