Berlinski in Washington D.C.

I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, but I actually enjoyed David Berlinski’s talk yesterday in Washington D.C.

Berlinski might be familiar to you as the author of a number of boneheaded articles in Commentary magazine over the last ten years. He has decided to jump on the anti-Dawkins bandwagon with his new book The Devil’s Delsuion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions. The publisher is Crown Forum. Among their other authors: Ann Coulter and Michael Medved. Get the idea?


Speaking as someone who thinks Dawkins et al get it right far more often than they get it wrong, I was not optimistic about hearing anything interesting during the talk. And having read Berlinski’s prattlings about evolution, I knew he was not above caricature and distortion in making his points.

The event took place at the Discovery Institute’s Washington D.C. offices. There were roughly thirty people in attendance. Berlinski’s prepared remarks lasted a mere ten to fifteen minutes, and were mostly pretty vague and unremarkable. He discussed why he, a secular Jew, felt moved to write the book (something about the richness of religious thought). He seemed very taken with the idea that if you reject God you are left without a final arbiter for questions about morality. As I’ve written before at this blog, my own view is that clear thinking about moral issues can not begin until the idea of God as moral arbiter is discarded. So I was not too impressed with that little argument.

But there was no bomb throwing, no denunciations of evolution (though there were a few snide remarks in that direction), and nothing to really sink your teeth into. There followed an hour or so of Q and A. Most of the questions, I must say, struck me as fairly dull. One earnest fellow tossed off the Kalam Cosmological Argument. That’s the one where you argue that since everything that began to exist had a cause, and since the universe began to exist, the universe must have had a cause. From that dubious beginning you are meant somehow to draw the further conclusion that the cause was God. Happily, Berlinski seemed decidedly unimpressed with that argument.

Another person brought up Behe’s probability arguments from The Edge of Evolution. Berlinski did not have much nice to say about them, though he also avoided condemning them.

When it was my turn to speak I raised a number of points. I suggested that he was overstating the role that science plays in many of the books he was discussing. For example, Hitchens and Harris say almost nothing about science, but prefer instead to focus on the largely harmful social consequences of religion. Even Richard Dawkins talks about science primarily in the context of the argument from design, showing not so much that science proves atheism, but simply that it removes the props out from under religious belief. (It is true that Victor Stenger subtitled his book “How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist.” But in his preface he is quick to qualify what he means both by “God” and by “Shows.”) I also pointed out that science has not found a trace of the divine in any aspect of the natural world, but it certainly did not have to be that way. People used to look to nature all the time for confirmation of their religious beliefs — that’s what natural theology was all about, after all. The march of science has made that project infeasable. Furthermore, science, especially evolution, is telling a very different story about human origins from the one told by Christianity. They may not be logically contradictory, but there is certainly a conflict between them.

To my surprise, Berlinski agreed with nearly everything I said.

Anyway, I chatted a bit with Berlinski and some of the other attendees after the talk. At one point William Dembski came up. I expressed my low opinion of Dembski, arguing that he was math-mongering. That is, he pushes a lot of mathematical symbolism around the page not because it is necessary to make his points, but simply to impress people with how technical and deep his writing was. I also pointed out that no one who was genuinely uncertain about whether something was the result of chance or design would turn to Dembski’s work for guidance. Berlinski smiled as I said this. Another fellow who was there pointed out that Dembski’s notions about detachable specifications were pretty worthless when applied to biology. Quite right.

All in all, a pleasant evening. Berlinski made a good impression on me. Alas, some of that good feeling started to fade when I read the Preface and first chapter of his book on the train ride out of the city, but I’ll save that for a different post.

Comments

  1. #1 MartinM
    April 2, 2008

    At one point William Dembski came up. I expressed my low opinion of Dembski, arguing that he was math-mongering.

    I initially took that to mean the Dembski was actually there, and you called him on his BS. I’m vaguely disappointed now. Still, that Berlinski is capable of reasonable discussion comes as a pleasant surprise, and it’s always nice to see that Kalam dreck get the reception it deserves.

  2. #2 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    April 2, 2008

    From a September 27, 2005 Knight-Ridder article:
    But in an e-mail message, Berlinski declared, “I have never endorsed intelligent design.”

    I imagine Berlinski laughs at the DI and feels superior as he cashes their checks. I imagine Berlinski laughs at everyone and feels superior to them. Maybe it’s one of those situations where feigned superiority is really deep-seated insecurity, but I prefer not to practice psychoanalysis without a license.

  3. #3 writerdd
    April 2, 2008

    It sort of makes you wonder if Berlinski is just doing it for the money or some warped kind of fame. He doesn’t make sense to me.

  4. #4 royniles
    April 2, 2008

    I suppose this shows you can make a career out of finding diverse ways to illustrate that it’s hell when you try to either prove or disprove a negative.

  5. #5 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 2, 2008

    MartinM-

    Sorry for the confusion! I’ve encountered William Dembski twice at various ID confabs, and both times he struck me as a rather truculent and unpleasant fellow. Not quite the wild-eyed, this-guy-might-hit-me crazy sort of unpleasant I got from Ken Ham when I tried to discuss information theory with him after one of his more florid talks, though. I met Phillip Johnson once, and he actually seemed friendly enough.

    Bayesian Bouffant-

    Berlinski devoted one of his Commentary articles to criticizing ID, making a lot of the same points the rest of us have been pointing out for some time now. On the other hand, he’s perfectly willing to sit on their side on debate panels, and contribute lengthy essays to their anthologies (see Mere Creation.) I think he’s carved out a niche for himself as a gadfly, and is making a decent living at it.

  6. #6 JD
    April 3, 2008

    Jason:

    Do you plan to post a review Mr. Berlinski’s book? It would be interesting to see if there is any substance to his arguments or if he is just another Dawkins flea.

  7. #7 SLC
    April 3, 2008

    I think that Prof. Dawkins summed up Dr. Berlinski quite well in a discussion of his impressions after hearing a Berlinski lecture.

    “An individual who rejects the theory of evolution is either ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked (but he didn’t want to consider that). Berlinski is neither ignorant, stupid, or insane.”

  8. #8 Mike Beidler
    April 3, 2008

    Jason,

    Are you familiar with Howard J. Van Till? If not, you might end up liking his recent stuff quite a bit. Check out:

    http://sfmatheson.blogspot.com/2008/03/in-high-praise-of-howard-van-till.html

    You also wrote: science, especially evolution, is telling a very different story about human origins from the one told by Christianity.

    I think you need to be clearer of which “Christianity” you speak. In my brand of Christianity (which lingers in the conservative end of the spectrum), Genesis 1-2 does not speak to how or when human beings originated. Feel free to read my blog series on interpreting Genesis 1 from an ancient Near Eastern perspective, based on the work of Dr. John H. Walton. May I be so bold as to say that, if every Christian adopted this view of the Genesis creation account(s), you wouldn’t have to worry about the likes of Dembski or Henry Morris.

  9. #9 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 3, 2008

    Mike Beidler-

    Thanks for the links to your work. The sort of Christianity I have in mind is any that says we are the intentional products of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God. I find that hard to reconcile with the idea of humans being the chance result of a hundreds of millions of years long process of bloody and violent evolution. Interpreting Genesis is a separate issue.

  10. #10 Those Pesky Darwinists
    April 3, 2008

    Mike Welder said:

    Thanks for the links to your work. The sort of Christianity I have in mind is any that says we are the intentional products of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God. I find that hard to reconcile with the idea of humans being the chance result of a hundreds of millions of years long process of bloody and violent evolution. Interpreting Genesis is a separate issue.

    …and there is your problem right there. Trying to recognize a clearly false Darwinian process to fit with unspecified/unclear premise in religious text is quite mind boggling. And nobody does that, except Darwinists and creationists. Thats why Intelligent Design framework should be taught, this will reduce conflict and this moronic debate will finally go to an end.

  11. #11 Reginald Selkirk
    April 3, 2008

    Thats why Intelligent Design framework should be taught…

    Ah, so now ID is a “framework” rather than a theory?

  12. #12 Mike Beidler
    April 3, 2008

    Jason,

    The sort of Christianity I have in mind is any that says we are the intentional products of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.

    What do you mean by “intentional”? (Don’t worry … I’m just trying to understand the philosophical background of your statement.)

    I find that hard to reconcile with the idea of humans being the chance result of a hundreds of millions of years long process of bloody and violent evolution.

    If I understand you correctly, you find it difficult to reconcile the philisophical idea of a god interested in communing with his creation with the scientific reality that the cosmos is a harsh place in which to grow up. Believe it or not, I’m struggling with the same issue. Those are the sorts of issues that, as I continue blogging, I’ll be exploring. When I get around to that sort of stuff, I certainly hope you’ll pop in every once in a while to comment.

    Keep up the good work!

  13. #13 386sx
    April 3, 2008

    Mike Beidler: If I understand you correctly, you find it difficult to reconcile the philisophical idea of a god interested in communing with his creation with the scientific reality that the cosmos is a harsh place in which to grow up.

    How come it has to be a philosophical idea all the time? What’s the freakin problem dude? How come it don’t get any better than that? It’s a “philosophical idea” with no better standing than a big flock of flying feathered unicorns. How come?

    Mike Beidler: Believe it or not, I’m struggling with the same issue.

    Not really so difficult to believe! I believe you.

    Jason Rosenhouse: To my surprise, Berlinski agreed with nearly everything I said.

    I remember Berlinski saying somewhere that the only reason he is associated with the DI people is because they will tolerate him but nobody else will, or words to that effect.

  14. #14 386sx
    April 4, 2008

    The Firing Line 1997 Creation-Evolution Debate

    “Resolved: The Evolutionists Should Acknowledge Creation”

    For the resolution (affirm):

    Phillip E. Johnson
    Michael J. Behe
    David Berlinski
    William F. Buckley Jr.

    Against the resolution (oppose):

    Kenneth R. Miller
    Michael Ruse
    Eugenie Scott
    Barry Lynn

    Wow!

  15. #15 JimC
    April 4, 2008

    Had this discussion over at PZ’s just yesterday.

    If I understand you correctly, you find it difficult to reconcile the philisophical idea of a god interested in communing with his creation with the scientific reality that the cosmos is a harsh place in which to grow up.

    No, that the process used makes any sense at all considering it is not dependent on any given direction or finality among a host of other reasons.

    386 has it right also. The only reason people have any problem with this at all is they start with a belief(God exists) and then try to ram all the science they know to be true into a belief they just happen to live in culturally.

  16. #16 John Farrell
    April 4, 2008

    Great post, Jason.
    I think he’s carved out a niche for himself as a gadfly, and is making a decent living at it.

    Yeah…but it’s depressing to think he couldn’t have found a better think tank or institute with which to do that. I’ve had some friendly correspondence with him as well, and really enjoyed his first book, Tour of the Calculus.

    Bravo for going!

  17. #17 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 4, 2008

    John Farrell-

    Glad you liked the post. I read Berlinski’s calculus book as a graduate student without knowing anything about him, and like you I enjoyed it quite a bit. Alas, even before digging into his Commentary articles the shine had started to come off. I did not like his logic book The Advent of the Algorithm. I’ve taken graduate level courses in mathematical logic, but I couldn’t follow much of what he was saying.

  18. #18 Gary
    April 4, 2008

    I have never met Ham, but I have the idea that he makes EVERYBODY nervous. If I recall correctly, his fellow creos in Pensacola were the ones who turned him in to the government. IMHO, the guy is a clear sociopath and probably a psychopath.

  19. #19 Troy Britain
    April 6, 2008

    I just watched the C-span airing of the talk. Wasn’t that Tom Bethel behind you? The one who asked about wishful thinking?

  20. #20 Shoula
    April 6, 2008

    Jason, on Book TV this morning you were incorrect about the subtitle of Stenger’s book; it is, How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist.

    Of course, it does no such thing but Berlinski was right.
    That is what these guys are trying to co opt science as a front for atheism.

  21. #21 Shoula
    April 6, 2008

    I know you spin this point about Stenger in your post, but that is NOT what you tried to do on the show.

    So don’t kid me, I just watched it.

  22. #22 Shoula
    April 6, 2008

    Gary, you just libeled Ken Ham.

    He has no trouble witht he government…you are probably confusing him with Hovind.

    Your retraction will be forthcoming I assume, because I know you are all only interested in the facts around here.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.