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.