Friday, November 06, 2009

DAVID BERLINSKI: A RESPONSE TO AN ANONYMOUS CRITIC

Anonymous asks me to justify the use of the word “prominent” in describing David Berlinski’s scholarship. The term “prominent” covers a wide range of meaning from “noticeable” and “widely known” (which Berlinski is by virtue of his writings) to someone who is “favorably known” within a particular discipline (which Berlinski is not by reason of his dissent from regnant Darwinian Orthodoxy). I provide a list of books written by Berlinski along with his educational and professional background as evidence that Berlinski is qualified to make observations worthy of consideration—which is the point of presenting his material on my blog.

Anonymous then says I am using an illegitimate appeal to “authority” by responding to Anonymous’ own objection about Berlinski’s qualifications to participate in this discussion.

Oddly, Anonymous fails to provide his/her list of qualifications that qualifies him/her to sort out who can participate in the discussion of evolutionary theory. Heck, Anonymous fails to provide a name. Nevertheless, Anonymous suggests that I am not on an intellectual level that would permit me to post Berlinski’s criticism of Darwinism. Well, at least I have some graduate school and post-graduate background in the topic (which Anonymous is somehow aware of but, unsurprisingly, discounts). What I wish to know are the credentials that qualify Anonymous to fill the august role of Pontificator of Legitimate Evolutionary Discourse.

The “argument from authority” is Anonymous’ fallacy, not mine. I never said Berlinski is right or wrong because of his educational background. I ask folks to listen to his well-articulated and succinct statement of basic arguments—which are not unique to Berlinski. They concern the patently dishonest “evolutionary tree”--which any honest participant in the discussion knows is a fabrication that doesn’t remotely reflect the actual fossil record. These arguments also concern the statistical improbability of emergent life and macro-evolutionary changes, given the fundamental Darwinian belief in the random alignment of protein-chains within DNA. Berlinski adds that computer programs based on algorithms honestly consistent with evolutionary presuppositions produce nothing but gibberish.

Anyone familiar with the historical debate about Darwinism knows the degree of deception and intimidation that is employed by Darwinist Orthodoxy to squelch debate. (Cf. the ontology / phylogny hoax of E. H. Haeckel that continues to be found in biology textbooks; the denial of tenure to anyone outside the Orthodox Darwinian establishment, e.g. Guillermo Gonzales; the after-the-fact pulling of articles from prominent science publications if they are critical of Darwinian orthodoxy.)

Given that record of intimidation and dishonesty (a tradition with which Anonymous seems quite comfortable) it is entirely appropriate to note the obvious connection between Darwinian thought (which was “prominent” in Germany prior to Hitler) and the Holocaust that directly affected Berlinski’s extended family—a “link” that may help explain his courage in speaking out in the face of "academic" intimidation.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

First, as my comments clearly show, I actually was criticizing your use of the phrase “prominent scholar,” not of the adjective “prominent” alone. My suggestion, as you can you in my previous comment, was to call him a prominent activist.

I object to your descriptor of him as “prominent scholar” because such a phrase clearly functions to bolster the legitimacy of Berlinski’s writing by pretending that he in fact is well respected or has accomplished significant and respected academic work as judged by a sizeable portion of those capable of judging his work, i.e. scholars. Of course, you might have meant “prominent “scholar” in other ways than this – for instance, he could be a widely known school boy (another meaning of scholar). But clearly in this context of recommending and legitimating him, you were in fact trying to recommend his work by appropriating the language usually reserved for those, as you say, “‘favorably known,’ within a particular discipline.”

Second, you accuse me of making a claim to authority without divulging my qualifications of making that claim. But my position is quite different from yours. You are arguing, based on your authority and those of the ID movement, that the general public, or at least your readership, should evaluate Berlinski on his scientific merit. I am arguing, on the other hand, that those qualified to make scientific judgment are specialists in the scientific field in question, those in allied scientific fields, and philosophers and other specialists who rigorously study science. Your claims are based on your personal authority as a critic of science and those of an almost-entirely religious driven intellectual fringe. I, on the other hand, am not recommending fringe ideas to the reading public based on my personal authority, but am in fact invoking the wide academic scholarship and philosophizing on the nature of science and thought, in general, and more specifically on evolutionary science.

Third, I note that you didn’t dispute my largely empirical claim that the Berlinski/ID movement is in fact the insular one, not the wide world of cosmopolitan intellectuals constituted in diversity academic and scientific institutions.

Fourth, you accuse me of discounting your graduate and post-graduate work. I don’t know where you got that from. I simply said that you could not both accuse the academy of being insular and therefore lacking authority to adjudicate scientific disputes over evolution while making your own claim to judge that science based on your academic qualifications. To do so would be a performative contradiction.

Fifth, I don’t know what you exactly mean to imply by your accusation that I am “quite comfortable” with the “record of intimidation and dishonesty “of the so-called Darwinist orthodoxy. Nor do I have any sense of what your evidence is for such accusations against me. To the extent that coercive measures have been used to intimidate supporters of ID, I deplore those measures. (Which is not to accept your claim that, for instance, Gonzalez’s tenure denial was without merit. I don’t know the facts of the debate nor do I assume the authority to evaluate whether his work achieved the standards of academic quality required by ISU.)

Sixth, in linking Darwinism to the holocaust, you fail to inquire into how necessarily entangled Darwinian science is with eugenics and other forms of racialist thought. Christianity, for instance, was overwhelmingly in favor of slavery and segregation in the United States until after the Civil Rights Movement, and yet I do not claim that that immediately casts aspersion over all Christian thought.

Anonymous said...

“These arguments also concern the statistical improbability of emergent life and macro-evolutionary changes, given the fundamental Darwinian belief in the random alignment of protein-chains within DNA. Berlinski adds that computer programs based on algorithms honestly consistent with evolutionary presuppositions produce nothing but gibberish.”

Why should the reading public think they can evaluate such arguments as these? After all, we don’t ask them to pick up a polemical work of philosophy and then pretend that their readings of such a work can arbitrate philosophical disputes. We don’t expect them to solve advanced problems in chemistry by reading an intro book on that subject. We don’t expect them to judge disputes over ontology, or advanced legal matters, or a hundred other difficult specialized problems.

RKirk said...

It is becoming increasingly clear that Anonymous has not read (and apparently does not intend to read) anything that David Berlinski has written. The book by Berlinski that prompted my original post focused on the "Scientific Pretentions" of "Atheism" as promulgated by individuals like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. The book is overwhelmingly one of philosophical analysis done at a reasonably popular (though fairly sophisticated) level--so that it corresponds roughly to the atheistic offerings of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Unlike these three participants in the debate over God's nonexistence, Berlinski actually has a Ph.D. in philosophy (from Columbia). Harris didn't have even an advanced degree in philosophy when he wrote the widely acclaimed THE END OF FAITH. (I don't think he has had time to pursue further degrees amid the rush of publicity and good fortune that has subsequently been his.) Dawkins has no advanced training in philosophy (and apparently no particular inclination to seriously pursue philosophical issues, content as he is that his unscrutinized naturalism and Darwinianism constitute a basis for understanding as unassailable as the fundamental standards of Aristotelian logic). Hitchens is a journalist with a British education--not a philosopher. By the standards set up by Anonymous for scholarly debate, only Berlinski should be allowed to make comments on matters that are essentially philosophical. Thus, the books by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens that transcend their areas of expertise, should have warning labels: "NOT A 'PROMINENT SCHOLAR' IN THIS FIELD." Curiously, there has been no popular demand for such a warning label when it comes to the promulgation of naturalism, scientism, and atheism.

The issues that Berlinski and his interlocutors address are not purely disciplinary issues. They concern philosophical issues that transcend the disciplines of physics and biology. Anonymous seems to be unaware of this fact or to believe that the philosophical presuppositions of a Dawkins are only challengable by those who work within a community that dogmatically embraces those assumptions and excludes from their disciplinary communion anyone who doesn't accept those presuppositions (e.g. Gonzales).

Comment continued in main blog under David Berlinski: Who is Qualified to....

RKirk said...

At least the "prominent" biologist Richard Lewontin was willing to engage in public intellectual discourse with a non-scientist with significant intellectual and scholarly credentials (Philip Johnson, author of DARWIN ON TRIAL). The debate at SMU some years ago even got Lewontin to admit or to recognize the degree to which his philosophical presuppositions (naturalism and materialism) informed his 'scientific' analysis of data (an insight that should be familiar to anyone who has read and understood Thomas Kuhn's THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS). Here are Lewontin's words, quoted THE DEVIL'S DELUSION: "We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories...we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door." Such honesty, as Berlinski notes, is refreshing.

Berlinski highlights in THE DEVIL'S DELUSION the philosophical foibles of Dawkins and Harris. Berlinski is, after all, a philosopher and a polymath--whereas Harris is a callow Southern Californian (without a doctorate) whose forays into intellectual history and culture seem confined to information culled from articles that appear in the L.A. Times. Berlinski notes, devastatingly, how Harris succeeds in blaming the Jews themselves for the Holocaust--and dismisses (along with Christopher Hitchens) its secular roots. In this regard Harris echoes the sentiments of Hermann Goring and David Irving. (The link between Berlinski's book and the Holocaust becomes ever more relevant as "direct" links between Darwinism's social manifestations and Nazism are articulated and even echoed by Darwin's modern defenders. See FROM DARWIN TO HITLER: EVOLUTIONARY ETHICS, EUGENICS, AND RACISM IN GERMANY, by Richard Weikart.)

Anonymous seems to assume that the philosophical and theological assertions of Dawkins et al. are products of their scientific specialities. Berlinski clearly shows, for those who care to read him, that this assumption is preposterous. The idea that Berlinski is a religious shill is simply an ad hominem argument that ignores the fact that Berlinski is a secular Jew, a "seeker" (in his own words), and even a critic of Intelligent Design. The fact that Berlinski criticizes scientific pretensions--along with everything else--is apparently too much for Anonymous, tied as he/she apparently is to the dogmas of secularism.

RKirk said...

As for my presumed "religious" bias (Anonymous excels in ad hominem argument--in this case genetic ad hominem), anyone who actually READ my posts and columns over the last 15 years would know that I have never appealed to religious authority in ANY article. On the contrary, my perspective on things scientific and "divine" are primarily informed by and largely congruent with the writings of Alfred North Whitehead--whose book SCIENCE AND THE MODERN WORLD (written in 1925) still accurately denounces the materialistic dogmatism that permeates the scientific establishment. Here is the most succinct relevant comment in SMW for Anonymous--whose standards for authorized commentators should include Whitehead (as a seminal thinker in mathematics before he moved his intellectual focus to philosophy):

"There persists, however, throughout the whole period the fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matterr, or material, spread throughout space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations, which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call 'scientific materialism.' Also it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived.... Thought is abstract; and the intolerant use of abstractions is the major vice of the intellect."

Berlinski exposes the intolerant use of abstractions by Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and others (especially scientists who pretend that their disciplines reveal much much more than they do and have accomplished much much more than they actually have). I commend to Anonymous, and to anyone who wishes to question the philosophical pontifications of "scientists," Berlinski's devastating statistical response to Steven Pinker's philosophical (not scientific) declaration that science has created for the world a "shockingly happy picture." See Chapter 2, "Nights of Doubt," The Devil's Delusion.

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