Friday, November 13, 2009


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).

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.

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 matter, 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.

1 comment:

Alexander said...

What about Daniel Dennett? Wouldn't he fit the bill of a true philosopher? After all, he does have a PhD in philosophy, which according to you is the only requisite one needs to discuss philosophical matters. Berlinski doesn't mention him either in his book, which pretty much tells me how dedicated he is to "seeking" the truth. Having read both Dennett and Berlinski, I can tell you right now that Dennett is by far the greater philosopher of the two.