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My Meeting with David Berlinski — a True Renaissance Man


Last evening I had the joy of meeting David Berlinski at Biola University during his tour of the U.S. to promote his new book, The Devil’s Delusion — Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions.

I was hanging out on the front steps of the lecture hall when David appeared, and we chatted in both French and English. (As bizarre as it might seem, although I earn my living as a software engineer in aerospace R&D, my three college degrees are in French language and literature, and classical piano.) I was wearing my Harley Davidson windbreaker, and David asked if I was a Harley rider, to which I replied yes. He asked about what model Harley I rode, and expressed his passion for motorcycles.

David is one of the most eloquent, insightful, clever, iconoclastic, and irreverently humorous speakers I have ever had the pleasure to encounter. During his lecture he talked about the great successes of the scientific enterprise — especially in the 20th century with the discoveries of modern mathematics and physics — but how the dreams of this enterprise to explain everything have dissolved into fantastic and unsupported speculation (e.g., multiverses), in the name of the rational and objective science on which it is supposed to be based.

If the dreams of 20th century mathematics and physics have dissolved into fantastic and unsupported speculation concerning the big questions, then surely naive 19th century Darwinian speculation about the origins and diversification of living systems must be in even deeper trouble. But Darwinian “theory” seems to enjoy an extraordinary resistance to being falsified or even challenged. All evidence, however contradictory, supports it.

During the Q&A session I commented about how, historically, erroneous scientific theories are eventually overthrown when the evidence becomes irrefutable. David seems somewhat pessimistic about the imminent overthrow of Darwinism, because of the heavy investment in it on the part of the scientific community. I would suggest that this investment is multifaceted: philosophical, economic, and cultural (in academia, at least). And, of course, ridicule and persecution await any legitimate challenger, no matter the evidence.

But David quipped that if Darwinism is ever overthrown, it will be seen as a triumph of Darwinian theory — a theory so robust that it even predicted that the theory would be proven to be false.

After the event, I chatted further with David, and mentioned that I was a classical concert pianist. It turns out that David’s parents were classical concert pianists who studied with Nadia Boulanger and Alfred Cortot. It’s a small world.

I purchased a copy of The Devil’s Delusion last evening but have not had the time to read it. I will write a review at a later date. However, I found the following comments in the preface to be of interest:

I am a secular Jew. My religious education did not take… I cannot pray. I have spent more years than I care to remember in studying mathematics and writing about the sciences. Yet the book that follows is in some sense a defense of religious thought and sentiment.


While science has nothing of value to say on the great and aching questions of life, death, love, and meaning, what the religious traditions of mankind have said 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.

Occupied by their own concerns, a great many men and women have a dull, hurt, angry sense of being oppressed by the sciences. They are frustrated by endless scientific boasting. They suspect that as an institution, the scientific community holds them in contempt. They feel no little distaste for those speaking in its name.

They are right to feel this way. I have written this book for them.

I sense in David Berlinski a great Renaissance man, with a keen mind and a searching, warm soul. I pray that this soul will find that for which it yearns.

Duncan: Were you previously behaving terribly? Of course, and I still do, but perhaps a little less often and less terribly. Anyone who thinks that "I'm okay and you're okay" is completely out of touch with his sin nature. Honest personal reflection reveals ugly stuff. People feel guilty, and should feel guilty, because they are guilty. In Christian theology this is called the stumbling block of the cross. I'm not okay and you are not okay, and neither is any other man or woman. The proof of this is human history. Every attempt to create utopia based on human nature has produced hell on earth. This is evidence that we do not have the power to ethically improve ourselves, and that this power must come from without and not from within. How could corrupt human nature uncorrupt its corruptness? The universe and human nature are invested with immutable laws, and one of those laws is moral entropy. The right thing is almost always the difficult thing. We can make excuses that this is not so, but we do so at our own peril. GilDodgen
GilDodgen @23 ... I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that mathematics describe so much of basic physical reality. Why should a mathematical inverse square law describe gravity? Of course, I now know the answer: It was rigged that way. Any other explanation is a desperate attempt to explain away the obvious.
The inverse-square laws for gravity and electro-magnetism are a consequence of the geometry of a space of 3 dimensions, which we experience continuously during each evascent transition between a determinate past and an indeterminate future. By a lovely theorem by Gauss, in a three dimensional space, anything other than an inverse square law would violate the Law of the Conservation of Energy, for the sum of the electro-magnetic or gravitational potential would increase with distance. A fractionally dimensional (fractal) space is a possibility, but fractals are dependent upon integral dimensionality and not vice-versa. Which leads to something even more profound than the inverse-square and conservation laws: the wisdom of Leopold Kronecker: “God made the integers; the rest is the work of man.” D.A.Newton
Duncan -- Were you previously behaving terribly? With a little honest self-reflection all of us can see we behave and have behaved terribly. Believing in Jesus forces us to realize the reality of the high standard one faces in doing good, and that it basically requires a miracle to come close to it. tribune7
AOFM @ 49 Good to have you with us. Sometimes it gets too serious here. DeepDesign
Oops, forgot an end tag. angryoldfatman
duncan wrote:
GilDodgen (38) Why is your deity entitled to make you feel bad (and threaten you with violence, no less)?
Why do you think it is "the deity" that makes him feel bad? Of course Gil can speak for himself, but if his experience is anything like mine, it was the exposing of the truth and its consequences right here and right now (not in some fuzzy afterlife) that caused one to "feel bad". As far as divine violence goes, if one only reads what others tell you about a source as opposed to the original source, you're bound to get misinformation.
Were you previously behaving terribly? Why can meaning and purpose only come from without – can only be received? Why isn’t what things mean to you/us enough?
What is terrible behavior? There's the rub. When everyone has a different yardstick, then everyone gets a different measurement, don't they? Torture, perversion, and death were meaningful parts of the Marquis de Sade's life, and he did quite a good job of arguing for them. Given that his "philosophy" is becoming more prevalent than ever among intellectuals, it is evident that purely mental exercises are inadequate for formulating what we think of as "good" morality. angryoldfatman
sorry - spelling error - free from "feeling" bad - alan
duncan - you are "threatened" (actually warned) of the results of behavior that brakes immutable laws and tell me what it "means" to be or what is the meaning of being an accident. Also, just curious, have you ever "felt bad" for anything? Did you have the right to feel bad? Did the other person (deity or not) have a right to make you feel bad? Did you or do you have the right to make yourself feel bad? Also wondering what you have that you have not received. I have read there is quite a large % of people who's conscious is so seared they are free from geeling bad about anything they do - "Dahmerish" like. To what extent are you going to defend your right to not feel bad? - LOL P.S. re. 36 Russell - thanks, your welcome. I want to add I wonder that if design is a sign of design then isn't allanius admitting to be a troglodite since I am pretty sure he would admit he has signs of design? alan
GilDodgen (38) Why is your deity entitled to make you feel bad (and threaten you with violence, no less)? Were you previously behaving terribly? Why can meaning and purpose only come from without – can only be received? Why isn’t what things mean to you/us enough? duncan
An additional comment. In the quotes Charlie gave, Provine makes much of how "religion is compatible with modern evolutionary biology (and indeed all of modern science) if the religion is effectively indistinguishable from atheism." Ignore that this is a gross oversimplification, and that even among materialist naturalists in philosophy debate rages over what is truly fundamental in the universe (reductionism v emergence, disputes over consciousness, and more.) Ignore that 'atheists' have strong disagreements among themselves, both over beliefs in general (Compare Hitchens and Myers on foreign policy, or watch the reception Sam Harris gets when he talks about spiritual and reincarnation in atheist company) and what 'atheism' truly is (A mere belief that there are no gods? Scientism and an adherence to so-called 'values of the Enlightenment'? A sneering, aggressive rejection of all religious belief?) What Provine is doing is the equivalent of a verbal shell game - he admits that someone can be religious, have the exact same appreciation for science, draw the exact same reasonable lines between what is and is not scientific belief, and perform just as adequately with regards to the subject as any atheist. But he calls such a person 'effectively atheist' - for no other reason than to push a false ultimatum, a con game. Forget that how to interpret and view Genesis was a live discussion since at least Augustine and likely before - if you accept a view of life and creation other than what he outlines is traditional, Pope Provine declares that you are anathema. I'll assume he does good work within his field. But no one should take a man like this seriously on the subject of philosophy or, God forbid, theology. It's clear that he has trouble coping with the idea that anyone (including, apparently, Allen MacNeill himself) who doesn't share his narrow view of the world can truly appreciate science, or worse, may possibly be right and him wrong. He warps scientific observations to fit his dogma, he boldly proclaims what nature 'tells us loud and clear' and calls the discussion over, he passes off philosophical conclusions as scientific certainties. Or, put in terms he may understand, 'Anyone with Provine's views of science and truth is effectively indistinguishable from an intellectual religious zealot.' nullasalus
I guess the 'belief in transcendental values' bandied about in another thread on UD only extends so far, given those quotes. Then again, the 'if evolution is true, then clearly there's no god and life is meaningless and there's no afterlife' bit is a load of bull, and never stands up to scrutiny. It's less a reasoned, individual view of the facts of the matter, and more of a mantra, an article of faith. That or Provine's mechanism for detecting design in nature is on the blink. nullasalus
Allen MacNeill, In the spirit of gentlemanly discourse I'd like to ask if you would provide a reference to Dr. Dembski's outright lie, please. Also germane, are these quotes from your friend Dr. Provine accurate?
In other words, religion is compatible with modern evolutionary biology (and indeed all of modern science) if the religion is effectively indistinguishable from atheism. Academe January 1987 pp.51-52 † ... The frequently made assertion that modern biology and the assumptions of the Judaeo-Christian tradition are fully compatible is false. Evolutionary Progress (1988) p. 65 † ... Evolution is the greatest engine of atheism ever invented. Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent. "Evolution: Free will and punishment and meaning in life” 1998 Darwin Day Keynote Address 1 2 † As the creationists claim, belief in modern evolution makes atheists of people. One can have a religious view that is compatible with evolution only if the religious view is indistinguishable from atheism. No Free Will (1999) p.123
‘Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear … There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end for me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either.’
Provine, W.B., Origins Research 16(1), p.9, 1994. Charlie
I would just like to say again that I thought Berlinski's book was an excellent read. I give it 4/5 stars for usefulness and 5/5 stars for quality of writing, style and substance. We are truly lucky to have such deeply rich personalities on our side like the good doctor- even if he has yet to be fully enlightened. Frost122585
Well, I'm glad you're feeling better... Actually, I'm not feeling better, I'm feeling much worse, because I now have a sense of ultimate accountability. I "felt" better when I was an atheist and thought that my life was the product meaningless and purposeless chemical processes, because that meant that I could do anything I liked with ultimate impunity. When my first daughter was born, after a long infertility ordeal, I looked into her eyes and knew that I had been given a very precious gift, entrusted to my stewardship. I cared about my wife and my child more than I cared about myself. Thus began a spiritual journey which I pray one day you might understand. GilDodgen
Another thought. ID theorists can get experimentalists to do research for them. Do what Einstein did. Come up with solid experiments to show your theory wrong and publish them. austin_english
DaveScot said, "The take home point there is that business majors are a lot less skeptical of neo-Darwinian dogma than are science majors." You seem to think anyone who picks the third answer is a skeptic. I can't say that nobody choosing that answer is a skeptic. But everyone I actually know who picks that answer believes it on faith. It seems Berlinski understands this. See post 30. A skeptic doubts everything until a good case is made for it. And then he wonders if the good case will hold up. A scientist should be the leading critic of his own theory. He knows it better than anyone else. So he can serve as skeptic better than anyone else. The proper goal isn't to gain acceptance for the theory. It's to advance scientific understanding. Is there an ID researcher who accepts ID tentatively? Einstein described experiments that could have shown relativity wrong. Has Dr. Dembski or Dr. Behe done something like this? Right now, someone who doubts neodarwinism but is sure of intelligent design isn't a skeptic. I am a skeptic. I know from reading the Kitzmiller decision that there's been very little scientific research on ID. Maybe future research will support ID. Show me. austin_english
GilDodgen (23) Well, I’m glad you’re feeling better, but I’m currently with the scientific atheists and, while I’m quite prepared to be convinced it’s a lie by something sufficiently convincing (it’s why I come to UD), in the meantime I’m neither depressed, nihilistic, dark or cold, thanks! duncan
Allen, Thank you for your fascinating reply. Russell
allanius - "Imagine, thinking that design is a sign of design!" - just think of the immense amount of information it takes just to be a troglodyte and I am wondering if you think or are admitting to the fact that you are actually designed. Also, if you ever change your "mind" don't worry - its fun being a throwback - the ad hominems get more bang for the buck and chuckels are good for the soul don't you know? alan
And so Little Red Riding Hood pulled off her clothes and got into bed. She was greatly amazed at how her goodly, old grandmother looked in her white lab coat with the large embroidered “D” on the pocket. “Why Grandmother, what great arms you have!” she exclaimed. “The better to grasp you with, my dear,” the wolf replied in a honeyed voice. “Why Grandmother, what great legs you have!” “The better to carry you to conclusions with.” “Why Grandmother, what great eyes you have!” “Yes, and they weren’t designed, either,” the wolf replied suspiciously. “Why Grandmother, what great teeth you have!” “That is because I am a carnivore, little girl,” the wolf replied with a sneer—and with that he gobbled her up, smacking his lips at his success, and then lay down on the bed, sated, and began to snore very loud. Just then the Huntsman was passing by and heard him snoring. He thought to himself, “I will go in and see if the old lady is all right, for it sounds to me like she may be suffering from a deviated septum, or some other deviation of unspecified origin.” He went in and saw the wolf in Grandmother’s bedclothes, and Little Red Riding Hood’s biology textbook on the chair, and thought to himself, “Little Red Riding Hood and Grandmother may still be alive. I will not shoot him.” And so he took a pair of scissors and began to cut the wolf to pieces. The Huntsman was surprised to find the wolf so easy to dissect. His seemingly tough hide proved quite fragile and yielded easily to careful shearing between design and probability. Sure enough, Little Red Riding Hood and Grandmother emerged unscathed from the still-writhing monster. The enraged wolf stumbled to his feet, red in tooth and claw. But they filled his body with weighty things, and, unable to digest them for all of his verbal felicity, the wolf collapsed and died. And that is how Little Red Riding Hood was delivered from the belly of the beast, back in the dark days when crafty predators roamed the ivy-sheathed forests, wolves in sheep’s clothing, and none but the brave opposed them. allanius
How far would you say Dr. Berlinski agrees with Marcel Schutzenberger? DeepDesign
Sure, I can interpret the results. Our evil plan is working! Fifteen percent to over fifty! That ain't no placebo effect! Around 5 years ago we became aware of the dire consequences of ID and its atavistic anti-science campaign. Imagine, thinking that design is a sign of design! Knowing the thoroughly dishonest character of these troglodytes, and the fact that they will stop at nothing to convert bright, young minds and leaders of the future to their jejune superstition, we redoubled our efforts at enlightenment; and frankly Bill, we were successful. So put that in your pipe and smoke it! allanius
Allen_MacNeill, "Anyone care to interpret these outcomes?" It would hinge on whether those in #4 were exclusively or largely atheist/agnostic. I could see people choosing it (as opposed to 2 or 3) on the belief that 'God started the process' but thereafter let it on its own - similar to Ken Miller's view, or many other TEs. As to why such a proportion could have risen that much in the past five years, again it depends on the previous. If they're largely atheists, 'because the particular question of whether a design-friendly view of nature is scientific has been a particular point of excitement for atheists in the past few years', moreso than anyone else by proportion. Making them more attracted to the class in the first place. Though it's anyone's guess. I've noticed that with surveys and statistics, the temptation nowadays is to not let the results stand on their own, but divine why they were gotten to begin with - with questions related to that rarely offered up in the survey itself. nullasalus
ericB (19): I don't know much about the science in this debate. But I can see that your response makes sense. I would appreciate hearing what you think about a couple philosophical points. 1. You say materialistic scientists already accept that there are intelligently directed processes. But don't you think they're inconsistent when they do that? How can a material human be an undirected director of material? 2. I've been taught that most of the bias of science comes from Christian views of God and nature. But God doesn't have a place in science anymore. How would you let God back into science? I'm thinking of a comic I saw. A scientist has written equations on a board, "and then a miracle happens," and then more equations. How do you keep science from being like that? austin_english
I have just finished Berlinski's The Devil's Delusion. 4 stars. His last 3 pages are my favorite. I like how he talks about the scientific cathedral as being "incomplete" as it has all of the great minds- Newton .Heisenberg, Bohr, Maxwell, Einstein etc as statues line up like Gods- it seems to have them all except for Kurt Gödel; the father of incompleteness and the lone one on the list who’s accomplishment is of unadulterated truth and has survived the test of time and all the attempts by many men to refute it. The end is sad however because Berlinski compares religion to science in that they are both flawed and incomplete in their representation of the objective world. He is truly an agnostic but from the non religious perspective he is correct. The world is not beholden to atheism , religion, or science so his book goes... Belief escapes the world. And every pattern of thought, every method of being, requires both faith and belief. At least with Berlinski's book we can chalk one more up for the value of Faith if not religion. Perhaps faith is the only thing that we can scientifically say warrants belief. Frost122585
Just an FYI: The PT-mafia is in a frenzy once again over vacuous legal threats by David Bolinsky against Expelled. I have blogged on this at "Legal threats and copyright shakedowns. I make an educated guess that the euphemistically named National Center for "Science" Education is behind this attack. William Wallace
Jasini asked, "What do a bunch of 20th century dates have to do with 19th century speculation?" The current paradigm of evolutionary biology is from the 1930s, not the 19th century. The paradigms of quantum mechanics and relativity are older. austin_english
Though I haven't obtained a copy of The Devil's Delusion yet, I still wish to heap more praises for Dr. Berlinski on the pile. I love his scalpel-sharp wit and the position from where he wields it. When I read his satire of Darwinism in which all literature "evolved" from Don Quixote being copied incorrectly, I laughed and howled like a hyena. Then I read the indignant replies of the satire's targets, and that was even funnier. It takes someone truly brilliant to anger other supposedly brilliant people by running circles around them. I'll put the book on my Father's day wishlist. angryoldfatman
To Allen_MacNeill, speaking of false dichotomies, did you see the logic error described here? ericB
DaveScot: "There’s no false dichotomy. Either intelligent agency was somehow involved in the origination and diversification of life or it wasn’t." If you look again more closely at my post, you will see that I affirm that the distinction between directed causation (i.e. intelligent agency) and undirected causes is a true dichotomy (i.e. an appropriate or correct dichotomy), not a false one. However, rejecting the neoDarwinian synthesis does not automatically mean acceptance of ID. That would be a false dichotomy. In fact, I believe Allen_MacNeill has made clear in multiple posts that the classic neoDarwinian synthesis does not represent the cutting edge of evolutionary thought. For example, there is the evo-devo game in town now. Various evo-devo advocates feel quite comfortable trashing the neoDarwinian synthesis while nevertheless refusing to embrace intelligent agency. ericB

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