Review: The Devil’s Delusion

faaead70-cb48-4e31-a768-a9dd81a5a0ffimg100David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions, New York: Crown Forum, 2008.

Reviewed by Logan Paul Gage

It is at once lamentable and understandable that academics, wishing applause from other academics, proffer far-fetched theses. After all, no one receives plaudits (or tenure) with commonsensical hypotheses. When divined from capital-S “Science,” however, such theses are often uncritically accepted. David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion calls Science, which has supposedly proven there is no God, back to Earth.

With his strong literary voice, Berlinski is frequently noted in “best science writing” anthologies, and rightly so: few nonfiction books will evoke laughter like this delightful reply to the “New Atheists”—Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris. On ape-human similarities, Berlinski remarks: “Given the gift of language, [apes] have nothing to say,” and, “Beyond what we have in common with the apes, we have nothing in common.” Berlinski, a Princeton-educated philosopher, has a light touch and an artist’s sensibility, which makes sense, as both of his parents were classically-trained musicians who fled Nazi Europe. If that is not a recipe for a sensitive soul, what is?

Berlinski’s chief question is not whether God exists but “whether science has shown that he does not.” The West has long told the story of a good God, of evil losing out in the end, of paradise regained. “I do not know whether any of this is true,” writes Berlinski. “I am certain that the scientific community does not know that it is false.”

Consider the world-picture of 20th-century physics: curved space-time? Fundamental “forces”? Black holes, quantum fields, bosons, fermions—subdivided into quarks and leptons; quarks having six subsets, leptons four—hadrons, symmetries, fields? “It is remarkably baroque,” writes Berlinski. “And it is promiscuously catholic. For the atheist persuaded that materialism offers him a no-nonsense doctrinal affiliation,” this is a nightmare.

Since ancient Greece we’ve longed for the fundamental particle, the basic pieces of material reality. But it is an article of faith that there is an essential unit: “It is entirely possible that there may be as many elementary particles as there is funding available to investigate them.” Thus Berlinski echoes the book of Hebrews: “Western science is above all the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Before we say Science has proven atheism, we must first ask whether science’s methodology is appropriate for the task. “If by science one means the great theories of mathematical physics,” Berlinski writes, “then the demand is unreasonable.”

We cannot treat any claim in this way. There is no other intellectual activity in which theory and evidence have reached this stage of development.

If, on the other hand, the demand means merely that one should treat the existence of God as the existence of anything would be treated, then we must accept the fact that in life as it is lived beyond mathematical physics, the evidence is fragmentary, lost, partial, and inconclusive. We do what we can. We grope. We see glimmers.

Intellectuals often separate God and Science like fighting schoolchildren into “non-overlapping magesteria,” to use Stephen Jay Gould’s nomenclature. They say arguing that God (or more generally, an intelligence) is the best explanation for certain features of nature—as intelligent design scientists do—is a mistake. For the more nature is explained, the more this “God of the Gaps” vanishes. If God overlaps with the realm of physical reality, he is vulnerable to meddling scientists. He should stick to the safe spiritual-ethical dimension.

But has the last century confirmed this zero-sum thinking? The argument, says Berlinski, unjustifiably assumes all gaps will be filled. “Western science has proceeded by filling gaps, but in filling them, it has created gaps all over again,” he writes. “Anomalies have grown great because understanding has improved.” Physical theories “have enlarged and not diminished our sense of the sublime” and of the mysteriousness of life. How does the mystifying, unpredictable realm of subatomic particles produce breathing, thinking, worshiping creatures? We know one thing for sure: Dawkins doesn’t know. But he’d rather accept an infinity of universes than a single God.

Beware of playing poker with this man; he calls bluffs. Of that last stronghold of scientific atheism, neo-Darwinism, Berlinski notes that while biologists often claim it to be as well-proven as gravity, one never hears physicists claiming quantum mechanics is as well-established as evolution. Let’s stop exaggerating. Unlike many of his interlocutors, Berlinski knows that the mind-or-matter-first debate has a long, distinguished pedigree. Doubting Darwin did not begin at the Scopes trial.

This is a book in, but not of, our times. It is profoundly honest about the nature of human knowledge. It is postmodern without being cynical. Perhaps only an agnostic can renew science’s humility without undermining its quest for truth.

Where do we stand? We stand where we’ve always stood, says Berlinski—at a place of uncertainty attempting to read the road signs rushing past. God remains as good or better an explanation for the Big Bang, cosmic fine-tuning, and why nature obeys laws as he always has.

For two centuries the West has ricocheted between positivism and postmodernism—positivism held in the scientific community; postmodernism by literary types—between empiricism as the only reliable epistemology and the relativity of all things. Berlinski avoids the trap because he knows too much about science to buy positivism and too much about the humanities to dismiss the perennial concerns of the human heart. He wanders effortlessly between Schrodinger’s dead cat and Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

Critics might say he cuts the scientific community down to size but erects little of his own philosophy. On what metaphysical ground does an agnostic stand, for instance, to affirm real truths about the universe?

Yet it is precisely because Berlinski sees no replacement for God as our moral and scientific foundation that he urges us not to demolish the traditional Western worldview. If all agnostics were as intellectually honest as Berlinski, we’d have a fine chat—over whisky and cigars, I imagine—about love, loss, meaning, and ultimate reality. I do wish the rest of the scientific community would join us.

This review originally appeared here.

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7 Responses to Review: The Devil’s Delusion

  1. Here is what Random House says about Berlinski’s book:

    Has anyone provided a proof of God’s inexistence?
    Not even close.

    Has quantum cosmology explained the emergence of the universe or why it is here?
    Not even close.

    Have the sciences explained why our universe seems to be fine-tuned to allow for the existence of life?
    Not even close.

    Are physicists and biologists willing to believe in anything so long as it is not religious thought?
    Close enough.

    Has rationalism in moral thought provided us with an understanding of what is good, what is right, and what is moral?
    Not close enough.

    Has secularism in the terrible twentieth century been a force for good?
    Not even close to being close.

    Is there a narrow and oppressive orthodoxy of thought and opinion within the sciences?
    Close enough.

    Does anything in the sciences or in their philosophy justify the claim that religious belief is irrational?
    Not even ballpark.

    Is scientific atheism a frivolous exercise in intellectual contempt?
    Dead on.

    Berlinski does not dismiss the achievements of western science. The great physical theories, he observes, are among the treasures of the human race. But they do nothing to answer the questions that religion asks, and they fail to offer a coherent description of the cosmos or the methods by which it might be investigated.

    This brilliant, incisive, and funny book explores the limits of science and the pretensions of those who insist it can be–indeed must be–the ultimate touchstone for understanding our world and ourselves.

    It seems like a valuable book for those devotees who think they have defeated scientific materialism, when in fact such devotees do not even understand its arguments very well. This book will give them the arguments and then show them how to think critically about them. They will then be in a much better position to speak credibly on the positions taken by scientific materialism/naturalism in relation to Gaudiya Vedanta. This book seems like a sophisticated and up to date version of many of the arguments/doubts Prabhupada raised about scientism and more, while acknowledging more of the accomplishments/contributions of modern science than Prabhupada was prepared to.

    Has anyone read it?

  2. The book probably deals with the subject quite thoughtfully, but the cover design and the name of the book sure appears at first look to be a childish book of religious sentiment about a Devil that doesn’t even exist.
    For this book to be more appealing to a wider audience they need to change the name and the cover of the book.
    It just looks so much like evangelical right wing fanaticism that anyone repulsed by the cult will not give the book a second thought.

    I guess in some ways the Hare Krishnas are more akin to right-wing evangelical Christians than they would like to know. However, the Hare Krishnas have the distinct honor of being a cult that honors all religions whilst the evangelicals would more likely classify Krishna in the category of “The Devil”.

    Underneath the facade of congeniality however, the actual Hare Krishna belief is not nearly as accommodating as it appears.

    Cow eating religionists would be exterminated by a Vedic King without the least bit of regard for their so-called religious faith.

  3. The book probably deals with the subject quite thoughtfully, but the cover design and the name of the book sure appears at first look to be a childish book of religious sentiment about a Devil that doesn’t even exist.
    For this book to be more appealing to a wider audience they need to change the name and the cover of the book.
    It just looks so much like evangelical right wing fanaticism that anyone repulsed by the cult will not give the book a second thought.

    Although this may be true to some extent, an effort to change the cover and name of the book to appeal to an audience who are quick to judge a book by the cover/name may not really help but cost a loss to the publisher; those in the population with the tendency to judge a book by the cover/name may not be willing to read the arguments presented anyways.

    I am ordering the book right now to read it.

  4. The title seems to claim that atheism is a delusion cast upon people by the devil. Why would I want to read such a book, especially since it’s author is a self proclaimed agnostic? Some people write books simply to sell them and to glorify their own intellect. I know we should not judge the book by it’s cover, but in this age of mass marketing book covers often reveal a lot about the book.

    • I agree about the book cover and title, but the author knows what he is talking about. Dawkins’s book, The God Delusion, has a terrible title as well, but unfortunately it does match the book’s contents. Who would want to read a book that proposes the absurd position that anyone who belives in God is delusional? Unfortunately millions of delusional people, as this book seems to point out.

    • Case in point : The God Delusion’s book cover looks like an explosion of blood from the abyss!

  5. Actually, when reflecting on the book cover, it seems that Berlinski achieves his purpose of poking fun at “atheism and it’s scientific pretensions”. It is obviously not a book for fanatics whose minds are already made up. For those that are a little open minded or curious I think the cover promotes that there may be some fun inside.
    I wonder if I can find a copy here in Mysore?!

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