For anyone looking for a well reasoned, intelligent, and witty defense of theistic belief they could do far worse than The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinsky (Crown Forum, 20081 ). Berlinsky, a Ph.D. (Princeton) and professor of mathematics and philosophy who has authored many books, seems well equipped to offer an adroit and readable critique of the sum of science’s theories regarding the origin, nature and development of life on earth. For this reason Neo-Darwinists and atheists of all stripes ignore this book at their peril, particularly polemicists such as Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and their ilk who have recently published scathing critiques of religious belief in general and Christian belief in particular.
Berlinsky conceives his defense as one uncommitted to any faith tradition. Indeed, he is a self-professed secular Jew whose “religious education did not take.” As one who has spent the better part of his academic life writing about the sciences he makes a most unlikely apologist for belief in God. Yet in his preface he bluntly dismisses as “splendid artifacts of the human imagination” the various and elaborate theories to account for how the universe began, how life originated on earth, how the brain functions, or how the human conscience is impelled to distinguish between right and wrong. On these and many more questions the “great scientific theories have lapsed.” Even more lacking are science’s statements pertaining to eternal questions about life, death, love, and meaning. In Berlinsky’s view, science has nothing of value to say on these issues.
Not surprisingly, Berlinsky delivers some of his bests blows against the artifice of Darwinism. Many of the most potent critiques of the theory are culled from the mouths of advocates themselves. As Philip Johnson has noted, modern science has eliminated a priori any answers that include design or a divine hand, thereby rigging the game and predetermining the outcome. Johnson calls this bias methodological naturalism. Fortunately there are some naturalists who endeavor to be transparent with regards to their presuppositions. Berlinsky quotes C. F. von Weizsacker thusly:
Is there a God who has among other things created the universe? It is not by its conclusions but by its methodological starting point that modern science excludes creation. Our methodology would not be honest if this fact were denied…
Most modern scholarship neglects the contributions of Alfred Wallace to the theory of evolution perhaps because, in contrast to Darwin, he soon after began to have serious doubts about its validity. In an essay published in 1869 Wallace gave voice to his skepticism. In it he detailed several human characteristics that he believed natural selection failed to explain. These include the human brain, the organs of speech, the hand, and the upright posture and bipedal gait of human beings. Wallace was particularly interested in the workings of the human mind and language, which to him appeared as a latent power inherent as much in a modern European as in a tribesman from the Amazon.
But how does natural selection account for latent powers? It holds that useful genes are selected for perpetuation and useless ones fall into oblivion. The apparent fact that these abilities were “frontloaded” into the species long ago runs counter to evolutionary dogma. Indeed, it seems to point to an immutable aspect in human nature. Contrary to what the scientists would have us believe, according to Berlinsky, the conflict persists to this day. “It has not been resolved.”
That human beings possess powers and abilities that surpass all other creatures is obvious to most observers. All it takes is a look around. The proposition that we are merely a product of random evolutionary process, Berlinsky asserts, “requires a disciplined commitment” to a worldview that owes “astonishingly little to the evidence.” Why then, he asks, does improbable theory become inviolate dogma? The answer is that it “functions as a hedge against religious belief, in particular the belief in man’s uniqueness.”
The enigma of order in the universe poses another intractable dilemma for naturalism. Quantum electrodynamics, according to a famous remark by Feynman, exercises such precision with regard to theory and experiment in the natural world that it can measure the distance between New York and Los Angeles to within the width of a human hair. No scientist can account for this uncanny result or many others in the natural world. “We have no reason to expect such gifts” quips Berlinsky.
In the absence of an adequate explanation, evolutionary thought has fallen back on a sort of scientific equivalent to the old theistic “God of the gaps” defense. Whereas the old argument posited that God explained what science could not (hence the “gaps”), the new form of the argument holds that what science is unable to explain today will surely be explained by the science of tomorrow. But contrary to the view that the inexplicable is shrinking, Berlinsky counters that for every “gap” filled, science creates new gaps all over again. The process is “inexhaustible.”
Unfortunately, these inconvenient truths do not chasten ideological Darwinists like Dawkins or Dennett. Quite the opposite; their contempt and indignation for those who deign to propose concepts of intelligent design is unbridled. To such as those “who feed like leeches on irrational beliefs,” are “offensive little swarms of insects,” and amount to “intellectual viruses,” the only recourse is to “take care of them by spraying biological knowledge.” This is the view of biologist Emile Zuckerkandl writing in the journal Gene.
To a committed Darwinist like Daniel Dennett, “contemporary biology has demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that natural selection…has the power to generate breathtakingly ingenious designs.” However, most biologists know better. According to Berlinsky, “the facts are what they have always been: unforthcoming. And the theory is what it always was: unpersuasive.” A Nobel laureate in biology once remarked to Berlinsky, “Darwin? That’s just the party line.”
What Berlinsky achieves in The Devil’s Delusion is the distillation of a remarkable array of complex scientific principles in a surprisingly readable and amusing treatise. His genius lies in his ability to communicate in layman’s terms the essence of what science claims to know about the natural world. But in exposing the considerable absence of real knowledge (and answers) pertaining to the great timeless questions Berlinsky, in effect, calls science’s bluff and unmasks the visage of atheism.
1. See also Berlinsky’s article “The God of the Gaps” adapted from his book in Commentary 125/4 (April 2008) 34-40.
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