by Denyse O'Leary
Berlinski was a student of the great French mathematician M.-P. Schutzenberger - a man who challenged Darwinism on mathematical grounds, provoking the Darwinists present to professions of faith.
He does not claim to have big and easy answers, nor even a cause to promote (except the ongoing life of the mind). He is willing to live with uncertainty. There, of course, he differs from the thousands of tenured mediocrities who proclaim junk ideas like meme theory or cosmic Darwinism - and assure us that our sense that these theories are implausible is fully accounted for by the fact that our brains have not evolved in such a way as to find the theory plausible.
Surveying the big picture in science ( what we now know and what we don't), he offers,
We have been vouchsafed four powerful and profound scientific theories since the great scientific revolution of the West was set in motion in the seventeenth century - Newtonian mechanics, James Clerk Maxwell's theory of the electromagnetic field, special and general relativity, and quantum mechanics. These are isolated miracles, great mountain peaks surrounded by a range of low, furry foothills. The theories that we possess are "magnificent, profound, difficult, sometimes phenomenally accurate," as the distinguished mathematician Roger Penrose has observed, but as he at once adds, they also comprise a "tantalizingly inconsistent scheme of things.
These splendid artifacts of the human imagination have made the world more mysterious than it ever was. We know better than we did what we do not know and have not grasped We do not know how the universe began. We do not know why it is there. Charles Darwin talked speculatively of life emerging from a "warm little pond." The pond is gone. We have little idea how life emerged, and cannot with assurance say that it did. We cannot reconcile our understanding of the human mind with any trivial theory about the manner in which the brain functions. Beyond the trivial, we have no other theories. We can say nothing of interest about the human soul. We do not know what impels us to right conduct or where the form of the good is found." (xii-xiii)
and he adds
Occupied by their own concerns, a great many men and women have a dll, 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. (xiv-xv)
I remember precisely such an incident a couple of years ago. I was studying the face of a woman in an audience, when it became apparent that the head of the National Academy of Sciences had been, shall we say, economical of the truth. He had insisted, counterfactually, that many members of NAS were religious. She was informed, with utmost condescension, that he had said so for political reasons. In other words, because she would be stupid enough to believe it. Or maybe not? But there it was, briefly out in the open - the contempt that the tax-supported science establishment feels for the people who work to support it.
When an establishment can treat those who support it with contempt, untruth without consequences is only the beginning. And there have been many untruths, as Pamela Winnick's A Jealous God points out.
Another risk is establishing a religion. Indeed, that is the distinguishing characteristic of the new "scientistic" atheism. Some forms of atheism may be genuinely non-religious, but this is not one of them. Berlinski comments,
If nothing else, the attack on traditional religious thought marks the consolidation in our time of science as the single system of belief in which rational men and women might place their faith, and if not their faith, then certainly their devotion. From cosmology to biology, its narratives have become the narratives. They are, these narratives, immensely seductive, so much so that looking at them with innocent eyes requires a very deliberate act.. And like any militant church, this one places a familiar demand before all others: Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
It is this that is new; it is this that is important.
Yes, and one might add, this new religious profession helps us understand many peculiar current obsessions of the pop science media - like trying to prove that great apes think like humans, for example.
One must ask, why would it matter so much if great apes don't think like humans? That would not be a blow to common descent of humans and apes because no one maintains that common descent requires detailed similarity or even, for that matter, that similarity is strong evidence of descent. After all, ravens may also think like humans in certain respects, and no one proposes reorganizing our current ideas about common descent on their account.
It would be closer to the mark to say that seeking such similarities is a religious exercise among those for whom common descent is not so much a convenient explanation of origins as an article of religious faith.
Berlinski also adverts to the privileged lives so many of the new atheists have enjoyed. Responding to Dawkins's observation that religion's power to console doesn't make it true, he observes,
Perhaps this is so, but only a man who has spent a good deal of time snoring on the down of plenty could be quite so indifferent to the consolations of religion, wherever and however they may be found. (P. 11)To be sure, it is not a consolation that Berlinski himself has sought. But it is a consolation, and he wants to know why it is, and has been, for millennia.
Next: Part Two: Materialism conflicts with evidence more than theism does
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the new The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).
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