Berlinski strikes again

David Berlinski, the “agnostic mathematician” associated with the Intelligent Design movement, has just published a short piece online called “The Scientific Embrace of Atheism.”

It’s largely a set of distortions. For example,

The great physical scientists — Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Clerk Maxwell, Albert Einstein — were either men of religious commitment or religious sensibility.

Well, yes and no, and of dubious relevance. All in the list except Einstein are from the 19th century or earlier, when the state of scientific knowledge was very different compared to today. And Einstein’s “religious sensibility” was very ambiguous, certainly not close to theism. It’s wearying to constantly encounter Einstein being enlisted as a figure sympathetic to conventional supernaturalistic religion.

Berlinski adds his thoroughly inexpert judgment on physical cosmology:

There is quantum cosmology, I suppose, a discipline in which the mysteries of quantum mechanics are devoted to the question of how the universe arose or whether it arose at all. This is the subject made popular in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. It is an undertaking radiant in its incoherence. Given the account of creation offered in Genesis and the account offered in A Brief History of Time, I know of no sane man who would hesitate between the two.

Arrant nonsense.

And then there is the obligatory snideness against Darwinian evolution, an endorsement of the film Expelled, and hey, even a comparison of contemporary scientists to Soviet Comissars.

This is beyond any sort of respectable critical position that would be part of a legitimate intellectual debate. OK, we might say that this is a short piece summarizing the thesis of Berlinski’s recent book, The Devil’s Delusion. Maybe he does better in the book.

I recently spent forty minutes reading through the first chapter or so and skimming the rest. I was actually tempted to buy it and not look for it used, as I happen to be one of the physicists Berlinski refers to as a recent defender of nonbelief. On the one hand, I don’t like my ego bruised by negative criticism, but on the other hand, I think I have enough of an intellectual ethic to see if I can respond to critics and perhaps revise my views.

But as it turns out, Berlinski says nothing about my views, except for an offhand remark about physicists being willing to believe in anything. Nothing. A few more physicists get sneered at more extensively, such as Victor Stenger, but there too, Berlinski by and large refuses to seriously engage with the arguments made by science-based critics of supernatural claims. So my impression now is that the book has little substance, and that I’ll go back to my policy of looking for it used.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04123863777408880111 Brigham.Narins

    I’d never heard of this Berlinski character until I read his piece in a recent Harper’s, which, as you say of the piece you read, thoroughly distorted the positions he was attacking (or just sneering at). But it was well-enough written. Literary style counts, I suppose. It can hide emptiness (or worse) from some readers.


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