David Berlinski was in top form on Fox News last night talking for an hour with Mark Levin about Darwinism as an “alchemical explanation for biology,” a “secular myth,” a thoroughly vacuous one, not a “scientific theory” but more like a “collection of anecdotes.”
The performance is outstanding. As both a colleague and a fan, I admit I’m biased. But I know he was outstanding because Professor Jerry Coyne throws a fit about it over at his blog Why Evolution Is True. Coyne proves you can be both catty and witless with remarks about David’s income, his book The Devil’s Delusion being #41 on Amazon (compared to Coyne’s Faith vs. Fact at #79,267), the cost of “croissants and fancy suits” in Paris, and more. Only scoring a major hit would produce a tirade like that.
Berlinski himself is brilliant, unpredictable (endorsing French socialized medicine), and all around a unique intellectual character. No doubt that’s what attracted Levin to him in the first place. Their subject is the “link between evolution, science and progressivism,” and I think it’s the first time I’ve heard a discussion of the second of law thermodynamics, applied to the course of civilization, on Fox News. Levin’s persona on TV is, interestingly, much more soft-spoken and thoughtful than on talk radio.
With the exception of Christopher Hitchens, a “very sophisticated guy,” David dismisses the New Atheists, the “whole crew of Jerry Coyne, Dawkins, Shallit, Harris,” as “windbags.” (This produces from Coyne the pathetic exclamation, “Well, so be it, but I maintain that I’ve expelled a lot less wind than Berlinski!”)
You can find a transcript here.
Berlinski dates a major shift in the culture to the early 1980s.
Well, something — something particular and peculiar seems to have come over American intellectual life — Anglo-American intellectual life perhaps 20 years ago.
In the 1950s and the 60s, the position that was academically tolerated. It was a kind of cheerful agnosticism with respect to religious tradition of mankind. It could be with respect to God’s existence, maybe, maybe not, but this isn’t an issue that vexes us profoundly as members of the scientific community. That all changed.
Now, we are kind of very, very vociferous and dogmatic. Atheism has become obligatory in the scientific community. There are exceptions. There are always going to be exceptions.
For all I know, some distinguished physicist may be plotting jihad, I have no idea. But by and large, atheism has replaced any kind of tolerant and forbearing agnosticism as the de facto standard in Anglo-American scientific intellectual life.
And as a result, the religious tradition that is a very, very long 5,000-year-old tradition has been made into an object of faint derision among sophisticated men and women much to the consternation of people who deeply, deeply admire that tradition, and that, I think, is a change in the diapason of life that we need to pay attention to.
I think that’s also the first time I’ve heard the word “diapason” on cable TV.
At its heart, scientism can offer only the most “frivolous” answers to basic human questions:
LEVIN: And then you add [in The Devil’s Delusion], following up on your point, “No scientific theory touches on the mysteries that the religious tradition addresses. A man asking why his days are short is not disposed to turn to algebraic quantum field theory for the answer. The answers that prominent scientific figures have offered are remarkable in their shallowness. The hypothesis that we are nothing more than cosmic accidents have been widely accepted by the scientific community.”
And you say, basically science has nothing to say about life and love and death and meaning.
BERLINSKI: Hardly a controversial point, is it? I mean, if I am asking certain kinds of questions. Look, look around you. There’s something there. Open your eyes, you’re struck by the existence of the universe. Why is that there?
Look at the answers forthcoming from the physics community. They can be described in one of two ways. Well, what do you expect? We’re here; therefore there is something there, or it’s kind of an accident.
These are not the kind of answers intelligent men and women are searching for. They correspond to no deep intellectual need, they’re frivolous. Physics really has nothing to tell us, for example, about the origins and appearance of the universe.
It has a lot of interesting things to say about cosmology, but it’s not the same question. The most radical question you can ask is: Why is there something — anything rather than what, nothing? Why is that?
It’s perfectly possible to propose that there could have been nothing whatsoever. I don’t mean some preexisting stuff. I mean nothing. Well, that’s not the world we live in. How come? It’s a good question. What’s your answer?
And when you actually look at the physicists or the biologists or the chemists, their answer is, we know how it happened. We open our eyes, too. There’s something, and we can explain the origin of all that by appealing to some preexisting something. Are you satisfied with that? If not, well, you’re not scientifically literate. Lawrence Krauss makes exactly that same argument. Well, the reason that the universe popped into existence was the preexisting quantum field from which it arose by a probability…
LEVIN: And they have no real solid idea, do they?
BERLINSKI: None, whatsoever.
LEVIN: And yet, they continue to push their theories out as if it’s science.
BERLINSKI: Well, let’s be fair, wouldn’t you do the same thing if you were a leading physicist? I sure would. If I had a theory that deep down I knew was no good, but there are all sorts of emoluments, riches, awards, prestige associated with it, I would push it for all its worth, too.
The honesty is a clue to what makes Berlinski so fascinating, and perhaps it’s how he gets under his opponents’ skin. Levin tries to clarify David’s religious beliefs, or lack of them, his “agnosticism,” or secularism. It’s more that religion somehow doesn’t seem to speak to him, and he’s very candid about this.
LEVIN: I think a lot of our viewers hearing what you’ve talked about atheism, Darwinism and so forth, and I read you’re a secular Jew, do you reject the idea that there is a supernatural? That there is a God? How do you deal with that?
BERLINSKI: Do I reject it personally?
LEVIN: Yes, and how do you deal with it?
BERLINSKI: God forbid I should reject such a thing. There’s a vast difference between being a believer, having a commitment, obeying a certain set of religious prescriptions. Vast difference between that and fundamental rejection. No, I don’t reject it. I can’t live with it. I admit that.
LEVIN: And what does that mean?
BERLINSKI: It means I’m like everyone else. I’m a secular individual. I’d like to think that I’m better than I am. I’d like to think that there is certain forms of consciousness, certain imperatives that I respect which are religious in nature, but I know I’m kidding myself.
Berlinski quotes Marx, “All that is holy is profaned,” which is both doubly powerful coming from an agnostic and a fitting summary of everything that the spirit of evolutionism, or Darwinism, or whatever you want to call it, has given to the world.
Photo: David Berlinski and Mark Levin, screen shot from Fox News, “David Berlinski on the link between evolution, science and progressivism.”