Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Well now, and what of Berlinski's Devils?

I am currently reviewing mathematician David Berlinski's The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. I will post a link to the review, when I am finished, but just this for now:

The book seems to have been written primarily to deflate vast, windy claims, to strike a blow against the crass, dim stupidities currently hawked in the name of "science."

"Like democracy or justice, science is a word exhausted by its examples. We have been vouchsafed four powerful and profound scientific theories since the great scientific revolution of the West was set in motion in the svententh 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)
Berlinski does not claim to have answers, and certainly not a fevered cause to promote (except the ongoing life of the mind). He is willing to live with uncertainty. There, of course, he differs from hundreds of comparative mediocrities, proclaiming junk ideas like "meme theory" or "the selfish gene" - and assuring us that our sense that these theories are implausible is fully accounted for because our brains have not evolved in such a way as to find them plausible.

No, I suppose they have not. And that is surely something to be grateful for. Who on earth would want a brain that found these theories plausible?