“Human Nature” by David Berlinski: A Revew

I became fan of David Berlinksi, who calls himself a secular Jew, after reading The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, described on Berlinkski’s personal website as

a biting defense of faith against its critics in the New Atheist movement. “The attack on traditional religious thought,” writes Berlinski, “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.”

Here is most of what I say in “Atheistic Scientism Revisited” about The Devil’s Delusion:

Berlinski, who knows far more about science than I do, writes with flair and scathing logic. I can’t do justice to his book, but I will try to convey its gist.

Before I do that, I must tell you that I enjoyed Berlinski’s book not only because of the author’s acumen and biting wit, but also because he agrees with me. (I suppose I should say, in modesty, that I agree with him.) I have argued against atheistic scientism in many blog posts (see below).

Here is my version of the argument against atheism in its briefest form (June 15, 2011):

  1. In the material universe, cause precedes effect.
  2. Accordingly, the material universe cannot be self-made. It must have a “starting point,” but the “starting point” cannot be in or of the material universe.
  3. The existence of the universe therefore implies a separate, uncaused cause.

There is no reasonable basis — and certainly no empirical one — on which to prefer atheism to deism or theism. Strident atheists merely practice a “religion” of their own. They have neither logic nor science nor evidence on their side — and eons of belief against them.

As for scientism, I call upon Friedrich Hayek:

[W]e shall, wherever we are concerned … with slavish imitation of the method and language of Science, speak of “scientism” or the “scientistic” prejudice…. It should be noted that, in the sense in which we shall use these terms, they describe, of course, an attitude which is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed. The scientistic as distinguished from the scientific view is not an unprejudiced but a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating it. [The Counter Revolution Of Science]

As Berlinski amply illustrates and forcibly argues, atheistic scientism is rampant in the so-called sciences. I have reproduced below some key passages from Berlinski’s book. They are representative, but far from exhaustive (though I did nearly exhaust the publisher’s copy limit on the Kindle edition). I have forgone the block-quotation style for ease of reading, and have inserted triple asterisks to indicate (sometimes subtle) changes of topic. [Go to my post for the excerpts.]

On the strength of The Devil’s Delusion, I eagerly purchased Berlinski’s latest book, Human Nature. I have just finished it, and cannot summon great enthusiasm for it. Perhaps that is so because I expected a deep and extended examination of the title’s subject. What I got, instead, was a collection of 23 disjointed essays, gathered (more or less loosely) into seven parts.

Only the first two parts, “Violence” and “Reason”, seem to address human nature, but often tangentially. “Violence” deals specifically with violence as manifested (mainly) in war and murder. The first essay, titled “The First World War”, is a tour de force — a dazzling (and somewhat dizzying) reconstruction of the complex and multi-tiered layering of the historical precedent, institutional arrangements, and personalities that led to the outbreak of World War I.

Aha, I thought to myself, Berlinkski is warming to his task, and will flesh out the relevant themes at which he hints in the first essay. And in the second and third essays, “The Best of Times” and “The Cause of War”, Berlinski flays the thesis of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. But my post, “The Fallacy of Human Progress“, does a better job of it, thanks to the several critics and related sources quoted therein.

Berlinski ends the third essay with this observation:

Men go to war when they think that they can get away with murder.

Which is tantamount to an admission that Berlinski has no idea why men go to war, or would rather not venture an opinion on the subject. There is much of that kind of diffident agnosticism throughout the book, which is captured in his reply to an interviewer’s question in the book’s final essay:

Q. Would you share with us your hunches and suspicions about spiritual reality, the trend in your thinking, if not your firm beliefs?

A. No. Either I cannot or I will not. I do not know whether I am unable or unwilling. The question elicits in me a stubborn refusal. Please understand. It is not an issue of privacy. I have, after all, blabbed my life away: Why should I call a halt here? I suppose that I am by nature a counter-puncher. What I am able to discern of the religious experience often comes about reactively. V. S. Naipaul remarked recently that he found the religious life unthinkable.

He does? I was prompted to wonder. Why does he?

His attitude gives rise to mine. That is the way in which I wrote The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions.

Is there anything authentic in my religious nature?

Beats me.

That is a legitimate reply, but — I suspect — an evasive one.

Returning to the book’s ostensible subject, the second part, “Reason”, addresses human nature mainly in a negative way, that is, by pointing out (in various ways) flaws in the theory of evolution. There is no effort to knit the strands into a coherent theme. The following parts stray even further from the subject of the book’s title, and are even more loosely connected.

This isn’t to say that the book fails to entertain, for it often does that. For example, buried in a chapter on language, “The Recovery of Case”, is this remark:

Sentences used in the ordinary give-and-take of things are, of course, limited in their length. Henry James could not have constructed a thousand-word sentence without writing it down or suffering a stroke. Nor is recursion needed to convey the shock of the new. Four plain-spoken words are quite enough: Please welcome President Trump.

(I assume, given Berlinski’s track record for offending “liberal” sensibilities, that the italicized words refer to the shock of Trump’s being elected, and are not meant to disparage Trump.)

But the book also irritates, not only by its failure to deliver what the title seems to promise, but also by Berlinski’s proclivity for using the abstruse symbology of mathematical logic where words would do quite nicely and more clearly. In the same vein — showing off — is the penultimate essay, “A Conversation with Le Figaro“, which reproduces (after an introduction by Berlinksi) of a transcript of the interview — in French, with not a word of translation. Readers of the book will no doubt be more schooled in French than the typical viewer of prime-time TV fare, but many of them will be in my boat. My former fluency in spoken and written French has withered with time, and although I could still manage with effort to decipher the meaning of the transcript, it proved not to be worth the effort so I gave up on it.

There comes a time when once-brilliant persons can summon flashes of their old, brilliant selves but can no longer emit a sustained ray of brilliance. Perhaps that is true of Berlinski. I hope not, and will give him another try if he gives writing another try.

2 thoughts on ““Human Nature” by David Berlinski: A Revew

  1. Thanks for the link. I like (and “like”) your post. Scientism and secular humanism aren’t alone in assuming the answer to the deepest mystery — existence — but they are up their in the forefront of motivated reasoning.

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