Monday, April 14, 2008

Just one of those things...

The intelligent design champion David Berlinski has entered the sci-faith wars again with a book called The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, excerpted at some length in the current issue of Harper's Magazine. The title is clearly meant as a riposte to Dawkins' The God Delusion.

OK, I grant that it is unfair to judge a book or its argument by what might be a badly edited excerpt. I may not be the sharpest tack in the box, but, lordy, having read the excerpt twice, I find nothing but a stew of half-cooked ideas.

Take any paragraph at random, say this one:
The advantage of materialism as a doctrine is that it sanctions an easy argument for atheism. Either the Deity is a material object or He is not. If He is, then He is just one of those things, and if he is not, then materialism could not be true. But if God is just one of those things, what is His interest? And if materialism is false, why are we arguing? Whatever the merits of this argument, the world of matter revealed by the physical science does not serve to endow materialism with a human face.
If you know what to make of this, you are sharper than me. But let me make a few observations. First, the argument, such as it is, assumes a Cartesian dualism, matter versus -- uh, what exactly? Materialism is a worn out word that lost its philosophical usefulness at about the time the atoms of the physicists dissolved into spooky resonances and probabilities. And if Belinski's dualism is defunct, what replaces the old dichotomy of matter and spirit? A unitary view of whatever is. Call it naturalism (my preference). Or, if you wish, call it supernaturalism. Call it X. Whatever you call it, let's get beyond dualism and embrace the universe as one. One what? Just one of those things. A trip to the moon on gossamer wings.

Berlinski suggests that "the world of matter revealed by the physical sciences does not serve to endow materialism with a human face," which is certainly true enough. But this hardly constitutes an argument against materialism (or naturalism). Rather, it would seem to argue against putting a human face on whatever it is that the physical sciences study, which is whatever the universe presents to our inquiring minds.

As I read it, the drift of Berlinki's book (as excerpted in Harper's) is the old chestnut: Science cannot disprove the existence of a God with a human face -- that is, a personal God who attends to our individual lives and intervenes at will in the creation. Well, duh. Science cannot disprove that there's a teapot orbiting the Sun between Earth and Mars either, but that doesn't require the teapot to exist. We can go looking for the teapot, and after millennia of unsuccessful searching decide that, well, maybe we have better things to do with our time.

What better things? Continue the quest to find reliable empirical knowledge of the world. Stand attentively in awe of a universe that is deep and diverse and mysterious beyond our knowing. Admit our ignorance of ultimate realities. Celebrate a God that is -- yes -- just one of those things, but a thing so far beyond human understanding as to be utterly trivialized by giving it a human face.