Sunday, September 21, 2008
Hobbes and Choice
There's a review of three books purportedly answering the "New Atheists" at something called The American Thinker (would someone please get poor old Uncle Sam some Kaopectate?). Among their other sins, the folks in charge of The American Thinker maintain that Sarah Palin is an archtype of our "best selves burned into history," the frontierswoman, in the same vein as Maureen O'Hara was. Hollywood make-believe as qualification for high political office? Why not? Who did it better than Ronald Reagan?
Anyway, one of the books allegedly providing "intellectual force and literary grace" in this counterattack is David Berlinski's The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. Belinski's understanding of science, pretentious or not, is well revealed by his Senior Fellowship at the Discovery Institute.
Singling out "Berlinski's characteristic literary verve," the reviewer can, nonetheless, apparently do no better than the following example:
To a Nobel Prize scientist's [Steven Weinberg] argument -- offered at a conference on "science, religion and reason" -- that "for good people to do evil things, [it] takes religion," Berlinski responds: "Just who has imposed on the suffering human race poison gas, barbed wire, high explosives, experiments in eugenics, the formula for Zyklon B, heavy artillery, pseudo-scientific justifications for mass murder, cluster bombs, attack submarines, napalm, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons?"It's an old canard but it's worthwhile dragging it out into the light every now and then and delivering it a few swift kicks.
"If memory serves," he writes, "it was not the Vatican."
Poison gas, Zyklon B (repetition for literary effect or just an attempt to circumvent Godwin's Law?), high explosives and napalm are all the result of the expansion of our knowledge of chemistry, which has also greatly increased the standard of living of human beings and made previously unimaginable products -- including lifesaving ones, such as pharmaceuticals -- available.
It's true that cluster bombs, attack submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons could not be made without science and technology. But, then again, neither could communication and weather satellites, cell phones, computers, automobiles, airplanes, diagnostic medical scanners, radiation therapy for disease, electric lighting and the myriad other results of that selfsame scientific and industrial revolution that have saved millions of lives and reduced poverty, death and disease. That's not even counting the additional benefit of further knowledge those technologies have made possible in the form of electron microscopes, space probes, atom smashers, space telescopes and the like.
And, if memory serves, it wasn't coalitions of scientists out to conquer the world who built and deployed those weapons. It was nations led by politicians, not unlike Sarah Palin, who were, more often than not, willing to call war a "task from God" to get the populace to agree to pay for and wield those weapons against others. Those evils were not "imposed" on the human race by science or scientists, they were gleefully taken up in an orgy of aggression and hate as old as the species.
Yes, genetics and the now defunct idea of "orthogenesis" (not evolution) were given as rationales for the ancient practice of eugenics, but scientists also argued that eugenics was bad science and could not work. But what sort of spectacular illogic does it take to blame pseudo-science on science in the first place?
In worlds in which simplistic answers, crudely painted in black and white, don't count as either intellectual or forceful, it is obvious that all human advance in knowledge bears a double edge. But the alternative to science is not return to an ideal state where humans, guided by some benevolent religion, live in a harmonious and happy state of nature. The option is to return to a medieval -- or worse -- world where the universal lot is an existence notable for being solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
With respect, I don't think you do the quote justice. Berlinski's point is not that all science or scientists are evil, but that Steven Weinberg's argument against religion ("for good people to do evil things, [it] takes religion,") is wrong.
The greatest of slaughters in human history have been made possible by (largely) godless people misusing technology, not by religious people, and particularly not by born-again Christians, at whom most atheists' ire seems to be directed.
Berlinski's point is a defence of godliness against an accusation that is clearly wildly inaccurate, rather than a counter-accusation against science.
You point out quite correctly that science has brought many benefits, but pointing out that it was not Christians who visited the Holocaust upon the Jews or the pogroms upon millions of people under Communism would be more apposite.