Monday, June 16, 2008

"The Devil's Delusion" - a review

There were certain lecturers at university – Hans Kornberg springs to mind – whose lectures nobody would miss. It wasn't because they were necessarily the crucially important courses. It was because there was something about the style of the lecturer – his or her humour, perhaps, or delivery – which captivated the undergraduate audience and held it until the end of the course.

Reading this book by Berlinski reminded me of some of those lecturers. Various things about it were captivating. The layers of meaning that can be found in so many of the sentences; the deft way in which opposing opinions are dismantled; the shocking mild political incorrectnesses; the carefully-measured putdowns; the rhetorical interaction with opponents and readers.

Berlinski is writing a book in defence of belief in a god. Nothing unusual about that – Dawkins' book “The God Delusion”, and similar ones, have sparked a whole publishing industry in response, many of which I've already reviewed on Amazon. What is most unusual about this book is that Berlinski is not a religious believer – and yet he is quite adamant that belief in God is not unreasonable. Furthermore, he is substantially better informed – biblically, philosophically, scientifically – than Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris.

He makes his case persuasively. For example, in response to the insistence that “miracles don't happen” by anti-theists, he points out that whilst we can understand the chemical process by which the eye “sees” something, we don't have a clue about what perception really is, and just because it is part of our everyday experience doesn't mean that it is inappropriate to describe it as a miracle. In response to the dogmatic insistence that we are no more than animals, he points out the fact that if that is what we are in biological terms, then it simply demonstrates that biology is telling us nothing useful about what it means to be human at all. He demonstrates that the theories that supposedly prove that God isn't necessary rarely do what they set out to, and say more about the presuppositions of the proponent than about the nature of the universe.

As I read the book, I found myself increasingly puzzled as to why, given his dissatisfaction with arguments against the existence of God, he should not believe in God himself. The dedication – to his father, who was lost in Auschwitz – perhaps provides one clue, and another big clue is provided in the last chapter - “The Cardinal and his Cathedral.” Here he writes movingly of his life in science, and his hope – perhaps a little forlorn now – that despite its failures, science will one day provide a coherent means of understanding the world.

Two quibbles. The first is that the book could really have done with footnotes or endnotes for the many references. The second is that the odd provocative piece of political incorrectness could have been avoided – not because it does any harm in itself, but because it provides his opponents with a red herring card to play against him (to mix metaphors). But the bottom line is that this is an excellent, highly quotable book, which I intend to pass on to many other thoughtful people.