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Monday, June 4, 2012

What Berlinski believes

In my previous post I speculated on David Berlinski's fundamental beliefs, suggesting that his particular version of agnosticism incorporates elements of a religious view of the world. I know this sort of speculation is usually futile and inconclusive, but I have been somewhat beguiled by his authorial persona and feel the need to come to a personal conclusion about his - well, his seriousness. So here are a few more thoughts.

The problem is that this very clever, cultured, worldly and sophisticated writer (who has a philosophy PhD from Princeton and a strong background in mathematics and logic) has become a darling of the 'intelligent design' movement. There have been unsubstantiated accusations that he has written anti-Darwinian tracts and courted Christian conservatives for financial gain, and that he doesn't really believe much of what he writes in this area.

Who knows? It's a hard world and people have to earn a living, and it's a fact of contemporary life that high-minded scholarly values have lost their foothold, and a commitment to truth for its own sake is widely viewed (quite rightly perhaps) as being based on self-delusion.

Actually, though, Berlinski studiously avoids endorsing religious or 'intelligent design' explanations and restricts himself to criticizing standard scientific explanations.

Is he just being a professional contrarian or is he sincere? Not always very sincere, I would suggest.

It is clear, however, that when Berlinski writes on mathematics and logic he is writing from the heart. And it's also clear that he is a mathematical Platonist. Platonism is, of course, a very respectable (and quite common) position in the philosophy of mathematics.

Indications of a dualism of mind and matter are evident in Berlinski's writings which remind me of the views of Karl Popper (who openly espoused Cartesian dualism).

Popper also suggested at one time, like Berlinski, that the notion of natural selection was vacuous. But, to his credit, Popper changed his mind on this.

I am certainly uncomfortable with Berlinski's links with the 'intelligent design' movement. I don't think he does himself any credit by associating with, allowing himself to be used by and directly and indirectly profiting from those whose religious understanding is rather less sophisticated than his own.

I am not accusing him of intellectual dishonesty. My best guess however is that he is guilty of - how shall I put it? - a certain intellectual recklessness and love of debate for its own sake. Or perhaps he is driven in these matters merely by the pleasure of baiting certain notable atheists.

The obituary he wrote for Christopher Hitchens is a gem. The picture of the two of them - Hitchens gravely ill - having a cigarette and a philosophical chat on "a forlorn hotel loading ramp" in Birmingham, Alabama will stay with me.

Does Berlinski have a hidden religious agenda? He is a mysterian like Ludwig Wittgenstein (on whom he wrote his PhD thesis), like Popper, and like Roger Penrose (to whom he refers and whose general attitude to human consciousness he shares).

Martin Gardner also comes to mind in this context. Though he lacked the academic credentials of the others I have mentioned, he, like Berlinski, was a popularizer of mathematics and a professional skeptic who wrote for a living. He was also an arch-mysterian.

Some people want answers to the big questions, and feel unsatisfied and incomplete if plausible answers are not forthcoming. Others, and Berlinski is among them, don't really want to know at all. They are exhilarated by mystery. Berlinski once observed:

"I mean, deep down we all have a sense that the world is a more mysterious or stranger place not only than we imagine it, but than we can possibly imagine."

If I'm not mistaken, Berlinski's ultimate mystery is equivalent to what medieval thinkers called deus absconditus, the hidden God.