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Category: Book review

Please email me at matt@wmbriggs.com before sending books to be reviewed.

November 14, 2017 | 21 Comments

Why Not Only Us? Men Speak, Animals Make Noise

A review of the book Why Only Us: Language and Evolution by Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky.

Everybody knows, or used to know, that only men speak. Animals make noise, but men make words. A tweet or a bellow is not a language—though a bellowing tweet is. Why?

The standard classical answer—an answer that is not incompatible with the central thesis of Berwick and Chomsky that man is unique—is that man is different in essence than every other animal. What they might not hold with is the proposition that man is possessed of, among other things, a rational soul. He also is equipped with a sensitive soul, just like other animals. Yet man is an entirely different creature.

Saying man alone among other animals possess a rational soul is not an thorough explanation for why only us. Why can’t otters, say, or crows or dolphins also possess a rational soul? After all, if evolution via some physio-environmental-chemical process is what “created” animals, and man is partly an animal, why can’t this physio-environmental-chemical process cause, or has caused, more animals to posses rationality? (Saying evolution is not to name the process.)

The answer is that those parts of us that comprise our rationality, our intellects and will, are not made of physical stuff; they are immaterial. (The proof of this can be found in many places.) Accepting that, even for the sake of argument, means that a physio-environmental-chemical process cannot account for those parts of us which are rational, for the very simple reason that physio-environmental-chemical processes cannot affect non-material substances.

So we are not here because of evolution; or, rather, not wholly. Some physio-environmental-chemical process could have (and I think did) brought us to the point at which our frames were sufficiently able to interact with non-material intellects and wills. But at the point some Higher Power must necessarily have intervened.

It’s not likely Berwick and Chomsky would agree with this explanation. They argue that some physio-environmental-chemical process created all animals, including us, and including those parts of us that create and process speech—and they assume, but of course cannot prove, also those parts that comprehend speech.

In search of this, much of the book is given over to anatomical discussion of neural pathways, brain structures, and so on. We see pictures of the dorsal pathway “Part of the AF/SLF connecting to precentral premotor cortex” in humans, chickens, macaques, etc. Lots of supposition where in the brain noise-making and noise-recognition is processed. About how it all works they say their guesses are “necessarily speculative because we do not really know how the Basic Property is actually implemented in neural circuitry.” This non-answer is satisfactory for the philosophical reader, but obviously won’t be for the biological one. I’ll not say anything more about physiology, as I’m in the philosophical camp. I also won’t here discuss what they call the Darwinian “Modern Synthesis”, “fitness”, about which they are critical, and “random” and “fully stochastic” evolution, and the like except to say “random” or “stochastic” are not substitutes for cause.

We are unique. There have been they say eight major transitions of lifeforms “ranging from the origin of DNA to sexuality to the origin of language—six, including language, appear to have been unique evolutionary events confined to a single lineage” (emphasis added). We don’t have to agree with what process caused these events to agree with this observation. Quoting Ernst Mayer about our uniqueness, “Nothing demonstrates the improbability of the origin of high intelligence better than the millions of … lineages that failed to achieve it” (ellipsis original).

Evolution (by whatever process) is punctuated, even in the genus homo. “What we do not see is any kind of ‘gradualism’ in new tool technologies like fire, shelters, or figurative art.” Examples in animals of “instantaneous” phenotypic change are also noted.

Only certain birds, they say, come anywhere close to us, but even that distance is unbridgeable. The most advanced birdsound is not a language; neither are any other animals sounds languages.

Human language has these key properties: “(1) human language syntax is hierarchical, and is blind to considerations reserved for externalization; (2) the particular hierarchical structures associated with sentences affects their interpretation; and (3) there is no upper bound on the depth of relevant hierarchical structure.” These structures aren’t found in any other animal sounds. “Linear processing,” which is found, “does not even come close to being adequate for human language.” There are “plenty of animal communication systems. But they are all radically different from human language structure and function. Human language does not even fit within the standard typologies of animal communications systems…” These terms are all explained and defended at length, leaving no doubt about our uniqueness.

True, other primates communicates, for instance as we do by gesture, “but this is not language, since, as Burling notes, ‘our surviving primate communication system remains sharply distinct from language.'”

In a “for whatever it is worth” aside a fundamental truth is revealed: “the overwhelming use of language is internal—for thought. It takes an enormous act of will to keep from talking to oneself in every waking moment—and asleep as well, often a considerable annoyance.”

This hints at why language is necessary. They echo neurologist Harry Jerison who thought language necessary “for the construction of a real world.” How else do you name the animals? Tattersall agrees there was a sudden “innovation” in homo sapiens that accounted for language (ellipses original) “a neural change … in some population of the human lineage … rather minor in genetics terms [which] probably had nothing whatever to do with adaptation”.

In this adaption (they say) “there is no room in this picture for any precursors to language…There is no rationale for positing such a system: to go from seven-word sentences to the discrete infinity of human language requires emergence of the same recursive procedure as to go from zero to infinity, and there is of course no direct evidence of for such ‘protolanguages’.”

Berwick and Chomsky emphasize “that language is optimized for the system of thought, with mode of externalization secondary.” We think first and talk second. The natural question is why, especially since no physio-environmental-chemical process could have brought this about. Something else must have.

November 9, 2017 | 16 Comments

Math: Old, New, and Equalitarian — A Review

I have a new paper out in Academic Questions, a review, “Math: Old, New, and Equalitarian.”

Springer is charging a mere pittance for viewing it. Only $39.95. But I think you can get a PDF from this link, through something Springer is called “SharedIt“. I’m not at all clear what it means, and I have no interest in discovering. As long as you can read the article, I’ll be happy.

Here’s the start…

There are three ways to teach math to the young. The old way forced rote memorization of basics and then, for most, stopped the lessons, continuing them only for those who had the inclination or ability to advance. The “new” way was to “expose” every student from the beginning, no matter their age or inexperience, to the highest, most difficult mathematical concepts, so that all might know how wondrous and astonishing math is.

The modern way, which may soon be upon us, is to let students define what math is to them or their culture, to let them discuss their feelings about what math means, and to work toward the goal of equality, that happy state when all are satisfied with their level of (self-defined) mathematical understanding. Two new books—The New Math: A Political History, by Christopher J.Phillips, and Critical Math ematicsEducation: Theory, Praxis, and Reality, edited by Paul Ernest, Bharath Sriraman, and Nuala Ernest—bring these distinctions to the fore.

People were long happy with the old way and for the happiest of reasons. It worked. Nearly every child eligible to attend school could be made to learn, or at least to memorize, that 8 x 7 = 56 and that triangles encompassed half as many degrees as circles and what simple consequences flowed from these facts. Not every child could advance beyond these basics, but few thought that all should.

That attitude began to change mid-twentieth century, a time in which greater proportions of children were enrolling in all levels of schooling.Because of the Cold War and the impression that America was falling behind, the concern was that kids weren’t learning enough and that they needed to be better thinkers. “New Math” was the result.

In The New Math: A Political History, Carnegie Mellon University assistant professor of history Christopher J. Phillips tells of its rise and fall, centering the tale on the School Mathematics Study Group (SMSG), an entity created in earnest by government money during the Sputnik era: “Although originally funded to work on textbooks for the ‘college capable’ students in secondary schools, SMSG gradually expanded its operation, producing textbooks for every grade and type of student, including material for elementary schools, ‘culturally disadvantaged’ children,” etc. The ascension of New Math was thus partly due to routine mission creep found in well-funded bureaucracies.

At its onset, parents were more or less happy with the status quo. But education theorists and others were not. Students taught in the old way could cipher to the rule of three, but they didn’t know the why behind the how: “[O]ne generally accepted axiom was that math textbooks’ and teachers’ traditional reliance on memorization and regurgitation gave students a misleading sense of what mathematicians do and what mathematics was about.”

Yet is it really of interest what professional mathematicians do? Filling out grant requests, for instance? At any rate, what mathematics is about is something argued over by mathematicians themselves. This was true during the time of New Math…

Click the above link to get the PDF and read the rest (I think).

October 16, 2017 | 15 Comments

Despite What You Heard, The Death Penalty Is Legitimate. Feser and Bessette’s “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment”

The Beast

This post ran in full on One Peter Five on 7 July this year, and on this site in abbreviated form, but because there is a suspicion some did not read the entire thing (a terrible suspicion), and due to the importance of the topic given the Pope’s recent comments, I thought it well to re-run here in its entirety. See also Feser’s latest very strong comments on the subject.

Sometime in the mid-1990s in Colombia, Luis Alfredo Garavito Cubillos lured a 6-year-old boy into an isolated spot and sodomized and murdered him. There were bite marks and other evidence of “prolonged torture” found on the boy’s body. The boy’s head was discovered some distance from his torso; the boy’s penis was severed and stuffed into the corpse’s mouth. This act might have occurred while the boy still lived.

Cubillos, unaffectionately known as La Bestia (The Beast), confessed to the crime.

He also confessed to a second crime where he sodomized and tortured a young boy to death. And then a third. And a fourth. And fifth, sixth, seventh, …

Altogether, La Bestia admitted to sodomizing, maiming, torturing, and murdering 147 boys, but he admitted his memory was hazy, and some say the real total approaches 300.

Cubillos was arrested, tried, and found guilty of murdering (only) 138. Colombia’s constitution says “The right to life is inviolable. There will be no death penalty.” That same merciful attitude is responsible for the country forbidding lifetime imprisonments, too.

In 2006, the Superior Court of Bogotá reduced Cubillos’s sentence from 30 years to 22 because of a technicality. He is due to be released in 2021, though, if I understand correctly, with good behavior he can be out by 2018. La Bestia will be 61 in 2018.

Many Catholics would say that the mercy shown to Cubillos represents a true “pro-life” position, and that those who say Cubillo should be executed say so only because they themselves are “eager to kill” and are “bent on maximizing killing no matter what”.

The official stance of the Catholic Church, however, as reinforced by some 2,000 years of teaching, is that the death penalty can be, has been, and continues to be, a just punishment. In the case of Cubillos, it is surely his due. Scheduling his execution, offering him the sacraments, and then speedily carrying out the sentence is the best chance La Bestia has to save his soul. As it now appears (though only God knows), Cubillos is on a blood-greased slide to Hell.

I do not want to make light of this, but it is better than a good bet that unless Cubillos after his release is restrained by illness or circumstance or he is not killed or otherwise incapacitated by vigilantes, La Bestia will kill again. That blood, if God forbid it should flow, will be on the heads of those authorities who refused their Christian duty.

Why Capital Punishment?

Enter By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment by Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, a book so thorough and so relentless that it is difficult to imagine anybody reading it and coming away unconvinced by the lawfulness and usefulness of capital punishment.

Whether to hang any man is in each case a matter of prudential judgement, because the circumstances surrounding any crime always varies. Two Catholics can disagree whether Cubillos should be executed, but that execution might be a just punishment is a question long settled. Which makes you wonder why some, including members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), say things like “human life is sacred…[which] compels us as Catholics to oppose…the use of the death penalty.”

Capital punishment is a theorem of the natural law, a philosophy which the Church “strongly affirms” (and which is well examined in the book). “Moreover, since it arises from a natural inclination, the tendency to punish is a virtue, so long as it is motivated by justice, say, rather than hatred,” a position held by inter alia St Thomas Aquinas, who (as quoted by Feser and Bessette) says, “Vengeance is not essentially evil and unlawful”.

Punishment should fit the crime—the legal phrase is lex talionis—which flows from the principle of proportionality.

The restoration of what Aquinas calls “the equality of justice” by inflicting on the offender a harm proportionate to his offense is known as retribution, and it one of the three traditional purposes of punishment, the others being correction or rehabilitation of the offender and the deterrence of those tempted to commit the same crimes the offender has. Other purposes are incapacitation…and restitution.

To “deny proportionality is implicitly to deny desert, and thus implicitly to deny the legitimacy of punishment.” Cursed be he that withholdeth his sword from blood (Jer 40:10).

Aquinas says “the death inflicted by the judge profits the sinner, if he be converted, unto the expiation of his crime; and, if he be not converted, it profits so as to put an end to the sin, because the sinner is thus deprive of the power to sin no more.”

Steven Goldberg makes the latter point in his When Wish Replaces Thought and Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences, pointing out the non-negligible frequency of murderers (including of guards) that take place in prison, and of those committed by criminals released who otherwise might have been executed. This argument is usually ignored by those who offer lifetime imprisonment as an alternative for executions.

Feser and Bessette acknowledge this argument. In one harrowing section, they list the gruesome crimes committed by the forty-three murderers executed in 2012 in the USA. Many are recidivists.

Take Robert Brian Waterhouse. In 1980, he beat a woman severely with a “hard instrument”, raped her, “assaulted her rectum with a large object, and stuffed her bloody tampon down her throat” and then drowned her. This was after he was released from prison for the murder of a seventy-seven-year-old woman; he served only eight years before being paroled. While in prison for the “twenty-one years and tens months” awaiting his execution, he “committed sexual battery on a cellmate”.

Or how about William Gerald Mitchell? He was “on parole…for the stabbing murder of a woman” when he brutally raped and murdered another woman, by “[running] over his victim several times with his car”. You could go on and on. Our authors do.

And this brings up a pretty point. We have all heard the media report upcoming executions, giving full voice to anti-death-penalty activists who usually attend these events. These reports go something like this (my summary, but the quotes are genuine):

Critics of the death penalty gathered outside State Prison to protest the upcoming execution of Luis Cubillos. Longtime prof-life advocate Father Mercyme, a priest in the Catholic Church, pleaded with the governor that the death penalty is “a violation of the sanctity of human life”, and that the state “is usurping the sovereign dominion of God over human life”. Cubillos was accused of a 1995 murder.

The media never gives the details of the crimes committed, because this, they rightly suspect, would lead listeners to conclude the criminal is getting what he deserved. (This is the same argument against showing the results of abortion victims.) Righteous anger is fled from, and effeminacy embraced. John Crysostom: “He who is not angry, where he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but even the good to do wrong.”

Common pro and con arguments

The death penalty is racist and discriminatory. It is. Whites are disproportionately executed over blacks (this knowledge may cause some to support capital punishment). (Blacks commit violent crimes at rates about eight times higher than whites.) But, I hasten to add, those on death row earned their punishment.

The death penalty does not deter. Please, no statistical arguments. I have yet to see any statistical evidence, for or against, that was not wrong-headed. Of course the death penalty deters. Everybody knows increasing the severity of a punishment leads to greater abatement of a crime. Why would not moving to the ultimate penalty prove the strongest deterrence (Goldberg makes the same argument)? Our authors supply anecdotes—which are perfectly acceptable evidence—of men who would have killed except that they were worried about getting the chair. Even just one instance of this is sufficient empirical proof of deterrence; fancy models are not needed. The penalty would do a greater job of deterrence were it not common knowledge that even for the worst crimes, the legal systems lets men stretch their day of judgment out for decades or forever (as it were).

Why not life imprisonment? For one, if “mercy” demands the cessation of executions, why does not mercy also demand, as in Colombia, the cessation of life imprisonment, or the cessation of any punishment at all? For another, violent (even demonic) men in prison who would otherwise be executed commit crimes. And see the next point about rehabilitation. The subject of how often the innocent are wrongly executed is a tangle, made so on purpose by those who want to exaggerate this rate. The authors delve into this thicket and clarity does emerge.

What we do not know is whether any innocent person was executed during this period. From 1977 through 2014, thirty-four American states executed 1,386 convicted murderers and the federal government another 3. Were any o these 1,389 actually innocent of the crimes for which they were sentenced to death? Although there is no way to know this with certainty, it seems likely that at most 1 or 2 innocent persons—and very possibly none at all—have been executed since the Furman decision of 1972…

In Wish Goldberg (p. 29) says “even the opponent of the death penalty who emphasizes wrongful executions is willing to sacrifice thousands of lives each year for the social advantages of motor vehicles.” And he reminds us that if the death penalty deters it saves lives.

The death penalty does not rehabilitate. Does it not? As everybody quotes, a hanging wonderfully concentrates the mind. In a wonderful section, the authors tell the story of repentance of several of the murderers on death row. Repentance, I say, the most important thing in any man’s life. All of us stand in need of it (at times), but those guilty of the worst crimes stand in greatest need. Concentration of the mind encourages salvation.

The death penalty encourages vengeance. Does all punishment encourage vengeance? If not, why not? The authors give a nice history and derivation of vengeance, incidentally, contrasting its old and new uses, and its distinction between retribution. In another terrific section, the authors write of the family members of victims, of their satisfaction of the punishment of the criminals, and of their forgiveness, too. The feeling that a debt has been paid, not only by the family members, but of the criminals and members of society, is great. When that feeling is missing, there is often despair. And vigilantism. When people lose hope of the government doing its job, they often take vengeance into their own hands.

The Church

There is no decent argument that the Church does not authorize use of the death penalty. It is true authorities lately have emphasized “mercy”, but mercy does not obviate capital punishment. And don’t forget “forgiveness and mercy presuppose that the offender really does deserve the punishment we refrain from inflicting.” What follows here is only the barest, briefest sketch of the vast wealth of material in the book. Experts on this subject may be assured that Feser and Bessette have covered every facet with the same assiduity of a lawyer preparing a Supreme Court brief.

First is scripture. God, you will remember, has warned that the potential punishments awaiting unrepentant sinners is far worse than the early shuffling off of this mortal coil. The threat of punishment (as we saw above) deters. And God said, “He who kills a man shall be put to death…” (Deut 19:11). And far from repudiating this law, Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets…I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Mt 5:17). “Then there is Romans 13:1–4, traditionally understood as a straightforward affirmation on the right of the state to execute criminals”.

The Fathers and Doctors of the Church supported the death penalty. Among the others, “Saint Jerome…says that ‘to punish murderers, the sacrilegious, and poisoners is not the shedding of blood, but the duty of the laws.'” The First Vatican Council decreed that “it is not permissible for anyone to interpret Holy Scripture…against the unanimous consent of the fathers.” And

…even those among the Fathers who were largely or wholly opposed in practice to capital punishment—and who thus had every incentive to try to find in Scripture or Tradition a warrant for an absolute condemnation of the practice—affirmed that capital punishment in principle morally legitimate…It is inconceivable that they could have been mistaken about this matter of moral principle, given the authority of the Church has always attributed to them…

The Catechism agrees on the licit nature of capital punishment, “not only in order to ‘protect the innocent’ but also to ‘punish the guilty’ and ‘avenge…crime'” (ellipsis original). And so do the popes agree—including even Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Francis. Yes, even Pope Francis, about whom our duo says, “Given the obscurity and lack of precision in some of Pope Francis’ remarks…” which is all the quotation I believe this audience requires, except to add that Francis’s words are “plausibly read as having rhetorical rather than doctrinal import.” Whether plausible or not, that’s the way they have to be read to keep his thoughts in line with the constant teaching of the Church.

Now it’s true that the USCCB has waded into the debate implying that the “‘values of the Gospel’ are contrary to the use of the death penalty” (where have we heard that language before?), but these good men forgot to mention the possibility of Hell. Feser and Bessette show that “every element of the bishop’s case against the death penalty fails, including their scriptural interpretations, their moral and philosophical arguments, and their understanding of the practical effects of capital punishment.”

The End

The authors are correct when they say “we now find ourselves in the rather odd situation in which the majority of churchmen appear to be against the death penalty but Catholic teaching is not. This is a recipe for massive confusion among the faithful.” Worse, if we do not execute our worst criminals,

Society will lose sight, first of the idea of proportionality, then of the idea of desert, and finally of the idea of punishment itself. And when the idea of punishment goes, the very idea of justice will go with it, replaced by a therapeutic or technocratic model that treats human beings as cases to be managed and socially engineered than as morally responsible persons. Nothing less is at stake in the death-penalty debate.

And so let us remind ourselves, as do the authors in their last word, of Genesis 9:16, Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.

August 26, 2017 | 94 Comments

The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinski

A modified version of this article ran 14 April 2008.

There are a recent number of books seeking to either demonstrate, scientifically, that God does not exist, or to show that the love of religion is the root of all evil. Some familiar names: Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Weinberg, Victor Stenger, Christopher Hitchens, and even John Allen Paulos. All proclaim that the weight of scientific evidence is either completely or heavily on the side of the non existence of God.

The question is, of course: Has the authority of eminent scientists enabled them to prove their case? Berlinski says, “Not even close.” Not only have they not come close, Berlinski goes further and shows how easily they are persuaded by weak or demonstrably false arguments, and the extraordinary lengths that some scientists will go, in the sense of believing bizarre theories, to avoid ceding any ground to the “religionists.” Their distaste of religion has also lead them to say some rather stupid things. For example, Berlinski quotes the eminent biologist Emile Zuckerkandl as saying that if God exists, He would represent “something like a pathology of the state of being.” An enjoyable, sputtering rant by that author published in the peer-reviewed journal Gene is summarized later in the book.

It is worth mentioning that like most books in this genre, Berlinski does not attempt a definition of who or what God is—and neither do those on the other side. This is curious, because as St Anselm would say, the proof of God is in His definition. Even if that is not so, understanding what God is goes a great way to understanding why God is.

A non-Enlightened disease

Berlinski puts the claim that religion is bad for you in perspective. Some anti-religion authors won’t settle for anything less than damning religion in all its stripes, disallowing, even, the crumb of comfort given to people when their loved ones die. Even Carl Sagan, in his Demon-Haunted World conceded this form of solace, but without recognizing that since everybody dies, this is an enormous amount of comfort to go around that would be denied mankind if religion were absent. But you never hear of enemies of religion breaking open Mill to assist in calculating the utility of comforts versus torments of religion.

Many scientists think that religion, while still a cancerous growth, is benign and only mostly harmful, and not always deadly. Sort of like smoking, which the more Enlightened among us would like to ban. Presumably, those who would prohibit smoking are same people who would support legalizing assisted suicide. Which happened in Holland in 1984 (and where a partial smoking ban does exist). Since then, about three percent of all deaths in that country are assisted [this is the 2008 figure], of which the government admits that about one-fourth are “involuntary.” We call that involuntary method of exiting “murder” here in the States, but Europeans are often considered more Enlightened, so they might be one step ahead of us in legal definitions.

Arguments for assisted suicide are usually intentionally religion-free. Thus, the point of the Holland example, of course, is that the world would not necessarily become a more moral, or safer place, if religion were to disappear. More proof is given by Berlinski in the form of a table, ordered by number of “excess”, or untimely, twentieth-century deaths due to non- or even anti-religious behavior. Leading the pack are of course the two World Wars, but not far behind in the body count are mankind’s experiments with various communist utopias. Since one of the top arguments used by those who would wish to bar religion is that the religious can be cruel and have killed, the evidence that the non-religious can be cruel and have killed in equal or larger number only proves that there will always be a class of people who adore pain, misery, and bloodshed, irrespective of creed.

The disease religion is also seen as congenital, in the sense that people have religion on the brain, literally. Somehow, we are assured, the brain has genetically encoded religion into itself, and that if we’d just grow up and recognize this, we would become Enlightened (or brightened, these days). This is one of the sillier arguments put forth by scientists. If religion is genetically encoded, then it cannot be overcome, unless some of us, the superior ones naturally, have somehow managed to escape expressing those particular genes that activate, say, the praying response. Look for one of those fMRI studies that “proves” this, soon.

Berlinski shows that because some scientists cannot countenance religious arguments of any kind, they refuse to accept any evidence that is any way tainted by religion. This leads to the fallacy that one should not listen to arguments against, say, stem cell research or abortion because they are religious. You will surely certainly recognize this ploy when you meet it.

Scientific ontology

Everybody already knows that physics, and its offshoots, has done brilliantly at explaining more and more of the universe. But it cannot keep doing so forever. At some point, meta-physics must enter into the discussion. This is because, no matter what physical laws we have identified, we will never have explained through observation why these particular laws and not some other are in force, nor can we answer what the laws mean. It is obvious that it is here that God can slip in and offer the needed explanations. Some scientists are therefore anxious to fill in these gap with…something, anything but God. Or, if that cannot be accomplished, then to prove that God does not exist.

Dawkins, in his The God Delusion offers a particularly weak argument. His first premise is that the universe is improbable. And we can stop right there, because that is a nonsensical statement, so his argument fails. Any thing or statement cannot be improbable. A thing can only be improbable with respect to something else. Further, a thing can be improbable with respect to one set of evidence and entirely probable with respect to other evidence. So, in Dawkin’s case, the universe is improbable with respect to what?

Weak Anthropic evidence is sometimes offered, in the guise of certain physical constants having particular values, in the sense that if these constants did not have these values, then human life would be impossible (which is not the same as saying the universe is impossible, but let that pass). Now the burden is on those who tout this evidence to show that this is the best evidence with which to measure the improbability of the universe. And there are many hints that it is not the best evidence. It is, after all, by its very name, suspiciously self indulgent and human centered evidence. Why would the universe care if humans, or other sentient beings, evolved enough to notice that they might not have evolved had the universe been arranged differently anyway? Besides, to say that things might have been different and humans might not have evolved is just a tautology, and therefore of no interest.

Still, accept it if you like, so that we can move to Dawkins’s second premise, which is that God Himself is improbable. Again, the statement is nonsensical: improbable with respect to what? Dawkins suggests that God must be more improbable than the universe, which again makes no sense. Anyway, improbable is not impossible, as Dawkins often argues with respect to evolution by natural selection, arguments he has apparently forgotten. Still, Dawkins moves to his conclusion that God is so improbable that He doesn’t exist, and advises people to accept some recent conjectures in cosmology that seem to do away with the need to explain why the universe, or universes, are the way they are.

These are the Landscape and multiverse hypotheses, put forward by various authors to help them cope with the insolubilities of quantum mechanics and cosmology. These are attempts to shift the questions of “Why?” one step back. That they do not answer them, I would have thought clear. Even pushing the grand questions a little deeper down is enough to please some people. Berlinski, a mathematical physicist, covers these speculations well, without any math, and gives pointers to books where we might learn more. See especially his very clever “Catechism of Quantum Cosmology.” Briefly, however, the solutions offered posit an uncountable number of alternate universes that are coming into and out of creation always. There are no mechanisms to observe these other universes directly or indirectly. Even if we could, these theories might answer some questions of quantum mechanics and gravity, but they never answer why it is infinities of universes instead of just one. The theories are also mind-boggling complex, and by no means are they consistent with one another. Nobody even knows what the full scope of these ideas are.

Berlinski quotes Dawkins, who is nevertheless satisfied, as saying, “The key difference between the radically extravagant God hypothesis and the apparently extravagant multiverse hypothesis, is one of statistical improbability.” Presumably, he means that God is more improbable. He never says how much more. Infinities, of universes or anything else, are a dangerous thing. More foolishness has been generated by jumping to infinity than by any other reason (see chapter 15 of Jaynes’s remarkable Probability Theory for appropriate words of admonition).

Argument from design

It has long been convincing to many that the wonderful biological complexity that is everywhere in evidence must have had a designer. How else, Darwin himself wondered, can one explain the human eye? This argument is less convincing than it once was, because of the success of modern biology and genetics, and the seeming success of evolution by natural selection.

Wait a minute. Did he just say seeming success? He did. Which brings us back to Dawkins, the best-known anti-religion author. Was there ever a man who published so much nonsense that was taken so seriously by the scientific community? Nobody else even comes close. Just mentioning the word memes proves my point. Is not believing in God a meme? Berlinski doesn’t discuss memes, but does offer some well known criticisms of “selfish” genes—incidentally, the best are due to the philosopher’s Mary Midgley (Evolution as a Religion) and David Stove (Darwinian Fairytales; if you haven’t read either of these books, please do so, especially Stove’s, before you comment).

Not all biologists are satisfied with present-day theory. Berlinski writes

[Darwinian] theory is what is always was: It is unpersuasive. Among evolutionary biologists, these matters are well known. In the privacy of the Susan B. Anthony faculty lounge, they often tell one another with relief that it is a very good thing the public has no idea what the research literature really suggest.

“Darwin?” a Nobel laureate in biology once remarked to me over his bifocals. “That’s just the party line.”

There are still gaps in the evolutionary record. Nobody knows how life original arose, and nobody knows how species originate. Some fill these gaps with God. Scientists argue that the gaps will be filled in eventually. Berlinski says that this assumption is “both intellectually primitive and morally abhorrent—primitive because it reflects a phlegmatic absence of curiosity, and abhorrent because it assigns to intellectual future a degree of authority alien to human experience” because filling gaps “has created [new] gaps all over again.”

The answer

The best summation on the side of (non-apoplectic) scientists is probably from Richard Feynman, who said, “Today we cannot see whether Schrödinger’s equation [which describes the time evolution of physical systems] contains frogs, musical composers, or morality. We cannot say whether something beyond it like God is needed, or not. And so we can all hold strong opinions either way.”

To say whether or not God exists is not always the easiest question; yet everybody seems delighted to meet an argument, however weak, that agrees with their desires. This leads very smart people to say exceptionally stupid things. [This was the case with me, before I returned fully to the Church.]