The Devil's Delusion

June 23, 2011

As easy as One, Two, Three

One, Two, Three Absolutely Elementary Mathematics is the new book from David Berlinski, the acclaimed author of A Tour of the Calculus and The Advent of the Algorithm. One, Two, Three is a riveting new look at mathematics that reveals a hidden world in some of its most fundamental concepts. It's a captivating exploration of the foundation of mathematics: how it originated, who thought of it, and why it matters.

"Philosopher and math populizer Berlinski takes on the challenge of explaining the logical foundation of the elementary operations of arithmetic....A tour de force by a mathematician who wants the intellectually curious and logically understand the foundations and beauty of one of the major branches of mathematics."
--Kirkus Reviews

"Math writer and teacher Berlinski is well-known for his 1997 A Tour of the Calculus. In this outing, he reintroduces readers to their childhood friends, the integers, bringing out their complexity in a way elementary school teachers never did."
--Publishers Weekly

"With broad culture and wry humor, Berlinski takes a look at some basic concepts in math and the people who worried about them. A treat!"
--Gregory Chaitin, author of Meta Math!

February 5, 2010

What Darwin Got Wrong and What Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini Finally Get Right

What is encouraging about Jerry Fodor's and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini's arguments in What Darwin Got Wrong is just that Fodor and Piattelli- Palmarini had the nerve to make them. What is discouraging about their arguments is just that it has taken them so long to acquire their nerve. Where have you been fellahs?

Every argument that they advance others have advanced before them. Who in particular? Me, for sure. I have called attention to the striking analogy between Skinner and Darwin for more than fifteen years now.

And, finally, what is dismaying about Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini's arguments is the reaction that they have already evoked in The New Scientist. Letters following publication of their article display with unfailing eagerness the characteristic attitude of the Darwinian community toward criticism.

Arguments against Darwin? If they cannot be rationally rebutted, then say with assurance that we knew it all along. If that does not work, blame everything on creationism. And if that still does not work, snicker.

January 15, 2010

Responding to Stephen Flether's Views in the Times Literary Supplement on the RNA World

To the Editor
The Times Literary Supplement

The RNA World


Having with indignation rejected the assumption that the creation of life required an intelligent design, Mr Fletcher has persuaded himself that it has proceeded instead by means of various chemical scenarios.

These scenarios all require intelligent intervention. In his animadversions, Mr Fletcher suggests nothing so much as a man disposed to denounce alcohol while sipping sherry.

The RNA world to which Mr Fletcher has pledged his allegiance was introduced by Carl Woese, Leslie Orgel and Francis Crick in 1967. Mystified by the appearance in the contemporary cell of a chicken in the form of the nucleic acids, and an egg in the form of the proteins, Woese, Orgel and Crick argued that at some time in the past, the chicken was the egg.

This triumph of poultry management received support in 1981, when both Thomas Cech and Sidney Altman discovered the first of the ribonucleic enzymes. Their discoveries moved Walter Gilbert to declare the existence of an RNA world in 1986. When Harry Noeller discovered that protein synthesis within the contemporary ribosome is catalyzed by ribosomal RNA, the existence of an ancient RNA world appeared "almost certain" to Leslie Orgel.

And to Mr Fletcher, I imagine.

If experiments conducted in the here and now are to shed light on the there and then, they must meet two conditions: They must demonstrate in the first place the existence of a detailed chemical pathway between RNA precursors and a form of self-replicating RNA; and they must provide in the second place a demonstration that the spontaneous appearance of this pathway is plausible under pre-biotic conditions.

The constituents of RNA are its nitrogenous bases, sugar, and phosphate. Until quite recently, no completely satisfactory synthesis of the pyrimidine nucleotides has been available.

The existence of a synthetic pathway has now been established. (Matthew W. Powner et al, "The Synthesis of activated pyrimidine ribonucleotides in prebiotically plausible conditions," Nature 459, 239--242, 2009).

Questions of pre-biotic plausibility remain. Can the results of Powner et al be reproduced without Powner et al?

It is a question that Powner raises himself: "My ultimate goal," he has remarked, "is to get a living system (RNA) emerging from a one-pot experiment."

Let us by all means have that pot, and then we shall see further.

If the steps leading to the appearance of the pyridimines in a pre-biotic environment are not yet plausible, then neither is the appearance of a self-replicating form of RNA. Experiments conducted by Tracey Lincoln and Gerald Joyce at the Scripps Institute have demonstrated the existence of self-replicating RNA by a process of in vitro evolution. They began with what they needed and purified what they got until they got what they wanted.

Although an invigorating piece of chemistry, what is missing from their demonstration is what is missing from Powner's and that is any clear indication of pre-biotic plausibility.

I should not wish to leave this discussion without extending the hand of friendship to every party.

Mr Nagel is correct in remarking that Mr Fletcher is insufferable. Mr Walton is correct in observing that the RNA world is imaginary. And Mr Fletcher is correct in finding the hypothesis of intelligent design unacceptable.

He should give it up himself and see what happens.

December 16, 2009

An Open Letter to Donald Prothero

Hey Don --

I want you should do me a favor. I noticed that you put up this real negative review of Steve Meyer's Signature in the Cell on Amazon. I want to tell you, I loved the stuff about the slow fuse and all. It brought back memories of the time Boom Boom Salacio was a Senior Fellow at the DI. The Putznagel Salami Fire? That was Boom Boom. We all miss the Big Guy at the DI. But here's the thing. The moment your review hit the stands, bang! sales of Meyer's book go through the roof. I mean you're taking Boom Boom to a whole new level.

So I was thinking that maybe you could give my book a negative review too? Make it a real scorcher and all. It's called The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions. I mean, how long did it take to write the Meyer review? Five minutes, tops? Am I right?

If you don't want to read my book, no problem. Write the review without reading the book. Just use the Meyer review and cross out his name. I need to kind of boost sales what with all the excitement over Meyer's book. We're pretty competitive over here at the DI and also my tailor is starting to complain about his bill.

So I'm counting on you as a friend. If you won't do it as a friend, then do it for science. And if you won't do it as a friend and you won't do it for science, hey, what good are you?

Am I right?


December 5, 2009

I Told You So

From The Deniable Darwin:

My own view, repeated in virtually all of my essays, is that the sense of skepticism engendered by the sciences would be far more appropriately directed toward the sciences than toward anything else. It is not a view that has engendered wide-spread approval. The sciences require no criticism, many scientists say, because the sciences comprise a uniquely self-critical institution, with questionable theories and theoreticians passing constantly before stern appellate review. Judgment is unrelenting. And impartial. Individual scientists may make mistakes, but like the Communist Party under Lenin, science is infallible because its judgments are collective. Critics are not only unwelcome, they are unneeded. The biologist Paul Gross has made himself the master of this attitude and invokes it on every conceivable occasion.

Now no one doubts that scientists are sometimes critical of themselves. Among astrophysicists, backbiting often leads to backstabbing. The bloodletting that ensues is on occasion salutary. But the process of peer review by which grants are funded and papers assigned to scientific journals, is, by its very nature, an undertaking in which a court reviews its own decisions and generally finds them good. It serves the useful purpose of settling various scores, but it does not -- and it cannot -- achieve the ends that criticism is intended to serve.

If the scientific critic finds himself needed wherever he goes, like a hanging judge he finds himself unwelcome wherever he appears, all the more reason, it seems to me, that he really should get around as much as possible.

I told you so.

November 12, 2009

"No one can read David Berlinski's The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions and not come away thoroughly impressed"

No one can read David Berlinski's The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions and not come away thoroughly impressed with the brilliance of its argumentation and critique of scientism. Berlinksi is not a believer, but a secular Jew. Yet, he recognises that many of the popular arguments against religion and for science are philosophically naive, pretentious and chauvinistic. The New Atheists are not well schooled in philosophy and certainly not in the philosophy of science. They don't realise science is not philosophically neutral.
From The war over religion by Ian Boyne.

The Devil's Delusion Continues To Sell Well

When The Devil's Delusion was originally published in hardback in 2008, it went through several printings and was sold out in less than six months. More than a year later the paperback version finally made it into print, and it has gone through at least three printings already is selling very well according to the publisher, Basic Books.

This week the book climbed again into the top 300 selling books at, and is still in the top 1000, as well as being the #1 selling book on Science & Religion. Sales Rank: #729 in Books (See Bestsellers in Books)
Popular in these categories: (What's this?)

#1 in Books > Religion & Spirituality > Religious Studies > Science & Religion
#2 in Books > Religion & Spirituality > Spirituality > Atheism
#2 in Books > Religion & Spirituality > Christianity > Theology > Philosophy

November 5, 2009

David Berlinski on The Deniable Darwin and Commentary

Q: Many of the most important and lengthiest essays in The Deniable Darwin were originally published in Commentary magazine. How did that fruitful partnership, or patronship, come about? Did you encounter any resistance from the Commentary readership?

DB: My association with Commentary was a stroke of good luck. I wanted a wider readership. Who doesn't? So I wrote [editor] Neal Kozodoy a letter. It was 1994. Neal, for reasons of his own, thought it important to broaden Commentary's intellectual horizons. We had been struck by the fact that science as an institution lacks for critics. To a very surprising extent, it gets a free pass. So our association began. I've never known a better editor. "The Deniable Darwin" provoked a great deal of controversy when it was published. It still does. Bloggers still feel obliged to waddle into Blogginess with a counter-critique. Some readers found my Commentary essays difficult, especially those dealing with the origins of life and the evolution of the eye. They objected, perhaps rightly so. They are difficult. But Commentary, you must remember, is a Jewish magazine, and it was the thought that I might in some way be offering encouragement to Christian evangelicals that some of Commentary's readers found troubling. They were fearful that in the very next issue I might be found speaking in tongues or eagerly handling snakes.

Continue reading "David Berlinski on The Deniable Darwin and Commentary" »

November 3, 2009

Berlinski in The Deniable Darwin: Science Needs Its Own Critics

NewsBusters has a great interview with David Berlinski by Kevin Mooney, who praises The Deniable Darwin as "a series of mind-bending essays." Proving once again that he is a skeptic's skeptic, Dr. Berlinski addresses the lack of criticism in science:

"In the U.S. you have the separation of powers that keeps different branches in check, but this is not true for science, where there is now a lot of corruption," he observed. "Science needs its own critics. The same skepticism that is used in research now needs to be turned back onto science itself."

Dr. Berlinski's essays go a long way toward rectifying this situation, while his observations and insights quickly reveal how ridiculous the anti-ID crowd can be:

But there is nothing wrong in principle with scientific endeavors that are infused by faith and a sense of humility toward larger possibilities, Berlinsk said.

"We are not going to adopt sharia law because an astronomer who is open to these ideas begins to make important discoveries," he observed.

It's an obvious point, but if you remember the irrational fear surrounding the tenure case of textbook-author Guillermo Gonzalez, it's apparently a point that still needs to be made.

The rest of the interview is available here.

November 2, 2009

David Berlinski on The Dennis Miller Show

Recently David Berlinski was on The Dennis Miller Show, where he discussed The Deniable Darwin and The Devil's Delusion while explaining his stance as a secular Jew attacking atheism.

Click here to listen.