Saturday, May 10, 2014

[Book] Berlinski on Belief and Evidence

The Devil's Delusion (2009) 

David Berlinski

1. I have recently read David Berlinski's The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (2009).

Berlinski is very erudite and his prose style is exquisite and a joy to read.

In this book, the Four Horsemen of New Atheism comes in for some biting criticisms.

(The Four Horsemen of New Atheism refers to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.)

One reason why Berlinski's criticisms are so biting is because he is not some fundamentalist Christian or Moslem bent on refuting the new atheists.

Berlinski is a self-proclaimed secular Jew (Berlinski 2009, xiii):

"At the beginning of his Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris writes that his fiercest and most 'disturbed' critics are Christians who are 'deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism.' It would seem that a good many of those intolerant critics have been sending Harris biblical verses supporting their intolerance. Now, I count myself among Harris's warmest detractors. When he remarks that he has been dumbstruck by Christian and Moslem intellectual commitments, I believe the word has met the man. But here it is, an inconvenient fact: I am a secular Jew. My religious education did not take. I can barely remember a word of Hebrew. I cannot pray. I have spent more years than I care to remember in studying mathematics and writing about the sciences. Yet the book that follows is in some sense a defense of religious thought and sentiment. Biblical verses are the least of it."

Berlinski's book makes many thought provoking points.

This blog post will consider only two of them:

(a) Clifford's Injunction is false.

(b) Theory determines evidence.

This post will end by quoting a section of Berlinski's book.

2. What is labelled as Clifford's Injunction is the claim that "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."

The quotation is from W.K. Clifford's 1877 essay "The Ethics of Belief".

On the surface, the Injunction seems reasonable and true; but it turns out that in many cases, it is unreasonable and false.

To head off a possible misunderstanding, please remember that the denial of "all are" is "some are not", not "none are".

The denial of Clifford's Injunction is the claim: It is right sometimes, somewhere, and for someone to believe something upon insufficient evidence.

The denial of Clifford's Injunction is not the claim: It is right always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

The denial of Clifford's Injunction does not legitimatize belief anarchy.

As to when it is right for someone somewhere to believe something upon insufficient evidence or even no evidence?

This must be considered on a case by case basis.

For a very readable argument on how the denial of Clifford's Injunction applies to belief in God, please see Alvin Plantinga's 1983 essay "Reason and Belief in God".

3. A standard format for writing a scientific report consists of four sections (The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill):

(a) Introduction: states the hypothesis.

(b) Methods: details how the hypothesis is tested.

(c) Results: provides the raw data collected.

(d) Discussion: considers whether the data obtained support or refute the hypothesis.

The format of a scientific report suggests that data or evidence will determine whether a theory is true or false: Evidence determines theory.

But the converse of the slogan is also true: Theory determines evidence.

This converse slogan is true in the sense that what we will see, notice or consider as evidence also depends on our theory about the world.

Theory also determines evidence has been emphasized by contemporary philosophy of science at least since the Second World War.

The following quotation of Berlinski has a very nice explanation of it.

4. The following quotation is a section called "Evidence" of Chapter 3: Horses Do Not Fly of Berlinski's book (Berlinski 2009, 47-50):


It is wrong, the nineteenth-century British mathematician W. K. Clifford affirmed, “always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” I am guessing that Clifford believed what he wrote, but what evidence he had for his belief, he did not say.

Something like Clifford’s injunction functions as the premise in a popular argument for the inexistence of God. If God exists, then his existence is a scientific claim, no different in kind from the claim that there is tungsten to be found in Bermuda. We cannot have one set of standards for tungsten and another for the Deity. If after scouring Bermuda for tungsten, we cannot find any of the stuff, then we give up on the claim. By parity of reasoning, if it is wrong to believe anything upon insufficient evidence, and if there is insufficient evidence for the existence of God, then it must be wrong to believe in his existence.

There remains the obvious question: By what standards might we determine that faith in science is reasonable, but that faith in God is not? It may well be that “religious faith,” as the philosopher Robert Todd Carroll has written, “is contrary to the sum of evidence,” but if religious faith is found wanting, it is reasonable to ask for a restatement of the rules by which “the sum of evidence” is computed. Like the Ten Commandments, they are difficult to obey but easy to forget. I have forgotten them already.

Perhaps this is because there are no such rules. The concept of sufficient evidence is infinitely elastic. It depends on context. Taste plays a role, and so does intuition, intellectual sensibility, a kind of feel for the shape of the subject, a desire to be provocative, a sense of responsibility, caution, experience, and much besides. Evidence in the court of public opinion is not evidence in a court of law. A community of Cistercian monks padding peacefully from their garden plots to their chapel would count as evidence matters that no physicist should care to judge. What a physicist counts as evidence is not what a mathematician generally accepts. Evidence in engineering has little to do with evidence in art, and while everyone can agree that it is wrong to go off half-baked, half-cocked, or half-right, what counts as being baked, cocked, or right is simply too variable to suggest a plausible general principle.

When a general principle is advanced, it collapses quickly into absurdity. Thus Sam Harris argues that “to believe that God exists is to believe that I stand in some relation to his existence such that his existence is itself the reason for my belief” (italics added). This sounds very much as if belief in God could only be justified if God were to call attention conspicuously to Himself, say by a dramatic waggling of the divine fingers.

If this is so, then by parity of reasoning again, one might argue that to believe that neutrinos have mass is to believe that I stand in some relationship to their mass such that their mass is itself the reason for my belief.

Just how are those neutrinos waggling their fingers?

A neutrino by itself cannot function as a reason for my belief. It is a subatomic particle, for heaven’s sake. What I believe is a proposition, and so an abstract entity—that neutrinos have mass. How could a subatomic particle enter into a relationship with the object of my belief? But neither can a neutrino be the cause of my belief. I have, after all, never seen a neutrino: not one of them has ever gotten me to believe in it. The neutrino, together with almost everything else, lies at the end of an immense inferential trail, a complicated set of judgments.

Believing as I do that neutrinos have mass—it is one of my oldest and most deeply held convictions—I believe what I do on the basis of the fundamental laws of physics and a congeries of computational schemes, algorithms, specialized programming languages, techniques for numerical integration, huge canned programs, computer graphics, interpolation methods, nifty shortcuts, and the best efforts by mathematicians and physicists to convert the data of various experiments into coherent patterns, artfully revealing symmetries and continuous narratives. The neutrino has nothing to do with it.

Within mathematical physics, the theory determines the evidence, and not the other way around. What sense could one make of the claim that top quarks exist in the absence of the Standard Model of particle physics? A thirteenth-century cleric unaccountably persuaded of their existence and babbling rapturously of quark confinement would have faced then the question that all religious believers now face: Show me the evidence. Lacking access to the very considerable apparatus needed to test theories in particle physics, it is a demand he could not have met.

In the face of experience, W. K. Clifford’s asseveration must be seen for what it is: a moral principle covering only the most artificial of cases.

The existence of God is not one of them.


Berlinski, David. 2009. The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. New York: Basic Books.

Chignell, Andrew. 2010. The Ethics of Belief. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta.
(Spring 2013 Edition).

Plantinga, Alvin. 1983. Reason and Belief in God. In Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God, ed. Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, 16-93. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. [n.d.]. Scientific Reports.
(accessed 2014-05-10).

"New Atheism", Wikipedia - The Free Encyclopedia,
(accessed 2014-05-10).