Sunday, March 13, 2005

Berlinski: More reasons to ignore

As a side note to our multi-part takedown of David Berlinski's anti Darwinism rants, it is instructive to get another perspective on his philosophical methods as they inform his views on science in general. While perusing the new-book rack at the local library yesterday, I came across Berlinski's latest book, The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky: Astrology and the Art of Prediction. Noting Berlinski's uncompromizing skepticism as it pertains to Darwinism, one would imagine that he would offer up an even more relentless savaging of Astronomy. Strangely, he appears uncharacteristically sympathetic to it, as related by this Editorial Review by the Publisher's Weekly, from the Amazon listing:

Spanning the development of astrology from Sumerian origins to Nazi court astrologers, Berlinski's ruminative but shallow history seeks to rescue it from what he sees as the misconceived derision of modern science. The author of A Tour of the Calculus remains coyly agnostic about astrology's validity. He calls it a "finely geared tool for the resolution of practical problems" and cites many successful predictions and a statistical study supposedly verifying the "Mars effect" on athletic talent, but when faced with the incoherent, metaphorical techniques by which astrologers interpret their charts, he can only shrug that since smart people used to listen to astrologers, there must be something to it. If not rational, Berlinski argues that astrology is at least "rationalistic," in that "the peculiar nature of astrological thought has returned in all the sciences, in disguised form." Unfortunately, this provocative point is made through facile comparisons-medieval notions of heavenly "influences" anticipate Newtonian mechanics, electromagnetism and sociobiology, for example, while 15th-century medical astrological charts are "the forerunner of such diagnostic devices as CAT scans"-that illuminate neither ancient nor modern thought. Physicists will object to Berlinski's contention that they account for "action at a distance" no better than astrologers do, while philosophers will blanch at his superficial take on the conundrums of causality and determinism. No more edifying are the self-consciously literary vignettes (the dying Copernicus "took his breath in long, slow, wet, ragged gasps, a bubble of pale phlegm forming on his lips") with which Berlinski "humanizes" this intellectual history. Readers looking for real intellectual meat behind the author's ostentatious erudition and metaphysical
pseudo-profundities will go hungry.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.



How to square such credibility with his toughminded skepticism of Darwinism? I would propose the thought that Berlinski is not so much a skeptic as an anti-skeptic. He is skeptical of the modern skepticisms, spearheaded by the scientific revolutions, against the more ancient systems of spiritualized "knowledge", represented by religion and the arcane arts. Perhaps he is a Romantic, railing against the disenchantment of the world wrought by Rationalism and Science. It is hard to say where his motivations lie, but it is quite certain that there is an emotional agenda underlying his treatments of Darwinism and Astrology in particular, and science in general.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Jeff Guinn said...

Duck:

I think the problem is more simple.

The devotedly religious are convinced their particular divinely revealed world view is completely correct. Therefore, any contradiction must be attacked, with vigor in direct proportion to the contradiction's threat.

Irony is a concept that can be hard to grasp, but once gotten hold of is well worth the effort.

In this case, the religious put their faith in God, in part to avoid the vagaries of humanity, but are completely anagonistic to anything showing the God that is to be other than the God they worship.

The irony being that the God they worship is a human invention, scarcely bulwark against the vagaries of humanity.

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Blogger Amon said...

Well done on a nice blog Duck. I was searching for information on astronomy telescopes and came across your post Berlinski: More reasons to ignore - not quite what I was looking for related to astronomy telescopes but very interesting all the same!

Well, it's a new year - in fact it's almost the Chinese New Year. I'm still putting together astronomy lesson plans for the first and second semesters. This year the budget allows us to purchase a new telescope for the science group. That's great so we're still juggling the numbers how to get best bang for the buck! Not the 'big bang' you understand LOL. I'm coming down on the side of the Meade LX200GPS 12" Schmidt-Cassegrain. Let's wait and see.

If you do have a moment, please take a look at my new site on: Astronomy for Kids .

A happy new year to everyone!

January 27, 2006 7:23 PM  

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