Is the Big Bang Just a Big Hoax? David Berlinski Challenges Everyone

Everyone assumes David Berlinski must have a hidden agenda. Everyone-well, not everyone, but a number of the evolutionists and cosmologists he’s outraged with his iconoclastic critiques of conventional wisdom in their fields-assumes that, lurking somewhere behind Mr. Berlinski’s stinging attacks on the mathematical foundations of the grand theories of the origins of man and the universe, there must be some secret, probably biblical-creationist, agenda he’s advancing.

Even the estimable Bruce Anderson, editor of the fiercely iconoclastic Anderson Valley Advertiser , the Northern California weekly which has reprinted a couple of my Observer columns, reacted to my first column on David Berlinski [“David Berlinski’s Heresies: What If He’s Right?” May 18] with wariness, if not suspicion: He liked it, he said, but “it must have made the fundamentalists happy.”

I don’t know how the fundamentalists feel and I’m not particularly interested, because I don’t believe one should judge the validity of an argument by whom it makes happy. Still, I admit that when I set out to meet with Mr. Berlinski-whom I consider one of the most important skeptical thinkers in America-during his recent visit to the city to debate his critique of cosmology at a private forum at the home of George Soros, I hoped to resolve whether there was, if not a fundamentalist, then some hidden agenda driving his powerful, even shocking, criticism of what he calls the “secular myths” of contemporary science. In seeking to undermine comfortable certainties, our faith that science has the Answers to Ultimate Questions, did he have an Answer of his own hidden up his sleeve? Or was he content to subsist in the darkness of uncertainty, the discipline of “negative capability”? In his critique of theories of origins-of where things come from-just where was he coming from?

Let’s review why the question is important. First of all, just who is David Berlinski to take on the savants of contemporary scientific orthodoxy? As I mentioned in my first column, he’s best known for having written an eloquent and elegant tribute to the beauty and power of mathematics in A Tour of the Calculus . But in the past couple of years, he’s become far more famous (infamous to some), in scientific circles at least, for publishing two powerful, scathing critiques in Commentary : one of evolutionary theory (“The Deniable Darwin,” June 1996) and one of big-bang cosmology (“Was There a Big Bang?” February 1998). In each of these, he turned the weapons of the theorists-the mathematical groundwork of their theories-against them. In each essay, and in the contentious extended forums on the letters pages of the magazine that followed, Mr. Berlinski showed himself well versed in the theoretical language of the scientists he was attacking and debating, having done postdoctoral work in both microbiology and advanced mathematics. Not being thus versed myself, I hesitate to say his arguments won the day on mathematical grounds, but it did appear to me his opponents failed to refute his premises in plain English. And in the course of an hourlong conversation with Mr. Berlinski, I picked up on what might seem like a surprising additional source of his critique of 20th-century scientific certainties: medieval history.

Mr. Berlinski met me in the lobby bar of the New York Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue, where the Soros people had put him up. He’s a tall, youthful-looking and rather debonair figure at 56. He speaks with a trace of a Continental accent (his parents were refugees from Nazi Germany; German was his first spoken language) and with an offhand confidence which might be mistaken for arrogance-and which might be responsible for his rather checkered employment history.

“I went to Columbia and studied medieval history,” he told me shortly after we settled ourselves at a table in the lobby. After medieval history, “I went back to graduate school in philosophy at Princeton. And then I taught at Stanford for three years, and then I got tired of Stanford and became a management consultant with McKinsey & Company. And then after I got fired from that, I worked for the City of New York as a budget officer and-“

“Why did you get fired from McKinsey?” I asked him.

“I didn’t have the right attitude for management,” he said. “I’ve gotten fired from almost every job I ever had.”

Part of his bad attitude about management derived from his contempt for the pretensions to science management theory was manifesting back in the 70’s. And so, after leaving the city budget department and completing postdoctoral study in mathematics (specializing in the arcane study of “the singularities of smooth maps,” a subdiscipline of topology), Mr. Berlinski wrote an entire book attacking the mathematical basis of then-fashionable “systems analysis,” the pseudoscience that was all the rage in “scientific management” circles at the time.

After trashing systems analysis, he left the country for a while. A true freelance soul, “I spent a year teaching in Paris and then bummed around Vienna for a while …” It was in Paris that he encountered the French mathematician M.P. Schützenberger, an information-theory specialist who admired Mr. Berlinski’s critique of systems analysis. It was a crucial turning point for Mr. Berlinski because Schützenberger was one of a number of sophisticated mathematical thinkers who had contributed to a powerful critique of the mathematics of Darwinian theory in the mid-60’s.

Schützenberger and his colleagues argued at a famous (in the trade) symposium at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia that the mathematics of random mutation at the heart of Darwinian theory doesn’t add up: that the accumulation and accretion of random mutation changes in DNA-the blind monkeys at the genetic typewriter-can’t produce by chance the Shakespearean complexity of even cellular-level biochemical systems.

In effect, Schützenberger, author of “Algorithms and the Neo-Darwinian Theory of Evolution” in Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution , was arguing that the belief that chance alone could create a fully functioning eye from random proteins is about as likely, statistically, as lightning strikes on a junkyard somehow assembling, by accident, a fully functioning television set from random parts. (Mr. Berlinski believes that defenders of Darwinism who argue that crude natural selection could “engineer” such exquisitely intricate creations as the eye are covertly introducing “intelligent design” into their theory.)

“Schützenberger was a marvelous figure, a real embodiment of the French intellectual tradition, a great mathematician, a very deep influence in my life,” Mr. Berlinski told me. It was his influence that led Mr. Berlinski to look more closely at the way Darwinians defended evolutionary explanations for the origins of complexity, and here is where his study of medieval history comes in. It’s a field which-perhaps because it deals frequently with fragmentary sources, incomplete manuscripts and absences of definitive evidence-is known among scholarly disciplines for scrupulous acknowledgment of doubt and stringent self-questioning.

“Studying medieval history put me in touch with very serious scholarship,” Mr. Berlinski told me. “Very tentative and very disciplined. And I was shocked, moving into the sciences, how much less discipline there was. And how much unearned credulity was floating around current doctrine.”

Not only credulity, but a cultlike defensiveness devoted to protecting received wisdom from any doubt.

“Getting into science after medieval history, you got the feeling there was just so much crap being floated around that wasn’t being questioned. And there was a hole in the culture in that science as an institution had become a regnant priesthood, and people were taking this stuff with dreadful literalness.”

A regnant priesthood: Here I’d suggest is another way in which the study of medieval history contributed to Mr. Berlinski’s critique of current science. Implicit in his attacks on the shaky mathematical foundations of evolutionary biology and big-bang cosmology is a sense that these theories have become, over the years, not tentative hypotheses open to questioning and testing, but reigning dogmas that are defended with the anathemas and prohibitions on heresies the medieval church employed to suppress doubt. The mandarins of contemporary science have become, Mr. Berlinski believes, as closed-minded as the fundamentalists of religion, their theories of origins as much creationist myths as the creationists’.

In conversation with me, he went even further than that. Speaking of the knee-jerk acceptance by trade book publishers of every faddish cosmological theory in the aftermath of Stephen Hawking’s success with A Brief History of Time , he said, “A lot of stuff that gets into print is simply nonsensical. Alan Guth’s derivation of something from nothing [in The Inflationary Universe ] is simply incandescent horseshit . Don’t tell me you’re deriving something from nothing when it’s transparently obvious to any mathematician that this is incandescent nonsense.”

He singles out Steven Pinker, author of the recent, much hyped popularization of evolutionary psychology, How the Mind Works , as a victim of a pop science publishing culture which places a premium on theories that Explain Everything.

“He’s obviously bright,” Mr. Berlinski said of Mr. Pinker, “and someone says ‘I’m going to give you a half-million bucks to write a book.’ That’s an enormous temptation. Every academic and every academic specialty is now being tempted by the premise of success on the grand scale. It’s become huge industry, a detriment to the public at large and to science itself,” he believes, tempting scientists to abandon tentative questioning and hypothesis-testing for grand pronouncements of pretensions to Answers.

“Books like Pinker’s have an insidious influence on culture,” Mr. Berlinski said. “It’s being represented to a very gullible, trusting public as if it were not only true but dogmatically established, beyond the purview of doubt. It corrupts people’s attitudes. People say, well, Christ, that problem is solved, human beings are nothing more than complicated mechanisms. All our evidence suggests something very different-that human beings are enormously intricate structures of which we have very little understanding.”

Mr. Berlinski’s, then, is not just a critique of science, of the “regnant priesthood,” it’s a critique of culture-of a public and a publishing industry that demands and provides answers, that can’t live with doubt.

Which brings us to the question of whether Mr. Berlinski has a hidden agenda, an Answer of his own up his sleeve he’s seeking to advance.

“It’s not my business to give answers,” he said when I put the question to him directly. “I’m not a cosmologist, I’m not a working biologist, but I think it’s just a mistake to expect people like me to shut up if they don’t have an alternative theory. It’s just a cultural mistake. We as a culture desperately need scientific criticism because there’s so much horseshit being spread in the name of science.”

He explicitly denied that he’s a creationist: “Creationism is, as far as I can tell, an empty doctrine,” empty at least of positive evidence for the nature and presence of a Creator-although he finds some of its negative arguments against Darwinism “very good.”

He disagrees as well with Michael Behe, the microbiologist and author of Darwin’s Black Box . While he admires Mr. Behe’s provocative challenge to evolutionary theory, he doesn’t buy Mr. Behe’s belief that “irreducibly complex” biological systems must reflect the work of “intelligent design,” and implicitly an intelligent designer. He called that “in a certain sense, a narcissistic view” in that it looks to find someone like ourselves inventing and tinkering with complex biological systems.

“But if you’re unwilling to accept intelligent design,” I asked him, “and you don’t trust the evidence for chance mutation creating complex systems, are we left utterly in the dark?”

“I think that’s the reasonable explanation,” he said. “Right now, the only explanation is intelligent uncertainty.”

“It leaves me feeling uncomfortable, not having any explanation to rely on,” I told him. “But you feel it’s better to be uncomfortable rather than to reach after some false comforting reassurance?”

“I don’t know whether it’s better,” he said. “But I think scientific inquiry is very precious; it sets very disciplined limits on what you can or cannot say. Again, I find that the hypothesis that the universe popped into existence, creating space and time along with everything else, is incoherent-the idea of something coming from nothing does not aid the human mind in its quest for understanding. And as soon as physicists say that the big bang had some antecedent circumstances, we are once again in an infinite regress, which raises the question why the whole series of causes and effects should be there in the first place.”

“Even an eternal regress still raises the question of why something rather than nothing?”

“Yeah, why is the damn thing-anything- there . The question should be placed where it belongs-in the realm of mystery.”

“Are you saying we haven’t advanced substantially in these fundamental questions from medieval speculation about it?”

“We have a lot more observations ; we have a tremendous sophistication in our ability to observe and measure. That’s unquestioned. It’s a real triumph of late 20th-century thought.”

“We know what makes things tick-“

“To a certain extent-“

“But we don’t know who made the clock?”

“We must not confuse an accumulation of facts with understanding. There’s a big difference.”

“People have this longing to believe that everything has been figured out, though, don’t they?” I asked him as our conversation came to a close. “It’s frightening, I guess, to think otherwise.”

“But it’s also exhilarating,” Mr. Berlinski said. “I mean, deep down we all have a sense that the world is a more mysterious and stranger place not only than we imagine it, but than we can possibly imagine.”

More mysterious and stranger than we can possibly imagine. The reward for living with doubt, in darkness, is occasional illumination: the thrilling glimpse we get, often in literature, of the unimaginable, of an exquisite complexity beyond the dream of mere mechanism and nucleic acids.

I mentioned to Mr. Berlinski my sense that the exigencies of evolutionary psychology-mere survival of the fittest-could not account for the creation of the mind of Vladimir Nabokov say, and incandescent plenitude of a work like Pale Fire .

“Yeah,” he said, “that’s just an unutterable mystery. I have nothing intelligent to say about it except that I’m glad it occurred.”

Is the Big Bang Just a Big Hoax? David Berlinski Challenges Everyone