On Uncommon Knowledge, an Uncommonly Comprehensive Statement of David Berlinski's Picture of the World
Wow, do yourself a favor and watch Peter Robinson's new interview with David Berlinski, as I just did. That is a rich, fascinating, wide-ranging conversation. Note that the version at the Wall Street Journal site is a half hour whereas the cut I watched, posted by the Hoover Institution, runs to 44 minutes. I recommend taking the time and seeing the whole thing. Don't skimp.
Robinson, who hosts Hoover's Uncommon Knowledge series, is an exceptionally winsome interviewer. Berlinski is brilliant, as a character and as an expostulator of his own picture of the world. They cover a lot of ground, guided by the signposts of David's books, notably The Deniable Darwin (which I had the privilege of editing), The Devil's Delusion, and his upcoming The Best of Times. The talk ranges from the Cambrian explosion to the fall of the Roman Empire and the composition of Augustine's City of God, from World War II and the Holocaust to the problem of government-funded science in the U.S. and contemporary debates about climate change and Darwinian theory.
Unlike reading a single book by David Berlinski, what stands out about this interview is that it allows you to grasp in a brief crystallized form David's view of science and society, how it all fits together.
Peter Robinson is understatedly smart, and funny. At one point he invokes Bill Clinton as an intelligent-design advocate for the latter's wonderful observation that "If you see a turtle sitting on top of a fence post, it didn't get there by accident."
He also tries -- who hasn't? -- to pin Berlinski down as to David's beliefs on the ultimate question: "Out with it, David! Are you saying that there is an intelligent designer, a being, a God?"
Berlinski gives a wry, sphinx-like look and asks, "Does it seem to you that I was saying that?" Which makes Peter Robinson crack up. David goes on to say something that captures what is for me the essence of conservatism, which is the hope falling just short of confidence that our ancestors were wiser than we are. "The intuitions of mankind should not be spurned or scorned carelessly," says Berlinski.
As to the God question in particular, "The default position of the human race is that some creative act was necessary to bring the panorama into existence. And I share that default position."
At the same time, David says he feels straightjacketed by the myopic secular perspective in which he was educated even as he confesses to anxiety at the thought of shrugging it off. That is a very honest and true thing to say, I believe, for most of us.
Questioning Berlinski on whether there is an "overarching design in human affairs," as there seems to be in biology, Robinson turns to the subject of David's forthcoming book, still unfinished on the occasion of this interview. It's a response in a way to evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker's hopelessly optimistic The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The last portion of the conversation focuses on the monument of violence that is the 20th century.
Robinson asks David to comment on a passage from his book where he quotes Hannah Arendt on the permanence of history, how once it happens it never goes away, and then says:
It is in this sense that the 20th century, having introduced into human history crimes never before imagined, is immortal. It is simply there, an obelisk in human history, black, forbidding, irremovable and inexpungible.
In their naivety, men like Pinker assume that with the apparent progress of science we're coming closer and closer to having everything all figured out, if only everybody would just listen to our wonderful scientists on everything, whether science, morals, politics, religion, you name it. Berlinski's wisdom is to see how, despite science, compared to the ancients we are in important ways impoverished, orphaned, blinded, and straightjacketed.
The black obelisk of the 20th century is an irreversible reminder of that.
Now go watch Robinson and Berlinski. Don't be content with my unsatisfactory précis.
I’m now on Twitter. Find me @d_klinghoffer.