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Science After Babel: A review.

Science after Babel
Paul Gosselin (24/6/2024)

Expectations, expectations... David Berlinski's title Science After Babel (SAB) had given me the impression that he would heavily lean into a theme (science in the postmodern age) that Ernst Gellner had briefly commented on years ago (1992/1999: 93)

Quite probably, the break-through to the scientific miracle was only possible because some men were passionately, sincerely, whole-heartedly concerned with Truth. Will such passion survive the habit of granting oneself different kinds of truth according to the day of the week?[1]

One author Berlinski quotes in Science After Babel (chap. 23) is the Dutch-French mathematician Alexander Grothendieck who also pursued parallel issues, that is examining the ideological uses of science[2] (1971: 41)

In any case Berlinski had me wondering if in this book he would dare link scientism back to the Enlightenment. Of course no properly educated Frenchman (Berlinski lives in France) would dare stray into such heresy, but I had wondered if Berlinski might have (just once) been tempted by such thoughts... But apparently not as in chap 19 he offers this devout (yet non-committal) profession of Enlightenment faith (2023: 135)

Being among the mathematically handicapped, I am in no position to comment on the math chapters in this book. I did however find some consolation in Berlinski's comments about situations where mathematicians leave the empirical world, with it's observable, countable objects, and venture off into what this social anthropologist would call a “Dream World” where the issues discussed are 99% imaginary/unobservable and (perhaps) 1%[3] empirical (Berlinski 2023: 227)

Might Berlinski be admitting to the limits of mathematics? Well I am not aware that Berlinski may have explicitly alluded to the concept that mathematics might be limited... Perhaps it is to be expected that no mathematician in their right mind would admit to using math as a vehicle to venture into territories usually occupied by mythmakers or theologians... In one instance Berlinski seems to have unintentionally backed up into the issue of the limits of mathematics, but quickly sets aside such heretical thoughts (2023: 234)

All of which recalls a quip attributed to physicist Leon M. Lederman: “Biologists defer only to chemists, chemists defer only to physicists, physicists defer only to mathematicians, and mathematicians defer only to God, although you'll be hard pressed to find one so humble.” I couldn't resist... As I read through chapter 5, describing seedy hotels in Paris and Berlinski's encounter with French mathematician Marcel Schützennberger, the last line had me puzzled for about 2 seconds and then the light went on and I was splitting my side laughing (at the French in-joke)...

Berlinski could have easily given scriptwriters for the Seinfeld TV show a run for their money.... But while Berlinski plays the reader with his “pince sans rire” humour, he cleverly keeps his mouth shut about what exactly went down in his conversations with Schützennberger, particularly anything about specific critiques S. may have offered regarding the theory of Evolution. Such would have been of interest. Oh well...

That said, Berlinski does offer useful observations of his own regarding Evolution. For example on p. 83 as he discusses the intricacies of cladistics (and it's implications for evolution), he observes: “how then to define transitional forms? If no definition is possible, then the relevance of cladistic analysis to Darwinian biology might be more limited than often thought.” This of course is more clever “pince sans rire”, understated irony[5]... Then Berlinski lobs a grenade into the lap of the devout (2023: 16-17)

While I agree with Berlinski's basic argument here, I would propose a this requires further qualification, that is that the Darwinian theory of evolution is not in fact a complete “system of belief”, but only part of a system of belief, more specifically an origins myth. All systems of belief require an origins myth (answering the BIG QUESTIONS[6]), even if borrowed. The detailed argument for this proposal appears in my Flight From the Absolute, vol 2. Berlinski's idea of the Darwinian theory of evolution as a system of belief is worth exploring. For example, in chap. 6 Berlinski discusses scepticism among mathematicians regarding evolution in the first half of the 20th century and notes (2023: 34)

I think this needs qualification. First of all there is good reason to believe that for most of the first half of the 20th century Darwin's theory was already considered totemic[7]. If scepticism regarding evolution among mathematicians was tolerable before 1950[8] this was largely due to the fact that the evolutionary clergy reigned supreme in academia and science and had not suffered any serious challenge. That would change with the advent of Creationism in the 1960-70s followed by the Intelligent Design movement in the 1980s. The present-day intolerance of criticism by evolutionists that Berlinski notes was the reaction to the realisation that the evolutionary clergy's ideological monopoly was no longer as secure (nor their arguments as unassailable) as they'd once thought. Amongst other things, this lead to the insecure evolutionary clergy's seeking judge's decisions in the legal system to protect their ideological monopoly in education and thus shut out the critics/heretics. This is not a move you make if you are confident in your own argument...

The code trap

In chapter 3, while discussing Evolution as a system of belief, Berlinski drops a brief and tantalizing comment about the Elephant hiding in plain sight!!... (2023: 15-16)

Well what about “code”?? Of course we understand he is talking about DNA and RNA and their critical role in producing proteins. But Berlinski doesn't take this any further, it would seem that he has other fish to fry. Which still leaves us wondering about the implications of “code” for the origins debate. But here's the thing, codes without coded messages being sent using this particular code are useless contraptions, a waste of energy and time. For example, after the genetic code (DNA) common to all living organisms had been discovered by British scientists Watson and Crick[9] in the 1950s, shock[10] set in as evolutionists were forced to face the full implications of DNA as the physical basis for a genetic CODE. Just coming out of WWII, the British were well aware of the critical part that understanding coded messages had played in the recent war[11]. Thus if DNA was a medium for sending coded messages, then this immediately raised the question WHO was the original Message Sender[12] and WHO had invented this code in the first place?

Even before even the simplest life forms could appear, DNA had to be produced (and protected), a genetic code invented and (error free) genetic programs (or messages) had to be developed and then transmitted via this medium, DNA. This was compounded by the fact that evidence suggests Earth has always had an oxidizing atmosphere and that large and delicate molecules such as DNA quickly disintegrate under such conditions unless they are the made the objects of protection. Even the co-discoverer of DNA, Francis Crick, was unsettled by such matters and thought the issue so intractable for the origin of life on Earth that he proposed an odd escape hatch called Directed panspermia which conveniently swept all such issues under the carpet and assumed life had not originated on Earth (where conditions were too hostile), but had conveniently appeared elsewhere and then been brought here by aliens. British astronomer Fred Hoyle came to a similar conclusion, but eventually recognized that such proposals were only hand-waving attempts to push the abiogenesis problem out of sight and be rid of it. Since then evolutionists have studiously ignored such issues and all is well...

In SAB, Berlinski does briefly allude to the issue of messages in genetics and in chapter 7 notes (2023: 45)

But a few pages further Berlinski deftly avoids the trap waiting for unwary researchers and steers clear of the perils of damnable thoughtcrime[13]. Playing it safe, he observes (2023: 47):

Now that was a close call... “Ferrying information”??? Really? That's the best you can do Mr. Berlinski? Why the vague term information? That is like asking someone “What did you have for supper?” and being answered “Food!”, which of course tells us nothing we did not already know... When it comes to living organisms might it not be more accurate to speak in terms of “transmitting messages, precise instructions or programming”?[14] Of course the problem is that such specific concepts may end up taking researchers to places they don't want to go[15]... Scripture does (rather bluntly) talk about such closing of the mind and empirical evidence ignored.

Born Free?

Now in other instances, Berlinski's thinking is quite clear. In chapter 17, as he examines a materialist's rejection of free will and here puts his “pince sans rire” irony to effective and good use, observing (2023: 118-119)

Painfully on target... Besides being a waste of everyone's time as Berlinski points out, denials of free will have further real-world implications. For example, materialists denying free will and then applying for patent protection, writing articles or books will should also consider that rejection of free will also undermines the concept of authorship and, thus, should accept renouncing any claim to copyright revenues... But perhaps loud and confident denials of free will are more easily advanced when no practical/financial repercussions follow. But what about the legal system if free will is denied? How can you rationally prosecute someone for murder if you believe they had no freedom to act or choose?? Individuals could never be held responsible for anything they did... A guilty verdict could never be reached... The endgame would be: Fire all the cops, judges and lawyers and let them get real jobs flipping burgers[17]... And clear out all the prisons while you're at it.

In conclusion, perhaps I was reading carelessly, but I still can't figure out what "Babel" in science Berlinski might be alluding to[18]...


Berlinski, David (2023) Science After Babel. Discovery Institute Seattle 283 p.

Dawkins, Richard (1986) The Blind Watchmaker. Norton New York xiii - 332 p.

Gellner, Ernst (1992/1999) Postmodernism, Reason and Religion. Routledge London/New York 108 p.

Grothendieck, Alexander (1975) La nouvelle église universelle. Republished in (Auto)critique de la science. pp. 40-50 - Seuil Paris 1975 310 p. [Lévy-Leblond, J.M. et Jaubert, A. eds.]

Hoyle, Fred & Wichramasinghe, Chandra (1981) Evolution From Space: A theory of cosmic creationism. Simon and Schuster New York 175 p.

Lewis, C. S. (1945/2015) That Hideous Strength. Samizdat, Ebook - 356 p.

Lewis, C. S. (1947/1990) Miracles: A Preliminary Study. Fount Publications London

Lewis, C. S. (1947/2002) God in the Dock. (Walter Hooper ed.). Eerdmans Grand Rapids MI 347 p.

Orwell, George (1949/1984) Nineteen Eighty-Four. (Signet Classic, with an afterword by Erich Fromm) Penguin Putnam New York 267 p.

Shannon, Claude E.(1948) A Mathematical Theory of Communication. The Bell System Technical Journal, Vol. 27, pp. 379–423, 623–656, July, October


[1] - This is an issue that also caught CS Lewis' attention (1947/1990: 110):

[2] - Remember the 'Follow the Science” meme??

[3] - Particularly true when it comes to cosmological theories...

[4] - Did this last line come from Alice in Wonderland (1865)? This is not inconceivable as Lewis Carroll was a mathematician too...

[5] - A further example of understated irony appears in chap. 16 as Berlinski discusses the discovery of the Higgs Boson (2023: 105)

Perhaps Berlinski meant that “discoveries revolutionizing the world of physics” is just good marketing when making grant applications...

[6] - And the central BIG QUESTION being providing a narrative that defines what humans (men/women) are...

[7] - In the US, this was made clear to the general public by the 1925 Scopes Trial. In universities, Darwin had reigned supreme for some time already.

[8] - Especially the tolerance of private scepticism as opposed to publically expressed scepticism or even open critique of evolution...

[9] - Along with input from Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling.

[10] - Of course this shock was NOT discussed in public...

[11] - Consider for a moment the British war effort at Bletchley Park to crack the Enigma machine encryption code. Wiki notes “During the war, British cryptologists decrypted a vast number of messages enciphered on Enigma. The intelligence gleaned from this source, codenamed "Ultra" by the British, was a substantial aid to the Allied war effort.”

[12] - Perhaps Claude Shannon, is to blame for such evasions. In his classic 1948 paper, he talks in terms of an “information source” rather than a “message sender”, thus ignoring the issue that messages must be sent (at least initially) by an intelligent agent.

[13] - In 1984, George Orwell fine-tuned the description of such thought processes (1949/1984: 174-175)

[14] - Which of course feeds into matters such as geneticists like James Shapiro discussing “error correction mechanisms” operating in bacteria during reproduction. Now if bacteria have mechanisms which can examine DNA strands and set aside or correct “errors” in these strands, then the flip side of this observation is that said bacteria must have an implicit concept of TRUTH.... Where did these one-celled organisms get this?

[15] - Richard Dawkins provides us with a succinct example of such logic (1986: 1)

[16] - And they are pointless precisely because the materialist's target audience has no free will to listen to your arguments... They cannot choose to accept your evidence. Attempts to convince them are thus a complete waste of time.

[17] - CS Lewis figured out that another outcome for the justice system following the denial of free will could be not it's abolition, but conversion into psychotherapy from which there would be no escape (1947/2002: 287-288)

In the novel That Hideous Strength, Lewis takes this concept further, observing (1945/2015: 58-59)

[18] - After finalizing this review, I ran into tthis Becket Cook interview where Berlinski responds to this specific question (around 1:50 minutes), noting that the grandiose enterprise of science has become like Babel, attempting to reach for the sky. All of which sounds like an insinuation the science has been put to ideological use..