Dr. David Berlinski has always been something of a maverick. A prolific author and accomplished academic, he serves as the contributing editor of Inference and has taught at Princeton, Stanford, and the University of Paris. Perhaps more alluring than his professional credentials, however, is his standing as a deliciously dry raconteur, who manipulates language with enviable flair and delights in challenging leading figures within the intelligentsia.
In his new book, Human Nature, Dr. Berlinski defends the immutability of the titular concept in a stimulating, idiomatic fashion against materialist claims to the contrary. Always avuncular, he kindly indulged my request for an interview over email, offering prodigious responses to my incessant questions.
Our extensive dialogue can be read below. Additionally, a separate essay from Dr. Berlinski on the subject of human nature will be included within the upcoming print edition of Bournbrook, to be published in July 2020.
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Niles Moon: What is your overall view of history? Is the story of mankind ultimately one of progress?
David Berlinski: I do not have an overall view of history. If there are laws of human history, as, say, René Girard suggests, I do not know them and I suspect that neither does he. The metaphors of growth, decay and regeneration (down Vico, down good pooch) seem right enough to me, but that is only because they hardly go beyond the obvious. We are too close to the twentieth-century to view it with more than terrified repugnance, so great were its crimes.
Nineteenth-century Europe, from the Congress of Vienna to the outbreak of the First World War, seems both pacific and progressive in comparison. We do not know why things went bad. Nineteenth-century Chinese history offers a radically different perspective: the decline and encroaching decrepitude of the Qing dynasty, the catastrophic Tai Ping rebellion, the retreat before the great powers. Everything depends on the proper adjustment of focal distance.
N.M.: What are your primary objections to Steven Pinker’s contentions about history and contemporary society?
D.B.: Morally witless, historically ignorant, statistically incompetent. How am I doing?
N.M.: Why do you think that the transhumanist views espoused by Yuval Harari and his peers currently prove popular?
D.B.: Good old Yuval. Trans-Humanism, when you boil the thing down to its essentials, comes to pretty much the injunction to make the best of a bad deal. The deal is bad in virtue of the way it ends, all the more reason, they suppose, to make sure that it does not end at all. Thus their enthusiasm for storing their heads in vats after the rest of their body has called it quits, and hoping for the best. It seems horrible enough to me. Imagine being stuck in a vat containing the disembodied heads of the Wuhan laboratory technicians, all of them coughing vigorously. I have much the same opinion of the belief, still current in Silicon Valley, that sooner or later we will be able to upload our consciousness onto a computer. Better than a vat, I suppose. I am sure to find myself trapped in the iPhone of a teenager named Tiffney – punishment in the next life for my sins of contempt in this one. No doubt, I will be accused of sexual harassment the moment that Tiffney learns properly to spell the word. One r, two s’s Tiffney. And, hey, go easy on those emojis. I’m trying to get some rest in here.
N.M.: Harari’s ideas have been promulgated alongside advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning, which have engendered concerns as to how machines are to be instilled with ethical values. Are anxieties about the potential dangers of such advancements warranted?
D.B.: The idea of instilling a machine with ethical values is absurd. It is like trying to teach a donut to whistle. The hole is big enough, it is motivating the donut that is difficult.
N.M.: Although irreligiosity and atheism continue to rise, there nonetheless seems to be a natural thirst for the transcendental within many people; a sense that there must be something greater to existence than the material. Would you agree that this is the case?
D.B.: I am not sure that atheism has continued to rise in anything other than the sense in which hot air rises. No one much likes a confident atheist. Richard Dawkins thought he had a smashing proof that God could not exist, and was embarrassed to discover that his proof was neither smashing nor a proof. If an atheist is not confident, he is, at heart, an agnostic and has nothing to tell the rest of us beyond who knows. I can do that, too, but there is a limited market for that sort of thing. A natural thirst for the transcendental? If there is a natural thirst, it is one easily slaked. Men are satisfied by polygamous cults, women by gluten avoidance. The idea that there is something greater to existence than the material itself reflects the unexamined assumption that material life, with its coarse wet plops and short shelf-life, is somehow spiritually inferior to something like an angelic empyrean. I wonder. Mystics from Saint John the Areopagite to Meister Eckhart have written about the soul’s longing to vanish into the Ineffable. Not mine, I must say. I find the material here and now remarkably comfy, the more so when I read that in order to enter the Ineffable, I must leave everything else behind. I vastly prefer a scheme of reincarnation in which I come back as myself. A number of mathematicians have advised me that I can gain access to the Ineffable on a short-term basis – seven minutes in and out, tops – by swallowing some sort of horrible south-American concoction named Ayahuasca. Nausea would appear to be one of the drug’s side effects. I prefer to abstain from the company of mathematicians eager to lose themselves in eternity and barfing lavishly as they do so. Some other time, perhaps.
If transcendence is currently fashionable, it is worthwhile to remember the other side of the coin, and that is some sense of imminence.
Reiter der Ritter in schwarzem Stahl
hinaus in die rauschende Welt.
Und draußen ist Alles: der Tag und das Tal
und der Freund und der Feind und das Mahl im Saal
und der Mai und die Maid und der Wald und der
Gral, und Gott ist selber vieltausendmal
an alle Straßen gestalt.
(The knight rides in black steel
Out in to the rushing world
And outside there is all: the day and the vally
And the freind and the enemy and the meal in the hall
And May and the maid and the forest and the
grail, and god himself is placed thousands of times
on all roads.)
Perhaps this the best that we can do, a cultivated sense of divinity within the blessed world of matter. There is in this a reversion to an assessment of human nature, its essential aspects, and with it an important distinction, one often overlooked. No one can do theoretical physics without some commitment to the proposition that the universe is rationally ordered. From this, it does not follow – no, not at all – that the order is accessible to flesh and blood creatures with our nature. A dog may well be committed to the proposition that his household is rationally ordered, if only because he finds himself immersed in its rules: sit, lie down, fetch, do not drink from the toilet; but the rational order behind the rules escapes him. It is beyond his powers. It may well be that we are in the same boat, a little closer to the captain’s cockpit, perhaps, but still at sea. That commitment to some rational order is a matter of faith because it cannot be either a matter of evidence or argument. It does what faith generally does: it gets us over the worst.
N.M.: Do you think that moral realism requires a God or similar transcendental source in order to be viable, or can objective moral values be discerned in something like the Kantian way, on the basis of one’s own rationality and consciousness?
D.B.: Moral statements are as objective as physical statements; and they are both objective in the same way – they are either true or false. The philosopher prepared to deny the truth or falsity of moral statements is always and forever kidding himself.
N.M.: Is there any credibility to some of the more erudite arguments for a degree of truth in moral relativism, such as Bernard Williams’s contention that, as it is not possible for a modern westerner to live the life of, say, a medieval samurai, then this life cannot appropriately be evaluated by any objective ethical standard?
D.B.: Bernard Williams? He said that? What a dope.
N.M.: Which philosophers have had a particular influence on your worldview? Are there any notable thinkers whom you would consider to be unjustly neglected in contemporary discourse?
D.B.: I don’t know that I have anything so grand as a world view. I began academic life much interested in philosophy and very quickly discovered that what I wanted from philosophy, philosophy was not about to give me. I have spent far more time thinking about mathematics than philosophy. So far as the philosophers go, the lines of influence in my own case are pretty much standard. I regard continental philosophy with distaste and I have no use whatsoever for that Nazi lummox Heidegger. I would not accept a check from anyone who counts him a great thinker. Among the historical figures, Plato, Aristotle, Kant. I’ve never gotten much from Hume. Berkeley? Yes, why not? I was for a week or so influenced by the later Wittgenstein, but during the week that followed, found the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus more to my taste. Thereafter I forgot all about both Wittgenstein’s, the more so when I realized that one of them had given away their fortune. What a schnook. My colleagues at Stanford, Pat Suppes and Donald Davidson– I spent three sunny years listening to them lecture and took away something from what they said. A lot? A little? Who knows? I heard Saul Kripke talking about naming and necessity at Princeton. What he had to say, and the way that he said it, was magical, but I have not been persuaded that modal logic or modal metaphysics have gone anywhere I am interested in going. Kurt Gödel? I agree with him: Logic is very powerful. I would add only that it is very powerful but only over a narrow range.
N.M.: Ultimately, are you optimistic about our future as human beings?
D.B.: I am with William Faulkner. I believe that man will not only endure but prevail. Of course, Faulkner died a hopeless drunk. There is that to keep in mind.
David Berlinksi on Uncommon Knowledge (2019).
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