Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Sunday, November 09, 2008

ID Was Spanked In Fort Worth

This hurts Jesus more than it hurts the Discovery Institute. hard that you can probably still see the palm print.

"The Great Debate," as it was billed, was sponsored by St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, Texas. It featured a four-way roundtable format, with a participant from each quadrant of the atheist/theist and pro-ID/anti-ID axes. I was there along with some fellow members of the North Texas Church of Freethought primarily to see Dr. Lawrence Krauss (atheist/anti-ID) and also, somewhat guiltily, to see Dr. David Berlinski (theist/pro-ID) in action. The field was rounded out by Dr. Denis Alexander (theist/anti-ID) and Dr. Bradley Monton (atheist/pro-ID). The debate was held at the Will Rogers Memorial Auditorium, and I would estimate about 1000 people in attendance.

After a short introduction by St. Andrews' rector, we met Dr. James Tour, an organic chemist at Rice University who was chosen because he was raised as a secular Jew but now embraces Christianity, and considers himself agnostic (or just insufficiently informed) on the subject of evolution. He performed his task admirably, and was as impartial (and time-sensitive) as anyone could have wanted.

But enough about all that: what were the arguments? Reasonably predictable, actually.

Berlinski started by lobbing grand-sounding but skeptically vacuous questions at naturalism. How does science explain science? How does science explain the origin of the Cosmos? How does science explain the origin of life? Et cetera ad nausem. If you've ever seen him on a Discovery Institute DVD, you've already heard the same thing, probably with the same cadence and inflection - the guy is a total performance pro. Importantly, he never made a single argument in favor of intelligent design; merely threw some chewy questions out to the audience, and offered that intelligent design certainly had the right to be considered as a hypothesis.

The strongest voices of the evening were an atheist and a Christian who agreed that intelligent design is neither science nor worthy of scientific consideration.

Krauss countered by going straight for the throat of the intelligent design movement, and spent some time detailing what science is, how the scientific process works (research - hypothesis - experiment - interpretation - peer review - consensus - textbook), and contrasting that with how the intelligent design movement works (just write the damn textbook). He brought up the Wedge Document, and explained that the intelligent design movement is a thinly-veiled (and evolving!) strategy to attack naturalism in society and replace it with Christian theism. Importantly, none of these points were ever contradicted, or even contested by any of the other participants.

This is a reasonable representative clip of the evening - Berlinski lobs eloquent skepticism, and Krauss smacks it to the ground.

From my perspective, the other two participants were just seat-warmers; it really was "The Krauss and Berlinski Show." But Dr. Alexander's presence was probably just as important for the majority of the audience (whom I presume were Christian of some stripe); as a Christian himself who vehemently discounts intelligent design, his opinion was probably the most stinging for any of the Discovery Institute faithful who were present. He argued that using the concept of "design" as an agent-directed process in science was completely inappropriate, and instead advocated an appreciation of the entire natural world (as determined using methdological naturalism) as God's over-arching plan, acheived through secondary causes. Essentially, this is theistic evolution, as championed by Ken Miller and just about the most hateful concept to the Discovery Institute.

I don't quite know what to make of Dr. Monton. He is a philosopher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and an atheist. And yet, he seems to be the Discovery Institute's flavor of the month because he's pro-ID. Well... not actually. Just like Berlinski, at no point in the debate did he ever actually argue for intelligent design. In fact, he stated quite plainly that the current arguments used by ID advocates are awful and ineffective, and he was interested in trying to develop better arguments for them to use in the future. Idiotsayswhat??? Turns out the reason he's interested in doing this is because he doesn't like methodological naturalism, and he'd like to see supernatural explanations at least given a place at the table. I really don't see why this would be helpful or interesting, but then again, I'm not a low-level philosopher getting friendly with the Discovery Institute. The less said about Dr. Monton the better, quite frankly- I'm sure he's a nice fellow, but he had about as much relevance to the discussion as an expert in 17th century French poetry.

That's about it in terms of content. Krauss continued to rain the smack down on anything resembling intelligent design arguments, and even (out of deference to fair play) spent some time taking Alexander to task about his Christianity. Even that was poorly defended, as Dr. Alexander hid behind the "historical evidence of the Gospels" or some such warmed over apologetical nonsense, which Krauss easily dispatched. There really wasn't much of debate after the first hour, as Berlinski was all too eager to agree with Krauss at nearly every opportunity, and Alexander didn't have a contrary thing to say about atheism.

There were a few more interesting tidbits, though.

This is Roy Varghese, a very small man in a very big state.

In attendance was Roy Abraham Varghese, the fellow who "turned" Antony Flew from atheist to deist. He's apparently something of a local ID celebrity, operates an "institute" out of the Dallas suburb of Garland (model for Arlen, Texas), and apparently doesn't know how bees fly. I saw him pass near my seat, where he attracted a small group of very excited, old, and white men who buzzed around him like he was the prettiest girl at the dance. Later, while I was talking with Dr. Krauss in the lobby, Varghese sidled up to us with that half-crooked grin of his; while I was handing Dr. Krauss my North Texas Church of Freethought card, I stopped and gave one to Varghese at the same time. "Oh, Roy," I said, looking at him, "Nice to see you here. I'm a big fan of your work too." He took the card and looked down at it... then looked harder. A few seconds later he began to giggle nervously to himself and slowly walked away.

I ran afoul of a few other Christians; the first batch had followed me back up to the lobby to speak with Dr. Krauss, and got a little bit of me instead. One fellow named Craig was adamant that the names attributed to the Gospel writers were historically accurate; what's more, all the Gospels taken together are evidence of the message God is trying to communicate to us which is that God so loved the world, he sent His only begotten son that whosoever believes... As he slipped neatly into an evangelical spiel, I rolled my eyes and told him that yes, I'd read that verse before, and no, it didn't have any effect on me now. Still, he asked if he could pray on my behalf then and there. I didn't have the heart to say no to the guy, so I stood there with a pained expression waiting for him to finish, as if he were an amorous dog with so much leg.

I also bumped into Dr. Ray Bohlin, Fellow of the Discovery Institute and President of Probe Ministries and whom I've blogged about before. I asked casually about how he thought the debate went, and he nearly exploded in anger. He claimed that Dr. Krauss' statements were half-full of lies, especially the accusation that intelligent design advocates wanted to skip the scientific process and go straight to textbooks. "Ray, what then was 'Of Pandas And People?'" I asked. What followed was a comically (in retrospect) bizzare display of frustration, anger, and flopping desperation in front of the auditorium and the small crowd that had gathered around us. 'Pandas' shouldn't matter because it's also okay to direct kids to read the Bible in a public school library, he said. I was a fool for thinking that the evidence points to evolutionary relationships, he said. Yes, he once studied pocket gophers by forming hypotheses, collecting data, and making interpretations, but that has nothing to do with science, he said. It was all very disturbing, and looking back I somewhat regret being pulled into his tantrum; I can only assume that he was so upset at the spanking Dr. Krauss gave intelligent design and the Discovery Institute, that he needed a little release. If so, I hope he got what he needed.

Far be it from me to give financial advice to the Discovery Institute, but perhaps it would be wise to pay off some people who actually stand strong for intelligent design?

But I don't think the Discovery Institute got what it needed. There was a substantial presence on hand of our friends from Seattle, who had two large tables, posters, and banners in the front lobby to advertise the books and DVDs (including Expelled!) they were selling. I can't help but wonder if the DI was footing part of the bill for the event. At the very least, they were paying the way for Berlinski and Monton. On the former count, I wonder how much of their money's worth they're actually getting. A fellow NTCOF member was seated near me, and ventured over to speak with Drs. Krauss and Berlinski during the break (they had wandered off to a corner of the auditorium, and were engaged in a private discussion). Upon drawing close, he heard Krauss ask Berlinski why he wasted his intellect advocating for intelligent design. To which Berlinski replied that he doesn't believe a word of it, but is happy to cash the checks the Discovery Institute writes him. Strangely enough, this would be consistent with Berlinski's odd statement early on in which he admitted that his own ethical orientation was focused on living as contentedly and as selfishly as possible. It was a weird aside at the time; realizing that he could be exercising that ethic by making chumps of the Discovery Institute seems somehow poetically appropriate.

All in all, a great night for science and rationalism, a poor night for anyone who was hoping to see intelligent design championed in Texas.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Shut The Vote Up

Diddy wants you to vote or die, but I want you to watch the full video

"If you don't vote, then ... Shut. Up." That was the sentiment plastered yesterday on Greg Laden's blog, along with a (mildly amusing) celebrity "vote or die" video. The fare at his blog is typically a combination of evolution, general science, and atheism. There's also a distinctive liberal political component, which normally doesn't draw my attention. Given the recent proximity to the election, however, the interest has been nearly 100% political.

That statement bothered me, because I didn't vote today. I didn't plan to vote. Neither of the Presidential candidates (and none of the state or local candidates) represent my values. In fact, I consider the practice of voting itself to be irrational and opposed to my values. So I offered the following comment:

No, I don't believe I will shut up.

The lack of a candidate I would want to vote for doesn't preclude my right to criticize.

Posted by: Zachary Moore | November 3, 2008 2:48 PM

And that was followed by a lot or angry irrationality3:

Zachary: You seem so like so many who have this attitude. Have you looked at your local sample ballot? No,you have not. Have you considered that there are many different races about which you know nothing? Of course not. Have you looked at the various ballot questions and other issues that will change the world you live in, like it or not, that you have an opportunity? No. Why? Because you are an arrogant sob.

Like the man says, shut up.

Posted by: Elizabeth | November 3, 2008 2:55 PM

Zachary, the fact that you can't even find a candidate you find preferable to the others suggests that you're waiting for utopia or otherwise delusional. You can talk all you want, but don't be surprised if no one thinks you have anything to add to the conversation.

Posted by: Stephanie Z | November 3, 2008 2:55 PM

sorry. sob = ... well, I forgot. snob? slob? Oh, no, I remember now! sob = S.O.B.


Posted by: Elizabeth | November 3, 2008 3:00 PM

I agree with Zachary. There is NO rational or constitutional argument for this oft repeated truism.

And lack of suitable candidates is a damned good reason.

Posted by: jayh | November 3, 2008 4:21 PM

Jayh, this is a social thing, not a constitutional thing. I for one do not want to engage in the conversation with those who do not participate in this basic way, and you can't make me. It is utterly rational for me to make this choice. My intent is social isolation of the misanthrope undeserving of my time or respect.

And Jay, you provide the same clue as Zach that you have not thought this through. There is almost always one or more issues ... not candidates ... that are important, and a blanket statement that no such issues deserve your attention is as idiotic and ignorant as the blanket statement that no electoral race deserves your interest or attention.

You are nothing other than being lazy. There is no other rational explanation for your behavior.

Vote or shut up.

Posted by: Elizabeth | November 3, 2008 4:26 PM

jayh, one can only afford to wait for a "suitable" candidate if there is literally no difference between the choices. When there are differences (and there are always differences), the choice matters. Either you make a choice, you run yourself, or you own up to the fact that you've abdicated your responsibility. There's no fourth choice that doesn't make you a no-account whiner.

Posted by: Stephanie Z | November 3, 2008 4:30 PM


Another misanthrope you may want to socially isolate yourself from.

I have familiarized myself with my local ballot... about the only thing I might consider voting for is a measure to allow beer sales in my city, but then again, the liquor store in the next town is only five minutes away.

Laziness has nothing to do with my reticence to vote, and I can only assume that your ignorant ad hominem is a mark of your own irrationality on this issue. As it happens, even if there was a candidate with which I fully agreed, I consider voting itself to be a morally questionable process. The majority opinion is not necessarily the right opinion (cf. slavery, homosexuality, atheism), and I cannot in good conscience willingly participate in a system that perpetuates such gross immorality.

Posted by: Zachary Moore | November 3, 2008 5:42 PM

Zachary, let me be perfectly clear about this. I despise you and your whiny, apathetic, pretentious, grossly entitled ilk. You are the sort of vaporish, dithering, useless creature for whom fainting couches were conceived. Your opinion on governance carries all the weight of the feathers you keep in the place of your brain.


Posted by: Stephanie Z | November 3, 2008 6:54 PM


If I am to take your well-reasoned, temperate response as an example of the caliber of people who adhere to the "vote or die" sentiment, is it any wonder why I consider following your example to be ethically abhorrent?

Posted by: Zachary Moore | November 3, 2008 7:10 PM

As a middle aged boring baby-boomer, married over 30 years, with 3 grown children, this brought tears to may eyes.
The first time I voted was for Jimmy Carter. I took my 20 year-old son down to City Hall last Firday to get him registered and then to vote (early). I don't know who he voted for and I don't care. I also don't care if you have to pick the 'least worst' guy to vote for, and I don't care if you vote for some impossible 3rd party candidate, just vote. I had relatives who died in WWII and Korea, and friends who died in Viet Nam, Iraq and Iran. Whatever I (or you)think of these wars is beside the point: If you want to have any say in whether you or your friends have to put your lives on the line, the first and best way to get a seat at the table is to VOTE!

Posted by: Tom Coward | November 3, 2008 7:39 PM


Apparently you do.


If petty appeals to emotion are "beside the point," why bring them up? I do not agree that combining apathy and democracy is any sort of virtue. I would no sooner submit to the will of the majority opinion for my own life than I would presume to dictate the lives of anyone espousing a minority view. It is a tainted seat one gets when one participates in an immoral system; I simply choose to avoid that ethical compromise.

Posted by: Zachary Moore | November 3, 2008 9:42 PM

As usual, it falls to Penn to rescue us from this orgiastic festival of democratic self-indulgence.