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.

Post a Comment


At 11/10/2008 12:52 AM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

I'm sort of curious as to how well the country is progressing towards the pro-evolution stance that it will inevitably come to eventually. ID will keep switching tactics, but they'll use up all the good ones (their arguments are getting more and more obscure). I think most of us around here are familiar with Agilius, who lurks from time to time and has attempted to take the debate away from evolution and instead towards the weirdo philosophical realm where anyone can babble on with mumbo jumbo prose and pretend like their ideas hold water. I feel like the new method for pr-IDers is to attack science itself and say "what does science really mean??" since all of their other arguments pertaining to evolution itself systematically fail.

At 11/10/2008 10:24 AM, Blogger Ames declaimed...

I'm frankly surprised that an event moderated by Jim Tour went well for the side of science. I was a student at Rice, and Tour had the bizarre habit of, every Easter, buying a full-page spread of the student newspaper to shove INCREDIBLY graphic, offensive, and disturbing images of Jesus' crucifixion down our throats. A friend of mine was an executive editor of the newspaper, and according to him the final published product was always TONED DOWN...

At 11/10/2008 10:25 AM, Blogger Ames declaimed...

Ahem, that said Tour was a good Chemistry professor and a nice man. His religious views never interfered with his class teaching and were only visible on Easter or when similar debates occured on campus.

At 11/10/2008 11:31 AM, Blogger devolve declaimed...


I'm a big fan of several of Kraus's books. How did I miss this? I was looking for something to do this weekend. :(

Oh well.

At 11/10/2008 11:44 AM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

Welcome Pharyngula horde!

At 11/10/2008 12:12 PM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

Speaking of Krauss' books, I forgot to mention that he autographed my copies of "The Physics of Star Trek" and "Hiding in the Mirror."


At 11/10/2008 1:05 PM, Blogger Humanistic Jones declaimed...

Great synopsis, and excellent anecdote about Ray Bohlin and his foot-to-mouth situation.

I'm curious to know if there was any kind of audio recording of the debate that may be made available later? I'd love to actually hear all of it.

At 11/10/2008 1:26 PM, Blogger Steven Schafersman declaimed...

I see that David Berlinski has the same profile as Immanuel Velikovsky. This is obviously an assumed posture, since Berlinski hopes to duplicate Velikovsky's great reputation for perspicacity and respect among scientists. And he is going about his task so well!

At 11/10/2008 3:19 PM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

There was a comprehensive videography setup for the entire debate- I would presume that it would be made public eventually, but if it was the Discovery Institute who did so, they might just burn all the tapes.

At 11/10/2008 5:40 PM, Blogger Ed Darrell declaimed...

Ouch! I am sorry I missed the show (I had competing meetings for both ends of it, but I'd love to meet Berlinski in person since he's been so nasty to me in e-mail).

Nice account.

Coming to see Dr. Barbara Forrest at SMU on Tuesday evening? I've got details at my blog; Texas Freedom Network is a cosponsor and has details at

At 11/10/2008 5:43 PM, Blogger Ed Darrell declaimed...

Oh, also, Monton seems to be working hard to fill the space in the water in the bucket left when Francis Beckwith (philosopher, Baylor U) pulled out of this line of discussion a year or so ago. He can't seem to get a grip on the difference between "okay, philosophically" and "having evidence to back it."

What is it about philosophers? Are they engineer wannabes?

At 11/10/2008 5:51 PM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

Ed, I'll be at the Barbara Forrest event also. It'll be nice to see someone rational speak at SMU since the last time I was there.

At 11/10/2008 8:54 PM, Blogger anthrosciguy declaimed...

he sent His only begotten son that whosoever believes.

Yeah, I saw the first Superman movie too.

At 11/10/2008 9:07 PM, Blogger Joshua declaimed...

I'm not sure that I'd reach the same conclusion as you regarding Berlinski and Monton's lukewarm attitude towards ID. Berlinski has always been a bit lukewarm but there may also in this case be a bit of the whole teach-the-controversy meme which to succeed doesn't need to convince people of ID so much as convince people that maybe ID might just have an argument worth listening to.

At 11/11/2008 9:09 AM, Blogger Jeff Eyges declaimed...

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.

As much as I hope this is true, I find it hard to believe, if he's in it for the money, that he'd admit something like that to someone who defines himself as an opponent, and who might be responsible for it being made public.

At 11/12/2008 7:31 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

As my Flapper Great-Aunt might have said, "ID is a cipher with the rim taken off."

It almost makes me believe in divine chaos to think that it has not died a well-deserved death with all the beatings it has taken to date. If they can't answer, "Who designed your designer?" without resorting to special pleading, why are they still talking?

At 11/14/2008 9:41 PM, Blogger Steve declaimed...

You'd think that if ID were 'in its last throes', evos wouldn't be so vitriolic in their condemnation.

Truth is, ID is a formidable theory in its infancy and its learning curve is way shorter than ND's.

ID waxing, ND waning.

At 11/16/2008 8:45 AM, Blogger Jeff Eyges declaimed...

Just keep telling yourself that, Steve.

At 11/16/2008 2:57 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

Also Steve, we would expect the opposite--ID has been so systematically beaten into the ground by evos, that to see IDers continue to fight for their hopeless cause is just AGGRAVATING.

At 11/16/2008 10:45 PM, Blogger Cosmos-Phile declaimed...

Great blog! I went to the event myself. love seeing that Pharyngula and Richard DAwkins both picked this up!!! Kudos, Zach.
1)WHERE did you get that sick spanking picture? Sicksicksick.
2) Are you going to buy the DVDs and audio version? Are you going to upload more of the program?
3) I was disappointed that there were so many books for sale from the DI, and none representing Krauss' arguments. At least Dr. Anderson did a good job making the point that ID is worthless scientifically.

At 11/16/2008 11:23 PM, Blogger Ed Darrell declaimed...

Zach, we should have figured out some way to meet up at SMU. Next time.

Are you watching the SBOE science standards stuff?

At 11/19/2008 3:04 PM, Blogger Todd F declaimed...

Remind me again how life first appeared on planet Earth. I keep forgetting.

At 11/19/2008 6:38 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

Todd f: If we knew, we'd tell you. It's one of those great mysteries! We're trying to figure out. Of course, all you really need is a molecule that can imperfectly replicate and LOTS of time. But the exact progression of what happened is still a mystery.

What we're not going to do is read what some few thousand-year-old scrolls found in a cave said and stop there.

At 11/20/2008 10:05 AM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...


I'm going to be at the free George Hrab concert at UTA on Friday night. Check the NTCOF calendar.

At 11/20/2008 11:22 AM, Blogger Todd F declaimed...

I agree, Marshall. The concept of theism should never interfere with the pursuit of knowledge. From my perspective, being created in the image of God is reason for aggressively pursuing knowledge of how things really are. Since we have something of the mind of God, it's natural that we pursue the unknown. The mysteries of the universe should not be concealed from students in an attempt to shelter neo-darwinist dogma. We shouldn't throw up our hands and say "God did it, that's good enough", but we should not deny that there are mysteries to solve in science either. I would hope teachers inspire students to explore these mysteries with open minds.

When I was in 9th grade I hated religion. When we studied viruses in biology class, I asked the teacher how virus could be an earlier form of life then bacteria. She said "I know what you are trying to do, and we are not going to have this conversation". It was funny that she took me for a bible-thumper, but that was a pivotal moment for me in rejecting atheism.

I now realize that science no longer teaches that viruses are living organisms, but I'd thought I'd share the story.

I have a question on the non-theistic perspective on free-thought and free-will. Do these concepts really exist if we are a product of our DNA and environment? I've been thinking a lot about thought and knowledge lately, and wanted to get Dr Z's perspective in particular. If we are truly dancing to the tune of unknowing and uncaring DNA, is free-will and free thought any more than an illusion?

At 11/21/2008 1:23 AM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

Hi Todd--I'd like to hear Zach's thoughts on this matter as well. I have my own opinion on it, as I've been asked this in the past.

The basic premise of asking about free will vs. determinism is flawed, because it comes with the inherent assumption that we possess some matterless ethereal "soul" that is capable of making decisions. In actuality, the more scientists study the brain, the more areas of consciousness are ascribed to certain parts, and it's becoming increasingly obvious that every aspect of thought is derived from the arrangement and firing patterns of our neurons.

The second fault I find in the question is the definition of what exactly a "decision" is. A decision is a choice between two or more outcomes, arrived at by the weighing of various factors associated with each. Soul-ists posing the question seem to think that people "decide" based on NOTHING at all. This is NEVER the case! Our decisions are always based on something--if you choose mint chocolate chip icecream over cookies 'n' cream, it's probably because you like it more, it has less calories, you know you'll get a bigger scoop, or you haven't had it in a while and you crave the novelty. Try telling people to choose with only their soul--they'll fail every random number test every created miserably.

So to summarize what I've just said: the free will question is moot because 1) we cannot make decisions independently of our brains (there is nothing to make a decision), and 2) a decision is inherently deterministic by definition. "True" spontaneous behavior has yet to be shown, and I seriously, seriously doubt it ever well.

So if you want the pessimistic viewpoint that we are deterministic, so be it. I see determinism and free will as identical.

At 11/21/2008 9:39 AM, Blogger Todd F declaimed...

Thanks for the response, Marshall.

I wouldn't go as far as calling the question flawed, but there certainly is some presupposition involved. I think that's true for anyone that chooses to investigate anything. The crux is how you respond to evidence does not align with presuppositions.

Your 2nd point is valid, at least to a point. A lot of what we call "intuition" is relying on knowledge that we have gathered. We are not necessarily conscious of how and what we are learning, but we are learning all the time.

That's quite a paradox viewing free will and determinism as identical. I'll reserve further comment until others have a chance to chime in.

At 11/21/2008 1:51 PM, Blogger Rotting Poet declaimed...

Aaron I can't figure out how to contact you. Have you heard from TLD at all? It's been a while but I still check his blog from time to time... let me know if you have any news..

At 11/25/2008 10:45 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

Steve said:

"You'd think that if ID were 'in its last throes', evos wouldn't be so vitriolic in their condemnation." Somebody tries to disguise the logical equivalent of a turd as science, and we're supposed to be lenient precisely because it is a turd?

"Truth is, ID is a formidable theory in its infancy and its learning curve is way shorter than ND's."

Oh. So it's dumb enough to make sense to dumb people. That's a selling point. I suppose it's "formidable" the same way your god is "awesome".

"ID waxing, ND waning."

Wax on, wax off.

I've got the entire Museum of Natural History. You've got a book. Call me when you have some conclusive proof that wasn't pulled out of Hovind's ass.

At 11/29/2008 10:53 AM, Blogger Todd F declaimed...

OK - I guess either there is little to say about the problem of free will in a non-theistic universe. It's like the problem of objective morality without God. Asking non-theists to explain morality just irritates them. Free will is less of a hot-button, but like objective morality, there is not much defense for the non-theist.

I'm not saying that it's impossible to have morality or free will without belief in God, it's just impossible if God doesn't exist.

At 11/29/2008 10:59 AM, Blogger Jeff Eyges declaimed...

Go read some books by the Dalai Lama. He doesn't believe in God and he does have a basis for morality.

You only think it's impossible without God because you're an authoritarian, as are most Christians. You think that without a supreme authority, everything goes to hell - literally and figuratively.

At 11/29/2008 11:15 AM, Blogger Todd F declaimed...

Thanks, Cipher. I'm not clear on which book by which Dali Lama you are referring to. There is a Buddhist temple pretty much across the street from my house. I'll stop by and ask them.

At 11/29/2008 12:50 PM, Blogger Marshall declaimed...

Todd F, do you think that, without God to tell you to be good, you would run around raping and pillaging people? Then what's stopping you?

At 11/29/2008 2:42 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

Oh noes! It's Lord of the Flies out here in Nojehovahville! That's why the prisons are full of the non-religious. Oh wait... they're not.

Problem of free will. You got it. Sometimes that can be a problem for me, other times, "No problem!" What you do when you think you don't have free will can be a problem too. If I walk out my door, fully believing that I am wearing a suit of invisible clothing, I'm still going to get arrested. Similar can be said for your motivation whether you belive in predestiny or not. I think the whole argument about predestination came from someone who did not know much about cause and effect.

Objective morality: Do I really need some fictional, ultra-brainy super being to tell me what I can observe and deduce for myself concerning social interaction? Or is it more likely that some ancient shaman discovered that rubber-stamping an idea as, "From the Desk of the Lightning Guy" tended to end all arguments on penalty of death? How ethical is that?

At 11/29/2008 6:05 PM, Blogger Todd F declaimed...

Marshall -- What's stopping (hopefully) both you and I from raping and pillaging is an objective sense of right and wrong. Animals don't have this moral conflict, so something is separating us from the animal kingdom. The easy explanation is the knowledge of good and evil as described in Genesis.

BreakersLion -- I wouldn't try to make a case that Christians have a higher sense of morality then the non-religious.

...I don't get your point on cause and effect, I can only presume you are talking about natural consequences, but I'm not following your thought...

...your final comment on social interaction as objective morality missed the point. The Nazi's were following their social norms based on a belief in eugenics as a moral obligation. That was not permitted as a defense in the Nuremberg trials. They were told that there is a higher objective morality. If the standard is personal preference and social norms, then there is no objective morality. Assuming you believe the Nazi's were wrong, what is the basis for that belief? You can't use social norms, since they were behaving according to their social norms.

At 11/29/2008 6:27 PM, Blogger Jeff Eyges declaimed...

Assuming you believe the Nazi's were wrong, what is the basis for that belief?

Consideration of what is beneficial for the collective as a whole; i.e., all of humanity, rather than a particular subgroup.

I know you'll come up with something you feel "disproves" this. I won't respond, as I really don't want to get into it. You'll believe what you want to believe. I just don't want you walking away thinking you've bested yet another atheist. My experience has been that Christians tend to assume that, when, in reality, the atheists simply can't be bothered to argue.

At 11/30/2008 10:58 PM, Blogger Todd F declaimed...

Actually, Cipher, you gave the correct answer. I would not want to disprove that answer.

What I think is interesting to think about, but others may find offensive, is if society can consistently choose the moral high-ground of values. I think the answer is pretty obvious.

I can only conclude that man's view of morality has to be subjective and not objective, unless there is a higher authority then society norms for objective morality. Take your pick.

I think it's fun to think about stuff. I didn't intend to upset you.

I'd always have some amount of fun in my college ethics lessons. I have a business degree, so many of my classes required a lesson in ethics. I'd argue that as long as my behavior was legal and benefited my company, that's all that mattered. If it also benefitted consumers, all the better. I never received a good answer as to why I should take the moral high ground when it did me no good, and did no one in my circle of influence any good. What kind of person would do the right thing when the result is increasing the suffering or decreasing pleasure of them and their tribe?

One business case was taking arial photographs of a competitor's business in order to try to figure out what their next move was going to be in the market. I argued that if I could sharp-shoot my competition, I'd benefit, my company would benefit, and consumers would benefit.

Whatever. I just think it's fun to challenge thought and go a bit deeper then where we are told we are supposed to go.

At 12/19/2008 10:45 PM, Blogger Jack Davis declaimed...

Is the debate available in full on the Web?

At 4/18/2009 11:37 PM, Blogger J declaimed...

I emailed St. Andrews politely asking after the status of the DVD of this debate 2 weeks ago. Have not heard a peep from them as of yet.

Perhaps someone stateside can give them a phone call? Many people are simply aching for this debate to be released.


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