Michael Shermer Debates William Dembski in hometown of Fred Phelps

October 19th, 2010

I recently attended a debate on the topic of intelligent design versus evolution at Washburn University in Topeka.

William Dembski, a research professor of philosophy at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at Fort Worth, Texas, and a senior fellow of the Discovery Institutes’s Center for Science and Culture took up the cause of creationism… I mean intelligent design.

While Michael Shermer, Editor in Chief of Skeptic Magazine spoke for evolution… I mean blind evolution (as Dembski prefers it to be called.  It’s BLIND evolution folks.  BLIND!)


The debate quickly got mired on the subject of where the intelligence in intelligent design came from and who intelligently designed the intelligent designer who designed intelligent design.

In a nutshell (emphasis on nut) Dembski’s answer to ‘who designed the intelligent designer who designed the intelligent designer’ is that you can’t ask that question.

According to Dembski, no one looks at a beautiful painting and asks who created the painter who painted the painting!  So why would you ask who designed the designer who designed the design!

Which is a fine argument except that it is an extraordinarily stupid argument.

Because lots of people spend their lives asking who created the painter who painted the painting.

It’s called ART HISTORY DUDE!

ALSO!

I happen to have a little something that I like to call Exhibit A…..

This is our family quote board.  It hung on our bathroom wall for years until it got ripped and then I took it down and folded it up and put it in a drawer to prevent further destruction.  On this poster board, I have written down some of the stranger things I have heard my kids, husband, and various house guests say while they were visiting us.

Here are a few examples…

While stargazing with his dad when he was only two years old Ethan said…

“I can see the man in the moon, there’s his nose, there’s his eyes, there’s his mouth and there’s his gun!

While discussing our national currency with one of our boys, my husband said…

“They make sure you are really dead before putting your picture on money.”

And then one night, while chatting with his grandmother, Drew asked the following un-askable (according to Dembski) question…

“Grandma, have scientists figured out yet how God invented himself?”

If my six year old son can ask this question, I think the rest of us can too.

Besides!  Isn’t science supposed to be about asking questions?

While they were arguing the question ‘who designed the designer’, Dembski and Shermer started batting around a word I had never heard before.  The word was teleology.  I tried to grasp the meaning of teleology by listening to the context of their arguments.  It seemed to have something to do with ‘implying an agent’ and ‘having a purpose’ but it was also ‘untestable’ so teleological arguments don’t really fit in with science, unless your science is intelligent design.

When I got home I looked teleology up.

I spent half an hour trying to grasp it’s meaning.

I still do not understand it at all.

If you can explain what teleology means to me in a succinct, simple manner, I will send you a book.  Beware!  It will probably be an atheist book.

______________________________________________________

During the part of the debate when Shermer and Dembski were tossing around the word ‘teleology’ like their favorite chew toy, my upper brain ceased functioning and I turned to stare blankly at the two college-aged men who were sitting beside me.  One of the young men held up his cell phone and showed it to the other young man. Psalm 14 was displayed on the screen of the phone  The two men smiled and nodded and gave each other a telepathic high five while exuding a sort of subtly hostile ‘don’t mess with my Jesus, homeboy’ vibe.  Not knowing what Psalm 14 said, I made a note of it so I could look it up when I got home.  I assumed that the scripture would speak on the origins of God saying something about how God is the alpha and omega and is and was and is to come, but I was wrong.  The verse dealt with another topic entirely…

Psalm 14

The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.

The LORD looks down from heaven
on the sons of men
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.

All have turned aside,
they have together become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.

Will evildoers never learn—
those who devour my people as men eat bread
and who do not call on the LORD?
There they are, overwhelmed with dread,
for God is present in the company of the righteous

You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor,
but the LORD is their refuge.

Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people,
let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!

Needless to say I was very disappointed with the content of Psalm 14 as it did not specifically speak to the debate. Dembski and Shermer were not arguing whether or not atheists are corrupt cannibalistic fools. They were debating the origin of God (unless you were Dembski and then you were debating whether or not you could debate the origin of God).  So I googled ‘bible verse that says where God came from’.  This is the verse I found from Habakkuk 3:3…

God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran. Selah. His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise.

So there we have it!  God came from TEMAM!

Should someone tell Dembski about this verse so he can reference it the next time some skeptical bastard starts going all ‘where did the intelligent designer come from’ on him?

Skeptic – And exactly where did your intelligent designer come from Professor Dembski?

Dembski  – According to the book of Habakkuk, God came from Temam. Next question?

A few other nuggets that I took away from the debate included…

The God of the Gaps Theory

Intelligent design hinges on the idea that ‘If science can’t explain something, it must be supernatural’.  This is called the ‘God of the gaps’ theory.  Unfortunately, science keeps making the gaps narrower and narrower and a lot of gaps have disappeared entirely. I suppose there will always be things that we don’t completely understand, fortunately, there will also always be people like Dembski who frantically point to the gap and say, ‘SEE!  I TOLD YOU!  IT’S GOD!!!  IT’S GOD!’  Thankfully a lot of very smart people ignore the Dembskis of this world and as a result, we continue to make progress towards understanding how things work which leads to longer life, better health, a safer environment and way cooler cell phones.

At one point Dembski acknowledged that evolution by natural selection is in fact a workable theory and most likely part of how the world came about, he just doesn’t think that it explains everything. At this point Shermer wanted Dembksi to tell him exactly which parts of ‘creation’ came about from design and which parts arose from evolution.  Dembski basically said that anything with fabulous design is from the designer and anything that is a haphazard mess is from evolution.  For instance the male nipple is clearly haphazard evolution- because that is some sloppy workmanship there buddy!  But the supremely complex bacterial flagellum of the sperm – now that is some supernatural intervention mojo at work baybee!

Bacterial flagellum

This is the little propeller on some cells that is so intensely complicated there can be no way (according to Dembski) it could ever in a million billion trillion years have evolved on it’s own.  The only way to explain it is ‘God did it’.

Sounds like good science to me!

Irreducible Complexity

This phrase was coined by Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and senior fellow of the Discovery Institutes’s Center for Science and Culture.   Irreducible complexity basically states that there are some things in nature that are just too freakin’ complicated to explain so you might as well just throw your hands up in the air, walk away and say God did it.

Behe has nine kids who are homeschooled by his wife.  He is a Roman Catholic. A poster to the message board REDDIT claiming to be Behe’s eldest son recently came out as an atheist,.  This poster said that he is ‘quarantined’ to the basement of his parent’s home in order to limit the contact he has with his younger brothers and sisters.  Sounds like Jesus love at it’s best!

The Reddit conversation with this young person who is very likely Behe’s son can be found here. It is fascinating reading.

______________________________________________

After the debate was over, people lined up in front of both men to get an autograph or to ask a question.

One child stood in line to ask Shermer a question. She wanted to know why God created the world. Shermer told her that it wasn’t really his field and to ask Dembski that question. He then performed a very bad magic trick for her and everyone laughed.

So the little girl moved over and stood in line to ask Dembski the same question.

‘Why did God create the world?”

Dembski explained to the little girl that God created the world for his pleasure.

He may not want to discuss where God came from, but he has God’s motivations all figured out.

Thus ended my evening at the Dembski/Shermer intelligent design vs (blind) evolution debate.

Comments

  • Martha in Kansas:

    It’s been years since I studied the stuff, but I think the Gap Theory is just plain bad logic. Isn’t it? (Charles could speak to this, I bet.) So I’d think a Professor of Philosophy would not go that route and risk looking foolish. Didn’t anyone question that?

    But what I really want to know is how Grandma answered Drew’s question.

    You need a new quote board. This is a fabulous idea. (No, the blog is not a quote board! LOL!)

    • Rechelle:

      We are pretty sure that it was my mom, but no one remembers what she said to him. I’ll have to ask her if she remembers. I do think I need to do a new board. My kids are older now so all the comments are drenched in hostility and sarcasm. It will be a very different board.

      • km:

        some of the classics from my 5 yr old

        - If, and I know they wouldn’t, but if Mommy, God and Jesus battled, who would win? I’d say God, cos he let Jesus die before.

        -does a tiger cry real tears and what would it have to cry about anyway?

        -is our fart the same gas we put in the car?

        Oh yes, it’s a highbrow, lowbrow chatfest here

  • Debating with a person who actually believes in intelligent design is like debating with someone who actually thinks Sarah Palin is smart and ready to run our country. It’s all the same people. They think all the same backword crap. I get so frustrated I can’t even form an intelligent sentence or I remain mute. Either way, I end up looking like the idiot.

    • Rechelle:

      Yes – I’ve seen it. Very entertaining. It is hard to debate with an intelligent design person in any rational way because the mindset is entirely irrational. But I do get a kick out of listening to them talk.

      • km:

        I just get mad when they say “why is a theory then?”
        head meet desk.

        • Jimmy-boy:

          Tell them it’s theory just like the ‘theory of the combustion engine’ or the ‘theory of gravity’. This nonsense that you can invalidate truth by suggesting it is ‘just a theory’ would be laughable were it funny. But it isn’t because these ***kwits are probably going to run your country soon!

          And unfortunately – they appear to be pretty common in mine…

          http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/would-you-adam-and-eve-it-top-scientists-tell-scottish-pupils-the-bible-is-true-1.1060545?localLinksEnabled=false

          In England we have laws that stop these wankers (strong word – but expresses it just right) from being able to groom kids in schools. Unfortunately it transpires that Scotland has not got round to legislating against this kind of child abuse.

          Having ranted I should say that it is very reassuring to know that there is strong opposition to this BS in the the US…ie at source. Keep up the good work Rechelle!

          • Clayvessel:

            Gravity is not a theory but a law. Ever heard of it? The Law of Gravity? The combustion engine is not a theory either. When something is reproducible and provable it is not a theory but is a fact.

            Evolution is a theory because it cannot be reproduced or proven.

          • jalf:

            @Clayvessel: No, all we have about gravity or combustion engines are theories. We have a theory about why gravity works the way it does, and based on those theories, we can try to predict how gravity will work in untested situations (such as whether or not it will still be there tomorrow). But it’s a theory, no more, no less.

            And the same is true for combustion engines. We can see that they usually work, but the only way we have to explain *how* and *why* they work are through theories. We have theories about how gases, liquid and solids behave under pressure and at various temperatures, and according to those theories, a combustion engine “ought to work”. And the fact that it does work in practice lends more credibility to those theories. But we still don’t *know* that they’re correct. We just know that we haven’t been able to find a flaw in them yet.

            And the exact same is true in evolution. We don’t *know* that it is true, but it fits the facts, and in fact, it is the *only* theory which does so. People have had more than a century to find flaws in it, and while many have tried, **none** have succeeded. Never. Not once. No one.

            That means that the theory of evolution is, by scientific standards, rock solid. The theory has endured longer than our current theories about gravity. So if you can accept the theory of gravity as fact (which most scientists don’t do, because there are still things about it that puzzles them), then you sure as hell can’t dispute evolution.

            A quick search on Wikipedia could have told you that your claim is absolute garbage. A “law” in science is nothing more than an observation that something happens, with no attempt at explaining it.

            For example, the “law of gravity” says how quickly an object will accelerate if you drop it from your hand. That is testable, sure, but the reason why it is not a theory is that it does not *explain* anything.

            A theory, on the other hand, is *our best* attempt at explaining **why and how** something happens. What determines that an apple will fall at this particular speed when you drop it from your hand? The law of gravity does not answer this. The theory of gravity *does*.

            The *theory* of evolution tells us *why and how* evolution works. The fact that it works is obvious. You just have to look at the world you find yourself in, so full of current and previous life.

            The *theory* of evolution is actually an example of one of the very strongest theories in science. Gravity, and most of physics are still controversial topics. There is still a lot in those areas that we just don’t know, or which doesn’t *quite* match up to all our observations.

            On the other hand, no one, except ignorant fanatics who don’t actually know what they’re talking about, have even *disputed* the theory of evolution for something like a century. It is so rock solid that no one can think of a serious argument against it. It is infinitely more solid than the rather sketchy theory of gravity, or the equally uncertain physics that make a combustion engine work. We’ve observed enough chemistry and physics to be sure that a combustion engine will work, but all the underlying particle physics is still a jigsaw puzzle that no one have managed to complete.

            So you’ve got it upside down. It’s not evolution that’s uncertain. It is gravity and combustion engines we’re unsure about.

            I’m sorry, but if you don’t know what a theory is, you have no business telling *anyone* which scientific theories are, or are not, true.

            In case you think I’m making it up, here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physical_law#Description:

            “Physical laws are distinguished from scientific theories by their simplicity. Scientific theories are generally more complex than laws; they have many component parts, and are more likely to be changed as the body of available experimental data and analysis develops. This is because a physical law is a summary observation of strictly empirical matters, whereas a theory is a model that accounts for the observation, explains it, relates it to other observations, and makes testable predictions based upon it. Simply stated, while a law notes that something happens, a theory explains why and how something happens.”

            Here’s another:
            http://www.wilstar.com/theories.htm

            Scientific Law: This is a statement of fact meant to describe, in concise terms, an action or set of actions
            Hypothesis: This is an educated guess based upon observation
            Theory: A theory is what one or more hypotheses become once they have been verified and accepted to be true

            Next time you want to disprove an entire scientific discipline, it might be worthwhile to do a quick google search of the big words you don’t understand first.

            If nothing else, it might spare you an awful lot of embarrassment.

            A law is not “above” a theory. It is not something that a theory can eventually be “upgraded” to. They are entirely different things, and a law is much less informative, and much less interesting. A law is just stating the obvious.

            A law can tell us that human being exist on planet Earth.
            But a theory can tell us *why* we exist on this planet, or *how* we came to exist.

            By their very nature, such questions can never be *proven*. And yet theories are basically the ideal of science. Only the very best ideas in science eventually reach the status of “theory”. Laws fall at the first hurdle, because they fail to *explain* anything. They’re not eligible for “theory” status. Hypotheses often fall by the wayside too, as scientists manage to contradict or disprove them. And rarely, one of them turns out to be so hard to disprove that we end up accepting it as a theory. From that point, there is nowhere else it can go. It can never become a “law”. It might stay a theory forever, if it is very lucky. Or it might eventually be disproven and replaced with another theory.

            And a theory that has held this title for a century is pretty damn impressive.

          • Rechelle:

            Great response Jalf. I think this can even go deeper (or perhaps more shallow?) too looking at how simple it is for us to grasp ‘laws’ and how difficult it often is to grasp something that is theoretical. Laws are black and white – which is how Christianity tries to explain pretty much everything – whereas theories are far more fluid entities, Theories change as new information comes to light. They build, morph, add new bits, get rid of old bits. I think it might be the fact that a theory changes as information is discovered that is the most difficult for some people to accept. Accepting a theory is like accepting a brilliant light. Accepting a law is like accepting a stone. The stone is comforting in it’s predictability. It is unmoved, unsympathetic, but always a sure thing. The light however flickers, moves, causes shadows, there are periods of darkness, periods of intense light – it offers much more excitement and warmth, but at the same time is a bit frenetic. It’s simply safer to choose the stone.

    • LucyJoy:

      Boy, does your comment resonate deeply with me! I think we’ve been in the same shoes…

      Because of my beliefs (or lack thereof), I have family members (my husband’s, not mine. My family is a bit more open-minded) who will no longer speak to me & have “un-friended” me on Facebook. I saw a saying recently, “A closed mind is a wonderful thing to loose.” It’s one of the new mantras I recite in my head when I encounter the people of which you speak, Amy F.

  • I forgot something! Did you see that special on HBO a few years ago on this very subject. The guy was from Kansas and he went all around talking to intelligent design supporters. Needless to say, they did not sound intelligent. It was crazy to hear these people talk, and hear what they were teaching their homeschooled children. Worth the watch.

  • susan:

    You mentioned you were going to post this and what a doozy. That poor kid who is being shunned by his family all in the name of g.d. religion. Typical.

  • Clare:

    Teleology is something that I spent numerous seminar hours being confused about in grad school, so you’re not alone!

    Basically, it means that the way things are is the only way they could have ever been — that all events in the past have culminated, and could ONLY have culminated, in this exact reality that we are experiencing. So you take then end point (whatever you want to prove) and assume it’s a given, and then use events from the past to prove why things are the way things are. [To call a work "teleological" in History departments is to insult it, btw.]

  • Dawkins argues against the teleological argument for god in ‘The God Delusion.’

    Here’s a summary of the typical teleological argument for an intelligent designer from (where else?) Wikipedia:

    1. Nature exhibits complexity, order, adaptation, purpose and/or beauty.
    2. The exhibited feature(s) cannot be explained by random or accidental processes, but only as a product of mind.
    3. Therefore, there exists a mind that has produced or is producing nature.
    4. A mind that produces nature is a definition of “God.”
    5. Therefore, God exists.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teleological_argument

    Dawkins argues that the same argument must then also apply to the creator of the creator, and then to that creator’s creator, ad infinitum. The lineage would go on forever.

    Or something like that.

    All I know is God invented Wikipedia. And it was good.

    • Clay:

      Number 2 on the list is a perfect example of how semantics are used to confuse and refute ideas. The author assumes people will agree with the statement that complexity, order, etc in nature cannot be explained, but these things have been explained in many cases. There are cases where they have not been explained yet but that is the purpose of science, and it continues to be wonderfully successful at it.

  • jalf:

    As I understand it:

    Teleology basically means that something exists, or is the way it is, for a purpose. That makes a lot of sense in the context of, say, medicines, which exist because we want them to exist, and have spent a lot of time figuring out how to make them exist. Medicine doesn’t generally grow on trees, it exist for the specific purpose of curing our illnesses because people grew tired of going around sneezing and coughing all the time, and asked themselves “so what can we do to make this go away?”

    Less so in evolution. Bananas don’t exist *so that* they can be eaten. We don’t exist for the purpose of pleasing God. We’re just here because things turned out that way. (and the same is true for the bananas)

    And then it also makes sense that it’s untestable. How do you test whether or not bananas were created for the sake of feeding us?

    It *could* be true, but for some reason, whoever designed the bananas didn’t think to put a sticker on them saying what their purpose was, which makes it tricky to verify.

    And yay, irreducible complexity! That’s one of my favorite silly argument. It sounds convincing on the surface (some things are so perfectly designed that you can’t remove *any* component without the whole thing breaking down. And since, according to evolution, this thing must have gradually evolved, then it must have gone through these non-functional stages and still evolved “towards” the final working stage, which is absurd, and could never happen without some divine hand guiding the process”.

    That would make perfect sense, if it was true. There’s no such thing as irreducible complexity though.

    My favorite example is that of a bridge. Find a small stream, and drop 3 slabs of stone next to each others (one on either side of the stream, and one in the middle).

    Now you have a very primitive bridge. You can cross the stream without getting your feet wet, so it “works”.

    Now find a bigger slab of stone, and put it on top, so it rests on all three of the first stones. Now you have a *better* bridge. But now the bottom middle stone is no longer necessary. We can remove it, and the top stone will stay in place, supported by the two remaining stones beneath it. So now we have a superior *and simpler* bridge. Only 3 stones are needed for it, as opposed to the 4 we needed before this modification.

    And now we also have a case of “irreducible complexity”. We can no longer remove anything from the bridge without destroying it. Therefore it can’t have been built gradually. A designer must clearly have placed all three stones *at once*, to guide it from the starting point of “no bridge”, through the various stages of “partial bridge that doesn’t work”, through to the final “working bridge”. Blind evolution would never have gotten through the middle stages, as there would be no benefit to evolving something that’s still non-functional.

    Except that the bridge *was* built gradually, and at every step, it was a better bridge than before, so no intelligent designer was needed to plan the whole thing out.

    The human eye is typically mentioned as an example of irreducible complexity (“what use is half an eye?”), which is just as silly. Three quarters of an eye might be able to see, but be unable to focus well. Half an eye might be able to see a blurry image in black and white, which is still a lot better than being blind. A quarter of an eye might be able to detect light, even if it can’t make out any shapes or colors. But even that is very useful, compared to no eye at all. There is nothing irreducible about the eye.

  • Joel Wheeler:

    Rechelle, you make me proud. Seriously. Just look at you go! Amazing. Totally jealous that you got to see/hear/meet Michael Shermer.

    Here’s my shoet definition of teleololgy: the study of what things are FOR.

    What’s it for? The question assumes there’s an answer that makes sense, that there IS a purpose, which is why it’s a stumbling block for theistic thinkers. Because ultimately all we’re ‘for’ is praising God, which doesn’t seem like much of a purpose, in the long run. At the same time, if you even suggest that the Universe doesn’t have a purpose in the same way that jalf’s medicines (above) have a purpose… well, then suddenly everything is absolutely MEANINGLESS I tell you! MEANINGLESS!

    I guess it’s better to have a boring meaning than no meaning…

  • Clay:

    I have a lot of background in fossils and geology, and I find these debates quite interesting. Not so much about the evidence because to anyone with an open mind the truth is obvious, but more for what it shows about how people miscommunicate and how complicated almost any idea can be made and how difficult it is to maintain a logical train of thought during a conversation. The truth is, it is very hard to think in a consistently logical way. The world does not train us to do so. What it trains us to do is to accept authority and abide by its rules and conclusions. Which we do most of the time. Me too. So when we are presented with a situation where we have to argue on the basis of logic we are generally woefully unprepared. And that goes for the best of us. I just discovered the text of a famous debate about the existence of God between the philosopher and agnostic, Bertrand Russell, and a clever minister named Copleston in the 1940s. It is very confusing, mostly because the argument never follows a straight line that might lead to a resolution, but zigs and zags from one thought to another without narrowing toward a conclusion. I was disappointed that Russell didn’t exploit some of the obvious weaknesses in Copleston’s ideas, but when people are responding to each other the subject always gets jerked back and forth.

    What develops the ability to think logically is study and thought, neither of which is very popular and probably never will be. So all I can say is “woe is us”.

  • Clay:

    One more comment. The “Evolution or Creation” ad that appears on this page is another example of how sophisticated the Christian propaganda is these days. If you click on the ad you can read the contents of their book and it is amazingly convincing. I will have to say that it is well researched and quite well written. It looks professional, and to someone who isn’t familiar with the science the arguments are overwhelming. Someone has learned very well how to cherry-pick facts, omit contradictory evidence, and lead the reader to a conclusion that is not supported by reality. I could slice and dice the whole damned thing with points that refute every conclusion it makes, but someone without a strong background in paleontology and biology is entirely at sea.

    This is a good example of how important it is to consider the source of an argument. It might sound scientific but it ain’t necessarily so these days. One of the great accomplishments of the fundamentalists and conservatives in general has been to undermine the authority of experts, so now it doesn’t matter what the economists say about the economy, or what the scientists say about science, we have learned that we know better than the people who make the study of those subjects their life’s work; all we have to do is listen to the ones who say what we want to hear. We are becoming a nation of ignoramuses. Or is it ignorami?

  • Joel Wheeler:

    You might appreciate this essay by Peter Atkins, about what a good explanation entails.

    http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=atkins_18_2

    • Rechelle:

      Thanks for the link Joel. I did enjoy it and now have totally forgotten it. My mind is a steel sieve. Must go read it again.

    • Clay:

      Yes, thanks, Joel. This is very well done. With all the clammer that comes from the religious people we very seldom see such an articulate and convincing argument for science. I would include not only science but all the academic areas of investigation. I was truly amazed when I entered college and found a whole new way of looking at the world, one that just never came through in high school. That way of thinking is under attack, and it is so gratifying to find voices that still defend it publicly and artfully, including Rechelle’s.

      Like Bertrand Russell, I never could bring myself to shut out the idea of something beyond the universe we know, so I’ve defaulted to the status of agnostic. The atheists are convinced that the universe doesn’t include existence after death or the things called “paranormal” but my experiences suggest there is a possiblity they might exist in some sense. I do ponder that question of extinction at death but the world is much richer if the possibilities are open, and I think that can be done without doing harm to science and reason.

      • jalf:

        Agnosticism (or atheism), as usually defined, have little to do with the paranormal *in general*. I don’t see why you can’t be an atheist and still believe in, say, the afterlife. You’re just not supposed to believe in any gods.

        I consider myself an atheist, but like you, I’m not quite willing to shut out the idea of there being “something” beyond what we know. If I had to bet a dollar on “is there an afterlife”, or “are there such things as ghosts”, or any other supernatural phenomenon, I’d go with “no, I doubt it”. But I can’t rule it out, and sometimes that’s comforting to hold onto. These are still unanswered questions. And being an atheist doesn’t (as I see it) preclude you from pondering them.

        It just means you’re not a theist. That is, you don’t believe in a deity. Anything else is fair game.

        • Clay:

          From what I’ve seen, most people who don’t believe in god have arrived at that position based on the rationalist view that nothing exists beyond the material universe. That would include such things as ESP, ghosts, etc. This is overwhelmingly the attitude of the scientific community. And on the other side, most people who believe in god think that without god there is no heaven or existence after death. I see that all the time on Yahoo Answers, and the great majority are not able to conceive of one without the other. I was following an agnostic blog for a while until I realized the moderator wouldn’t tolerate any discussion that diverted attention away from an unceasing attack on the god concept. I got the feeling that anything smacking of the dreaded “paranormal” was in the same category as creationism. For me, debunking the existence of the popular vision of god is a topic quickly exhausted (talk about beating a dead horse). My question is where do you go from there.

          I am with you in thinking that God and supernatural phenomena belong in different categories and should be judged independently. But I see little evidence of that being done. I haven’t done much searching among the atheist/agnostic sites, but the ones I’ve seen are notable for two things; they contain a lot of intelligent analysis and conversation on religion, and they either avoid or dismiss any idea of the existence of what is commonly known as the supernatural. On the other hand, discussion of that topic among the general commentary on the Internet is common, but not intelligent, not analytic, not enlightening and usually is not much above the realm of superstition. This has not always been the case.

          There was a time when these things were taken more seriously and explored more deeply. Now, most people. if they do not reject this area altogether, will state their case, as you do, as having reservations but admitting the possibility of the supernatural. All of the elegant vision inspired by that possibility dried up after the first half of the last century. I can’t even find a coherent version of it on the Internet.

          I do think there is evidence for reincarnation, telepathy, and premonition that can’t be explained away convincingly. It is a pity that it isn’t leading anywhere.

          • jalf:

            Well, the paranormal is subject to many of the same criticisms as organized religion. mainly “should we believe in something if we have absolutely no indication that it is true?”

            and so a lot of people who answer “no” on the subject of God, will also answer “no” if the same question is asked for all sorts of other paranormal phenomena. And I think a strong dose of skepticism is warranted for exactly that reason.

            Of course, the difference is that with the Bible, we already know of dozens, if not hundreds, of ways in which it is just flat out wrong. So in that case, it is even more tempting to conclude that it’s bullshit.

            If the subject is ghosts, for example, we still have no arguments in favor of their existence, but at least we also have fewer arguments *against* it.

            My view tends to be that “there might well be something we’d define as paranormal, but I’m pretty sure it’s none of what you imagine”. The ghost of my granddad wandering the Earth making woo-woo noises and throwing furniture around? I doubt it. People having been abducted by aliens? Dowsing rods? Not a chance. If it’s paranormal, then what are the chances that any human being just so happens to know about it, or be able to guess what it is?

            My problem with almost every claim for some kind of paranormal phenomenon is that scientifically speaking, it’s upside down. I saw something I can’t explain, *so it must be my dead granddad*. Wait what?

            How do we know that? I can accept “I saw something that looked sort of like a transparent person, and the light suddenly switched off”, which is an interesting observation which needs some kind of explanation. But proponents of the paranormal tend to jump to the conclusion that it’s caused by some specific kind of, well, superstition which people have just so happened to come up with hundreds of years ago to explain what they didn’t understand, just like they did with God.

            It’s also worth mentioning that the reason the attempts at explaining or proving the paranormal have dried up is that they *have* very often been debunked. James Randi has set up a challenge offering a million dollars to anyone who could demonstrate any kind of paranormal event or power under proper observing conditions. So far hundreds and hundreds of people have applied and been tested, and every single one has been debunked.

            If some people really had paranormal powers of any kind, wouldn’t they have turned up by now to claim the million dollars?

            Once again, it’s not the paranormal I object to, just the way people try to trivialize it by turning it from “something unknown, beyond what we can see” into something, well, normal, that “I can see, but you can’t, aren’t I special?”

            The entire point in the paranormal is that it is *beyond* normal. I’d happily accept that there are beings wandering around on this planet that we have no clue about and are unable to detect. But the common claims that “I know what it is. It’s really granddad who passed away”, or “it’s actually a spirit of the forest”, or “our house elf”. All of these explanations are as silly as the God thing. Take something we can’t explain, and then, rather than seeking an actual explanation, decide on what we’d *like* it to be, and then say “so that must be it”. Likewise, it may actually be possible to predict the future, but I highly doubt any human being can do it. But I know plenty of people would like us to believe that they can.

          • jalf:

            The problem with your telepathy example is that we already know we’re very susceptible when dreaming. And if two people are sleeping near each others, they’re obviously exposed to the same background noises or smells, or they might hear one another talk in their sleep. And of course, sometimes people just “create” memories for themselves. If you told her about your dream first, or asked if she’d been dreaming anything like it, that’d obviously affect what she might answer, and what she might think she dreamt.

            By the way, if it was developed in animals as a means of warning against predators, doesn’t that mean it *would* be controllable and verifiable? What good would it be, how would it have evolved, if it just made people have odd dreams every once in a while? (And if that’s just because it’s underdeveloped in humans, then throw a group of animals into the lab and test them. Again, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be testable)

            As for premonition, I have to say that apart from the other objections (such as the one above, in telling her what happened you might have affected what she remembered, or thought she remembered, dreaming about), the obvious problem here is sheer statistics. It’d be interesting if she mentioned that dream to someone or wrote it down *before* you told her.

            It’s hardly surprising that *someone* *sometimes* dreams something that turns out to “predict” a future event. That’s bound to happen coincidentally, in the same way that *sometimes* a street light is bound to go out just when a person walks underneath it. And *sometimes* the phone rings just when you’re in the shower, and so on. To be indicative of premonition or anything like that, it’s not enough that such events happen, they have to happen *more often* than statistics would suggest.

            Consider as you said, that many people have dreams accurately predicting the deaths of others.

            Consider that we often do know in advance when someone is dying. if it is someone we care about, then it tends to prey on our minds and then it’s hardly unlikely that we dream about it. And if we keep dreaming about it then eventually, one of those dreams is going to coincide with the *actual* death (and then that’ll be the one we remember, of course.)

            Like you said, self-delusion is a common human activity. I feel like that’s too harsh a word for it though. It’s really just our pattern-seeking brains being really good at noticing patterns. Any time you experience something that makes you go “hmm, that’s odd”, you sit upright and pay attention. We immediately assume that it must be a “thing”, because that’s how we think. It’s not delusion, it’s just that our brains are evolved to deal with what matters to us here and now. if something weird happens to *me* I’m, generally speaking, better off with a brain that assumes it to be something special that I should act on, than one which waits for conclusive statistical evidence (causing me to get eaten by the lion instead, because I wasn’t sure there was anything to be worried about). It’s hardly deception, just a survival mechanism that unfortunately doesn’t favor scientific thought.

        • Clay:

          I don’t think there is “absolutely no indication” that there might be some truth in supernatural claims. Bear with me a minute and I will tell you why.

          The subject we are talking about is full of delusions and fraud. Self delusion is one of the most common of human activities, and it loves to create drama, entertainment and profit for itself, which is easily done, and abetted, when there are so many people who want to believe. I have never understood how anyone could believe in astrology. Any supernatural claim that doesn’t involve actual events isn’t worth considering. But all the delusion and fraud in the world don’t serve as evidence against the existence of such things as ESP. The evidence has to come from an analysis of the events surrounding it. Consider three areas: reincarnation, telepathy, and premonition.

          In 1966 Ian Stevenson, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, published a book called “Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation”. The project had been conducted following the protocols of scientific inquiry and included site visits and written documentation on reported cases of reincarnation in India, Ceylon, Brazil, Lebanon and among a group of Indians in SE Alaska. It is a fascinating book that has become a classic. Although Stevenson didn’t claim any proof of reincarnation some of the cases are strongly suggestive. I’ve seen some negative responses that attempted to refute the results, but they are not very convincing in their own right. Ultimately, it is possible that the claimed reincarnations were simply frauds, but that would have required such elaborate planning and coordination among so many people that it hardly seems likely. It is not proof but it does create a credible doubt.

          Telepathy has not turned out to be demonstrable in the lab setting, from what I have heard. The many claims of telepathy in the popular press can’t be counted as evidence. I always thought that if it existed at all it would have become highly developed in animals as a way to avoid predators and communicate with family. But if it does exist there is no reason why it would have to be controllable for the lab or for life situations. I had one experience that has very nearly convinced me that it does exist. I awoke in the middle of the night filled with the overwhelming certainty that I had been sharing a dream with my wife and both children. I have never had another dream that I identified as sharing with family members, and I’ve never felt that complete and utter conviction about anything when I was waking. I should have roused the whole family to see what they were dreaming, but I waited until morning. The kids didn’t remember anything, but my wife said that she had a dream where she knew she was sharing it with someone.

          Premonition, if it exists, is another phenomenon that can’t be controlled to perform in the lab but might happen spontaneously. Two years ago I, along with my wife and son, was the target of a home invasion by two armed robbers who broke in the back door wearing masks. When we called later that day to tell our daughter, who lives in another state, she said that the previous night she had a dream where two men with guns and wearing masks broke into her apartment. She had never had such a dream before. Many people claim to have had dreams accurately predicting the death of others. They are not easily dismissed when something like it happens to you.

          I think it is great that Randi has put a million dollars on the line for anyone who can prove ESP, but he hasn’t proved that it doesn’t exist and probably never will because so many of the examples can’t be brought into the lab because they are sporadic, unpredictable and uncontrollable. The other problem with evaluating paranormal claims is that as long as it is happening to someone else it can always be a fraud they have thought up, but when it happens to you, you know the truth, and that is not something you can get out of reading other people’s stories.

          I’m not convinced of paranormal things, even though the examples here are not the only ones I’ve seen. I’m not sure what to believe, but I do think there are possibilities, and the world is more complicated than many people would have us think.

        • Clay:

          To the contrary, we are not “very susceptible” at all to external stimuli when dreaming. Sleeping and dreaming require shutting out the physical world and they can’t exist while there is significant input from the outside. I practiced lucid dreaming for a while and during those dreams was never aware of anything beyond the self-created world of the mind. During my first lucid dream I was amazed by the thought that I was lying in bed but had no idea what position I was in, but that thought drew me back to the waking state with the feeling of the bed pressing on my side. Dreaming and that kind of physical input are not compatible. Some people might be more sensitive, but nothing less than a good pummeling will get through to me when I sleep. One morning my wife told me that during the night the vacant house next door exploded from accumulated natural gas, blowing off one wall, and two fire engines roared by, sirens wailing while I slept. I had no recollection.
          So I don’t think that sharing a bed makes for common experiences during sleep and wouldn’t explain this case because, 1) I’ve always been oblivious to external stimuli when I sleep, 2) I didn’t awake with any memory of, sense of, or preoccupation with sounds, conversations, feelings, etc. which should have been evident if they were the drivers, 3) if this mechanism is active it should have occurred many times in the past, but it has never happened to me before or since during a long lifetime, 4) my conviction was of sharing the dream with the whole family, not just my wife who was the only one present and potentially able to influence me, and 5) my conviction was of sharing a dream (which is a conceptualization), not a conversation or physical experience such as would have been generated by outside stimuli. But I did tell her about the dream before she told me of having a similar experience and I have always thought that was a weakness that kept the incident from offering real proof of telepathy.

          I have seen references to “creating” memories about dreams, and I’m sure there are some examples, but as a general explanation it is very weak. It seems to be the perfect explanation for every case; it is an assertion that is expected to stand on its own merit, requiring no proof, no evidence and no particulars about how it applies to individual cases. So let us talk about statistics. How many instances of this phenomenon are known, how frequently does it happen, what percentage of the population experience it, what personality types are most susceptible to it, what types of memories are created and how detailed are they, what situations promote the “creation” of memories and in what situations are they rare? I have at least a firsthand knowledge of the temperament and psychology of my wife and daughter which might bear on the question of whether they were susceptible to creating false memories, while your guess is entirely uninformed.

          It appears to me that there are a few examples where memory creation has been demonstrated but in many cases the reason for invoking this explanation against predictive dreams is simply the firm belief that the world operates by a set of known processes, so memory creation is the only way to answer challenges to that viewpoint. And so it is, without going outside the bounds of accepted knowledge. But, surely, the first thing we should acknowledge is that there are many things we don’t yet understand about the universe, and as a corollary, that there are always some questions that should be kept open, at least for the present. As a scientist and an observer of science I see the continual irrational attacks on science that require constant refutation, and at the same time I have come to see how rigid the conventions and structures of that institution are and how unquestioned they are by people who should know that science is in a continual state of evolution. Every major scientific revolution has required the establishment to be dragged, kicking and screaming into a new understanding. The irony is that an enterprise whose purpose is intellectual advancement can be so resistant to change and to recognition of its own limitations.

          Yes, I do understand about coincidences, which is why I made a special effort to point out how unreliable many claims of the paranormal are. But if we are talking about statistics, what do they say about the probability of someone having a dream about a break-in by two armed, masked robbers the night before there is a break-in by two armed, masked robbers at a relative’s home? What are the odds against that?

          Yes, if premonition was adaptively developed in animals it would mean that it was controllable and verifiable, but it didn’t so it wasn’t. What is the problem with that? If animals have premonitions, as some claim, they are not subject to control or direction, and the same is probably true for humans.

          As I said, I am not a believer in the paranormal, but some events are suggestive of it, and nothing you have said has removed that suggestion.

  • I don’t usually comment on posts more than a couple of days old, but I thought it might amuse you that Dembski has just outed himself as a literal Creationist (as in, “those were six *literal* days):

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/10/are_we_at_all_surprised.php

    • Rechelle:

      I read this – and I found his explanation really weird. It’s almost like he is signaling to some Christian super power or something. Then there’s the whole ‘God’s time’ vs ‘The World’s time’ which is just bizarre.

      During the debate he referred to himself as an ‘old earth creationist’ which he seemed to say with slight derision towards the ‘young earth creationists’ as if he were obviously much more grounded in reality than they were. Yeah right buddy! I would like to hear him debunk ‘mitochodrial Eve’ and ‘Y chromosome Adam’. I am sure he has an argument ready.

  • MMorris:

    Newsflash: “God”, by nature and definition, means the entity that caused all entities outside of or other than itself. k-thnx, just wanted to clear up that little bit of orthodox theology 101.

    This should not be a problem for those of you who are willing to rest on the fact that the universe is either without beginning / initial cause or believe that it is not necessary to learn of an initial cause.