I was at the Dembski-Shermer Debate at Bridgewater College in Bridgewater Virginia last night. I had the privilege of finally meeting both William Dembski and Michael Shermer for the first time in person. They spoke to a crowd of about 350 people from Bridgewater College, James Madison University, and the surrounding community. The crowd was diverse from high-school educated carpenters to PhD trained scientists and philosophers. Symbolic of the diverse mix of people was an American pastor of a rural church and his wife, a Russian laser physicist!
Dembski won the debate, but I must salute Shermer’s honorable and courageous performance in the face of overwhelming odds. Shermer debated fairly and cleanly and avoided slinging mud and motive mongering. He did his best to stick to the discussion of scientific issues. Hats off to him.
It is hard not to really like Michael Shermer. One often gets the sense that Michael Shermer is viewed as creationism’s Prodigal Son by many. He was once an Evangelical Christian and renounced his faith after accepting Darwinian evolution. It seems many in my circles hold out hope Shermer will one day see the light and be restored to his long lost family.
That said, Shermer made a gallant attempt to discredit the hypothesis of intelligent design. His presentation reminded me of the valiant but ill-fated Pickett’s Charge in the battle of Gettysburg where Confederate soldiers marched a mile in the open field in the face relentless canon and musket fire. In that charge two life-long friends (Armistead and Hancock) found themselves pitted against each other, with Armistead leading his confederates into the blistering fire of Hancock’s canons. Such was the debate last night. Two friends, Bill Dembski and Michael Shermer were pitted against one another, and Shermer heroically fought on the side of a losing cause. I cringed that it was a courageous and honorable Michael Shermer marching into the battlefield instead of Barbara Forrest (see: Barbara Forrest, will the real coward please stand up).
Shermer attempted to discredit intelligent design by arguing the evidence for common ancestry. Shermer really shined when he cited the writings of Evangelical Christian and renowned scientist Francis Collins. He said Collins’ defense of Darwinian evolution in the book The Language of God was one of the best ever written, and Shermer read almost verbatim from chapter 5 of Collins’ book. That was a brilliant move by Shermer (especially before a crowd sympathetic to Dembski), but the move was brilliantly repulsed when Dembski reiterated, “ID is not inherently against the idea of common ancestry”. Thus Dembski neutralized Shermer’s best argument.
Shermer in the end said he was open to ideas like self-organization, or other evolutionary scenarios, and thus contradicted his own thesis on the importance of natural selection. When Shermer said he was open to the possibility of other mechanisms for evolution (like self-organization), Bill pulled out Shermer’s book and reminded him of Shermer’s own words:
No one, and I mean no one, working in the field is debating whether natural selection is the driving force behind evolution
Bill put together a wonderful arsenal of slides, videos, and compelling arguments making constant references to engineering. The audience was full of wonder as he showed the marvelous complexity of life graphically. He cited peer-reviewed articles demonstrating that debate was active on various ID topics. Bill Dembski mentioned the infamous Wistar Convention of 1966 where the world’s top neo-Darwinists were bludgeoned by mathematicians and computer scientists.
During the Q & A, Jason Rosenhouse (of Pandas Thumb) vigorously objected to Dembski’s citation of Wistar. Rosenhouse used a line of argumentation that he used in the essay CAN PROBABILITY THEORY BE USED TO REFUTE EVOLUTION?. Rosenhouse makes a formidable and convincing argument, but there is actually a more formidable and almost invulnerable counter argument (which I will give briefly). But rather than using his best counter to Rosenhouse, Dembski chose to avoid formalism and appeal to a popular audience by pointing out the selective use of probability theory by evolutionists. He showed Rosenhouse’s objections based on uncertainty regarding the conditions of the deep past were equally fatal to proponents of Darwinian evolution if Rosenhouse’s standards were equally applied, thus demonstrating Rosenhouse was arguing for a double standard.
But for the reader’s benefit, and to try to put a rest to some of this, the more solid but tediously formal argument against Rosenhouse’s thesis is laid out in Design Inference. Understandably because of time constraints, Bill did not bring out the big guns of formalisms laid in Design Inference. The formalisms demonstrate that there is a moot point crushing the Darwinist position, namely that Darwinists arguments are logically self-contradictory probability arguments of the form: “E = not-E” (page 46). Bill even uses the phrase reductio ad absurdum to described what his formalism demonstrates. “Reductio ad absurdum” is “proof by contradiction”. A proof by contradiction is not the same as argument from incredulity. A proof by contradiction shows how a claim is logically self-contradictory and therefore indefensible.
Darwinists argue that an unspecific mechanism can make specific outcomes. That is a logically self-contradictory claim, like the square circles. Probabilistically speaking, it’s like saying any ole combination (an unspecified mechanism) will open the safe (a specified outcome). When Darwinism is put into mathematical language, the self-contradictory nature of Darwinism is readily apparent. Rosenhouse argues that we would need detailed knowledge to make a probability argument, whereas the formal ID refutation is simply pointing out Darwinists have framed their claims in a logically self-defeating manner. That is the crux of the ID formalism refuting Darwinian evolution. This was shown in more detail in The Fundamental theorem of intelligent Design.
Shermer touched on the co-option argument and the flagella of other organisms other that E. Coli. This is a deep enough subject, I might have to defer discussion to another thread, but in brief, consider the fact your passwords are irreducibly complex. Does the fact that other people using passwords with some of the same alphabetic characters negate the IC of your password? Because some people have passwords that use the same letters as yours, can your password be more easily broken? There is a similar problem then with using arguments from protein homology to say IC is solvable since organisms use similar proteins (where we might think of proteins as letters to a password, and the passwords as IC systems). Dembski did not have time to address that point in Shermer’s presentation, and it was probably deep in the weeds enough that it would have bogged down the discussion.
During the Q & A the community of YECs came out in force and were rather polemic toward Shermer. I thought their tone was a bit rude. Can’t these guys be just a bit more collegial? No wonder they have such a bad reputation. After the hammering Shermer took, the YEC behavior was like the act of sticking bayonets into the bodies of dead soldiers. They could have been considerably more gracious, but they seem to have a real chip on their shoulder. Some YECs in that community are pretty tough, and one even showed me the door last year because he viewed me as too much a compromiser for my association with the ID movement! I was actually worried for Bill that the YECs in the crowd would start giving him a bad time over him not being a YEC himself. I mean, I was worried these guys would start arguing with Bill about what they think the Bible says.
In the closing remarks Shermer made some good points. He commented on the question that people pose to him about the after life, to which he responds “I’m all for it….but wanting something to be true does not make it true…the question of ID does not address the matter of such things…science shouldn’t be used to bolster religious belief, because science may over turn it.” Interestingly, that hit home for me. I cannot imagine having a religious faith not bolstered by empirical facts and sound theoretical arguments. If the facts overturn what I believe, then so be it. I can understand Shermer’s not wanting religion to rely on science, but on the other hand I can’t imagine a body of beliefs totally decoupled from empirical reality…..
The informal reception afterwards was very interesting. I met Bill Dembski for the first time and also had a cordial conversation with Jason Rosenhouse about things outside of ID. Though Rosenhouse and I are polar opposites, and sometimes we probably fume at each other, he has always been civil in person and conducted himself in an honorable manner whenever he participated in the Campus Crusade/Chi Alpha/IDEA functions I put together at his school.
I finally managed to talk to Dr. Shermer. He is quite a gentleman, and it was a delight to meet him. I asked him what he thought about the media attention given the ID movement. He said, “It’s far more than anything the creationists have ever gotten…it’s a truly successful media relations campaign…the creationists had nothing like it…a lot of it has to do with the internet….Bill Dembski is now world famous because of ID”. This is an interesting comment about the effectiveness of the internet. I didn’t have the time to pursue why he thought the internet was so important to the spread of ID.
I asked him about the mood of his colleagues post-Dover. To my surprise he said, for most of them it’s back to business. He’s all for people believing what they want to believe and teaching their children as such. He and his colleagues were concerned that tax payer money would be used to impose Christian beliefs on students, and thus he and his colleagues are much less worried about that now that Dover is behind us.
If I recall corretly, he said, “I’m against public schools, I think they’re a bad idea.” He mentioned he is favorable to private and home schools. But home and private schools are a veritable incubator of creationists! So I had to see if I could corroborate my recollection of what Shermer said with something he has published. He in fact wrote 25 EVOLUTIONISTS’ ANSWERS
In private schools funded and/or controlled by creationists, it is their freedom to teach whatever they like to their children.
He said he wanted to visit my alma mater, George Mason, because of their renowned free-market economics department run by 2 Nobel laureates. Is Shermer a libertarian of sorts? Hmm….Any way, I could go on, but the sum of my remarks is that I find Shermer to be an honorable gentleman. I would hope some day he sees the light.