William Dembski Debates Lewis Wolpert

William Dembski reports,

Lewis Wolpert and I had an audio debate a few weeks ago, which is now available online as a podcast: go here (there’s about three minutes of stage-setting by the interviewer Justin Brierly before the actual discussion with Wolpert begins). The debate is part of a program series called UNBELIEVABLE. Other debates available there include one between Denis Alexander and PZ Myers and also one between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox.

Wintery Knight provides a good summary of the debate here.

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18 thoughts on “William Dembski Debates Lewis Wolpert

  1. Chris,

    You imply that many atheists hold the view there is no god a priori.

    I object. I point out that I can only find people who say they are not closed off to evidence for god, they simply have yet to see any convincing evidence. I ask you for evidence.

    You give me your evidence for god – I point to the rather large holes in them – you ignore this.

    You list people, book title’s and quotes implying a lack of belief – an issue that has not even been challenged in this discussion. But you list these things as evidence that they believe this a priori.

    I have read a lot of Sagan – he is not a priori a non believer. That comment is from the introduction to his TV series Cosmos – he is simply defining what was then a less commonly used word.

    I have read a lot of Dennett – ditto. I have read Russell ditto.

    Same for PZ Meyers and Crick.

    Why on earth do you think quoting their lack of belief supports your assertion that they do this from bias and not from the supernaturalists failure to provide any convincing evidence?

    Based on these failures and your hints that you haven’t read anything other than a few quotes from these folks why on earth should I accept that you have an informed view on their a priori biases or not?

    You are right that many many people don’t thing the supernatural exists.

    But your bumbling use of such comments to support something via a 100% non sequitur is getting a little embarrassing now.

    Let’s leave at that shall we?


  2. Hi Psi,

    Thanks for those thoughts. I should say, in relation to the topic we’re discussing, that all of us have our cognitive biases, theists as well as atheists. So, it seems to me that we all have tendencies to accept or reject certain beliefs a priori, according to our personal biases. That’s one reason dialogue and peer review is so important. Truth is best arrived at in a community of truth seekers who are in dialogue together about the truth.

    Based on your comment, it seems like you’re suggesting that Lewontin and Sagan are only committed to methodological naturalism as applied to science, rather than metaphysical naturalism, which would commit them to rejecting a supernatural explanation of anything in any area of life.

    But the two quotes still suggest to me that Lewontin and Sagan don’t mean to restrict their statements to only what happens in the scientific laboratory. Lewontin says he is committed to materialism (which is a philosophy about all of reality, not just science), and Sagan makes the bold claim that the cosmos is all that exists. Of course, if the cosmos is all that exists, then the supernatural does not exist.

    It appears that you’re suggesting that no one (or practically no one) really holds to the view known as metaphysical naturalism. But this is an odd claim, since it’s a well established philosophical position. The Wikipedia article on this topic lists the following sources as those that defend this view (you’ll note that Richard Carrier appears in the list, whom I mentioned last time):

    -Gary Drescher, Good and Real, The MIT Press, 2006. [ISBN 0-262-04233-9]
    -David Malet Armstrong, A World of States of Affairs, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. [ISBN 0-521-58064-1]
    -Mario Bunge, 2006, Chasing Reality: Strife over Realism, University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-9075-3 and 2001, Scientific Realism: Selected Essays of Mario Bunge, Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-892-5
    -Richard Carrier, 2005, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism, AuthorHouse. ISBN 1-4208-0293-3
    -Mario De Caro & David Macarthur (eds), 2004. Naturalism in Question. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01295-X
    -Daniel Dennett, 2003, Freedom Evolves, Penguin. ISBN 0-14-200384-0 and 2006
    -Andrew Melnyk, 2003, A Physicalist Manifesto: Thoroughly Modern Materialism, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-82711-6
    -David Mills, 2004, Atheist Universe: Why God Didn’t Have A Thing To Do With It, Xlibris. ISBN 1-4134-3481-9
    -Jeffrey Poland, 1994, Physicalism: The Philosophical Foundations, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-824980-2.

    In addition to these, I’ll mention a few others along with quotations.

    - E. O. Wilson – “. . . the Central Idea of the consilience worldview is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of the stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and torturous the sequences, to the laws of physics.” – CONSILIENCE: THE UNITY OF KNOWLEDGE (KNOPF: 1998), 266.

    - Quentin Smith – “[This world] exists nonnecessarily, improbably, and causelessly. It exists for absolutely no reason at all. It is inexplicably and stunningly actual … The impact of this captivated realization upon me is overwhelming. I am completely stunned. I take a few dazed steps in the dark meadow, and fall among the flowers. I lie stupefied, whirling without comprehension in this world through numberless worlds other than this one.” ATHEISM, THEISM AND BIG BANG COSMOLOGY” IN THE AUSTRALASIAN JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY, MARCH 1991 (VOLUME 69, NO. 1), PP. 48-66.

    - George Gaylord Simpson – “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” THE MEANING OF EVOLUTION (NEW HAVEN: YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1967), P. 345.

    - Bertrand Russell – “That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”
    “A Free Man’s Worship”

    - PZ Meyers – “if we’re imagining [science] as some institutional entity in the world, [it] really doesn’t care—there is no grand objective morality, no goal or purpose to life other than survival over multiple generations, and it could dispassionately conclude that many cultures with moral rules that we might personally consider abhorrent can be viable.” http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/04/a_priest_a_scientist_and_a_com.php

    - Francis Crick – ” ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons … although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.” “The Astonishing Hypothesis”

    All of these statements implicitly or explicitly deny the existence or efficacy of a supernatural reality. And I think this view is extremely common, and actually holds the status of orthodoxy in higher education today. So, going back to ID, anyone who accepts this worldview is highly likely to reject ID without considering the evidence in its favor — or will simply interpret the evidence naturalistically, although such interpretation are far-fetched or extremely speculative.

    Take care,

  3. Adam,

    I am getting a bit frustrated here Adam.

    The context here is a comment from Chris that strongly implied that large numbers of Atheists subscribe to scientism and that they do both a priori and so don’t have a reasoned position based on evidence.




    • Psi,

      Your feedback helped me realize that I didn’t express what I had in mind very clearly the first time, so I restated it—apparently too succinctly. Basically, if one of the starting premises is that only truth claims grounded in the natural world can be true, then of course any explanation that posits something outside of the natural order will be rejected. I think my second statement is much clearer in expressing what I was intending to say the first time.

      My objective was not to establish any validity to ID as a scientific theory. Rather, my objective was to explain why someone who holds scientism to be true would reject ID a priori (“Logically prior to or independent of experience. Depending on reason alone, self-evident” – http://philosophy.wlu.edu/gregoryp/class/glossary.html#apriori).

      I suppose it would look something like this:

      A. “Unlike the use of the scientific method as only one mode of reaching knowledge, scientism claims that science alone can render truth about the world and reality. Scientism’s single-minded adherence to only the empirical, or testable, makes it a strictly scientifc [sic] worldview . . . In essence, scientism sees science as the absolute and only justifiable access to the truth.” http://www.pbs.org/faithandreason/gengloss/sciism-body.html

      B. The scientific method is the “principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scientific%20method

      C. “Intelligent design does not meet these criteria (i.e. it cannot be tested by observation and experimentation in the natural world, and the existence of an “intelligent” agent in the origin of life can not [sic] be tested nor is it falsifiable.)” http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/what_you_can_do/evolution-and-id-footnotes.html#4-2

      Therefore: under scientism, ID must be rejected because it fails to meet the only requirements of truth (verifiability under the scientific method). Further, notice that it was rejected on a priori grounds.

      Or in a nutshell: “By requiring supernatural intervention to explain certain observed facts, ID immediately disqualifies itself as a scientific theory. That does not mean there was not a designer, but science concerns itself with what can be explained naturally.” http://www.examiner.com/x-8922-Portland-Skepticism-Examiner~y2009m8d26-Why-Intelligent-Design-is-not-a-scientific-theory However, if the scientific method is the only means to render truth claims, then there is no other means to establish the existence of a designer.

      • Hi Adam,

        Thanks, I could follow your argument – I was just pointing you at the holes in it.

        Now you seem to be changing your stance and mixing up the scientific method with an a priori worldview.

        You are not alone in this – I will reply to Chris in a while.

        You can’t conduct an experiment without controls. How do you suggest we control for god?

        I can’t think of an answer – neither can all the scientists and theologians in the world, which is why you don’t see any equations for miracles or appeals to the almighty in scientific papers.

        Many. many scientists are religious. Many, many religious people practice science. Get over it.

        The comments I objected to was the blatant construction of a strawman portrayal of atheists as a priori rejecting the supernatural. I rejected this as it is not logical.

        Giving me quotes about the scientific method is simply a non sequitur. Or are you seriously proposing that scientists are atheists?

        Try looking up methodological naturalism.

        Your points A and B are clearly about the scientific method – your conclusion is about scientism.

        Try to stick to the point.



        • Psi,

          I’m afraid you’ve misconstrued or misunderstood point A. It is a definition of scientism; so it is fitting that my conclusion would also be about scientism.

          The point I am making is simply this: the conclusions of ID overreach the boundaries of the scientific method. Therefore, if one believes that the scientific method is the only reliable means to render truth claims (scientism), then the conclusions of ID are unacceptable as truth statements.

          A: Scientism claims that proper use of the scientific method is the only way to render truth about the world and reality.
          B: Intelligent design does not meet the criteria of the scientific method.
          C: Therefore, the claims or conclusions of ID do not render acceptable truth claims.

  4. Psi,

    I’m afraid I don’t follow you.

    Why is an a priori rejection of ID so repugnant to you?

    If I believe:
    A. The physical/natural world is all that exists.
    B. If the world has a designer, the designer would be outside of the physical/natural world.

    Then, there is no designer.

    It seems like the above is a logically valid argument that rejects ID based on a priori propositions. In fact, it seems like the above argument alone would be sufficient for a materialist to reject the proposition of a designer of the cosmos.

    So why is the statement that ID is often rejected a priori offensive to you?

    • Hi Adam,

      It is not a logical or valid argument. It is a circular argument and I try to avoid those.

      Your A is the same as your conclusion.

      If you a-priori assume “anything at all”.

      Then logically you think that “anything at all”.

      See my reply to Chris above.

      My argument and opinion is based on evidence and is open to change in the face of new evidence.

      Feel free to supply some.



      BTW you might begin to look at your own virtuous circle;

      Assume god exists
      Look at the world
      Say that p[roves god exists

      PS I can recommend some basic books on logic and critical thinking if you like.

      • Psi,
        Would you be more satisfied if I said: ‘Scientism’ rejects ID a priori because ID posits an explanation that invokes untestable, non-natural agency or causation?

  5. HI Chris,

    I’ll have to call you out for this;

    “That’s a refreshing viewpoint, since many people (especially those who embrace naturalism or scientism) just reject it a priori.”

    That is just lying.

    The evidence that this is made up is the very comments on this blog.

    Bad, bad form old chap.

    Why not give evidence in favour of your case instead of making up a strawman version of the opposition all the time?

    Evidence instead of fibbing? Now that would make a refreshing change.


    • Hi Psi,

      Good to hear from you, my friend. I’m glad you’re keeping me on my toes.

      I didn’t mean to imply that all naturalists and devotees of scientism reject ID arguments a priori, and that’s why I used the word “many.” There are some atheists, like Bradley Monton, who take the arguments seriously and interact with them on a deep level (see his blog here: http://bradleymonton.wordpress.com/). And, I give Richard Dawkins credit for saying that ID is a scientific question (rather than claiming it can only be religion, not science).

      By and large, though, the vast number of atheistic treatments I’ve seen of ID boil down to a question-begging dismissal. Which only makes sense, if one has adopted a naturalistic worldview (although the leading ID proponents don’t claim to know that the designer is supernatural). If all that exists is matter, energy, and natural laws, then it’s very unlikely (on that view) that a Mind of some kind designed the universe and human life. So, many naturalists automatically claim that ID is a merely religious claim, and never interact with the arguments and evidence themselves. That’s not everyone, of course, but many do take that approach.

      I am always impressed, though, when someone takes the arguments seriously, interacts with their strongest forms, and provides an evenhanded evaluation, even if they ultimately disagree with the position — which is where Bradley Monton comes down.

      I’m definitely in favor of providing evidence, but it always helps if the evidence and arguments are given a fair hearing, rather than being dismissed from the start due to prior commitments to naturalism and scientism.

      Take care,

      • Hi Chris,

        You said;

        “Good to hear from you, my friend. I’m glad you’re keeping me on my toes.”

        It’s a pleasure.

        I didn’t mean to imply that all naturalists and devotees of scientism reject ID arguments a priori, and that’s why I used the word “many.”

        OK, name some.

        I struggled to find any – so please show me that I am wrong – I like to learn new things.

        YOu then said;

        “By and large, though, the vast number of atheistic treatments I’ve seen of ID boil down to a question-begging dismissal.”

        Ok show us some examples. Links will be fine.

        I haven’t found anyone who simply takes the apriori view that god does not exist and that natural things are all there are. I can only find people, like me, who simply say they haven’t seen any evidence for the supernatural. They usually go on to ask folks like you for your evidence (I have done that) and to be refused or ignored . . .

        I think you told me it wasn’t appropriate for discussion on your blog?

        Yet you now say;

        “I’m definitely in favor of providing evidence”

        Fire away.



        • Hi Psi,

          There are folks out there who are metaphysical naturalists who are so committed to that viewpoint that they close themselves off to any evidence to the contrary. You don’t seem to fall into that category, which I appreciate.

          A few people do come to mind right away who do fit this description. For example,

          - Richard Lewontin (zoologist): We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. (“Billions and Billions of Demons”)

          - Carl Sagan: “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan)

          - Others who defend this view include Richard Carrier, Victor Stenger, and previously Bertrand Russell and Francis Crick, to name just a few.

          I think many of these folks will also say, with you, “I haven’t seen any (or enough) evidence for the supernatural or God,” and then claim that is why they’ve adopted metaphysical naturalism. Of course, that move doesn’t follow logically, and it seems to me to decrease their chance of judging evidence for God/the supernatural fairly. If someone adopts this worldview, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll see any evidence as counting in favor of a metaphysical reality.

          About evidence for my view, I think I’ve mentioned these before, but I believe a Christian theistic worldview better explains the following phenomena than a naturalistic worldview:

          - The existence of the universe (or of anything at all)
          - The fine-tuning of the universe and earth for life
          - The existence of objective moral values
          - The resurrection of Jesus from the dead
          - The existence of human consciousness and free will

          I believe all of these surprising facts of reality can be better explained by Christian theism than any other worldview.

          Take care,

          • Hi Chris,

            You are changing the goal posts again.


            I will address your points. (see my latest reply to Adam below).

            You are quoting descriptions about the scientific method as defence of your strawman construction of “many atheists think . . .”.

            It won’t wash.

            Sagan’s comment does not imply anything about the supernatural.

            Did you really resort to grabbing a quote mine from AIG??

            Here is the full statement;

            “”With great perception, Sagan sees that there is an impediment to the popular credibility of scientific claims about the world, an impediment that is almost invisible to most scientists. Many of the most fundamental claims of science are against common sense and seem absurd on their face. Do physicists really expect me to accept without serious qualms that the pungent cheese that I had for lunch is really made up of tiny, tasteless, odorless, colorless packets of energy with nothing but empty space between them? Astronomers tell us without apparent embarrassment that they can see stellar events that occurred millions of years ago, whereas we all know that we see things as they happen. When, at the time of the moon landing, a woman in rural Texas was interviewed about the event, she very sensibly refused to believe that the television pictures she had seen had come all the way from the moon, on the grounds that with her antenna she couldn’t even get Dallas. What seems absurd depends on one’s prejudice. Carl Sagan accepts, as I do, the duality of light, which is at the same time wave and particle, but he thinks that the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost puts the mystery of the Holy Trinity “in deep trouble.” Two’s company, but three’s a crowd.
            Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”

            You haven’t given us a single quote to defend your strawman yet. Please do so for the names you quote.

            Still even then I’m not sure that 3 counts as many.

            Here is your “evidence”;

            -the existence of the universe (or of anything at all)

            See the reason why this is a circular argument in my answer to Adam.

            - The fine-tuning of the universe and earth for life

            I gave you this link before and I think you ignored it then as well;


            Still, at least I know I am trying and some of the visitors here might take a peek from behind their hands at this.

            - The existence of objective moral values

            You haven’t shown these actually exist. e.g. Is it objectively moral to kill someone for stumbling and touching a holy object by accident?

            Making up the position of your opponents in a debate appears to ok for you but not for me – again not very objective is it?

            - The resurrection of Jesus from the dead

            What evidence do you have for this?

            - The existence of human consciousness and free will

            Again empty hand waving – why can’t the brain generate consciousness? You don’t say why not.

            You are yet to demonstrate that free will exists either.


            OK time for the next line in your circular script . . .

            Back to you


  6. slight correction.

    The paragraph below, should have read–

    the necessary existence of sentience in any particular process in this case the creation of novel biological form *is key*- – not whether that sentience can, or should, be seen as an entity, or whether that entity is particular to any one tradition

    • Hi Pseudorandom,

      Thanks for these thoughtful observations. I agree with a lot of what you say here. I’m glad to hear that you’re open-minded enough to consider the possibility of intelligent design although you’re not (it seems) committed to any theistic tradition. That’s a refreshing viewpoint, since many people (especially those who embrace naturalism or scientism) just reject it a priori. I think Dembski makes a good case that design can be inferred if the observations meet the criteria that he proposes (specified complexity). In my view, one of the strongest versions of this argument is being made now by Stephen Meyer, author of “Signature in the Cell.” He makes a strong case there that functional, symbolic (i.e., coded) information only comes from a mind in all of our experience, so it’s plausible to think that the information found in DNA also has its origin in a mind. You might be interested in checking out some of his talks and articles here: http://www.signatureinthecell.com/ .

      A recent and stimulating debate on this topic between philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig and evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala is available here: http://apologetics315.blogspot.com/2009/11/william-lane-craig-vs-francisco-j-ayala.html .

      If you get a chance, let me know what you think about these.

      Take care,

  7. Really enjoyed this debate. I’m not a Christian, but I’ve never really accepted the ‘everything is this and that’ positivist philosophythat seems to be the paradigm in biology. I feel that it’s only superficially true, and it’s logical to believe that logic can’t completely capture reality.

    However, I have shared the assumption of many, that, even if there’s ‘something more’, the idea that random mutation and natural selection can create biological form is a separate issue, and is well-established.

    Now I’m not so sure. I think it would clearly make reality look fundamentally more sentient, if the forms of life were seen as some kind of direct expression of it, in the way that the self-organising properties of chemistry are, than if they are believed to have arisen through an algorithm.

    I also don’t think that all the ‘evidence’ for the theory that neo-darwinian processes can create form are as conclusive as they are presented as being- in that they could also be evidence for a sentient process, or for other, insentient processes.

    The proposal that sentience can’t be detected directly (which I see as a restatement of some of Meister Eckhart’s observations) whilst physical processes can be understood and demonstrated empirically, is no argument for a particular physical process that would eliminate the need for sentient input, if that physical process is not shown to be adequate.

    I feel the charge that ID is a ‘science stopper’ is a red herring, because physical mechanisms can be refined and developed indefinitely, because ‘the map is not the territory’ and this would be true even *if* it could shown that intelligence is present in the creation of novel biological form.

    I think the debate would be more fruitful if the opponents of ID would focus more on the fundamental question of whether random mutation and natural selection *can* generate novel form.

    As it is, a lot of their arguments look theological- referencing the (so-called imo) problem of evil for example, and shallowly philosophical- shallow in the sense that they don’t sufficiently define terms like ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’, and the sense in which ‘science’ need not invoke the latter.

    I haven’t looked into Dembski’s work, and the maths is beyond me, but it seems to me that his ideas *are* falsifiable, as long his criteria for terms such as ‘functional; is not too vague to allow common agreement. If a system in which humans have had no input- like a whirlwind for example, were shown to have the features that he requires to show ID, then that would falsify his theory.

    I don’t know if Dembski’s work does hold up or not, but these questions are what the participants in the debate should be focussing on, in my view.

    Final thought – I think another issue that complicates the debate unnecessarily, are semantics over the terms ‘design’ and ‘designer’. I have read a lot about Buddhism, and believe that many would believe that there can be design without a designer, just as there can be deeds without a doer- however, they would not mean that in a behaviourist sense as regards an individual creature, or, in a materialist sense as regards features of the greater universe. What I’m trying to say, is that the necessary existence of sentience in any particular process- in this case the creation of novel biological form- not whether that sentience can, or should, be seen as an entity, or whether that entity is particular to any one tradition – that’s a whole other issue.

    Anyway, sorry if this has been a bit of a ramble– I admit I was trying to cram a lot in.

    Really intrigued by how orthodox Christians are contributing insights to questions of science that I find very interesting (still think I find the gnostics more convincing — so far!)

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