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The Strange Mental World of Darwinian Fundamentalists

Stephen H. Webb

As I mentioned earlier, I participated in good faith in an open forum blog discussion at the National Center for Science Education site, hoping to deepen my understanding about something, even if it was only the thoughts of my critics or the limits of my own understanding. Surely, I thought, if I explain my position and analyze my opponents’ comments, I will at least see some progress toward mutual agreement. I might have to change my mind about a few things, and we might find out that we are using different terms or trying to answer different questions. But surely we will shed some light on something.

Boy, was I wrong. The only thing I deepened was my despair that Darwinian fundamentalists will ever give up their mission to deride their critics at all costs. I do not think the people I was arguing with are evil or dumb. They are no doubt hard-working, highly ethical professionals, smart and well educated. So why could they respond to hardly any of my challenges or analyze any of my claims?

The only conclusion I could come to was that they think, on this particular issue, I am so crazy that they must try to save me from some cult rather than take anything I say seriously. That is the only explanation that makes sense of why they ignored what I said, kept changing the topic when I pinned them down, refused to answer any of my challenges, and felt free to turn my words around to suit their interests.

They were acting like therapists who were professionally forbidden from taking me seriously. When the patient says he thinks he is Julius Caesar, the therapist talks about the weather. When I say that you have to understand mental causation in order to understand God’s action in the world, the response I get is, "What would it look like if we could see it?" This bit of na�ve empiricism came from a scientist who knows quite well that we cannot see all the things we believe in.

Or there was this exchange with James McGrath, a professor of New Testament at Butler University. Me: "Biologists are among the worst in academia in appealing to credentialism to shut down criticism." McGrath:

I find it hard to believe that Steve Webb, himself an educator, is claiming that someone who has never pursued high level academic study in a field and never engaged in the kind of research that academics are required to pursue will nonetheless be as well poised to comment on a matter as those who have undertaken and continue to engage in such study.

Well, yes James, you should find it hard to believe, because I never said anything close to the view that you attribute to me.

Or take this exchange with Professor McGrath, prompted by my use of the term "Darwinism" to refer to evolutionary theory in general. McGrath:

Whenever someone talks about "Darwinism" I always have to wonder whether they are kidding. If you aren’t going to interact with the current state of biology then what is the point of the exercise? If biologists are not dealing with the evidence in 19th-century terms, of what value are criticisms of the state of our knowledge a century and a half ago?

Me: "You know that when I say Darwinism I mean the current state of his theory." McGrath: "I find ‘Darwinism’ to rarely be used anywhere except among critics who are not themselves working within the relevant fields or well acquainted with them." Me:

I just Googled it, and the first three entries use it to refer to the contemporary theory of evolution, and talk about it in terms of its origin in Darwin and its later developments. Those cites are: Wikipedia, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. So I don’t know why you are nitpicking about this except to exhaust me and distract us from substantial issues.

McGrath: "Ah, well, reference to Wikipedia settles the matter. I apologize."

But here is the oddest exchange of all. Glenn Branch, the deputy director of the NCSE, raised the objection that advocates of intelligent design are being dishonest when they say that ID theory makes no judgments about who the intelligent designer is. Everyone knows, he says, that ID is talking about God. I reply that the point is empirical evidence can point to a causal agent that just might be God, but it does not tell us anything specific about the nature of that agent. Logic, metaphysics, revelation, scripture, and other sources have to kick in to answer such a question.

Me: "It is perfectly logical to argue that evidence points to a kind of cause without being able to specify all the features of that cause." Branch:

It’s a trivial consequence of the underdetermination of theory by data that a theory won’t specify all of the features of a theoretical entity, so that’s hardly the accusation against "intelligent design." Rather, the accusation is that its reluctance to pronounce on the identity and nature of the designer is essentially unargued, ad hoc, and impossible to explain except in the context of the strategic goals of its proponents.

So Branch agrees that evidence can point to a cause without specifying all of the features of that cause. Yet he continues to insist that ID is being dishonest in not "pronouncing on the identity" of its intelligent cause. Hmm.


I’m glad we agree that identifying all the features of a theoretical entity, or really of any causal agent, is not necessary for identifying the causal efficacy of that entity. Now you have to help me out Glenn, because I truly don’t understand your second sentence. ID folks all the time talk about the restrictions they operate under in positing an intelligent designer. That is, they are very open and honest about what science can and cannot say about the intelligent designer. So how do you come up with that last sentence?

I’m still waiting for an answer — a real answer, this time.