Dembski: The Collapse of Darwin’s Berlin Wall

This is about a peculiar essay by William Dembski, of whom we once wrote Intelligent Design’s Brief Shining Moment. The last time we wrote about him was William Dembski’s Design Inference. It is your Curmudgeon’s humble opinion that from what we’ve seen of Dembski’s writing, it’s hogwash that even the hogs won’t touch.

Dembski has posted a new essay at the blog of the Discoveroids, who are described in the Cast of Characters section of our Intro page. It’s titled Defecting from Darwinian Naturalism: A Review of Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos.

As you’ve guessed from that title, Dembski is ecstatic about the latest conversion of a philosopher that most of you never heard of. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us and his links omitted:

About a decade ago I would muse on what it might take for intelligent design to win the day. Clearly, its intellectual and scientific project needed to move forward, and, happily, that has been happening. But I was also thinking in terms of a watershed event, something that could have the effect of a Berlin Wall coming down, so that nothing thereafter was the same. It struck me that an event like this could involve some notable atheists coming to reverse themselves on the evidence for design in the cosmos.

Right there you can see the utter cluelessness of Dembski’s approach to the whole subject. What he thinks would be the big “watershed event” would be some academic atheists defecting to the god of the Discoveroids. Mind you, there’s no scientific evidence at play in Dembski’s fantasy — no experiment, no fossil discovery, no secret message buried long ago in our DNA that is decoded at last, saying: “Bless you, my children!” Nothing like that. To Dembski, the walls of Jericho will come tumbling down when a philosopher walks across the aisle.

Okay, now that you know where this is going, let’s read on a bit more — but not too much more, because even your Curmudgeon has a limited tolerance for this stuff:

Shortly after these musings, Antony Flew, who had been the most notable intellectual atheist in the English-speaking world until Richard Dawkins supplanted him, announced that he had come to believe in God (a deistic deity and not the full-blooded deity of ethical monotheism) on account of intelligent design arguments. I wondered whether this could be the start of that Berlin Wall coming down, but was quickly disabused as the New York Times and other media outlets quickly dismissed Flew’s conversion as a sign of his dotage (he was in his eighties when he deconverted from atheism).

Even if Flew had been of sound mind when he moved from atheism to deism, what of it? The man was expressing an entirely subjective preference. These things happen; it’s also true that devoted clergy sometimes leave their avocation after a crisis of faith, so it’s obvious that the traffic moves in both directions. But when someone who has been a clear thinker moves toward the position of the Discoveroids, we can only shake our heads in sadness and tell ourselves that it’s a terrible thing to end one’s career in a public display of senility, incontinence, and creationism.

Although Antony Flew’s mental flip-flop didn’t have a major impact for creationism, Dembski still has hopes for more of the same. He says:

Still, I may have been on to something about defections of high profile intellectuals from Darwinian naturalism and the effect that this might have in creating conceptual space for intelligent design and ultimately winning the day for it.


Thomas Nagel, with his just published Mind & Cosmos, has now become another such defector from Darwinian naturalism. Appearing from Oxford University Press and subtitled Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, this slender volume (it’s only 130 pages) represents the most disconcerting defection (disconcerting to Darwinists) from Darwinian naturalism to date. We’re still not talking the Berlin Wall coming down, but it’s not hard to see it as a realistic possibility, off in the distance, after reading this book.

Are you with us, dear reader? Another philosopher, a man with no lab and no data, writes a 130-page volume, and Dembski thinks the whole world is going to start stampeding towards the Seattle temple of the unnamed designer. Yeah, sure, any day now. That’s how scientific paradigm shifts always happen — in the dreams of creationists. Let’s read on:

In Mind & Cosmos, Nagel serves notice on Darwinists that their coercive tactics at ensuring conformity have not worked with him and, if his example inspires others, won’t work with them either. What a wonderful subtitle to his book: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. It’s a dare. Go ahead, make my day, do your worst to bring the wrath of Darwin’s devoted disciples on me. Nagel regards the emperor as without clothes and says so: [quote from Nagel omitted].

All talk, no data. We’ve known several philosophers. Like the little girl with the curl, when they’re good they’re very very good, but when they turn bad — well, you know. Dembski’s essay continues … babble babble babble … oh, here:

I want to pause at this point because I’ve seen this in the past, namely, thinkers, even of high profile and caliber, who see the problems with Darwinian naturalism but then also turn away from intelligent design. What’s going on here? Is it that intelligent design just doesn’t have the intellectual horsepower to convince these thinkers, and so they look elsewhere? Although I’m an ID guy, I’ve seen this phenomenon for a while, and I think I can say dispassionately that that’s not what’s going on here. Invariably, I find that there’s nothing wrong with the ID position per se. …

We’ll let you have the thrill of reading Dembski’s reasoning as to why high caliber thinkers turn away from intelligent design. No, that’s not fair. We’ve taken you this far, so we’ll give you his reason:

The Darwin doubters who are not prepared to follow through with ID are guided, in every instance I know, not by evidential or theoretical concerns about ID but by worldview preferences.

Spoken like a true creationist — it’s not evidence that impresses him, it’s ideology, and he thinks everyone else goes through life the same way. Dembski’s essay is quite long, and there’s no reason to wade through much more of it. Let’s jump to the final paragraph, which seems to sum it all up:

In conclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed Nagel’s new book. For its critique of Darwinian naturalism and for underscoring its crashing failure to explain consciousness, cognition, and morality, Nagel is great. He’s a philosopher, and this is a philosophical book, so readers will be treated to a terrific overview of the big problems in philosophy from a master of the art. The book’s weakness is in failing to follow through the logic of intelligent design, looking to ID solely for its critique of Darwinian evolution but being unwilling to dispassionately consider why its critique was tendered in the first place and the alternative it proposes. And this failure, though Nagel would agree without calling it that, results from his allergy to theism and his preference for atheism.

Okay, that’s the deal. Dembski is still waiting for the Berlin Wall of Darwinism to come tumbling down, and he claims that he sees signs that it’s happening. If he’s serious, he’s kidding himself; and if he’s just slinging the ol’ BS … well, he’s publishing in the right place.

Copyright © 2012. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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12 responses to “Dembski: The Collapse of Darwin’s Berlin Wall

  1. So the philosopher believes if “materialistic” science cannot explain something like consciousness, then consciousness must be due to some other source, opening the door for Demski’s ID explanation.

    This is “god of the gaps” in its purest form.

  2. Here are two long and somewhat rambling reviews (I would start at “Thomas Nagel, Professor…” and use the scroll wheel liberally). If anyone knows of better reviews from scientists etc., I’d love to hear about them.
    If you can make it through the long boring authorial asides, these reviews make two points relevant to the DI’s claim: one, Nagel is not talking about God, an intelligent designer, or even any sort of sentient designer. His teleology does not require a guiding consciousness. In that respect, the DI is quote mining him if they imply otherwise. And two: he (Nagel) is mostly making an argument from incredulity. The book is entirely negative; he asserts that the evidence for an evolutionary, materialist origin of consciousness is insufficient but never offers an alterantive hypothesis or any evidence for said alternative.

  3. Dumbski.

  4. Good point, Ed.

    As for consciousness, it seems to me we’ve all fallen into the “noun trap.” If we give a name to an abstraction, especially one we recognize around us every day, we assume it must be a thing with a clear set of intrinsic qualities. Yet one person’s understanding of “consciousness” seldom agrees with that of another, and we all wind up talking past one another.

    I can’t help wondering if that abstraction functions a little like “ripeness.” A ripe apple, a ripe grain of wheat, and a ripe virgin share very few intrinsic qualities that can be brought together to define “ripeness” coherently. The meaning has nothing to do with their common properties and everything to do with their relationship to other things.

    Perhaps consciousness too is a relational word. To find out, we should quit worrying about it as a separate phenomenon and get down to the business of studying how individual organisms detect and process information that allows them to negotiate their environment and monitor their internal needs. Eventually those investigations might reveal a smooth increase in complexity from the simplest stimulus/response through the invention of the calculus. Or they might reveal some suite of prerequisites for anything we would recognize as consciousness. In that case we could define it in a way everyone could agree on.

    If I am right, the fact that science cannot (yet) explain consciousness is merely a description of our current state of knowledge, not a gap that cries out to be filled by oggity-boogity.

  5. Retired Prof usefull points out

    –the fact that science cannot (yet) explain consciousness is merely a description of our current state of knowledge, not a gap that cries out to be filled by oggity-boogity


    But for Dembski and the Discoveroids, oogity-boogity is a sort of One-Size-Fits-All Intellectual Spackle they just can’t help smearing on everything that hoves into view…

  6. oops! missed off closing html tag in above post — apologies

  7. Charles Deetz ;)

    The Berlin Wall moment my mind immediately saw was a Monty Python-esc finger from heaven coming down.

    But I’ll take a copy of the ten commandments found in DNA code … that would work too.

  8. If Demski weren’t so blinkered, he might notice the flow of folks in the other direction. He could start with Eric MacDonald over at Choice in Dying.

  9. Dumbski is like a mime on a street corner. Only he can see a wall.

    Who cares about Flew or Nagel or any of those philosophers or theologians like Hough? As far as science is concerned they’re less useful or relevant as a bucket of warm rat pee.

    Of course, without the wall Dumbski and his fellow pathetic morons can’t feel persecuted because feeling persecuted is all they have.

    Really, folks, help old Dumbski out. Humor the pitiful twit and at least pretend there’s a wall. Thank you, Dr. Dr., go back to your room and play, the adults want to have a conversation.

  10. eric:
    here’s another review of Nagel’s book:

    We conclude with a comment about truth in advertising. Nagel’s arguments against reductionism are quixotic, and his arguments against naturalism are unconvincing. He aspires to develop “rival alternative conceptions” to what he calls the materialist neo-Darwinian worldview, yet he never clearly articulates this rival conception, nor does he give us any reason to think that “the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two.” Mind and Cosmos is certainly an apt title for Nagel’s philosophical meditations, but his subtitle—”Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”—is highly misleading. Nagel, by his own admission, relies only on popular science writing and brings to bear idiosyncratic and often outdated views about a whole host of issues, from the objectivity of moral truth to the nature of explanation. No one could possibly think he has shown that a massively successful scientific research program like the one inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection “is almost certainly false.” The subtitle seems intended to market the book to evolution deniers, intelligent-design acolytes, religious fanatics and others who are not really interested in the substantive scientific and philosophical issues. Even a philosopher sympathetic to Nagel’s worries about the naturalistic worldview would not claim this volume comes close to living up to that subtitle. Its only effect will be to make the book an instrument of mischief.

  11. The Darwin doubters who are not prepared to follow through with ID are guided, in every instance I know, not by evidential or theoretical concerns about ID but by worldview preferences.

    Heh! That from the guy who made the mild suggestion that “Noah’s flood, though presented as a global event, is probably best understood as historically rooted in a local event,” was then called on the carpet of that Bible school he “teaches” at and made to recant: “[a]s a biblical inerrantist, I believe that what the Bible teaches is true and bow to the text, including its teaching about the Flood and its universality.” Worldview preferences outweighing evidential or theoretical concerns, indeed!

  12. Biblical inerrantists do choose what parts of the Bible are inerrant. Few (in a change of opinion only in the last few centuries) follow the Bible on geocentrism.