SGU Episode 20

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SGU Episode 20
23rd November 2005

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SGU 19 SGU 21
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis
TC: Tom W. Clark
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Show Notes


S: Hello and welcome to The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. This is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me today, as always, are Bob Novella...

B: Hello, everyone.

S: Perry DeAngelis...

P: Good evening, all.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Hello everyone.

S: Guys, thanks again for joining me on the Skeptics' Guide.

E: I wouldn't be anywhere else.

S: This is a small milestone. This is our twentieth episode. Number 20.

B: Not bad.

E: Only three hundred thirty more to catch The Simpsons.

S: Is that right? Well, we are well on our way.

B: How many podcasts make a season?

S: I don't know.

P: Twenty-two is the standard for sitcoms.

S: Twenty-two.

P: Of course, HBO it's thirteen.

E: We get to define that. This is new territory. We get to define it.

P: I think ...

S: Let's say twenty.

P: So we're concluding our second season.

S: All right. Second season.

E: OK. Fine.

B: Season two.

S: In a few minutes, we have a guest that will be joining us tonight; Tom Clark, founder of, but first we're going to just talk about a couple of news items.

News Items[edit]

Intelligent Design and Kansas University (1:16)[edit]

S: A couple of quick updates on our favorite topic: Intelligent Design. It's been so active culturally and in the news recently. It's obviously a very important topic for us as scientists and skeptics, that we can't help talking about it. Two news items cought my eye this week. The first is a story about a new course being taught at the University of Kansas. Now if you recall, it's the Kansas State School Board which, a few years ago, voted to remove evolution from the state's science standards for their public schools. The board who made that vote was largely voted out. The new board reversed that decision, but then just two years later, in 2003, another more conservative board was put back in, and now they're at it again. This time, not trying to remove evolution from the statndards, but to insert specific language which is skeptical of or critical of evolution in the standards of the state. The University of Kansas, apparently, is embarrased by all of this. They of course are interested in maintaining the academic credibility of their institution.

B: Too late!

S: (laughs) It's certainly an uphill battle. There's a new course being taught in the Department of Religious Studies called "Special Topics In Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism, and Other Religious Mythologies". This is being taught again not in the science class or not in the science department, but in the religious studies department. The Chairman of that department, Paul Mireki, is quoted by the Associated Press as saying that "The KU (Kansas University) faculty has had enough. Creationism is mythology; intelligent design is mythology. It's not science. They try to make it sound like science. It clearly is not." So the academics at the University are getting quite upset that their state is being embarrassed in front of the world over and over again by the creationists who are infiltrating their school board. So they're going to draw a line in the sand.

E: Good; They're going to battle them.

S: Good for them. Absolutely.

E: Very good.

B: Imagine how disgusted they must be. If we worked there how we would feel to be—

S: Right.

B: —associated with that.

S: I'm disgusted from here.


S: Imagine how they must feel, being in Kansas.

B: Exactly. My point.

S: It's in the same country. I'm embarrased that it's the same species as me; forget about the same state, right? It's just horrible.

P: It seems almost overdue to me.

S: Yeah.

P: It's a little overdue. Thank goodness.

S: Well I think the scientific community is searching for ways to support evolution and oppose intelligent design, although the one pitfall of this is that it can be misinterpreted as "circling the wagons." The intelligent design proponents have gotten a lot of rhetorical debating advantage out of the notion that scientists are defending evolution as a dogma, and this sort of circling of the wagons sort of plays into that. But point has to be made that greater than 98% of scientist believe in evolution and support it as an established scientific fact because of the overwhelming evidence, not because it's mandated or it's some kind of a dogma.

E: Well, thank goodness we have a good media out there explaining all this to the lay public, right? Oh, whoops.

S: The media at least does a reasonable job, I found, on this issue. A lot of overtly paranormal issues, I don't think they take as seriously, but this is public school science education. There's at least a little bit of seriousness in it, and the scientists that I hear being quoted are doing a decent job. I haven't been appalled by how the press is dealing with this issue.

E: Well, that's good. The press is certainly thriving on the controversy. It makes for good headlines. I've never seen as many headlines ever regarding this long debate as there is now. It probably also has to do with a sort of a conservative swing, maybe since 2001, that's been occuring in the country. Maybe why there is this swelling again of ID/creationism and putting it sort of back towards the front pages of newspapers and headlines on national news programs. A lot of people are talking about it that weren't talking about it five, ten years ago.

S: And you wonder if ultimately that will be to our advantage or disadvantage. Typically, historically, the more public and loud this debate gets, the better the creationists tend to do. Evolution tends to win its victories in the courtroom; in areas where there are rules of evidence and logic, not in the courtroom of public opinion. At least, not in this country. But we will see. Just to give you the reply of the ID side, John Calvert, who is an attorney and the managing director of the Intelligent Design Network, said that Mirecki, the department chair who made the comments I quoted earlier, will go down in history as a laughingstock. He said "To equate intelligent design to mythology is really an absurdity, and it's just another example of labeling anybody who proposes intelligent design to be simply a religious nut. That's the reason for this little charade."

B: OK.

S: That is simply absurd in and of itself. Again, the reason why intelligent design is being criticized is because it is not science.

E: Perhaps we need to invite him on and explain that to him.

S: Absolutely.

E: And to our listening audience.

S: John Calvert. Let's get him on.

E: I'm sure he'll come on.

S: I would love to get an ID proponent on this show and have a discussion with him. I think that we would have a good show.

E: Sooner or later we probably will. We'll work on it.

S: We will work on that.

Vatican Chief Astronomer (7:24)[edit]

S: Quickly, the other news item that caught my eye is about the Vatican. We've been following with interest what the Catholic church has to say about the intelligent design debate, mainly for historical reasons. The Catholic church had its famous disagreement with Galileo, and in I believe it was the 1980's, the last Pope un-excommunicated Galileo; basically said that it was wrong to persecute him.

B: Scuzzi! Milli regretti.

S: Scuzzi. And this is Pope John Paul II. Also endorsed evolution as essentially more than just a theory; as a proven scientific fact and not incompatible with the Catholic faith, which was welcome. We're all sort of watching out of mainly historical interest to see where the new Pope is going to fall on this. So far, he has not offerred anything up definitive or concrete. He did make a comment a couple of weeks ago that the world (this is Pope Benedict the 16th we're talking about) made something to the effect that the universe was made by a "intelligent project." That word "intelligent" is in there, and that immediately brings up the specter of intelligent design. But last week, the Vatican Chief Astronomer said that intelligent design isn't science and doesn't belong in science classrooms. That was the latest high-ranking Roman Catholic pronouncement on the subject. So this is not the Pope himself but the Chief Astronomer, who is the Reverend George Coyne, who is a Jesuit. The Jesuits within the Catholic church, they have a culture or reputation for being very intellectual, very scholarly, so it's not a surprise that he's a Jesuit.

So anyway, we'll continue to follow that, too. I think that all the aspects of the public debate about intelligent design and creationism have tremendous implications for the role of science in our society; the role of science education; the very definition of science. It is an epic debate, almost, taking place in our culture today on this issue. And, of course—

B: It's not going to end for a long time.

S: No, I don't think so. I think that—

P: It would be nice if we could win in the court of public opinion, however.

S: Yeah. I think that we have consistently winning in the courtroom. This is one of the primary reasons for this podcast, for the New England Skeptical Society, to exist is to educate the public and to win the fight of public opinion.

P: It's victories just won in the courtroom are simply never as impactful or lasting as things won by the vote or by public opinion.

S: I don't know. I don't know about that.

P: I think that's why we are still arguing about abortion.

S: Perhaps. Perhaps.

P: Because it was wrought in the courts. People can't vote on it. When you let people vote on things, then the argument dies down. People accept the outcome of votes. People will always argue about the outcome of courts.

S: It's true, but of course, today in this country, we certainly don't want to decide this issue by vote. Some things are not properly decided by votes.

E: Right.

S: Scientific conclusions are not a matter of democracy. Scientific conclusions follow logic and evidence, not public choice or public opinion.

P: Even it would be nice to have public opinion on our side.

S: It would. We'll keep—

B: Yeah.

S: We'll keep chugging away, chipping away as much as we can. Well, let's move on to our guest.

Interview with "Tom W. Clark" (11:22)[edit]

S: All right; so joining us now is Thomas W. Clark. Tom Clark is the founder of The founder and editor and also the director and founder of the Center for Naturalism. Tom, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

TC: Well, many thanks for having me, Steve. It's really good to be with you and congratulations on I guess it's your 20th show.

S: Yes, as we were just talking briefly before that this is, in fact, our 20th episode of the Skeptics' Guide. So congratulations, everybody.

E: Hm, hm.

P: Yay!

S: Tom has lectured for the New England Skeptical Society in the past, which is how we first met. A lot of very interesting topics that you cover in the numerous articles that you've written. Why don't you just give us a definition of "scientific naturalism". What is at the core of this philosophy that you're promoting?

Scientific Naturalism[edit]

TC: Really, naturalism as the Center presents it, as you say, it's a scientific naturalism, and we call it "scientific" mostly because we take science, or more broadly speaking empiricism, as our way of knowing about the world. At least that's the cognitive commitment we make. What that commitment does, because science tends to unify the phenomena that it describes, whatever science takes to exist it holds to be in relation to everything else that it takes to exist. What science does, it unifies what exists into a single natural world; what we call "nature." If you make that commitment to science or, more broadly speaking, empiricism, an evidence way of knowing about things, then you'll be led to naturalism, which is simply the view that there's a single natural, unified world of phenomena that science describes ultimately, and is not—in addition to that, there isn't a supernatural realm. So this is naturalism in its bare bones. Simply contrasted with supernaturalism, which supposes that there are two different sorts of things, and you get to supernaturalism by supposing that there—the way you justify at least certain sorts of beliefs is not via empiricism or science but by faith or tradition or intuition, revelation, that kind of thing. That's naturalism just in a thumbnail.

B: Seems very compatible with skepticism.

TC: Well, yeah; skeptics are usually skeptical on the same basis that scientists operate. Namely, they want to be shown; they want good evidence. Skeptics won't believe simply on the basis of what they're told, unless it comes from a very good authority, that you know on good evidence is a good authority. So, you're absolutely right. Skepticism has a lot in common with the science-based commitment that naturalists take. I've discovered, though, that many skeptics, although when I spoke to the NESS down in Connecticut—actually it was very what I call an enlightened audience. They were properly skeptical about the one thing that I find most people aren't that skeptical about. They take on faith really the idea, even many skeptics, the idea that people have a certain kind of what I would call a supernatural freedom from causality. There's a widespread notion in this culture that we have a kind of free will that makes us sort of causal exceptions to nature, and that people somehow evade causality. But if you're a good skeptic and if you're a good naturalist, you'll question that assumption, which I think is at the heart of our culture. What the Center is trying to do, among other things, is extend naturalism into this next realm, which is to question free will, as it's commonly conceived.

S: Hm, hm.

TC: That's where I hope, in the Center's work, to make progress in not only denying God, which skeptics, of course—and the paranormal, spirits, ghosts, angels, devils, that kind of thing. But also to question this fundamental assumption that we have about ourselves.

S: Hm, hm.

TC: But to do it in the context of a positive world view, namely naturalism.

S: You bring up a lot of topics I'd like to touch on just in what you've said so far. Before we move on to the topic of free will, just to get back to some of the fundamentals about naturalism. I was interested in that you said that it begins with a commitment to scientific naturalism. It's the idea that all that there is is what there is in nature. Does it have to start with that, or do you think that you can arrive at scientific naturalism from more fundamental philosophical first principles?

TC: That's what I see the epistological commitment as being, the way we know about things. That's really, for my money, where our world view starts, is how do you justify your beliefs? How do you justify your knowledge claims? That, I think, is probably as fundamental an assumption as you could make in terms of a philosophical principle or a cognitive principle. So that's, I think, bedrock, because when you talk to people about "well how do you know what you know?", then they're going to cite some sort of either authority or evidence or intuition or feeling or tradition. And when you ask them on what further basis—for instance, on what further basis do we place our bets with evidence? Well, we can cite certain reasons, but ultimately we make that commitment. I can give you ideas, some reasons as to why we should be empiricists, but ultimately there's no logical compelling reason I can adduce to make someone be an empiricist like myself.

S: Right.

TC: So I think that your epistemology is really where it all starts. You can attempt to justify your epistemology. For instance, empiricism versus faith. But, if someone isn't already on board with it, it's pretty tough to convince them to come over to your side.

S: I definitely agree that if your basic approach to knowledge and your world view is based upon faith versus based upon empiricism or science, it's going to be difficult to bridge that gap. I would formulate it slightly differently, and this is a debate that I've had with a lot of philosophers within the skeptical movement in terms of: does science, does scientific skepticism require a philosophical commitment to naturalism? I think that although most of us are naturalists, I would say that it is not absolutely necessary, but rather there is a recognition that naturalism is a necessary component of scientific skepticism; of science itself. So, in other words, you don't necessarily have to say that I'm going to choose to believe that all there is is the natural world and there is nothing supernatural, because I respect empiricism as a means of knowledge and understanding nature. You could say, or what I would say is that empiricism and working within a naturalistic framework is the only way to have any knowledge about nature, because it's the only way that science can function. And therefore it doesn't necessarily discount a supernatural world; it just says that we can't know about it because it's inaccessible; it's outside the realm of science because it does not fall—there's no way for science to address it. Does that make sense?

TC: Well, I more or less agree. I would alter what you said somewhat, in that I think that science, as it's practiced, doesn't need the supernatural/natural distinction at all. Some people, when talking about the scientific method, talk about methodological naturalism, which I think is kind of a mistake, because that misleads people into supposing that science assumes some idea about what's natural in advance, when in fact what I think happens is science has a set of explanatory criteria, of explanatory adequacy, and of course, things have to be falsifiable.

S: Right.

TC: There are criteria of the scientific method that say nothing about the supernatural/natural distinction. What happens, though, is if you apply the scientific method in justifying beliefs and say entities or processes or phenomena or whatever they are, then those phenomena constitute—that ends up being what we call nature.

S: Right.

TC: So I think science precedes naturalism and it precedes the natural/supernatural distinction. After all, if you look at the history of science, our very conception of nature has been driven by what science has revealed to be the case. So when people say that science can only deal in natural phenomena, I think, in a way, that's a little bit misleading. It deals in natural phenomena in so far as what's been called natural as what science has previously discovered. So I think science—

S: So it's basically a tautology, that basically, we define what is natural based upon what scientific methodologies can know.

TC: Right. And the scientific methodology doesn't assume anything in advance about what's real.

S: Yeah. But I agree with that. I agree with that. But it is a methodological statement, though.

TC: Yes.

S: So it kind of is just a matter of definition, and it's an important one. It's actually very relevant; it's at the center of the intelligent design debate that's going on right now, because a lot of the intelligent design proponents are saying that, well, scientists have rigged the game against "supernatural explanations" by requiring an a priori commitment to naturalism as an assumption of the scientific approach or scientific method.

TC: And that's false.

S: And you're coming at it from a different angle than I've heard before, but it makes perfect sense. It's like, well, the supernatural and natural distinction is false.

TC: It's generated by science.

S: Right. There's no a priori assumptions that we have about what is natural and what is supernatural.

TC: Right.

S: Natural is, by definition, what can be studied scientifically.

TC: Exactly.

S: And if something is not—if you can't formulate something in a scientific way, then it's outside the realm of science. If you want to call that "supernatural", that's OK.

TC: Yeah.

S: So I think we are talking about the same thing; I think we're just approaching it from different angles.

TC: Right.

S: Because I agree that it's very important not to say that science has an assumption of naturalism. It's just that naturalism is defined by the scientific method itself.

TC: That's right. It's defined by the method, in that you make the commitment to science as your sole epistemology. You remain content with science; you don't need anything more. You're tough-minded, as you might put it, about that. But I think this is an important point, because it cuts off the wedge strategy of intelligent design right in the root. It shows that these guys have no case at all against science in so far as they think or claim that is assumes naturalism. Science does not assume naturalism at all.

S: It is naturalism, in a way.

TC: Well, it leads to naturalism—

S: Yeah.

TC: —as a world view. Science itself is not a world view. It's a way of knowing, and your world view—your ontological commitment about what exists, ultimately; that's a world view, and that's what naturalism is. So when you teach science, you're not teaching naturalism. You're teaching a way of knowing, and kids in school are not being compelled to stick with science alone—

S: Right.

TC: —in coming up with a world view.

S: Well that's the other thing. They are independent of each other. You can be a scientist with respect to claims about the natural world that are theoretically knowable, and then there are some claims which are outside the realm of science because they are not falsifiable; they're not amenable to scientific investigation, even in principle.

TC: Right.

Agnoticism & Atheism[edit]

S: Now if you have a commitment to—if your philosophy, your epistemology is naturalism, you would say those are outside the realm of science and they are unknowable. What I would say is that the philosophically logical position to take towards that is agnosticism, and saying, "well, those things are just unknowable", and that's the beginning and the end of my belief about them. They're unknowable.

TC: Well—

S: Any belief about them is an arbitrary personal choice of belief, i.e. faith. And faith isn't necessarily incompatible with science; it's just completely outside the realm of science.

TC: Right. I think agnosticism, for my money, is a little bit too wishy-washy, because after all, we might say yes, we don't know whether something exists and sort of reserve judgment about it.

S: It's not a reserve judgment. It's just... You know, T. H. Huxley invented the word "agnosticism". He had a very specific meaning in mind when he did so, and that's the meaning that I'm going with. It's not that I reserve judgement, it's that it's inheritently unknowable. And therefore any belief, positive or negative, about it is arbitrary. The only thing you can scientifically say about it is it's unknowable. And that's where the scientific view begins and ends.

TC: Right. But what I would also add to that: if something is unknowable, there is no reason to believe it exists.

S: That's correct. That's correct.

TC: So that sense I'm an atheist. I have no good reason to believe in the existence of God; therefore, as far as I'm concerned, God doesn't exist. So I am an atheist based on science and naturalism, not merely an agnostic.

S: I agree with that, and then what I'm just saying I do not think is incompatible with that. You're basically saying "I'm choosing not to have an arbitrary beliefs, and therefore that's atheism". I think it flows from the position of agnosticism, which is basically just recognizing it as unknowable, and saying that from a scientific point of view—an epistemological point of view—that's really what's most important.

TC: Right.

S: And I think you can be an agnostic and an atheist at the same time. Agnosticism is really a philosophical position, whereas atheism is saying is that, plus the value judgement of arbitrary beliefs about things that are unknowable or of no value. I choose to work within the realm of naturalism. Do you agree with that?

TC: Yeah. Why inflate your ontology?

S: Right.

TC: (laughs) That's really the key, is you don't add unnecessary—it sort of Occam's razor applied to beliefs.

S: Right.

TC: Why even reserve the doubt—the possibility of something existing unless there's at least a modicum of evidence in its favor. Otherwise, just rule it out, and it doesn't mean you won't revise your beliefs later in the light of future knowledge. But otherwise, you don't want your ontology to get cluttered up with possible entities just because you don't know enough about them to decide the question of whether they exist. That's all I'm saying.

S: Right. Although I still think that's a little different than what I was saying, because it's not...

TC: It might be.

S: —enough—inherently unknowable. There's no possible information you can have in the future that would change that. By the very construction of the question, you're hypothesizing something which is, for example, outside the natural laws of the universe, by definition, that therefore there's no possible future observation or experiment or knowledge you can have which would even address the question.

TC: Yeah.

Intelligent Design and the Great Debate[edit]

S: I'll use intelligent design as an example of a hypothesis that's logically constructed to be unfalsifiable. Their concept of the designer is unfalsifiable for the following reason: Because it's unconstrained. They basically say—and I've cornered more than one intelligent design defendant with this—that you can't make any statements about what a designed biological world would look like, because that presupposes information about the designer, and sort of restricts or puts restrictions on the designer, which they say is not acceptable. But in that case, then whatever the world looks like, whatever observation you make, is therefore consistent with that designer.

TC: Right.

S: You cannot ask any questions about what the world should or should not look like. It could, in fact, look exactly like a world that evolved over billions of years if that's what the designer chose to make it look like.

TC: Sure.

S: So that's unfalsifiable. It's not—you can't prove it wrong through science. All you can say is that it's not science, and therefore should play no part in scientific discussion.

TC: Right.

S: Does that make sense?

TC: Yeah. By the way, I was at a conference at Boston University called the "Great Debate", in which the intelligent design folks were on one side of the debate and the skeptics and the scientists were on the other. It's often been said that people on our side, naturalists and skeptics, should never debate the intelligent design folks because a sympathetic audience will always make it come out against us. This was just the opposite. It was very satisfying. The intelligent design folks got thoroughly stomped.

S: Who was on our side? Was Kenneth Miller or somebody with experience?

TC: No. Eugenie Scott was there.

S: Yeah, she's great.

E: All right!

TC: Yeah. I'm trying to think of who else was there. If I can find the flyer. But they did a terrific job. Oh, here we go. On our side were Eugenie Scott, James Trefil[1] —I don't know if you know him—George Mason University, and a student. And then on the pro-ID side was William Dembski

S: Yeah.

TC: —being his typical self. They simply got slammed.

S: That's great!

TC: And of course, the audience was very much on our side, so it was quite satisfying. It's served the exception that proves the rule about never debate IDs, but sometimes is does work in our favor.

S: Right. I've actually had that discussion with Eugenie Scott and with others. What I think the observation was based a lot on experience with Duane Gish, who was more of a classic creationist, not an IDer, and he was a very experienced debater. He had what we came to call the "Gish Gallop", where he would just throw out so many misconceptions that you never could possibly address all of them. What Eugenie said, which through subsequent observation I agree with, is that if you are going to debate creationists, and that includes intelligent design supporters, it has to be in a controller environment. It can't be an open-ended debate. Because in an open-ended debate, they can generate more misconceptions than you can possibly deal with. You have to have some control over the scope and the content of the debate. Somebody, a moderator, asking specific questions, the ability to ask rebuttal questions. In that format, in that controlled format, you absolutely can get the better of them.

TC: Yeah. This was controlled.

S: Yeah. Right.

TC: So it was good. It was quite good.

S: I'm sure that if Eugenie Scott were there I am sure that she, haven spoken to her about this, I sure that's the way it was. So that's great!

TC: Yeah.

B: Was it taped? Was it recorded?

TC: I have a very crude tape of it, myself. I'm not sure. It was webcast, so it might be available[2].

S: It should be.

TC: Yeah. It's called the "Great Debate". It was at BU. It happened... when was it... a couple of weeks ago. I can get you the date later.

S: I'd like to listen to it.

TC: Yeah.

S: Bob and I met Dembski—was that New Mexico?

B: It was L.A.

S: It was L.A.; that's right, L.A. It was at the last CSICOP World Conference. He's a real jerk, that guy. On a personal note, I did not like him. There were other creationists/IDers there who were very nice people.

B: Who was the other guy, Steve? He was a nice guy.

S: Nelson. Nelson was a very—

B: He was a nice guy. Remember, he talked with us, he met with all of us later.

S: Yeah.

B: We were 100 to 1 against him and still he had a good—

S: He had good cheer.

B: —attitude and good humor. The other guy was just dour.

S: Dembski scowled his way through that conference.

B: So dour. Oh!

TC: There are some scowlers on our side, too, I'm afraid to say.

S: That's true.

B: It's true.

S: If you ever have a public debate, you have to have more on your side than just—being right is not enough. I think so many scientists have gotten into trouble because they say, "Hey, you know, these creationists are idiots. We're right. I have all these scientific facts on my side. With no prep or experience, I can go up against these guys." And they get crushed!

TC: Right.

S: Just because they have no idea when you get hit with such subtle logical fallacies, sort of logical fallacies arguments that have evolved over decades not to be right but to be subtle.

TC: Yeah.

S: And you don't know off the top of—the tip of your tongue, you don't know automatically exactly how to hone in on—

TC: Yes.

S: —what's wrong and what their response is likely to be, you'll just be jabbering and you'll come off like an idiot.

TC: It's like playing chess. These openings and moves and countermoves—

S: Yeah.

TC: —and you're right, you have to be a good chess player to—

S: Exactly.

TC: —come out on top.

S: You have to argue them three moves ahead.

TC: Yes.

S: You do. You absolutely have to.

TC: Right.

S: And I—personally of all the people on our side that I've heard, I think Kenneth Miller is the best.

B: He was good. Remember the presentation he gave?

S: He was great. He has all the skill sets that you need there. He has the detailed scientific knowledge where he can pull the perfect example out of his repertoire as needed. But in addition he knows all the logic; he knows all the arguments, and he's very smooth in public. So so far, he's the best person that I've heard debate the IDers or the creationists. But there are others that are good.

TC: The funny thing is, he's a theist, of course!

S: He's a theist, which makes it even more interesting. He's Catholic, I think, right?

TC: Yeah.

S: So he gets trotted out a lot because he's like "look, it's a scientist who also believes in God". Just basically to counter the argument that they're incompatible.

TC: Yup.

S: I think it is important to counter that. Regardless of the scientific argument, the creationists will win the hearts and minds of the public if step one is: you have to reject God to accept evolution. They won't even listen to us.

TC: Right

S: We won't even get on deck.

TC: Yeah. The funny thing is, his book Finding Darwin's God is I thought terribly, terribly flawed, precisely because he is a theist. Ultimately, he ends up trying to defend something that a good skeptic would immediately see through right away.

S: Right.

TC: And he gets into quantum mechanics and he has a long section on free will...

S: Yeah.

TC: —that really it all boils down to the fact that we have to be free. God gave us this freedom.

S: Right.

TC: This is the bottom line which he cannot question. So it's interesting. However good debater he is on this limited turf of refuting intelligent design, unfortunately he doesn't go all the way. Well, how could he? He's a theist.

S: Right.

TC: And theists are limited. They have to be limited in their skepticism, it seems to me. Although, the most sophicticated ones will deny that. They'll say "No, no, I ask just the same questions as you do and I still come down on the side of God."

S: Hm, hm.

TC: That's of course when we get into your {{w|Ontological argument#Alvin_Plantinga Plantingas] and your really rarified theologians who have some pretty impressive arguments going. Ultimately, I don't think they win the day, but they can get very, very rarified and very sophisticated in their defenses. However, Ken Miller is not one of them.

Free Will[edit]

S: So, Tom. Let's turn now to the topic of free will, and I think you have a sense that perhaps this is the most controversial extension of your naturalism philosophy; the idea that we, that people, do not have free will. Why don't you tell us about that.

TC: We have to, of course, be very clear about what we mean when we talk about free will. I think a sort of metaphysically uncontroversial way to define free will is simply to say "I do what I want to do. I make my decisions. What I do is up to me." Now, that's uncontroversial in that if I'm getting married and I sign the wedding certificate, whatever it is, in front of the Justice of the Peace, and they ask, "Did you sign this of your own free will?", I say "Sure—"

S: Right.

TC: "—no one is forcing me to do it." That's clear. But I when do something of my own free will, whose the "me" that's acting? That's when we have to get metaphysical, and that's where we have a choice between a supernaturalistic idea of the self and a naturalistic idea of the self, because it makes a huge difference when we think about human agency and freedom. There's two types of freedom on offer, I think. One having to do with a naturalistic view of ourselves, and one with a supernaturalistic view. The naturalistic idea of freedom is simply the idea that I act freely when I act voluntarily without being coerced or compelled to act in a way that I don't want to act.

S: Right.

TC: I'm in my right mind, and I act freely in that sense. No one's forcing me. But on a supernaturalistic understanding of the self, there's something besides the physical person, the body, and the brain, all of which, on a naturalistic's understanding of ourselves, are probably completely determined, completely caused phenomena, just like the rest of nature. On the supernaturalistic idea of ourselves, there's something like a soul or a spirit or some kind of mental agent that has the power, this very interesting metaphysical power, to choose or act without being fully caused in its choices or in its actions. In fact, the "self", according to this idea, might even have to be self-caused in some way. It owes—some part of it owes nothing to what came before it or what surrounds it. So this very strong metaphysical free will is, I think, at the heart of many peoples, not everyone, but most people think of themselves as what Daniel Dennett calls "soul pearl". Sitting inside the head somewhere, something immaterial; it's not the brain, but something—

S: The ghost in the machine.

TC: The ghost—exactly; the ghost in the machine is another way to put it, as Gilbert Ryle originally said. And it's this kind of freedom, this kind of free will, contra-causal free will, that I think, is as you said, one of the more controversial implications—the denial of that is one of the more controversial implications of naturalism. It's really to have to make our peace with the idea that we are fully natural, physical creatures, and that all our behavior, in fact, all the words and thoughts that we're thinking right now are rising out of a sufficient set of causes such that if we replay the tape, say five minutes ago with all conditions set the same, the same words and thoughts will be arising as they are right now.

S: Right.

TC: So this is a very—many people find it a very depressing, fatalistic, meaning-depriving scenario where people stop being dignified, free human agents in that—where choices somehow disappear. Of course I want to deny that. I don't think those implications follow, but that's kind of some of the objections that arise. We can't hold people morally responsible unless they have this kind of special freedom. But we can hold people responsible. Anyway, I don't want to anticipate all the objections that come up. There's quite a litany of them. But really, the contra-causal free will that I'm objecting to is—it really flows quite directly from the supernaturalistic faith-based way of understanding ourselves.

S: Hm, hm.

TC: Whereas, to get back to our first segment, if you stick with empiricism and science as a way of knowing about ourselves, then you will be led to deny this kind of freedom. Of course, this is not a new insight. This goes back to the Buddha, who was really an empiricist, although in a religious guise, and David Hume and Diderot and La Mettrie and d'Holbach, and David Hume. Einstein denied free will. I've even learned recently that President Lincoln was a free-will skeptic, believe it or not. So there are many free-will skeptics over the centuries, and we're simply rediscovering this truth about ourselves, most recently in the context of neuroscience, where we see that the brain does everything that the soul was supposed to do.

S: That's right, and I think—and again I'm a practicing neurologist, so I have some direct clinical experience with this and... it's definitely true that the natural assumption that people make is that we are free-will agents; that our personality is this sort of immaterial construct, and it's very disconcerting when people really have the realization that everything that we think of as our personality, ourselves, our sense of self, is a phenomenon of our brain, of the way our brain is wired together, of electrons moving through neurons and axons.

TC: I know.

S: It comes to very, very stark reality when one of the subsystems in that brain breaks down. You have a stroke; you have a tumor, a bleed, or whatever; some neurological malady occurs; one of the subsystems breaks down, and what's fascinating is that the entire construct changes in a way that you really can't conceive of unless you're thinking of the mind as a physical construct. Do you know what I mean? So, like when the language area is damaged, people lose the ability to put together language. They may, in fact, also lose the concept of language. The neglect syndrome, I think are the most profound; for example, you may not be able to perceive one half of the world, of the universe, and it's not a visual problem; it's a conceptual problem. You can't even think about it. And you can't even notice that something is wrong. You don't even have the capacity to even know that it's abnormal or there's something missing about the fact that you can't conceive of half of the—the left half, for example, of the world.

TC: Right. Most people are very uncomfortable with the physicalist idea of the person.

S: Right.

TC: Just the way they want there to be a God, they want there to be something more inside them. There's a parallel between the big God up there and the little god of free will, as Bob Miller, who I work with at the Center, talks about it. We have Big God and little god, and the little god of free will just plays all the same roles that God, the Big God, plays in our own lives. In a way, we are very much made in God's image, according to the mythology of the self. Isn't it interesting, interesting point. I am just wondering how your other skeptics down there feel about this, because I know however skeptical people are, and you probably are extremely skeptical, and rightly so, about most things. I am just wondering if the skeptics that you know or that are online with us now, would buy this.

S: My personal experience is they generally do, but it may just be a matter of them understanding the full implications of the neurobiology.

TC: Right.

S: I think a lot of times they just didn't think about it. They never really directly confronted the idea of "what is the mind?", and it's one thing to sort of have an intellectual grasp that "Yep, we're physical beings. Our brains are physical. We're our brains." But to fully appreciate the degree to which everything we think of as ourselves and the outside universe is really just an illusion, a construct that our brains create really as an epiphenomenon, as a way of just dealing with the world, our environment. That is a fascinating and sometimes an uncomfortable realization. The skeptics that I know haven't objected to it on metaphysical grounds or anything like that.

TC: So you think that the skeptical community might be or is fairly open to this way of understanding ourselves.

S: Yeah. Absolutely. I haven't encountered—'cause I talk about this a lot from my neurological background, and I usually encounter fascinated interest, not rejection.

TC: That's encouraging. Good, good! Well that's most encouraging. The other thing that the Center is doing is not only to promote this naturalistic view of the self, but it's also to talk about the consequences, the sort of ethical and practical implications of getting rid of the freely willing agent, the contra-causal freely willing agent, to get rid of the soul and the ghost in the machine. Because once you do that, then you see yourself and other people in quite a different way, I think, than we ordinarily take ourselves, in that when we assign blame or credit, often we have in the back of our minds the idea that someone could have done something other than what they did in a particular situation.

S: Hm, hm.

TC: That they weren't fully caused, or if they were fully caused, there is something about the self that's ultimately in charge, and therefore takes ultimate responsibility, ultimate credit and blame. And when we see ourselves in a fully naturalistic way, without contra-causal free will, what happens? Well, we understand that there but for circumstances go I, when we look at the homeless person in the street, or the addict or the criminal or the rich person. Anyone—there's nothing; there's no causally privileged soul that's different between people. It's all a matter of the luck of the draw, your environment and genetics. They shape you in their entirety. And so that puts a very different cast, a very different light on our responsibility practices, on how we give ourselves credit and how we blame people. We'll become, I think, what I've seen—the implication for me, anyway, and many other people who've taken this in, is a reduction in being, say, morally superior or blaming, or arrogant, or contemptuous. Of course it doesn't mean that we still don't make moral judgements about people. That stays the same. But it's our reactive attitudes, as philosophers call them, that are second guessed in the light of a thorough-going naturalism about the self and free will.

S: Right. I mean, it would certainly argue for being understanding and compassionate, or at least to take a neurobiological/sociological approach to understanding human behavior, rather than a high-handed moralistic approach.

TC: Exactly.

S: But I agree with—I think what you were saying also is that we still have to run our civilization or our society as if we do have free will. In other words—

TC: Well what would that mean, exactly? When you say "as if we had free will." What do you mean, though?

S: Well, free will, not in the metaphysical sense, but in the sense—like you said before, you choose to marry somebody; it is your free will choice to do so. You're not being compelled or being forced to do so. We still do make choices, even though those choices may be determined by the prior causality. If you organize society in such a way that people are not responsible to some degree for the choices that we make, you could imagine that might not be a viable civilization, right?

TC: Sure. No, I agree. It's just when you say "we still have to treat each other as if we had free will", what a lot of people will interpret you as saying is that we're still allowed to punish people, punitively without regard to the fact that they're fully caused to behave the way that they do.

S: Right.

TC: Therefore, we don't have to look at the causes of behavior. We can ignore them. That, for many people, would be what it would mean to treat someone as if they had free will—as if they were uncaused, in some respect.

S: Right.

TC: What you really mean, and I agree with you, is that we have to have—still have to have responsibility practices and accountability practices that maintain social order. But, of course, those practices will and should, on my view, change significantly, precisely because we know that people are fully caused. That leads to compassion, as you said. Moreover, knowing how they are caused makes us much more effective in prevention and treatment, in designing a non-punitive, humane culture. So I think there are tremendous implications to this deconstruction of the soul, and more and more people are getting hip to this, as you mentioned off-tape before we got started. Steven Pinker, psychologist now at Harvard, wrote a terrific book called The Blank Slate, although it's controversial in some respects, but he's got a whole chapter called "The Fear of Determinism", where he takes on the myth of the ghost of the machine.

S: Hm, hm.

TC: And what's interesting is that this part of the book has gotten absolutely no press at all. There's a conspiracy of silence about this issue, which the Center is trying to break, this taboo. As Alan Watts—I don't know if you guys remember Alan Watts—an old—back in the sixties. An East-West philosopher bringing the wisdom of the East to the West. And he said—the title of his book was The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. That, indeed, is what we're up against. There's a taboo against talking about this issue, because everyone thinks that to do so is to open Pandora's box. Whereas, if you look at it clearly and carefully, you'll see that the fears that people have of letting go of free will, in this contra-causal sense, are really unfounded. That takes a bit of doing.

S: Hm, hm.

TC: It takes a bit of explaining as to how we can hold people responsible. Why, as you said earlier, choices still make a difference. We still are agents.

S: Yeah. I'm thinking of Steven Pinker. I read the The Blank Slate; I highly recommend it; it's and excellent book. He made the point that what he's saying—he's not saying that we don't make choices. He says try to go a week without making a choice and you'll understand the paralyses—


S: —of saying that. We still make choices. We're still agents in that we have choice. It's just that those choices are caused. They're caused by our psychology, the way our neurons are hooked up together, the way our internal and external experiences, etc., etc. We can understand what leads people to choices by our understanding the internal and external influences upon them.

TC: Right.

S: In sort of a judgement-neutral context. Although I emphasize, just to be clear, you're not saying that people shouldn't go to jail for committing crimes.

TC: No, but what I am saying is that jails could get a lot nicer. We have to think about rehabilitation at least as much as we think about deterrence.

S: Right.

TC: And look at the wider context of criminality so that we do a lot more in terms of prevention.

S: But do you think that deterrence—you wouldn't rule out deterrence through punishment, or would you?

TC: Well, this is a tough question, and a lot of people who are naturalists and free-will skeptics like I am have taken on deterrence, too, because they really—like Bruce Waller in his books and Derk Pereboom at the University of Vermont, written a book called Living Without Free Will, published about four years ago, and the last chapters are about the criminal justice system. And he doesn't really put much stock or belief that we should deter, particularly. We should instead concentrate our attention more on what he calls sort of quarantine, in other words a non-punitive detention. And then look to social redesign to do what deterrence otherwise would. Of course, realistically, we need fines; we need to keep people in line.

S: Hm, hm.

TC: But the whole deterrence paradigm is another step that we can take towards a non-punitive culture. The first step, though, is to get rid of retribution.

S: Hm, hm. Right.

TC: There's no good grounds for punishing people when it doesn't do any good at all except inflict suffering. A lot of people, even free-will skeptics, haven't got there yet. So that's something we have to take on.

S: Right. And of course, Pinker and others would argue that's because we're hard-wired to desire retribution.

TC: Right. But that, of course—

S: That's one of the things that make people people.

TC: Right. But of course, that doesn't mean that it's right.

S: Of course. And again—

TC: Yeah.

S: —that was coupled with the argument that as a civilization with insights—some sort of self insight—we need to transcend some of the motivations that evolution has written into our genes.

TC: Very good.

S: There are some behaviors that may have served an evolutionary purpose, but in modern society are actually counter-productive.

TC: Exactly.

S: If we understand them, it could help us overcome and transcend them; this desire for revenge, if you will, for retribution. It may be one of those things that is ultimately counter-productive.

TC: Pinker himself has made considerable progress in his understanding of free will back in the book The Language Instinct, or one of those books, early on. He talked about the necessity of holding on to the free will—the fiction of free will, as a social convention.

S: Right.

TC: We still have to continue to treat each other as if we had free will, and now he's come around in The Blank Slate and other writings to the view that we discussed now, which is maybe we don't even need the retributive model any more.

S: Hm, hm.

TC: Maybe deterrence is enough and, of course, then we can go on and question deterrence as well. So Pinker has made progress.

S: Right.

TC: Which is great. And I also want to just say that there are many people, or at least a significant number of people now writing about this very issue. Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, has written a book called Descartes' Baby, where he talks about this dualistic understanding of ourselves. Owen Flanagan, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Duke University, has written a terrific book called The Problem of the Soul, which really takes the view that the Center is espousing, and I have to... full disclosure: he's on our board of advisors.

S: OK.

TC: As is Thomas Metzinger, who's written a wonderful book—he's a neuro-philosopher—called Being No One: The Self Model Theory of SubjectivityBeing No One. A terrific book, but a difficult one. But which challenges, from a neuro-scientific perspective and a philosophical perspective, this whole myth of the soul, in a very rigorous fashion, I should say. My point basically is that there are a lot of people challenging the soul and free will out there; Dan Dennett, Steven Pinker, Flanagan, a lot of whom I talk about at

Quantum Mechanics and Determinism[edit]

S: Hm, hm. Let me bring up one more topic that comes up frequently and I think has served to sow a great deal of confusion within the public. And that is quantum mechanics.

TC: Yes.

S: We hear this frequently in many paranormal claims; ESP, and many forms of spirituality. Astrologers now are jumping on this bandwagon. The idea that the implications of quantum mechanics are such that the world is not deterministic, is one claim that is made. The other one is that is different parts of the world, even parts of reality of the universe that are isolated from each other in a Newtonian model, but based upon quantum mechanics are all intimately connected on the quantum level, so that could explain why the position of stars light-years away could influence your personality, for example; an astrologer has argued to me. So, is that something that you hear frequently as maybe an objection to your deterministic model of behavior?

TC: Yeah. It comes up all the time. The idea that there might be some random or indeterministic element that isn't subject to causality. But this is difficult to hear for people who raise this as a defense of free will, or any kind of free will worth wanting, as Dan Dennett puts it. The difficulty is that if there were some part, some influence on me that was random or non-deterministic, that would mean that my character was not determining the behavior either.

S: Right.

TC: In other words, what I want in free will is for my behavior to come, to flow from my character and my motives. Otherwise, it isn't my behavior, right?

S: Right.

TC: It isn't my choice. So we want determinism in that case. We don't want anything random intervening between me and my behavior. The question then is: where does indeterminism or randomness get you? What kind of freedom does it allow you? Well, the only kind of freedom it would give you is if your character weren't fully caused to be the way it is. But that would mean that you wouldn't be deterministically constructing your own character, either, so you couldn't take responsibility for your character.

S: Hm, hm.

TC: Because it would be something indeterministic that was causing it to be the way it was. The upshot is that indeterminism and randomness, whether it's quantum mechanical or anything else, doesn't do anything to give us a kind of free will for which we can take credit or blame. So the truth of determinism is not at issue. I don't have to be a determinist, although it's very likely, I think, that you are fully determined creatures at the macro level of human behavior—there's no reason to suppose we aren't, in that quantum effects probably wash out—

S: Right.

TC: —at higher levels we're at. Even if there were that kind of determinism, it wouldn't give us the kind of causally privileged authorship that people really want from this kind of contra-causal free will. So determinism can be true of false. Hume saw this long ago. It's called "Hume's court". If we're caused, we don't have free will. If we're un-caused, we don't have free will.

S: Hm, hm.

TC: I think, anyway, that's what—there might be other definitions of Hume's Court, but I've heard that being one of them. So that's the usual.

B: Yeah, and Tom made the point at the end there but it's... a lot of the assertions these people make, they just stem from a fundamental understanding of theories like quantum mechanics. The things that they're saying are things are truly like that, but they're at the microscopic level—

S: The sub-microscopic level.

B: —they wash out. Right. At that level you've got things like indeterminacy and quantum entanglement and things like that. But as you scale up, you pass a certain point where they all wash out. They de-cohere, and there is no—those things don't exist in a macroscopic world. End of story right there. That's just it. You're not going to communicate through entanglement to some atom ten light-years away instantaneously. Things like that just don't happen in the macroscopic world. To me, that's the main failing of a lot of these assertions, is that they're talking the sub-microscopic world, and we don't live in that world. We like in the macroscopic world.

S: Right.

B: That's why we don't see those bizarre counter-intuitive events in our daily lives.

S: Well, Tom, I hate to say this, but we are out of time already. That went by very quickly. Any parting thoughts?

TC: Well, first of all, I appreciate the opportunity to be on the show with you guys, and more power to what you're doing.

S: Well, thank you.

TC: Carrying the torches of skepticism. I hope that from time to time, as skeptics you will be skeptical and raise the skeptical question about the soul, about contra-causal free will, and then get into the consequences. Because I think, frankly, this is the next big step for free thinkers, skeptics, atheists, and humanists is to take on a full-blown thorough going naturalism, which has all these, I think, very positive implications both for ourselves, personally, and for the wider culture.

S: Great! Well, Tom, it was a pleasure, again. Tom Clark is the editor, founder of Pay it a visit. There's a lot of great articles there. Tom, thanks for being on the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

B: Thank you, Tom.

TC: Thank you, guys.

E: Thank you, Tom.

S: Bob, Perry, Evan, thanks again for joining me.

E: Thank you, Steve.

B: My pleasure.

S: Until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is a production of the New England Skeptical Society. For information about this and other episodes, visit our website at 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.


  1. George Mason: James Trefil
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