Three SH's and one D

On April 21, 2004, a debate was conducted at the Veritas forum at UCLA. It consisted of two parts. In the first part Michael Shermer who is the editor of the Skeptic magazine and director of the Skeptic Society (based in Los Angeles, CA), argued in favor of a materialistic worldview against Jeffrey Schwartz who is a professor at UCLA and is conducting research in the human brain’s activity. In the second part Niall Shanks who is a professor of philosophy (and an adjunct professor of physics and of biology) at the East Tennessee State University debated William A. Dembski, who is an intelligent design advocate with doctoral degrees in both mathematics and philosophy plus a degree in theology. Each of the four participants of the debate has published several books. The debate which was moderated by a professor of philosophy Dallas Willard was taped and broadcast on C-SPAN 2 channel on June 12, 2004.

I have had a special interest in that debate because it was I who was originally invited by the Veritas forum, at the behest of William Dembski, to debate him. After I declined the invitation, Niall Shanks was invited instead. So, when I was watching Niall’s performance, there was in the back of my mind a thought that I could have been in his place were I to accept Dembski’s challenge. Naturally, watching the debate, I had a chance to test my attitude according to which such public debates are useless. Indeed, what I saw and heard confirmed my opinion - in my view such debates serve no useful purpose. The time constraints and the audience’s level of familiarity with the subject matter do not allow for a real in-depth discussion of the topics. The superficial and fleeting character of the oral debate enables such skilled speakers as Dembski to appear like having arguments of substance while in fact his notions are often senseless as it can be shown if the same arguments are offered in written essays.

As I expected, this debate mostly boiled down to a rather superficial chat about intelligent design, its role for biology, the secrets of the human brain and a few related topics, on the level of sophistication which necessarily had to be well below that in, say, Shanks’s excellent book and even in some of Dembski’s written essays. Therefore my review will also relate more to the manner in which the debate was conducted than to the essence of the argumentation which hardly added much of substance or any novel ideas to the already well chewed topics.

I had several reasons for declining Veritas’s and Dembski’s invitation, which I briefly explained in a letter to Craig Nishimoto who is the Veritas’s contact person at UCLA. My letter can be seen, for example, at my website mywebsite. Some of the reasons were purely personal but one of the reasons was that I share Richard Dawkins’s attitude according to which such debates are useless in principal and only serve to provide a veneer of legitimacy to representatives of a pseudo-science. Dembski has more than once declared the religious motivations behind his anti-evolution activities, so, as I put it in the above mentioned letter, I don’t want to taint my record by a debate with a gentleman who uses “science” as a vehicle for his apologetics.

There was an additional reason why I construed the planned debate as pointless. As Nishimoto had it in his invitation letter, the debate would be about applicability of intelligent design in biology. This struck me as odd. Neither I nor Dembski are biologists.

In my view, a debate between two amateurs is like two eunuchs discussing the love-making skills of the sultan’s wives. I have had a very upsetting experience of being forced to discuss some physics with dilettantes who, as is typical of dilettantes, were confident that they successfully muzzled me with their wise comments. In fact, there was no way to break through the wall of their ignorance of elementary concepts of physics. I have no desire to find myself in the position of those dilettantes if I try to seriously debate problems of biology with another dilettante.

Obviously Michael Shermer and Niall Shanks had a different attitude, and perhaps they are much better cognizant of biology than I, so I very sincerely wished them the utmost success in debating Schwartz and Dembski.

I’ll now discuss briefly the debate in question.

First, the actual course of the debate was not as bad as could have been expected. The audience which presumably consisted largely of members of Veritas, which is an organization of religious students, did not display any explicit hostility toward Shermer and Shanks. Both were politely applauded about as much as Dembski and Schwartz, and never interrupted. Dallas Willard in fact did not moderate the debate in any explicit way - he did not comment on what the debaters said, never interrupted them and in general was almost invisible.

I have read a number of essays and books by Dembski, but until now have never had a chance to watch him perform live. Having watched him this time, I think I have figured out why he has so persistently tried to lure me into a public debate and why he is in general so fond of such debates. One of the reasons, which I suspected even before this debate, may be his enormous self-confidence which has found explicit manifestations in his disdainful remarks regarding his opponents as found in his writing. Having watched his performance on April 21, 2004, I have perhaps better understood why he is confident that he has nothing to lose but rather something to gain from such debates.

His performance entailed a few simple tools which he could apply regardless of the discussion’s topic and which ensure that at least that part of the audience which is not well versed in the matter gains the impression that he has a valid point even if it remains obscure for the audience. His tactic is versatile and can be used in debates with various opponents almost without variations. One of the features of his presentation is that regardless of what his opponents say, he avoids addressing their arguments, instead saying his well rehearsed part as if he has not heard the opponents’ arguments. If asked a question, he answers with a lengthy and convoluted speech which obscures the gist of the question, is replete with solemnly sounding references to esoteric mathematical and philosophical concepts, many of them irrelevant to the essence of the question, and leaves the opponent exasperated as there is no way to reply in a few sentences to the web of extraneous points raised in Dembski’s talk.

Unlike in his written work where he is often sarcastic and even rude when referring to his opponents’ arguments, in the public debate Dembski was calm, restrained and looked like a reasonable and nice gentleman who respects his opponent’s views. However, he did not concede a single point, repeating with the unbreakable self-confidence that, although his concepts were critiqued by some opponents, his work is completely faultless. To support this statement, he quoted a few scientists who provided admiring references to his work. He did not, though, quote those authors who offered a strong critique of his work.

Overall, I did not hear from Dembski a single argument which would not repeat what I have read in his publications. He did not address in any way the critique of his work by multiple critics, notably by Ratzsch and Wolpert. Needless to say, he never mentioned my critique of his work which he seemed so eager to discuss when suggesting my candidacy for an opponent at this debate. Also, he delivered his points without much regard to what Shanks was saying.

He has devoted a considerable attention to the discussion of what he referred to as the mascot of intelligent design - the bacterium flagellum. He insisted that the flagellum is in fact a machine, and to support this statement, he displayed that standard picture where the flagellum is shown in a geometrically perfect shape, fully symmetric and consisting of geometrically perfectly formed parts. Of course, such a presentation was misleading as the real flagellum is far from having such a perfect geometric shape. Unlike machines, which may be close replicas of each other (say, all Jeeps of the same year have almost exactly the same shape) the flagella, first, have shapes with many deviations from a perfect geometric symmetry, and, second, there are no two flagella exactly identical. Individual flagella differ in various respects, like the entire biological organisms vary from an individual to individual. If Dembski’s picture were closer to reality, it would be much less effective in supporting his claims. Since he did not offer a disclaimer pointing to the idealization used in his depiction of the flagellum, we are entitled to conclude that he was interested not in an honest discussion based on facts, but rather on winning the debate regardless of means.

Shanks performance was delightful. He sprinkled his talk with a good measure of humor which often invoked chuckles in the audience. His presentation was succinct, to the point and never deviating from the topic. This gives me an additional reason to be glad that I declined the invitation to that debate thus opening the opportunity for Niall to do a good job. Interesting that out of the six questions from audience allowed by Willard after Shanks-Dembski debate, five were to Dembski and only one to Shanks, and, as I could determine, four questions seemed to be implicitly casting doubt on Dembski’s position.

Unlike Dembski, Schwartz behaved in a rather flamboyant manner, very persistently trying to hammer his points into the listeners’ minds. As I could determine, his main thesis was that the activity of a human brain cannot be reduced to purely materialistic explanation (although he also insisted that his explanation is purely “natural”). In his view, the physical events in the brain are caused by what he referred to as the “mental force.” Of course, this was just a resurrection of the concept of élan vital of the vitalistic philosophy long abandoned by science. Indeed, Schwartz did not offer any “natural” explanation of what the actual nature of that “mental force” could be. As all such explanations, it amounts to giving up on any explanation, attributing instead the observed work of the brain to a mysterious and completely obscure source about which nothing is known besides giving it a name of “mental force” which says nothing about what it is. In that, Schwartz’s concept is just a variation of the “god-of-the-gaps” argument which seems to have lost its credibility even for many defenders of ID (like Alvin Plantinga [1]). Its other name is argument from ignorance.

Apparently not fully comfortable with referring to an unexplainable “mental force” as such, Schwartz tried to support his idea by a reference to some concepts of quantum physics. This was where his presentation deteriorated to the level of arbitrary proclamations not supported by any evidence.

I am not an expert in quantum physics since I have never published papers wherein I would offer some novel ideas in that field. However, I happen to have taught (along with other courses) both quantum mechanics per se, and other disciplines that use quantum-mechanical concepts, such as quantum theory of solids. I did it more than once, both on the undergraduate and graduate level. I started teaching this specific course almost fifty years ago, at the Alma-Ata university in the USSR, and repeated it several times subsequently, both in the USSR and in the West. To do so, I studied scores of both textbooks and scientific monographs on quantum physics and related matters, by various authors, as well as many original papers by the main players in the development of quantum mechanics and related fields. Also, in some of my own papers I applied certain quantum-mechanical concepts for practical computations, for example, in the field of magnetic phenomena. Therefore, whereas I have no claim to being an authority on quantum physics, I believe I have more or less reasonable understanding of its basic concepts, perhaps not less than the biologist Schwartz.

Based on my background as described above, I believe that Schwartz’s attempts to justify his reference to a mysterious mental force by allegedly relevant data from quantum physics are baseless. He mentioned non-locality, Bells’ theorem and other concepts of modern quantum physics, but all these concepts have nothing to do with “mental force” of which nobody, including Schwartz himself, knows anything beyond the pompously sounding name. Indeed, he did not offer any explanation of how the quantum concepts he mentioned may lead to his idea of a mental force.

Shermer dismissed Schwartz’s concept as belonging to the “new age” philosophy. Since I am not sufficiently familiar with what is referred to as “new age” I can’t judge whether this was a correct attribution. However, regardless of how precisely to define Schwartz’s concept, it is quite obvious what it is not. It is not a concept that can be discussed seriously and as such it does not belong in science.


  1. Alvin Plantinga, “Methodological Naturalism?” In R. T. Pennock, Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001: 351.