Politics & Policy

“Out of The Corner”

A matter of I.D.

EDITOR’S NOTE: What follows is the inauguration of an occasional blog-extension series. Over the weekend, there was a bit of a little bit of a pile-on in The Corner about Tom Bethell’s book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. Here, Tom Bethell responds to a John Derbyshire post. It goes on a little longer than a regular blog post, as sometimes happens, so we’re taking this discussion “Out of The Corner” for the moment. If this turns into more of a debate, we’ll add any subsequent posts in this thread to this page here and alert you in The Corner. [Update: We’re posting these latest at top, so scroll down for the first post from Tom Bethell.] –KJL


Well, I made a mistake, too, but then there was another from John Derbyshire. I would like to make them a part of the record before addressing JD’s other points.

Mine first. I heard from Paul Nelson, whom I referred to as “of” the University of Chicago. Nelson tells me that although he got his Ph D from that university, he has no present connection with it. He has asked me to correct that error, and I am happy to do so.

Now Mr. Derbyshire. He says that I do not “confront” something that “honest creationists” ought to confront but “never do” (thereby implying that I am a creationist and a dishonest one). “Religious, even very deeply religious” people are perfectly happy with modern biological theory, he says, and his exemplar is Prof. Francisco Ayala, a geneticist at the University of California in Irvine. JD calls him an ordained Dominican priest and supposes that I might “consider him to be a cold-blooded ‘materialist’.”

That might not be a bad description, although I would opt for warm-blooded.

Ayala was ordained in 1960 but left the clergy, got married, perhaps twice, and according to the U.C. Irvine bio “refuses to say whether or not he believes in God.” He even refuses to say “whether, or in what ways, he worships these days.” He still stakes a claim to the priesthood, however (“once a priest always a priest”) but adds, with charming candor, “but I do not in any way live or act accordingly.”

At his ranch near Sacramento, Ayala has his own label of California wine, access to “an embarrassment of cultural riches,” and dines out three or four times a week. His moral manifesto sounds more like hedonism than a vow of poverty and obedience: “The arts are tremendously important. If you listen to good music, read good books, watch great dance, and eat good food, it is hard to be a bad person.”

He joined a different, white jacketed priesthood, and became a science adviser to President Clinton. Ayala is exactly the kind of person that materialists want on their team. His clerical pretensions give them good cover. Perhaps Ayala really is a materialist. I guess, as Bill Clinton might have said, “It all depends on what you mean by materialism.” What is curious, though, is that Derbyshire appeals to religious authority at all. Why does he? A question for another day. posted 1/12/06, 5:48 p.m.


Reading Tom Bethell’s response to my Corner comments on Peter Robinson’s comments about Tom’s book (I think that’s right), I took mild umbrage at Tom’s rather snotty tone. Then I reread my Corner post, and it seemed to me that I had been a bit snotty myself.

I am therefore going to consider that a wash, take no more umbrage, offer to buy Tom a drink when next we meet, and resolve to keep a civil tongue in my head in future exchanges with colleagues. Ideally The Corner should be a rancor-free zone. However, The Corner is a blog, with minimal editing and all the temptations to fire off a sudden intemperate broadside that we all know from e-mail. (If you have ever sent any e-mail at all, you have sent at least one you regret. Haven’t you?)

There are bound to be rough spots in a blog. The best that perpetrators of those rough spots can do is make later amends, as I hope I have just done. Given what one might a priori expect from a bunch of highly opinionated people with strong personalities sounding off impromptu, I think The Corner is a model of collegial decorum, thanks mainly to our ever-vigilant Moderator.

To the substance of Tom’s response:

(1) Tom saying that I admit to not having read his book gives the false impression that I was passing comment on something I had not read. This is not so. I was passing comment on the extract Peter quoted, which I had read, and pointing out that on the basis of the extract, I would pass on the book. As a further olive branch to Tom, though, I will now declare a willingness to read his book, if someone will send me a free copy and pay me to review it.

(2) Creationists like Tom give off the rather strong impression that they consider themselves to be the only people in the world who are not philosophical materialists. This is not so–obviously, glaringly, deafeningly, thunderingly not so. I myself am not a philosophical materialist, and I don’t know what grounds Tom has for supposing that I am. I have made this plain numerous times, on NRO and elsewhere. I even count myself a religious person, and have said that numerous times too, most recently here. Tom does not confront one fact that honest creationists really ought to confront, but never do: the fact that numerous religious, even very deeply religious, people are well-informed about modern biological theory yet perfectly happy with it. I have pointed before to this gentleman, who is not only a thorough-going “Darwinist” (this is a word only creationists use, by the way–I have never heard a scientist utter it, nor “Newtonist,” nor “Einsteinist,” either) but also an ordained Dominican priest. I suppose Tom considers Prof. Ayala to be a cold-blooded “materialist.” Talk about holier than thou!

(3) “Denying design when we see it before our eyes and denying free will when we experience it directly…” One of the main reasons for the emergence of science was the slow, painful discovery that what we see before our eyes and what we experience directly cannot always be trusted. My eyes tell me plainly that the earth is flat at large scales and the sun and moon revolve around it. Careful scientific investigation showed both things false, and we are now wiser than our remote ancestors were. Similarly, a clever neurophysiologist, or even a good stage hypnotist, could cause Tom to “experience” many things “directly” that are not facts in the world. “This sure looks like it was designed by an intelligent agent, doesn’t it?” may be dispositive for an I.D. proponent (it is in fact, so far as I can tell, the I.D.-ers’ only “argument”); to a real scientist, it is a challenge. In any case, we know only one instance of an intelligent agency–ourselves. A single data point is not much of a basis for generalization. As for free will: I have not denied it, do not deny it, and currently have no intention of denying it–though I would not deny that it is deniable.

(4) Human agency indeed causes many things to happen–books to be written, flints to be knapped, and so on. That human agency arises from non-material origins is, however, a metaphysical hypothesis, outside the purview of science. When an anthropologist, via material evidence, has tracked an artifact back to human agency, he ceases his enquiries. (Unless he has a night job as a neuroscientist, in which case he might proceed further.) That is the scope of anthropology. It is the study of human communities and their artifacts. An anthropologist is no more concerned with the neurophysiological, possibly non-material, springs of human action than a chemist is with String Theory, or a geologist with cosmology. It’s not his scope. It is news to me that anthropologists, paleo- or otherwise, necessarily regard human agency as having non-material sources. My guess would be that some anthropologists do, some don’t. If a purely materialistic explanation for human nature were to be irrefutably established tomorrow, it does not seem to me that anthropology would thereupon implode, or cease to be practiced. I am not an anthropologist, however, and will humbly take contradiction from any reader who is.

(5) I am at a loss to know how creationism has got mixed up with conservatism. I have always thought of conservatives as the cold-eyed people, unafraid to face awkward facts, respectful of rigorous intellectual disciplines, and decently curious, but never dogmatic, on points of metaphysics. Conservatism thus understood is, in my view, the ideal outlook for free citizens of a free society. Contrariwise, pseudoscientific fads, metaphysical dogmas like “dialectical materialism,” magical explanations for natural phenomena, and slipshod word-games about “agency” and “design” posing as science, arise most commonly in obscurantist despotisms. The old USSR was addled with such things, Lysenkoism being only the best known. You may say that an obscurantist despotism can be conservative in its own way, and you may have a terminological point; but that’s not the style of conservatism I favor.

(6) We do indeed need a book laying out a politically incorrect approach to science. Political correctness is cramping and distorting science in all sorts of ways. If I, instead of Tom, had been commissioned to write that book, I would have taken particular pleasure in demolishing the leftist fads that dominate and retard the human sciences–the P.C. shibboleths about sex and race being mere “social constructions,” for instance, and what Steven Pinker has called the “see no genes, hear no genes, speak no genes” approach to human nature, a.k.a. the “blank slate,” on which all the great leftist thought-systems and socialist monstrosities, from Marxist-Leninism to postmodernist literary theory to Senator Edward Kennedy’s No Child Left Behind Act (it was his, wasn’t it?), have been built. That would be grand conservative work, well worth doing. I hope Tom has included something of this sort in his book; though how he could do so without calling on evolutionary biology for his counter-explanations, has me baffled.

(7) I honestly have no idea whether or not Tom has written a book titled The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science and filled it with pseudoscientific flapdoodle. I haven’t read the book, as both Tom (once) and myself (twice) have pointed out. If that is what Tom has done, though, then he has performed a terrible disservice to the noble cause of Political Incorrectness, and to the rational conservatism that, I believe, is the surest hope for the preservation of our liberties and the continuing health of Western civilization. posted 1/11/06, 5:18 p.m.


I’m not sure it is worth arguing with Mr. Derbyshire, since his post from over the weekend on my book has no facts and admits that he hasn’t read my book anyway. His irrelevant list of particles, meant to display his cleverness, merely revealed his lack of seriousness. He also makes one bad mistake.

Material causes only are admitted in science. Wrong. Let me illustrate by reference to his book, Prime Obsession, and let us travel 100 years into the future. Mr. D is no more, except perhaps for a few unrecognizable molecular traces. But in the moldering ruins of what was once a library, someone finds a tattered copy of Prime Obsession. “What caused this,” the finder inquires, examining the symbols on the page. “Can it be that there was once someone called Derbyshire who was the author of this book?”

The material causes of these printed symbols were? Ink, printing press, bindery. Was there no agent behind it? No Mr. Derbyshire? Not really, in the materialist view. That was just a conglomeration of chemicals that enjoyed the illusion of autonomy but was impelled to act in certain ways.

That is where the injunction, material causes only, takes us. The impulse is to move the causal attribution past the agent and back into the material world. We do look for material causes at the entry level of scientific explanation, but if we see signs of intelligence, we regard material causes as insufficient. Ink didn’t write the book. We seek other causes at a higher level. We look for an agent. In so doing, would we commit the error of abandoning science and flirting with supernaturalism? No. “Non-material” does not imply supernatural.

Paul Nelson of the University of Chicago points out that paleoanthropology, to cite one science, would be impossible without the concept of agency. Scientists use it to distinguish between tools and accidental rubble. “A trained scientist in the field of paleoanthropology can look at something and say, ‘that is an artifact. It is a tool for stripping meat’,” Nelson said. “There’s a whole body of literature in how these things are detected, and the concept of agency is the active ingredient in all such analyses. Materialism strictly applied in such cases is a science stopper.”

If I hold out my hand, and decide to move it up, what lifts it? Muscles, say the materialists. What about my prior decision, my free will? A materialist is someone who prefers to say that that decision was no real choice but an inevitable product of some antecedent molecular state. He regards all notions of freedom as delusional.

Why must we take that path, denying design when we see it before our eyes and denying free will when we experience it directly? There is no reason. I think we have reached the end of that road. But 150 years ago, there was reason to believe things would turn out differently. The materialists–Darwin very much among them–expected that evidence for evolution would readily be found. But it has not been. Meanwhile, the anti-religious agenda of the Darwinians has become more and more conspicuous.

It is said that lurking beneath the intelligent-design debate there is a religious agenda. That’s close–except that it’s an anti-religious agenda. There has also been philosophical confusion, and Mr. Derbyshire illustrates it.


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