Half Truth

On Friday April 28, I attended a talk given by Nancy Pearcey, one of the Discovery Institute Fellows, at UC Davis. The talk was officially put on by Grace Alive, a student Christian organization, but I imagine that it is merely a formality to register the free auditorium on campus for the church’s event. Their Faith and Reason series has invited Michael Behe, William Dembski, and other anti-evolutionists.

As I expected, the anti-evolution content was not very much, but what became apparent was that this “Total Truth” lecture gave less than the whole truth. I came across this transcript of a previous lecture that was essentially the same as her recent presentation.
And, by the way, I recorded the event for everyone! Feel free to read along as you listen, because I had quite a few comments to make about it.

Nancy Pearcey answering a question

Click here for the first half (lecture portion).
[3:28] Science was taken over by the philosophies of naturalism and materialism. Taken over?? How about, science can only test natural claims?

[10:40] claims that the rise of Darwinian Evolution caused the split in the “unity of truth.” This is a questionable statement for several reasons. The first is that at one point she is talking about the split between facts and values, and then at another point she is talking about God being out of a job as a consequence of evolutionary theory. So she is essentially talking about religious beliefs being undermined, and not the fact-value split issue. In other words, only if your values are dependent upon special creation does evolution split your values away from the facts.

The second reason is that she has excluded other causes from consideration at this juncture. At another point in the talk she mentioned the Enlightenment and the trailing Romantic Movement, which happened way before Darwin’s time. I’m no historian, but the Enlightenment seems to have been a significant factor in the subject she is talking about.

Finally, she is essentially making an ad-hominem argument against evolution – implying that if we want the re-unification of truth, that we must subvert evolution. This conclusion is expected of someone who is a fellow at the Discovery Institute, where evolution is the enemy 24-7. This has probably influenced the attention given to evolution.

[15:00] fact-value grid – “We have to believe that there’s truth to be found” “Are there moral principles that are objectively true?” “We have to believe our ideas because we believe they are correct!”

[18:30] Human being simultaneously a machine and a sentient being – the laughter was interesting, because she was quoting someone who was basically saying that a clay statue was both clay and a statue at the same time. Essentially, naturalists claim that we are machines that are conscious. This is a central issue in her talk which she revisits – that naturalism does not account for free will and consciousness – or claims that they are an illusion. Part of the problem is how you define free will and consciousness. Religious definitions of those concepts may be illusions, and as we understand more about ourselves, our definition of “consciousness” may change. She later says that being a personal agent makes more sense if you start with another personal agent (God). She implies that there must be something non-material about us, which one of the audience members noted and bit her back with a very good question.

[19:00] Claims that there is no basis for aspects of the secularist’s worldviews. Cue the quote mines.

[24:30] “If there are significant parts of the world that it does not account for, then there’s simply something wrong with your worldview and you have to go back to the drawing board.” I’ll come back to this quote because it is very important.

[26:20] Claims that free will and consciousness are accounted for in Christianity. As I understand it, there is profound disagreement amongst Christians as to what the definition of free will is. And this begs the question of how well is it accounted for in the religion, or does getting a mention count?

[28:55] Terri Shiavo brought up. Says that personhood is completely subjective, and not testable. That’s not quite right. I’m not going to go into the characteristics of personhood here, but in short, once someone defines personhood adequately, then you have criteria which you could potentially test objectively. This contradicts the next section.

[32:15] “Pro-lifers rely on the scientific consensus, that at least biologically speaking, a new individual arises at the moment of conception.” This is a problematic statement. First, conception is NOT a moment, it is a process with several stages. Second, a fertilized egg can split, forming identical twins. There is an individual cell after conception, but it is divisible into two individuals. Two fertilized eggs can fuse to form a chimera, an organism with two cell lines that are genetically different. Moreover, cancers have unique genetic codes, clones and twins are not unique, and skin cells growing on a Petri plate are biologically human. I could go on about the problematic nature of the arbitrary criteria that pro-lifers have chosen, but suffice to say that the only consensus is that there is a single cell at one point, that could potentially develop into a human being.

Finally, on the contradiction with the previous section – the pro-life position is based upon an arbitrarily-chosen criterion which is objectively testable. This is just the same as the person hood issue above, where the subjectivity component is supposed to be the downfall of a worldview.

[34:00] Says that her pro-life view is holistic, as opposed to reductionistic. However, the support for this, as pointed out by a questioner later, is reductionistic.

[35:00] talks about sex, sex-education, and homosexuality. Complains that at some colleges that you don’t have to check male or female, but instead explain your gender history. This is where I came up with my question about sex-nonspecific individuals, also known as “intersex.” I’ll address her answer later.

[39:44] Interesting claim, that Christianity accords a high dignity to life. Wait until you hear her true opinion on homosexuality!


Click here for the second half.
1) Honesty – a barrier to people taking her seriously. I’m not sure if she understood that he was talking about her specifically, but her answer was that you should keep your integrity intact.

2) Why did the lecture imply that Christian theism is the truth, when it only attacked secularism and not other religions as well? This was a very cogent point because it revealed that she didn’t build a case for Christianity. The questioner left after her answer.

3) This question was asked by Mike, a friend and fellow member of AGASA who came to the presentation independently with another of his friends. Mike used to be a devout, fundamentalist Christian, and in his question he was coming from the angle that it is ethically troublesome to call a deity “good” if it ruthlessly tosses people into eternal damnation at will. After the recorded questions, he was arguing with the announcer, and something interesting came out of that conversation. Mike pointed out that there are people who have lived, who have never heard of Christianity, and the announcer said that people have different ways of knowing gOD, and that he judges them based on that. Mike’s response was then, why missionize? If you don’t have to be Christian, then why make them Christian? The interesting thing is that even fundamentalists realize that tossing everyone who is not Christian into hell is wrong, and they contradict one of their central claims – that the only way to get into heaven is through Christianity. I like to refer to it as “The Good Samaritan Clause.”

4) This next one is from yours truly, asking her if she hid the fact that ID came from creationism for 15 years until the Dover case. You see, Nancy Pearcey is a fellow at the Discovery Institute, and is a proponent of Intelligent Design Neo-Creationism. However, she used to be the editor for a Young-Earth Creationism magazine, and she wrote the overview chapter to Of Pandas & People, the textbook in question in Kitzmiller vs Dover. DICERShe wrote it before they exchanged “creationism” with “intelligent design.” So in effect, she had first-hand knowledge of that change-over. Her answer was interesting, and one that everyone should take note of, because I’m going to dice it right up. (Note: most ums and stutters were edited from these quotes for clarity.)

If you were interested in this issue, the only game in town was creationism. And so even though I didn’t agree with everything in straight-line creationist thinking, um, I hung out with them, and I wrote on this issue, and I think they have a lot of good, creationist arguments against evolution of course have been taken up by ID as well.

ID is nothing but a subset of creationist arguments, except those that specifically refer to Christianity. ID proponents, however, frequently equate their idea with Christianity given a receptive audience. By the way, she was an editor for a Young-Earth creationist magazine.

Um, ID is, the history is real, ID is developed. And so when ID came along, I immediately thought oh yeah that’s much more congenial to the way I think, so with regards to my personal, you know, history, as soon as ID came along I thought its much more the way I think.

We’re waiting on the development of ID. How is ID more congenial to the way she thinks when she edited a YEC mag? ID is a ‘big tent’ that doesn’t challenge the age of the Earth – they take no official position on it. So yeah, there’s room for YECs. The history of ID is indeed real.

Now what is the difference between ID and creationism, a lot of people wonder. I think its the logic, more than anything. In other words, creationism was founded by people who were bible-believing christians and they said, since we believe the bible, since we know the bible’s true, what does that mean for science? I think that’s a valid question, just like a christian would say, if I’m Christian, what does that mean for government, my understanding of government, if I’m Christian, what does that mean for education. If I’m Christian, what does that mean for the arts, the economy, or the war or whatever, that’s part of what building a christian worldview can mean, that kind of question.

So intelligent design was not founded by people who were trying to prove the Bible? Let’s take a look at what proponent William Dembski said: “The world is a mirror representing the divine life…” “The mechanical philosophy was ever blind to this fact. Intelligent design, on the other hand, readily embraces the sacramental nature of physical reality. Indeed, intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory.”

But in his book, Intelligent Design, the Bridge between Science and Theology, (1999) he laid down this whopper: “If we take seriously the word-flesh Christology of Chalcedon (i.e. the doctrine that Christ is fully human and fully divine) and view Christ as the telos toward which God is drawing the whole of creation, then any view of the sciences that leaves Christ out of the picture must be seen as fundamentally deficient.”

Still not convinced? Then take a look at the Wedge Document. ‘Nuff said. Intelligent Design, by the very documents of its own think tank, the Discovery Institute, is intended to prove that we were created by the Christian god.

But that’s not the way you talk to people who don’t share your beliefs. If you were to talk to someone who doesn’t share your beliefs, you would find common ground with them, you would try to find some area where you can both discuss it together, nothing wrong with that. And so Intelligent Design says is “so let’s not start with ‘we believe the bible,’ let’s start with ‘what does the data show?’ Now can you make an argument just from the data itself, can you show that, you know to me the strongest argument is from the DNA. Can you show that at the heart of life is a code, information, language, where does information come from? Well, in our experience, information requires… mental agents, that’s our experience of it. And so you see the logic is different.

Interesting that she mentioned DNA. Because DNA’s less-stable analog, RNA, is implicated in the origin of life. So far, they’ve made arguments from the data, and they’ve had their arguments shredded. ID has produced no research, makes no testable predictions, and by the way, all that talk about where information comes from – that too is an old creationist argument.

So even though there’s some overlap with the arguments, the logic is quite different. And its not a matter of, ‘did I hide it,’ it’s just a matter of ‘that was 20 years ago and as soon as ID came along, I found it much more congenial with what I already believed.

Again, the arguments don’t overlap, they are a subset of the previous arguments. Later, we talked more about it, and she went through the ‘history’ of Intelligent Design. Not the “theory,” mind you, but the history of the term “Intelligent Design.” She forgot to mention that when they cut-and-pasted Intelligent Design in the place of Creationism in Of Panda’s and People, that it was the first instance that Intelligent Design was used in its present form. That was 9 years before Behe published his book.

So what she seems to be suggesting is that she instead hid that she disagreed with creationists 20 years ago, until she could let herself ‘come out’ as an ID proponent, rejecting their philosophy: “The only game in town.” Let’s add that to the list of explanations given by ID proponents for the creationism-ID changeover. I seriously doubt her answer, because “Creation Science” and “Scientific Creationism” were supposed to be the data-derived teleology back in the 70s and 80s just as much as Intelligent Design is for the 90s and 00s. But the different statements that the IDers make depending upon their audience reveal in part what is really going on.
Mike came up to me after and gave me a big ol’ hug, saying “You are a god!” I’m afraid I can’t take credit for this question. This jaw-dropper’s synthesis was achieved by the NCSE’s Nick Matzke, who’s become somewhat of an expert on the tactics employed by the latest incarnation of anti-evolutionism. So Nick, I guess you’re now deified.

5) Very good question, one I thought of but slated to ask later. They pointed out that Christian theism requires dualism of body and soul, something that she argued was a problem with secular philosophy. She claimed in her answer that you can’t be a machine and an autonomous self. That is her assumption. Upon what basis does she stake the claim that sufficiently complex machines cannot be autonomous? It is based instead on some sort of intuitive notion that autonomy, consciousness, requires something extra. Some sort of nugget, core, soul. That is what is said to be the illusion. By the way, you do not need to resort to dualism with philosophies of the mind. There are various monistic descriptions such as Physicalism.

6) This member of the audience noticed that the questions had all been critical thus far, and was probably wondering if this was typical, or an outlier. I must admit, there were a lot of critical questions.
7) Clarification of the trinity. Interesting claim that marriage mirrors the trinity. But there are only 2 people, so she must have meant ‘parallels the trinity.’ Even more interesting is that she suggested that people are not really autonomous. I agree with her that relationships are not solely by choice, but that hardly supports her contention that marriage is an “estate” put in place that we enter into. It’s called pair-bonding, and it is something that a lot of animals do for life, for years, or even just one mating season. What the human pair-bonding system is, and whether it is the same for everyone, and whether it can change over the generations are interesting questions. However, assuming that these things are static and prescribed as un-changing is not a position that takes common descent with other animals into account. Well, she is a creationist…

8) This was asked by Kenneth, a friend of Mike’s. He broke another link in Pearcey’s chain of reasoning. First there was the (probably) Muslim man iin #2 who said it didn’t lead to Christianity. Now, Kenneth points out that it didn’t even point to theism. “Well I say go for it.” Great! (As long as all paths lead to Jesus, hehe) [The laughter during this question was due to Pearcey being handed a regular microphone on a cord to solve the sound problems.] She said that she took the words of various naturalistic philosophers to show the implications of that view. But you see, she was also probably choosing the easiest ones to attack (other than quote mining) and suggesting that they were representative of the whole group. Notice how she only mentioned dualistic explanations of the mind, where monistic ones exist. She also said:

Complex machines don’t have moral freedom.

Show me the evidence that backs up this claim! Additionally, she keeps repeating that naturalism can’t explain consciousness. It doesn’t yet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. We don’t even understand consciousness so how can we expect to explain it? But she does not apply the same level of criticism to her own position. Her version doesn’t explain consciousness at all! All she does is wave her hand toward some other conscious being that must have created consciousness. (which of course carries the obvious argument – where did that consciousness come from?) The problem here is typical of pseudoscience. Poke a few holes in one view, and then declare that your own view is a worthy substitute. No explanation, but plenty of metaphors and rhetoric. As she says, “It’s the real world you’re supposed to be explaining.”

8.5) Kenneth continues – doesn’t our evolution toward pattern recognition explain people’s belief in a god? After a little side-tracking, she cites a post-modernist to say that ideas stick around because they work, not because they are right. She claims that this line of reasoning is self-refuting:

If all our ideas are not true but only useful, then what about thinking of evolution itself, why should we pay any attention to it?

It is obvious that she doesn’t understand evolution at all here. Think about what she said – that ideas are only useful, but not true. She seems to be saying that true ideas must not be useful. Hmm, I think this banana is nutritious and will help me survive to reproductive age. True. Useful. The fact is, it is in the best interest of animals to match up their ideas to reality, because of the fact that reality can help or hurt you. We can of course think of cases where false ideas might be useful, such as myths about ancestors that kept the Lacandon Mayans from eating poisonous fish. In some cases, though, it can become advantageous to make others believe falsehoods because it can give you an advantage, such as pretending to foil an argument and declaring that evolution is self-refuting. In turn, it can become advantageous to see through the falsehoods weaved by people who try to mislead, such as in this case.
She continues about evolution – calling it an assumption, continuing the ad-hominem argumentation against it. See, this is where science steps in to save us from ourselves. There are countless cases where our own pattern recognition systems fool us, such as faces on Mars, shapes in clouds, optical illusions, and astrology to name a few. Science takes pattern recognition to another level by making it more systematic and firmly grounding it in repeatable, testable observations. Evolution is not an assumption, although she sure thinks it is. Evolution has been derived from, supported by, and repeatedly tested against reality. It does not survive because it makes people feel good, it makes many people feel bad, even, it persists as an idea because it is incredibly useful at predicting and explaining reality.

She based her statement that evolution is self-refuting on the writings of a post-modernist. I’m not much of a post-modernist, I gravitate toward the thinking of the Enlightenment, myself, as many scientists do. So she has set up a caricature of evolution that is self-refuting, and shows problems with post-modernist thinking and not evolution. And does anyone else notice how she is being awfully post-modernist herself?

9) [32:00] Decent question about whether homosexuality would be acceptable if it was found to have a biological basis. Her answer was a little a-la-Dr-Laura. She insinuated that people with homosexual predispositions are flawed. So even though they may have been born with certain desires, they shouldn’t fulfill them. She also said that there is an ideal human nature that we should all aspire to. I don’t entirely disagree with this, I think that there are some ideals that we should aspire to, but the idea that it is fixed, and that humanity is fixed, I do not agree with. The very fact that we can say that humans and chimpanzees have different natures, but that they descended from the same species, shows that the nature of a species is not fixed.

More on the ideal – to me, what doesn’t fit the ideal, is a worldview that denies the basic desires of a segment of the population who differ from the rest. I’ll have more to add with the next post where I asked her a followup to this question.

10) [34:00] How did we get to the point where only what is provable is true? In her answer she pointed toward the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. She also mentioned beauty as something that could not be empirically measured, which led to one of my followup questions. (For the next post.)

11) [37:50] Do you think that Intelligent Design has been unfairly treated by the scientific establishment, saying it’s ‘creationism re-labeled,’ in somewhat of an opression against ID? She called Evolution and ID meta-theories, that they both correlate data across different fields, (how can ID do that without any data?) but where are the graphs and charts that accomplish this for ID? So far ID has only produced PR.

She said that the fact that Intelligent Design has become part of the culture war is a concern. Exactly. We have no one to blame but the proponents of ID, referring to the Wedge Strategy here, where they declare war on the culture with their “Center for Renewal of Science & Culture,” the branch of the Disco Institute devoted to ID. “Renewal” was too strong apparently, so after a few years it became the “Center for Science & Culture.”

She said that within the naturalistic view of science, (In case you don’t know, she’s talking about the Scientific Method. No kidding.) science can’t point toward intelligence as an answer. I don’t think that she realized what she was saying. Let me break it down.

  1. Science can only point toward natural explanations, because they are testable.
  2. Thus, supernatural explanations cannot be considered under the current definition of science.
  3. Due to the current definition of science, intelligence cannot be considered as an explanation.
  4. Therefore, intelligence is supernatural.
  5. (extra) Intelligent Design seeks to change the definition of science to include intelligence as possible explanations.
  6. (extra) Therefore, Intelligent Design seeks to include the supernatural, i.e. non-testable, in the definition of science.

She claimed that intelligence cannot be considered as an explanation because it is not naturalistic. She closed with addressing how one would approach finding words carved into the side of a tree.

If you see words, even out inside of nature like that, it’s not a natural phenomenon, that some intelligent being has been there. And so I think that… it challenges it at the level that “can intelligence be a valid category in science?”

*Shaking head* Uh oh, she equivocated. What I mean is that she changed the definition of one word, in this case “Natural,” in the middle of her argument. When she talks about Naturalism, more specifically methodological naturalism, she’s talking about the notion that science can only concern itself with things that can be tested by the Scientific Method. Supernatural phenomena, should any exist, are therefore outside the scope of science, whereas natural phenomena can be studied.
In Pearcey’s story about her seven-year-old child and the words carved into a tree, she says that these words are not natural. “Natural” in this sense means ‘coming from nature,’ as opposed to artificial. Obviously, the letters are artificial in that they were likely created by humans, who are known to do that. Maybe Koko the gorilla or a similarly sapient non-human animal could also accomplish such feats, blurring the line between what is natural and what is artificial, which I’m not going to go into here. But what is clear is that she is using a rhetorical trick, equivocation, to say that science cannot point toward intelligent causes. In doing so, she has equated artificial and intelligence with supernatural, which I asked her to clarify in my followup questions.

no human involved.Moreover, seeing letters does not necessarily mean that there was a human behind it. People see the name of Allah in all sorts of things, such as watermelons. So it’s not so cut-and-dry. If it was, then she’s in the wrong religion, because I haven’t heard of cucurbits with ‘Yahweh” inscribed in them.
So that’s it, that’s the Total Truth lecture plus questions by Nancy Pearcey. In it there were straw men, half-truths, internal contradiction, and problematic statements. But we got a little useful information out of it, such as her explanation given for writing for the Pandas book, and the way she somewhat dodged the question of whether or not she hid the creationism-intelligent design cut-and-paste. That part of my question was rather rhetorical because it was obvious that it was hidden until surprisingly revealed in KvD. And that’s the Total Truth.

Next, I shall post the followup questions that I asked her, and show how not only did she not provide basis for her own position, but even fell victim to the very fact/value split that she says is a problem, and showed a significant deficiency in her own worldview. Stay tuned.


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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

2 thoughts on “Half Truth”

  1. Years ago I attended at talk at UC Davis by Duane Gish, which was a classic example of the polished creationist presentation. I’m sorry I missed this event, which doesn’t seem to have been as slick a performance, but very pertinent to the way creationism has evolved in recent decades.

    Thanks for doing all the hard work of writing it up!


  2. Many thanks for your exegesis.

    As I see it, it’s time to take back morality.

    As I recall, the fact-value “split” began with David Hume (you can’t get an “ought” from an “is” ) and continued with G.E. Moore (the naturalistic fallacy). However, from “you cannot derive a value from a fact” it does not follow that morality is subjective or that facts are irrelevant to values. Some proposed formulations of an objective criterion are 1) Kant’s categorical imperative — a fancy way of saying “what if everybody did xxx?” and 2) Shakespeare’s “If you prick us do we not bleed?… (i.e., we’re human, too).”

    Many religious people put religion on the values side of the split, because they think morality needs a religious basis. But religious claims lack an objective truth criterion, as evidenced by the fact that there are so many different religions.

    -Thanks for your comment. Check back for the followup questions I asked her, because I decided to touch upon the issue of morality in the light of evolution. Her insinuation that the pesky facts about evolution prevent the justification of morality readily dissolved. Many people very clearly value their values (pun almost intended), and are thus attracted to the idea that their values are objective and apply to everyone. Where I saw a genuine problem with her implicating evolution in the fact-value split was that it was made with the apparent intent of turning people away from evolution and rejecting the science. But there is a major flaw with this strategy, because in putting up this evolution-vs-my-values dichotomy, as the science of evolution gets stronger and stronger, it may make people reject many of their values. This can be somewhat beneficial, as I think that some of the values that would be rejected are baseless and/or harmful, but there are a great many human values, especially ethics, and to some extent aesthetics, which they may reject but probably should not.

    To put it more clearly, if they think that murder is wrong only if gOD created humans special, and thus evolution is incorrect, then when they accept evolution they risk losing justification for why murder is wrong. The idea that if evolution is true that nothing matters and life becomes a free-for all tooth-and-claw bloodfest is unfounded. After all, we are humans, we have feelings, desires, intellect, and find personal value in things. That should count for something! -Karl


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