Discovery Institute puts out video purporting to refute materialiam and atheism

June 27, 2019 • 1:30 pm

The Discovery Institute has put out a series of videos that, they claim, will do in atheism—and presumably lead us to Intelligent Design and then to Jesus. I hate to give publicity to a bunch of superstitious yahoos, but will put up one sample of what they consider to be a convincing attack on atheism. First, though, the blurbs about these videos:

From Evolution News, written by Jonathan Witt:

A new YouTube series, Science Uprising, challenges the notion that the smart money is on atheism. I was part of the creative team behind the project. One of our aims was to reach those “digital natives” who get much of their impression of the wider world from the Internet, including streaming services like YouTube.

This group tends to encounter well-articulated arguments for unbelief earlier than ever before, and they often encounter those arguments online. Science Uprising is part of an increasingly rich body of material that pushes back against anti-theistic online propaganda.

From the YouTube video site:

This episode of Science Uprising investigates claims by scientists and professors like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, and Daniel Dennett, who try to hijack science to promote materialism—the idea that physical reality is all there is. Hear from experts who challenge this view of science, and learn about scientists who have to hide behind a mask because they face intimidation and censorship from dissenting from materialism. People featured in this episode include Jay Richards, PhD, Assistant Professor at The Catholic University of America, filmmaker, and author or co-author of books such as The Human Advantage, The Privileged Planet, The Hobbit Party, Infiltrated, and Money, Greed, and God; and Michael Egnor, MD (from Columbia University), neurosurgeon and professor of neurological surgery at Stony Brook University. Dr. Egnor is renowned for his work in pediatric neurosurgery.

Watch the 7-minute video below. I’ve put a few comments below it.

My comments:

1.) The video gives no evidence against atheism; that is, it adduces no evidence for the existence of a god. The gist of the video is that the implications of godlessness are unpalatable (e.g., the “purposeless of the universe”). Pity, but what exists—or doesn’t exist—doesn’t always comport with how we want things to be.

2.) Their evidence for god? The assertion that “Most people and cultures around the world have a profound belief that life extends beyond the physical—that compassion, ideas, joy and sorrow, aren’t made of matter.”  Since when has the ubiquity of a belief constituted evidence for its truth?

3.) Science is based on materialism, which they say is an unsubstantiated worldview. But materialism and naturalism (I prefer the latter term) are the only ways we’ve ever attained truth about the universe. Certainly faith and religion have given us no truth, as evidenced by the diverse and conflicting claims of the planet’s many religions. After years of trying, I’ve seen no “truth” about the universe adduced by religion itself that doesn’t require confirmation by science, but I’ve seen plenty of religious “truths” disconfirmed by science (creationism, the Flood, the Exodus, and so on).

4.) According to the video, scientists are stupid to claim that we have no (libertarian) free will. If that’s the case, say the dupes, “how can we be responsible for our actions?” I’ve already explained why determinism is still compatible with personal responsibility for our actions—and for punishment and reward—but not moral responsibility in the sense of “we could have done otherwise.”

5.) The implication of materialism is racism and murder (see the pictures).

6.) Our consciousness and a sense of self are illusory, say people like Dan Dennett and Sam Harris. This, claim the benighted, is not only incompatible with materialism, but conflicts with the claim that consciousness and self have real consequences. Well, these people don’t understand what “illusory” means, which is, in the Harrisian and Dennettian senses, “These things aren’t what they seem to be.” Further, if you’re a determinist, then consciousness and self are themselves the byproducts of natural processes—epiphenomena, if you will—and cannot exercise some non-deterministic, non-physical forces on our actions.

7.) And that’s about it, except that Michael Egnor (and the charlatan Rupert Sheldrake) make appearances. Egnor, misidentified as a scientist (he’s a neurosurgeon who doesn’t do science), says, “The deeper I look into the science, the more I realize what a catastrophe for science materialism/atheism really is.” Of course, Egnor doesn’t explain that statement. It is, in fact, theism and faith that have been catastrophes for science, as evidenced by the large number of people on this planet who reject the existence of evolution on religious grounds.

8.) At the end, the female narrator gets it exactly backwards when she says, “We want to follow the evidence, wherever it leads, and decide for ourselves.” Well, if they follow evidence that is strongly agreed on by all rational people, what they get is science—science that can work only without assuming a god. The kind of “evidence” that these people accept is evidence from scripture, from their preachers, and from their own feelings about how the world is or ought to be. That is not the way to find scientific truth.

Pity that the cowards at the Evolution News site don’t accept comments, but you can “like” or “dislike” the YouTube videos


67 thoughts on “Discovery Institute puts out video purporting to refute materialiam and atheism

  1. Isn’t science itself composed of ideas. For instance Newtonian gravity is an idea. It isn’t made of matter. Even if I were to write down the formula on material paper. One would need the idea of a formula to connect the ink atoms in to a coherent whole of ‘a formula’.

    1. The problem is that the Creationists fail to distinguish the claim that ideas, thoughts, compassion, joy, and sorrow are “ made of matter” and the claim that they are ultimately reducible to matter ( energy, patterns.)

      The first one makes it sound lie you ought to be able to pick up an idea, or examine the brain and see them rolling around in the head like marbles. Obviously not. But trace back and back through interlinked layers of complexity, interactions, and explanations and something which seemed to be magically sui generis and suspended on nothing turns out to have been built.

    2. “For instance Newtonian gravity is an idea. …. Isn’t science itself composed of ideas”

      No, Newton’s gravity is a lot more than an idea; it’s a model with predictive power.

      “One would need the idea of a formula to connect the ink atoms in to a coherent whole of ‘a formula’.”

      No, the ink of mathematical formula’s are just artifacts to communicate a model, but just as the ink-molecules of “a map from Paris” have nothing to do with “the real Paris”, the ink-molecules of a formula have absolutely nothing to do with any model.

      1. So do you divide the world into matter and models? If so you aren’t a materialist because a materialist believes only matter (and/or energy?) exists.

    3. But ideas taken concretely (rather than “abstractly”) are processes in the nervous systems of animals (and perhaps other computers). So material as well.

      1. Then we get to Penrose’s trialism (the physical world contains minds, minds contain ideas, ideas contain the physical world). Crucially though ideas exist independently from the physical world. If I write a computer program it exists in physical states of the bits of the computer and could have some physical consequence (e.g. turn on light if 1+1=2). However, the concept of 1+1=2 does not trivially exist in the world since one orange with another orange does not essentially equal one single new object the pair. The pair is an idea based on one description of the physical world out of an infinity. Even lumping the atoms of the orange in to one object is debatable. To conclude, I myself am a materialist but over time I have become aware of various objections to materialism. There are famous political implications to a materialist worldview (e.g. Marxist materialism) and we should be aware of the criticisms.

  2. Jonathan Witt:
    … I was part of the creative team behind the project.

    “Creative team”, as opposed to “researchers”, or any implication of connecting the words and ideas off the video to an external physical reality.

  3. Faith is the worst possible thing. It’s a way of thinking that gave us Trump, who takes advantage of people who have faith and will swallow his lies because, after all, what really matters isn’t evidence, it’s belief.

    Faith is the answer to The Fermi Paradox.

    1. Virtue signalling is the worst possible thing. It’s a way of thinking that nearly gave the US Clinton, who takes advantage of people who are sensitive to virtue signalling and will swallow her lies because, after all, what really matters isn’t evidence, it’s agreeing with latest virtue signal.

      …and no, I’m not asserting that what I wrote above is true or convincing but it is just as easy to create a narrative either way.

  4. This is the same Discovery Institute behind Trojan-Horse-type web sites like “”Evolution News & Science Today” which of course is designed to pop up for google searches of “evolution.” Where of course the site is anti-evolution.

    What a sleazy crew!

    And the Disco-tute is, what, 19 years old now? They formed under the claims that scientists unhindered by materialist dogma would be able to finally produce the paradigm-changing scientific results based on ID.

    And of course, like the promise of Jesus’ immanent return, we are still waiting.

    It’s like these guys have to learn the lessons of the Enlightenment all over again, themselves, by just going out and failing like everyone else at producing religious/supernatural-based “science.”

    1. I don’t think we ever see the opposite, do we? — scientific or atheist sites trying to look like they’re about pseudoscience or religion in order to draw in the unwary.

  5. 3.) Science is based on materialism

    I reject this as a straw man. Materialism is a provisional conclusion of science, not a premise of it. “The force responsible for observation x is material” is a tentative conclusion we’ve developed from all our past observations, which have had that exact result. Materialism is just “the sun will rise tomorrow, as it has every day so far” applied on a grander scale.

    And science could easily dispense with materialism in the future…if observational evidence ran against it. Give us a bunch of Christian faith healers using the power of prayer to reproducibly and reliably enact healing miracles such as making limbs regrow, and science will absolutely consider this evidence, and absolutely consider that the correlation between “christian prayer” and “leg regrowth” is worth developing and investigating hypotheses for. The reason we don’t dispense with materialism now is because no such credible evidence of non-material causes or factors exist.

    I liken it to two race horses (call them “material explanation” ME and “immaterial explanation” IE). They’ve run millions of races against each other, over every type of race condition you can imagine. And one horse (ME) has won all the races. IE has lost all the races. So now when bettors (i.e. scientists investigating a phenomena) are choosing which horse to bet on in the next race, they inevitably choose ME. They have no prior axiomatic commitment to ME; if IE starts winning, they’ll start betting on it. But for the moment, IE hasn’t won, ME has, so all the smart money is on ME in the next race.

    1. I forgot to add that, but of course I’ve echoed that point many times, especially in Faith versus Fact. The scientific method, which doesn’t include gods, was developed by trial and error over the centuries, and naturalism was no assumed (it’s not a philosophy), but discovered empirically as the only way to produce reliable knowledge.

    2. I think the insistence that science starts out with its conclusion fits into the narrative which tells us we all believe in God. There is no neutral betting ground where you try to pick the winning horse in blameless ignorance. You already know it’s God.

      You just decide which horse you WANT to win.

    3. I like the race horses.

      The snag with saying that “science will absolutely consider this worth developing and investigating hypotheses for” is that the result will be turning what appears to be an “immaterial explanation” into a new “material explanation.”

      Material explanation is not a closed book; it can be added to if new things are discovered. Once we work out how the prayers produce leg regrowth, it is no longer immaterial, we have expanded the range of material explanation.

      1. Yeah that’s the old “there is no ‘supernatural’ because once we understand it, we call it natural” argument. I think it’s something of a red herring.

        If Christian faith healers (and only Christians) could regrow limbs through Christian prayer, it wouldn’t matter if we called that phenomena ‘material’ or ‘natural,’ we would have some tentative evidence that “the Christian hypothesis” was at least partially right. And they would be justified in saying ‘see, we were right about the power of prayer! Now consider what else we might be right about.’

        You can’t get around the truth value (or lack of it) of theological claims by relabeling some observation “natural” instead of “supernatural”. Either the theology is right, or it isn’t, and that will be determined by observation. And if the observation supports it, then we nonbelievers are provisionally shown to be wrong, no matter how you want to label the miracle. Obviously this isn’t really an issue right now. I don’t think we’re in any danger of being shown to be wrong. But the point I’m making here is that “expanding the range of material explanations” to incorporate some future reproducible Christian miracle-working is just a labeling game; it doesn’t bear on the question of whether Christian theology is true or not.

        1. I would agree, if it turned out we could not work out how the prayers produced leg regrowth. If we were faced with something that really seemed to have no material explanation, we would have to accept that. But first we would have to do a lot of investigating to see whether there was some new kind of explainable phenomena involved.

    4. “Materialism is a provisional conclusion of science, not a premise of it.”

      Exactly. They have put the cart before the horse.

    5. This is not even remotely true but a smoke screen. The present materialistic paradigm would not look for a hypothesis that would “dispense with materialism”. You would look for materialistic explanations not a God/supernatural explanation. Placebo effect, Fraud, regeneration, optical illusion, Aliens from outer space with advanced tech etc. The world already is awash with stories of healing and the basic premise is that all of them are fabrications or illusions. Science itself doesn’t hold a priori position on anything. That’s anti science.

      “The reason we don’t dispense with materialism now is because no such credible evidence of non-material causes or factors exist.”

      We already have overwhelming evidence materialism is not the ultimate explanation of everything. Even if you go turtles all the way down that still leaves us with things without cause and materialism without cause and effect is gibberish.

      Materialism has nothing going for it. Science is the study of how things work IN the universe. Its inherent “weakness” is that it can’t handle the ultimate questions.

      The religious , atheists and materialists are all in the same boat when they attempt to hijack science as something that speaks to their non science. Science is the study of our reality in this universe. It has nothing to say about realities beyond our own or ultimate causes and it infers none of the things any side ascribes to it. Humans are free to come to conclusions on those things but we are not science and no one speaks for it. Its peaks for itself by its own definition.

      1. Your comment contains so many errors and misconceptions that it’s not even wrong, much less your failure to address Eric’s comments. As Eric said, and I have said before, there could be evidence for supernatural or “non materialistic” phenomena, like telekenesis or immaterial spirits. There has been no such evidence. Your so-called “overwhelming evidence that materialism is not the ultimate explanation for everything” is the “First Cause” explanation: what caused things to be. Your answer, presumably, is God. But then what caused the First Cause? The answer, “It was always there” is simply risible.

        Yes, science is the study of reality in this universe, but if there are other “realities”, the only way to verify them would be, yes, SCIENCE. There is no other way than empirical study to determine what is real. End of story.

      2. Decided to leave reddit for more fertile grounds? We have more posts on r/DebateEvolution awaiting your valuable input.

        Valuable for our entertainment, of course.


    1. Doctors generally know little about science, having inadequate backgrounds they frequently make silly pronouncements.

    2. They are incredibly talented and dedicated people who have gone through very careful and rigorous training as superb technicians. But because of the clause before “as”, I would think that would provoke a little bit more Dunning-Kruger effect 🙂

      (I have no idea if the hypothesis is correct, of course.)

  6. The fast moving video and strange choreography reminds one of the fast talking salesman who just sold you a used car. Check your pockets before leaving the room.

  7. The narrator and the MD were a real tease. They said virtually nothing that seemed to follow a logical sequence of propositions. But, that’s what we’ve come to expect from this sad, sorry, organization.

  8. Richard Dawkins on the video: “I have a materialist view of the world, and so that commits me to the view that when I think I have free will–that I’m exercising free choice–I’m deluding myself.” [Italics mine.]

    This is first time I’ve heard a determinist explicitly admit that his view on free will derives from his materialistic view of the world—that is, that the former view is a deduction from the latter, not something he arrived at independently of a preconceived commitment to materialism. That’s one of the few statements about determinism that makes perfect sense to me.

    1. I’ve always seen that correlation to be at least indirectly implied by anyone articulating a anti-free will position.

      1. “I’ve always seen that correlation to be at least indirectly implied by anyone articulating a anti-free will position.”

        Really? According to Dawkins’ statement, belief in determinism is a byproduct—an epiphemomenon—of a materialistic world view, much as belief in Transubstantiation is a byproduct of a Catholic world view. That is, both are a kind of package deal rather than conclusions based on evidence. The fact that we seem to have free will or that the consecrated host seems to be ordinary bread falls by the wayside in service of the larger world view. I’ve never heard a determinist admit this.

        1. “I have a materialist view of the world, and so that commits me to the view that when I think I have free will–that I’m exercising free choice–I’m deluding myself.”

          This simply means that the notion of free will necessitates a supernatural realm in which agents reside outside their corporeal bodies. Materialism denies this supernatural realm, therefore free will cannot exist.

          1. First, I don’t know where you get the idea that a supernatural realm necessarily involves agents that “reside outside their bodies.” Consciousness cannot exist without a corporeal component. Hence, death. That our personal souls live on beyond death is a doctrine in some religions but it has nothing to do with having free will while we’re alive.

            Second, your “therefore free will cannot exist” is my point. Denial of free will is a deduction based on an a priori world view, not a conclusion based on examining evidence. If you’re an avowed materialist you literally have no choice but to be a determinist. Hence, you’re condemned to making convoluted arguments that the evidence that’s out there either isn’t really there or can be wrestled to accommodate your world view. You’re in much the same position as the Aristotelians were with Galileo: “The Bible denies that the earth moves, therefore heliocentrism cannot exist.”

            1. Sorry but the absence of libertarian free will does not reflect commitment to a worldview; it’s a conclusion from the laws of physics. If you doubt me, read Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture”, where he says that determinism is the rule because the laws of physics as they apply to everyday life are known.

              Determinism is a conclusion, not an a priori commitment.

  9. *Sigh* It was as I expected. Lots of emotion-tugging visual and sound editing that is designed to cudgel the viewer into thinking that scientists and atheists are bad and that the other folks are good.
    See? Scientist: Ooooh, baaaaad.
    Non-scientist? Aaaaaah, goooooood.

    And what is with that ugly Guy Fawkes mask with the ape nose?

  10. I viewed the video, tagged a dislike, and made the following comment there (that not being disabled yet):

    Bearing in mind that all the main participants in the program reflect a particular version of anti-“materialism,” the Discovery Institute version of the universe, which consists largely of “not-‘Darwinism'” and a stealth implication of theology without actually defending it openly & directly (and don’t the Young Earth creationists get to play?).

    There is an extensive science literature on neuroscience and how that pertains to our perceptions and beliefs, and to date the DI ID gang have notably not paid much attention to that (Richards is a philosopher, for example, not a neuroscientist). Instead, in this video we get more of the same sound bites, apologetically selected to trend the argument in the preconceived direction. Notice also that all the links in the description are aimed at more of the video apologetics, keeping the track 900 miles from the data field (all of which would need to be accounted for, including things like how the anterior cingulate cortex, a primate social conflict resolution system, has been coopted in our hominid brains for self-deception, per Abe et al Feb 2006, “Dissociable Roles of Prefrontal and Anterior Cingulate Cortices in Deception,” Cerebral Cortex 16: 192-199.). One wonders how often the ACC was buzzing in the video’s producers’ heads while assembling this offering.

    1. The thing is though, they would sound convincing to that slice of the demographic pie that is all feeling and no rationality. How big is that slice? Probably a good-sized desert plate.

      1. I can answer that size of the slice issue, at least at the heuristic ballpark level: its conservatively around 45% of the US population. That would involve virtually all antievolutionists, plus a chunk of mystic-minded who don’t fall directly into that conservative antievolution demographic, but share a philosophical/theistic antipathy to “materialism.”

        The Discovery Institute has mastered a generic apologetic that can appeal to anyone in the theistic frame, regardless of whether they think there was a literal Noah, or necessarily Christian. It would be possible even for Muslims or Hindus to accept that apologetic too, its that generalized, even though the active DI demographic would not fall into those theistic slots.

        1. 45% sounds like it could turn an election. How pathetic. If we could contain and remove the religious and superstitious aspect and give everyone a crash course in critical thinking…

          Actually, I don’t think we have that much time in terms of issues like climate. I think we’re screwed if the 45% are going to influence policy in proportion to their numbers. Let’s hope many of them don’t vote.

  11. On a related matter: The Discovery Institute is not the only source of propaganda on Youtube to “like” or “dislike”. The socialism of fools is active there as well, with sites publicized by way of the usual social media gossip. Here is one which provides a spectacular example of the link between demonization of Israel and hatred of Jews per se:
    by Gary Jacobucci

    This classic antisemitic screed explain that the Jews are not merely atheistic communists, but also a criminal enterprise—a band of gangsters who invented the idea of a Jewish peoplehood simply in order to grab the territory of others, helped by the power of the diabolical Jewish lobby in the USA. The narrative is accompanied throughout by visuals of evil Jews which resemble something out of German Nazi media.

  12. … materialism—the idea that physical reality is all there is.

    Physical reality is all that is detectable — and the undetectable is asymptotically equivalent to the nonexistent.

    I made it to the five-minute mark of the video before having to give up owing to the carpal tunnel from doing the universal jerking-off semaphore at the the computer screen.

    1. I get the same symptoms with my TV. Certain endless ‘infomercials’ and preachy road-safety ads repeated ad nauseam give me a pain in the wrist.

      But back to reality – I like Philip K Dick’s definition: Reality is that which, when you stop thinking about it, doesn’t go away.


  13. Was Carl Sagan giving a definition of everything that ever was and always will be, that is the Cosmos as he understands it, or giving a definition of, the Cosmos.

    Such that, were there ever to be evidence for other stuff, even so called supernatural stuff, then that would be part of the Cosmos too.

    I haven’t watched further yet but I find a lot of the woo types are a bit short on comprehension.
    And basic facts.

    1. Sagan’s famous line is an example of what Bunge calls a “referition”, technically: a sign-(external to language correspondence).

      Example: gold is the chemical element with atomic number 79.

  14. Why is the girl in the video randomly wearing a Guy Fawkes Anonymous style mask? I assume this is some sort of “We’re actually the one’s fighting The Man! See, you can tell because we have this mask on!” posturing?

    The topic of how ideas and emotions fit into a materialist paradigm is an interesting one, but this particular video is just a bunch of disjointed propaganda – and “trying to speak to the Young People, in a hip way!” propaganda at that. The Discovery Institute would do better, in my humble opinion, to create a well thought-out opinion piece on the topic. It’s not like you can speak to hearts and minds on a topic like this in sound bites anyways (if you’re not familiar with topics like materialism and free will, you’re going to watch the 30 second portion of the video allotted to them and go “Huh? Wait what are they talking about?”, not “OMG that is messed up, I can’t believe it!”)Anyone who understands the references probably already has an opinion on the topics at hand anyways, so why not spell out and defend a cogent opinion?

    1. “The Discovery Institute would do better, in my humble opinion, to create a well thought-out opinion piece on the topic.”

      “Well thought out”, and “Discovery Institute”, are oxymoronically juxtaposed.

  15. When the Discovery Institute demonstrate that scientific experiments must be carried out within a protective pentagram, or on sanctified ground, to produce consistent repeatable results there might be some substance to their anti-materialistic creed.

    It would still need confirmation though.

  16. … What’s happening? Am I the first person to point out the misspelled word “materialiam” in the title? Is this disclaimed somewhere that I’m missing…?

    1. What kind of person tries to disprove evolution by quoting a creationist “authority” who has a Ph.D. in kinesiology? I guess it’s the anonymous Insectman, who can’t bear to use his/her real name.

      For more on this authority, see Mastropaolo’s entry in the Encyclopedia of American Loons:

      Go peddle this nonsense at the Discovery Institute website. Oh, I forgot—they don’t allow comments.

        1. Interesting and not implausible. Priest has a long string of postings against evolution since at least the 1990s, and does bill himself as “The Insectman”. But how specifically did you confirm that this Insectman poster here is that fellow Karl?

            1. There’s an awful lot of that in antievo land, especially in online exchanges. While there are a small band of core fact claimants making the sciency arguments (ID and YEC), that’s only about sixty people. All the rest are riffing in one way or another off their authority assertions. Or just the quotes, devoid of data support.

              Its methodologically a direct analog of Proof Texting in theist apologetics, where the “authoritative” text is deemed sufficient to settle matters. Its spilled over into antievo discourse.

    2. Insectman, why do you think the quote from young earth creationist Mastropaolo was well-grounded? Did you fact check his argument for accuracy, or did you merely field it because it was among a quote mine list that you found congenial to your own notions?

      Since he is a YECer, presumably his own mind flushes most of the data off his own Map of Time scope, so in principle any pronouncements on the alleged impossibility of evolution by him are ill-founded.

      Does he account for why there were therapsids (the transitional critters, including some predicted directly on evolutionary grounds), why there are tooth enamel genes in all toothless mammals, or why our own human DNA has such a curious clutter of ALU retrotransposons in them?

      Evolution can account for all those things, insectman, even as creationism avoids thinking about them, too hasty to wave authority quotes instead of doing the hard work to explain things.

  17. “Since when has the ubiquity of a belief constituted evidence for its truth?”

    Very late to to party, but I would say it does. All else being equal, ubiquity of beliefs indicate its contents to be more likely to be true. It makes sense when you think about it: If people’s beliefs correspond to reality, however weakly, then a belief should more likely to be right than wrong. For a large number of beliefs, if you believe what others believe, you are more likely to be right than wrong. Which means it is evidence.

    That doesn’t factor in the costs of the belief, or the prior improbability of the belief, or other observations, or different details between the beliefs that would undermine them, of course, nor is it in any way strong evidence, but that is why I consider a ubiquity of belief to be evidence.


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