Lewontin and “the A Priori”

At Thoughts in a Haystack, Pieret notes that Citizens For Objective Public Education, Inc. (COPE) has brought a lawsuit in Kansas to block the implementation of Next Generation Science Standards. (The whole complaint is here (PDF).)   The complaint alleges that teaching evolutionary theory amounts to state endorsement of atheism, and hence is unconstitutional.

In making their case, COPE quotes this well-known passage from Lewontin’s review of Sagan’s A Demon-Haunted World:

“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”

 

Firstly, this passage is taken out of context; read in context, it is fairly clear that Lewontin is attributing this dogmatism to Sagan, and not endorsing it himself.

Secondly, everything here depends on what Lewontin means by “a priori”.  Since he does not tell us what he means, we are left to our own devices.  But it is worth pointing out that Lewis White Beck, the Kant scholar mentioned here, was strongly influenced by the once-prominent (and now unjustly forgotten) philosopher C. I. Lewis.   One of Lewis’ considerable achievements was the invention of what he called “the pragmatic a priori,” on which a priori statements are those that hold independent of experience because they are freely chosen by us in order to enable those inquiries that satisfy our needs and interests.

For this reason, when Lewontin claims that

we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

we can take this as meaning something like the following:

In order for us to build more or less reliable and provisional models of causal regularities that account for available data, we must assume that the causal regularities are not alterable by divine whim. For if we could not determine whether any particular event was in accord with or in violation of the laws of nature, the very notion of “a law of nature” would loose all sense.

 

On Lewis’ account of the a priori, we are not “dogmatically” committed to this conception of the causal order; we chose this principle in order to do science at all.  If, in the course of inquiry, we found that our inquiries were unsuccessful because of this principle, we could chose to revise it.

On reflection, I think it is fairly clear that Lewontin is attributing to Sagan the ‘dogmatic’ version of the a priori, and I don’t know whether Lewontin himself would accept the pragmatic version.  But I mention this because the pragmatic a priori has merits of its own worth consideration, including a better understanding of what distinguishes “methodological naturalism” (the pragmatic a priori) from “metaphysical naturalism” (the dogmatic a priori).

 

 

 

 

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28 thoughts on “Lewontin and “the A Priori”

  1. Pragmatic a priori seems like restatement of the difference between philosophical materialism and methodological materialism.

    It’s good to point out that the assumptions of science are voluntarily choose in order to enable research, and that assuming that otherwise regular phenomena could be the operations of a capricious entity, makes research worthless.

    Kariosfocus once opined that one needs to establish a background of regularity in order to see exceptions (as in miracles or interventions).
    What KF neglected to establish was any reason there should be a boundary or demarcation where one ceases to look for regularity.

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  2. I am perhaps biased, being Dick Lewontin’s second graduate student (and the earliest one still in science).

    If you want to read all of what he said in the review of Sagan’s book, it is available at the link in KN’s original post, and also available at the New York Review of Books site:

    Here

    I read the paragraph as Lewontin’s own opinion, agreeing with Sagan on that point.

    Allowing the Divine Foot in the door, according to that view, ends up with science exiting.

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  3. Whether Lewontin is merely attributing the a priori to Sagan, or endorsing it himself, is a question I’m not able to resolve myself, because I haven’t read Lewontin’s writings in philosophy of biology. My understanding is that Lewontin did regard himself as a dialectical materialist, though once one begins thinking dialectically, the very distinction between the a priori and the a posteriori becomes context-specific — what is an a posteriori statement at one phase of inquiry can function as an a priori at a subsequent stage, but even that is not entirely immune to revision.

    petrushka:
    Pragmatic a priori seems like restatement of the difference between philosophical materialism and methodological materialism.

    Yes, that was my point. To be honest, I didn’t really see the point of the distinction between methodological and metaphysical (“philosophical”) materialism until today. I’d thought of methodological materialism as just empiricism in a fancier dress, re-labelled to avoid the pitfalls of classical and logical empiricism. But now I have a pretty firm grip on the difference that makes a difference.

    On one of my more recent exchanges with Kairosfocus, I pointed out (though this is based on my second-hand knowledge) that the radical occasionalism of al-Ghazzali had a detrimental impact on Islamic science, precisely for the reason that Lewontin (following Beck) worried about: if all events are brought about by divine intervention, then there’s no distinction between ‘natural’ occurrences and ‘miracles’, and so we can no longer tell what’s part of the causal order and what isn’t, and science loses its intelligibility under that presupposition. (Interestingly, occasionalism flourished side-by-side with natural science for a little while in the early modern period — up until Hume. I surmise that this was possible because they held that divine omnibenevolence constrained divine omnipotence — i.e. God could deceive us by constantly intervening in the causal order, but He wouldn’t.)

    As an aside, the Lewis-Beck view has nothing to say, one way or the other, against a Thomistic metaphysics on which the divine is responsible (but not “causally” responsible) for sustaining the entire causal order.

    One last point: I highly recommend the exchange between Lewontin and his critics.

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  4. The trouble is, it simply isn’t a dogmatic a priori, and it isn’t even an a priori, at least not for many persons. It’s a posteriori, which should be evident even from what Lewontin wrote shortly afterward in the review, that many cultures do accept demons, and so did Western cultures until relatively recently. It’s a posteriori because we tend toward animism, toward explanations from agency, and not toward mindless forces doing nothing for no reason at all.

    Demons simply never explained anything, nor did gods. Only in a sort of roundabout way can we suppose that this becomes a priori, that is, after the a priori of agency has been destroyed by better answers. Contingent upon the failure of gods and demons “materialism” or “naturalism” became operationally a priori, simply because it worked and demonology, etc., did not.

    Honestly, I do not think that I have anything against god or demons showing themselves to be active in our world. They just don’t do so.

    Lewontin went altogether too postmodern in his analysis of science, in my opinion, which appears to be why he makes such a claim at all. Science supposedly has all of these biases that have nothing to do with empiricism. No, sorry, science by now does have a good many biases, but most were fairly won, by empiricism working and non-empiricism not providing the goods. Because that’s all that “materialism” or “naturalism” boil down to anyway, just sticking with the evidence, which has never supported the divine or the demonic when the investigations were properly done.

    Sagan went one way, Lewontin went another. I do think that Lewontin does have cause to fault Sagan’s approach, but I simply can’t accept Lewontin’s apparently simplistic view of why “materialism” is the approach taken by science today, either. Empiricism works, looking for invisible agents never has. That’s why we don’t want the Divine foot imposed through the door, yet again.

    Glen Davidson

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  5. Honestly, I do not think that I have anything against god or demons showing themselves to be active in our world. They just don’t do so.

    A few specific examples of failed magic: ESP, UFOs, perpetual motion (magnet or gravity powered energy generation), precognition, PSI, Dowsing, and so forth.

    All of these have been fairly tested and all failed to produce anything useful. There is a mental and social barrier to taking them seriously. But not an insurmountable barrier. Evidence would bring any of them back.

    The barrier is to funding and to inclusion in science classes. And the barrier is reasonable and rational.

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  6. There’s a big difference between ESP, telekinesis, demons, witches, etc. on the one hand and I’m calling ‘radical occasionalism’ here. The first group is ruled out a posteriori, sure — I have no problem with that. (In a different topic, I’d defend a certain interpretation of animism — I’m a closet hippie — but for now I’ll wear my epistemologist’s hat.) The second, though, has to be ruled out a priori in order for there to be any investigation into the causal order at all. So there’s a distinction worth making.

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  7. But “it” wasn’t ruled out a priori. It was gradually abandoned as not useful, over several centuries.

    Science would be different if invisible and capricious entities twiddled with the dice, but it could be done. We do it in forensics. Las Vegas casinos do it with their customers. We could learn to do design detection in biology.

    The reason we don’t is that intervention scenarios have been thoroughly investigated and have come up dry.

    Rather than a priori, the dismissisal of intervention is simply a utilitarian response to overwhelming evidence.

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  8. One of Lewis’ considerable achievements was the invention of what he called “the pragmatic a priori,” on which a priori statements are those that hold independent of experience because they are freely chosen by us in order to enable those inquiries that satisfy our needs and interests.

    Thanks for that. I have rather liked what Lewis says about the a priori, but I have had this niggling doubt that Lewis was looking at science in the same way that I look at it. Your way of presenting that filled in the gaps for me (and my doubt was warranted).

    At one time, I was inclined to think that we should be saying a posteriori rather than a priori as GlenDavidson has argued. But reading C.I. Lewis helped me better understand how philosophers use those terms, so I agree that a priori is the appropriate term here.

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  9. Neil Rickert,

    Good! A quick note of caution — Lewis’ re-conception of the a priori was very controversial, because philosophers usually take the a priori to be that which is always and necessarily the case. So the pragmatic a priori of Lewis is not that of Leibniz or Kant.

    There is the further question of whether the pragmatic a priori is really just a version of the a posteriori, or whether this distinction is even tenable. These issues were hashed out endlessly by many of Lewis’ most influential students, two of whom were Quine and Sellars. Sellars tries to improve on Lewis’ pragmatic a priori, whereas Quine (inadvertently, perhaps) destroys it.

    For the curious, a copy of Lewis’ “A Pragmatic Conception of the A Priori” (1922). Those of you with an interest in the history of science, take note that Lewis was part of that period of Western philosophy where coming to terms with Einstein’s overthrow of Newtonian mechanics was the order of the day.

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  10. I have several bookshelves of history of science, philosophy, and philosophy of science books that I read when I was an undergraduate and as graduate student. I still read philosophers, but I don’t take them as seriously as I once did. While the stuff was interesting, I think of that earlier time as being a part of my more naive and youthful interests.

    I learned quite early in my research career that actually planning and doing research in the lab has little resemblance to what philosophers talk about; and that scientists talking among themselves is much different both in process and in results.

    This cuts across most sciences as far as I can tell. One of my labs was just down the hall from some future Nobel laureate’s lab; I was in the machine shop building my equipment at the same time he were building his, and dealing with the same kinds of nuts-and-bolts issues of designing and building equipment and experimental techniques that would help answer the questions we all ask.

    The formal recognition and publicity one gets in science has little to do the daily routines of research; we all do pretty much the same sort of day-to-day grunt work. I have known a number of Nobel laureates and other well-known scientists as well as other scientists that nobody outside the science community has ever heard of. We all conversed among ourselves a lot in informal settings; we got to know what each other was up to. We all saw each other in our grubby lab coats or blue jeans working on equipment.

    Most of us have had the experiences of discovering and knowing for a period of time something that nobody else has ever known. It’s an exhilarating experience; but it is not an experience to be taken too seriously because nearly everyone has such experiences at one time or another. Scientists may bump into such experiences more often than usual because we plan our experiments that way; to discover new things.

    If philosophy comes up at all in conversations, it is more along the lines of humor and anecdotes about what philosophers have said that may have been “clever” but had little to do with the daily activities of working scientists.

    Most of what I see in the writings of philosophers – as well as those of the “sociologists” of science – bears little resemblance to the daily work in science. This applies to both basic and applied research because there is no clear distinction between these when developing the tools to answer research questions or to solve a technological problem.

    When one is in the thick of research – whether experimental or theoretical – one is guided primarily by direct experiences with nature. One is taking cues directly from data. Many times there isn’t an adequate mathematical model or theory in place; but the ways in which one goes about understanding data are influenced by direct experience. In fact, that experience is so direct that the theorists who isolate themselves from experimental groups and try to go off on their own soon find themselves out of touch with reality.

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  11. Kantian Naturalist: Sellars tries to improve on Lewis’ pragmatic a priori, whereas Quine (inadvertently, perhaps) destroys it.

    I assume you are referring to “Two Dogmas”. I’ve never been sure what Quine was trying to do there. I have tended to take him as primarily concerned with the use of the analytic in philosophy of language, rather than in philosophy of science.

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  12. Mike Elzinga: Most of what I see in the writings of philosophers – as well as those of the “sociologists” of science – bears little resemblance to the daily work in science.

    Yes. This is why I sometimes write things critical of philosophy of science.

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  13. On the relation between philosophy and science, there’s this old witticism: “Philosophy is to science as pornography is to sex: it’s cheaper, it’s easier, and some people, bafflingly, seem to prefer it”. I think this is both true and unfortunate.

    It’s true because a great deal of philosophy has, in fact, consisted of armchair speculation about matters that have turned out to be empirical. (The most hilarious example of this, in my opinion, is Hegel’s argument for why it is necessary that there are seven planets. Kant’s argument for the a priori necessity of Newtonian mechanics is a close second.)

    It used to be that one could be a philosopher of science without knowing any science in depth. That has slowly been changing. When I was in grad school in the late 1990s, my department was considered cutting-edge because they insisted that one have in-depth, first-hand knowledge of the field of science one was philosophizing about. (Note, however, that I didn’t work in philosophy of science; my principal training is in the history of philosophy, and I wrote my dissertation on Nietzsche. I kept that under my hat at Uncommon Descent!)

    What was considered cutting-edge in the 1990s is now considered the norm at any top-tier department (i.e. a department in a R1 research institution, for those of you familiar with the American system): philosophers of biology my age and younger are expected to have done time in a lab or doing field work, and likewise for philosophy of neuroscience (which is starting to displace philosophy of mind), philosophy of physics, and even philosophy of economics. So I think that the somewhat dismissive attitude that scientists have towards philosophy of science is no longer as justified as it was.

    That said, I do think that the a priori does play an important role in human discourse, and for me the question is about how to think about a priority in a productive way.

    (For your amusement: The 21st Century Monads, a musical group composed of professional philosophers who write songs about philosophy, have a song about how philosophers sometimes feel about science: “Sometimes I Wish I Were a Scientist“. In the refrain, “Say good-bye to the a priori/What has it ever done for you?”)

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  14. Neil Rickert: I assume you are referring to “Two Dogmas”.I’ve never been sure what Quine was trying to do there.I have tended to take him as primarily concerned with the use of the analytic in philosophy of language, rather than in philosophy of science.

    “Two Dogmas” is not terribly clear. I usually run into problems whenever I teach it. I’ve studied a fair amount of Quine’s work and I could explain a bit about why it’s really interesting, if you’d like.

    Suffice it to say that it has huge implications for philosophy of science, some of which Quine pursued himself, although the basic argument is a criticism of how certain philosophers (Lewis and Carnap in particular) thought about meaning.

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  15. petrushka:
    But “it” wasn’t ruled out a priori. It was gradually abandoned as not useful, over several centuries.

    Science would be different if invisible and capricious entities twiddled with the dice,but it could be done. We do it in forensics. Las Vegas casinos do it with their customers. We could learn to do design detection in biology.

    The reason we don’t is that intervention scenarios have been thoroughly investigated and have come up dry.

    Rather than a priori,the dismissisal of intervention is simply a utilitarian response to overwhelming evidence.

    I think you’re missing the point that Beck was making. As I understand it, once a Divine Foot has been permitted in the door, there’s no way of closing off the door to radical occasionalism. If any event could be, for all we know, the effect of divine intervention, then there’s no way of drawing any line between “natural events” and “supernatural events”. That’s a different line of thought than the examples you have in mind, where specific hypotheses about supernatural or paranormal action are ruled out by experiment.

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  16. Kantian Naturalist: It’s true because a great deal of philosophy has, in fact, consisted of armchair speculation about matters that have turned out to be empirical. (The most hilarious example of this, in my opinion, is Hegel’s argument for why it is necessary that there are seven planets. Kant’s argument for the a priori necessity of Newtonian mechanics is a close second.)

    Interesting. I have not read a lot of Kant.

    I’ll agree that Hegel on the number of planets is particularly hilarious.

    So I looked up about Kant on Newton in SEP, and I don’t actually disagree all that much. That is, I can agree that Newton’s laws of motion are a priori, though I disagree on whether there is a synthetic a priori. Hume’s view (mentioned in the same SEP article), that the Newtonian laws are inductive, seems obviously wrong.

    I do sometimes wonder whether there ought to be an analytic a posteriori, with Newton’s laws of motion perhaps characterized that way.

    As I see it, Newton radically reconceptualized motion, compared to how Aristotle must have looked at it. And, if you are able to design the conceptualization, you can sometimes do so in a way that your laws become logically necessary truths. There is, of course, a lot of experimental work needed to show that the new conceptualization works, which is why I would like an analytic a posteriori.

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  17. Kantian Naturalist: (Note, however, that I didn’t work in philosophy of science; my principal training is in the history of philosophy, and I wrote my dissertation on Nietzsche. I kept that under my hat at Uncommon Descent!)

    Now that’s funny. 🙂

    What I see over at UD is not philosophy or science of any sort; it is pretty much pseudo-intellectual everything to the Nth degree. It is a kvetching self pity-party of sectarian apologetics that is really political at its core; and it curses anyone and everyone who disagrees with them. The word games that go on over there are something to behold. It’s a philosophical Kline bottle within an infinite labyrinth of Kline bottles.

    I can’t help comparing our current Republican House of Representatives in the US Congress to UD. They inevitably end up accusing their mortal enemies – i.e., everyone else – of doing exactly what they themselves are planning and doing all the time. In fact, there has been a history of political operatives such as Lee Atwater and his protégé, Karl Rove, immersing themselves in just this kind of sectarian culture and learning how to harness it for political gain.

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  18. Neil Rickert: As I see it, Newton radically reconceptualized motion, compared to how Aristotle must have looked at it. And, if you are able to design the conceptualization, you can sometimes do so in a way that your laws become logically necessary truths. There is, of course, a lot of experimental work needed to show that the new conceptualization works, which is why I would like an analytic a posteriori.

    The problem with the analytic a posteriori is that it would have to be something that is ‘true by meaning alone’ and yet confirmed by experience. It would be as if we found out by observation that bachelors are unmarried men, to take a hackneyed (and gendered) example, or that empirical confirmation was required to justify our assertion that the antonym of “synonym” is “antonym”.

    What I like about Lewis’ pragmatic a priori is that it captures the ‘logical necessity’ angle of the traditional a priori, but makes it contingent upon future experience and revisable in light of that experience. So, if one thinks of motion as Newton did, then certain things necessarily follow — and the reason why one ought to think of motion in that way is because the problems that need to be solved, that can’t be solved within an Aristotelian framework.

    (It might help here to note that Lewis thinks that everything a priori is analytic; he’s against the synthetic a priori. Sellars has an odd defense of the synthetic a priori in response (partly) to Lewis’ criticisms, and that’s what I’m trying to unpack in the chapter I’m writing. Whereas Quine’s criticism of the analytic/synthetic distinction is really a rejection of analyticity, which is — for him — also a rejection of the a priori, so everything becomes a posteriori — even logic and mathematics — which is where his rejection of analyticity has important implications for how we think about the difference between logic and science.)

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  19. Ii disagree that opening the door to a little divine intervention makes science impossible. We have found ways to find regularity in uncaused quantum phenomena, and we find regularities in human behavior.

    What separates ID from science is not the possibility of intervention, but the refusal to entertain speculation about the attributes of the Designer.

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  20. The problem with the analytic a posteriori is that it would have to be something that is ‘true by meaning alone’ and yet confirmed by experience.

    In a way, that fits.

    F=ma was the definition of force, so the equation was true by meaning alone. Yet that way of defining force reflects experience.

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  21. petrushka: Ii disagree that opening the door to a little divine intervention makes science impossible.

    As often happens, I agree with Petrushka.

    Science reports the event. Whether or not somebody else says it is supernatural should have no effect on the science. The scientist does not have to say that X was supernatural or that X was not supernatural. The scientist just describes the event X and related evidence as to what other events might have been involved in the causation.

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  22. Neil Rickert:

    As often happens, I agree with Petrushka.

    Science reports the event. Whether or not somebody else says it is supernatural should have no effect on the science. The scientist does not have to say that X was supernatural or that X was not supernatural. The scientist just describes the event X and related evidence as to what other events might have been involved in the causation.

    I don’t recall ever encountering a scientist who thought about deities as a result of the research they were doing. Many scientists don’t subscribe to any religion anyway; and that doesn’t hinder their work.

    As near as I can tell, the main reason for rejecting religion comes from watching the behaviors of sectarian fundamentalists; for example, like those at places like UD, AiG, ICR, and the DI. That tends to turn many people against religion.

    Otherwise, most people recognize that religious traditions are a fact of human history and culture; and they don’t have any objections to others following such traditions as long as those people don’t attempt to impost their religion on others.

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  23. I think it was common until recently — say the last century– for scientists to consider the possibility of intervention. Newton did. The Catholic church still conducts investigations into miracles in much the same way that police investigate events to determine if a crime was committed.

    The reason intervention hypotheses have been abandoned is not a priori, but because they have been fruitless. Naturalism just works better as a generator of useful hypotheses.

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  24. We often challenge ID advocates to say something about the designer, list some attributes. This is not a new thought. I seem to recall this addressed several ways in the Bible. The Lord’s mysterious ways. Through a glass darkly. And so forth.

    Avoidance of divine intervention is not a prerequisite to doing science, but if design is to be detected, we must be able to identify some regularity in the divine psychology. Motive, means, methods, timing, or what have you. We are not far removed from the science of god. Many scientists thought they were studying god.

    But operationally, science must assume that god is not a trickster. That’s a somewhat different assumption than no intervention at all.

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  25. petrushka,

    I often try to get them to divide themselves up into groups based on the supposed frequency of designer intervention.

    KF must be often, at least as many times as there are bodyplans.
    Joe, never or all the time. Depends. Those rocks don’t arrange themselves in space y’know!
    Barry. Who knows. Never said anything of consequence in the actual debate as far as I know.
    BA77. Jesus holds all the atoms together. So all the time then.
    Upright. Who knows. Mr one track mind stares into the corner droning the same drone year after year. At least once, probably at OOL only.

    So at least on that level some characteristics of “the designer” can be divined (boom boom) and their affiliations noted.

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