My book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, is now out! You can purchase it here.

book cover

{I’ll keep this post at the top; see below for new blog entries.}

I just came across this interesting interview with Alvin Plantinga, where he nicely cites me:

Q: What atheists writing today do you think are the most even-handed or doing the best work for the areas you’re working on (e.g. religious epistemology and the science/religion conflict)?

Plantinga: I guess I would say Michael Tooley would be one. Another would be Paul Draper, although he’s not really an atheist but more of an agnostic. So if you include agnostics I would include Paul Draper. Another would be Bradley Monton. I think he is an atheist and he writes very well on fine tuning and that sort of thing.

This is an absolutely brilliant book review. Krauss is a really smart guy in some ways, but horribly simple-minded in others. He represents a lot of what I don’t like about the contemporary atheist movement: treating theism as obviously wrong, and religious people as obviously misguided. While I agree with Krauss’s atheism, I recognize that Krauss and I might well be wrong; we should show the appropriate level of intellectual humility. 

Rod Dreher, at The American Conservative, has a nice discussion of me here, focusing on some of my blog posts, and the First Things discussion. Dreher shows a good understanding of where I’m coming from.

Here’s one interesting part of his post. He points out that theists sometimes suffer from confirmation bias when it comes to endorsing intelligent design. He then writes:

I find myself more willing to pay attention to the arguments of someone like Monton, who is committed to atheism, because at least that filters out a lot of the confirmation bias. That is, if someone like Monton sees reason to take design seriously, then attention must be paid. (Similarly, when theistic scientists, like Simon Conway-Morris, endorse natural selection, I’m more inclined to take them seriously). The astonishing thing about the discussion of intelligent design is how unrestrained the personal attacks on serious people who take ID the least bit seriously can be.

… this is not disinterested scientific critique. This is personal invective. One sees this all the time. When preachers and religion apologists do it, you roll your eyes and move on. But when scientists do it, it’s far more disturbing, because they are, or ought to be, committed to dispassionate analysis.

I completely agree.

My book gets talked about at First Things here; I like the approach, focusing on my key point that science shouldn’t be limited to naturalist methodologies.

Bradley Monton, in Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, in contrast to Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, is not so much concerned with deficiencies in neo-Darwinism, but rather in pointing out unfairness and invalid criticisms of arguments by proponents of ID. Monton maintains he is looking for thetruth, wherever it leads.

Monton’s starting point is the recent trial, Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, which ended with a decision against a school board in Pennsylvania. The school board wanted to require a disclaimer read to 9th grade biology students, informing students of the existence of ID as an alternative theory regarding evolution. Judge John Jones in 2005, however, ruled against the school board. After hearing expert witnesses on both sides, he concluded that ID is a religious view and not science, and thus cannot be taught in public schools.

The reason given for the “non-scientific” nature of ID was that science had to be restricted to a naturalist methodology, prohibiting any approach or evidence which could bring in the supernatural. Monton considers such a restriction as completely arbitrary, and even offers some thought experiments showing how a supernatural agent could be detected through scientific methods. He mentions with approval some examples of two conversions of atheists to theism, on the basis of scientific evidence: The physicist, Fred Hoyle, whose atheism was “shaken” when he came to the conclusion in 1982 that some “superintellect” had “monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology”; and the famous philosopher, Anthony Flew, who in 2004 announced that he could no longer remain an atheist, largely because of his study of “fine-tuning” arguments in physics and the resistance of DNA evidence to any naturalistic explanation.

Also, Evolution News & Views points out that this First Things story generated an interesting controversy amongst the members of the advisory board of this “important ecumenical journal”.

Robert Pennock’s Synthese piece is making the news, as a result of the controversial disclaimer than the Synthese editors put in front of the controversial guest-edited volume on intelligent design. As Brian Leiter rightly points out, Pennock’s paper is “both philosophically shallow and [has] rhetoric is not supported by the quality of the argument.”

Some people have asked me recently what I have to say about Pennock’s paper, since it’s been in the news recently, and since I’m one of the targets of Pennock’s paper. I have two responses: here I comment on the inappropriate tone, and here I comment on the key new argument of the paper, which is fatally flawed.

Also, here is what Larry Laudan has to say about Pennock’s piece:

I know nothing directly about such pressure, if any, as the ID forces brought to bear on the editors of Synthese. I have, however, read portions of several papers in the Synthese issue in question and, in my judgment, the statement from the editors dissociating themselves from some of the injudicious and scandalous statements made by some of the authors in the pertinent issue of the journal was not only in order but essential as a matter of professional ethics.

I will limit my comments to a single paper by Robert Pennock from the issue in question. In the course of some twenty pages, he alleges that the work of a fellow philosopher is “almost willfully naïve and misguided,” that it “can only be described as histrionic and ill-considered” and that it ”continue[s] to muddy the waters to the detriment of both science and philosophy of science.” He goes on to endorse the proposal that the philosopher in question should be excluded from ‘the conversation of mankind’ because said author “ha[s] lost touch with reality in a profound and perverse way.”

Those of you who have read Pennock’s paper will know that I am not a wholly disinterested party here, since all his barbs are directed specifically at yours truly. But I think I can lay aside self interest long enough to say that discourse of this sort has no legitimate place in any serious journal of philosophy (most especially the suggestion that those who disagree with Pennock should be excluded from ‘the conversation of mankind’). I cannot imagine any editor of any journal in the field who would not be appalled if he discovered that papers he had inadvertently published were rich in such jejune invective. Indeed, if there is any journal editor reading this blog who would not have taken a red pencil aggressively to such a text, I would be interested to know that.

Under the circumstances, an acknowledgement of fault of the sort that the Synthese Editors issued is not only natural but essential. That some of their fellow philosophers are now taking those same Editors to task for owning up to their lack of editorial oversight strikes me as a curious reaction, to put it mildly. By far, the more egregious error would have been if the Editors had said nothing to dissociate themselves from the feeble efforts at defamation in which the interim editors of the special number of the Synthese allowed some of their authors to engage.

Also, regarding the issue of the boycott, I think that, based on my best guess as to what really happened, the situation could have been handled better by the editors-in-chief, but they way they handled it doesn’t at all warrant a boycott. (This position is nicely argued for by John Turri here.) John Symons’ explanation of the disclaimer seems reasonable and prudent, given the inappropriate content of Forrest’s and Pennock’s pieces:

I’m speaking independently of my co-editors and the publisher here, but I’m sure they’ll concur with me fully: To be clear, the editors in chief of Synthese in no way “caved to the ID lobby” or to threats of lawsuits. Regular readers of the journal will find many instances of intemperate language and ad hominem in this issue which we regret and for which we take full responsibility. We are in no way shifting this responsibility to the guest editors. We failed to prevent this language going into print and because of this failure we felt the obligation to write this preface and to acknowledge that we compromised the standards of the journal.

Sahotra Sarkar wrote a largely negative review of my book for NDPR. Since I’m so involved it’s hard for me to tell how fair-minded it is. Trent Dougherty has written an impressive defense of my book in response to Sarkar’s review.

Regarding Sarkar’s review,  there is just one point that I want to respond to. Sarkar writes:

These probabilities are not based on a specification of the reference class against which all probability estimates should be founded. Critics of ID have routinely argued this rather elementary point (Fitelson et al. 1999; Shallit and Ellsbury 2004; Sober 2004; Sarkar 2007) and it is intellectually irresponsible for Monton not to have addressed these criticisms.

The problem with Sarkar’s criticism of me here is that the points those critics make aren’t relevant for the main line of thought I was trying to develop, which was that the universe potentially being spatially infinite has an impact on these biology-based arguments. (In other words, it doesn’t matter whether the critics are right or not, for the point I was trying to make. (For more on the point I was trying to make, see my paper “Design Inferences in an Infinite Universe”, which is published in Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion Volume I; a preprint is here.))

And that’s all I have to say about Sarkar’s review. I wish he had made more philosophically substantive points, because then I would have more to say. It’s worth contrasting Sarkar’s review with an NDPR review Rebecca Chan and I recently wrote of J. Alberto Corlett’s book The Errors of Atheism. Even though we weren’t particularly impressed with the book, we didn’t insult it or him; instead we presented a number of philosophical objections in response to his philosophical arguments.

I’ll be speaking at this conference on time travel at North Carolina State on April 9; it should be enjoyable!

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